Stories of the Hell Hawks
Many brave men and women answered Canada's call during the world wars and the Korean Conflict, giving their lives for the freedom we have today. But Canada did not stand alone during these conflicts. My uncle, 1st Lt. Donald T. Newcombe, was a member of the U.S. Air Force during World War II, and was killed in action July 11, 1944.
To begin the story, we must go back to the entry of the United States in to World War II and to Pontiac, Mich., where Thomas and Gladys Newcombe were raising a family of five children- Arlene, Ruth, June, Don and Bill. Arlene, Ruth and Bill still live in the area, but their sister, June, married Bill Essery of Centralia, Ontario, and had two children, myself and a daughter, Ruth Ann. Don went away to war and didn't return.
My mother often told me about Don. She had visited his grave in France in 1953, and had a photo of it. However, little was known about his Air Force days or his death during the war. I was interested to learn what had indeed happened to my uncle.
During a trip to the airshow in Oshkosh, Wis., I made some inquiries at the Air Force Veterans' booth about Don's fighter group. Since no one had information about these veterans, it seemed like my search would be a very long and difficult one.
Years ago, my mother had given me a gift subscription to a vintage military aviation magazine called Air Classics. While reading the November '92 issue, I came across an article entitled "Shot Down," written by James E. Murphy with Charles R. Johnson. It was about the 365th Fighter Group, and for some reason, that fighter group number sounded very familiar. When I turned the page, there was a photo of my uncle standing with seven other pilots. This was the true beginning of my research.
The article was based on a book (which I did not know existed at the time) called "The History of the Hell Hawks" by Charles Johnson. The Hell Hawks was the name given to the 365th Fighter Group. A military bookshop in Phoenix, Ariz., had a used copy for sale for $150 U.S. funds. This book was published in the mid 70's and only 1,400 copies were printed, so it was very rare. Although very expensive, my mother and I ordered this book, and it arrived a week later.
It was a good investment. I've read several military book reviews that say this book is probably one of the most detailed Air Force group histories to come out of World War II. This history is more than 600 pages long and contains a wealth of information, including some text about and photos of my uncle. I spent many nights gleaning over its well researched pages.
After a few inquiries, I was able to contact the book's author, Charles Johnson, who informed me that former members of the Hell Hawks still kept in touch and had formed the 365th Veterans' Association. He was the editor of their quarterly newsletter, and in the next issue, he included my letter requesting any photos or information about my uncle. Charles gave me very valuable assistance and also provided the names and addresses of pilots whom he thought would have known my uncle.
Many evenings, I wrote letters and called these Air Force veterans. They were surprised to hear from me, and eager to help with my search. I looked forward to opening the mail daily as I received many photos and tales about my uncle.
I also learned that the veterans of the 365th Fighter Group held a reunion every two years, and they suggested that we attend their next reunion in April 1994. My wife, Mary, and I participated in the reunion in Newport News, Va., where we were warmly welcomed by the veterans. Several pilots remembered Don as a nice guy and a good pilot. The previous week, I had received a photo of Don with his former crew chief, James Hagan- we even met at the reunion.
By this time I had pieced together quite a lot of information about my uncle, but not yet the whole story. Don Newcombe was born on Feb. 23, 1921 in Pontiac, Mich. After graduation, he worked as a timekeeper at Pontiac Motors. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in April 1942, received his wings, and was commissioned as second lieutenant in May 1943 in the newly formed 386th Fighter Squadron of the 365th Fighter Group called the Hell Hawks- part of the U.S. Ninth Air Force.
The Hell Hawks flew the P-47 Thunderbolt- a robust, single-engine, single-seat fighter-bomber. Equipped with a 2,000-horsepower radial engine, it had a maximum speed of more than 400 mph and could carry a 2,500-pound bomb load. It also had eight 50-calibre guns- four in each wing.
Pilots were assigned to a specific aircraft and flew that particular plane all the time. Almost all the pilots had a name painted on the nose of their aircraft. The names may have represented their homes, such as "Mississippi Rebel" or "Detroit Miss," or their wives or girlfriends. Don was engaged to a girl named Doreen, and since she had a high-pitched voice, he had nicknamed her "Squeaky." Naturally, Don christened his airplane, "Squeaky."
On Dec. 13, 1943, Don's group left New York for England on board the Queen Elizabeth. The following weeks were spent in intensive training at their air base in Gosfield, England. They flew their first combat mission, a bomber escort to Germany, on Feb. 22, 1944.
The Hell Hawks then moved to an air base near Beaulieu, England, during March 1944, and their mission role changed to dive bombing and strafing of enemy targets in occupied France in preparation for D-Day.
On one of these missions over France, on March 24, 1944, Don's plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire which severed one of his rudder cables. In spite of the damage, he managed to fly his plane back across the English Channel and landed safely at Beaulieu. As a result, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). By this time, he had been promoted to the rank of first lieutenant.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the Hell Hawks dive bombed rail and road installations to prevent the arrival of German reinforcements at the beachheads. Two of their pilots were killed during the mission.
