Capt. Robert J. Goebel - P-51 Mustang Ace
31st Fighter Group, Twelfth Air Force
By Stephen Sherman, March, 2000. Updated June 28, 2011.
After 40 missions over Italy and southern Europe, Bob Goebel might have been getting a little complacent. The 31st Fighter Group was taking some B-24s over Budapest on the 2nd of July, 1944 when Lt. Goebel left more than 50 gallons of fuel in his Mustang's fuselage tank. Maybe this would let him hang around the target area for a few more minutes.
The D-model P-51 included an extra 85-gallon fuel tank in the fuselage, just aft of the cockpit.
This extra fuel extended even further the Mustang's range. But additional weight in that location threw off the plane's handling characteristics, especially in a tight turn. So standard procedure was to use the fuselage tanks first, even before the wing-mounted drop tanks, run the fuselage tanks down to about 30 gallons, and then switch to the external tanks. This way the pilot was always ready for combat; he could jettison the external tanks instantly, and be ready for anything.
But with 40 missions and three kills to his credit, Goebel was a little cocky; he didn't empty his fuselage tanks. In his mind, he "glossed over the aerodynamic effect. That was for the new guys to worry about." As he approached the rendezvous point with the bombers, the sky was brilliant blue with just a few wisps of cirrus. After 30 minutes, the bombers arrived and began to drops their loads. The clouds began to thicken up.
Suddenly there was instant pandemonium as ten Bf-109's appeared! The sky was filled with radio chatter and airplanes going in all directions. Goebel spotted a 109 on the tail of another Mustang, firing away. He went after the German as fast as possible and opened up at extreme range, just hoping to scare the 109 off its prey. A few shots hit the German's left wing, and the pilot broke off and turned sharply, now trying to get behind Goebel. He tried to match the hard turn, but his sluggish P-51 just kept falling off the sharp turns. As it developed into a turning duel, Goebel could see the 109 streaking coolant. He couldn't tell whether the German would get behind him and shoot him down before the 190's engine overheated. One more turn, then Geobel's Mustang fell out again, and when he recovered the German was gone.
Overwhelmed with relief and still pounding from adrenaline, Goebel headed for the nearest cloud bank to burn off the excess fuel in his fuselage tank. In the murky whiteness, his instrument flying wasn't too precise, but he burnt off the fuel that he needed to get rid of, emerged from the clouds (alone), and made it back to his base at San Severo in one piece. When the squadron intelligence offer heard Goebel's description of the mission, he said, "If you hit him and saw glycol, why not claim a probable?" Goebel couldn't resist the offer - he had almost gotten hammered and still he got to make a claim. He swore he'd never leave his fuselage tank full again.
TrainingThe Racine, Wisconsin native had learned fast. He joined the Army Air Corps a few months after Pearl Harbor, completed all his training in Texas: Pre-flight at San Antonio, Primary at Corsicana, Basic at Greenville, and Advanced (single-engine) at McAllen. At Moore Field, in McAllen he learned instrument flying in the North American AT-6, following the oft-repeated chant of the instructor, "needle, ball, and airspeed." He also learned gunnery, or least he learned how to put a few rounds into the towed target sleeve. While at McAllen, he also got a chance to fly ten hours in a Curtis P-40 Warhawk, a totally different beast from the AT-6. By June, 1943 he had earned his pilot's wings and his 2nd Lieutenant's commission. The single-engine (fighter) pilots tended to look down at those with multi-engine assignments. In Mustang Ace: Memoirs of a P-51 Pilot, he recalls haughtily ending one exchange with "If Wilbur and Orville had meant for an airplane to have more than one engine, they would have built it that way." He was excited at the prospect of his next duty, which was going to be an overseas assignment.
PanamaBut instead of Europe or the Pacific, he went to Panama, and soon found himself on a base near the Colombian border, flying P-39s.
