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The Higginbotham Brothers of East Texas
Part II

Fighter Pilot World War II
(P47 Thunderbolts and P51 Mustangs)

by Maurice Higginbotham
(4 vintage photographs courtesy of Maurice Higginbotham)
WWII Lt. Merrion Higgenbotham
Lt. Merrion Higginbotham
Photo Courtesy Maurice Higginbotham

Murphy and Merrion joined the army as volunteers on October 17, 1940. After Boot Camp, Murphy was assigned to Company I, and Merrion to Company C, 23rd. Infantry Regiment, Second (Indianhead) Division, and were stationed at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio. Soon after that, they were sent to Louisiana, during the Louisiana Maneuvers.

Merrion and another young man were chosen to attend Officer's Candidate School at Ft. Benning, Georgia, in April 1942. There, was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in July. He was then sent to Ft. Riley, Kansas and assigned to a medical battalion where he was promoted to First Lieutenant. He didn't like being in a medical battalion, so he applied for a transfer to the Army Air Corps as a flying cadet. He earned his "Wings" February 8th 1944 at Foster Field, Victoria, Texas. He had three more weeks of ground school, and then trained in the P-47 Thunderbolt Fighter, until being sent to England in July 1944 aboard the Luxury Liner Queen Elizabeth, which was converted to use as a troop ship during World War II.

In England, he was stationed at Martlesham Heath, near Ipswitch. He was assigned to the 361st. Squadron, 356th Fighter Group, and 67th Wing of the 8th Air Force on August 21, 1944.

He flew his first combat mission on September 3, 1944, into Belgium and Germany. Serious trouble started when his flight of P-47 Thunderbolts dashed into some clouds in an effort to escape a heavy concentration of flak. When he finally flew clear of these clouds, the other planes in his group had disappeared. He came out over a town, and became the sole target of every anti-aircraft gun on the ground. Somehow, he escaped this tremendous barrage. He was now alone with a dead radio, and a nearly empty gas tank.
Then, he ran into bad weather with only his compass to guide him. He flew back to his base in England with instruments (Blind flying), reaching the airfield just as his engine began to sputter from lack of gasoline. "God was my constant companion and was responsible for my safe return," he said. Just moments before reaching his air base he came out of the clouds into clear weather. The runway just happened to be lined up perfectly, enabling him to land on his first pass. He didn't even have enough gas to circle the field. Just as his wheels touched the runway, he ran completely out of gas. His plane had to be towed the rest of the way with a tractor. "I had just one hole in my right wing, and a lot of dents and scratches from the flak," he said. "I was so tense that I could hardly let go of the plane's controls."

WW II Pilot ready for flight
Merrion ready for a flight
Photo Courtesy Maurice Higginbotham

Merrion was the first pilot to locate where the German's "new" V-2 rocket-bombs were being launched. He and his wingman separated shortly from the rest of the squadron, and one of those rockets came shooting straight up in front of his plane. It was described as a "near collision." He radioed this information to the control tower, and gave them a radio fix on the location, so our bombers could destroy the site.

On his fourth mission, he participated in the huge Air Drop at Arnhem, Holland, shooting up gun positions in advance of the gliders carrying the Airborne Troops.

His fighter group earned a unit citation for this action. The fighter pilots were instructed to try and draw enemy fire at them (and hope they were not accurate,) so they could spot the gun positions hidden in the woods and underbrush, and put them out of action.

On his fifth mission, he was shot down by ground fire near Mons, Belgium. He had to make a "dead stick" crash-landing, wheels up. Many people gathered around his plane and he couldn't understand their language, but he found out the Germans had been driven about 7 miles past that location.

He caught a ride with American M.P.s driving a truckload of German prisoners to a prison camp. He was the only American in the back of the truck and only had his sidearm .45 automatic pistol to guard them with. One of these prisoners was an arrogant S.S. Officer, a doctor, who refused to treat his own men, and even tried to start an uprising, but as Merrion said; "We cooled him off pretty quick." The S. S. Officer had ordered his men to sit on the floor of the truck so that he could have a seat. Merrion made the officer sit on the floor, and let the enlisted men have the seat.

