CPT Schlegel, More than a Name

Just a Name on a Wall: 8th Air Force WWII Aces
Captain Albert L. Schlegel, 4th Fighter Group, 13.5 kills

by Perry R. Nuhn, Colonel USAF (ret)
Museum Volunteer
Former Director Information Systems, Command, Control, Communications & Intelligence (C3I) ASD
Office of the Secretary of Defense

To many Albert L. Schlegel is just a name on a wall: to me and my brothers – “Uncle Sonny, “our favorite uncle: to my mother – Albert, her youngest and favorite sibling: to my grandmother – the favored son: to his hometown, Garfield Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio – “Cleveland’s Ace:” to his fellow fighter pilots – “Smiley,” the last member of the Eagle Squadron and 4th Fighter Group killed in action on 28 August 1944. His last mission was an interdiction mission, the railyard in Alsace-Lorraine, France. He was hit, killed and buried near the birthplace of his maternal grandfather, Charles Honsberg.

My Uncle “Sonny,” born in August 1919, was just 12 years older than my older brother and 14 years older than I. My other brother, John was the youngest, a year and months younger than me.

When he turned 10, the Great Depression faced the nation. Like many kids growing up in Garfield Heights, “Sonny” had a paper route and held odd jobs. His father, a lawyer and judge, died when he was 3. Upon graduating from high school in 1939, with little or no employment opportunity available, he and a friend spent a month on a motorcycle tour of Mexico. It turned out so well, they planned a similar trip to Canada.

In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. World War II had begun. Cleveland was always one of the nation’s focal points of aviation, especially during the annual Cleveland Air Races. Many youths growing up then immersed themselves in aviation and its heroes, and they looked toward the sky for their future. “Sonny” was no different. Following September 1939, we kids saw increased air traffic over our backyard. Living near the airport, I clearly remember the flights of Lockheed Hudsons, Douglas Havocs and other military aircraft headed to join the Air Forces of England and France.

Early fall 1940, my uncle and his school buddy headed north on their trip to Canada. Several weeks later he telephoned his mother from Canada, saying “I sold my motorcycle and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.” His flight training began almost immediately. His initial flight instructor was an RAF veteran with combat experience flying antique Brewsters in support of the Finns as the Russians, then a German ally, invaded Finland. His instructor loved to fly low and under bridges: a frowned on activity. But my uncle’s instructor was a fighter pilot, and his lead was obeyed. Advanced training followed in Harvards (North American T-6). Graduating in October 1941, “Sonny” received his RAF wings, and was designated a Flight Sergeant with three stripes. He was granted leave and was posted to depart for England in November 1941. He headed south for a quick visit to Garfield Heights and family before leaving for England. To my brothers and I, he was bigger than life, to my mother, her sisters and my grandmother he was the focus of their thoughts and prayers.

Arriving in England, my uncle was assigned to combat training in Hawker Hurricanes and posted to a RAF unit. In January 1941, the German battle ship Titpitz had assumed station in Norway. The Tirpitz was the target of repeated RAF attacks. During a spring 1942 attack on the Tirpitz, my uncle’s RAF squadron was alerted to scramble. On the way to his Hurricane, the truck he was riding in hit a bomb crater. He was thrown from the back of the truck, over the cab and onto the hood. His ankle was broken. Six months later as a Flight Officer, he was cleared again for flying status. He received assignment to the 121 (Eagle) Squadron in the Debden area, flying Spitfires.

When the Eighth Air Force arrived in England, they lacked experienced combat fighter pilots and began assimilating the American RAF volunteers. The 121 Squadron became the 335th Fighter Squadron. RAF “Blues” were changed to “Pinks and Greens,” and British ranks were discarded for American. My uncle initially became a Second Lieutenant, shortly later he was promoted to First Lieutenant. As with his squadron mates, these volunteers always remained in the hearts of the English for their early volunteer service. With American pilot wings and ribbons over their blouse pocket on the left and RAF wings over the pocket on the right, they were easily recognized by the British people.

The 335th continued to fly Spitfires until March 1943 when the “Spits” were replaced with P-47 Thunderbolts. My uncle’s infrequent letters home related his experiences. It was heady stuff for us kids. For the members of the 4th Fighter Group, their lives were filled with daily danger escorting the bombers bound for targets in Germany and elsewhere.

On 2 October 1943 “Smiley” Schlegel had his first “kill,” an ME 109. Activity picked up beginning with Big Week in February 1944. In March 1944, the Group switched to P-51 Mustangs. This transition came just in time for the 4th to participate in the March 1944 raids to Berlin. Returning from this first Berlin daylight raid, my uncle belly landed his “new” P-51 on the airstrip at Debden. It was later repaired and returned to service. That month he also became a Flight Leader. As the fighters were freed up for aggressive action, his aerial activities picked up. He became an “Ace” on April 22. Two days later, he added two more 109’s to his credit and shared a kill on a third. This share was with Don Blakeslee, Commander of the 4th and another Ohioan. These victories were followed daily in the Cleveland newspapers and he was feted in the news as “Cleveland’s Ace.” The daily reports ran like a horse race between him and Don Gentile, also in the 335th and another “Ohioan”–heady stuff reading about your uncle in the daily newspapers.

Now a Captain, nearly three years after arriving in England, he was sent on stateside leave shortly before D-Day. He arrived home in Garfield Heights on June 9th. The celebrations began and for the next few weeks we kids basked in his fame. Then it was time for his return to the war, in late June. In August, he was designated the 355th’s Squadron Operations Officer, and was in line for promotion to Major. However, German flak intervened. After pulling up after a strafing attack on the Alsace marshaling yard, his plane was hit, triple A, from a flak tower. His final transmission was, “I been hit”, as he entered the clouds above the railyard. No one remembered seeing his P-51 after that. It was assumed his aircraft blew up after entering the clouds. Rumors persisted that he had bailed out, but none proved true. He was carried as “Missing” for quite a while, before he was declared “Killed in Action.”

Dark days filled our home and lives for at least a year. In mid-1948, the military area located at the Cleveland Airport was dedicated as Albert Schlegel Air Base. However, a little over a year later it ceased to exist. Awards honoring my uncle included the Distinguished Flying Cross with four Oak Leaf Clusters, the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, European Campaign Medals and a Purple Heart. His victories were 13.5 confirmed kills and 2.5 probables, a total of 15. Ten were air and 5 were ground victories. The National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force lists only his confirmed kills and current Air Force tallies count only the confirmed air victories.

Now, many years after my uncle’s death, each time I pass the Mighty Eighth Air Force Aces’s Plaque, I look at his name, say hello, and remember what a great uncle he was. Now, it’s not just a name on a wall.

Captain Albert L. Schlegel served as a fighter pilot first in 121 (Eagle) Squadron and then in the 4th Fighter Group. Courtesy of the Association of the 4th Fighter Group
Captain Albert L. Schlegel with his crew chief, S/Sgt Paul Grimm on their kite WD-O. Courtesy of the Association of the 4th Fighter Group