The P-39 was definitely a different airplane, armed with a 37mm cannon firing through the propeller hub, two .50 calibre machine guns on the cowling, and four .30 calibers on the wings. All these had different muzzle velocities, so making a deflection shot was a little problematic. Also the P-39 featured tricycle landing gear (different, but good), a door that swung open like a car door (different and 'un-airplane-like', so therefore bad), an engine mounted behind the cockpit (different, and allegedly bad), and no turbocharger (different, and very, very bad - it couldn't operate at high altitudes).
One time he had to make an emergency landing at an even more remote jungle airstrip, run by a US Army Captain who had 'gone native', a sort of latter-day Captain Kurtz. He was an older man, about 40, wore a wrinkled and sweat-stained uniform, looked two feet over Goebel's head when he spoke to him, and was always accompanied by two Indians - the local chief and his wife. The whole scene made Goebel uneasy and he was relieved to be on his way the next day. He also had his first brushes with death in Panama: two pilots killed in training accidents, and a third through the indifference of his CO. He left Panama in December, 1943 thinking that perhaps it made all the Captains crazy. His group embarked in a Liberty ship, converted to a troop transport, and 21 cramped days later arrived in Oran, Algeria.
Here he began to adjust to life in NATOUSA (North African Theatre of Operations - U.S. Army), starting with cold, uncomfortable tents and a lack of running water. The PX had a few things to offer, including such long-gone items as: "mirror, trench" and "nib, pen" or "pen, fountain" or "pencil, styptic." Every eight weeks, he could draw a: "brush, shaving" and a "brush, tooth" and a "brush, hands," or perhaps a "book, note" or some "cards, playing." His first base in Algeria looked like a French Foreign Legion outpost; as a matter of fact, it had been a French Foreign Legion outpost. One night he and his tentmates rigged up a homemade heater that drew gasoline through some thin aircraft tubing, and dripped it into pan, where the fumes could be safely burned. Or at least that was the idea. It didn't blow the tent to kingdom-come, but it did start a pretty good fire.
ItalyIn March of 1944, the pilots assigned to the 31st Fighter Group flew in a C-47 to Naples. They soon moved to San Severo and converted to Mustangs; from this base, Goebel flew his 61 combat missions, all in the P-51. About two-thirds of Mustang Ace ... covers his San Severo-based experiences, from April through September of 1944. A few highlights are summarized here:
First mission - April 16, 1944After only 15 hours of fam time in the P-51, Lt. Goebel took part in the 31st's first Mustang operation, an escort to Turnul Severin. Six hours before take-off, the group received the mission orders from higher headquarters. Breakfast was not much, usually creamed chipped beef on toast, "which went by a variety of nicknames, all of them vulgar." (Whatever happened to creamed chipped beef on toast, anyway? We ate it when I was a kid; I actually liked it, but of course I didn't have it every day. - SS) Like everyone else, he smoked a cigarette or two during the briefing. Two hours before take-off, the group operations and intelligence officers briefed the fliers on the mission details, the expected opposition, and the weather forecast. Just like in the movies, they synchronized their watches, "a time hack." Then the pilots rode out to the dispersal area to start up their Mustangs. With the crew chief on his wing, he taxied onto the PSP behind his element leader.
Take-off was a blur. Once airborne, he "stuck to Thorsen like glue." They completed an uneventful escort mission, except for some flak. Goebel was pleased to have completed a four hour mission over "Fortress Europa," stayed with his leader, and come back in one piece.
First victory - May 29After twenty missions as a wingman or an element leader, neither of which gave a pilot many chances to shoot, Lt. Goebel moved up to Flight Leader. (Flight assignments rotated; this was not a permanent 'promotion'.) On the 29th of May, he was leading Blue Flight on a mission over Wiener Neustadt, Austria. As soon as they neared the area, they could see tiny dots - the Luftwaffe coming up to challenge. Goebel dropped his tanks, switched on his guns, set the fuel-air mixture to auto-rich, and gained altitude.
