Bob McCandless witnessed a double Me-262 kill before his P-51 was shot down in flames over enemy territory.
Two yellow-nosed North American P-51 Mustangs started their dive from 15,000 feet and were doing 450 miles per hour when they flashed across the end of the runway at Achmer, Germany. Leading the flight in his P-51D Detroit Miss, Second Lieutenant Urban L. “Ben” Drew was after a pair of Messerschmitt Me-262A-1 jets he had spotted. The Luftwaffe wingman had scarcely retracted his landing gear when Drew fired his six .50-calibers and the Me-262 exploded in a fireball. The German leader went into a turn—a mistake. Drew made a difficult high-deflection shot, and the jet fighter flopped over into an inverted spin and crashed. The flak was intense. Drew banked hard and called to his wingman, “Hit the deck and get out of here.” Over his shoulder he saw a P-51B with its nose high and wrapped in flames from wingtip to wingtip and from nose to tail.
Drew’s wingman that day was 2nd Lt. Robert K. McCandliss, who survived the war and is now a retired naval architect living near Pascagoula, Miss. He talked with Aviation History about his narrow escape from death and subsequent imprisonment in a POW camp.
Ben Drew’s victories on October 7, 1944, made him not only the first pilot to get two Me-262s but the first to get sole credit for downing what was considered a “wonder weapon,” and you were in the middle of the action.
Yes, and as it turned out, I was the only one who could verify the claims. Eighth Air Force rules required either a witness or gun-camera proof. Our group [the 361st Fighter Group, based at Bottisham, England] was the first to try out color film in gun cameras, on this mission, on selected airplanes. Not one squadron or flight leader’s film worked. The color film cartridges were different enough that they all jammed. This caused a problem—there was no photo proof, and I was hobbling around in Germany. Years later I learned that [Jimmy] Doolittle had personally approved Ben’s claims within days. My guess is he did it for morale purposes—the 262 was gaining a reputation as being invincible—and the general knew about it from decoded Luftwaffe Enigma message intercepts.
How did you wind up at Achmer that day?
I had been at MIT for two years before enlisting in the Army Air Forces after Pearl Harbor. I had to wait to be called up and then was delayed more by a serious case of viral pneumonia. I finally made it to England in August of ’44 and was assigned to the 375th Fighter Squadron. I was a “floater,” as were most replacements, and my first missions were with a variety of leaders. Even without being assigned to a flight, I was given a P-51B with a birdcage canopy—E2*M. I didn’t have her long enough to name her. Within three days, a new guy lost oil pressure and had to bail out on a practice flight. I quickly learned who the aggressive flight leaders were and who were the ones who somehow seemed to avoid engaging the enemy. The Katzenjammer Kids—Kemp and Drew—were the favorite flight leaders for any pilot who wanted action. Billy Kemp lived in the same hut as I did. One evening Kemp came back from the officers’ club and fired four shots into the ceiling with his .45 automatic. Uncivilized behavior anywhere but in a fighter squadron. I was overjoyed to be assigned to the other Katzenjammer Kid, Ben Drew, who was known for “going in harm’s way.”
An interesting name; what was the story behind that?
The “Katzenjammer Kids” was a popular comic strip about a couple of boys who were always playing pranks. Since both Kemp and Drew were always in and out of trouble, the name was a natural when Stars and Stripes wrote about their rapid success in the air.
They both wound up with identical records: six in the air and one more on the ground.
Sure, and both had spectacular fights. Bill Kemp shot down three on one flight, and Ben of course had his double. He was eager to get one of the jets after our frustrating encounter earlier.
Why do you call it frustrating?
