In the Fall of 2017, I was asked to write an article about my father for Lightning Strikes, the official publication of the P-38 National Association. It was published in the March 2018 issue. Since the publication is print-only, I include it here in digital form…
There’s a saying that my father, Roger W. Trueblood, passed down to me, and that I’ve passed on to my kids and now my grandkids. It comes from late 1943, as he struggled in basic pilot training. Still an aviation cadet, his roommate was a horrendous snorer. He couldn’t get a good night’s sleep, which was affecting his performance in the cockpit. He was starting to worry about washing out. Raised in Brainerd, Minnesota, Roger was always a practical problem solver. Upon discovering that the adjoining room was unoccupied, he started sleeping there instead. One morning an instructor found him in the “unauthorized” quarters and yelled at him, “Cadet! What are you doing in here?!?” Bleary-eyed, Dad braced up boldly and responded, “Sir! Everybody’s gotta be somewhere!!”
Now if you think about it, that’s pretty profound. It wasn’t intended that way, but it perfectly captures my father’s approach to life and that phrase became a gem of wisdom he left behind for his posterity.
Predictably, the instructor was not amused and Dad got two weeks of KP for being a smartass. However, he was allowed to continue sleeping in the unused room. Problem solved. Soon after, he successfully earned his pilot’s wings. And weeks later, he had solved enough other problems to be selected to fly the P-38 Lightning, the sleekest, most deadly ship in the sky.
In 1944, he shipped out to England where he and several other freshly-minted pilots joined the 428th Fighter Squadron in the 474th Fighter Group, one of three P-38 groups in the 9th Air Force. The group had recently begun operating from Warmwell, on the southern coast. Roger reported on May 9th, along with five other “butter-bar” lieutenants; Richard Holt, Robert Rubel, Jerome Zierlen, Lloyd Wenzel and Bobbie Rankin. He soon forged tight friendships, especially with Lloyd Wenzel and Bobby Rankin.
Throughout May, the 474th was focused on preparing the battlespace for the pending invasion, and the P-38 proved to be outstanding for that mission. The Lighting was one of the only true, multi-role fighters in WWII and Roger’s mission logs reflect that. His first combat sortie came on May 20th, an escort mission for B-26s. Just days later he was flying on perhaps the most momentous day of the war. As allied troops came ashore on D-Day, he was dive-bombing a railroad bridge over the Seine.
On June 21st he escorted 8th Air Force B-17s as they returned from bombing Berlin. It was an exhausting and dangerous mission, as he described in his wartime diary:
Oh man, 5 ½ hours in that cockpit – I was too tired to even get out of plane – Crew came running out claiming I had quite a few holes, and I did – half an aileron gone, holes in both flaps. Big hole in elevator, trim tab gone, hole through wheel casing, intercooler framing pulverized, holes in gun compartment and chunk out of prop. Miraculously they didn’t hit an engine or hurt my power or hydraulic lines in any way – after this mission I’m ready for some sleep.
(See his wartime diary, with photos, maps, historical notes and official mission logs)
The group moved to France in August to support the breakout from Normandy and the subsequent race across Europe. Through August and September, they operated from forward airfields, living in tents, slogging through sticky French mud and flying dangerous ground-support missions. Dad made the best of it, though, and told great stories of those days, such as the great “pineapple chunks” caper.
One night he and some buddies went on a midnight “requisition” raid to liberate a can of diced pineapple from the supply tent. Huddling in a circle in their darkened tent, they passed it around. Each man would spear a single chunk with his fork, hold it up in the flashlight’s beam, then describe the juicy, golden fruit in detail. It quickly turned into a contest to see who could compose the most loquacious description, then, upon partaking, derive the most ecstatic, carnal pleasure at the taste. To this day, whenever I see pineapple I think of Dad’s ability to derive maximum enjoyment out of simple things.
In October, life got a little easier when the 474th moved to an airfield outside Florennes, Belgium. The pilots’ quarters there were in a stately building they called “the Chateau”. Danger still lurked in the air, however. While primarily flying ground attack missions, the 474th routinely clashed with Luftwaffe fighters and was credited with 90.5 air-to-air victories during the war. Roger shot down three FW-190s, for an official score of 2.5 victories. He always downplayed these engagements, telling me they were tame affairs. But when I read the official logs, I saw they weren’t tame at all. His third shoot-down, for example, was a hair-raising experience. Here’s his official debrief from December 5th, 1944:
I was leading the squadron in an armed recce SW of Koln. I instructed the squadron to circle while I checked a target through a hole. I dive-bombed some tracks and as I pulled up, I spotted six FW-190s climbing through the overcast. I called for Yellow Flight to follow and Lt. Hagemeyer, Yellow Leader, joined on my wing with Blue Flight for top cover. By this time, I could count 12-plus [enemy aircraft] and we attacked the top flight of four. As we closed, they flipped over and Split-S’d into the clouds. We followed their No. 4 man through, breaking out at around 1500 ft. I closed to 400 yards directly astern and from my first bursts I observed strikes and flashes around his cockpit and pieces coming from him… He turned slowly to the right and I followed, getting strikes. I closed to less than 100 yards and pieces of his aircraft hit my propeller, tearing off my spinner and most of my cowling.
After landing his battered plane the crew presented him with a piece of the exploded Focke-Wulf that was found embedded in the oil cooler. I still have it today.
On December 17th, the Germans started their massive counter-attack, now known as the Battle of the Bulge. As abysmal weather closed in and grounded allied aircraft, German tanks pushed within 15 miles of Florennes. Dad was stuck right at the tip of the bulge. On December 22nd, the weather finally lifted and all three 474th squadrons surged into the fight, flying multiple attack runs just miles from the airfield. Enemy ground fire was intense. Every time the P-38s dove to attack, they were met with multiple streams of fire. “It looked like flaming golf balls coming at us,” said Roger. For several days, the 428th squadron lost men on almost every mission.
Christmas dawned as a beautiful day and the P-38s performed superbly in the cold, crisp air. By then, Roger and his best friend, Bobbie Rankin were among squadron’s most experienced pilots and they both led missions that day. Dad came back, but Rankin was shot down and killed. He wasn’t the only friend Dad lost. Of the six butter-bars who reported to the 428th in May, only Roger and Lloyd Wenzel came back from the war. They remained close friends the rest of their lives.
Late in 1945, Roger was about to be “mustered out” into civilian life when he heard about some outfit in California looking for former P-38 pilots. He made a phone call and lo-and-behold it was a buddy from the 474th, who said, “Rog, you gotta get out here!” That was all the clearance he needed. Without orders, he packed everything into his car and started driving. A week later he rolled into March Field, outside Riverside, and checked in to the very first squadron flying the new P-80 Shooting Star, America’s first operational jet fighter.
Within a couple weeks they wrangled him some orders and he was officially in on the ground floor of what would soon become the United States Air Force. For nearly three decades, he served the Air Force and his country as a pilot, award-winning squadron commander, Pentagon planner, base commander and always as a leader. He retired in 1974 as a full Colonel after 31 years of service, and settled in St. George, Utah. He passed away, too early, in 1993.