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Bill Overstreet débuted the ‘Berlin Express’ in Paris

William Overstreet
William Overstreet

William (Bill) Overstreet, Jr. was born in Clifton Forge, Virginia on April 10, 1921 to parents who were direct descendants of the Pilgrims. At the age of 20, he was a student at Morris Harvey College (now the University of Charleston) in Charleston, WV. When Pearl Harbor came under attack by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps as a fighter pilot after a lot of fast talking to get accepted.

In February 1942, Overstreet was now a private, anxiously awaiting an opening to become an Aviation Cadet. It required several months’ patience on his part, but he finally received orders to report to Santa Anna, California for his preflight training. Following this training, he was transferred to Rankin Aeronautical Academy in Tulare, California to receive primary flight training in operating Stearmans.

At the academy, Overstreet met Tex Rankin, the school’s founder and chief instructor. Rankin was a champion aerobatic pilot who utilized a number of unusual methods during training in an effort to turn out skilled aviators. It was not at all uncommon for Rankin to catch students off-guard in mid-flight. On one occasion, Bill was flying at 500 feet with his instructor, Carl Aarslef. During the lesson, Carl suddenly flipped the Stearman upside down and cut the engine. Then he told Bill, “Ok, you land it.

Bill’s skill level was now such for this to be an easy case of, “. . . just quarter roll it into a left turn, line up with the runway and set it down.” Bill knew Carl’s goal was to test his reaction to the unexpected, in an effort to train him to keep his head in the event of an unexpected situation. In cases like that, one second can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Overstreet now transferred to Lemoore, California for the next phase of his basic flight training. Here he learned to fly the Vultee BT-13 Valiant. These planes were heavier and faster than the biplanes he had been in before. He was also introduced to two-way radio communications with the ground, the operation of landing flaps and adjustable propeller pitch.

Part 3 of Overstreet’s training took place in Arizona at Luke Field. Now he piloted North American T-6 Texans, followed by Curtiss P-40 Warhawks. During this stage, his commanding officer wanted him to receive additional training so he could handle multi-engine aircraft. Instead, Overstreet convinced his CO to let him remain a fighter pilot rather than training to fly bombers.

Following graduation, Overstreet transferred to Hamilton Field in California. Here he was assigned to the 357th Fighter Group, 363rd Fighter Squadron P. The squadron had recently relocated from Nevada. The seasoned pilots Overstreet flew with helped him enhance his skill level from what he attained during training. One of the flight leaders, Lloyd “Hub” Hubbard, was Overstreet’s favorite. Hub had a thing for doing loops around the Gold Gate Bridge and Overstreet joined him on several occasions. When the future aces were not looping bridges, they would buzz farmers and sunbathers.

Unfortunately complaints were later lodged against the acrobatic aviators and charges were filed. The squadron’s legal officer, Jack Meyers, was able to put a lid on a bushel of charges and postpone any consequences. Following the war, he took them home with him. Years later, Overstreet would question how it was the pilots were able to get by with so much. Meyers told him, “If you were picking pilots for combat, who would you pick? The fellows who flew straight and level, or the ones who pushed the envelope and tested the limits of their planes?

On June 28, 1943, Overstreet experienced his first crash. At the controls of a Bell P-39 Airacobra, Overstreet suddenly found himself spinning out of control as he practiced some of his maneuvers. This situation tended to be uniquely devastating for the P-39 and normally claimed the pilot’s life when it occurred. Attempting to open the Airacobra’s door, the air pressure was too much at first. By exerting addition force with his shoulder and knee, he managed to get out.

Once out, Overstreet pulled the ripcord on his parachute. A short time later, Bill was standing amidst the wreckage of his plane right by the propeller. Believing himself to be the first pilot to survive the crash of a tumbling P-39, Overstreet tracked down the man responsible for packing his chute and personally thanked him for a job well done.

A second freak accident would later occur 25,000 feet over France when his oxygen line suddenly cut out on him. In this case, he passed out and disappeared from his formation while over enemy territory. Thankfully, he quickly regained consciousness and was able to land the plane safely as he dodged the trees in front of him. Newspaper reports later stated he was unable to remember any part of the 90 minute flight.

Following additional training in Oroville, California and Casper, Wyoming, Overstreet was declared “combat ready”. He transferred to Camp Shanks in New Jersey, then boarded the HMS Queen Elizabeth in November 1943 and crossed the Atlantic. He disembarked at Greenock and headed south by train to Leiston in Suffolk.

As part of the Ninth Air Force, Overstreet was based at Raydon Airfield. Here he was assigned his Mustang, on which Overstreet painted the words “Berlin Express” because he believed his plane would one day land in that city.

