Triple fighter ace and test pilot Bud Anderson is a legend in his own time.
Like millions of other Depression-era kids who became enthralled with flight during aviation’s golden era, Clarence E. “Bud” Anderson Jr. grew up crazy about airplanes. Unlike the huge majority, however, he would follow his dream of flight to stratospheric heights, becoming one of America’s leading fighter aces.
Born in Oakland, Calif., on January 13, 1922,“Buddy” grew up on a farm near Newcastle. Typically, aces are eldest or only sons, but Bud was the third of four children. He developed a sense of self-reliance and confidence early on that would stand him in good stead through out his career.
On the Anderson fruit farm he was largely isolated from the Depression’s worst effects, even though his dad lost much of the property. Looking back, Bud said: “I was into my teens while all that was happening, but was never really aware. There was always food enough, and if noodles and tiny meatballs in water came advertised as soup a couple of nights in a row, it wasn’t a thing to complain about.”
In December 1929, just before Bud’s eighth birthday, an airliner crashed near the farm and the Andersons sped to the scene, accompanied by Bud’s best friend, Jack Stacker. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, and the boys enjoyed getting a close-up look at the Boeing 80 trimotor.
Also interested in automobiles, Bud gained valuable mechanical expertise tinkering with cars while he was growing up. He survived his share of automotive mishaps, too, including the time he drove a car into the family garage—without opening the door.
Bud took advantage of the Civilian Pilot Training Program when he started college, earning his private license in a J-3 Cub. After two years of college he started working as a civilian aircraft mechanic at the Sacramento Air Depot. He was accepted for pilot training in January 1942, graduating from Luke Field, Ariz., eight months later at age 20. Fighter training followed in the Bell P-39, still frontline equipment in 1942. Looking back, he commented: “Actually I enjoyed the ’39—it was fast and looked good. I just wouldn’t want to take it to combat.”
In March 1943 Bud got a plum assignment with the newly formed 363rd Fighter Squadron of the 357th Fighter Group. As one of its original cadre, he was perfectly positioned to become a combat leader when the group went to war. Asked about tactics training, Bud just smiled and said, “What tactics?” Most of the self-taught syllabus, such as it was, involved on-the job training: rat-racing, with the pilots challenging each other. It didn’t take long to establish a pecking order, with the more experienced pilots generally taking the squadron’s top slots.
Early on, Bud recalled, the hotshots could be quite secretive. “If you found a better way of doing something,” he explained, “you usually kept it to yourself until the other guys caught on.” But as the prospect of facing combat neared, the senior fliers adopted a more nurturing attitude toward the new guys.
Bragging rights at the officers’ club was satisfying for a while, but that soon took a distant second to teaching wingmen potentially lifesaving moves. Of course, in World War II most maneuvers were known by other names than they are today—if they had names at all. A high or low yo-yo or a lag-displacement roll served the same purpose in a P-39 or P-51 as they do now in an F-15 or F-16, but back then they might be called a “whifferdill” or “chandimmelsnap.” Having flown only P-39s, the 357th’s pilots assumed they would be shipped to the Pacific or maybe North Africa. But in November 1943 the group boarded the liner Queen Elizabeth and sailed to Great Britain, where the men were delighted to learn they would be flying the P-51B, the first Mustang with the fabulous Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. The 357th was only the second P-51B group, following the 354th assigned to the Ninth Air Force. Because long-range bomber escorts were so badly needed, the new outfit went to the Eighth, logging its first missions in February 1944. The unit was based at Leiston, near Yoxford on England’s east coast. “Lord Haw-Haw,” the German radio propagandist, welcomed the 357th as the“Yoxford Boys,”a name that stuck.
Today it would be nearly impossible to match the youthful experience level of Bud and some of his colleagues. He entered combat as a 22-year-old captain and returned home a 23-year-old major (the youngest pilots in today’s combat squadrons are probably 24-year-old first lieutenants). Bud attributes much of his success to two factors: nearly 900 hours’ flight time before he entered combat (mostly in fighters), and attending three gunnery schools. The third was an RAF facility that gave him additional exposure to combat maneuvers in the Mustang and further sharpened his shooting eye.
Vision was critical to success in air combat. “My ability to identify aircraft gave me an edge,” he said. “I was always good at it. We would train with a slide projector, flashing silhouette images, and I generally identified them all, bang-bang-bang. Part of that probably traces back to my fascination with planes as a kid, making models. But part must be physical. My eyes, I’ve always believed, communicate with my brain a bit more quickly than average. And I wanted to see them. I might have been a little more motivated than most.” In fact, Bud still tested 20/20 on flight physicals when he was well into his 70s.
The 357th was loaded with talent, boasting three triple aces besides Bud Anderson: Leonard “Kit” Carson (18½ victories), John England (17½) and Richard Peterson (15½). In all, the Yoxford Boys would produce 42 aces. They were bested only by the 354th “Pioneer Mustang” Group, with 43.
