WW II ace Richard Asbury reminisces

 

Photo: Captain Asbury poses in the cockpit of his P-51D Mustang circa April 1945.

It was a very different era during which Richard (“Dick”) Asbury was born. His birth took place on September 24, 1920, in Prince Frederick, Maryland. World War I had recently ended, and the aeroplanes of the day were largely fabric, wood and wire kites. Behind was the Great War, but ahead lay the Great Depression and three conflicts in which Dick would serve with distinction.

Richard enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve on April 28, 1942, at Baltimore, Maryland. He entered the U.S. Army Air Corps’ Aviation Cadet Program on August 29, 1942. Primary Flight Training took place at Arcadia, Fla. Dick learned the rudiments of flying in Stearman/Boeing PT-17 Stearman biplanes. Basic Flight Training followed at Bainbridge, Georgia. During this phase he found himself mastering more advanced Vultee BT-13 Vibrators. Completing the course, Richard took advanced instruction in North American T-6 Texans at Marianna Army Air Field, Fla. He graduated with Class 43-E with the rank of second lieutenant on May 28, 1943. When asked about his impressions about flying from Marianna, Dick said the locale was pleasant. In fact, the “tropical Florida climate provided beautiful cumulus clouds to fly up alongside, and the natural urge for a pilot was to try to top the towering columns of water vapor.”

Following graduation, Richard went to the 328th Fighter Group at Hamilton Field, California. Soon an assignment to the 327th Fighter Squadron at San Francisco International Airport was forthcoming. After a period of time, Dick found himself in Tonopah, Nevada. There he learned to fly Bell P-39 Airacobras, unique fighter aeroplanes that featured a tricycle undercarriage and the engine aft of the cockpit.

Referring to his time in the P-39, Dick stated the following: “I had loads of fun flying it. After the tail draggers it was like having a toy because of ‘driving’ around on the tricycle gear. In the moist air at the San Francisco International Airport it was routine to pull vapor streamers off the wing tips on a break for landing. The normal landing pattern for the Northwest runway was to cross Coyote Point (a point of land gutting out in the bay south of the Northwest runway) at 10,000 ft, and dive for the end of that runway. We would peel up and around to land. Our squadron had a hot pilot commander back from a tour in the South Pacific who was watching our patterns. We would catch his wrath if we didn’t pull streamers until one day my roommate, Bob Allen, snapped into a spin and spun in. He was killed in the crash. I had to accompany Bob Allen’s body back to his family in Michigan. It was a tough job. Things were a little relaxed after that incident.”

Returning to San Francisco International Airport, Dick resumed training and stood on alert status. Luckily, he was able to frequent the Skyway Lounge. This establishment was a popular haunt for the airline stewardesses and understandably also became a favorite of Richard’s.

Mr. Asbury then completed fighter training. Beginning in August 1943, Richard joined the 382nd Fighter Squadron, 363rd Fighter Group, at Santa Rosa, California. From there, he ended up at Hayward, California. In October 1943, Dick then rode a train to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. The excursion encompassed many days. However, Richard and his fellow Air Corps travelers enjoyed their own rail car and mess. For entertainment, the young men played poker.

A new experience awaited Richard on the east coast. There he boarded the famous ocean liner RMS Queen Elizabeth. All the pilots, 23 in number, were, as Dick says, “packed and stacked” within the same stateroom. In total, the converted luxury liner took aboard some 23,000 men.

The voyage to the United Kingdom took 8 days. Eventually, the Firth of Clyde came into view and then the converted liner, with its human cargo instead of tourists, arrived at Glasgow, Scotland. From that point, Richard traveled by rail to Keevil, England. After a short stay at Keevil, he made his way to RAF Rivenhall in East Anglia. So, in February 1944 Dick found himself situated with the 382nd about 40 miles east of London.

The 382nd was the first, on January 24, 1944, 363rd Group squadron to arrive. Soon thereafter, early and used models of North American P-51s, powered by Allison engines, dribbled in for training use. Many of these Mustangs had been previously employed in tactical fighter and reconnaissance roles. Richard checked out in the unfamiliar birds.

