“Major Underwood?” the sergeant inquired of the officer sitting in the jeep outside IX Corps headquarters. The relentless pounding of Allied artillery against German forces in the Metz pocket echoed in the distance. “You found him,” said Joseph D. Underwood. “Sir,” said the sergeant excitedly, “Colonel Stilwell asked if you would go forward to help out a reconnaissance unit requesting air support. They’re in a pinch.” “Let’s ride up there and I’ll call in the air support myself!” exclaimed Underwood.
As the corps’ tactical air liaison officer, directly coordinating air support on the front lines was not something Underwood normally did. Still, there was a job to do, and he had never been one to shy away from tough tasks. His 47 earlier combat missions in Republic P-47D Thunderbolts were testimony to that.
Underwood’s party made its way toward the front. The sound of machine gun and artillery fire ringing in his ears, the major looked out into an adjacent field at a tank crew desperately working to repair a track and get moving again. It was November 19, 1944, and getting cold. Earlier that year, during the heady days of summer, Underwood had ridden across France in triumph as a crew member in an M4 Sherman tank with the French 2nd Armored Division.
Underwood had grown up in Gainesville, Ga., served in the University of Georgia’s Reserve Officer Training Corps and joined the Army Air Corps in May 1941. Pearl Harbor was bombed while he was in advanced flight training in Victoria, Texas. Graduation of the class was accelerated, and Underwood found himself stuck as an instructor at Moore Field in Texas while half his class went to fight in the Pacific.
During the next nine months, Underwood applied four times for fighter duty. His request was finally granted in November 1942 when he was assigned as operations officer for a newly established P-47 Thunderbolt unit, the 366th Fighter Squadron, commanded by Captain Jack Theirrault. The squadron, based in Richmond, Va., was part of the 358th Fighter Group. Underwood had expected rapid deployment to a theater of war, but it was not until October 1943 that the squadron was posted to Goxhill, England, and an additional two months before it flew its first mission escorting Boeing B-17s on raids over occupied Europe.
In January 1944, all P-47s were transferred to the newly activated Ninth Air Force, while longer-range North American P-51 Mustangs were sent to the Eighth. The Ninth would handle the tactical missions of destroying military targets in France, while the Eighth continued its strategic bombing of occupied Europe. The Thunderbolt, originally designed as a high-altitude escort, turned out to be an excellent dive bomber. Conversely, the Mustang, designed as a dive bomber, was a superb high-altitude escort. The swap was a natural tailoring of capability to mission.
The 366th conducted a number of ground attack missions in preparation for the D-Day landings in June 1944, and on the day of the invasion the squadron was kept busy escorting troopships across the English Channel. The Ninth Air Force’s mission then shifted to close air support as the ground forces pushed forward out of the beachhead.
With the invasion of Europe underway, Underwood was presented with a unique opportunity, an assignment as the tactical air liaison officer in the XIX Tactical Air Command (TAC). He would join the 79th Infantry Division on the ground, calling in his comrades in the Ninth whenever the GIs needed the extra firepower to keep their advance moving. With 47 missions under his belt by the summer of 1944, Underwood thought a change of scenery might be a good idea, and he accepted the new assignment.
Once he got to France, the major was given a jeep and driver and told to follow the Third Army and catch up to the 79th Division’s headquarters. It was an eerie experience moving forward through town after town, deserted except for half-starved dogs that stared cautiously from the shadows. He worked his way forward until he reached IX Corps headquarters. He stayed with the headquarters staff for three days until they had crossed the Seine, and he finally caught up with the 79th at the front.
Although he had latched onto the 79th, Underwood bounced between units, locating himself wherever the need was greatest. On one occasion this meant that he ended up with the 2nd French Armored Division riding in the assistant driver’s position of a Sherman tank. Used to the efficiency of the three American units he had previously served with, Underwood thought the Frenchmen operated in a state of perpetual chaos.
Fighting since North Africa, most of the 2nd Armored Division’s members had not seen home in years. Every advance seemed to end with a family reunion as liberated relatives mobbed the unit. Underwood ate well each day, even dining with the division commander, Maj. Gen. Philippe Leclerc, on three occasions.
At one point during his service with the French, Underwood’s tank threw a track and had to be moved to a repair site. Once his crew realized that the wait would be a long one, they scattered while Underwood remained with the disabled vehicle. Eventually the tank’s commander showed up with a worn-out motorcycle given to him by a member of the Free French. The Frenchman announced that while he waited for his tank to be repaired he wanted to take a quick trip to Nancy to visit relatives, and he invited Underwood to come along. The pair set out and rode the contraption until it ran out of fuel. They then found a helpful member of the Free French who gave them a ride in his car.