There was no feinting or maneuvering; both groups of fighters went right at each other, resulting in an intermingling, attacking, evading, melee. He spotted a couple of Bf-109s crossing about 800 yards in front of him. He wrenched his Mustang into a violent turn and caught up with the German wingman, who had lagged a little bit behind his leader. At what Goebel estimated to be 350 yards, he opened up, trying a 30 degree deflection shot. The Messerschmidt's canopy came off, followed by the pilot. Goebel couldn't see the pilot's chute; the German must have waited to pop it at a low altitude. Goebel admitted to contributing to the disgraceful babble on the radio in his excitement, but soon calmed down. The Group escorted the bombers back home.
Get in Close with lots of FirepowerIn the middle of July, the 31st Fighter Group replaced its P-51B's with the new D-models, which had a bubble canopy for improved visibility and better weaponry. The B-model had a very thin wing, which only accommodated four .50 caliber machine guns; the guns even had to be set at an angle to fit, which caused frequent gun jams. The D-model's thicker wing allowed six fifties, mounted upright, thus minimizing jams. On July 20, the Group flew an uneventful escort mission over Friedrichshafen. On the way home Goebel spotted a Bf-109 "stooging blithely along." He slipped into the six o'clock low position behind the German, and pushed the trigger. Nothing. He had inadvertently set it to "Gun Camera Only." He switched his guns back on, and looked up, "now the 109 filled the whole windscreen." He opened up with his six fifties and scored solidly. When he looked back, not only was the pilot slumped in his seat, but the aircraft had huge gaping holes in it. The left stabilizer was almost completely shot away. The engine was in flames.
Continuing home, Goebel reflected on his accidental discovery of getting close, really close, so that he almost overran his target. That night when they reviewed the group's gun camera footage, Goebel's was "pretty spectacular, except at the end when the [German's] glycol and oil began to coat the camera lens." This was his fifth victory; he was an ace, but in retrospect, he didn't know how he had scored his first four kills, blasting away from long range as he had been doing.
The JokersOne of the pilots, Shelton, was a real practical joker. One day, driving a jeep back from town, he passed a sleeping farmer in horse-drawn cart. Stopping, he quietly grasped the horse's bridle, and without waking the farmer, turned the horse back the other direction. "That must have been one surprised farmer when he woke up back where he started from. He probably beat the hell out of the horse."
One of the newly arrived officers, Ski, was the assistant intelligence officer, a nice enough fellow, but he rubbed Goebel the wrong way. On another day, a flier nicknamed 'George' was in the operations hut with Ski and a lot of other officers. George called Ski on the telephone and identified himself as "Major So-and-so" from Wing Headquarters, demanding to know if Ski had received a warning about an equally fictitious new German dive bomber
"Yes sir, I brought that up just this morning at a pilots' meeting. Yes, sir, we're taking that report very seriously here at the 308th," as he rummaged feverishly in his papers looking for the non-existent memo. He slowly became aware that George's lips were moving in sync with the "Major's" voice. Confusion gave way to embarrassment and then to anger. He stalked out of the hut, to hoots of laughter. Geobel concludes "George had not a bit of malice in his make-up, but Ski didn't talk to him for weeks afterward."
September, 1944As the July and August went by, Goebel flew missions a few times a week, and with his seniority and flying skills, flew as flight leader more often, and occasionally led the Squadron, and once led the whole Group. He also flew a Russia shuttle mission in late July He shot down three 109s on August 18, scored his tenth kill on the 22nd, and his eleventh on August 28, 1944.
In early September, the Squadron doctor called him in and handed him a letter. He was being sent home! He allegedly had "not been as eager to fly combat missions as previously. ... and following a prolonged rest in the Zone of the Interior ... will be capable and desirous of another tour." Goebel was stunned, and while at first annoyed, he realized there was no appeal, and he took his enforced return as gracefully as he could. On his return home, he tried making small talk, and realized how he could only talk easily with his squadron mates, how much he had learned and changed, how much older he felt. He was twenty-one.
After the war, Robert Goebel attended the University of Wisconsin, raised nine children. He re-entered the Air Force in 1950, staying with them until 1966. Among his assignments was working on the Gemini launch vehicle for NASA.