Share This Article

It was just after 10:30 on the morning of March 2, 1945, when ground crews of the 509th Fighter Squadron pulled the chocks on 16 Republic P-47Ds. As the Thunderbolts taxied out for takeoff, a few of the veteran pilots wondered why this mission was supposed to be a “maximum effort” against the German airfield near Dortmund.

Most everyone in the 405th Fighter Group of the Ninth Air Force knew Germany’s aircraft fuel supply was running on empty. More important, there was a serious lack of pilot replacements needed to keep what was left of the Luftwaffe flying. On the ground, the German army was in retreat after suffering serious losses at the Battle of the Bulge. It seemed likely that the end of the war was only weeks away.

This mission was to be the 141st for the squadron commander, Major Robert M. Blackburn. Bomber crews from the Eighth Air Force in England were rotated out of the combat zone after 25 missions. Most fighter pilots from the Ninth flew about 70 missions and went home “Blackie,” as most of the men called him, had just returned from R&R back in the States. As a returning 100 mission pilot, he could have asked for an assignment in the training command. But Blackburn wanted to be in the action right up to the end. As a result, he resumed his command of the 509th Fighter Squadron based near Waterschei, Belgium, at a field designated Y-32, in January 1945.

There were four flights of four aircraft making the mission that day, designated Red, White, Blue and Yellow. Blackburn, as usual, was leading the squadron. His call sign was “Red Leader.”

Second Lieutenant Mike Titre, flying the “Yellow Four” position in the squadron formation, was the last man to take off that morning. Titre remembers the day as unremarkable. “A clear sky with the temperature at about 60 degrees,” he later recalled. “Perfect for flying.”

While designated as fighters, P-47s were used as fighter-bombers in the Ninth Air Force. On this mission, each Thunderbolt carried two 500-pound general-purpose bombs under its wings, a full load of ammunition for each of the eight .50-caliber wing guns and a 108-gallon belly tank. “We had enough firepower to destroy a marshalling yard,” Titre explained. This mission fit Blackburn’s own audacious plan completely. He was known to have said, “If the Luftwaffe won’t come up to us, we will go after them on the ground.”

Blackburn’s P-47 was a D-30-RA model with a bubble-top canopy. Thunderbolts were huge aircraft with a gross weight of 13,500 pounds. By this time in the war, Republic was delivering P-47Ds unpainted, in the natural aluminum finish. A few of the 509th aircraft had been painted in olive drab camouflage over neutral gray. The cowl ring, canopy frame and tail stripes were bright red. The left side of Blackburn’s cowling was decorated with a cartoon drawing of a running floppy-eared dog labeled Chow Hound. A Roman numeral III trailed behind the dog’s tail. The fuselage sides behind the cockpit were marked with a large black G9*B, with G9 designating the 509th Squadron and B indicating Blackburn’s aircraft. The tail bore the black Bureau of Aeronautics registration number, 433291.

When specific targets were not assigned, experienced commanders were given considerable discretion in the selection of targets of opportunity. Some went after trains and marshalling yards, while others sought out vehicle depots, ammunition dumps, or tank and troop concentrations. Blackburn habitually went after airfields. This Sunday morning he was looking for the Luftwaffe on the ground. As the 509th approached the field at Dortmund, Titre said he could see “about a dozen twin-engine aircraft parked close together near a hangar.” They turned out to be Junkers Ju-88s. This was to be a surprise attack on the field, and Blackburn told the rest of the pilots he wanted “total destruction.”

Titre recalled, “The attack began as briefed.” Blackburn went in first with a divebombing run that started at about 12:30 p.m. The rest of the P-47s followed and began their runs in a trail formation. Red, White, Blue and Yellow flights rolled in and dropped their bombs in order. “After Red Leader finished his bomb run,” Titre said, “he started his strafing passes.” Blackburn had already completed two low-level machine gun attacks before Yellow Four was able to drop his bombs. “We were coming in from all directions,” remembered Titre. “It was a melee.”

Lieutenant Don Enos, flying Red Three behind Blackburn’s aircraft, recalled: “We were making the first pass after dropping our bombs, very low, very fast. We were staggered to the right. Blackie was strafing what appeared to be two Ju-88s parked side-byside. There was a large explosion which completely enveloped his plane.”

Colonel Chester Van Etten, operations officer of the 405th, had warned Blackburn about the flak guns around German airfields. When Blackie returned to the squadron after R&R, Van Etten told him the Germans were firing smokeless 20mm guns, noting, “You couldn’t see the shells explode.” He recommended that the pilots “break off strafing passes at least 3,000 feet above terrain.” Blackburn’s response to the warning was, “They can’t hit me!” It’s not clear if debris from the exploding Ju-88s hit Blackburn’s “Jug” or if the 20mm flak batteries got him.

About the time Blackburn’s plane was hit, Titre remembered, “I had just rolled into my first diving attack from about 6,000 feet. I released my bombs at around 1,200 feet and was pulling up. I looked down for a fleeting moment and saw one of our aircraft on fire. I knew it was Blackie.” There are conflicting reports, but it appears Blackburn’s aircraft had rolled over and was upside down and on fire at about 500 feet from the ground. “No one saw a parachute,” Titre said. “We assumed he crashed with his aircraft.”