Dick pointed out that the 363rd was the third group scheduled to receive the new P-51B, which featured a Packard-built Merlin powerplant. The book P-51 Bomber Escort credits the P-51B with an impressive top speed of 440 mph at 30,000 feet and an extraordinary range of 2,200 miles with auxiliary drop tanks. Furthermore, the “B” model could carry a pair of 1,000 pound bombs in lieu of the external fuel containers. Standard armament for the P-51B was a quartet (two in each wing) of .50-caliber machine guns.

The “B” model’s excellent endurance and good performance made it the logical choice for long-range bomber escort. Richard explained that although the 363rd was part of the Ninth Air Force the group was on loan to the Eighth Air Force for such missions. Combat operations began in February 1944, which was the same month he put first lieutenant bars on his collars.

Although many aviation units dreaded the English weather as much as the Germans, Richard stated that the 363rd fortuitously encountered few meteorological problems. Furthermore, there were few mechanical failures and ground and aviator inexperience was not much of a factor. The squadron was eager and ready.

Dick’s first mission took place on March 2, 1944. On this day the 382nd was part of the escort assembled for some 327 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and 154 Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers. Their target was Frankfurt, Germany. To the question of whether or not Dick experienced fear, he said, “You bet!” However, despite his nervousness, all went well.

Richard’s second mission was an escort flight that took 5 hours on March 3, 1944. The pilots feared not only the Germans but also ditching or parachuting into the cold North Sea. This would mean a quick death in icy waters. Dick recalls being “very apprehensive” before takeoff. During this sortie he and his mates protected 748 Allied bombers. Around the larger airplanes were 730 friendly fighters. Battle ensued when the Luftwaffe put in an appearance. The group lost 8 fighters but downed an equal number. Richard recalled that after mere seconds the previously crowded sky cleared. He commented that it “was a very strange and lonely feeling high above nothing but enemy territory.”

March 4 brought yet another mission. This tasking entailed the shepherding of medium bombers to targets in northern France. The weather was very bad, with clouds solid from the deck up to 25,000-30,000 feet. Dick, now flying wing, experienced unusual and extreme flight conditions, including the flight leader implementing a tight spiral while within the solid overcast. Richard transferred control of his Mustang to the flight controls, backed off and descended below the overcast. Shaken, he returned to base. Richard feels the rest of the flight went down into the North Sea. The 382nd’s costs due to the dreadful conditions were 6 airplanes and their pilots. The group lost 11 in total. Dick flatly states that this mission was “a disaster.”

Richard was up again on March 8 for an escort to Berlin. Dick and his 890 fighter friends escorted 320 B-17s and 150 B-24s. The Luftwaffe sent in interceptors and about 38 American bombers became casualties. The 363rd came home with 18 missing. German losses were about 77 aircraft. March 22’s effort incorporated 657 bombers and 817 fighters. Losses totaled 13 airplanes.

The aforementioned missions, Dick explained, were a test of the “Big Week” theory. Hopefully, as a result of massive bombing raids the intercepting Luftwaffe would suffer crippling losses. The Allied air forces would thereby gain air superiority. Plans went forward. Targets selected were aircraft factories, ball bearing plants, airfields, railroads marshalling yards and oil refineries. However, the overall results were not as good as hoped.

On April 14, 1944, the 363rd moved to RAF Stapelhurst, which was near Maidstone in southern England. In late April and May the 382nd shifted to tactical targets. The Mustangs’ sorties were for dive-bombing, strafing and fighter sweeps to transportation and communication centers in France, Belgium and Holland. The squadron also flew escort missions for swift Martin B-26 Marauder medium and Douglas A-20 Havoc light bombers.

Richard never forgot June 6, 1944. Early that day he was in Tunbridge Wells on a two-day leave. With “D-Day” operations commencing, Dick rushed back to Staplehurst. There he disappointedly sat idle all day while “on alert” in the cockpit of his Mustang. Finally, at 2100 hours, orders came and the Mustangs’ large 4-blade propellers began to slowly rotate with the whine of electric starters. One by one the Merlin engines coughed into life, belching blue smoke and flame from the planes’ exhaust stacks. The aerodrome soon roared as the sleek fighters raced down the strip and lifted gracefully into the gray sky, their undercarriages retracting as they left the field behind.