The highlight of Overstreet’s military career occurred in the spring of 1944, a few weeks prior to D-Day. While flying bomber escort, Overstreet’s squadron had been told to avoid Paris for political reasons. Overstreet, however, chose to disobey the order when during one of their missions, a German Messerschmitt Bf 109G began to attack the convoy. Overstreet made the personal decision to rid them of that pest and took off; becoming involved in a solo pursuit of the Messerschmitt. Before long, the two planes flew into Nazi-occupied Paris airspace.

In a desperate attempt to rid himself of the American pilot, the German attempted to out-maneuver Overstreet by flying beneath the Eiffel Tower, all the while believing German anti-aircraft guns on the ground would do away with this unshakeable pest. Yankee determination, however, would not be quelled, and the valiant American followed right behind while continuing to fire.

The site of a red-and-yellow checkered nose fighter plane in pursuit of the Luftwaffe along the Champ de Mars reignited the spirit of the French Resistance troops on the ground who witnessed the event. It became a major inspiration for them to now come out of the shadows in an effort to liberate first Paris, and then all of France.

After clearing the tower, the two pilots continued their flight over Paris, firing at each other as they went; in the process, scattering the Nazi soldiers on the ground. The Messerschmitt was hit several times, with Overstreet eventually taking out the German's engine, resulting in the plane crashing. The fate of the German pilot was never known and Overstreet did not claim either a “kill” or even a “probable”.

Following the historic event, Overstreet described his exploits as, “No big deal. There’s actually more space under that tower than you think. Of course, I didn’t know that until I did it.” Overstreet’s concern with math and geometry at that moment was totally non-existent. The way he saw it, if the Messerschmitt could go through that gap, so could his Mustang. (FYI - the base arch of the Eiffel Tower is significantly wider than a football field and as high as a 12-story office building).

I had followed this 109 from the bombers when most of the German fighters left. We had a running dogfight and I got some hits about 1,500 feet. He then led me over Paris, where many guns were aimed at me. He figured I’d get around and he’d have time to get away. He was wrong. I was right behind him, right under the Eiffel Tower with him. And when he pulled up, I did get him. But, listen, that’s a huge space. As soon as he was disabled, I ducked down just over the river, a smaller target for the Germans, and I followed the river until I was away from Paris.

One of the French Resistance fighters who witnessed the event was the father of Bernard Marie. A French dignitary who has hosted the D-Day events every year since 1984, Marie met Overstreet in 1994. Already aware of Overstreet’s heroism for his flight underneath the Eiffel Tower, the magnitude of the event was lost to him until he spoke with his father. “My father began shouting out me, ‘I have to meet this man. This guy has done even more than what people are thinking. He lifted the spirit of the French.’”

Bill continued to fly missions, including a top secret escort mission, until his tour of duty ended in October 1944. Back in the States, Overstreet taught at a gunnery school in Pinellas, Florida. When he was released from active duty, he joined the Reserves.

Bill became General Manager of Charleston Aviation in West Virginia, then moved to Roanoke in 1950 and worked as an accountant until he retired at age 65. During retirement, Overstreet busied himself with numerous charities and veterans groups. He made regular appearances at air shows and gatherings with fellow veterans.

Though it required 65 years to take place, in 2009, Captain William Overstreet was finally honored as a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for his role in the liberation of France. The French Ambassador to the United States, Pierre Vimont, made the presentation at a ceremony held at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia.

Prior to the ceremony, Overstreet had told others if he lived long enough to receive the Legion of Honor, he would accept it in memory of his fallen brothers. In particular, his goal was to pay tribute to a special friend, Eddy Simpson. Simpson was on the ground fighting the Nazis and gave his life in an effort to help his comrades, including Overstreet, to escape.

When Overstreet was asked by the ambassador what he remembered of Paris that day, he replied: “I’m not sure. I was a little busy. A lot of people don’t believe I did it. I don’t blame ’em. I got back to Leiston with barbed wire under the tail, cat tails on the wing tips and leaves in the air scope.”

With his award hanging from his lapel, Overstreet remarked, “If I said, ‘Thank you,’ it wouldn’t be enough.” He then added, “What more than ‘thank you’ do you need?” Overstreet’s service in the 357th squadron of the U.S. Army Air Forces resulted in him received hundreds of other medals in addition to the Legion of Honor.

William Overstreet, Jr. was 92 when he died in Roanoke, Virginia on Sunday, December 29, 2013. Following his death, Overstreet’s niece, Anne Mason Keller, described her uncle by stating, “He was a fighter, he was always a perfect gentleman. He was concise, focused with a delightful sense of humor and a twinkle in his eyes. He was always humble. Whenever the press interviewed him, he said, I didn't do anything, we were a team’.”

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