Valor Friday

| May 22, 2020 | 12 Comments


Captain “Bill” Overstreet, US Army Air Forces

For today’s Valor Friday, Mason gives us the incredible saga of Captain William “Bill” Overstreet, relating his skills and valor in the European skies during World War II.

Mason:

William “Bill” Overstreet Jr is a name you probably aren’t familiar with. You may have heard of what he did during World War II in the sky above Paris, if you haven’t, you’re in for a treat. What he did is emblematic of the valor the men fighting in that war displayed as well as the daring and creativity so often needed at the front lines of a brutal war.

Overstreet was a post-Pearl Harbor Army enlistee. By April of 1942 he was on his way to California to receive instruction as a pilot. These early aviators received a minimum of training. Tens of thousands of them graduated during the course of the war. Often they were sent out into combat with as little as one hour’s experience flying their assigned plane. When a unit was designated to switch to a new airframe, which happened regularly with the rapid advances in aircraft made during the war, units would receive no operational downtime to make the transition. One P-47 group moved to the P-51 without receiving any training in the new aircraft. The group commander said, “You can learn to fly `51s on the way to the target.”

Safety took a back seat to getting men out into combat units. The instructors did the best they could. The US military also used our combat experienced pilots as instructors, something the Axis forces didn’t do. Overstreet credits his flight instructors with preparing him for the unexpected that he overcame in actual combat.

One instructor, Carl Aarslef, would at about 500 feet elevation and in the landing pattern take the Steerman bi-plane trainer they were flying invert it, cut the engine, and tell Bill “OK, you land it.” Learning to cope with that would certainly steel a man’s nerves.

Overstreet was slated for multi-engine training after his first two phases of flight training. He sweet talked his CO into allowing him to pursue the fighter track. After earning his wings, he was sent to Hamilton Field, Santa Rosa, California for combat preparation. The young men flying these fighters would buzz sunbathers or farmers and would take flights of four aircraft to the Golden Gate Bridge and do loops around it. Overstreet said he found out years later from their legal officer that he’d quashed “bushels of charges”, even taking some of them home at the end of the war.

While talking with one of his fellow pilots long after the war, Overstreet wondered aloud why they were able to get away with so many antics. His comrade Don Graham asked him, “If you were picking pilots for combat, who would you pick? The fellows who flew straight and level or the ones who pushed the envelope and tested the limits of their planes?”


P-39 Aeracobra

While training on June 28th, 1943, Bill’s P-39 Airacobra began spinning as he was practicing aerial maneuvers. Unable to control it, he reached up for the door, planning to bail out. The air pressure kept him from being able to open it. He braced a knee on one door and a shoulder on the other and was finally able to overcome the air pressure.

Pushing the door open, he bailed out. As soon as he hit the air he pulled his ripcord. The chute snapped into place. And he stopped. He was standing among the wreckage of his own airplane. He called it his “One second parachute jump.” In fact he’d been so close to the ground that his flightmates never even saw his chute deploy. Overstreet did make it a point to track down the parachute rigger who’d packed his chute and thank him personally.


P-51 Mustang

Overstreet’s unit, the 363rd Fighter Squadron, part of the 357th Fighter Group was shipped to England in late 1943. It was in England that they were outfitted with the P-51, the first American fighter with the range to stick with bomber formations all the way to Berlin. An interesting note here, another legendary American aviator was with the 363rd FS during this time, Chuck Yeager. Yeager would go on to tally 11.5 kills, becoming a “double ace” and would pilot the Bell X-1 in 1947 to Mach 1.06. He was the first man to travel faster than the speed of sound in level flight.

By February 1944 Overstreet was flying missions over Europe in a P-51 he named “Berlin Express”. On one of these missions, while at 25,000 feet altitude, he suffered another near death accident. His oxygen line cut out, possibly from flak, which very quickly caused hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain). You’ll recall that golfer Payne Stewart died of hypoxia when the oxygen system on his Learjet failed in 1999, killing or incapacitating everyone on board before the plane ran out of fuel and crashed.

After the failure of Overstreet’s oxygen system, he blacked out. He came to at a much lower altitude, his engine dead (having run the tank it was set to empty), and in a spin. Correcting the spin, he switched tanks, restarted his engine and by now was having to dodge trees.

