Heroes: the Army Air Corps
"...In my estimation, just the act of getting off the ground was the most dangerous part of this mission. The P-47 was a very forgiving airplane, but in this case there was absolutely no margin for error. Any number of minor mechanical malfunctions, like a tire blowing out, or a slight miscalculation by the pilot, would have meant certain disaster..."
Bill V. Ackerman
- Branch of Service: Army Air Corps
- Unit: 27th FBG, 523rd Squadron
- Dates: 1943 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: 1st Lt., Pilot
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service: Bridgman, MI
Napalm Delivered by the Jug
By January 1945 our 523rd Squadron of the 27th FBG was flying P-47's out of a hastily-constructed airfield near Pontedore, Italy. By now I had 30 missions under my belt and had just been promoted to 1st Lieutenant. Major Brown asked for volunteers to make one of the first drops of napalm on enemy positions. Eight of us volunteered. Here's what happened.
It was a real experience; the ground crew had worked all night fitting two large tanks to the racks on each plane which normally held 500-pound bombs. When we went out to the line I couldn't believe my eyes; the tanks were huge. As I recall they were P-38 drop tanks retrofitted for this purpose, each holding about 300 gallons of napalm and weighing around 2,000 pounds for a total load of about 4,000 pounds, far exceeding the airplane's design maximum bomb load of 2,500 pounds. The tanks were rigged-up Rube Goldberg style with ordinary hand grenades attached to them. The grenade pins were tethered to the bomb racks and would pull out automatically when we released the tanks at a pre-calculated altitude; this would cause the napalm to detonate at just the right moment over the target.
In my estimation, just the act of getting off the ground was the most dangerous part of this mission. The P-47 was a very forgiving airplane, but in this case there was absolutely no margin for error. Any number of minor mechanical malfunctions, like a tire blowing out, or a slight miscalculation by the pilot, would have meant certain disaster. Eight of us were assigned to the mission in four flights of two planes. Because the strip was very narrow we had to take off one at a time, circle until all planes were at altitude, then join up in formation. I was the element leader of the second flight, which meant I would be third to take off.
As I hopped out of the jeep and strode quickly toward my plane I could see and hear some of the other Jugs warming up. Sergeant Burl W. Foster, my crew chief, was standing on the wing waiting for me. I detected an expression of total panic on his face as he buckled me into the cockpit. Finally, with dead seriousness, he looked me straight in the eye and said in his Texas drawl, "Sir, I doubt if you'll get this sumbitch off the ground." This unnerved me a little as the sergeant was a very knowledgeable technician and knew the mechanical limitations of the Jug as well as anyone. Not responding directly, I gave him a weak smile and said let's wind 'er up.
Foster and another man stood ready with fire extinguishers as I let the inertia starter howl up to speed. Getting a 'thumbs-up' from Foster, I switched on the ignition and engaged the starter. Blue smoke and flames belched from the exhaust ports as the huge engine slowly turned over, coughing and backfiring before finally thundering to life.
When my turn came, I slowly taxied my Jug to the end of the strip and nosed her into the wind. I intended to use every inch of runway to build speed before attempting liftoff. There would be no second chance. With flaps set at 15 degrees and the prop at full pitch, I stood on the brakes and ran the engine up to maximum power. The Jug began doing a little dance -- all 2,300 horsepower straining to be released. I thought it's now or never, Ackerman; get off the brakes.
The Jug began rolling, slowly at first, but with steadily increasing speed. My eyes darted back and forth from the runway to the air speed indicator... 35.... 40.....45 c'mon baby, 55.... 60.... faster... faster, 70.... 75 not much runway left, 85.... 100, end of runway coming up, 110.... 115. At 120 mph I pulled the stick into my lap just as the last few feet of runway disappeared under my wing and the Jug seemed to stagger as it barely clawed its way into the air.
I immediately raised the landing gear to cut drag as much as possible, but the control stick felt like it was in a bucket of mush as I wallowed out over the treetops, just above stall speed. Slowly, ever so slowly, I coaxed her along, gradually gaining speed and altitude. I finally reached 5,000 feet, leveled off and began circling with the others, waiting for the five remaining planes to join us. Still at maximum power and full prop pitch, engine temperature was nearing the red line, so I eased back a little on both and let her cool down as we circled and waited.
Finally all of us managed to haul our overloaded jugs with their ungainly payloads into the sky. Forming up in pairs, we set a course for LaSpezia Harbor, the target's location about 60 miles distant. This harbor was on the Mediterranean in the northwest corner of Italy, just below the Appennine Mountains. A sizable German garrison was tenaciously holding the area, preventing Allied ships from off-loading fuel, ammunition and other sorely needed war materiel.
They also had several anti-aircraft gun emplacements, the infamous 88's, to fend off Allied bombers. Our job was to destroy those gun positions; it was also calculated that the effects of a napalm attack would demoralize the German troops to an extent that they would totally abandon the area and retreat northward to their homeland.
Because the 88's were pointed almost vertically skyward to defend against the high-flying Allied heavy bombers, our strategy was to come in fast and low, from the side so to speak, dump our loads and beat it out of there before the Germans had a chance to crank their huge guns down to a trajectory that would be effective against us. It worked very well. About ten miles out we broke off in pairs and went into a fast shallow dive. Flattening out at less than 1,000 feet above our targets, we released the tanks and sped off toward the horizon without looking back.
As we regrouped and headed back to base we could see the destructive results of our raid. Off in the distance bright orange flames were still covering the targeted area as columns of greasy black smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air. The Germans never knew what hit them.
Our single-file landings were uneventful, but I remember that my flying suit was wringing wet as Sergeant Foster, grinning like a chessie cat, helped me out of the cockpit. Normally after a mission we were required to head straight to a debriefing session; but this time we were driven to the tent which served as our makeshift officers club, where we found eight double shots of whiskey lined up on the bar by order of our squadron commander, Major Robert Brown.
I went on to fly another 58 missions, for a total of 89, all of them presenting highly dangerous situations, but the napalm drop is the one that sticks most clearly in my mind. Our fighter group relocated several times as we moved into France and it was the first to cross the Rhine into Germany where we flew our final missions of the war out of a captured German air base near Mannheim.
By April 30, 1945 we knew the war was all but over, and most of us made a conscious decision to stop flying missions (at that stage of the game, after what we'd been through, why take a chance on some 14 year-old German machine-gunner getting lucky?). Our superior officers understood and didn't push the issue. So on May 1st several of us pilots took off for Paris. On May 7th word came down that hostilities had ceased. It was about a month short of my 21st birthday.
Now I'm 78 years old and still kicking. As someone once said, "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself."
The materials depicted on this page were reprinted with kind permission of the nephew of the subject of this essay -- Tom McCort.
We, at the World War II Stories - In Their Own Words web site wish to offer to Mr. Tom McCort our most profound THANK YOU for his uncle, Bill Ackerman's poignant story of his personal experiences -- during World War II and especially for allowing us to share those memories. We will always be grateful for Mr. Ackerman's contributions to the war effort and to the countless other men and women who put forth their "finest hour".
Original story transcribed from hand written notes received on 14 February 2003
P-47 Advocates Guestbook Archive 2001
Here are some interesting links that are related to this story:
P-47 Advocates Guestbook Archives 2001
USAF Aircraft Serial Number Search
USAF Aircraft Serial Number Search Help
523rd Sq., 27th FBG Reunion (Includes a photo of Bill)
27th Fighter Bomber Group (Unit History)
27th Fighter Wing [27th FW]
27th Bombardment Group (Unit Insignia)
27th Fighter Bomber Group (USAF Museum Memorials)
September 5, 2002.
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