It was a mission late in the war. Lieutenant Robert Anspach was flying cover in his P-47 Thunderbolt for a group of B-26 Marauders near the Messerschmitt factory airfield at Lechfeld, Germany. From out of nowhere an enemy airplane rocketed past, blasting off a few rounds. It looked like nothing they’d seen before. Ever.
“Wow,” thought Anspach.
“Would you look at him,” one pilot exclaimed over the radio.
“Let’s go get him,” another said.
By that time, he was gone. That’s how Anspach’s introduction to the Me 262 went.
Same time, same war, same theater: Lieutenant Robert Strobell, another P-47 driver, was ordered by this flamboyant flying colonel—white scarf, shiny brown leather jacket, a real Steve Canyon type—to fly a damaged B-17 with him from France to England. The trip seemed somewhat harrowing, but they managed to walk away from the landing. At any count, he was unimpressed by the colonel, thinking he was arrogant.
And that’s how Strobell’s introduction to Colonel Harold Watson went.
Something must have impressed Watson with Strobell, though. The next time Strobell saw him, scarf still wrapped around his neck, he barged importantly into his office and tossed papers on Strobell’s desk. “This is all we know about the Me 262. I want you to draw field gear and go to Lechfeld, Germany. I want you to train pilots to fly it and crew chiefs to maintain it.” He’d already arranged for German mechanics and test pilots to help out. Watson spun around and left.
Hey, wait a minute, Strobell thought. The next day he was in a C-47 flying to Lechfeld.
Germany, Great Britain, and, to a lesser extent, the United States, separately built jet engine prototypes in the late 1930s; the jet age dawned on August 27, 1939, when the little plywood-and-aluminum Heinkel He 178, with a powerful turbine engine designed by Hans von Ohain, rolled into position on the company runway. At 6 am von Ohain said a prayer for pilot Erich Warsitz, and the jet took off and flew for just five minutes with mad speed—and no torque from a piston engine. Yet Von Ohain’s excitement was dampened by the news broadcast over loudspeakers that Poland had invaded Germany. Within the week, Germany invaded Poland and started World War II.
Before the war turned against Germany, Messerschmitt designed a twin-engine fighter around larger, more powerful jet engines built by the Junkers company. The result, the Me 262, outran Allied fighters and turned bomber formations into mincemeat. Ready to eradicate Allied bombers by November 1943 on Hitler’s say-so, he instead demanded they be converted to bombers for blitzkrieg assaults. By the time his generals convinced him that they were better used protecting the homeland, the Russians stood weeks away from Berlin.
It was said that Col. Watson was Milt Caniff’s model for comic book hero Steve Canyon, and Watson did nothing to discourage the talk. Watson, an engineer and director of maintenance for the 9th Air Force Service Command, had just been placed in charge of Operation Lusty, an acronym for Luftwaffe Secret Technology. Before the war, the U.S. didn’t have much hard information on enemy aircraft, but clearly Theirs were better than Ours.
The primary Japanese fighter, the Mitsubishi Zero, flew faster, higher, and could turn circles inside contemporary Allied fighters such as the Grumman F4F Wildcat, the Curtis P-40 Warhawk, and the Hawker Hurricane. The same held true for Germany’s Messerschmitt Me 109. As the war ground on, the Allies captured aircraft and wrung them out and from them designed better fighters such as the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and the North American P-51, which could fly higher and faster, and were more heavily armed and armored than the Zero and Me 109.
Yet, while the Allies pounded Germany into submission, Nazi engineers kept cranking out superior technology. Only lack of fuel, cut by constant, costly bombing of Romanian oil fields, held them on the ground. The War Department opened the Air Technological Intelligence office, which, under Operation Lusty, issued “black lists” of enemy equipment that it wanted to study. The lists were broken into piston-powered aircraft and jets. Watson placed the piston airplane roundup in the capable hands of Captain Fred McIntosh, but the jets generated the most excitement.
On the black list: the Arado Ar234, a hot dog-shaped one-man jet bomber; the tiny plywood He 162 fighter, resembling a gecko with wings, and the Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket plane. Other Nazi weapons took a more desperate edge: a manned version of the V-1 buzz bomb, and a plywood rocket plane, the Bachem Ba 349 Natter, which took off vertically and carried 24 anti-aircraft rockets in its nose.