The 382nd was to escort slow and vulnerable Douglas C-47 Skytrains. The twin engine transports were serving as tugs for defenseless WACO CG-4 Hadrian gliders. The Wacos contained soldiers and equipment. They were heading to an area behind Omaha Beach.

While the C-47s released the gliders, the Mustangs patrolled over the area and escorted their C-47 charges back to England. It was a 3.5 hour mission, during which Richard neither fired a round of ammunition nor dropped a single bomb. Yet, Dick stated that the mission provided him with an unforgettable memory. He said the unprecedented and incredibly massive invasion taking place below was “a spectacle” Richard said the following: “It was a sight never before seen from the air and never to be seen again. A giant could have stepped across the channel ship by ship.” Richard explained that, from the cockpit of his P-51 high above, he could see ships firing tracers and other flaming projectiles. All were red-hot and glowing as they curved through the darkening sky. Additionally, flashes of the heavier shells’ explosions were visible beyond the beachhead.

Mr. Asbury stated the following: “On D-Day there were so many missions flown the numbers are staggering. There were 925 troop carriers, and 104 of them pulled gliders. The British utilized 500 troop carriers. It was the largest airborne assault in history. In total, the Eighth Air Force flew 2,587 bomber sorties to targets in, around and behind the assault area. The Ninth Air Force completed an additional 3,342 missions. Only two heavy bombers and 25 fighters or fighter-bombers failed to return. The Eighth Air Force fighter groups lost 10 pilots and planes. German aerial opposition was next to nil. Only 2 Focke-Wulfe Fw 190s were seen until late in the day when 12 Fw 190s and 12 Junkers Ju 87 Stukas appeared near nightfall. Of these, only 2 reached the beaches.” Dick added the following: “Except for the troop carrier sorties that I mentioned, these numbers are only the United States’ effort. The Allied total numbers are really staggering – 3,467 heavy bombers, 1,645 medium bombers and 5,409 fighters in the air on D-Day. Not one aircraft was shot down by the German Air Force [Luftwaffe] but we lost 113 to flak.” Dick believes the foregoing was because the Allies had isolated the battlefield during April and May. He explained, “We had disabled most of the French rail system and shut off their road traffic. The Luftwaffe had to move back into Germany.” Richard emphasized that “over and around the assault area the biggest danger was running into one of the other Allied aircraft.”

After the invasion, the heavy bombers resumed attacks on Germany and the Ninth Air Force concentrated on tactical missions. On July 4, 1944, Richard and his squadron relocated to an aerodrome near Cherbourge, France. From there Dick began flying dive-bombing, strafing, fighter sweeps and armed reconnaissance sorties. Corpses of dead German soldiers were still littering the grounds. Also, unspent ammunition was all over the area and armed booby traps posed a danger to the inquisitive or inattentive.

June 25 brought victory in the air. James “Jimmy” Jabara, Dick’s wingman, coordinated with Dick to destroy a Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Quickly thereafter Richard maneuvered to damage a Messerschmitt Bf 109 with gunfire. These tallies were the first successes for both men.

At the time of the first shared kill, Dick had flown 45 combat missions and the engagement on June 25 was the first time he had engaged an enemy aircraft aloft. Richard explained that there were two reasons for this fact. Firstly, his group commander and squadron commander strictly adhered to the policy of staying with the bombers on escort missions. This standard procedure was known as the ‘close escort’ policy.” Dick continued, “You would face a court-martial if you left the formation and ran off after an enemy aircraft. I couldn’t engage because of that policy and my squadron leader would not engage. I was only an element leader or wingman. There were leadership problems in my group.” Richard continued, “Secondly, I was just unlucky because I had only seen enemy airplanes about twice before.”

Most of the missions Dick flew on up to the middle of June were escorts. The missions were becoming different. During July 1944 Richard flew mostly fighter sweeps, armed patrols and reconnaissance sorties. After D-Day the 382nd also began flying in an 8-ship flight (a pair of 4-aircraft flights), and he became a flight leader. Dick stated, “Then we had more liberty.” Richard now possessed considerable experience. He stated, “I led the squadron often and could make decisions. I was in my glory now.”

