A running dogfight raged over the city’s rooftops in July 1944.
Tommy Hayes was one of the most capable fighter squadron leaders of the U.S. Eighth Air Force. When I talked with him in 1998, I asked if there was any World War II mission that stood out from all the others. “It is hard to pinpoint just one mission, as there were quite a few exciting ones,” he told me. “There was the day I scored my last victory while we were giving cover to B-17s that were dropping supplies to partisans in southern France. The other was when we had a big dogfight over Paris. I kept my squadron up for top cover and sent the other two after the Germans. The aerial view of Paris with all of the streets radiating out like the spokes on a wheel is still clear in my mind.” His story inspired my painting The Boulevards of Paris.
Thomas L. Hayes Jr. got his wings in February 1941 and served in the Pacific before joining the 357th Fighter Group. He flew Curtiss P-40s with the 17th Pursuit Squadron, and was shot down and wounded over Java on February 19, 1942. Later posted to the 35th Fighter Group in New Guinea, he was credited with destroying two Japanese aircraft on the ground while flying Bell P-39s and P-400s. He joined the 357th and took over the 364th Fighter Squadron on July 8, 1943, commanding that squadron until he went back to the States in mid-August 1944. He finished the war with 8½ aerial victories and two ground victories.
On July 25, 1944, 54 North American P-51 Mustangs of the 357th Fighter Group went on a fighter sweep over France in support of Operation Cobra, the U.S. First Army’s breakout from Normandy. The fliers took off from their base at Leiston, England, with Lt. Col. Hayes leading them in his P-51D, named Frenesi after a popular song of the day.
Hayes and the 357th loitered over Normandy until 1115, then swept the area from Angers to Le Mans to Paris at about 20,000 feet. On the northwest outskirts of Paris they spotted 25 or more Messerschmitt Me-109s and Focke Wulf Fw-190s attacking some Lockheed P-38 Lightnings. Hayes ordered the 362nd and 363rd squadrons to attack the Germans while he and his 364th Squadron provided top cover.
The ensuing combat ranged from 8,000 feet down to the Parisian rooftops. Hayes’ pilots destroyed five Me-109s and damaged a sixth without any losses. Captain Leonard “Kit” Carson, whose plane is also depicted in the painting, went on to become the 357th’s highest scoring ace, with 18½ aerial and 3½ ground victories. On this date he shot down an Fw-190, bringing his score to 4½ kills. He described the combat in his after-action report: “We ran head-on into about 20 enemy aircraft at 20,000 ft. They were about five miles west of Paris and headed for town for protection. I singled out an FW 190 and came within shooting range at 4,000 ft. in the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower. I fired several long bursts from 300 yards, doing 400 mph and seeing many strikes on the fuselage. The ship started to smoke and pieces flew off at every burst. He got down to 2,000 ft. and he was burning and smoking so badly and the flak was so intense that I pulled away. I was going about 150 I.A.S. [indicated airspeed] in a 30 degree glide when I broke away and am certain that his engine was dead. I claim one FW 190 destroyed.”
Flying on Carson’s wing that day was Raymond “Ted” Conlin, who continued the story in the 357th Over Europe, by Merle Olmstead: “We were now at 300 ft. and Kit was getting hits all over the Focke Wulf when its engine failed. We were headed east just above the Grand Armée–Champs Elysées Boulevard. It looked like the 190 was going to crash into the Arc de Triomphe and the pilot must have been dead because he did not try to jump.
“Carson broke away and I was fascinated, watching the prop wind-milling as the 190 headed for its demise. All of a sudden I realized Carson was gone and I was at 300 ft. and every soldier with a weapon was firing at me….The Germans had AA weapons on the roofs and in the parks and they were all concentrating on me. I saw the Seine River off to my right and swung down into it, hugging the north bank which is about 50 ft. high. The guns could not depress enough to reach me that way.”
The “Yoxford Boys” all made it home that day. A couple of weeks later Hayes’ tour was up. He stayed in the Air Force until 1970, retiring as a brigadier general.
The Yoxford Boys racked up the highest kill-to-loss ratio of the Eighth Air Force. In just 14½ months, the 357th Fighter Group scored 591 aerial and 106 ground victories, producing 42 aces and more victories against German jets (18½) than any other unit.
Originally published in the July 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.