One Lucky Ace
Capt. William Bruce “Bill” Overstreet Jr. reached great heights and international fame as a fighter pilot during World War II and received two Silver Stars for his bravery. He was born April 10, 1921, and raised in the small Alleghany mountain town of Clifton Forge, Virginia.
When the United States joined the Allied forces after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Bill enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He left his job as a statistical engineer for Columbia Engineering, as well as his education at Morris Harvey College (now the University of Charleston) in Charleston, West Virginia.
A few months later, he was in Santa Anna, California, for preflight training, then to Rankin Aeronautical Academy for primary flight training and then on to basic flight training in Lemoore, California, and at Luke Field in Arizona. After graduation, he was assigned to the 357 Fighter Group, 363 Fighter Squadron and shipped out aboard the Queen Elizabeth across the Atlantic for deployment at Raydon Airfield as part of the Ninth Air Force.
There were no planes available at that point, so Bill felt fairly useless, but as luck would have it, North American P-51 Mustangs were becoming available. The Ninth Air Force traded Bill’s plane-less squadron for a squadron of pilots and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts with the Eighth Air Force—Bill found himself stationed at RAF Leiston. He got to fly a P-51 for the first time on January 30, 1944. As the inventory of the planes increased, the opportunity to fly them increased as well.
Bill’s extraordinary flight training and combat experiences were published in a Warbirds News story from an interview when he was in his 90s. Bill’s own words are quoted from the Warbirds article.
As Bill honed his skills and progressed through his flight training, he flew many types of planes with several flight leaders. After joining the 363 Fighter Squadron, as it was being moved from Nevada to Santa Rosa, California, he came under the tutelage of Lloyd Hubbard, who Bill thought was very good.
“We all thought we could buzz pretty closely, but while we may be able to ‘mow the fairway’ on a golf course, only Hub could ‘mow the greens.’ Hubbard took a flight of four to the Golden Gate Bridge and did loops around it,” Overstreet recalls. “You know we were having fun! But complaints came in, and charges were placed. We liked to buzz farmers, sunbathers or anything.”
Years later, Bill asked why they got by with so much. A training officer replied, “If you were picking pilots for combat, who would you pick? The fellows who flew straight and level or the ones who pushed the envelope and tested the limits of their planes?”
Little did Bill know that it was just that type of flying that would bring him international recognition and fame 65 years later.
Bill tested fate more than once in his flying career. While in combat training on June 28, 1943, he had his first crash, flying a Bell P-39 Airacobra. The plane went into a dreaded flat spin, a condition uniquely devastating for that model and which claimed many a pilot’s life. Bill and his squadron mates were practicing aerobatic maneuvers when his plane started tumbling and he couldn’t control it. Bill went to release the Airacobra’s doors, but the air pressure prevented them from opening.
He finally managed to get a knee against one door with his shoulder against the other, overcoming the pressure, and the moment he got out, he pulled the ripcord on his parachute. The moment the chute snapped open Bill found himself standing amidst the wreckage of his plane right by the propeller. He was so close to the ground when he escaped his doomed plane that none of his flight mates even saw his chute deploy. Bill believes he was perhaps the first pilot to survive the crash of a tumbling P-39, and he made a point of tracking down the man who packed his chute to thank him personally for a job well done.
He tested fate again while flying over the French countryside.
“Not long after (the March 6 mission), I had a freak accident. I think it was a mission to southern France,” he says. “While over enemy territory, a burst of flak cut my oxygen line. Since I was at about 25,000 feet, I soon passed out. The next thing I knew, I was in a spin, engine dead since the fuel tank it was set on was dry. Somehow, I recovered from the spin, changed fuel setting, got the engine started and dodged the trees that were in front of me. Then, I looked at my watch. Ninety minutes were not in my memory.
“I had no idea where I was, but remembered where I had been headed, so I reversed it. I was able to find the coast of France and headed for Leiston. By this time, I was low on fuel, so I landed at the Fourth Group base. The officer I talked with was Captain Mead, who had lived a couple of blocks from my home in Clifton Forge, Virginia. To top it off, the mechanic who repaired my plane was ‘Hot Cha’ Tucker, a former schoolmate, also from Clifton Forge. I still have a picture of Tucker and me with a P-47. Many weeks later, this story got a lot of publicity—Lowell Thomas on radio, newspapers and Time magazine.”
Later in spring 1944, Bill, flying his P-51C Mustang, Berlin Express, would perform the feat that would make him famous—chasing a German bomber over Paris and with guns blazing underneath the Eiffel Tower. The scene is immortalized in the artwork by Len Krenzler. The French were inspired by his flight, and in 2009 he was awarded France’s Legion of Honor at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia.
The two planes had been in a running dogfight. The German pilot flew over Paris hoping that the heavy German anti-aircraft artillery would solve his problem and eliminate Overstreet and the Berlin Express. Bill managed to get some hits in at about 1,500 feet, and the German’s engine was billowing black smoke. Bill stayed on his tail braving the intense enemy flak.
His desperation undoubtedly growing, the German pilot aimed his plane at the Eiffel Tower, and, in a surprising maneuver, flew beneath it. Undeterred, Bill followed right behind him, scoring several more hits in the process. The German plane crashed, and Bill escaped the heavy flak around Paris by flying low and full throttle over the river until he had cleared the city’s heavy anti-aircraft batteries.
“He (the German pilot) figured I’d try to get around and he’d have time to get away. He was wrong,” Bill says. “I was right behind him, right under the Eiffel Tower with him. And when he pulled up, I did get him. But that’s a huge space. That’s not close at all. There’s plenty of room to go under the Eiffel Tower—but it makes a good story.”
His performance on top-secret missions saw him assigned for OSS missions, flying supplies to the free French and picking up downed airmen and intelligence dispatches from behind enemy lines. His tour of duty ended in October 1944, and Bill returned to the States. His next assignment was to teach at the gunnery school in Pinellas, Florida.
Bill was released from active duty, but kept in Reserves; he returned to Charleston, West Virginia, and worked as the General Manager of Charleston Aviation for a time before moving to Roanoke, Virginia, in 1950. He became a CPA and continued in that profession until he retired in 1984.
William Overstreet died December 29, 2013, at the age of 92 and is buried at Evergreen Burial Park.