Richard soon had to put his new decision making freedom to use. On July 18 he was leading 2 flights on a sweep when they found 50-100 Bf 109s and Fw 190s near Agentan and Falaise, France. The converging aircraft found themselves approximately above the line of battle on the ground. Richard immediately jettisoned his auxiliary petrol tanks, “broke into the gaggle, followed by the rest of the squadron and engaged all of them.” Dick said, “There was a classic dogfight, and we shot down 10 of them and damaged quite a few others. We lost 1 aircraft and pilot; he was my element leader.” Richard further described the melee as follows: “Everyone, friend and foe, had enemies on his tail. Round and round we went. Three of my .50 caliber machine guns jammed. Nevertheless, I shot down one Me-109 and damaged 2 others.”

Dick continued to fly until August 8, when he returned to the United States. At that point he had flown 62 missions, and had officially destroyed 1.5 enemy airplanes and 3 damaged more. Rest and relaxation were his next undertaking.

Richard was in the States until October. Then he and three other (Jack Warner, Felix Koyacyka and George Recango) 363rd pilots processed through Atlantic City, NJ. They shipped back to Europe aboard RMS Aqutania.

In November 1944 Captain Asbury returned to the European Theater with the 356th Fighter Squadron, 354th Fighter Group, in England. Under orders to rejoin the 382nd in France, they made their way to Paris in search of their unit. However, no one there seemed to know of the squadron’s location. They learned that the 363rd was now a tactical reconnaissance group. Their squadron was supposedly in Belgium. So off to Brussels they went, finally locating the group 354th the city. Upon reporting for duty, it became apparent that there were no places for the foursome. Therefore, the foursome “retreated” to Paris for a few days of relaxation. After expending their funds, the depleted men made their way to 9th Air Force Headquarters at Reims.

Headquarters staff assigned the men to the 354th Pioneer Mustang Group. In the middle of November, they reported to the 354th’s base at Orconte, France. They fully expected to resume jockeying Mustangs. However, to their shock and surprise the foursome found the ramp populated with Republic P-47 Thunderbolts! The large fighters, with their Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial engines and giant 4-blade propellers, were quite an imposing sight.

A bit later the squadron operations officer took Richard out to a P-47 and showed him how to start it. For the first time Dick fired up a Thunderbolt. He taxied out to the runway and took off. Richard flew around the area, feeling out the “Jug.” Dick then landed without incident. The next day he flew a mission, despite having logged only one hour in a Thunderbolt.

Richard and his mates were now flying tactical missions in support of Allied ground forces. Dick stated that air support had “really come into being” with the creation of Tactical Air Control Party (TAPC), Forward Air Controller (FAC) and Air Liaison Officer (ALO) specialties. Two of Richard’s friends went to the front as TACs.

The low-altitude missions were vital but dangerous, even for the rugged P-47s. Richard stated that he completed “37 missions in the P-47. It was a great strafing machine, possessing eight .50s. I got 37 holes in one once. I landed at a forward strip and looked it over. It seemed none the worse so took off and flew it home.”

An incident related to the author in the 1970s by a former Luftwaffe pilot, who was in Italy during 1944, bolsters Dick’s practical experience with the inherent toughness of the P-47. The German aviator was at a railroad junction when a Thunderbolt attacked. Automatic weapons, of various calibers, quickly began firing at the intrepid P-47. The German flier watched as the Republic strafed the parked trains. He could not believe the sight of 9 mm tracers ricocheting off the P-47! The pilot marveled at the Thunderbolt’s ruggedness, and likened the type to a “flying tank.”

During the months of December and January, Richard flew 33 combat missions at the controls of Thunderbolts. All were ground support in nature.

On Christmas Eve the Eighth Air Force and Royal Air Force flew the largest bomber strike to date against Germany. The Eighth Air Force put up 1,874 bombers and the RAF supplemented with 800. Richard was up that day, the day after and the following day.

In December 1944, the war was far from concluded. Dick explained that this “was a period of the most intense air war.” On the 16th, the Germans launched a massive attack. The Battle of the Bulge was underway. Initially, bad and bitterly cold weather assisted the German ground assault. Richard flew 16 ground support missions in P-47s during the month. Ordnance was 500 pound bombs and canisters filled with napalm. In addition to dropping bombs, Dick strafed targets of opportunity. Richard said that the worst job he ever had “was strafing horses that the Germans were using to pull their artillery so they could fire on our troops. They had to be stopped.

