Review of 1st Lt. L.C. Beck, Jr.’s, “Fighter Pilot”

tags: book review, LC Beck Jr, Fighter Pilot

Robert Huddleston was a combat pilot in the European air war of World War II.

Fighter Pilot was first published in 1946 by Wrtzel Publishing. It was reprinted in 2013 by Literary Licensing, LLC.

June 6, 1944 was D-Day for the long awaited allied invasion of continental Europe. Success meant the beginning of the end of Germany's Third Reich; failure would give new hope to a regime of institutionalized murder, slavery, and exploitation of conquered lands. Success required full cooperation between American and British invasion, sea, and air forces.

The first demand of support for air was to assure that no enemy aircraft attacked the invasion forces. The German Luftwaffe was notably absent. Air support was also to prevent the Germans from bringing-up reserve forces to bolster their defences. This involved air attacks on rail and road traffic and especially crucial, destroying bridges that would slow reinforcements to the battle.

The U.S. Strategic Bombing Command of the Eighth Air Force, applying the self-serving dogma preached by Army Air Force leaders Generals Harold Arnold, Carl Spaatz and others, balked at assigning heavy bombers to such an assignment. They argued that such an effort would detract from the bombing German of population centers “to destroy the will and ability of the Germans to continue the conflict.”1 Their position prevailed.

With the American heavy bombers unavailable, it was left to the U.S. Ninth (Tactical) Air Force based in England to provide needed air support for the invasion. Medium bombers attacked the rail lines, marshaling yards and tunnels while fighter-bombers attacked bridges and vehicles headed towards Normandy.

Bridges, extremely difficult to destroy and routinely defended by Luftwaffe fighters, was assigned to squadrons of P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers. Armed with 1,000 pound bombs, they would aim at destroying the bridge supports causing the bridge to collapse. (In a post-war assessment, Walt W. Rostow, a member of the Office of Strategic Services during the war, wrote that the bomber command determined “that 1,200 tons [of bombs] per bridge were necessary.” On May 7, 1944, experimental attacks were carried out by “P-47 fighter-bombers each carrying two 1,000-pound bombs.” In a statistical report, “three bridges were badly damaged, and a fourth was dropped into the Seine by six P-47s.”)

1st Lieutenant L.C. Beck, a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot with the 406th Fighter Group, led a flight on 29 June as top cover for a flight of P-47s bombing a bridge when a flight of German FW-190 fighters attacked Beck's flight. With his engine damaged, Lt. Beck was forced to crash-land. He escaped serious injuries and, with amazing good fortunate, found himself in the company of French resistance fighters. They rushed him to a nearby farmhouse and later to Anet, a “sleepy little town.”

Holed-up in a small room on the third floor of a cafe while awaiting French resistance fighters to smuggle him out of German -held territory, Beck decided to write his autobiography—on the back of old cafe minus! When the time came to move on to Paris as the first stop to freedom, he placed his manuscript in a box with his parents address and instructed his French host, Paulette, to mail it when victory was achieved. His parents received the package on January 6, 1946.

What happened to Lt. Beck from then on came from others who survived the war. Lt. Beck departed Anet on July 17, eighteen days since crash landing. He understood that he would be taken to an airstrip where an American aircraft would take him to England as had been accomplished with other Allied escapees. It was not to happen. Instead, Beck was escorted to Paris: “Lieutenant Beck and several other flyers [were taken] to the Pigalle section of Paris and left at the Piccadilly Hotel,” reported a survivor. “The same afternoon, a German Luftwaffe officer, in disguise represented himself to the aviators as a French resistance chief.” Following three days where the Germans sought to gain information, “They were given quite a tour of Paris, before being driven directly to Gestapo headquarters” and incarcerated in Fresnes Prison “as “political prisoners.”

Prior to D-day, the Germans incarcerated downed airmen in Luftwaffe stalags where POWs received decent treatment with their status reported to Allied authorities and hence to the families. Following D-Day, things changed: Hitler labeled airman as terrorflieger (terror flyers) who deserved to be lynched. Allied airmen seeking to escape with aid from the French were considered “political prisoners.”

Packed into boxcars in lots of seventy, several French and two American airmen managed to pry open the floor of a boxcar and escaped before the train left Paris. The German response was to order the prisoners to remove all clothes. And if any did attempt to escape, grenades would be thrown into the boxcars.

After five days and nights naked, without water and but little food, they finally reached their destination, the Buchenwald concentration camp.. Lt. Levitt C. Beck, Jr, known to family and close friends as “L.C.” and to his 406th colleagues as “Beck,” would not survive his incarceration in Buchenwald. A young Belgian who attempted to aid Beck wrote to his parents that their son had died “on the night of Sunday 29 and Monday 30, October, 1944. He suffered of a purulent pleurisy, which he caught during his stay in the camp.”

While doing research in the Library of Congress, I discovered Fighter Pilot (1946). I was drawn to the book on reading that Beck had flown the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter with the 406th Fighter Group while I had flown the same aircraft with the 404th FG. My interest in the fate of Beck led to one of his 406th colleagues, Frank Lewis. Lewis, a retired Air Force Lt. Col., had done considerable research, not only on Beck, but all American airmen incarcerated in Buchenwald, a number he set at 168. He then learned that official reports failed to mention American airmen incarcerated in Buchenwald. The “oversight” convinced him that American authorities preferred that the atrocity remain classified. Why? The Cold War was on and the Germans were now on our side. Officials didn’t want to remind public of the Germans’ inhumane treatment of American “political prisoners” in one of Germany's most notorious concentration camps.

Americans in Buchenwald had become America's forgotten heroes.

1The strategic air campaign was a near-total failure. The “will” of the German people never influenced the course of the war and the carpet bombings of cities had but little impact on German's military resources. What it did achieve was the death and maiming of thousands of non-combatants including the aged, women and children.

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