With 595 aerial victories, the 357th ranked second in the Eighth Air Force behind the 56th Fighter Group, and fourth among all U.S. Army Air Forces groups in WWII. Even more remarkable, the 357th compiled its record in only 14 months of combat, versus the 56th’s two years of fighting. But that success came at a price: In Bud’s 363rd Squadron, half of the original 28 pilots would be killed or captured. He lost some of his closest friends, including childhood pal Jack Stacker, who was killed while flying a 55th Fighter Group P-38 in November 1943. Stacker’s young widow, Ellie Cosby, had only had two weeks with Jack before he left for Europe.
“We lost a lot of good men,” Bud recalled. “If you didn’t know the guy real well, it was,‘Hey, that’s tough.’ It was something you had to get used to and cope with, particularly if you were a leader. Men looked to you to set an example. The group, the squadron, the flight was your family, and you couldn’t let family down.”
Two of those lost from the 363rd Squadron family were Captain Eddie Simpson, who was forced down and killed while he was working with the French Resistance on August 14, 1944, and Captain Jim Browning, who died in a collision with an Me-262 on February 9, 1945. Bud would later honor their memory by naming his son James Edward Anderson. (Today Jim maintains a marvelous tribute to the 357th Fighter Group at www.cebudanderson.com, one of the most comprehensive unit websites online.)
Starting with P-39s during Stateside training, Bud always named his fighters Old Crow continued from P-51Bs up , a tradition that to his final F-105D Thunderchief. Despite his teetotaler parents, the youthful pilot had acquired an appreciation for the Kentucky bourbon, although today he likes to quip,“I tell my Baptist friends that my plane was named for the smartest bird in the sky.”
The 357th broke into combat by stages. At first its senior pilots flew with the 354th. On February 20, 1944, Bud got his teeth into an Me-109G and registered some hits. Although that Messerschmitt escaped, it was an encouraging start. Then on March 8, during an escort mission to Hanover, Bud tangled with another 109. In a close, hard-fought contest, he and the German pilot flew offset intersecting paths, passing each other in a circling combat, unable to shoot. Years later he recounted: “I decide to pull my sights through the German until I can’t see him, then fire, hose him and hope against all odds that he flies through the bullet stream.
“I pull up and around and fire off a quick stream of tracer as he disappears under me. I ease off the stick and he flies into my view. Hot damn! He’s spilling coolant back into his slipstream. I got him! And while I’m whooping like I’d just scored the touchdown that won the Rose Bowl, he throws the canopy off and bails out. His 109 goes straight in.”
April and May were big months in Europe, and Bud scored consistently. On May 12 near Frankfurt he maneuvered onto a 109’s dead six, finger on the trigger—only to see the German bail out. He considered his fifth victory more of a scuttle than a kill, commenting, “I’d become an ace without firing a shot at the fellow, and there wasn’t much satisfaction in that.”
Bud’s next dogfight would be far different. On May 27, he took his flight into a passel of 109s and quickly cut one out of the herd. That plane had barely fallen when Bud started tangling with the finest pilot he ever came up against. The encounter quickly developed into a vertical combat, with each man flying his fighter to the edge of control, milking every increment of energy before pitching over, nosing down to regain speed and repeating the process.
After several of these rollercoaster revolutions, Bud changed the timing of his pitch-up, latched onto the 109’s tail and fired. The German airplane dropped like a safe, exploding on impact. Its pilot was undoubtedly a veteran, an old pro, but while historians have offered to try to identify him, Bud said he doesn’t want to know: “He was just somebody who was trying to kill me, that was all.”
Bud was the first pilot in the 357th to complete his 300-hour combat tour; he went home in July with 12¼ victories to his credit. But he returned two months later for a second tour, adding four more kills by yearend. He candidly admitted that the scarcity of airborne targets was frustrating through late 1944. “War is wasteful and stupid, but I enjoyed the challenge of aerial combat,” he said, “and most of the pilots I knew felt the same way.”
Apart from good leadership and copious experience, the 357th also benefited from exceptional maintenance. Bud is justifiably proud of his ground crew’s spotless record, allowing him to fly 116 missions totaling 480 combat hours without an abort. He recalled the time he made a passing remark after a late-1944 mission, noting that since much of Germany was blanketed in snow at that point, the olive-drab paint should eventually be stripped from Old Crow. The next morning he was stunned to see sunlight reflecting off the polished aluminum of his Mustang. “Otto Heino, Mel Schuenemann, and Leon Zimmermann had stayed up the whole night through, hand-rubbing the paint off with rags soaked in gasoline. In the process, they had rubbed most of the skin off their hands. No one asked them to do that. No one expected it. No one ever asked or expected them to change the spark plugs after each mission, either. Not every crew did that. But they did. Old Crow was as much their plane as mine. They took as much pride in the things it accomplished as I did.”
