101-year-old Ed Cottrell flew 65 missions in Europe in a P-47 Thunderbolt with 48th Fighter Group, 493rd Fighter Squadron in 1944-1945. He joins VBC Happy Hour to talk about his experiences in World War II and in the decades after when he served in the Air Force Reserves, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel.
How he survived the war against Germany is still a mystery. One mission, during the Battle of the Bulge, on December 17, 1944, especially puzzles him.
Ed was a student at Slippery Rock University in Western Pennsylvania when he first got his pilot’s license. During his Junior year in 1943, the Air Corps called him to active duty. Before shipping overseas, he married his college sweetheart, Millie.
Based in France and Belgium, Ed did all kinds of flying, including a skip bombing mission in Germany, where 12 P-47s flew treetop level at 300 mph to bomb entrenched Germans who were preventing an American advance. It was a success, though about every plane returned with bullet-riddled bellies.
On December 17, his mission was to take out Tiger tanks east of Cologne headed to Bastogne. The Germans had just launched a devastating surprise attack on Allied lines the day before. The Battle of the Bulge, as it became known, was the largest US forces would face in Europe.
Taking out tanks on the move required dive-bombing, flying in low, dropping ordnance, and pulling up fast.
Just as Ed pulled his P-47 up from the dive, a pack of enemy ME-109 planes appeared.
“Bandit at One O’Clock!” Ed called to his squadron commander.
The bandit–a 109–turned toward Ed’s plane and fired its 20mm cannon. The blast struck Ed’s engine. Oil splattered over his windshield.
Ed flung open the canopy and radioed that he was going to head as far toward home as he could, chugging along at 120 mph.
Then, he looked left. Another German 109 was bearing down. On the right, still another. Ed and his plane were as good as gone.
The two German fighter pilots crisscrossed behind E’d P-47. Expecting to be shot, Ed was surprised with the enemy planes flew right up next to him and escorted him back to Allied lines.
The Germans “used their thumbs and first fingers to make a little circle and peeled off. That was the signal they were leaving me,” Ed explains. “‘Good luck and God bless’” was the message.
Disoriented and concerned about engine failure, Ed called on the radio for a nearby landing field. Just as he touched down, the engine seized. He made a dead-stick landing and rolled to a stop.
He climbed out of the cockpit and kissed the ground. A lot of other pilots and crew members weren’t so lucky that day. One of Ed’s roommates, 2nd Lt. Art Sommers, was one of the casualties. He never returned from the mission.
Join our conversation with Ed as he shares this story and many others from his long and heroic life.