Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Thunderbolt - Operation Strangle

The above movie is a 5 part series entitled "Thunderbolt" (1947) (Part 1 of 5) featuring "Operation Strangle"
Director: William Wyler, John Sturges 

Production Company: Carl Krueger Production
Introduced by the famous actor James Stewart

Filmed in 1944 and early 1945 but edited only in 1947, this 45 minutes well preserved and almost forgotten documentary (by the great William Wyler) is about the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter bomber and its use in missions over Italy. In the prologue outstanding shots showing various placements of 1944 late model automatic color movie-cameras on board of the planes.

Operation Strangle was a series of air operations during the Italian Campaign of World War II by the United States Fifteenth and Twelfth Air Forces to interdict German supply routes in Italy north of Rome from March 24, 1943, until the fall of Rome in spring 1944. Its aim was to prevent essential supplies from reaching German forces in central Italy and compel a German withdrawal. The strategic goal of the air assault was to eliminate or greatly reduce the need for a ground assault on the region. Although the initial goal of forcing the enemy to withdraw was not achieved, the air interdiction of Operation Strangle played a major role in the success of the subsequent ground assault Operation Diadem.

Two principal interdiction lines were maintained across the narrow boot of Italy. This meant that no through trains were able to run from the Po Valley to the front line, and that south of Florence substantially all supplies had to be moved by truck. The operation employed medium bombers and fighter bombers over a 150-square-mile area from Rome to Pisa and from Pescara to Rimini.

This post is a tribute to 1st Lt William (Bill) Grubb Smith, P-47 pilot  (October 10, 1923 - August 19, 2011), actually filmed in this movie “Thunderbolt.“  He is mentioned in the second movie at time frame 8:06 as he lifted off the runway with his wingman.  Bill was a neighbor and personal friend living in the Charlotte, NC, area. He had long been considered a walking encyclopedia of WWll Aviation. Bill is also pictured in our EAA 309 B-17 Album.  In 2015 The EAA Historical Museum honored Bill by editing and publishing a video that my friend Ellie and I made into their Timeless Voices found at

Over the years I knew Bill he told us many interesting stories.  My close friend Ellie was very good at accurately recorded these - a few follow:

One favorite was about Jimmy Doolittle - "One day we watched a B-26 bomber coming in to our temporary fighter base on Tunisia.  A few of us pilots were on the flight line in case we got called for a mission. I watched a plane flying in and said to the guy standing next to me; “I’ll bet you five dollars to a roll of doughnuts that’s Jimmy Doolittle flying that plane.” The plane landed and out stepped a little short guy in a regular pilots’ uniform, with no rank to identify him. He was told by the landing officer, "Hey sir, you can't park that plane here, this area is restricted!" "You don't know who I am, do you soldier? “No Sir.” “I'm Col. Doolittle and I'm in a hurry."  When the officer scrambled to salute him, he said, "Ah, don't bother with that military crap, I just need a jeep to take me to headquarters. Get me a jeep and get someone to move this plane!" “Yes sir,” with another shaky salute. The nervous sergeant came over to Bill and the others and said, "You jerks, why didn’t you tell me that was Jimmy Doolittle in that plane?” “Well”, I said, “if you’d been watching you would have known it was Doolittle by the way he flew that bomber in." "How?" "Well, I watched him coming in and I knew it had to be Doolittle; ‘cause he was bringing that heavy bomber in just like a fighter. It’s not an easy plane to fly and nobody but Doolittle could manhandle a B-26 like that and get away with it"  "He was a short little guy, gritty, with an aura of command about him, and he sure knew how to fly that plane."

His fighter group, the 57th, was providing air support for ground troops in the PO valley of Italy in 1944. There were many peach orchards in the area. They received a request for help from the ground commander:  

"We are pinned down by Germans and can't move, can you boys help us?" We'll try, where's the fire coming from?" "Mostly from that church steeple over there." "We could see the church and my wingman and I started strafing it with our 50 caliber machine guns." (The P-47 has four guns in each wing.) "After several passes we sawed that steeple off. After that, the ground fire got so heavy we needed to leave the area.  "I said to my wingman, we've got to get out of here, it’s getting too hot!" and he replied, "My engine's down on power and not running right. I got the pedal to the metal and it just won't go." 

Bill followed his wingman back to base, landed safely and the ailing fighter was given a thorough inspection by the Crew Chief.  The engine checked out okay and finally the air intake for the turbocharger was removed. 

"About a wheelbarrow load of green limbs and peaches came rolling out of that inlet and that was the reason for the power loss." 

The pilot had flown into peach trees and sucked them up and in the process bent all four tips of his large propeller.  Bill added, “In the heat of combat a pilot’s adrenalin is so high he sometimes doesn’t really know how low he’s flying. A major cause of fighter fatalities happen when pilots forget to pull up in time and fly into the ground.”

Bill was also shot down by enemy ground fire and ditched his fighter in the ocean near the Yugoslavian coast.  He said, 

"That ocean was as smooth as glass. I loosened everything but my seatbelt so I could get out fast, then brought my plane down and flared the nose up just before I hit. I got bruised up a little bit but my May West inflated okay and I was picked up pretty soon by a British PT boat. They took me to a larger ship and treated my injuries.