He didn’t know where he was, and looking at his watch he realized he had absolutely no memory of the last 90 minutes. Since he knew where he had been going to, he just reversed course, found the French coast, and followed that up to England. He landed at a different base having run low on fuel. The duty officer he spoke with at the field was a man he knew from back home, in fact they had lived only a couple blocks away from each other. Even more incredible, the mechanic that repaired Bill’s plane was also from Clifton Forge, VA and had been a schoolmate of his.


Messerschmitt Bf-109

After that, Overstreet was over Paris in the spring of 1944 and engaged in a dogfight with a German Messerschmitt Bf-109. The two pilots jockeyed for superiority, the P-51 being considered the slightly superior aircraft. Overstreet was able to finally score a hit with his six .50-calibre machine guns on the German’s engine.

The German pilot, his aircraft partially disabled, tried desperately to shake the American airman. He dove into Paris, hoping that the heavy anti-aircraft fire would drive off the American. When that didn’t, he hatched a plan. A plan just crazy enough it might work. He was going to fly under the Eiffel Tower. The arch at the base of the tower is only 243 feet wide and less than 187ft tall. For comparison’s sake, the wingspan of the Bf-109 is 32 feet and the P-51D is 37 feet. What crazy fucker would follow him?

Bill Overstreet would follow him! Which is exactly what he did.

As the Bf-109 dove into the arch below the tower, Overstreet followed, spouting his flame from under, and off he exited the arch with one helluva roar. Forgive me there, I’ve yet to borrow from my beloved Air Force’s Song, but Bill Overstreet is the closest I’ve found yet to a pilot that so fittingly embodied the words of that first verse. As Overstreet followed the Messerschmitt under the Tower he scored more hits on his foe.

He followed the Bf-109 until it crashed, then escaped the city himself. He stayed low, ran at full throttle, and followed the Seine until he was out of the city. Escaping from right over the top of one of the most heavily defended cities in Western Europe itself was no small feat.

His airmanship would probably have only been told (and likely not believed) at establishments selling copious amounts of liquor if not for the Parisians who had witnessed it. You see, this was occupied Paris, months before the Allied invasion at Normandy that would begin to liberate the country. This was a dark time for Parisiens and the French.

It is said that the tale of the American who chased a German through the Eiffel Tower was a great inspiration to the resistance fighters in the city. For more than four years their country had been under the boot heel of the Nazis and here comes a Yank to take down one of those oppressors in the most spectacular way possible.

Bernard Marie, a French dignitary who hosts World War Two veterans events mentioned to his father, who had survived the war, that he’d met Bill Overstreet in 1984. Marie said, “My father began shouting at me — ‘I have to meet this man! This guy has done even more than what people are thinking. He lifted the spirit of the French.’”

After his Eiffel Tower escapades, which would later be immortalized in a painting by Len Krenzler, he flew several missions on and immediately after D-Day for the Battle of Normandy beginning June 6, 1944. He tallied another kill on June 29th, taking down a German Fw-190.

He once flew with a sinus infection. Escorting bombers, a German Bf-109 was sighted coming up. Overstreet swooped into a power dive from 30,000 feet. As he descended, the pressure changed rapidly, causing his sinuses to swell to the point that his eyes swelled shut. Blind and with no way to check his course he flew on feel alone until a wingman spotted him and set him on a safe course. He flew on Bill’s wing and talked him down to a safe landing.

He flew many more missions over Europe, escorting bombers on raids over Germany, escorting bombers being ferried to Poland (where he exchanged his plane’s .50-cal ammunition for vodka, filling his ammo bays), and a top secret mission to attack a U-boat pen. His participation in that latter mission led to his being used by the OSS for operations to deliver supplies to the Free French forces and pick up downed airmen and intelligence reports.

He rotated out of the European Theater in October 1944. Stateside he was assigned as a gunnery instructor and mustered out of active service as a captain. He remained in the reserves for a time, but I cannot find exact records.

Returning home to Virginia, he worked for a CPA firm before branching out on his own and retiring in 1984. In 2009 at the age of 88 the French Ambassador to the United States presented Overstreet with France’s highest honor, the Légion d’honneur.

I can’t confirm all the awards, but one list shows that Bill received six Silver Stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross, 14 Air Medals, a Purple Heart, and World War Two service medals. He is also entitled to two Presidential Unit Citations awarded to the 357th Fighter Group while he was assigned.

