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65 Years Later, WWII Fighter Pilot Lives To Tell Harrowing Tale06:18
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On this Veterans Day, many are remembering loved ones who never made it home from war.

George Sutcliffe, of Greenville, R.I., is one of those who did make it. Barely.

At 86, Sutcliffe still has that straight-as-an-arrow bearing of the World War II Army fighter pilot he was, with a bit of a mischievous twinkle in his eye and an itch to climb into the cockpit to soar again.

We spoke with Sutcliffe a few weeks ago at the airport in Norwood, where restored and still flying World War II aircraft stood, wings spread, noses pointed to the runway, were ready to take flight again.

It's part of an ongoing nationwide tour of the bomber and fighter planes, owned and flown by the Stow-based Collings Foundation, which stages with the planes what it calls living history events.

Lt. Sutcliffe was deployed to Europe in December 1943, where he flew P-47 fighter-bombers, "Thunderbolts".

He was in the air on D-Day to escort bombers, drop his own, and strafe ground targets.

"We had at least two 500-pound bombs under the wing," Sutcliffe says, "and depending on the target we'd have a 1,000 pound bomb under the wings. And we'd dive bomb railroad yards, airports, bridges. We were trying to knock out areas that could benefit the Germans."

Sutcliffe says it was scary work at times.

"We had to fly so low all the time, they were throwing everything at us. The small-arms German fire was very good, the 20 millimeter guns that they had. And, of course, we got into an area where they had a lot of men, soldiers, we'd get shot up with the machine guns, rifles. ... We lost a lot of guys."

George Sutcliffe with a restored P-51 Mustang fighter plane in Norwood. (Sarah Bush/WBUR)
George Sutcliffe with a restored P-51 Mustang fighter plane in Norwood. (Sarah Bush/WBUR)

Sutcliffe said his most hair-raising experience came the week after D-Day over France, on June 14th, 1944.

"It was a flight of four. That's your basic fighting formation, four aircraft. We had dropped our bombs on a certain target, and then we were heading back to England, looking for targets of opportunity."

Sutcliffe's squadron was flying low, at 2,000 feet, right under a cloud layer.

"About 30 to 40 enemy aircraft came out of the clouds and lined up in back of us."

They were Messerschmitt 109's — fast, maneuverable, some of the best-built fighters the Luftwaffe put in the air. And at this moment they were there in force.

"As soon as I saw them I called the squadron commander, and I'm hollering, 'Colonel, break left, break left!' " Sutcliffe said. "As soon as he made the turn he looked at the number of aircraft coming at us, he said, 'Let's get the hell out of here, there's too many.' "

And that's what two of the American pilots did: They pulled safely into the clouds. Another was shot down, so that left Sutcliffe.

"I tried to get in the clouds but I couldn't. As I would take my shot at getting in the clouds, raising my nose and going full speed as I could.

"But the minute you get the nose so high you lose all aerodynamics and you almost stall it, you're just hanging. So these guys are coming at me from both sides and taking shots at me and putting holes in my plane."

Tracer fire blazed by his cockpit and a 20-millimeter cannon shell came through the back of the plane, stopped only by the armor plating right behind his head.

For 15 full minutes — an eternity in a dogfight — the way-outnumbered Sutcliffe pushed that P-47. He did corkscrews, dove for the ground, then headed for cloud cover, only to find he was blocked by the 109's. He dove again. And at one moment he was flying at 500 miles per hour, in a plane rated to top out at 450.

In all that maneuvering, he shot down a 109 before finally making it safely to the clouds.

"I felt like I maybe had a little help from above on that day," he says. "There was really no reason I should've got out of there."

Sutcliffe made an emergency landing on D-Day's Omaha Beach to get his plane patched up and refueled in order to make it over the English channel. When he got back to the base, Sutcliffe found that his squadron mates thought he hadn't made it out.

"I went back to my barracks and there's two guys trying my clothes on."

Sutcliffe never shot down another plane, but he saw plenty of other action. He flew 80 combat missions in all during World War II.

After he left the Army, Sutcliffe went to college and then started his own insurance business.

The skies still call to George Sutcliffe, who is now a member of the Rhode Island Aviation Hall of Fame.

Sutcliffe climbed into the cockpit of a restored P-51 fighter on that tarmac in Norwood — a plane similar to the "Thunderbolt" — took the stick, and flew to the next stop on plane's tour.

It was the second time he has flown that plane, and though at 86, with a little weaker eyesight and a bit slower reflexes, he still rolled that plane a couple of times over the field — this time just for show.

This program aired on November 11, 2009.

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