January 1, 1945, started literally with a bang. At 0920 hundreds of low-flying Luftwaffe aircraft struck Allied airfields in eastern France, Belgium and Holland as part of Operation Herman. The Germans caught Allied planes on the ground, destroying several hundred. Dick noted the intense fighting and confusion the enemy attack engendered.

Adding credence to and supplementing Richard’s account, another American P-47 pilot told the author about an encounter on that day. His P-47 squadron had just taken off with a load of bombs when “bandits” appeared ahead on a closing course. The Thunderbolts dropped their ordnance and swept in behind what was a formation of Bf 109s. The tactical aviator latched onto the tail of one Messerschmitt and downed it. Seconds later, as he was banking steeply, a 20 mm round badly damaged his right wing flap. Fortunately, this Thunderbolt was not one of the many lost on the first of January.

During the Bulge fighting, Dick hit at retreating Wehrmacht as it moved eastward over the snow covered ground. Dick also flew 11 armed reconnaissance sorties. On one morning he strafed 11 trains.

The month of March 1945 brought promotion to the rank of captain. During February 1945, the squadron turned in their “Jugs” and resumed operations with P-51s. Although the types of assignments remained the same, the pilots were all glad to return to the Mustang. Commenting about the relative qualities of the P-51 and P-47, Dick stated the following: “The P-51 was a Rolls Royce, a sleek stallion, and the Thunderbolt was a slugger.”

April brought about another encounter with an enemy flying machine. On the 7th, Dick found a Fw 190 at 20,000 feet and chased him all the way down to the deck. The P-51 entered compressibility during the dive, but Richard was able to recover and hit the fighter with bursts of gunfire. The pilot jettisoned his canopy and took to his parachute.

Exactly a week later, on April 14, Richard caught the number 4 ship of a 4-ship formation of Bf 109s. His victim smoked after absorbing a few seconds of .50 fire. The stricken Messerschmitt smoked and the pilot took to the silk to escape his damaged aeroplane. Soon thereafter, Dick spotted a Fw 190 strafing American troops. He applied rudder and ailerons to allow his Mustang to intercept. Catching the lone attacker from astern, Richard fired a burst at close range. The Focke-Wulf shook from the impact of the bullets and flamed.

The very next day, Richard, another pilot and Richard’s wingman trapped an airborne Heinkel 111. Dick pulled alongside the larger and slower plane and motioned for the Heinkel pilot to land. When the trapped aviator did not comply, Richard maneuvered onto the German’s tail. Promptly, Dick shot down the twin-engine airplane.

By spring the fighting was winding down, and Richard could now think back on memorable instances. He remembered fighting off more than 90 Bf 109s over Normandy with only one of the P-51B’s four .50-caliber machine guns operating. Dick could recall flying wing with Colonel James Howard, the Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who downed 6 Luftwaffe planes during a single mission. How could he forget the first airfield strafing mission at an airspeed of 500 mph or chasing a V-1 flying bomb over England? Neither was his mind vague about flying top cover for legendary General Patton’s army as it crossed the Rhine River or participating in a fighter sweep to locate Patton on the autobahn near Erfurt, Germany. Furthermore, who could not vividly recall chasing a pair of Me 262 Schwalbe turbojet fighters after the Luftwaffe jets bounced his formation of Mustangs?

Dick additionally recalled the time he flew too long on an external tank and it went dry over the North Sea. Another time he inconveniently emptied a petrol tank during a strafing attack. Also, he could not forget the time jettisoned external tanks fell through his formation after hearing the startling call, “Bandits at 6 o’clock – break!” Furthermore, the sight of parachutes opening as the crew of a burning B-17 made their desperate escape would not leave his mind. Another impressionable recollection was the intense flak over Cologne, Germany. Additionally etched into his memory was the image of little black puffs of smoke appearing from the leading edges of a Bf 109’s wings as the German pilot fired his 20 mm cannon. Richard could also still picture the time he followed a Fw 190 down as the German made a strafing attack on a friendly column. An unpleasant memory was of selfish friendly pilots preventing Dick from attacking two Ju 87s.

