A young fighter pilot named Robert G. Schimanski of Spokane was flying his 70th and final mission into Germany in March 1945.
He had shot down nine enemy planes in the previous nine months – it takes five to earn the unofficial title of “flying ace.” He had nothing left to prove and was ready to go home.
“All of a sudden, my squadron ran into 16 German Messerschmidt 109s,” said Schimanski, 85, now a retired lawyer in Spokane. “Frankly, this was my last mission, and this was the only time I was almost a little reluctant to go down and engage in a fight. All I had to do was go back home and land, and the war was over. But anyway, down we go and I go at it. Cripes, there were 16 of them and 13 of us and we were right down on the deck like a bunch of angry bees.”
The scene was set for a tragedy. Yet not for Schimanski, whose wartime life could best be described as charmed. When the buzzing stopped, Schimanski had shot down his 10th German plane.
Once again, Schimanski emerged unscathed.
“I went through 70 missions, and my airplane was never hit by enemy aircraft fire or ground fire,” said Schimanski. “I was completely clear of any damage whatsoever. That’s unusual, but I had no damage at all.”
In fact, it was unusual to simply survive. Of 90 pilots in his fighter group, 47 were reported killed or missing in action. Others washed out.
“Thirty-one pilots out of 90 survived and did the job,” said Schimanski.
Schimanski, who had earned a civilian pilot’s license in Spokane after graduating from Lewis and Clark High School in 1938, didn’t know whether he had the right stuff until his 10th mission in his P-51 Mustang.
“The four of us met four Germans and we got into a circle,” said Schimanski. “With a circle like that, my leader is shooting at a German but a German is shooting at me. It turned out we shot down all four of them. And the four of us flew home together, and it was just like a Hollywood story. Everything is fine, and I’m flying home into the sunset.
“It gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. Hey, man alive, I was a good fighter pilot. I felt like, hey, I’m in the right place. They’re lucky I’m here (laughs).”
And he was good, as evidenced by his ever-mounting “victories” (enemy planes shot down). Once, he shot a German plane’s right wing clear off – all while he was “pulling 6 G’s in a real sharp upturn.”
He was soon promoted from second lieutenant to first lieutenant to captain (he retired as a lieutenant colonel). Yet he was realistic about the reason for the promotions.
“Of course, it’s a matter of survival,” he said. “People are dying off and everything.”
The job of his fighter group, based in England, was to accompany and protect the American bombers on massive bombing runs into Germany. The average mission consisted of about 1,000 bombers and 500 fighters.
He quickly abandoned any idea of “chivalry” in combat.
“I don’t believe in chivalry,” said Schimanski. “I believe in killing them. They’re trying to kill me. Hey, I was in 16 actual combat encounters (either by himself or as a wingman for another plane), and I’ll tell you, none of those 16 (enemy) pilots are alive.”
After all, an escaped enemy pilot could come back to shoot again. And his group had already experienced plenty of death.
“There were not big losses, but one or two a day,” he said. “Just a kind of sickening thing that keeps going on.”
The pilots were not callous to death – they simply could not afford to dwell on it.
“We had a motto over there – there are no goodbyes and there are no regrets,” said Schimanski. “Meaning we never went to a funeral or ceremony.”
He abandoned that policy only once. During that final mission, when he was coming home after his last victory, he wanted to “perform” – do some stunt rolls over the airfield.
“All of a sudden, the tower calls and says, ‘Hey, just come in and land, no activities today,’ ” said Schimanski. “I said, ‘Hey, I just got my 10th victory, I want to do a little performance here. I always have.’ They said, ‘Not today. Just come in and land.’ “
Turned out, six other pilots had been flying their last mission that day. One of them started performing – and crashed.
“He killed himself on his last mission,” said Schimanski. “For the first time, I thought, ‘The war is over for me. I’m going to this guy’s service in Cambridge.’ That day, the 8th Air Force buried 26 guys. The coffins were all lined up, covered with flags, and taps and all that. And it was extremely … well, it was the only impressive funeral I had ever been at.”
Schimanski, Distinguished Flying Cross in hand, came back home to Spokane, got married, started a family and started a law career. He also went in with some other guys on a small plane.
“I flew it for a while and thought, ‘This is dumb. I have kids,’ ” he said. “So I sold it. I haven’t flown at all since 1965. I had all the thrills I needed over in England.”
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