Unlike bomber crews that went home if they survived a designated number of missions, World War II fighter pilots like Lieutenant Jim Carl, 354th Fighter Group, United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), flew until the war ended, they got shot down over enemy territory and were captured, or they died.
“If you get through five missions,” Major “Pinky” O’Connor, one of three squadron leaders of the 354th, bluntly told replacements, “you will probably get smart enough to survive.”
America’s premier aircraft when the United States entered World War II were the heavily armed Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, nicknamed “The Jug” because of its bulk, and the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Due to their limited range, however, neither was able to provide long-distance cover for bombers on missions into Nazi territory over occupied Europe, which left the bombers unprotected and vulnerable. The appearance of the North American P-51 Mustang, considered the best all-around fighter plane of World War II, changed the character of the Allied air war.
Its development was due not to the Americans, but instead to the British. A U.S. airplane manufacturer built it to British specifications in 1941, prior to the United States entering the fight. The early model lacked power at higher altitudes, but the 1942 version fitted with a Rolls Royce Merlin engine attained a top speed of 440 miles per hour, an altitude capacity ceiling of 30,000 feet, and an extended range that enabled it to provide fighter protection all the way from England to Poland and back, a round trip of 1,700 miles. It could outrun, outclimb, and outdive any fighter fielded by the enemy.
“When I saw Mustangs over Berlin,” Reichmarschall Herman Göring, commander of the German Luftwaffe, is said to have commented, “I knew the jig was up.”