The two finally arrived on the outskirts of Nancy and bade their ride goodbye in the pouring rain. The skeletal remains of a bridge spanned a creek outside the city, and the Frenchman quickly crossed the rickety structure and jumped down on the other side. Underwood, concerned about the bridge’s structural integrity as well as his ability to walk across the tightrope-like girders in the rain, reluctantly agreed to cross the creek. Upon leaping down off the bridge on the other side, he found himself face to face with an American infantryman in a foxhole.
“I was waiting to see if you were going to make it across without getting picked off,” said the GI. “See that bend in the river,” he said, pointing 400 yards away. “The krauts are crawling all over there. They were in this foxhole just 15 minutes ago.”
Underwood exploded. After a heated exchange with his French companion, they quickly moved out of the area. The Frenchman began looking for his father, who was a captain in the Resistance. They finally caught up with him in a tavern, and it was a moving occasion. The wine flowed and everyone celebrated the reunion of two generations of fighters.
The next morning, the tank commander had a brand-new motorcycle waiting to take them back to their Sherman. There was one catch: It had no gas, and there was none to be had from the French. The two knew that their absence from the unit would be noticed soon, and the problem of obtaining fuel fell to Underwood. They pushed the motorcycle to an American supply depot on the outskirts of Nancy and approached the supply officer, a young second lieutenant who shook his head the moment he saw them. Rather than lie, Underwood laid out the whole story of his jaunt with the Frenchman and made sure to include the possibility that he was absent without leave at this point.
“Well, lieutenant,” said Underwood after concluding his story, “what would you do in my shoes?” “Exactly what you did; tell the truth,” the lieutenant replied. He turned and yelled, “Sergeant, get a five-gallon can of gas for the major.”
With the motorcycle gassed up, the Frenchman sought to make up for lost time. They drove through towns at breakneck speeds, with Underwood desperately clinging to the cycle. Finally, they came to a straight stretch of pavement. A mile ahead, Underwood could see a stalled car obstructing their route. Underwood was shocked when the Frenchman closed on the stalled vehicle and slammed into the back of it as if it were not even there. Driver, rider and cycle flipped forward over the car, and Underwood crashed onto the hood, with the Frenchman cushioning his impact. Miraculously, no one was hurt, but the motorcycle was destroyed. They traded the remainder of their gas to the car owner in return for a ride back to the front. When they arrived, their tank was in position, the rest of the crew waiting. Underwood kissed the tank, vowing amid the laughter of the crew to never leave it again. No one had even noticed that the two officers had been gone.
A month later, Underwood was back at IX Corps headquarters. The corps’ operations officer was a Colonel Stilwell, cousin of “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell of Burma fame. Underwood convinced the colonel to allow an experiment in which a telephone was hooked between corps artillery headquarters and his jeep. While Underwood was bringing in air support, he would call the artillery to fire on the Germans. The artillery would mark the target area and suppress German air defense for the incoming planes. It was a successful employment of combined arms.
Underwood had found, however, that his frequent trips near the front to develop this method of fire support provided very little of the relative safety he had been hoping for when he first took on the assignment. On the morning of November 19 he was now headed back to the front. Turning his gaze away from the tank and its crew, Underwood peered along the road ahead. Halftracks from a recon platoon of the 9th Infantry Division were scattered on both sides. He could hear machine gun fire a few hundred yards away.
“Where’s the platoon leader?” Underwood asked a sergeant standing in the cab of a half-track. “Up there,” he said pointing up the road. Underwood could see the backside of a jeep and half-track on the side of the road on the hill ahead of him.
Underwood’s jeep moved up to join a lieutenant talking on his jeep radio. Around the officer’s jeep were several dead enemy soldiers. A German vehicle, unrecognizable in the flames, burned 100 yards down the road.
“Boy, am I glad to see you,” said the lieutenant, turning toward Underwood. “We ran into a German column moving down this road. They’re on the other side of this hill. I need some air support on them.”
Underwood looked at the lieutenant’s map, then radioed for the air support. The planes arrived 20 minutes later, and he talked the pilots through the approach as they passed overhead and raked the hapless convoy. As he talked a second sortie in, he saw a dark shape descend in front of him. It was a German artillery shell that exploded in front of his right foot, and he was flipped off the ground. He came to a few moments later, disoriented, with shrapnel wounds in both legs and feet. He was evacuated to a nearby house, then to a hospital. Underwood’s war ended that day.
The major convalesced for several months in England, then in March 1945 was sent back to the United States where he was assigned to a hospital for further recovery. He was discharged in October 1945 and returned home to Georgia where he raised a family, worked as a banker and led a simple life.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.