The Hell Hawks moved to an airfield in Normandy, France, after D-Day. Their air base was built on productive farmland just off Utah Beach, near Fontenay-sur-Mer. From here, they flew many missions to bomb enemy positions in support of the advancing American ground forces.
For some unknown reason, on July 5, 1944, another pilot, Matt Ruper, flew Don's plane, "Squeaky" on a mission. All went well until he returned and was in the landing pattern. The propeller failed. Matt attempted an emergency landing on the airstrip, but he came in high and fast and had to go around. Just off the end of the strip, the airplane stalled and hit the ground. It cartwheeled through a farmyard and came to rest against the barn. Matt was knocked out, and the plane began to burn. Several people on the ground witnessed the accident and rushed to rescue him from the plane. Thanks to their fast action, Matt went on to finish the war.
Bill Ward, a member of Don's squadron, took several photos of the plane laying smashed against the barn. The fact that Matt wasn't killed upon impact is a testament to the T-bolt's rugged construction.
When Bill Ward sent me the photos, he wanted me to know that Don wasn't involved in the crash. Close examination of these photos shows Don's name written underneath the canopy. There are also mission markings on the left engine cowling. Don probably had flown 55 to 60 missions when he went missing.
On July 11, 1944, Don took off from the airfield at Fontenay-sur-Mer with 11 other planes from his squadron to attach and enemy aerodome near Angers. The mission leader, Lt. Col. Robert Coffey, spotted additional aircraft on the ground and made a second pass at the airfield. Although several hits caused extensive damage to his airplane, he successfully bellied into a nearby field, quickly evacuated the wreck and evaded the enemy. He returned to allied lines via the French underground four weeks later.
The remaining 11 planes continued their mission in the Angers area looking for additional targets. They strafed several enemy troops and supply convoys. Upon expending all of their ammunition, they began to return to their home base.
That day, weather conditions were poor for their mission. With a cloud ceiling of only 800 to 1,000 feet above ground level, they were forced to skirt along the bottom of the clouds. Suddenly, near Caumont, they broke into the open where a major ground battle raged below. All the aircraft were pelted with anti-aircraft fire. They immediately scattered, taking evasive action and sheltering in the nearby clouds. Several aircraft were heavily damaged, but all returned safely to base- except Don Newcombe.
The U.S. War Department sent a letter to Don's parents indicating that he was missing in action. A year later his status was changed to killed in action. In the spring of 1946, they were notified that their son's body had been found. At his parent's request, he was laid to rest among his fellow countrymen in the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach, Colleville-sur-Mer, France.
This was my Uncle Don's story as I had learned it from my research.
Then one day, during a telephone conversation with Bill Ward, he mentioned that he had been contacted by a French aviation historian, Rémy Chuinard. Rémy was writing a book about the U.S. Ninth Air Force involvement in D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. He had borrowed a copy of "The History of the Hell Hawks, and noticed a photo of my uncle's plane, "Squeaky," after it crashed. Rémy visited the site of the former airfield at Fontenay-sur-Mer, and found the farm off the end of the runway and the location of the crash. He contacted Bill for information about the plane and its pilot and about several pilots from the 365th who had been killed, including Don.
I wrote to Rémy to provide details of the crash. I also asked if he could help me locate my uncle's fatal crash on July 11, 1944. He replied that Don reportedly went down around Evrecy, but many planes had crashed there. Based on his suggestion, my mother contacted the U.S. War Department and, after a lengthy wait, received the records.
The file contained about 100 pages; only one had the information I needed. The office report stated "that the U.S. Army had sent a burial team to the small village of Trois-Monts, but Don's body had already been removed by the British." Since many British planes had crashed in that area, the French people assumed that Don was a British pilot. When Rémy contacted the mayor of Trois-Monts, he learned that several people remembered the crash in which my uncle was killed. At the crash site, he said, some wreckage from Don's plane was still buried in the ground.
In light of these recent developments, my wife and I decided to include a visit to Normandy during our summer vacation to the U.K. We flew to Paris on July 4, 1994, and after a long train ride, we met Rémy and his wife, Françoise, at the train station in Granville. That evening, the Chuinards invited us to a lovely dinner at their apartment in a house situated high on the cliffs overlooking the English Channel.
Early the next morning, we drove across the beautiful French countryside to Fontenay-sur-Mer and the site of Don's former airfield. Although the airfield is now farmland, some reminders of its previous use remain. The runway was constructed of wire mesh mats laid over packed earth. After the war, neighboring French farmers reclaimed these materials for farm gates and fencing. Near the airfield, the Chateau Fontenay-sur Mer, formerly a beautiful estate, served as regional German Headquarters until D-Day when it was burned by the retreating German forces. The ruins of the chateau still stand today, a silent witness to the devastation of war.
