William B. Overstreet, Jr. (1921 – 2013)
Army Air Corps P-51 Pilot
When we’re young we often don’t recognize when we’re in the presence of exceptional men. Unlike former Navy pilot Dr. Harry Minarik who I saw frequently, I had little contact with my father’s friend Bill Overstreet. I knew he had flown P-51 Mustang fighters in Europe for the Army Air Corps, but to me Bill Overstreet was a quiet CPA who had an accounting practice in Roanoke, Virginia. Looking back, the fact that my Marine Corps father had great respect for Bill should have been a hint.
Bill Overstreet was born and raised in Clifton Forge, Virginia, a small rural town north of Roanoke near the West Virginia border. After graduating high school he worked as a statistical engineer for Columbia Engineering while attending Morris Harvey College in Charleston, West Virginia. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the Army. He was accepted into pilot training and sent to Santa Anna, California for preflight training, followed by primary flight training at Rankin Aeronautical Academy in Tulare, California where he flew PT-17 Stearmans.
Lemoore, California was next for basic flight training in the Vultee BT-13 Valiant, commonly referred to as the “Vultee Vibrator.” Faster and heavier than the Stearman, the BT-13 introduced cadets to two-way radio communications, adjustable pitch propellers, and using wing flaps for landings. Bill’s next stop was Luke Field in Arizona where he flew the North American AT-6 Texan advanced trainer before transitioning to his first fighter, the Curtis P-40 Warhawk.
After graduating from Luke Field he was assigned to the 363rd Fighter Squadron, which was part of the 357th Fighter Group. The squadron was moved to Santa Rosa, California where he continued his training in P-39’s. He had several good flight leaders, including Lloyd Hubbard who enjoyed taking flights of four P-39’s to the Golden Gate Bridge, where they did loops around it. After more P-39 training in Oroville, California and Casper, Wyoming, Bill was deemed “combat ready” and sent to Camp Shanks, New Jersey before crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth.
Upon its arrival in England the squadron was stationed at USAAF Station 373, also known as RAF Leiston, where Bill flew a P-51 Mustang for the first time on 30 January 1944.
Because the squadron was soon regularly flying missions to Germany, Bill named his Mustang “Berlin Express.” The 357th Fighter Group's 6 March 1944 initial raid on Berlin earned the following citation, which was the first of many.
“On 6 March, 1944, the newly operational 357th Fighter Group provided target and withdrawal support to heavy bombardment aircraft bombing Berlin, which was the deepest penetration of single-engine fighters to that date. The 33 P-51 aircraft went directly to Berlin and picked up the first formations of B-17s just before their arrival over the city. They found the bombers being viciously attacked by one of the largest concentrations of twin-engine and single-engine fighters in the history of aerial warfare. From 100 to 150 single-engine and twin-engine fighters, some firing rockets, were operating in the immediate target area in groups of 30 to 40 as well as singly. Each combat wing of bombers was being hit as it arrived over Berlin and although they were sometimes outnumbered as much as 6 to 1, flights and sections of the 357th Group went to aid each combat wing as it arrived over the target, providing support in the air for over 30 minutes. Upwards of 30 enemy aircraft at a time were attacked by these separate flights and sections, and driven away from above and below the bombers. Some of the P-51s left their formations to engage enemy fighters below the bomber level in order to prevent them from reforming for further attacks. Though fighting under the most difficult conditions and subjected to constant anti-aircraft and enemy aircraft fire, so skillfully and aggressively were their attacks on the enemy fighters carried out that not a single aircraft of the 357th Group was lost. In driving enemy fighters away from the bombers, 20 Nazi fighters were destroyed, one probably destroyed and seven others damaged. On withdrawal, one flight of five P-51s strafed a large enemy airfield in central Germany, damaging three twin-engine and single-engine aircraft on the ground and killing 15-20 armed personnel before regaining altitude and returning to the bombers.”
Bill is best known for a flight during the spring of 1944 when he was flying “Berlin Express” near Paris. The 363rd’s mission that day was to escort bombers and protect them from German fighters. After the Mustangs drove off attacking fighters, Bill pursued a Messerschmitt Bf-109. The German pilot, in a desperate effort to get “Berlin Express” off his tail, flew over Paris knowing there was a heavy concentration of German anti-aircraft guns that would hopefully shoot down the Mustang. In spite of intense enemy flak, Bill followed the German and scored hits that damaged the plane’s engine.
In a desperation move the German dove his damaged Messerschmitt at the Eiffel Tower and flew underneath it, probably hoping Bill wouldn’t follow, but unaware of Bill’s Golden Gate Bridge training.
“Berlin Express” followed the Messerschmitt under the Eiffel Tower, scoring more hits that downed the German. After the German crashed, Bill escaped by flying full speed at low altitude over the Seine River until clear of the anti-aircraft guns. Bill’s exploit is memorialized in Len Krenzler’s painting “The Berlin Express Arrives in Paris.”
Bill didn’t realize it at the time, but chasing the Messerschmitt under the Eiffel Tower and shooting it down over Paris gave a tremendous boost to the morale of the citizens of Paris and the French Resistance. In 2009 the French ambassador to the United States, Pierre Vimont, expressed France’s appreciation by presenting Bill the Legion of Honor during a ceremony at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia.
Bill Overstreet died 29 December 2013. If you want to learn more about him, the website below is a great starting point.