|I first met John
Rutherford in Colorado Springs in June 1993 at a reunion of the P-47
Thunderbolt Pilots Association. John was president of the Association
that year, and in our business meeting we had more than 800 former P-47
pilots in attendance. Although we did not know it at the time, there
would never again be a gathering of that many former Thunderbolt pilots
under one roof.
John Rutherford had enlisted in the Army Air Corps shortly after his
18th birthday. By the middle of his 19th year he would receive his
pilot wings and his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. After transition
training in the P-47 he was sent to England and was assigned to the
373rd Fighter Group in the 9th Air Force. The following story, in his
own words, describes one of his memorable missions.
A DEFINING MOMENT – DECEMBER 15, 1944
by John Rutherford"On December 15, 1944 I was scheduled for the afternoon mission. The morning mission was to attack a German artillery outfit that was situated in the small town of Jackerath, a few miles west of Dusseldorf. The afternoon mission was to hit the same battery and try to wipe out the headquarters as well. Some spies had approximately located the farm house being used as the headquarters and it was described to us. The day before the mission I received a letter from Bobby Grant saying his 78th Infantry Division was forward of our base and was temporarily off the front lines. He asked me to come and see him. I hadn't seen Bobby since he was drafted into the Army in June, 1942. Bobby was a second cousin who lived with us for a few years before he was drafted. His mother died young and his father had no place for Bobby, so he lived with us. I arranged for a driver and a jeep to take me up to the 78th on December 15, but the motor pool said it could only be in the afternoon. The pilots in my squadron were not allowed to drive any kind of vehicle because we had gotten into too many accidents when we first arrived in France. I often thought about the irony that driving was too dangerous but every time we flew we put our lives in great jeopardy.
"I asked Captain Sam Marshall, the Operations Officer, to take my name off the afternoon mission and to schedule me for the morning flight. He agreed and put me in the Tail End Charlie position; that is, the last plane in the squadron of twelve P-47s. This was the least desirable spot to be in because on a dive bombing run there was no airplane behind you. When we made a bomb run we dove toward the target at about 300 miles per hour and fired our eight .50 caliber wing-mounted machine guns. The strafing did a lot of damage to the German vehicles and the artillery itself, but it also kept the flak gunners in their fox-holes so they could not shoot at us on the way in. As we pulled up after dropping the two 500 pound bombs we were vulnerable because the gunners came out of their holes to shoot at the departing plane. If there was another P-47 right behind you, he would keep the gunners in their holes as you flew out of range. But Tail End Charlie has no protection after his bombs were dropped.
"At about 11:00 am the squadron attacked the artillery that we could see in the center of the small town of Jackerath. When I, as last man, made my run there was considerable smoke and fire in the town and I aimed for the edge of the area where I saw wagons and trucks parked. As I pulled off the target at an altitude of about 3,500 feet I made a steep climbing turn to the left so I could see where my bombs struck. The best way to confuse the German flak gunners was to change speed, direction and altitude. Suddenly, there was a terrific explosion as my plane was hit by 88 mm. flak. The Germans had fired four guns simultaneously at me and cut the fuses for my estimated altitude. Their guess was good because my plane was bracketed by the four explosions. The cockpit was immediately filled with thick black smoke so I could barely see the instrument panel. We always wore oxygen masks so I immediately switched to pure oxygen to get away from the smoke, but the oxygen tube to my mask must have been cut by the shrapnel flying through the cockpit because I was still choking. The only instrument I could see was the altimeter and it was steady at 5,000 feet. I could feel that the plane had slowed down and would spin in if I didn't pick up airspeed. If it started to spin I would not be able to get out. I called the Squadron leader, Captain Richard Gibian, and said I had been hit. He replied, ‘Roger, Yellow Four I see you. You are trailing a lot of black smoke. Stay on the same course for friendly territory. Bail out after you cross the Roer River.'
"Just then my best friend, Jack Reynolds, who was on the mission with us screamed over the radio, ‘Johnny, bail out, bail out!' I immediately jettisoned the canopy, unhooked my seat belt and shoulder harness, and crawled over the side of the cockpit. I didn't delay to disconnect the oxygen tube or the cables to my earphones and microphone. They were simply torn loose when I left. I dived down toward the wing so as to avoid hitting the tail of the plane. As soon as I was clear of the plane I pulled the ripcord and the parachute opened. I looked around to see the airplane; it was fluttering down in four or five large pieces; two wings, the tail, and the engine with the cockpit still attached. Before I popped my parachute the P-47 exploded. I was in the middle of the conflagration. After the war I met Jack Reynolds and several pilots who were on that mission. They said they had never seen a P-47 blow up like mine did; and I came flying out of the ball of fire. My parachute did not fit well and when the chute opened the chest buckle rode up and struck me in the mouth, badly splitting my lower lip.