WW II pilot Merrion Higginbotham  between missions
Merrion relaxing between missions
Photo Courtesy Maurice Higginbotham

Finally, after his return to England, he was de-briefed by an intelligence officer. The text below is quoted from the de-briefing:

Dated September 21, 1944. "We had a welcome surprise today. Lt. Higginbotham, who had been reported N.Y.R. (Not yet returned) on the 19th of September, returned to the base. He recounted the following interesting story:

"En route to R/V with the Bombers on the 19th of September, I had trouble with my oxygen system. I notified my flight leader and he dispatched Lt. Schlack to escort me home. I lost him in the haze east of Liege, so I set a 270-degree course for home and let down to 11,000 feet.

At this time, my engine started acting up. (The gas line had been cut by a bullet or flak.) I could only get 20" of mercury with full power on, so I sought a place to set the ship down. Haze and 8/10 clouds between 3,000 and 7,000 feet hindered me from spotting an airfield. I finally let down in a large open field, wheels up.

The plane hadn't stopped skidding before people began crowding around the plane. "I spotted a man with a German blouse and machine pistol heading toward the plane, so I detonated my IFF equipment.

Closer investigation proved these people to be Belgians, and the man whom I suspected of being German turned out to be a member of the local resistance movement. I thought it better not to question him about his belongings. Another man pushed his way through the crowd with a show of authority and took charge. He was a former town treasurer of Charleroi, and a leader in the local Belgian Resistance movement.

With my phrase card I was finally able to get across that I wanted the local American Authorities. He said the nearest town where I could receive aid was Mons, and that he would take me there. En route we stopped at his home, a modern, beautiful mansion, and he insisted on showing me what the word hospitality can mean. I met his family, and also a good portion of his wine cellar. They tried to force on me all the food they had, but I thought better of it, and settled for some Belgian cookies and a few samplings of his wine cellar. His daughter showed a great deal of interest in the contents of the aid box, so I opened it up and gave her all the candy.

P-51 Mustang
A P-51 Mustang flown by Merrion
Photo Courtesy Maurice Higginbotham

Later, he took me to Mons by car to the Civil Affairs Committee. I wanted them to post guards at my plane, but they were short handed, and had to recruit the aid of the local Maquis. I started back with them to the plane, and when we arrived there, we were greeted by the resistance chief of the locality in which the plane was grounded. He was indignant that I should recruit outsiders to guard such a valuable military object as an airplane that was in his territory. To avoid hurt feelings, he was left in charge, and the Maquis from Mons were thanked and told to go back home.

After returning to Mons, I was told that there was no transportation out that night. They fixed me up a place to stay. I was pleased to note the hospitality of even the Belgian brand of bedbugs - they didn't mind sharing the bed with me.

While there, I spoke to a Belgian interpreter who wished to give high praise for the accuracy of our bombing. He had not seen the actual attack, only the results, and could not give the type of planes nor the date of this particular bombing of the marshalling yard at Mons, which was crammed full with six military trains loaded with tanks, trucks and other war impediments. The bombing was done so completely and accurately, that not one piece of equipment in the yard remained intact, yet not a building outside the yard was touched. A feat which certainly must be seen to be believed. That night a lieutenant took me out to see the sights. We ended up in a café drinking wine and beer, and of course, with a few women to converse with. He spoke French and could get along well with them, while I was like a bump on a log, regretting my lack of knowledge of this wonderful language.

The next morning, after first securing two American M.P.s to guard my plane, I hitchhiked to Florennes Airfield in Belgium. Traveling along the roads, I noticed many burned out vehicles, mainly German, attesting to the power of our Air Force. We had just pulled on to the field. I was gaping at the blasted hangars, shattered Jerry planes and numerous bomb craters, when the driver spotted a C-47 fixing to take off. I was able to hitch hike a ride on this plane and came uneventfully back to England.

I. Introduction
II. Merrion Higginbotham, Thunderbolt and Mustang Pilot
III. Murphy Higginbotham, Ranger at Normandy
IV. A German Soldier's Last Letter
V. The Home Front: anecdotal stories, sample letters and photos

July 2001
Copyright Maurice Higginbotham

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