Capt. George N. Ahles, 351st Fighter Squadron and the “Lonesome Polecat.”

One of the many nice things about setting up this blog is that, slowly but surely, old friends and contacts are getting back in touch. One who has just done so is David McCloskey who has kindly updated me with his research into his grandfather George N. Ahles (pronounced Ah-les). I thought this would be a good excuse to interrupt the mission sequence again and take a look at the career of this long-time member of the 351st Fighter Squadron.

Ahles, an original member of the Squadron, was born in Evansville, Indiana on February 29, 1916. He enlisted Army Air Corps at Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illinois in November 1939, some two years before the United States entered the war. Initially the Air Corp assigned him to armament and bombsight maintenance at Lowry Field, Colorado. He was then posted to an A-20 light bomber squadron at Barksdale Field, Louisiana and went with the Squadron to Hunter Air Base Savannah, Georgia. So Ahles already had some experience of the Air Corp before he qualified for pilot training in November 1940, though he did not enter aviation cadets training until January 1942. He was awarded his “wings” as a member of class of 42-J and while he was in Advanced Pilot Training at Craig AFB, Selma, Alabama, he married Mary Louise. He then joined the nucleus of 351st Squadron at Norfolk, Virginia in December 1942 and travelled with them to England in June 1943.

An early photo of the Squadron in line-astern formation. (McCloskey)

David McCloskey wrote to me in an email that he knew “he wasn’t one of the All-Star pilots of the group.” By this he meant that he was not one of the well-known top scorers or aces and this observation raises an interesting point – most of the pilots in the Group were not “All-stars.” A few made the headlines, but the bulk of the flying effort and eventual achievement of air supremacy and effective support of ground forces relied on competent men like George N. Ahles going out, day after day, to complete the missions they were ordered to fly.

George Ahles in relaxed mood – the car he is leaning on is probably the old Desoto Glenn Duncan used as his personal transport. (McCloskey)

In doing this Ahles recorded an impressive tally of missions. As his record shows he flew on the Group’s first mission of August 9, 1943 and completed his final eighty-eighth mission and his tour on August 14, 1944. His individual mission chart (see below) tells us a number of interesting things. The first is that he completed 300 hours of combat flying and was awarded an Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters (OLC) and a Distinguished Flying Cross with one OLC. Air Medals were awarded for the completion of a certain number of missions, so you would be awarded OLCs (meaning a further award of the medal) when you reached a certain number of combat missions. The DFC was awarded for completion of a tour of duty, shooting down an enemy aircraft or another act worthy of recognition.

Interestingly, if you subtract the total number of hours flown since May 15, 1944 (156 hours) from his total (300 hours) you can see that he only had 144 hours by that date. This is important because it means he would have been ordered to fly an additional 100 hours to complete his tour. This decision by Eighth Fighter Command to keep experienced men in England as D-Day approached was, understandably, very controversial among the pilots. Anyone who completed 200 hours flying before May 15 could go home; anyone who did not have the required number of hours had to stay until they reached 300 hours. We do not know what George Ahles thought of this – though he was probably keen to get home to see his wife and new daughter Pat who was born while he was in England. We also know that he lost good friends during his time with the Squadron and would have been well aware of the dangers of staying on. One was Bill Thistlethwaite who was lost on May 12, 1944. His wife Marjorie was friends with George’s wife Mary Louise and sent a telegram to tell her the tragic news. A good indication, if it were needed, of the anxiety the wives and loved ones at home face every day their husbands, brothers or sons were in Europe.

The telegram sent to Mary Louise Ahles by Marjorie Thistlethwaite after her husband was lost. (McCloskey)

Cartoon of Mrs Ahles and Mrs Rarey living at Selma, Alabama drawn by George Rarey. (McCloskey)

Thistlethwaite was not the only good friend Ahles lost during his time in England. George Rarey was a close friend from pilot training who served in England with the 379th Fighter Squadron, 362nd Fighter Group. Mary Louise and Rarey’s wife, Betty Lou, lived together for a time while their pilot husbands were stationed at Selma, Alabama. Both men also had children born while they were overseas. Rarey’s son, Damon, would never know his father – he was killed in action June 26, 1944 while flying a mission over France. Ahles’ friend was an incredibly talented artist and made many sketches of his experiences in the service. You can read a bit more about him HERE.

We do know from Ahles’ individual mission chart that he was very busy over the June to August 1944 period in a frenetic run of missions with doubles and over eight hours of flying on some days. On D-Day Ahles was actually enjoying a well-earned break at one of the rest and recuperation (R&R) centres in England and so missed the first day of the invasion. He returned to the Squadron a few days later to make up for missing out by claiming his only confirmed credit on June 8. Flying as Blue Flight Leader on a mission to bomb rail targets in France he was awarded an Fw190 damaged:

10 e/a climbed out of the cloud deck and passed directly below from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock, apparently unaware of our presence. I made a tight orbit to the left and tagged onto the last plane in the flight. He started a steep dive and I fired two long bursts, observing strikes on both wing roots. He then went into the clouds and I lost him. I then rejoined my section.

Geroge Ahles in the first YJ-A “Lonesome Polecat” (a/c 42-8380). Ahead is Vic L. Byers in YJ-V “Hawkeye” (a/c 42-7958). (McCloskey)

The individual mission chart seems to tell a different story – the blue diagonals record 6 aircraft destroyed, the red record 12 probable and the yellow his damaged on June 8. None of these victories show up in Squadron or other Eighth Air Force records and I suspect they are based on Squadron records from the time. Pilots would put in claims or accounts and they would only be confirmed by Eighth Air Force Intelligence at a later date following analysis of the supporting evidence.  The 351st FS would record the details, but then, in the absence of confirming accounts or gun camera evidence, higher headquarters probably disallowed the credits. Whatever the case, the diagonal lines tell us that Ahles certainly mixed it up with the Luftwaffe on many occasions during his tour and no doubt had a few hair-raising tales to tell. He was also a respected leader and pilot – he led his Squadron on eight missions during June to August 1944. Commanders did not give such a responsibility to just anyone and it is a good measure of the trust they placed in him.

