Chuck Yeager – Early Years
An article kindly supplied by Steve Richards
Steve Richards details the WW2 career of the famous test pilot who served with the United States Air Force for almost 35 years.
Most air enthusiasts know Chuck Yeager as the test pilot of post war years, but previously he had already had a distinguished aviation career flying against the Luftwaffe whilst serving with the 357th Fighter Group.
Born in 1923, Charles E. Yeager had a very hillbilly upbringing which was far from easy. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force as an aeroplane mechanic in 1941 and hated flying after being air-sick on his first flight! However when promotion was made available, for those choosing to train as aircrew, he took it. He turned out to be well suited as a fighter pilot and got his wings 10th March 1943.
Less than a fortnight later aged barely 20 he joined the unit he was to stay with for the duration – the 363rd Fighter Squadron of the 357th Fighter Group. The unit was flying the unorthodox P-39 Airacobra, a tricycle undercarriaged fighter with the engine situated behind the pilot with the prop shaft running through the cockpit. Interestingly the aircraft was built by Bell a manufacturer with which Yeager would come to know well in his record breaking test flying.
The 357th moved around the U.S. on different training schedules and in October his engine blew up in flight, causing him to bale out and subsequent hospitalisation. He was fit when the unit embarked on the Queen Elizabeth for England in Winter 1943-44.
Now flying the P-51B Mustang, the 357th was the first 8th Air Force unit so equipped. They commenced operational flying from their base at Leiston, Suffolk in February. Yeager had his first success on his 8th mission when flying on one of the first Mustang trips to Berlin. For a single engined aircraft to be capable of sorties to the ‘Big City’ was an amazing achievement of aircraft design. The appearance of the Mustang was a game-changer in the skies over Germany. The date was 4th March and the weather was poor. His victim, a Bf 109G, fell South East of Kassel.
Shot down over France
The next day saw a complete reversal of fortunes. The 363rd was detailed to fly an escort mission for a B24 Liberator raid. “There were 4 flights of 4 aircraft with two extras joining in the mission only if there were aborts.” Yeager recalls “I was one of the extras.” Over the Channel one aircraft dropped out with engine problems and Yeager took its place. “I pulled in at the rear of the flight of four. Tail-end Charlie.” An attack by three Focke Wulf 190s was announced by Yeager and, as the Mustang formation broke away, one German caught him, setting his aircraft ablaze. He baled out 50 miles east of Bordeaux. The Mustang coded B6-Y serial number 36763 had been his for only a few weeks and he had named it Glamorous Glen after his sweetheart back home.
Yeager avoided capture and was helped by the French Resistance to make his way back to England via Spain. By May he was back at Leiston much to everyone’s amazement. But disappointment awaited him.
Policy was that aircrew that had evaded capture with the help of the Resistance were taken off operations, lest they be shot down again, captured and forced to compromise those that had previously helped them.
The return to combat flying
Chuck Yeager felt bad about being sent home along with those aircrew that were being sent Stateside with injuries. His pleas seemed useless but once D-Day had passed he felt he would have a stronger case. Through providential circumstances he was able to make his appeal direct to General Eisenhower and returned to combat flying in the Summer. Whilst a decision on his future had been pending, he flew on training missions and while covering a downed crew in the North Sea made contact with a Ju 88. Unable to restrain himself, he chased it to the enemy coast and shot it down. He was forced to give the gun camera footage to another pilot who was also credited with the victory and Yeager was temporarily grounded.
Now flying the even more potent P-51D Glamorous Glen II, serial 413897 again coded B6-Y, he took a share in destroying a Bf 109 on September 13th. On October 14th he became an ‘ace in a day’…
Flying a Mustang that was not his usual mount, he was leading the 357th – a privilege for a 1st Lieutenant with just 1.5 official victories, whilst the group hosted a bag of aces! They intercepted a group of Bf 109s which were waiting to swarm on to a formation of American bombers. “I came in behind their tail-end Charlie, and was just about to hammer him, when he broke left and ran into his wingman. They both bailed out.” In the ensuing fight another three fell to Yeager’s six guns.
Later in the month Yeagar was promoted to Captain. He was now flying his latest Mustang, Glamorous Glen III, serial number 414888, coded B6-Y. It had no camouflage paint, but was in polished aluminium finish. It retained the 357th Group’s red and yellow nose decoration, whilst the rudder was painted red to denote the 363rd Sqn. A victory tally was maintained beneath the windscreen on the port side.
Combat with Me 262 jets
At this time German jets were in evidence and catching them was not easy. On November 6th Yeager, flying near Essen, looked down through a hole in the cloud and couldn’t believe his luck in seeing three Me 262 jets milling around. He attacked and got some strikes on two of them before they shot into cloud again. On the way home he spotted a jet about to land with its undercarriage already down. He attacked and the ground defences responded aggressively. “I’d rather have bought him down in a dogfight, but it wasn’t exactly an easy kill. One quick accurate burst with flak banging all around me…” His superiors thought the action worthy of the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Chuck Yeager’s victory tally was completed three weeks later. On November 27th the Luftwaffe put up its numerically strongest force ever against the 8th Air Force. A number of German units were directed on to what they thought was a formation of bombers, but which turned out to be two Mustang groups, the 353rd and 357th. Yeager was in the thick of the resulting combat. Along with others of his group, he took multiple victories over the somewhat inexperienced enemy force. Four FW 190s bought his official score to 11.5.
Breaking the sound barrier
Chuck left Europe and Glamorous Glen III in January 1945 and upon arrival in the U.S. immediately married his Glennis of flesh and blood! He stayed on in the Air Force to become the now famous test pilot, who first broke the sound barrier in level flight (Oct. 1947 flying the Bell XS-1) and became the first man to fly at twice the speed of sound (Dec. 1951 flying the Bell X-1A). During the mid-1960s he flew 127 missions over Vietnam. He retired from the Air Force in March 1975.
Chuck Yeager sadly passed away on 7th December 2020
Steve Richards © 2020
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