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M  I  S  S  I  O  N

Watson's Whizzers  -  America's First Jet Fighter Squadron

 

Colonel "Hal" Watson was no stranger to flying new or unusual aircraft, and his engineering background made him a natural choice to lead the Air Technical Intelligence effort.  Since the target lists he had been given included aircraft of all types, Watson divided the effort among two teams.  One was dispatched in search of conventional aircraft, while the other team was charged with the jet mission.  The pages which follow trace the history of the latter group.

 

Then-Colonel Harold E. Watson in 1945.  Credit: USAF

While assigned to the 1st Tactical Air Force headquarters, Watson met a veteran P-47 pilot assigned to the staff there by the name of Lieutenant Robert C. Strobell.  Although their duties rarely brought them into contact with one another, the two did have a rather odd opportunity to share a cockpit on one occasion.  In early 1945, Watson received a request to fly back a stricken B-17 that was several miles away in France.  Knowing that Strobell was a seasoned aviator, the Colonel made it a point to gather up Strobell on his way out of the door.  Of course, the young fighter pilot had no great ambition to lumber about in a damaged bomber, but after a harrowing flight the two successfully recovered the plane.  The Lieutenant's performance on that day clearly impressed Watson, for a few months later when word came down to assemble the exploitation teams, Strobell was immediately summoned to direct the efforts of the jet recovery group.

On the 20th of May, 1945, Strobell received orders assigning him to the mission.  He recalls the meeting:

Watson came into my office with a stack of documents on the Me 262, and simply told me to draw field gear, go to Lechfeld, teach mechanics to restore the Me 262 to flying condition, teach pilots to fly the jet, and prepare to ferry the jets out of Germany.  The whole meeting lasted less than two minutes.  I told him that I was delighted.  He didn't bother to ask if I had any questions.  Neither of us knew how to operate or fly the Me 262, and so there were no answers.

The intelligence reports that I had been given indicated that there were Me 262's on the field that could be restored to flight condition.  At that time I understood that there was a German crew at Lechfeld working on the jets, but I had no knowledge of how many jets were on the field.  

Further details were noticeably absent.  

With a loose understanding that the rest of the team would meet him there, Strobell gathered his equipment and set out for the captured airfield on the 27th of May.  He was understandably wary of what he would find there, as the area had fallen to the U.S. Army only two or three weeks before.  

The heavily damaged aerodrome at Lechfeld as it appeared on Strobell's arrival.  Credit: Brown

   

While the terms of a new surrender were in place, many pockets of resistance were rumored to be active, especially in southern Germany and Austria -- prime Me 262 country.  To his way of thinking, Lechfeld was still very much "enemy territory."  Strobell boarded a transport headed southeast knowing that it was a one way ticket.  When and if he was coming back, it would have to be in a Messerschmitt.

 


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