During his months with the 358th, Dick destroyed another 3.5 enemy aircraft in the air. At that point he had become an ace with a total of 5 enemy aircraft destroyed and another 3 damaged. Richard returned home in April 1945. Over the course of the two tours, he had flown 126 combat missions encompassing 386 combat hours in P-51s and P-47s. Dick logged 93 missions in P-51s and 33 in P-47s. Some of his victories were “easy and some tough.”

May brought the end of the war in Europe and the completion of Richard’s second tour. A return to the United States was in order. Therefore, Richard flew to the British Isles to await transportation home. On what he described as a “bleak and foggy English morning,” Dick and 19 other Air Corps officers, along with 300 enlisted U.S. Army personnel, boarded a U.S. Merchant Marine vessel. The officers enjoyed comfortable quarters below deck. After two days in port at Liverpool, the merchantman put to sea, joining a convoy of approximately 70 ships. Two Royal Navy corvettes performed escort duties.

Dick recalls “sky as blue as the feathers of a bluebird, and the moderate waves in the Irish Sea being ever changing in color and shape. The waves beat a rhythmic tune against the gray paint of the monster we rode.” The vessel rocked and pitched somewhat as it plowed into the open ocean. Those on deck could watch the rise and fall of adjacent ships and see white water parting at the bows and streaming astern. Above, seagulls circled in hopes of locating a meal. Richard remembered that, “On the sunny deck, men lounged, smoked and talked as soldiers do when the battle is over and all is safe.” However, the feelings of safety and securing would soon prove to be false.

When nearing the halfway point of the voyage, Mother Nature intervened. Dick related that, “The waves suddenly quieted in the night as if God decided to smooth the icing. By morning we were in a world of our own — the only outside contact was the mournful wail of a fog horn.” He continued, “I could not see from one end of the ship to the other.”

For 36 hours the convoy crept through the dense fog. Richard said, “It seemed as if the fog would never lift.” On the morning of the second day, the commodore, who was on one of the corvettes, had a decision to make. It seems that the escort’s radar had picked up indications of icebergs dead ahead. Therefore, the senior Royal Navy officer decided the following: “All vessels would alter their courses.” Even in clear conditions there was a chance of collision considering the number of ships plying their way through the same area, but with heavy fog obscuring the lookouts’ visions the danger increased.

Oblivious to the above happenings, Richard was reclining in his bunk. Suddenly, Dick said, “A thunderous noise shook the air. I felt the ship stagger and shudder.” The general alarm began an incessant clanging, calling crew and passengers to their emergency stations. With what he described as “a sickening feeling in my stomach,” Dick grabbed a life preserver and immediately ascended to the main deck. There, he saw “a great hulk of steel slinking off through the mist.” Apparently, a large tanker had hit the merchantman broadside, leaving “a hole in the side 18 feet or so from top to bottom.” Furthermore, Dick could tell that his transport was taking on water.

Richard and the others were soon cooperating to save the stricken vessel. He explained, “The other compartments were sealed off and all of us formed a human assembly belt to remove the cargo from the compartment that was taking on water. As we worked, we could hear the shattering cracks of other ships colliding. The wailing fog horns seemed to go wild, as if no one was paying any attention to them.”

The state of general confusion and danger lasted for about 2 hours. At one point, another ship appeared out of the fog. The scared men held their breaths, fearing another collision. However, the intruder steered safely away.

For another 48 hours the convoy plowed through the soup, each ship’s fog horn bleating to warn off nearby vessels. Dick did not relish the nautical experience. In fact, he said that “Our nerves turned to jelly each time we heard the short blasts. I was wishing that I was back in combat.”

Richard’s ship groped along at 4 knots, allowing the convoy to move ahead. After 2 more days of impaired visibility, the fog finally dissipated. After 3 days of solo sailing, one of the corvettes, came to shepherd the stray back to within sight of the convoy.

After 19 days at sea, an indistinct smudge appeared on the horizon. The disturbance steadily grew in size. Before long the recognizable sight of New York City was before the pilots’ restless eyes. Home at last!

Upon entering the harbor, a tug met the damaged ship and nestled it up to a pier. After the captain ordered the big hawsers affixed to the piles and the engines off, everyone sighed from relief. Richard commented, “When I first stepped on the planks of the dock, I thanked God for being alive.”

Although much has been said about the Second World War generation possibly being the best, Dick once stated the following during an address to an audience: “We fought the war and won it. Our World War II generation ‘saved the world’ because it had to be done and we were the people available to do it.”