"I had never expected to use my parachute; I always thought that if I got hit by enemy fire I could manage to crash land the P-47 and walk away from the wreckage. At age 20 and a ‘hot shot' fighter pilot I believed that I would survive combat. I had already flown 45 missions without getting hit, even through I was fired at on most of the missions. This bravado also was in the face of the squadron losing about five or six pilots in combat each month. We maintained a roster of only 28 pilots in the squadron so we had a casualty loss of about 100 percent every six months or so.
"As I descended in the parachute, the Germans were firing 20 and 30 mm cannon shells at me in the parachute. I didn't think they could hit such a small target, especially since I was swinging back and forth. The pilots on the mission said it looked like the rounds were going right through the canopy of the chute and they thought I was dead because they couldn't see me moving. The P-47s couldn't linger in the area to see me land because the flak being fired at them was too intense. The silence of my descent surprised me. After the noise of getting hit, all the smoke and the explosion, the silence was stunning. In a matter of minutes after hitting the ground, I was captured.
"About six or seven German soldiers stood around me and the first thing they took was my escape kit. This held some emergency food, money, maps, pep pills, a compass, and pictures of me in civilian clothes in case the Underground tried to rescue me. Next they took my pistol and holster. No one said much, they just stared at me. In those days I smoked, so I took out my cigarette case and passed it around. I took the first one and they each had one. Surprisingly, they gave me back the case with a few cigarettes left. As we smoked one of the Germans asked how old I was. When I said, ‘Twenty' they didn't believe me, saying I was only about 16 years old. They asked my rank and I said "Oberleutnant", that is German for First Lieutenant. Again they found that hard to believe. They probably thought the United States was in bad shape if they were sending 16-year olds into combat.
"As I look back on the experience I am always surprised to realize how calm I was. Probably the adrenalin and endomorphs were flowing so strongly that nothing could have bothered me. I didn't realize my lower lip was split open and bleeding until I put that cigarette between my lips and saw the blood on it. The Germans offered no first aid. I was fortunate that they didn't kill me. A few P-47 pilots shot down in the front lines were executed by German soldiers who had suffered many casualties at the hands of the Thunderbolt pilots. But generally, the soldiers obeyed the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of captured pilots. When we reached the town of Jackerath, my captors took me around the outfit showing off their trophy. They were new troops brought in for the Battle of The Bulge that started the next day on December 16 and I was the first American soldier they had seen.
"When the war ended and my POW camp was liberated and I returned home I was sent to Randolph Field, Texas for discharge. By coincidence I found Jack Reynolds there also. He told me that he believed I was killed during my descent in the parachute and had noted the area where I had been shot down. When that part of Germany had been captured he went there to look for my temporary grave. For the rest of the war he wrote regularly to my mother encouraging her that I had survived.
"On December 17, 1944 my parents received a telegram reporting that I was missing in action. On December 20 they received another telegram stating that Bobby Grant, my cousin who lived with us, had been killed in action in the Battle of The Bulge on December 17. Late in March, 1945, the War Department notified my folks that I was a prisoner of war somewhere in Germany. All the time I was in the POW camp I kept wondering if Bobby had seen my P-47 go down on December 15. We would have had a lot to talk about, but it was not to be.
"About 25 years after the war I received a phone call from Richard Gibian. I had not been in touch with him since our last conversation on the radio that day. He asked if I was the John Rutherford that flew P-47s during WWII. After I said yes he told me his name and asked if I remembered him. Immediately I responded, "You are the S.O.B that nearly got me killed!" We both chuckled at the recollection. Jack Reynolds, Richard Gibian and I get together every May at the annual reunion of the P-47 pilots and they still kid Richard about me disobeying his orders. Gibian claims he was flying above me and couldn't see the extent of the damage to my plane, but Jack was under me and saw flames coming out of the turbo supercharger. He remembered a training film that said if you see flames coming out of the turbo the P-47 will explode within 30 seconds. The film was right."
When the war was over, John Rutherford enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania as a physics major. He wanted to become a solid state physicist, so he continued on at Penn to get his masters and doctorate degrees. He then went to work for Kearfott Guidance & Navigation Corporation, dealing with inertial navigational systems. He spent his entire working career with Kearfott, retiring at age 73. John and his wife continue to live in New Jersey. (Note: This information has probably changed and we would appreciate an update from anyone who knows.)
John and Sally Rutherford, National Air & Space Museum, July 11, 2002