The World War II Photo of the Week
for 23 September 2002
|Lucky Lester ...
In a perilous mission on July 18, 1944, Lt. C. D. Lester downed three German aircraft in less than six minutes. He earned the nickname "Lucky" because he survived this and other dangerous missions without as much as a scratch or bullet hole in his aircraft. Here's Lucky's own account of that day in the Summer of '44:
"It was a clear day in July 1944 when the P-51 Mustangs of the 332nd Fighter Group took off from their airfield at Ramitelli, Italy. Our mission was to rendezvous over northern Italy's Po Valley at 25,000 feet with B-17 Flying Fortresses enroute to bomb a German airfield in southern Germany. We had been given the task of escorting the bombers to the target and back, providing protection from enemy aircraft. We relished the assignment since it allowed us to conduct a fighter sweep, which meant we provided general cover, but had no specific group of 'Forts' to protect. I flew with the 100th Fighter Squadron. The name 'Lucky' stuck because of all the tight situations from which I had escaped without a scratch or even a bullet hole in my aircraft.
Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution (1944, Neg. ID No. 99-15470).
The rendezvous was made on time at 25,000 feet. The bombers always came in higher than planned and continued to climb so that they reached the target well over 30,000 feet (the higher, the safer from ground fire). The other squadrons of the 332nd began their close cover at 27,000 feet. We were around 29,000 feet when bogeys (enemy aircraft) were spotted above us.
We were flying a loose combat formation, 200 feet apart and zig-zagging. The flight leader commanded 'hard right turn and punch tanks' (drop external fuel tanks) when Number Four called that he could not get one of his two tanks off. He was never seen again. At this time, I saw a formation of Messerschmitt Bf 109s straight ahead, but slightly lower; I closed to about 200 feet and started to fire. Smoke began to pour out of the 109 and the aircraft exploded. I was going so fast I was sure I would hit some of the debris from the explosion, but luckily I didn't.
As I was dodging pieces of aircraft, I saw another 109 to my right, all alone on a heading 90 degrees to mine, but at the same altitude. I turned onto his tail and closed to about 200 feet while firing. His aircraft started to smoke and almost stopped. My closure was so fast I began to overtake him. When I overran him, I looked down to see the enemy pilot emerge from his burning aircraft. I remember seeing his blonde hair as he bailed out at approximately 8,000 feet.
By this time I was alone and looking for my flight mates when I spotted the third 109 flying very low, about 1,000 feet off the ground. I dove to the right behind him and opened fire. As I scored hits, he apparently thought he had enough altitude to use a 'split-S' maneuver to evade me (a 'split-S' is a one-half loop going down; the aircraft is rolled upside down and pulled straight through until it is right side up -not recommended below 3,000 feet).
We were approximately 1,000 feet above the ground and, as I did a diving turn, I saw the 109 go straight into the ground. During the return flight, it took a while to realize how much had happened in that brief span of time (4-6 minutes maximum). Everything went the same as in training except for the real bullets. Real Bullets!!! Until then the danger of the mission had never occurred to me."