Sliver Star

 

Distinguished Flying Cross

Air Medal

 

Purple Heart

Overstreet passed away in Virginia at the age of 92 in 2013.

Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

Thanks again, Mason.

Category: Guest Post, The Warrior Code, Valor

Comments (12)

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  1. Mustang Major says:

    The greatest generation!

  2. 5th/77th FA says:

    BZ Captain William “Bill” Overstreet. Love these stories of the Valor of the Army Air Corps/Forces Aviators. Had seen the painting but had never heard the “rest of the story.”

    Thanks Mason!

  3. Roh-Dog says:

    Most dangerous CPA ever?!
    Thank you, Captain, thank you so very much for your life well-lived.
    (Wind musta kicked up some dust n’cheer)

  4. 26Limabeans says:

    Now I know the backstory of the painting.
    Thanks Mason..and thank you Captain Overstreet.

  5. 2banana says:

    True. But the Germans did use wounded and medically discharged experienced pilots as instructors.

    “The instructors did the best they could. The US military also used our combat experienced pilots as instructors, something the Axis forces didn’t do.”

  6. 2banana says:

    Anyone wonder when the army air corps became the “air force” that they received the same luke warm reception and constant joking as today’s “space force” does?

  7. Wilted Willy says:

    BZ Indeed Capt!!!!
    Can you imagine any of todays yoots actually doing any of these amazing feats today??? I don’t think any of todays pussys even enlisting, much less doing anything in actual combat???
    Please let me know what you guys think???

    • David says:

      I suspect cream would rise to the top and today’s kids will eventually prove to have knuckledraggers abd heroes just as earlier generations produced. They may not look it going in, but when SHTF people all tend to react the same in probably the same ratio of heroes and zeroes. EVERY older generation talked shit about their kids… who generally wound up doing OK when needed.

  8. Combat Historian says:

    In honor of Memorial Day, I would like to mention CPT Wah Kau Kong, USAAF, from Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, and the first Chinese-American fighter pilot in the USAAF.

    Born 17 Jan 1919, Wah Kau Kong enlisted in the USAAF in 1942, and eventually was deployed to England in late 1943 with the 353d Fighter Squadron of the 354th Fighter Group, flying the P-51B Mustang.

    CPT Wah had already one and a half victories to his credit when on his fourteenth mission he was killed in action over Germany on 22 Feb 1944. His remains were eventually recovered in 1945, and CPT Wah is interred at the National Cemetary of the Pacific in Honolulu, HI…

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wah_Kau_Kong

  9. The Other Whitey says:

    The men who flew fighters back then were something special. Francis Gabreski became a multiple ace after almost washing out of basic flight training. Hubert Zemke was an ace who ran the most successful fighter group in the 8th Air Force, when shot down told his Luftwaffe interrogators to fuck themselves in fluent German, and took over the Stalag where he was being held in 1945 without firing a shot (and subsequently had hundreds of local residents rush the camp seeking his protection from the Russians). On the RAF side, double amputee Douglas Bader made ace with two prosthetic legs, turned the hard-luck 242 Squadron around as its new CO, escaped repeatedly when captured, to the point that the Germans finally confiscated his legs, and continued to be a pain in their ass planning and organizing more escapes for less disabled men for the rest of the war.

    Bill Overstreet stands in good company.

    • Combat Historian says:

      “…Hubert Zemke was an ace who ran the most successful fighter group in the 8th Air Force…”

      Col. Zemke commanded the 56th “Wolfpack” flying P47 Thunderbolts. Col. Donald Blakeslee commanded the P-51 4th Fighter Group, and there was a hot and healthy rivalry between the two groups. The 56th ended the war with the most enemy aircraft shot down in the air, but Blakeslee’s supporters argued that the 4th destroyed the most enemy aircraft overall when combining air kills with enemy planes destroyed on the ground. Col. Donald Blakeslee was another USAAF legend, enlisting in the RCAF In 1940 to get into the war, served in the RAF Eagle Squadron, and then transferred into the USAAF in 1942 to command the 4th, and ended the war with 15.5 personal victories. Col. Blakeslee retired from the USAF in 1965, and passed away in 2008 at the age of 91.

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