Merrion’s Wartime Memories of World War II.
Merrion G. Higginbotham served in the 361st. Squadron, 356th Fighter Group. He was stationed at Martlesham Heath, England during the war. He flew a total of 33 combat missions.
Parts of the information below were taken from official
Microfilm records kept at the Air Force Historical Research Center
In Alabama. Other parts of the story was told to me after the war.
Merrion flew his first combat mission on September 3, 1944 into Belgium and Germany. Serious trouble started when his flight of P-47 Thunderbolts dashed into some large clouds in an effort to escape a heavy concentration of flak that was bursting all around. When he finally flew clear of this large cloud, the other planes in his group had disappeared. He came out over a town and became the sole target for every anti-aircraft gun on the ground. Somehow, he escaped this tremendous barrage. He was now alone, with a dead radio, apparently damaged by the flak and a nearly empty gas tank, when he ran into bad weather, with only his instruments to guide him. He flew back to his base in England, reaching the airfield just as his engine began to sputter for lack of gasoline. God was looking out for him. Just before reaching the airfield, he came out of the clouds into clear weather. The runway just happened to be lined up perfectly enabling him to land on the first pass. He did not have enough gas to circle the field. Just as his wheels touched the runway, he ran completely out of gasoline and his plane had to be towed the rest of the way with a tractor. He had just one hole in his right wing and a lot of dents and scratches from the flak. On this mission like many others to follow, he said he was so tense when he landed that he could hardly let go of the controls. “God was my constant companion and was responsible for my safe return.”
September 17, 1944 on his fourth combat mission he participated in the Airborne Invasion of Holland, also known as the “Air drop At Arnhem.” His fighter group received a Distinguished Unit Citation for “Extraordinary heroism, determination and esprit de corps in action against the enemy” They were assigned the task of neutralizing enemy gun positions in the Arnhem area of Holland, in a military operation designed to land effectively a large force of airborne troops. The nature of this mission involved concentrated strafing and dive bombing and opposition was anticipated to be severe in view of the vulnerability of aircraft attacking ground defenses. The success of this operation depended on a large extent upon the individual courage and aggressiveness of each participating pilot. They proceeded from the base to the battle area at 2,500 feet altitude. Almost immediately, enemy gun positions opened fire, establishing targets for attack. Displaying the utmost bravery and determination, this unit sought out the enemy and relentlessly bombarded and strafed their gun batteries and emplacements. Skill and courage contributed immeasurably to the success of the military operation. More effective concealment and the almost total discontinuance of tracer ammunition by the enemy had rendered identification difficult and made attack extremely hazardous. Notwithstanding, the 356th Fighter Group ceaselessly assaulted enemy positions with bombs and gun fire, scoring numerous victories. Thirty nine flack positions were silenced or destroyed as a result of the great determination evinced by the pilots of this unit in the ensuing battles. The 356th Fighter Group comported itself with such distinction on the occasions that the lives of many airborne troops were saved and the success of the landing was assured. The unstinted courage, determination, and spirit de corps displayed by the personnel of this unit reflect the highest credit on the 356th Fighter Group and the Armed Forces of the United States.” As everyone knows now, this landing was repulsed by an unexpected large heavy enemy armored force.
Quotes from a report written by an intelligence officer of the squadron, after this operation. “Our pilots can be rightfully proud of the part they played in this enormous invasion. According to our veteran pilots, it was our most hazardous. The pilots were instructed to attract the fire of the enemy A.A. guns in the dropping zone. Having drawn their fire, our men were to mark the spot (assuming of course that the gunners were inaccurate) and immediately go down and destroy the flak battery with their guns. Eight of our ships carried sixteen 250 pound frag. Bombs in the event suitable large emplacements were sighted. To insure that our men did not attack friendly emplacements, they were instructed to fire only when fired upon. Enemy aircraft were not to be considered; only flak positions, which unless knocked out would certainly play havoc with the slow un-maneuverable gliders and transports, were to receive the attention of our pilots.”
