Thursday, November 15, 2012

Anatomy of a P-51 Mustang Loss

My Belgian friend contacted me after a long time without having heard from him.  He asked me if I was still buying collections of World War II aircraft parts.  I gleefully replied, knowing what his question presaged, that I certainly was.  After a brief back and forth and a much longer wait for the delivery of the parts in question, I was happily unpacking two 70 pound boxes of aviation history.  All of the parts were nicely marked and with each aircraft there was a lengthy back story of the excavation (all of which were accomplished many years ago, when eye-witnesses were still alive to direct archaeologists to the otherwise forgotten crash sites) and aircraft history.  The latter was not always complete, but I fortunately have a knack for tracking down records myself, or know other people who can.  Opening those boxes, and others like them, is my favorite part of doing what I do for a living - a Christmas of physical history in twisted duraluminum!

One piece of metal in particular intrigued me, for no other reason than its size and state of preservation.  Many parts that I receive are rather hard to identify, which is my primary motivation to pair them with my original art of the aircraft in action - they are quite forlorn, if not sad, all by themselves with nothing to speak for them.  But this big piece was unmistakably from a P-51 Mustang.  I'd been told that it was a late war 'D' model, but I knew better.  The piece, about four feet long by three feet wide and covered in olive drab, was from the upper fuselage just forward of the vertical stabilizer - and without a ventral fin it could not be a 'D' - but an earlier 'B' model.  I looked more closely at the included photographs of its excavation in France, and was surprised that I'd missed it before: the US insignia was rimmed in red paint.  That seemingly irrelevant detail said much: only USAAF aircraft produced between July and September 1943 were painted in that way (the red was found to be distracting from a distance, and orders were sent to all units that the red was to be over-painted with dark blue ASAP).  In fact I'd never seen any evidence, aside from what I was now looking at, that any P-51 ever flew in action with that rare red surround.  What aircraft was this?  Who flew it?  And how was it lost over France?   These are the little mysteries that get me excited as a historian.

North American, manufacturer of the P-51, was kind enough back in 1943 to stamp many of its aircraft's parts with numbered codes.  Even on the small portion of this aircraft in my possession I was able to uncover several of them: 102-31276-2, 97-31108-5, and 73-31370.  From these, the photos of the excavation, the location of its crash, and information provided on various data plates, I had enough information to put some of the pieces together.  Then my Belgian friend came to the rescue with more details via the excavation team, and I felt confident enough to outline a general history.
In October of 1943 this P-51B was apparently among the first Mustangs sent to the European Theater of Operations (ETO), where it was assigned to the soon-to-be-famous 354th Fighter Group.  The 354th was the first unit in Europe to be equipped with this new and revolutionary fighter, and on December 2nd it flew its first combat sortie, a fighter sweep, over Occupied France - without incident.  On December 7th it escorted its first bomber stream of 8th Air Force B-17s, also without incident.  At the time this aircraft would have been painted in the standard color scheme: olive drab with white identification bands.  For whatever reason and against directives of the USAAF, it evidently flew these missions with the red rimmed US insignia.  Perhaps the unit was too busy with other priorities to paint it out - but that's all speculation.

Sometime in April or May 1944, during the run-up for the D-Day invasion, the 354th received newer P-51s and this particular aircraft was converted to a photo reconnaissance model - known as the F-6B in this case - and assigned to the 10th Photo Group, 12th Photo Squadron.  As part of the 9th Tactical Air Force, this unit was tasked with the mission of low level reconnaissance in support of ground attack missions during and after the D-Day invasion of June 6th.

With the 12th Photo Squadron, this aircraft was assigned to Lieutenant William D. Lacey Jr., pictured below (though in a different F-6B):

While the photo reconnaissance units did not receive the attention often directed upon the fighter escorts, their job was perhaps far more dangerous.  Flying any aircraft at low altitude is a hazard even without people shooting at you.  These F-6 pilots braved not only enemy fighters of the renown Luftwaffe and the heavy anti-aircraft batteries that were a threat to high altitude bombers, but they also had to worry about the far more numerous and harder to evade light flak - smaller rapid-fire guns - which were hidden everywhere near potential targets and whose sole purpose was to destroy snooping aircraft being flown by men like Lieutenant Lacey.

On July 30, 1944, Bill Lacey and his wing man, Lieutenant Robert G. Walker, departed their base near Le Moley to photograph a railroad junction behind German lines.  Lacey was flying the 'number 2' position late in the afternoon when his aircraft was hit by ground fire.  According to Walker's report, he saw Lacey's Mustang catch fire and he attempted to contact the pilot on his radio without any response.  Within seconds the aircraft was engulfed in flames and quickly snapped over onto its back.  At low altitude, even if Lacey were conscious and responsive, there was probably very little he could have done to save himself.  In any case, he hit the ground at high velocity about 5 miles S.E. of Tessy-sir-Vire.

In May 2009, an excavation team arrived at the spot of Lt. Lacey's crash all those years before.  The remains of his aircraft were recovered, including Lacey's survival kit and other personal items.  The team was very sensitive to the fact that this was not just another crash site - but a man of valor had lost his life there.  A memorial service was held in honor of Bill Lacey's sacrifice at the conclusion of the excavation.

Thus it is with a mix of feelings that I close the book on this research project.  For the most part such ventures into history end with little more than unit markings, loss dates, and impersonal serial numbers.  But to have learned these details, to find an actual photograph of the deceased hero still in the prime of his life, and to hold a piece of something that was his in his very last moments . . . that does make a profound impact.  It's for that reason that, while I pay my bills and therefore allow myself the time to conduct this kind of research, by selling my displays of recovered aircraft parts and artwork - I've decided to keep the primary portion of wreckage from Lt. Lacey's P-51 for myself, to display with his photograph.  Perhaps, should the circumstances arise, I'll take that a step further and donate it to a museum - if they would display it.  People should know the story of this individual warrior.


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