Because three of us couldn’t touch either of the Me-262s. Ben had a brand new D-model Mustang, and although I was in an older P-51B, it had been updated with a streamlined Malcolm canopy instead of the birdcage and a newly developed gyro-tracking gunsight. A great device—it was driven by an internal gyroscope that sensed lateral displacement rates and computed lead angle automatically. The squadron engineering officer, who was in charge of the mechanics and maintaining the airplanes, was a graduate of Purdue’s engineering program. My engineering background gave us a lot in common, and we would have lengthy technical discussions. As a result I did test flights and tried out new gadgets and modifications. As A Flight leader, Ben had led two of us in a power dive from 20,000 feet after a twin-engine airplane he spotted. We were doing close to 500 mph at the bottom and still couldn’t catch what we had recognized as an Me-262. The German jet made some turns, and Ben would let loose with his guns whenever he thought he might have enough lead. I saw another jet at 4 o’clock and went after it. The gyro-sight worked as advertised and showed a huge deflection angle, but I was out of range. It was like trying to catch a motorcycle while on a bicycle. When I realized the jet was pulling away I turned back to join the formation. My dodge to the side had put me into the number three position. I watched smoke from Blue Leader’s guns as Ben futilely shot again at the first Messerschmitt. We were approaching an airfield, and I radioed to watch the flak. White smoke was coming from the wings of Lieutenant Danny Nupp’s Mustang. At first I thought that Nupp was shooting at something, but the bursts were too irregular. Nupp was being shot at—and hit. Nupp was flying the number two position. My position. In seconds, Nupp’s Mustang rolled inverted and dove toward the ground at a 45-degree angle. Somehow Danny managed to bail out before the airplane crashed and exploded. I circled wide and watched him land near the intersection of two roads. After two passes to distract any Germans close by and give Nupp time to hide, I heard other members of the squadron calling out many 109s and 190s in the area, so I headed for a nearby fat, puffy cumulus cloud. Flying completely on instruments, I spiraled up to 15,000 feet, popped out and joined up on an unidentified Mustang headed for England.
No wonder you both found that mission frustrating.
There is more to the story. Frustration became embarrassment. Our usual procedure was to cross the Channel fairly high in case something went wrong, but this guy did a buzz job all the way across. I kept him in sight until approaching the English coast, then climbed. The first landmark I recognized was the city of London. A long way from 361 Group’s base at Bottisham. I had less than 15 gallons of gas, and I wanted to have some fuel for landing, so I looked for the nearest airfield. I was lucky and almost lined up with a runway. I landed at a transport base. An ATC base. ATC was actually Air Transport Command, but we fighter pilots joked that ATC meant “allergic to combat” or “army of terrified co-pilots.” A crowd had gathered to see why a P-51 had landed at their base, and I was a cocky young fighter jockey showing off. Let the end of my white silk scarf blow into the slipstream. Taxied in fast, pressed hard on the left brake, jazzed the Merlin and spun smartly into a parking spot. Naturally, I did not want to show my backside climbing out of the cockpit, so braced my hands on windscreen and canopy and jumped straight onto the wing—and crashed flat on my back. All the high power operation and maneuvering had caused the Merlin to blow oil all over the nose and inner wing. The transport and glider pilots had a good laugh at the expense of this hotshot fighter pilot.
Did this encounter with the Messerschmitts help later on?
Without seeing just how fast the 262 was, I don’t think the kills at Achmer would have been possible. Ben Drew really wanted to get a jet. He’d pay special attention to the intel brief and note where they were operating, but did not have another opportunity for three weeks, until we saw those two taxiing out at Achmer. The airplane I was in that mission was named Hitler’s Nemesis. An odd quirk of the P-51B was that it was easier to fly at high speeds than the newer Ds, which was a help in our high-speed dive. I was behind and slightly to the right of Ben’s Mustang, Detroit Miss, when the first 262 exploded. When he went into a steep turn to cut off the second Messerschmitt, I cut to his inside to get closer. It worked almost too well—a split second earlier, I would have hit the spinning jet. I watched the pilot bail out and had to pull up to avoid tangling in his parachute. As it was, I was close enough to see the parachute canopy was a patchwork of gray, white and brown cloth. It looked like several used chutes had been stitched together for one good canopy.
How were you shot down?
