Valor Friday

| April 23, 2021

Louis Curdes

Louis Curdes was a 23 year old from Indiana who had just graduated Purdue when he enlisted in the Army in March 1942 to fight in World War II. He was sent to Luke Field, Arizona where he completed flight training, earning his wings by December of that year.

He was sent to the Mediterranean Theater and assigned to the 95th Fighter Squadron. The 95th FS was part of the 82nd Fighter Group. The squadron was engaging Axis forces in and over North Africa in the spring of 1943 when Lieutenant Curdes arrived. The 95th, and thus Curdes, were flying the famous P-38 Lighting.

WW II-era 95th Fighter Squadron emblem

The 95th FS also has one of the coolest patches I’ve seen for a fighter squadron. Unlike many (even most) of the patches of the World War II-era, this one is still in use. The current 95th FS flies F-22 Raptors out of Tyndall, Florida.

Current 95th Fighter Squadron patch

Returning our story to the war in North Africa, now-First Lieutenant Curdes began making a name for himself. On 29 April 1943 he shot down three German Messerschmidt Bf-109’s and damaged a fourth in action near Cape Bon, Tunisia.

These victories came after he had been unable to release his bomb on a skip-bombing mission. Despite this causing him to be overweight and not in peak fighting form, when Curdes was attacked by 12 enemy fighters, he turned in to confront them.

He damaged one of his attackers and shot down another. Curdes then spotted one of his wingmen damaged and under the gun of two enemy Messerschmidts. He unhesitatingly swooped in and shot down both of the enemy aircraft. He then escorted the damaged aircraft back to friendly territory.

For his bravery that day Curdes was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Curdes shot down two more Bf-109s over Sardinia on 19 May. This earned him the title of “Ace” in less than a month. A month later, again over Sardinia, he shot down an Italian C.202 fighter. He shot down two more Bf-109s over Benevento, Italy. This earned him a second Distinguished Flying Cross.

On 27 August, while in combat with German aircraft over Italy he was shot down. Surviving the crash he was captured by the Italians. At this point in the war, Italy was still on the side of the Axis. He was sent to a prison camp near Rome.

Italy surrendered to the Allies on 3 September, 1943 Just days after Curdes had been captured. In response to their ally surrendering, Germany invaded their former comrades. As the Germans closed in quickly on Rome, Curdes and some other airmen escaped the prison camp. They spent the next few months avoiding recapture. They reached Allied lines in May, 1944.

Curdes was sent home to Fort Wayne, Indiana where he received a hero’s welcome (including a handmade P-38 mockup that the kids pulled him down the street in). Despite being an ace and having engaged and downed enemy aircraft from two of the three Axis countries, earned two DFCs, and survived being shot down, captured, and escaping, he wasn’t ready for the war to be over. He requested a return to active duty.

A serviceman couldn’t be returned to the European Theater where he’d once been captured and escaped. Recapture after being repatriated would subject Curdes to summary execution on the belief he was a spy. When his request to return to the fight was granted, he was sent to the Pacific Theater.

Curdes was assigned to the 4th Fighter Squadron (Commando) in August 1944, flying the legendary P-51 Mustang. The 4th Fighter Squadron (Commando) sailed from the US West Coast in December and arrived at Leyte in January 1945. They were then transported to New Guinea where they received their new aircraft, the Mustang.

Curdes’ squadron would fly bombing and strafing missions over the Philippines. The air commandos also had a sweeping mission that saw them attack Japanese facilities in occupied China and Taiwan, air dropping supplies and mail, and evacuating wounded from behind enemy lines. As part of the fighter squadron in the larger 3d Air Commando Group, Curdes’ and his wingmen would be doing a lot of close air support, escort duty, and patrols.

It was on one such mission on 7 February 1945 that Curdes would attack and shoot down a Japanese Ki-46 “Dinah” reconnaissance aircraft. This gave Curdes a distinction of shooting down, in combat, aircraft from all three Axis powers. Only two other Americans would officially be able to make that claim by war’s end (a third made the claim unofficially).

On 10 February, the most amazing of missions befell Lieutenant Curdes. He was leading a flight of four aircraft to investigate a possible Japanese airstrip on the south end of Taiwan. Unable to find any sign of one, the airmen returned to the Philippines. It was here over the extreme north Philippine island of Batan that the aircraft split into two formations of two planes. Curdes and Lieutenant Schmidtke went north while Lieutenants Scalley and La Croix went south.

Scalley and La Croix discovered a small Japanese airfield. They attacked the field and called for reinforcements, with Curdes and Schmidtke responding.

As the men were attacking the airfield, La Croix was shot down. He made an emergency landing in the ocean. Flying overhead, Curdes could see that La Croix was alive. Curdes circled the area to cover La Croix and to guide in rescue aircraft.

While loitering to cover La Croix, Curdes saw a heavy airplane approaching and appearing to line up with the Japanese airstrip for a landing. Curdes went to investigate. One can assume he was intending to shoot down the enemy plane, but he found it was a C-47 Skytrain, an American aircraft with American markings.