Of them all, the most important was the Me 262. The airplane that startled Anspach was the pinnacle of the six-year old jet age and the apex of Reich technology. A study in grace and power, it could fly at 540 mph, 100 mph faster than the P-51, yet it was only marginally larger: Its wing measured nearly41 feet and its triangular-section fuselage measured nearly 35 feet—four feet more wingspan, and a fuselage three feet longer than the Mustang. Its boomerang-shape wings swept back not for aerodynamics but to balance the airplane on its nosewheel; the prototype sat on a tailwheel, and, when lit, the engines toasted and stripped the turf. The pod slung beneath each wing held a Junkers Jumo 004B jet engine that generated1,980 pounds of thrust.
In contrast, the experimental, straight-wing Bell P-59, test-flying at Muroc Air Force Base in California, could, even with two 2,000-pound-thrust GE engines, hit 413 mph with a tailwind. Most 262s were clustered around Lechfeld, Germany, near the Messerschmitt factory runway. Prime 262 real estate, Bavaria and southern Austria, but pockets of resistance still popped up in the area.
One week after receiving orders from Watson, and less than three weeks after the German retreat, Strobell landed at that airfield and fell asleep alone on the floor of a shot-up barracks littered with glass, gripping a .45, a string of cans tied across the building’s entrance. The following morning, he took his first close-up look at the Me 262s strewn around the field and concealed among the trees. German troops damaged some on the way out, while Allied troops damaged others on the way in. Some lacked clocks and other instruments; those and other parts had been liberated by people roaming the countryside looking to salvage anything that they could trade for a meal. Some had engines and some didn’t; a few had a five-pound block of TNT strapped beneath the seat—a fine How-do-you-do for any pilot. The black list called for 15 in flying condition. Strobell scraped together 30-odd airplanes, from which to resurrect the 15.
With the war finished in Europe, Anspach and the rest of the 9th Air Force pilots waited around for some assignment, anything, besides wondering whether they’d be sent to the Pacific or had gathered enough points to get discharged through the military’s new system. Soldiers received points for each month in the service, each month overseas, each combat mission flown, wounds, medals, you name it.
Anspach heard that intelligence wanted pilots to test-fly captured machinery, No other details emerged, except that the pilots who got the assignment would get sent home quicker. He and another guy from his unit, Captain Fred Hillis, were interviewed and picked. Same for Lieutenant Roy Brown, who was young and craved action. He liked the secret detail because it sounded like it involved flying time and lots of it. Three other pilots made the cut, and all of them flew to Lechfeld. They became the 54th Air Disarmament Squadron, with Strobell in command, six American pilots and ten crew chiefs, and 28 German mechanics. In terms of conflict, that’s 16 to 28.
Days after their arrival, Watson himself landed and briefed the pilots. They were to fulfill the black list, then fly the rebuilt aircraft to Cherbourg, France, where they would be loaded onto an aircraft carrier and shipped to the states for a further shake-down. Watson had already gathered the Messerschmitt factory mechanics who had worked on the airplanes, and chose six Messerschmitt test pilots to instruct American pilots. Among them: Ludwig “Willi” Hoffman, who, before the war, set several world glider records, and Karl Baur, Messerschmitt’s chief test pilot, who knew more about the 262 than anyone alive, and more than he would confess to any Americans. Accustomed to status and privilege during the Reich, he only spoke when spoken to. The pilots nicknamed him “Pete.”
While Watson lectured, Anspach felt inspired: He was extremely handsome, and later everyone said he looked like Steve Canyon. Watson was a sharp cookie–Anspach thought they were getting a good deal. To Strobell, who knew him better, Watson was self-absorbed, egotistical–but he was also an organizer, a mover and a shaker. In fact, he moved on right after the speech.
By early June the mechanics rolled the first rebuilt 262 onto the runway. Strobell ordered Pete to fly the airplane: If the Germans wanted to sabotage one of their ships, they’d be killing one of their finest test pilots. Strobell told the ground crew to fill the tanks half-full and had Pete strap into the cockpit. Pete did, lifted off, stayed within sight of the field, then set down gently—just as Strobell ordered. When the fighter rolled to a stop, Pete lifted himself out of the cockpit and hopped off the wing, then Strobell slid in his place and taxied back into the hangar, where an all-American crew serviced the machine. Strobell then taxied to the business end of the runway, held the brakes, shoved the throttles forward, and let go.