Before he went down, there was a radio transmission from Blackburn. Some recall him saying, “Good show, Schooner Squadron” (“Schooner” was the call sign for the 509th). Others remember the message as “Take over, Red Three and give me credit for the two I got.” Red Three immediately called, “Schooner Squadron, re-form 10 south at 6,000.”

With their leader down, the attacking P-47s broke off the attack and headed for home. As the squadron joined up, a radio transmission was heard with no call sign, but everyone recognized the voice of Major Jack Berger, commander of the 511th Squadron, which had been attacking other targets in the area. He asked, “Was it Blackie?” The answer back: “Yes.”

Blackburn had joined the 509th Fighter Squadron in Walterboro, S.C., as a first lieutenant and served as a flight leader. Later he was promoted to captain and became operations officer. He took command of the squadron in October 1944 and almost immediately was promoted to major.

Titre remembered him as “a premier pilot,” adding: “He was almost worshipped by some of the men. He was referred to by officers and enlisted men alike as a ‘legendary leader.’” Titre added: “To fly 140 missions in the Ninth was astounding. Blackie was a real go-getter. He flew every mission he could.”

By the time he was shot down, Blackburn had been awarded 24 Air Medals, two Silver Stars and two Distinguished Flying Crosses. Never known to shun publicity, he made sure all of his missions were recorded with the appropriate symbols on the fuselage of his aircraft beneath his cockpit.

Two German civilian eyewitnesses on the ground that day saw G9*B as it “crashed into the ground like a rock.” Sixteen-year-old Magda MacDiarmid, who lived on a farm with her family near the airfield, reported, “the pilot saved himself with his parachute.” She added, “After the crash the pilot, with both hands above his head, surrendered to two Air Force [Luftwaffe] officers, who took him prisoner.” Another eyewitness account indicates that a man belonging to the German SA (Nazi Party) ran up to Blackburn and held him as soldiers approached from the nearby airfield that had just been attacked.

The German report states, “After the attack, one of the ‘Jabos’ [fighter-bombers] pulled away trailing smoke. The pilot escaped from his burning aircraft. His parachute deployed and glided down to the ground. His aircraft broke apart and crashed.”

The nose section crashed into a field, with the tail falling a short distance away. The report goes on to say after Blackburn unbuckled his parachute harness, he put both hands on his head and waited to be taken prisoner. He handed over his pistol to a Luftwaffe major, who was accompanied by a sergeant and a corporal.

By this time a crowd from the nearby village of Asseln had gathered. They were understandably upset about the attack, and some became belligerent. Another member of the SA tried to kick the American pilot, but the Luftwaffe troops prevented it. The Nazi Party members wanted to prosecute Blackburn in front of the entire village. But the German major was intent on taking Blackburn back to quarters at the airfield.

Suddenly one of the Nazi Party men pulled a gun and shot Blackburn in the back. As he was falling, he was shot once again in the head. Clearly Robert M. Blackburn died while in the custody of Luftwaffe soldiers who had tried to protect him. At 24, he had logged a total of 347 combat hours. MacDiarmid later told American investigators, “This is an awful war memory that I will never forget in my lifetime.”

When the war ended several weeks later, Blackburn’s crashed P-47 was almost forgotten. In early 1946, Van Etten, second-in-command under Blackburn, borrowed an Army Stinson L-5 and flew to Dortmund from Wiesbaden. He later told Titre that he found “Blackie’s Jug inverted on the deck” at about a 10-degree angle. Just the tail was sticking up, with the letter “B” plainly visible. There were about six burned-out German planes approximately 300 yards from the “would be” nose position of Blackie’s bird. Van Etten told Titre this indicated Blackie had made more than one strafing pass. It was well known among P-47 pilots that more than one pass across an active German airfield was suicide.

The story of Robert Blackburn ends here, but not that of Thunderbolt G9*B. On February 1, 1991, according to a German newspaper story, a bulldozer was clearing an area near the old Dortmund Luftwaffe air base. As the digging progressed for the foundation of a new building, a portion of an American fighter was unearthed from “about 2.5 meters under the surface.”

At first the aircraft was thought to be a British fighter. Closer investigation showed it was an American P-47D. In 1994 a 54-yearold retired schoolteacher from Dortmund, Horst Munter, started investigating the Thunderbolt. Munter later said that his interest in aircraft stemmed from his memories of seeing the crashes of two Allied fighters, a Supermarine Spitfire and a Lockheed P-38, near his home when he was 5 years old.

Munter, who taught aerodynamics and chemistry at a local school, retrieved several of the parts from what has turned out to be G9*B. He has restored three of the four Curtiss Electric propeller blades, the badly damaged prop spinner and several parts from the cockpit and engine compartment.

Those parts, along with models of many of the aircraft from the 509th, are displayed at his home today. Munter’s investigations also led him to the name of the pilot of G9*B, Major Robert Blackburn, who had died on a sunny Sunday March afternoon in 1945.

Blackburn was buried in the Dortmund-Main Cemetery on March 30. A year later his remains were exhumed and sent to the American Ardennes Cemetery at Neupre, Belgium.


Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.