Captain William B. Overstreet, Jr., USAAF
My husband Joe and I were invited to a Halloween party last Saturday night. Except for my nephew’s Halloween-themed wedding reception in 2015, we’d not been to a Halloween party since the early 1980s. (Our party-hardy days clearly ended many years ago.) But I’ve always loved Halloween (see my October 27, 2021 blog, “All Hallows’ Eve”), so getting the invitation for last Saturday’s event was quite a treat, and it was great fun.
At the end of the evening, with flashlights in hand, we were ushered out the door and across the back yard to a high chain link fence with a gate. On the other side of the fence was a cemetery. Yes, we were about to enjoy our own private ghost walk!
Regular readers of Sally’s Soliloquies may remember that I also love cemeteries (see my blog “Casualties of War” from August 17, 2022) so this was certainly the highlight of the evening for me. Our adventure was borderline spooky but mostly just very interesting. We stopped at a few markers of note, including the grave of Virginia Lee Boyd Noell. Mrs. Noell was the daughter of a War of 1812 veteran and one of five founders of the Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority at the State Female Normal School (now Longwood University) in Farmville, Virginia. ASA was one of four Farmville sororities that became national entities and are still active on college campuses today.
For me, the most interesting stone we came upon was the grave of William B. “Bill” Overstreet, Jr. You might not know the name, but some of you might remember why he’s famous. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Bill Overstreet was born on April 10, 1921 in Clifton Forge, Virginia and was attending college in West Virginia when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Like so many young men of his generation, he wanted to do his part. So, he enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Forces with dreams of becoming a fighter pilot. All his preflight and flight training took place in California and Arizona, and after he earned his wings, he was assigned to the 357th Fighter Group of the 363rd Fighter Squadron.
As you would expect, Bill’s flight training was not without danger. While practicing combat aerobatics in a P-39 Airacobra in June 1943, he encountered a situation where the plane would tumble and go into a flat spin. It was almost impossible to control the plane. He tried to release the doors so he could eject, but they wouldn’t open because of the pressure against them. He managed to use his knee and shoulder to overcome the pressure and popped out. He was dangerously close to the ground by then, but his chute opened just in the nick of time. He was the first pilot to survive a tumbling P-39. When he got back to Hamilton Field, he sought out the soldier who packed his parachute and thanked him profusely.
As soon as his unit was declared combat ready, they were transferred to Camp Shanks, New Jersey. After one last night of celebrating in New York City, they were loaded onto the luxury liner RMS Queen Elizabeth (converted to a troop ship for the duration of the war), sailed east to Scotland, and eventually settled in at USAAF Station 373, AKA RAF Leiston (due east of Cambridge on England's North Sea coast). Starting on January 30, 1944, Bill flew P-51s and named his first plane “Southern Belle.” A few weeks later, when another pilot was out with that plane, he failed to return. By early March, most of their sorties were over Berlin, so Bill named his subsequent planes “Berlin Express.”
Bill’s first claim to fame (yes, there will be a second) occurred when he was on a mission to southern France. Over enemy territory, a burst of flak cut his oxygen line when he was flying at 25,000 feet. He passed out and eventually recovered when his plane was in a spin heading straight down. He managed to recover from the spin, but somehow lost track of 90 minutes of his life before doing so. He made it back to England but since he was low on fuel he had to land at a base closer to the southern coast. There he ran into two men from Clifton Forge, his hometown. His story got a lot of publicity—newspapers, Time magazine, and a radio broadcast by Lowell Thomas.
Sometime in the spring of 1944 (the exact date has not been verified), Bill was engaged in a dogfight with a German Messerschmitt Bf109 about a half mile from Nazi-occupied Paris when their trajectory pointed them straight to the Eiffel Tower. In a matter of minutes, the 109 flew directly under the tower’s arches with Bill in his P-51 following close behind. Moments later, Bill took out the 109. His action was credited with lifting the spirits of the French Resistance troops on the ground.
Quote from Bill Overstreet: He figured I’d try to 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 that’s a huge space. That’s not close at all. It’s plenty of room to go under the Eiffel Tower. But it makes a good story.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Bill and others in his unit left their base at Leiston at 2:00 a.m. in bad weather. They climbed to 20,000 feet to get out of it, and when they got to France, they made sure no German fighters or their reinforcements could interfere with the invasion. After six hours in the air, they returned to base for fuel. His Group flew eight missions that day.
Over the next several weeks, the Group strafed numerous German trains, trucks, boxcars, lorries, and barges. In one day, they destroyed forty-eight enemy aircraft (109s and Dornier DO217s) without losing a single bomber.
Bill went on to fly missions over Poland, Russia, Italy, and Romania. For his exemplary service during World War II, he was awarded six Silver Stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross, fourteen Air Medals, a Purple Heart, a European Theater of Operation Ribbon with 5 stars, a WWII Victory Medal, and Medals from Russia, France, Belgium, and Yugoslavia. He was just twenty-four years old when the war ended.
Bill Overstreet died in Roanoke, Virginia on my birthday—December 29, 2013. He was 92.
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in southwest Virginia with her husband Joe and Bart, Dog Number 8. Her debut novel, My Mother’s Friend, is available on Amazon here: www.mymothersfriendbook.com. You can also find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.