We visited the farm where Matt Ruper had crashed Don's plane. Coincidentally, our visit occurred on July 5, 1994, exactly 50 years after the crash on July 5, 1944. The farm owner, Bernard Jaunet, helped us carefully search for any pieces of the plane, but none were found. We did see, however, where pieces of the plane had crashed into the stone walls of the nearby barn.
In the afternoon, Bernard Jaunet accompanied us on a tour of the big German gun emplacements of St. Marcouf-Crisbeg and Utah Beach. While I was inside the museum at Utah Beach, Rémy found a rusted ammunition clip on the beach, a vivid reminder of the past battles on the beach.
The next day, we travelled once again across the French countryside. As we neared the tiny village of Trois-Monts, I noticed bright red poppies blowing in the breeze along the roadside. Upon entering the village, we passed the cenotaph which was decorated with flags and streamers. About 50 people milled around the town hall when we arrived and we were introduced to the village mayor, Dominque LeClerq, and other officials.
Then a small group of us left the town hall and drove a short distance out of the village to spot where Don's plane had crashed and where he had been buried for nearly two years. We stopped and walked into a quiet rolling pasture. The crash site was marked by a small water-filled crater where metal tubing was visible. (Both Rémy and I believe the engine and the propeller are still in the ground.) The mayor laid a small floral arrangement at the spot, and we observed a moment of silence to remember the young man that had died there.
Upon returning to the village, we found that a crowd of more than 200 had gathered. They formed a parade, complete with colour guard, and we marched down the street to the cenotaph. In a very moving ceremony, they played the national anthems and The Last Post, and we observed a minute of silence. On behalf of my uncle's sacrifice, the mayor of Trois-Monts presented me the 50th anniversary commemorative medal of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. It was a very emotional moment, standing in front of so many people who came out to pay their respect to a man they only knew as a liberator of their country.
We paraded back to the town hall which was beautifully decorated inside. The mayor gave a speech in French, and, on my behalf, my wife also gave a speech in French. Then, I presented the mayor with a framed picture of my uncle so that the village residents could finally see the face of the man who had crashed at their village nearly 50 years ago. The villagers also presented us with some lovely gifts. Everyone wanted to come up and say thank you.
At the back of the hall, in a box on the floor, were the remains of two 50-calibre machine guns that had been dug up from the crash site-what an amazing surprise. Since they were too heavy for our luggage, however, we left them in France with Rémy.
The people at Trois-Monts told us that, on July 11, 1944, the villagers where just sitting down for lunch when they heard the scream of a diving plane and an explosion. They rushed to the scene, along with German troops who were in the area. They found that Don had died instantly. The Germans left, leaving the villagers to bury my uncle beside the wreckage of his plane. No nationality markings were visible on the plane, so they assumed that he was British and marked this on the cross at his grave. The teenage daughter of the landowner faithfully tended to Don's grave for nearly two years until his body was removed by British troops in the spring of 1946.
After leaving Trois-Monts, we drove to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. The staff at the cemetery was very helpful, and took us to the grave site in an electric cart.
I read the poem "High Flight"and laid some flowers, and in the silence that followed, the tears flowed freely. Standing there amongst the 9,300 graves, the true tragedy of war hit home. These men and women were all so young with so much to live for-to love, marry, raise children, play with grandchildren, and retire. They gave it all to make it a better world. The words of one veteran echoed in my ears. "Nobody wins a war. You may win the peace, but nobody wins a war. There are too many tears for lost friends and family."
The next day, we took the ferry across the channel from Cherbourg to Southhampton for two weeks travel through the U.K. and Ireland. We visited the site of the former airfield at Beaulieu and a nearby pub which many of the pilots had probably visited. On July 11, 1994, 50 years after my uncle was killed, my wife and I toured the museum at Duxford. I had the opportunity to sit in a P-47 Thunderbolt, the kind of airplane my uncle had flown. On the side was painted the motto "No Guts No Glory."
Don once wrote home to his sister, Ruth, while he was overseas and said, "the Air Force is looking for heroes, and I don't think I can be one."
I believe there were many heroes during the war. Some gave even their lives in the hope for a better tomorrow. My uncle, Don Newcombe, was one of these.
Authors Note: There are many people to whom I owe a great deal of thanks for their help and kindness during my search for information. Charles Johnson and the veterans of the 365th Fighter Group were eager to help in any way, and welcomed us at the reunion. Rémy Chuinard and his wife, Françoise, provided us invaluable assistance for my research and were wonderful hosts in Normandy. I would especially like to thank my wife and best friend, Mary, for her patience, understanding and support during my three years of searching for information.
Read More about the 365thThunderbolts of the Hell Hawks
(Barnes, Crump and Sutherland)
320 pages, 500 photos and 98 illustrations of the group's P-47s.
(Dorr & Jones)
The story of the band of young American fighter pilots, and their gritty, close-quarters fight against Hitlers vaunted military. The "Hell Hawks" were the men and machines of the 365th Fighter Group.