A Brief History
Possibly on June 16, 1944 (the exact date is unknown, said to be sometime in the Spring of 1944, so we chose this date), American Army Air Force pilot William Overstreet, Jr. was flying his North American P-51 Mustang in pursuit of a German Messerschmitt Bf-109 when the 2 fighter planes amazed onlookers on the ground by flying right under the lower arches of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. The epic event has been caught on canvas by artist Len Krenzler, in his painting “Berlin Express Arrives in Paris” (2000).
Overstreet and his squadron mates had been escorting B-17 bombers when he became engaged in a dogfight with the German fighter. The running fight brought the planes lower and lower until they were right over Paris, where apparently the German, desperate to get the Mustang off his tail, hoped that German anti-aircraft fire might shoot down the Mustang and save the German pilot’s life. Overstreet did score hits on the Bf-109, and doggedly pursued the German even as the German plane flew under the lower arches of the famous Eiffel Tower. The German anti-aircraft gunners failed to shoot Overstreet and his Mustang down, and the Messerschmitt eventually crashed. Stunned French onlookers, including members of the Resistance, were greatly impressed and heartened by the display of skill and bravery by the American pilot, willing to risk his life to liberate France.
Overstreet was honored with the award of the highest French military medal, the Legion of Honor (Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur) by the French ambassador to the US, albeit a bit late, in 2009. Overstreet began flight training in 1942, first flying the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and then the Bell P-39 Airacobra, a plane he almost lost his life in when he went into an unrecoverable spin during a training flight. Based in England in 1944, Bill was assigned to a unit that did not even have airplanes! The fighters had not yet been delivered. When his outfit got their planes, they were relieved those planes were the modern P-51 Mustang, probably the best Allied fighter of World War II. His first plane was named “Southern Belle,” but was lost by another pilot. He named his next plane the “Berlin Express” in recognition of the long range bomber escort missions he flew in the fighter. During a combat mission Overstreet nearly lost his life when an oxygen line was severed by a piece of flak (a shard from an anti-aircraft shell). Bill passed out for an incredible 90 minutes before he woke up to find his plane out of gas (in the fuel tank he had been using) and in a low altitude spin. Somehow the skilled pilot managed to switch gas tanks and start his engine, barely being able to recover to fly nervously home. On another occasion, a harrowing incident occurred when Overstreet flew with a sinus infection, a mortal sin for combat pilots. Bill’s eyes swelled shut when he dived after a German fighter from high altitude and once again Overstreet was lucky to get back alive. Completely blinded, he had to rely on other pilot’s giving him directions. Amazingly he landed the plane still unable to see, having been carefully talked down by the air traffic controller. Obviously, Bill Overstreet was an extraordinary fighter pilot.
Overstreet survived the War and died at the age of 92 in 2013, having dedicated his Legion of Honor to the memory of those brave pilots he flew with. We are rapidly losing our heroes of World War II, with the youngest survivors at least 90 years old.
Question for students (and subscribers): If you have any stories of World War II gallantry by any of your relatives or acquaintances, please share them with us in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Busha, James. The Fight in the Clouds: The Extraordinary Combat Experience of P-51 Mustang Pilots During World War II. Zenith Press, 2014.
Graff, Cory. P-51 Mustang: Seventy-Five Years of America’s Most Famous Warbird. Zenith Press, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a US Government photograph of William “Bill” Overstreet Jr., is in the public domain in the United States, because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.