Richard separated from the military in August 1945. His title was “Deputy Collector of Internal Revenue.” In 1948, Dick quit the government job and accepted demanding and challenging employment with the Rock Island Railroad. He was a Locomotive Fireman in hand-fed, coal burning passenger trains running between Chicago and Joliet, Illinois. Also, Richard worked as a stoker on freights running from Chicago to Peoria and Joliet.

In 1950, “Uncle Sam” ordered Dick back to active duty. The Korean War was starting. Richard attended Pilot Instructor School at Craig AFB, Alabama. At Vance Air Force Base (AFB), Oklahoma, he undertook flight training instructor duties. There he taught in North American T-6 Texans and T-28 Trojans. His most exciting experiences were when instructing student pilots during night formation and night transition flying.

ROKAF Mustangs at K-13 airfield.

During 1954, Richard went to South Korea. There he flew as a T-6 Mosquito pilot and was later an advisor to the Republic of Korea Air Force’s 10th Fighter Wing. After a while, Dick again found himself in the confines of Mustang cockpits. It had been 5 years since he last climbed into one of the sprightly “equines.”

Richard also became current in the following types: Beechcraft AT-7, C-47 Skytrains, Cessna L-19 Bird Dogs and De Havilland L-20 Beavers. He particularly enjoyed flying as number 4 aircraft in Republic of Korea Air Force formations.

Richard in his flight suit prior to a flight in Korea.

 The next year, 1955, Richard went to Air Command and Staff. In May he pinned on the gold oakleafs of a major. Afterward, he undertook ROTC postings at the University of Illinois for a year and subsequently a 2-year stint at Purdue University. During this time he flew cadets in C-45s and T-28s and advanced. Dick’s title changed from “Assistant Professor of Air Science” to “Associate Professor of Air Science.” However, the “elevation” in status brought no increase in pay.

Next, in 1958, on his station list was Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. There, beyond Rapid City, he began flying Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers. Richard commented about his thoughts upon seeing the strategic giants: “I never thought the airplanes would fly.” He continued his association with B-52s at Sheppard AFB, Texas. Dick recalls 7-day alerts and 3.5-hour station times, which required a crew scheduled for takeoff at 0500 hours to be on station by 0145.

From his enjoyable Texan base, Richard moved in 1963 to USAF Southern Command at Albrook AFB, Canal Zone. He assumed duties as a Civic Action Officer after graduating from the school at Fort Benning, Georgia. As part of his duties, Richard flew C-47s around Central and South America.

Sometime in 1964, Richard moved to the Pentagon. There he assumed the following bureaucratic title: Chief, Airlift and Sealift Forces Branch, General Purpose Forces Division, Air Battle Analysis Center, DCS/Plans and Operations, Hq Air Force. Dick eventually transferred to the Directorate of Operations, Southeast Asia Analysis Group, to complete his assignment tour. Dick began piloting T-39 Sabreliners from Andrews AFB, Maryland. During February 1966, Richard ascended to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

In the year 1968, a transfer to Clark AFB, Philippines took place. Richard served at 13th Air Force Headquarters, 6th Air Division, as an Operations Staff Officer. Dick’s family enjoyed this duty station, and he was able to fly T-39s across the region. He fondly remembers one ferry mission from Lincoln, Nebraska via Alaska, Midway Island, Wake Island and Guam. During this period Richard also took advantage of opportunities to pilot his family to Hong Kong, Taipei, Bangkok, Japan and New Delhi.

Dick’s 1970 posting was to South Vietnam as an Air Liaison Officer and FAC for the Republic of Korea Capital “Tiger” Division, the 29th Army of Vietnam (ARVN) Division and as Base Commander at Pleiku. The latter posing made him the only FAC-qualified base commander.