One of the losses the group sustained occurred in January 1945, just after Bud had left for home. A 357th P-51 had been damaged landing in France, and Sergeant Schuenemann was flown there in an AT-6 to make repairs. When the weather clamped down for nearly a week, the AT-6 pilot grew weary of waiting. Trying to sneak into Leiston beneath a low ceiling, he flew the Texan into a hill. Mel Schuenemann was the 357th’s only noncom lost on a combat-related mission.
When Bud got back home, he married Ellie Cosby Stacker. They would have two children, Jim and Kitty. Jim would follow his dad’s slipstream, becoming a second-generation fighter pilot.
In 1948 Colonel Al Boyd, chief of the Flight Test Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, interviewed then-Major Anderson, who later became chief of fighter operations there. One of the most innovative programs during his tenure was Project Tip-Tow, in which smaller aircraft were mated wingtip to wingtip with larger planes to test the “floating wing panel” theory. As proof of concept, Bud flew a Culver Cadet linked to the wingtip of a C-47 for an efficient aerodynamic “tow.” Once the early problems were resolved, the project moved up to F-84s linked to a B-29, providing aerodynamic test data to further prove the floating panel concept. But in April 1953 the project suffered a severe blow when a Thunderjet making an in-flight linkup rolled inverted into the bomber, resulting in the loss of all the airmen involved (see Project Tip-Tow, from the January 2012 issue).
Another of Bud’s projects was the FICON (Fighter Conveyor) program, with an RF-84 suspended under the belly of a B-36. The recon fighter would drop from the mother ship, conduct a highspeed photo mission and then return to hook onto the bomber’s retractable trapeze. Although the program was successful, SAC elected not to use it, since inflight refueling became common during that period.
Unavoidably assigned to the Pentagon, Bud relished each tour in com- bat units. In Korea during 1956 he served as director of operations for the 58th Fighter-Bomber Wing and commanded the 69th Fighter Squadron. Like so many pilots of his era, Bud adored the F-86. “The Sabre was more than just fast, fun to fly and pretty to look at,” he pointed out. “It was fantastic in a dogfight, capable of whipping anything in the air at that time. When jet airplanes came in, some people thought dogfighting was suddenly a thing of the past. People had said the same thing before World War II. Well, the F-86 and its Soviet counterpart, the MiG-15, were dogfighting over Korea, just as the biplanes of World War I had done, and the monoplanes of the next war.”
Upon returning home from Korea, Bud resumed experimental flying. At Edwards Air Force Base he became chief of flight test operations and deputy director of flight test, piloting the “Century Series” fighters and numerous other aircraft.
Bud subsequently entered his second war as commander of the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing in 1967. His combat swansong was commanding the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand during 1970. He flew Thunderchief missions outside of North Vietnam, owing to restrictions on targeting, but he wrote, “Sometimes we can get into something and have a ball.”
When he retired in February 1972, Bud had completed 30 years on active duty. Shortly afterward he joined McDonnell Aircraft as manager of the company’s Edwards AFB test facility, focusing on the new F-15 program.
Bud had become accustomed to celebrity status long before his memoir, To Fly and Fight, came out in 1990. In the 1960s he routinely took time to answer requests for autographs, and often provided signed photos at his own expense. Even his wartime duties didn’t prevent him from corresponding with air-minded youngsters and fans of all ages.
Written with the help of award-winning sports journalist Joe Hamlin, To Fly and Fight has sold nearly 100,000 copies to date. Bud’s account has been widely acclaimed as an honest, highly readable narrative devoid of the chest thumping that often characterizes military writing. Senior Air Force historian Richard Hallion called it “the finest pilot memoir of WWII,”noting that he made it mandatory reading for all his historians.
Bud was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2008. At this writing he ranks second among the 150 or so living American aces, flanked by naval aviator Alex Vraciu (19 victories) and Pacific P-38 pilot Bill Harris (16).
In recent years three generations of aerophiles have come to know Bud, who continues to draw crowds whenever he appears in public or takes the podium. Though he’s generally regarded as a soft-spoken gentleman, his speech has all the directness of a frontier gunslinger. He doesn’t actually say, “Smile when you say that,” but then he doesn’t have to.
With 130 aircraft in his logbooks, Bud continues flying Mustangs nearly seven decades after he first took the controls of a P-51B, adding to his 7,000 hours of military time. At least four warbirds have borne his Old Crow markings, including Jack Roush’s gorgeous B model. Today, at age 90, Bud usually flies up front in two-seaters, still very much the pilot in command—and still reveling in a lifetime love affair with flying.
Arizona-based writer Barrett Tillman is the author of 45 books and more than 500 magazine articles. His latest release is Enterprise: America’s Fightingest Ship and the Men Who Helped Win World War II. Further reading: Bud’s memoir, To Fly and Fight, an electronic version of which will soon be available (see cebudanderson.com for more information).
Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.