Alex was from San Pedro, California. He was assigned to the 4th Fighter Group, 334th Squadron in February 1943 while they were still flying Spitfires. As they were converting to P-47 Thunderbolts the squadron was off operations for 45 days, so Alex took a short leave and got married, returning on 18 March.
Routine combat followed in the P-47s until Group Commander Don Blakeslee insisted, and was given the opportunity to trade the P-47s for the new long range P-51s. The pilots were delighted with the new aircraft in spite of the fact that it was more vulnerable to damage since the engine was liquid-cooled . The transition was made with most of the pilots having little more than a few hours flight time to familiarize themselves with the P-51s prior to flying them into combat.
On 21 March 1944 the 4th Fighter Group had no scheduled mission, and so initiated a “Rhubarb” to France, led by Colonel Jim Clark. As the 334th Squadron attacked an airfield in the Bordeaux area, Alex and his wingman were attacking a D0-217 which was trying to land, and as they were pulling up, they were bounced by a flight of Fw-190s. Alex suddenly discovered his oil pressure was falling. As he climbed up to 3,000 feet his glycol coolant was streaming out of his exhaust, so immediately bailed out. Faced with immediate action, thoughts raced through his mind.
He later wrote:
“The procedures run through your mind all of the time so you train yourself mentally. You’re like a robot. You just snap the canopy open and you bail out, you don’t think because there is only one option and that is to get out. It’s one. two, three, and out you go. You don’t think; you react. If you start thinking, it’s too late”.
The parachute ride was fast:
“Before I knew it, I was on the ground. I will never forget the tail of the flying underneath me. I had my legs spread and saw the tail of the plane pass right under me. After I landed I hid my chute and started walking. I met a few Frenchmen and showed them a little I.D. card. They thanked me and kept going”.
“Just before dark I went to a woman’s house. She had three kids and she took me in that night. The next morning she gave me civilian clothes, led me to the railroad station, and bought me a ticket. I was in a military zone that the Germans had. I wasn’t in the middle of France, I was on the coast. I found a map of the railroad system and just hopped from one station to the other. No one asked me any questions. I got all the way down to the Pyrenees and then some Frenchman turned me in. It might have been for the reward or for the fact that if the Germans caught anyone helping the Allies it was a very serious crime. Frenchmen are OK, they just fought a lousy war, that’s all”.
He speculated that since he did not feel any hits to his plane as he was approaching the airfield he was probably so low that he hit the top of a tree, damaging his air scoop and the oil-cooler plumbing inside it.
Alex spent the rest of the war as a POW. He had five planes destroyed to his credit and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the Air Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, and the POW Medal.
He retired in California.
We honor you, Alexander Rafalovich.