Richard’s flying in Southeast Asia was important. His new winged mount was one of the unique Cessna O-2 Skymasters. The “Mixmaster” was to supplement the slow and venerable Cessna O-1 Bird Dog “Forward Air Controller” (FAC) aircraft then in use. The O-2, distinguished by twin tail booms and tandem-mounted engines, featured an unusual tractor-pusher propeller arrangement. The O-2A powerplants were a duo of 210-hp Continental 10-360s. It could carry rockets, flares, 7.62mm mini-gun pods or other light ordnance externally on four wing pylons. The model cruised at 144 mph and its maximum speed was around 199 mph. Maximum range was 1,060 miles. The O-2A’s ceiling was 19,300 feet. Having twin engines enabled the O-2, in contrast to its single-engine Bird Dog colleague, to absorb more ground fire and still return safely to base. Obviously, this capability was endearing to its aircrews. Dick commented that O-2 piloting was “lots of fun, but not on one engine.” He added that the “O-2 was very heavy with radio equipment and when rockets were loaded.

Dick Asbury’s 0-2 over Southeast Asia

“FAC aircrews identified and marked enemy targets with smoke rockets, coordinated air strikes and reported target damage. FACs were, like Dick, often experienced fighter pilots. These men repeatedly flew in designated areas to spot enemy activity. FAC’s did their best to assist friendly ground forces. Once, in 1971, Dick found himself desperately fighting off an NVA ambush at Au Khe Pass.

Richard’s photograph of a Viet Cong gun position.

Richard’s USAF career ended at Malstrom AFB, Montana. His last assignment was as 24th Air Division Director of Supply & Services. On May 1, 1972, Dick retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel. He had flown 277 combat missions consuming 604.1 hours and had logged a total of 4,285 hours of flying time. Over the course of his military career Richard flew many aircraft not mentioned above. These include the following: Martin B-26 Marauders, T-29, Douglas C-117 Skytrooper (similar to the C-47 / DC-3), C-123, U-3, U-6, AT-33, T-33 and KC-135. His decorations include 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star, 21 Air Medals, and 3 Air Force Commendation Medals.

Dick said that a number of incidents nearly resulted in his death. The first was when, as a young second lieutenant in 1943, he let down through fog in a T-6 over Hayward, California. Another time was when Luftwaffe fighters fired at him in combat. A third disconcerting near-death experience was while instructing at night with a student who had double vision. This particular student would see two runways, when there was in reality only one, on each final approach. Richard added in conclusion that “all C-47 flights” came close to killing him.

The author (John Stemple) wishes to thank Lt. Col. (Ret.) Richard Asbury for his cooperation and John Wernick for facilitating communications. All photos are from Mr. Asbury’s personal collection.

Note: Readers in the Central Florida region may wish to view some of the aircraft types Lt. Col. (Ret.) Asbury flew or encountered at Fantasy of Flight. This attraction maintains airworthy examples of the following aeroplanes: T-6, P-51, C-47 (a D-Day veteran that suffered battle damage), B-26 & B-24. In addition, there is a B-17 fuselage for visitors to explore externally and internally. Relevant airplanes under restoration include a P-39 (being restored in Australia) and P-38. Furthermore, one may often purchase rides in a Stearman.

5 Responses to WW II ace Richard Asbury reminisces

  1. johnwernick says:

    I am very glad to have “stumbled” upon Mr. Stemple back in February 2012 at the Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, Florida. While sitting at the lunch counter, I had the opportunity to mention to him that I had friend of mine back home who was a WWII fighter pilot ace. My part was simply putting John in contact with Dick Asbury and assuring Dick that John was going to do his best to portray his flying career as accurately as possible.
    What a great and facinating article John!

  2. John,
    Thank you for your kind comments. I am grateful. — John Stemple

  3. John I find your articles very interesting and I am amazed at the continous hits we get from all over the world. I do not know if you see the front page often but we now have visitors who read our blog from 110 countries around the world. You can see all the different countries that come to read our blog listed there, it is wonderous!
    I want to thank you because it is you and the other writers that keep bring these people back with your interesting articles. Thank you for your consist posting of interesting and readable articles.
    JR Hafer

  4. Mark Pieschke says:

    Excellent article. A few years ago I had the honor and privilege of hosting Col Asbury and 4 other members of the 354th FG at a NCF Symposium in Northern California. The man is a remarkable individual and whom I call a friend.
    Will be reading more here shortly.

  5. Just a note to let everyone know that Dick Asbury was laid to rest today in the National Cemetery on Rock Island Arsenal, Rock Island, Illinois. Dick passed away peacefully on Saturday, Oct. 12th. and now rests alongside his wife, Merle Maureen.

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