When it comes to air combat, anything can happen. Life and death decisions are made in mere seconds by men whose frail bodies are hurtled through the sky by little more than an engine and a menagerie of nuts and bolts. Battles are won, men are lost and planes are brought down, sometimes in the most unconventional ways.
On May 10th, 1945, such an unconventional event occurred during a combat air patrol over the highly-contested Pacific.
Flying in a four ship formation at 13,000 feet, Robert “Bob” Klingman scanned the skies from the seat of his F4U Corsair, on the hunt for enemy aircraft over the island of Okinawa. Not yet in command of his own flight, Klingman was flying number two for his flight lead, Captain Ken Reusser.
As the pilots began to climb higher, their radios squawked to life.
“Ruby 6, this is Handyman, over”, the Air Control Center called out.
Klingman listened to the voice of his flight lead in his helmet. “Handyman, Ruby 6, go ahead.”
“Ruby 6, Handyman… We have a bogey approaching on course one eight zero, angels 25 (altitude 25,000 feet). Climb to angels 25, steer 270, buster (full speed), over.”
“Handyman, roger,” Reusser responded. “Course 270 (directly West), angels 25, out.”
The flight had a good idea who the culprit was. For several days that week, several squadrons took turns trying to intercept a a Ki-45 -known by the allies as a “Nick”- that followed the same flight plan. Intelligence believed the plane was on photo reconnaissance of the ships in the harbor, for use in planning kamikaze raids. Several attempts to catch and down the plane had failed, due to the speed and altitude the Nick flew at. One instance resulted in all but one aircraft in a flight being lost due to mechanical problems associated with flying at such high altitude.
With his initial altitude advantage, the Nick easily outran his pursuers. The Marines tried to close distance while climbing at their best speed.
“We were turning inside him to try and join up, but we were so far below him we had little chance of reaching him”, Reusser said. “I just pulled the nose up and held the trigger down… no aim, no accuracy, just trying to loop it up there. I saw a couple of glints, but I remember I didn’t think anything of it at the time. He leveled off and headed back toward Japan.”
Unwilling to let the Nick escape, the flight threw their throttles into a climb, falling out one by one as their battle-weary aircraft struggled to climb in the thin air. Eventually, Klingman and Reusser were alone, their allies a thousand feet below them.
At 38,000 feet, the two Corsairs were at their service ceiling. With the Nick a mile ahead of them, the two Americans grew hungry for the prey.
Due to the high altitude, maneuvers had to be small, precise and thought out- the slightest over-correction would result in an uncontrollable stall or spin and bailing out at such an altitude would have killed them. Still, the pilots pursued until they finally got into gun range.
“As we got closer, (Ken Reusser) was firing, and I guess the bogey was firing at us,” Klingman said. “I had a few small bullet holes in the plane. My plane had no gun heaters and the guns were frozen, but I was pretty eager to get me a Japanese plane. My plane was faster because it was a brand new so I went on ahead of Ken at max speed and streamlined as much as I could.”
Realizing their prey had more range than the Corsairs and unable to use his machine guns, Klingman made a make-or-break decision.
He decided to his plane into the enemy fighter.
Getting within 20 feet of the enemy plane, Klingman struggled through the Nick’s prop wash to catch up. Realizing he wouldn’t be able to reach from directly behind the Nick, he nosed over, ramming the tail of the Nick with his Corsair’s propeller.
“I only had enough extra speed to chew off some of his rudder and elevator before being blown away,” Klingman said. “Since he was still flying, I climbed above him for a second run. I nosed down and I pulled out too soon and only got some of his rudder and part of the top of the rear canopy. At this time I remember seeing the rear seat gunner frantically looking around and trying to operate his machine gun. I imagine at this altitude he was probably freezing to death.”
Realizing it was time for the finishing blow, Klingman climbed above the Nate, chopping the right side of the Japanese plane and causing both planes to go into a spin.
Spiralling out of control, Klingman regained command of his aircraft after dropping 1,000 feet.
As Klingman regained control, Reusser joined him just in time to watch the Nick disintegrate in the sky. “Ken was alongside me by then,” recalled Klingman. “We both observed the enemy plane in a spin with both wings coming off at about 15,000 feet.”
Klingman’s plane was shaking so badly that his instruments were unreadable. Running low on fuel and unable to determine his direction, Klingman relied on Reusser to guide him home.
Then, the battered Corsair ran out of steam. “About 10,000 feet, I ran out of fuel, but thought I could still make the field”, Klingman remembered. “I remember Ken said he thought I had better bail out. I felt I was in good enough shape that a wheels-up landing was not necessary. This was almost a costly mistake as I was surprised at the loss of altitude when I put my gear and flaps down.”
Reusser raced ahead and landed in time to watch Bob come in. Though out of gas, his luck held and Klingman’s plane hit the ground, bouncing down the runway. Officers and enlisted crowded around the Corsair. The F4U was peppered with pieces of the Nick stuck in the engine cowling, bullet holes in one wing and six inches of one propeller blade missing. The other two blades were bent back almost to the cowling.
Those who were gathered around the plane recalled Klingman slowly climbing out of the cockpit. Standing on the wing, Klingman expressed the day’s events in his Oklahoma drawl- “It’s a hell of a way to earn a buck.”
Robert Klingman would go on to serve in Korea as a forward air traffic controller. Recipient of the Navy Cross and the Air Medal with Gold Star for his actions on May 10, 1945, he had also been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He retired in 1966 at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Ken Reusser would go on to become the USMC’s most decorated aviator, and is the only pilot to survive being shot down in every conflict from World War II to Vietnam. In addition to a slew of Navy Crosses and Purple Hearts, he held 18 Air Medals.