3 March 2000 | MadTom
P-51 Mustangs with swastikas? What the %$#@! Over!
As a former Air Force fighter pilot myself (F-4 Phantoms in the late 1970s/early 1980s), I think the intentions behind this movie were well-meaning, in attempting to portray the brave young American fighter pilots who swept the German Luftwaffe from the skies of Western Europe; however, whenever I think of this movie, I still have one big problem with it that makes me cringe.
The title fighter squadron of this movie is equipped with P-47 Thunderbolts. Everything in this movie that is based on a recognizable historically factual event happened with a fighter unit equipped with P-51 Mustangs. The very same P-51 Mustangs which for this movie were painted up with black crosses and swastikas and made to depict German Messerschmitt Bf-109s.
The unit that had the policy that any member who got married had to transfer out was the 4th Fighter Group, who called themselves "Blakeslee's Bachelors" (after their CO, Col Donald J. M. Blakeslee whose policy it was); the 4th did briefly fly P-47s but spent the vast bulk of their WWII operations flying P-51s.
The movie's squadron commander, Lt Col Ed Hardin (played by Edmond O'Brien), was supposed to be a veteran of Chennault's Flying Tigers in the war in China; the only Flying Tiger veteran who was a squadron commander in Europe was Lt Col James H. Howard of the 356th Fighter Squadron, 354th Fighter Group, which flew P-51s for their entire combat tour. (Howard was also the only fighter pilot in Europe in WWII to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.)
In the movie, Hardin is hit and bails out over German territory; just as German troops arrive to capture him, his buddy (played by Robert Stack) swoops down and strafes them, then lands in a meadow to pick him up. In real life, this happened on two occasions in Europe, both involving P-51s; one occasion was the downing and rescue of Major Pierce W. McKennon, a squadron commander with Blakeslee's Bachelors. (I have doubts as to whether the bigger, heavier P-47 could have taken off again under the same conditions in the real life incidents.)
Last but not least, the P-51 was the only fighter on either side in WWII which had the range to fly from Britain to Berlin, fight a sustained battle and return; the P-47 units could just barely get within sight of Berlin before having to turn back for lack of fuel. It was Blakeslee's Bachelors to whom Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, was referring when he said, "When I first saw P-51s over Berlin, I knew the war was lost!"
I recall reading somewhere years ago that the decision was made to have the P-47s be the good guys in this movie, and have the P-51s portray Bf-109s with the rationale that there were several incidents where P-51s and Bf-109s were mistaken for one another. That's a pretty lame excuse, as the bulk of those incidents involved the older-model P-51Bs with "greenhouse" cockpit canopies similar to those of the Bf-109s, rather than the newer-model P-51Ds with "bubble" canopies used in the movie; further, there was a similar problem with confusing the blunt-nosed air-cooled P-47s and German Focke-Wulf 190s.
This is NOT to take away anything from the contribution the P-47 made to Allied victory in WWII. It made a sufficient stopgap bomber-escort/air superiority fighter until the P-51 came online, and devastated and demoralized the German Army when it shifted to the ground-attack role; General George Patton credited the P-47s supporting his 3rd Army with allowing him to make deep penetrations into enemy territory without the need for flank protection on the ground.
The movie relied heavily on actual combat gun-camera footage and other stock film for its combat scenes anyway, and could have easily done without the P-51s with the black crosses and swastikas. What this movie did was the equivalent of filming the movie TO HELL AND BACK (in which Audie Murphy, the highest decorated soldier of WWII, actually played himself), but having Audie Murphy played instead by Neville Brand (another WWII veteran-turned-actor who was a highly decorated hero in his own right, but an older, larger and homelier man) and then making the real Audie Murphy play a German!