“On the 19th of September, 1944 We were enroute to R/V with the bombers, when I had trouble with my oxygen system. I notified my flight leader and he dispatched Lt. Schlack to escort me home. I lost him in the haze east of Liege, so I set a 270 degree course for home and let down to 11,000 feet. At this time, my engine started acting up and I could only get 20" of mercury with full power on, so I sought a place to set the ship down. Haze and 8/10th clouds between 3,000 and 7,000 feet hindered me spotting an airfield and I finally let down into a large open field, wheels up. I was still kicking up dirt and my plane hadn't stopped rolling, when at least 15 people came crowding around. I spotted a man with a German blouse heading toward the plane so I detonated my IFF equipment. He motioned for me to give him my pistol, which I wouldn't do. I pretended that I didn’t understand him. I looked around to see how many of them had weapons and one of them had a German “Burp gun.” I would have shot him before I gave up my pistol.
Closer investigation proved these people to be Belgians and the man whom I suspected of being German turned out to be a member of the local resistance movement. I thought it better not to question him about his belongings. I found out later that he only wanted my pistol for a souvenir. Another man pushed his way through the crowd with a show of authority and took charge. He was a former town treasurer of Charleroi and a leader in the local Belgian resistance movement. By this time, I had fumbled around until I found my phrase card, which had English, French, German and several other languages on it, so by using it I found out that I was in Belgium and that the Germans had already been pushed back past there. We talked and made signs trying to understand each other for about an hour.
With my phrase card, I was finally able to get across that I wanted the local American authorities. He said the nearest town where I could receive aid was Mons, about five miles away, and that he would take me there. En route, we stopped at his home, a modern beautiful mansion and he insisted on showing me what the word hospitality can mean. I met his family and also a good portion of his wine cellar. They tried to force on me all the food they had, but I thought better of it and settled for some Belgian cookies and a few samplings of his wine cellar. His daughter showed a good deal of interest in the contents of the aid box, so I opened it up and gave her all the candy. Later, he took me to Mons by car to the Civil Affairs Committee. I found two American officers and eight enlisted men and three British officers, which was quite a relief to find someone who could speak English. There, I tried to send word back to my outfit that I was ok, but communications are so bad there that it was impossible.
I wanted them to post guards at my plane, but they were short handed and had to recruit the aid of the local Maquis. I started back with them to the plane and when we arrived there, we were greeted by the resistance chief of the locality in which the plane was grounded. He was indignant that I should recruit outsiders to guard such a valuable military object as an airplane that was in his territory. To avoid hard feelings, he was left in charge and the Maquis from Mons were thanked and told to go back home. After returning to Mons, I was told that there was no transportation out that night. They fixed me up a place to stay. I was pleased to note the hospitality of even the Belgian brand of bed bugs -- they didn't mind sharing the bed with me. While there, I spoke to a Belgian interpreter who wished to give high praise for the accuracy of our bombing. He had not seen the actual attack, only the results and could not give the type of planes nor the date of this particular bombing of the marshalling yard at Mons, which was crammed full with six military trains loaded with tanks, trucks and other war impediments. The bombing was done so completely and accurately that not one piece of equipment in the yard remained intact, yet not a building outside the yard was touched! A feat which certainly must be seen to be believed. That night, a lieutenant took me out to see the sights. We ended up in a cafe, drinking wine and beer and of course, with a few women to converse with. He spoke French and could get along well with them, while I was like a bump on a log, regretting my lack of knowledge of this wonderful language. The next morning, after first securing two American M.P.'s to guard my plane, I hitch-hiked to Florennes Airfield in Belgium. Traveling along the roads, I noticed many burned-out vehicles, mainly German, attesting to the power of our Air Forces. We had just pulled onto the field, I was gasping at the blasted hangers, shattered Jerry planes and numerous bomb craters, when the driver spotted a C-47 fixing to take off. I was able to hitch a ride on this plane and came unevently back to England on Wednesday night.