The Supreme Allied Commander's flight with the Pioneer Mustang Group on the Fourth of July 1944
For the next three days I flew no missions, letting my fight leaders take over the lead while I cleared up ever present organizational problems of the squadron on the ground. On the afternoon of July 3, I was summoned to Group Headquarters where the Group Commander, Colonel Bickell, informed me that on the Fourth of July, General Elwood R. Quesada would arrive with the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied invasion forces, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. They would fly a personal reconnaissance of the Saint-Lo area in the twin-seated Mustang. The craft mentioned was an old war-weary fighter we had modified by removing the fuselage fuel tank from behind the pilot, putting in its place a second seat. We used this plane occasionally to demonstrate tactics to new pilots, and to give rides to our crew chiefs. Colonel Bickell informed me that he had chosen my squadron to provide the other three aircraft and pilots for protective escort to the two generals during their flight over the area. I was extremely proud to have my squadron chosen to accompany such important personnel, though I must admit, the grave responsibility made me a little nervous.
"If anything happened to that old war-weary Mustang and its important passengers, the Allied troops would be dealt a crippling psychological blow."
I hurried back to set up the mission for the next day with engineering and operations. Together with my engineering officer Lieutenant Bernard Ginsberg, his line chief, Master Sergeant Josiah Belden and my operations officer, Captain Verlin Chambers, I selected my aircraft and crews. I selected the pilots from my senior flight commanders. General Quesada would lead the flight, with a flight commander who had flown over fifty missions on his wing and I would lead the second element with another flight commander on my wing. The three accompanying pilots would have a cumulative experience of some 175 missions and forty aerial victories. Saint-Lo and the front lines were no more than twelve miles from the strip so the mission shouldn't last more than about half-an-hour. There would be other Group aircraft deployed on routine missions nearby who would be briefed to converge on the recon flight if unforeseen enemy aircraft activity developed in the area. The plan was to carry out the flight under the guise of a routine patrol flight and to have nothing said over the RT that would give the slightest indication this was a special flight or that important personnel were involved. If anything happened to that old war-weary Mustang and its important passengers, the Allied troops would be dealt a crippling psychological blow. Needless to say I slept fit-fully that night.
This rare video shows Maj. Gen. Quesada taxiing a 355th FS twin-seated Mustang after completing a reconnaissance of the Saint-Lo area with Gen. Eisenhower in the back seat. The video also captures 354th CO Gorge Bickell introducing the group's leading ace at the time Maj. Don M. Beerbower. Special Pioneer Mustang thanks to PhotosNormandie for allowing use of this video.
The next morning as I looked over the twin-seater, I couldn't help but wonder if General Eisenhower would know that when he climbed into the back seat he would virtually be trapped there until landing when the crew chief could unfasten the closures. It would have been a near impossibility to get out of that rear seat in the air. I myself wouldn't have ridden in the back seat of that monster for all the tea in China. The other planes I had chosen were ready, but Sergeant Belden asked me if I would use a brand-new P-51D that his boys had been working on all night. While I was reluctant to fly any plane but my own, I didn't wish to seem unappreciative of the crew's hard work, and agreed to fly the 51. I had reason later to wish I hadn't.
At briefing my pilots and I were introduced to General Eisenhower who shook each of us by the hand, saying that he understood that he was to be flying with the finest fighter pilots in the ETO. It was deeply gratifying to be so addressed by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces. The general seemed genuinely interested in us and in our opinions. He was a man of authority and determination, whose manner impressed all those who saw him.