It has been said that, among those who fly fighters in combat, there are the hunters and the hunted. The former are true fighter pilots. In the early summer of 1944, the Italy-based 31st Fighter Group was seeing fewer Luftwaffe fighters, and those few avoided engagement whenever possible in order to concentrate on Fifteenth Air Force bombers. Lt. Robert J. Goebel, one of the 308th Fighter Squadron aces, and his squadron commander, Capt. Leland “Tommy” Molland, a double ace, came up with a plan to change that situation. They would put up an extra flight of four P-51s not tied to the bombers but ranging the area, hunting for enemy fighters.
Bob Goebel, the junior partner in the plan, had joined the group’s 308th Fighter Squadron in Italy after having flown P-40s and P-39s in Panama and Spitfire Mark Vs in North Africa following the Allied victory there. With 15 hours in the P-51B at San Severo on Italy’s east coast, he crossed the threshold to the shooting war on April 16, imbued with the fighter pilot spirit but with much yet to learn about air combat. His rapid climb up the learning curve to a first victory six weeks later is described in his book Mustang Ace.
The first opportunity that Goebel and Molland had to test their plan came on Aug. 18 when the bombers hit Ploesti for the 18th and next-to-last time before Soviet troops overran eastern Romania. Several miles east of Ploesti, Goebel, the element leader in Border Black Flight, looked up and back. There was a gaggle of Bf-109s. Half of them continued on course; the other half dove on flight leader Molland and his wingman. Goebel went to max power, pulled up in a wingover, and screamed down into the -109s. He picked one out, holding fire until he couldn’t miss, then cut loose with his six .50s. (The squadron’s P-51Bs had been replaced by more heavily armed Ds.) The -109 pilot bailed out immediately, leaving Goebel alone. The other three P-51s had disappeared during the violent maneuvering.
Lieutenant Goebel spotted another -109 below and ahead of him. Still at full throttle and almost on the deck, he got strikes all over his adversary. The enemy pilot bailed out, but his chute did not open, and he plunged to the ground. Goebel suspected that the German pilot had been hit and killed as he bailed out. Seeing the death of an opponent who might have lived had he released the trigger a split second earlier has haunted Bob Goebel ever since.
With only a couple of seconds of firing time left and with minimum fuel, Goebel was alone and in a tight spot 600 miles from home base. As he began his climb to altitude, there was a loud bang. The P-51 shuddered. Thinking he had been hit, Goebel broke to the right, went to max power, and looked over his shoulder. Two Bf-109s were closing rapidly. After some wild maneuvering, the -109s, probably low on fuel, broke off and headed north. Common sense told Bob Goebel that in his precarious situation he, too, should break off and head for home, but the fighter pilot spirit took over. He followed the -109s, which were flying line-abreast on the deck, some 300 yards apart.
Closing on the enemy fighters, Goebel decided to take the one on his left. As he was approaching firing position, the second -109 turned to get on his tail. Breaking off, he again fell in behind the Germans, once more singling out the one on the left. This time, the second -109 turned into him too quickly and was, at least momentarily, out of the fight. With his few remaining rounds and only two guns still firing, Goebel opened up on his quarry. The Luftwaffe pilot, who must have looked back at that moment, crashed into the ground.
After Bob Goebel landed at San Severo with his engine running on fumes, he and his crew chief could find no bullet holes in the P-51. Two exhaust stacks were missing, probably from running too long at high power settings. They theorized that the bang, which saved the young pilot’s life, was an engine detonating–a sort of backfire. In any event, Goebel’s gun camera film confirmed the three victories that earned him the Silver Star. He was promoted to captain a few days later and was named group leader on several later missions.
Before ending his combat tour, Bob Goebel scored two more victories. At war’s end, with 11 confirmed, he was tied for eighth place among Fifteenth Air Force aces. He was 21 years old.
Following the war, Bob Goebel earned a degree in physics under the GI Bill, then worked on the manned space program and several other advanced Air Force projects. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1966, to join the aerospace industry. Now fully retired, he lives in Torrance, Calif., with his wife of 53 years, surrounded at times by nine children and 22 grandchildren.
Published April 1994. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.