If necessary, a flight surgeon was authorized to give the pilots pep pills to keep them flying. More than 1,000 fighter aircraft would create a wall of protection from treetop level to 30,000 feet. The men on the beaches were to be protected at all costs. The date was June 6, 1944, the Allied invasion of Europe.
Robert "Punchy" Powell strapped into his P-51 Mustang "The West ‘by Gawd’ Virginian" and completed his preflight. Punchy was airborne by 4 a.m. Their orders: "Not one German plane is to get through to the beaches.’’ None did.
Low on fuel and ammo, Punchy returned to his fighter base in England, rearmed and refueled, then took off on his second mission: patrolling a section of the Normandy beachhead at 2,000 feet altitude. His orders: ‘‘If it moves toward the beach, kill it." He did. Then Punchy flew back to rearm and refuel in England.
Airborne for his third mission, Punchy followed his orders: "Destroy trucks, trains, convoys, buses, even motorcycles heading to the beach." He did, until out of fuel and ammo, he returned to base.
Punchy had been in the cockpit for more than 16 hours. He and "The West ‘by Gawd’ Virginian" had fought in the Battle of Normandy and flown into aviation history. He was mentally and physically exhausted; his legs were cramping so severely that he couldn’t move them. The ground crew lifted Punchy out of the Mustang and set him on a wing; his "Longest Day" was finally over.
A native son of West Virginia coal country, Robert Powell was known as a kid you didn’t push around. Spirited enough to duke it out with a star football player, Robert earned the nickname "Punchy." After he won a Golden Gloves championship, the moniker stuck.
Athletic, particularly on the field of dreams, Punchy received a baseball scholarship to the University of West Virginia. After watching him play only three games, the Cincinnati Reds offered him a contract. Pearl Harbor ended his career before he had the chance to play.
Taller pilots flew bombers; the limited space in fighter cockpits required shorter men.
"First time my short stature paid off," Punchy said with a grin. He trained on Stearman biplanes, Vultee BT-13s, T-6 Texans, and P-39 Airacobras before becoming one of the first groups to fly the P-47 Thunderbolt.
"We loved the Thunderbolt," he said. "It was rugged, powerful, easy to land, well-protected, and armed with eight machine guns."
Punchy reports to the 328th Fighter Squadron, 352nd Fighter Group in Atcham, England.
"I still flew the Thunderbolt," he said. "My ground crew was great. My armorer, a Native American Indian from the Wampanoag Tribe, examined each round for imperfections or burrs to prevent jamming."
On his sixth mission, Punchy encountered a Messerschmitt Bf-110 twin engine heavy fighter. It was called a Zerstorery by the Germans, meaning Destroyer, but Punchy said, "Guess who destroyed who?" It was his first victory; it would not be his last.
Returning to Atcham after another mission, Punchy saw curious-looking planes parked all over the field. His crew chief jumped on the wing of the P-47 and told Punchy, "Lieutenant, the colonel said for you to hop in one of those new planes and get 30 minutes under your belt. You’ll be flying one on your mission tomorrow."
Comfortable and accustomed to his P-47 Thunderbolt, Punchy said, "Like hell, I will."
The next day, Punchy Powell buckled up and went into combat with arguably the best fighter of World War II, the superb and deadly P-51 Mustang."
In war, men find humor, especially pilots.
Punchy said, "We were ordered to dress as spiffy as possible and line up the Mustangs for an inspection by Princess Elizabeth. Well, the first P-51 in line was named ‘Exlax…’ Our PR officer damn near had a heart attack."
Humor gave way to the business of war once airborne. Commenting on bomber escort, Punchy said, "We flew the Mustangs for a few days before we encountered enemy fighters. The German flyboys weren’t expecting Mustangs. We shot down 27 of theirs while losing only two of ours."
June 5, 1944:
"The West ‘by Gawd" Virginian" receives a quick, if somewhat sloppy, paint job.
Punchy said, "We had black and white invasion stripes painted on the fuselage and wings. The next day, there would be thousands of aircraft covering the Normandy landings, and we didn’t want our ships firing on us." Punchy spent 16 hours in his cockpit protecting the invasion.
The legendary P-51 Mustang was the only Allied fighter with the range to escort bombers over Berlin.
Punchy said, "We’d back off when the B-17s and B-24s made their bomb runs. I had a lot of respect for those guys. We could dodge and weave, but the bombers had to fly straight into the flak to drop their payloads. On some of the missions to Berlin we’d, well, ‘save up’ for the relief tube and, uh, well, relieve ourselves on Hitler, so to speak."
Punchy’s longest mission was flying bomber escort to Peenemunde, the German V-2 rocket base.
"Yep, that mission stretched our fuel tanks a bit," he said. Indeed. "The West ‘by Gawd’ Virginian" ran out of fuel on the runway after landing and had to be towed to the hangar.
Punchy asked, "Did you ever wonder where the expression ‘the whole 9 yards’ came from? Well, our gun belt was 9 yards long. You could go through the entire belt in 30 seconds, in other words, we used up ‘the whole 9 yards.’"
On one takeoff, Punchy was less than 300 feet off the ground when the P-51’s engine caught fire. He crash-landed near a tree line and jumped from the plane before the fuel tank ignited.
He said, "I ran into the woods and continued on to the headquarters hut. The S2 officer was on the phone telling someone, ‘Punchy has had it; he just crashed into the trees and caught on fire.’
"I yelled, ‘I ain’t dead yet!’ That shocked him a bit."
Robert "Punchy" Powell completed 87 combat missions. He has flown 22 different aircraft. His official record: four destroyed; six probable; and seven damaged.
In closing, Punchy said, "I wasn’t flying that plane, God was. I was blessed, and, like my mom told me, better to be lucky than good-looking."
A replica of "The West ‘by Gawd’ Virginian" is displayed in front of the 57th Fighter Group Restaurant at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.