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The man who saved D-Day

Posted: June 11, 2011 8:44 p.m.
Updated: June 13, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Monday, June 6, marked the 67th anniversary of D-Day. For those who forgot (or never knew), on June 6, 1944, the largest armada of ships, planes, people and equipment ever assembled crossed the English Channel and 150,000 fighting men landed on the beaches and fields of Normandy. Over 7,000 of them died on that day. The invasion of German-held France continued and there were 500,000 Allied soldiers in France within seven days. Despite years of in-depth defensive preparation by the German army, navy and air forces, the landings and breakthroughs led to total victory within the next year.

The day before D-Day, General Dwight D. Eisenhower assured the embarking troops that, “If you see any fighting planes, they will be ours.” How was this possible? Less than six month before, Luftwaffe dominated the skies over Germany. We were losing 10 percent or more of our bombers in daylight raids to demolish the German war machine. At least 2,000 B-17 and B-24 bombers and 700 fighters had been lost with more than 20,000 casualties. So what or who made that sudden difference? There were thousands of historic combatants and contributors to victory, but there was a real man who, I believe, did far more than any one person to make D-Day and eventual victory possible: Tommy Hitchcock.

Tommy was born into a wealthy, horse-loving family in Aiken, about 1900. He was an early expert polo player but at age 17, with political help from such notables as Teddy Roosevelt, he joined the Lafayette Escardille. He became the youngest pilot ever to win his wings. He shot down two German planes. He was later shot down, injured and captured. While being transported to another prison camp, he stole a map from a sleeping guard and leaped off the moving train. He slipped quietly through 100 miles of woods to safety in Switzerland. He was only 19 when WWI ended.

Like his father before him, Tommy was rated a “10 Goal” polo player. He became the most famous player of the ’20s and ’30s. He was, to polo, what Babe Ruth was to baseball and Bobby Jones to golf. Lehman Brothers made him a partner and he married into the Mellon family. F. Scott Fitzgerald loved, envied and used him as a model to create characters in his “Great Gatsby” and “Tender is the Night” novels. Fast cars and planes continued to be his avocation. He did not believe we should get involved in another “European War,” but right after Pearl Harbor, he volunteered for fighter pilot duty. At 41, he was deemed too old for combat, so he wrangled a position as air liaison to his old friend and teacher, John Gilbert Winant, who was now ambassador to Great Britain. His mission was to improve cooperation and coordination in the ego-charged atmosophere of Royal Air Force (RAF) and 8th Air Force bomber commands.

By early ’42, the RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes had pretty well stopped the German Blitz against London. RAF bombers had tried to knock out the German industrial system with precision daylight bombing, but heavy losses forced them to switch to night raids against cities. Gen. “Hap” Arnold and his staff and convinced themselves that their faster, higher, heavily armed bombers could fight their way to and from targets anywhere on the continent. With all those guns and that secret Norden bombsight, they planned to wipe out the German aircraft industry and shoot down all their planes. They didn’t need fighters to do that. They seemed unaware that the Germans had improved their planes, anti-aircraft guns and radar. They could mount a 200- to 400-plane attack on our formations. The Norden bombsight couldn’t see through clouds that hid European targets much of the time. Relatively little damage was being done to German industry and our losses were stunning. The need for a long-range escort fighter was obvious to just about everyone but the 8th Air Force bomber clique.

Tommy Hitchcock held the RAF fighter planes, pilots and tactics in highest esteem. He flew with the RAF often and learned about their new fighter design, the P-51, which was being developed by North American in San Diego. With a new hybrid Rolls Royce Merlin engine, it could fly higher, faster and further than any fighter anywhere. The P-51 became his, and Gil Winant’s, obsession and crusade. They wined, dined, begged and cajoled their military, social and political contacts, including Franklin D. Roosevelt. That pressure, and continued obscene bomber losses finally convinced Gen. Arnold to order 2,200 P-51B Hybrids. Delays continued, so it was late 1943 before the first contingent arrived. On their first escort mission, the P-51s surprised, shot down or scattered the ME-109 defenders. All the bombers came home. In February ’44, the P-51s shot down more German planes than in the previous two years. The crusade continued. Bombers would follow the surivors and shoot up their bases, planes and crews on the ground. The Germans still had plenty of planes, but were running out of fuel and pilots by April ’44.

Unfortunately, that month, Tommy was test-hopping a P-51 due to a control problem involving the long-range fuel tank. He went into a sudden, steep dive from 15,000 feet. He stayed with it a moment too long, but his radio transmissions enabled a quick fix. He died doing what he loved best -- two months short of what became his greatest accomplishment: the successful D-Day invasion with no enemy air opposition and very little opposition for the rest of the war. It is now certain that without the P-51, the D-Day invasion might not have succeeded and the war would have been longer and much more costly. Also quite certain is that Tommy’s valiant efforts got the P-51s in place a good six months faster than expected.

Tommy Hitchcock certainly deserves more honor and recognition than he has received.

(This article was edited to accommodate the print publication space available.)

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