George N. Ahles in later life. (McCloskey)

After he completed his tour, Ahles returned to his wife and daughter in the United States. He remained in the service until 1949 with postings in the Guam, Hawaii and the mainland United States. In civilian life he worked as a salesman. Flying certainly stayed in the family – his daughter Pat married Jim McCloskey who became a pilot with Delta. They had two children – Beth and David – Beth became an Art Teacher and David a pilot for UPS. George N. Ahles remained in touch with his friends from the 351st and enjoyed attending reunions of the P-47 Pilots Association in his later years. He died January 1, 1982.

His friend George Rarey was not the only connection Ahles had to the world of cartoons and illustrations. All his aircraft were named “Lonesome Polecat” after the character from the L’l Abner cartoon strip. “Lonesome Polecat” along with “Hairless Joe,” were purveyors of the potent “Kickapoo Joy Juice – the fumes of which alone have been known to melt the rivets off battleships.” Ahles’ aircraft was one of a pair in the 351st FS with Lt. Joseph E. Wood flying YJ-B “Hairless Joe.” There were other aircraft named after cartoon characters in the Squadron – Fred Lefebre named his first P-47 after the well-known “Chief Wahoo.” Even one of the accommodation areas at Raydon was called “Dogpatch” after the stereotypical hick community in which L’l Abner lived. Cartoon strips, especially satirical ones, played an important role in the world of GIs and particularly pilots – Bill Maudlin’s “Willie & Joe” was another very popular strip. They were often a subversive art form that could help recent civilians, now in the military, poke a little fun at authority and ease the tension just a fraction. L’l Abner characters were used a great deal more by the 56th Fighter Group on their aircraft and their leader Hub Zemke even set a goal of shooting down 100 enemy planes by “Sadie Hawkins Day” (the fictional day in Dogpatch when a woman could run down a bachelor and force them into matrimony).

In closing I must thank David McCloskey for all his kind help and the information he contributed to this article. I must also thank Ash Gant whose knowledge of the 353rd aircraft and expertise is unrivalled. To finish up here is a summary of all the personal aircraft of George N. Ahles. As ever, further information or contributions are very welcome:

The first “Lonesome Polecat” was YJ-A P-47D-2-RE (a/c 42-8380). Ahles had a landing accident in it at RAF Biggin Hill September 29, 1943, but it was repaired and stayed with the Squadron probably until around late February or early March 1944 when Ahles received a new P-47D-15. It subsequently was sent to training command and has a recorded accident at Membury on August 23, 1944. This aircraft is sometimes recorded as flying with the 352nd FG as PE-C. This we feel is an error as the easily confused 42-8580 actually flew under this code. Some records have 42-8380 as crashing with the 359th FG on January 27, 1944. Again, this is a typo as P-47C 41-6380 was actually involved in the crash.

Lt. George N. Ahles in the cockpit of the first “Lonesome Polecat” (a/c 42-8380) at Metfield. (McCloskey)

The second “Lonesome Polecat” was YJ-A P-47D-15-RE (a/c 42-75850). This new D-15 replaced the first aircraft in late February/March 1944, but was lost along with Lt. William R. Burkett March 4, 1944.

The third “Lonesome Polecat” was YJ-A P-47D-5-RE (a/c 42-8619). Lt. Paul Trudeau crashed this aircraft May 21, 1944 (there’s a picture on page 481 of Jonah’s Feet Are Dry). It was then under repair for a time before being returned to service and recoded at YJ-A. It probably became Lt. Alex Hartley’s “Anvil Chaos” at this point. It suffered a further accident at the hands of Lt. Frank on June 30, 1944 and did not return to service until July 8. We do have a record that indicates that at some point the aircraft the aircraft was coded YJ-A and named “Man Made Monster” with the 351st but the evidence is too unclear to state anything conclusively at this stage. Some records indicate the aircraft was declared “War Weary” and went on to the 4th FG as an OTU aircraft and then the 5th Emergency Rescue Squadron still as “Man Made Monster” but we are unable to confirm this.

The fourth YJ-A was P-47D-11-RE (a/c 42-75457). Ahles is recorded as flying it as YJ-A on May 22, 1944, the day after Trudeau crashed his previous aircraft. This aircraft was lost with Lt. Joseph R. Farley on May 28, 1944. We suspect that given the short time the aircraft was with the Squadron Ahles would never have had time to name it. We have also confirmed that it was one of a batch of olive drab painted P-47s so it does not tally with the picture we have of the  “Lonesome Polecat IV” which was natural metal finish.

The fourth “Lonesome Polecat IV” and fifth YJ-A was therefore P-47D-22-RE (a/c 42-26246). This was Ahles’ aircraft from sometime after May 28, 1944. It remained with him until he completed his tour and then passed to Lt. Harry D. Milligan who renamed it “Carolene” after his wife (picture on page 208 of Jonah’s Feet Are Dry).

A nice shot of “Lonesome Polecat IV (a/c 42-26246) at Raydon. Note the natural metal finish that proves the fourth YJ-A was not included in the naming sequence. (McCloskey)

A final and very poor shot of “Lonesome Polecat IV.” I assure you that you can just see the “IV” if you look very, very carefully (McCloskey)

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