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Saving General Patch

By Larry Weirather
8/23/2017 • Aviation History Magazine

An L-5 pilot transporting a VIP over Germany used all his skills to elude an Me-109.

Technical Sergeant Robert F. Stretton Jr.’s logbook entry for April 18, 1945, simply records that he flew an Army Stinson L-5 from Kitzingen to Ohringen, Germany, and back. Total flight time: one hour and five minutes. Passenger: Lieutenant General Alexander “Sandy” Patch. In the “Remarks” section Stretton listed no details that might explain why the flight would result in his being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Despite its inevitable defeat, the Luftwaffe was still active in the skies over Germany in the final month of the European war. Stretton and other members of the 72nd Liaison Squadron (LS) could set their watches by the nightly strafing of Kitzingen airfield. During the day, the squadron’s L-5s performed a variety of duties, including reconnaissance, photorecon, weather checks, ferrying and spotting for P-47 Thunderbolts.

The 72nd LS had been attached to General Patch’s Seventh Army since its July 1944 arrival in Italy. A month later Stretton and other pilots had participated in Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France. Then they faced the long, muddy, snowy slog across France into Germany and Austria.

A favorite of Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, Sandy Patch was the only American general to have commanded in both the Pacific and European theaters. Patch and his Seventh Army had beaten Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army to the Rhine.

Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower offered Patch his own B-25 and pilot in the spring of 1945, but the general declined. He wanted to remain in touch with his commanders at the fast-moving front. That meant landing in places, such as cow pastures, where a B-25 couldn’t go but the L-5 could. It was said the Stinson could “land on a dime and give you a nickel back.”

Stretton’s wartime experience in the rugged little L-5 included plenty of bad-weather flying, when low cloud ceilings routinely grounded fighters and bombers. On one mission during the Battle of the Bulge, he had repeatedly cut his engine, opened his window and stuck his head out into freezing fog to listen for German armor movement—then quickly powered up again to avoid crashing into the hilly Ardennes Forest. It required exquisite timing and nerves of steel.

On April 16, Patch moved his headquarters from Darmstadt to Kitzingen, where the small band of 72nd LS pilots and support personnel occupied a recently abandoned German airfield. The flight to Ohringen and back on the 18th was part of Patch’s efforts to coordinate the bloody battle for Nuremburg.

Stretton had transported the general dozens of times in his L-5 before his April 18 mission. Pilot and passenger presented something of a Mutt-and-Jeff contrast. Patch was tall, while Stretton was short—so short that the ground crew had dubbed him “Sea Level,” the same name he had given his Stinson.

As Stretton flew Patch to Ohringen that day, a Messerschmitt Me-109 popped out of the sky, intent on destroying the L-Bird. Luftwaffe pilots were keen on shooting down the liaison planes because they were worth more points toward decorations than fighters.

Stretton immediately dived for the deck, and the forbidden flying he had done during training—buzzing buildings, flying under bridges and at or below treetop level— quickly came into play. He threaded Sea Level through wooded, sinuous river valleys where the turns were too tight for the Me-109. It was risky flying, but it was his only defense. Tom Virnelli, the 72nd’s line chief, had in fact been killed just months earlier flying this low when he struck high tension wires strung across a river. As Stretton’s DFC citation recounted, he used “superior skill and dauntless courage in taking his plane to tree-top level, dodging among hills and other terrain obstacles to prevent the fighter from destroying him and his passenger. He finally succeeded in losing the enemy plane, which was circling in an attempt to find him.”

Stretton continued to serve as Patch’s pilot, and on June 1 flew him to Dachau, where Eisenhower wanted as many troops as possible to see the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. Though Patch invited Stretton to visit the camp, he declined: He’d already seen enough. The first pilot to return after visiting the charnel house that was Dachau had vomited after climbing out of his cockpit; others reported that the smell from the camp had permeated their cockpits even above 1,000 feet.

Stretton was supposed to ship out to the China-Burma-India Theater, but his orders were canceled after Japan’s surrender. He would never see all his gear again, as it had been sent ahead to the Pacific, where it disappeared. He ended his service with the DFC and Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters.

Coincidentally, a week before Stretton eluded the Me-109 over Germany, General Patch had written a letter of praise to the sergeant’s parents in Oak Park, Ill. He informed them “how useful his services were” in piloting the general’s L-5 during the past few months, adding that he had “absolute confidence” in their son’s technical skill. Certainly the events of April 18 confirmed his appraisal.

After Patch returned to the States, the Army released details of how the L-5 pilot had once saved a general. Newspapers picked up the story, and Stretton was made “Hero of the Day” by radio station WIND in Chicago.

When asked about saving Sandy Patch after he returned home, Robert Stretton would only say he had been too busy saving his own butt to worry about the general. He never mentioned the medals he’d earned. The former pilot became a dairy farmer in northwestern Illinois, living in a “milk run” area where the terrain was similar to that he had flown over in Germany. He died at age 92 on January 11, 2011, at his home.

 

The author wishes to thank Robert F. Stretton Jr.’s daughter, Kathleen Stretton Eaton, and his eldest son, Robert F. Stretton III, for their assistance in preparing this article.

Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.

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