He made three pilot errors. First, he lifted the nose too soon, which prevented the airplane from taking off. Realizing it, he lowered the nose to build speed, and lifted off with millimeters of runway to spare. The airplane shot through 200, 300, 400 feet. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw slats flapping on the wing. The 262 didn’t have a radio, so Strobell couldn’t call and see if it was a problem—but the airplane rocketed ever faster and the slats stayed closed. Once he had the landing gear up and tucked, he forgot all about it. Glancing out of the cockpit again, Strobell for the first time understood how very fast this jet flew. Like greased lightning. Unadulterated speed. The future.
Sticking close to the field, he checked over the instruments, then turned to line up with the runway. He came in too fast to lower the gear and still keep them bolted on. Even pulling power off didn’t slow it down: The 262 had no spinning prop blades to brake it. So he overshot the runway–pilot error number two. Strobell banked the jet around and flew back up the runway, pulling up on the nose to bleed off enough speed to lower the gear. When he hit the speed and the gear started coming down, the 262 popped up and the altimeter hit 3,000 feet. Pilot error number three. The nose-gear door, a rectangle of aluminum, doubled as an airbrake. With the gear finally down and locked, he made a smooth landing. Not even hot. Right where he wanted to touch down.
Like everyone in the Army Air Force, Strobell wore a collar insignia, a pair of gold wings with a silver prop. He shut down the 262 and jumped off the wing, and Anspach and Holt snapped off the collar insignia’s props. “You don’t need these,” Anspach said.
Later, though, after the exhilaration wore off, Strobell got to thinking, Why didn’t the German pilots tell me about the slats, and how to kill the speed and about the nose pointing up? Either they were trying to kill him, or maybe because the Germans were test pilots, all the stuff that scared the hell out of him would have been routine to them. Once he observed the Germans for a while, he started believing that they were loyal to Messerschmitt, not the Third Reich. In fact, only one was a former soldier. He showed up several days late in full Luftwaffe uniform and driving a red sports car with his girlfriend by his side. Disgusted, Strobell told him to leave. The others took pride in their airplane and their craftsmanship; they were elated, that, amidst war’s destruction, death and hunger, they built a transcendent machine of form and speed, and the technology that they had helped develop might live on.
Gradually relations eased between the Americans and Germans. They revived more jets; the Americans paid them and supplied their families with K-rations. One American, Eugene Freiburger, occasionally went deer hunting and shot Rehbucks, tiny deer indigenous to Bavaria, and handed over part of his kill to the families.
Out of the 30-plus 262s, the mechanics could only bolt together10 in airworthy condition. As they pushed all 10 onto the flightline, swastikas and crosses spray-painted over with an American star insignia, the American pilots started getting checked out in them. They familiarized themselves with the cockpit layout, the German instruments, and Strobell told them about the 262’s flight characteristics: No torque from spinning props, no slowing down when the power was pulled back, and speed in massive quantities. They practiced firing up the Jumos on a damaged 262 that a mechanic chained to the ground. Then each in turn strapped into-seat, Me 262B with Baur, flew a quick lap of the field, and landed. Each time, someone would be there to break the prop blades off his collar insignia. When Watson flew in for a progress report, he saw the defaced insignia and didn’t disapprove. He was said to be pretty proud of them for doing it, in fact, but he spent too much time with the brass to be out of uniform.
They broke down quickly; Watson ordered his team to collect enough spare parts for the jets. The Jumos ran about three hours before they needed to be rebuilt, so the German mechanics took them to a barn where they’d concealed a few new engines. Once they loaded them and enough spares to keep them running in the trucks, and before they pulled out, Watson also ordered Strobell to round up their tools. The Germans used metric tools while the U.S. used Standard, measured in inches and fractions thereof. Their tools were about all the Messerschmitt employees had left after six years of war. In America we have the capability to fabricate anything, Strobell thought. But these tools are their livelihood. No way am I going to take a man’s livelihood away. When the trucks pulled off for the trip to Cherbourg, France, their destination, he left the tools behind.
The pilots followed on June 10. For the first leg of the trip they flew to Melun, France, 365 miles away. None of the Americans had flown more than 30 minutes in the 262, and none logged solo time except Strobell. After Brown took off he thought the airplane was easy—a pleasure, even—to fly: the controls were responsive, there were no vibrations, and compared with a piston-engine fighter, it whispered. It also flew much faster than the fastest airplane he’d ever flown; he shuffled through his navigation charts one right after the other. Watson had a rougher time: burning too much fuel, he made a forced landing at St. Dizier to load up on gas. Before he could take off again, a crew chopped down trees at the end of the runway.