Anti-aircraft fire was intense. The Luftwaffe had put guns everywhere. I looked off to one side and noticed a flexible-mount gun less than 200 yards away, leading like a skeet shooter while firing at me. I hate to admit it, but I lost my temper and took it out on a single heavy machine gun ahead in an open field. The gun had a long barrel that stuck out between slabs of armor plate and was slightly off dead center. I was too low to bank, so I pressed rudder to skid my Mustang on target. Lurid purple-red fireballs floated and grew from the gun. My own bullets kicked up dirt and sparkled on the steel plate. One of the flaming balls went into my left wing. It punched through the fuel tank, out the trailing edge and turned the P-51 into a blowtorch. A piece of shrapnel took a chunk out of the canopy, and the hole over my head created a huge draft that sucked flames and smoke into the cockpit. I started a steep climb. I yanked the oxygen hose free, pulled the clasp and released lap belt and shoulder harness, jettisoned what was left of the Mustang canopy. As I jumped, air turbulence whipped the canvas seat straps around my right ankle. The straps kept my foot inside. The cockpit edge was cutting into my calf. The slipstream held my arms over my head. I was trapped. I kicked and kicked, trying to get free. The human mind is a funny thing, I remember wondering what it would be like to hit the ground. Had a vivid picture of my wife. Met her in Tallahassee—at the Women’s College. Married her three weeks later. She nursed me through pneumonia. She was going to have our baby. Would it be a boy or a girl? Perhaps a girl as pretty as Virginia. I saw her face and kicked. I came free.
You could not have been very high by then.
I was on the ground in one swing. Barely missed some high tension electrical wires. I came down through a tree. I was on the ground, but the parachute was snagged on the branches. The airplane crashed in a plowed field 200 yards away and kept burning. People headed for the burning wreck of the airplane. I took off my Mae West, stuffed it in a hole between the tree roots and headed away from the crowd. I was hobbling across an open, grassy field as fast as my injured legs would allow when I heard a pistol shot. I stopped. Put my hands up. Sat down. My captors were a Dutch civilian cradling a shotgun and a Luftwaffe lieutenant with his personal Walther pistol in his hand. My guess is the lieutenant was on leave and doing a little hunting. I was certainly glad he was there, as the crowd attracted to the wreck was definitely hostile. My left leg was burned, the right leg was battered and bruised, and my white scarf was soaked with fresh blood. When I removed it I found a sharp chunk of plastic from the canopy. The layers of cloth had saved my neck from a severe cut. It seems funny now, but the car the lieutenant drove in to the Wetteringen town jail was a beetle-shaped Volkswagen. A normally large room had been divided into cells with lumber frames covered with chicken wire. There was graffiti by other prisoners on the walls. One was “Un mauvais souvenir d’un escapade.” I knew enough French to translate: “In bad memory of a reckless prank.” It was not an encouraging thought. The next morning I was taken to Rheine Airfield, where I had been shot down. A Luftwaffe major stood behind a table in the airfield’s operations building. Everything they had taken from me was spread out in front of him. He smiled and picked up my standard American issue .45 pistol. In six swift moves, he field-stripped it and laid the parts down neatly. He smiled again. Picked up the frame and, equally swiftly, reassembled the pistol. In English, he said, “This is a pretty good gun.” I spent the night in a cell there and the next day began my amusing journey.
Amusing? A downed airman in the enemy’s country?
My escort was a big clumsy soldier—not very bright. He left me alone with his rifle at an empty railroad station while he dashed into the lavatory. I was tempted to run away, but settled for putting a handful of sandy grit down the barrel. Later he left it in the train compartment when we got off for an air raid. We waited in a pine forest outside of Frankfurt, and after the all-clear sounded, he couldn’t find the compartment. He walked alongside the train asking the other passengers where it was and stumbled and fell twice. I caught him once. Walking through the city of Mainz, he got so far ahead of me that I could have gone anywhere. I thought about making a break for it, but decided it was too risky in a flying suit in a city with a lynching-minded populace. A reminder of my situation was a little old man rushing up when I was alone and beating me with a board until I ran. I had to stay with my guard for my own safety. Our journey took us through an old forest—the trees reached up 100 feet or more—with a mix of round-engine Focke Wulf Fw-190s and long-engine Me-109s carefully placed so no trees appeared to have been removed. Leafy branches and pine boughs had been laid over most of the wings, canopies and fuselages. Yes—before you ask—I did think about stealing one of the fighters. A fantasy we all had, but not so simple in reality. My yokel guard led me into what must have been the operations center for the dispersed Geschwader. He wandered off looking for someone in charge. The room had rows of seats facing a wall covered with large maps, slate boards with words stencil-painted on, blank squares for chalked-in names, numbers, frequencies. I was in the Geschwader’s main briefing room! I was standing there studying line diagrams, numbers, names, when an officer in a black leather Luftwaffe flying jacket walked in. The German stared at me, and I stared back. No question, here was another fighter pilot. A man like myself. A man I could have met in the sky. An enemy. And I was in his briefing room. Even without knowing German, I could tell that the ass-chewing the yokel corporal got was world class.
