The kid, the codger and the Christmas of ’44

Bobby was known as “The Kid,” for his youthful appearance. Just a few months older, Roger got tagged with the nickname “The Codger.” In December 1944, they found themselves at the crux of the massive German offensive through the Ardennes…

rogerandbobbieThose old black-and-white photographs from the 1940s always show them bright-eyed, exuberant and young — ridiculously young — for the responsibilities they were soon to shoulder.  Roger and Bobby were just teenagers barely out of high school when they enlisted.  Those were sobering days, when American casualty lists grew exponentially and it looked like we could actually lose the war.

Separately, they each decided the Army Air Corps was for them and each was accepted for flight school. With pluck and luck, they earned their wings and both were eventually assigned to Europe with the 428th Squadron of the 474th Fighter Group, flying the twin-tailed P-38 Lightning in Europe.

In early 1944, the P-38 was the first American fighter to take on the role of escorting the B-17 and B-24 long-range bombers on daylight missions over the continent. Roger remembered those deadly, high-altitude battles with enemy fighters streaking through the formations, bursts of flak dotting the sky, and stricken aircraft tumbling through space.

On D-Day, the squadron was assigned the historic role of providing top cover for the invasion fleet. Later that summer, the 428th moved to forward airfields in France to support allied ground forces. This new mission was the most dangerous yet, since each strafing or bombing run risked fire from anti-aircraft cannon, machine guns, and even rifles.

p38satflorrenesThrough the shared peril of those missions, Roger and Bobby became fast friends. Bobby was known as “The Kid,” for his youthful appearance. Just a few months older, Roger got tagged with the nickname “The Codger.”

In December, they found themselves at the crux of the massive German offensive that became the Battle of the Bulge. Abysmal weather grounded most allied aircraft early on, and the 428th nearly evacuated when German tanks pushed within 15 miles of their muddy airstrip outside Florennes, Belgium — right at the tip of the “bulge”.

p38strikesOn Dec. 22, however, the weather lifted and the P-38s, along with many other types, surged into the fight, flying multiple attack runs just miles from their airfields. The ground fire was intense, the most lethal of the war for the 428th.

Every time a plane dove to attack, it was met with multiple streams of fire. “The 20mm fire looked like flaming golf balls coming at us,” said Roger, “and 40mm stuff looked like angry red baseballs.” For several days, the squadron lost men on almost every mission.

Christmas 1944 dawned as a beautiful, clear flying day and the P-38s performed superbly in the cold, crisp air. Bobby’s flight was soon strafing German armored columns. He dove in for an attack, but witnesses said he never pulled out. No chute was seen. Back at the airfield, Roger got word of his friend’s death over the radio.

In those few climactic days, Roger rose to be a combat leader in the 428th. The onslaught of allied airpower he took part in decisively broke the German Ardennes offensive, and he went on to become one of America’s first jet pilots and to serve a 31-year career in the US Air Force. During the war, he downed three enemy aircraft and landed several P-38s shot so full of holes they never flew again. Through it all, he was physically unscathed — but emotionally, he never really got over losing his best friend that Christmas morning of ’44.

I know because he was my father, Roger W. Trueblood.

I’m not really much for parades or ceremony, but the sacrifices made by men like my father who made it home, and those who didn’t — like Bobby Rankin — are always present with me. I pray that future generations of Americans never forget their service.

–Ajax

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