Curdes tried to raise the C-47’s crew on radio and was unsuccessful. He then flew into the path of the aircraft repeatedly in an attempt to get them to break off their approach. Undaunted, the C-47 continued its approach for a landing, now with wheels down.

Curdes knew the crew of the C-47 would fall into enemy hands were they to land at the Japanese airfield. Conditions for Japanese prisoners were notoriously bad. Knowing this, Lieutenant Curdes did the unthinkable but incredibly imaginative.

Curdes lined up behind the Skytrain and opened fire on it with his Mustang’s .50-cals, skillfully destroying one of the transport plane’s two engines without damaging the wing. The C-47 still headed for the island, so Curdes lined up his sights on the second engine and opened fire.

The C-47, now with two flaming engines, went down almost immediately. The damage was limited to the aircraft’s powerplants, so the pilot was able to bring the C-47 down in the water.

Flying overhead, Curdes could see that the crew of the C-47 survived as they climbed out of the sinking cargo plane and into a life raft. They’d ditched close enough to Lieutenant La Croix, that the Mustang pilot was able to climb in with them.

It seems the C-47 crew had become lost in weather. Nearly out of fuel, they headed towards the island’s airstrip, unaware it was in enemy hands.

Not only had Louis Curdes shot down aircraft from all three Axis countries, but he could claim to have successfully shot down one of his own country’s aircraft. The latter is not something usually celebrated, but in this case it kept the crew and aircraft from falling into enemy hands.

Dusk falling and low on fuel, Curdes and his wingmen were forced to return to base. Curdes escorted the PBY Catalina sent out the next morning to rescue the survivors. Once there, they found all 12 (including two nurses) who had been aboard the C-47 survived.

Much to Curdes’ surprise, one of the nurses was a woman he’d had a date with the night before shooting her out of the sky. They would marry in 1946. It’s probably the only time a man has married a woman after shooting an airplane out from under her.

Some sources say that Curdes’ received the Distinguished Flying Cross for this act, but he did not. He did receive the official tally for the “kill” and proudly displayed it on his aircraft with his other kill markers.

Curdes’ unit was transferred to the Philippines and attacked Japanese targets at Luzon and Okinawa for the remainder of the war.

After the war Curdes returned to civilian life, but enlisted with the Air National Guard. He returned to active duty, in the now separated US Air Force, in 1948 and participated in the Berlin Airlift. Promoted to major in 1951, Curdes would retire as a lieutenant colonel in 1963. He then started a building company.

Louis Curdes died in 1995 at age 75. His widow Svetlana died in 2013 at age 87. A replica of Curdes’ P-51 “Bad Angel” is on display at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona. His P-38 had been named “Good Devil.”

Among the awards noted above, Curdes also received the Purple Heart, two Presidential Unit Citations, and the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation.

For those who want to know more, including recollections of the events from the man himself, there’s an excellent article by Don Hollway here. It’s an excellent read with some fantastic photos and artwork.

Category: Air Force, Historical, POW, Valor, We Remember

Comments (8)

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  1. Docduracoat says:

    Wow!
    He married the woman he dated once and then Literally “shot down“.
    Saving her from the horrors of Japanese imprisonment, she experienced the terror of being shut down and crash landing in the ocean.
    Then spending the entire night in a life raft, before rescue.
    That is some woman!
    That is some story!
    Would make a great movie

    • Poetrooper says:

      Nope, Doc, he didn’t marry the nurse. Check out the link. But I agree this tale would make a great movie.

  2. Green Thumb says:

    Damn.

    What a way to begin the morning!

    Great story.

  3. Ex Coelis says:

    Thank you for posting this article, Mason. Reading it made my day…
    Very obviously, Lt. Col Curdes was a very quick thinker, very quick to act and all in all; a very wily man.

  4. ninja says:

    Another GREAT Valor story frim our very own Mason.

    And what a story!

    Thank You, Mason, for sharing!

  5. Sparks says:

    That is a great hero’s story!

    Man, to meet a woman and have a date, then you shot her plane down and she still marries you.

    Thanks Mason for the uplift this morning.

  6. KoB says:

    Son.of.a.Beyoch! And just….DAAYYUUM! Hardcore Warrior AND a Ladies Man! But then again, what did you expect, after all, he was…wait for it…ARMY Air Corps. Wonder if he “made a pass” at Svetlana, she shot him down, so he figured turn about was fair play, so he shot her down? 😛

    Great story Mason and an excellent linky provided! Many Thanks! I always had the opinion that the P-38 was the coolest and badassed ARMY Aircraft of the period.

    Battalion Gun Salute for this Warrior AND his Lady! Fire by the Battery….PREPARE…COMMENCE FIRING!

  7. SFC D says:

    Just how big are the cockpits in a P-38 or P-51? That’s a lot of testicular mass to squeeze into a cramped compartment. You just can’t make up a story like this, nobody would believe it.