Your escort sounds like a character. Was that the end of him?
No, he had the chance for yet another dumb stunt. Our next transport was a 1934 model Chevrolet coupe fitted with an awkward-looking charcoal burner that stuck like a whiskey still out of the lidless trunk. The doors were locked and the windows open. Yokel guard tugged on the door handles. Tried both on one side. Tugged again and looked puzzled. I reached inside and pulled up the door lock. Opened the door for my guard. It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud. At the Dulag-Luft—a holding unit for the larger Stalag-Luft—he left. He did not say goodbye, just turned and ambled away as stolid as ever. I spent three weeks in solitary confinement before going to the stalag at Barth on the Baltic.
That must have been well into the winter of 1944.
Yes, and cold. I was sort of the camp tinkerer; made cooking utensils out of tin cans from the Red Cross parcels. I’m particularly proud of an oven I designed to fit on the huts’ stoves. It not only cooked food, but helped heat the room. I tried to stay as busy as possible to distract myself from worrying about my expectant wife.
Did she have a boy or a girl?
I didn’t know. In the first letter I got, Virginia told me how well she and the baby were doing, how cute the baby was, that the baby was growing fast. Nowhere had she said whether the baby was a boy or a girl. I played the flute in the camp symphony orchestra, and one afternoon rehearsal for our Christmas program was interrupted by mail call. I had another letter from my wife—my Christmas present. I learned I was the father of a girl.
The stalag at Barth was liberated by the Soviet army.
Actually, a division of Tartars. Confusing to be in Europe with Oriental troops. Colonel “Hub” Zemke was the SRO, the senior ranking officer in the camp, and kept good order. When the airlift began, it was the sick and injured who left first. The rest of us waited for our turn. Prisoners are good at waiting. I left after eight days in a B-17 fitted with plywood floors rigged across the bomb bays and canvas straps for seatbelts. We only used them for takeoff and landing. The rest of the time we crowded the windows. The pilot of the B-17 flew across Germany at 1,000 feet. The devastation was amazing. Germany had been beaten into rubble. The repatriation camp in France, called “Lucky Strike,” had most of the comforts of home, but the wait might be as long as six weeks. I figured out how the system worked and brazened it out. I simply walked into the outgoing area and fell in with a group that was in there. Turned out they were field artillery—captured as a unit. No one said anything, and we loaded on SS Argentina. Only certain men could go to the ship’s store, and the artillery major designated me. No matter how carefully I took names and made lists, the money always came out short. My early ride home was costing me. Not that I cared. After some leave, I was on a train with Virginia and our daughter, en route to Florida for training to return to a fighter group, when I read of Japan’s surrender. My request for release was granted almost immediately.
Did you stay in aviation?
Ships, not planes, became my career. I went back to MIT, completed a degree in mechanical engineering and later a masters in nautical architecture. Went to Electric Boat in Groton, Conn., and was on the design team of the first nuclear-powered submarines: Nautilus and Seawolf. I remained at Electric Boat through the beginnings of the nuclear attack and fleet ballistic submarine programs, then went to Litton Corporation to design a new class of navy frigate. The frigates were built in Pascagoula, Miss., and I moved here to set up the program. By the way, the daughter I “didn’t know about” gave me two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
R.R. “Boom” Powell, whose interview with retired Rear Adm. “Red” Carmody appeared in the May issue, flew Douglas A-4s and North American RA-5Cs for 16 years. Additional reading: Ben Drew: The Katzenjammer Ace, by Drew with Powell.
Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.