The following is the first installment of a two-part series detailing two World War II Airmen and their visit to Chièvres Air Base, Belgium.
Every journey begins with a single step…
For Archie “Lin” Maltbie and Ralph Kling, their adventures began again each time they set foot on a flightline toward their Republic P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft assigned to the Ninth Air Force’s 365th Fighter Group.
“Flying was the favorite thing for me to do,” said Maltbie, a Turlock, Calif., native.
“It’s the best thing in the world – there’s no other thing like it,” said Kling, a Ramona, Calif., native. “I fly every night in my dreams.”
In their very early 20s, both men served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as part of the Allied air campaign over Europe following the D-Day invasion in the summer and winter of 1944 during World War II.
And like thousands of their fellow young Americans, their passion for aviation and love of country intersected: ensuring a complete victory every time they got in the cockpit.
“Most of us had one thought in mind: do the most we could do on each mission so we could get the war over and go home,” Maltbie said.
Their quest to end that war from their P-47s took them through many flights and even two death-defying escapes over the skies.
But despite those episodes, they did see it through and returned home, changed men matured through the experiences of war on a scale unimagined by mankind at the time.
Now both men, aged near 90, took another first step to embark on a similar journey – setting foot on the same flightlines and rolling fields they once encountered during the war 70 years ago.
The two veterans, along with members of the 365th Fighter Group Association, toured Chièvres Air Base, Belgium, Aug. 9 – while Kling had never been there, Maltbie took off from the same runway nearly 70 years ago.
“It’s very nostalgic – brings back a lot of memories, some of which are happy and some aren’t,” he said. “But it’s an honor to be here and be so well-received by the people.”
The installation is owned by U.S. Army Garrison-Benelux, but maintained by the U.S. Air Force’s 424th Air Base Squadron. The continued pairing of the two services represents a unique tribute to when the two merged during World War II.
In fact, Chièvres has the distinction of being the only “base” in the U.S. Army that is neither referred to as a “post” or “air field.”
Endless corn fields and pastures cultivated by the French-speaking Belgian farmers of Wallonia surround the base’s gates, perhaps just like it did when Allied pilots prepared for the Battle of the Bulge.
“We had some, I recall, some tough missions from here, but 70 years softens those quite a lot,” Maltbie said. “It’s amazing what 70 years will do to change locations which were in your mind and stayed with you for all these years. Then you come back to see them, and they’ve changed. Seventy years does that.”
“I made the right decision”
The nature of the Allied invasion led Maltbie to spend most of his flying missions dive-bombing military convoys and attacking airfields, railroads and marshalling yards.
“Many times, we’d have fighter sweeps and hopefully find some Luftwaffe to tangle with,” he said. “In general, we just tried to help the troops move forward.”
But a seemingly routine flight over the skies of France could very well have been his last.
Both he and his wingman scouted the countryside at low-level in their P-47s Aug. 14, 1944. As the two aircraft climbed altitude to rejoin their fellow fighters in the air, two enemy Messerschmitt ME-109 fighters began attacking the squadron.
“When we caught up to the approximate altitude that we had flown down from, I spotted three German aircraft off to my left at about 10 o’clock high,” he recalled.
With his duty to protect ground forces in mind, Maltbie closed in on the three enemy fighters before noticing two more just below to his right.
He turned his P-47 toward them and fired, just as he has done many times before.
So far, so good… until…
“The Luftwaffe plane blew up… then I ran through the debris and set my plane on fire,” he said. “A few moments later, there was gasoline bubbling up through the floor of the cockpit and flames coming out of the engine.”
Maltbie jettisoned from his cockpit into the wild blue yonder at the precise moment his already-grave situation could have become much worse.
“I was only out of the plane by a few seconds when my plane blew up,” he said. “So I made the right decision.”
Back on French soil, Maltbie met up with citizens friendly to the Allies who helped him evade potential capture. He eventually returned to flying status and continued fighting until the war’s conclusion.
Seventy years later, the P-47 pilot and his fellow countrymen have witnessed the advent of more capable weapons of warfare that have virtually removed all human involvement.
“The days of the fighter pilot dogfights are a thing of the past,” Maltbie said.
Today’s Airmen may have added the shadowy undercurrents of cyberspace as a theater for battle. Yet Maltbie observed how the human element is still highly valued despite the decades of technological advancements.
“People do appreciate your service – they don’t forget over the years,” said Maltbie about today’s Airmen. “I’ve got over 90 years of life, and 70 since the service, and people still remember.”
When asked about words of wisdom for 21st century Airmen, Maltbie said he drew inspiration behind a quote from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Americans value freedom and would rather die on their feet than live on their knees.”
“All intelligent men learn from history,” Maltbie added.
To be continued with Kling’s story “…and I was freed.”
To see more photos from the event, visit Spangdahlem’s Flickr page.
For more information on stories like this one, visit U.S. Army Benelux’s “Trenches to Foxholes” website.
For more information about the 365th Fighter Group, visit www.hellhawks.org.