Once the pilots all gathered at Melun, they waited. The days dragged past, then Strobell learned that Watson wanted to demonstrate the 262 for General Carl Spaatz, chief of the Army Air Force in Europe. When the General finally made it, the men all wore new shoulder patches sewn on their uniforms: Donald Duck circling the globe on a jet engine, with “Watson’s Whizzers” in print. Anspach came up with the name.
Strobell, Holt and Hillis demonstrated the machine with three or four fast passes plus some mild maneuvers—but at the end Strobell just had to perform a vertical barrel roll. “Hal,” Spaatz said to Watson, “that’s a wicked aeroplane. Wicked. WICKED! I’m sure glad they [Germany] screwed up the tactical use…”
It began unraveling on the trip’s final leg, Melun to Cherbourg. The 262s carried no navigational instrument, so when Anspach encountered overcast near Cherbourg he ascended, then descended where he thought the airport should be. It wasn’t there; instead, he skimmed over the English Channel. The jet was on fumes when he spotted an island ahead with a grass landing strip—the Isle of Jersey. That’s where he pointed the nose, and the sight of a German jet touching down sent the troops on full alert. Who are you? they demanded to know while Anspach crawled out of the cockpit. Where did you come from? Anspach explained. While refueling, a soldier told him the jet’s main gear barely cleared the church steeple.
Of the 10 Me 262s that the mechanics pieced back together, Colonel Watson took a shine to one with a long-bore 50-mm cannon protruding from the nose. At Melun, when the pilots painted names of wives and girlfriends below the cockpit, he christened it Happy Hunter II after his son Hunter Watson. Strobell chose the most experienced pilot to fly it, German Willi Hoffman. Halfway to Cherbourg a turbine failed and the jet shuddered violently and the jet plunged. Hoffman shut down the other engine, pulled the nose back, unbuckled the seatbelt and popped opened the canopy—simultaneously—then rolled the jet on its back and it bucked him out. They found him near the smoking hole, alive, but a bloody mess. Brass suspected that Hoffman deliberately crashed the jet, and Strobell heard he was to be court-martialed for assigning a German to fly it, a citizen of an enemy country.
But when they examined the wreckage, they found the engine had shed turbine blades. Still, the whole incident left a bad taste in Strobell’s mouth, in no small part by Watson’s refusal to stick up for him.
To retrieve some gear, Strobell had to fly to Manheim, Germany. The only available airplane was a P-47 classified “war weary.” Moments after he took off the Thunderbolt exploded, blowing Strobell high enough for his parachute to open. He spent 45 days in the hospital recovering from burns, and all his records from Lechfeld, plus some 20 rolls of film, were torched in the crash.
The other Luftwaffe aircraft landed in Cherbourg and had a coat of preservative applied against the sea salt, then were loaded by crane aboard the carrier HMS Reaper. After crossing the ocean, the airplanes were taken to Newark, New Jersey, then flown when possible, and trucked when not, to U.S. test facilities. Anspach and Holt ferried some, and during one landing Holt landed in Pittsburgh with brakes that failed. He could see a cornfield on the other end of the runway and he figured he’d run into it and that would stop him, but he didn’t count on the 30-foot drop-off just out of sight. The 262 rolled off and smacked the ground flat, snapping the airplane in half just behind the cockpit. He couldn’t remember scrambling out, but he recalled seeing the 262 burning.
When Strobell made it back to the States, he was assigned to Freeman Field to compile an Me 262 checklist for American pilots. In the months that followed, ATI and Watson set out to wring secrets from the Me 262. The swept wings, a solution to a practical problem of getting the jet to sit on its nosewheel, turned into an elegant solution for aircraft flying at near-supersonic speeds: Air piles up against a straight wing, but it slides off the swept one. That was one problem slowing down the Bell P-59, America’s first jet fighter. The Bell also used an inferior engine; the German Jumo offered slicker performance. All engineers needed to do was copy it. Pilots flew the fighters at airshows to illustrate the US military’s need for jet fighters. Ignorant of history, though, only two of the ten survived.
As for the American men who rebuilt and flew them, with the point system in effect most scraped together enough for a discharge. And the original crew of 54th ADS, the Air Force’s first jet fighter squadron—Watson’s Whizzers—quietly faded away.