A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Old Time Kentucky: World War II pilot Herky Green was an ‘ace’ in two different fighters

By Berry Craig
NKyTribune columnist

Capt. Herschel H. “Herky” Green shot down a half dozen enemy airplanes on a single mission in World War II.

The Mayfield man, who later made colonel, was piloting a borrowed P-47 fighter plane. Green might have notched a higher tally had he known he had more ammunition.

Even so, Green’s flying feat has few parallels in the history of air combat. It is even chiseled in stone in his hometown.

Herky Green of Mayfield  shot down 18 Nazi planes in 1943-44. He also was credited with two “probable” kills and six “damaged” enemy warplanes in dogfights (Photo Provided)

Herky Green of Mayfield shot down 18 Nazi planes in 1943-44. He also was credited with two “probable” kills and six “damaged” enemy warplanes in dogfights (Photo Provided)

“ON 30 JANUARY 1944 COLONEL GREEN SHOT DOWN 6 AIRCRAFT IN ONE DAY,” reads the inscription on Herky’s shiny black granite monument on the Graves County courthouse lawn in Mayfield.

The monument is a local landmark. Green retired in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., but came home for the memorial’s unveiling on Nov. 11, 1992, Veterans Day.

Green died in 2006 at age 86.

He shot down 18 Nazi planes in 1943-44. He also was credited with two “probable” kills and six “damaged” enemy warplanes in dogfights.

German planes on the ground weren’t safe from Green either. He destroyed 10 Nazi flying machines parked at their airfields.

Green’s skill and bravery won him promotions and a chest full of decorations. He earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 26 Air Medals, a Purple Heart, the Joint Services Commendation Medal and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm.

He ended up commanding his outfit, the 317th Fighter Squadron of the 325th Fighter Group. The storied 325th was dubbed the “Checkertail Clan” for distinctive yellow and black squares painted on the tails of the group’s planes.

Green flew from bases in north Africa and in Italy.

He was the top U.S. ace in the Mediterranean Theater when he was promoted to 15th Army Air Force headquarters in 1944 and had to stop flying. He ended the war as a lieutenant colonel.

After Green graduated from Mayfield High School in 1937, he enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. After classes, he learned to fly in the government’s Civilian Pilot Training Program.

He enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1941 before Pearl Harbor.

All told, Green logged 100 combat missions. Flying a P-40 fighter, he downed a German Messerschmitt 109 fighter on his first mission, May 19, 1943. Green and the German pilot charged each other, guns blazing, in a game of high-altitude chicken.

Bullets ripped into both planes, but Green proved to be the better shot.

“Fortunately, or perhaps more accurately, by the grace of God, I was getting hits all over him and pieces were beginning to fly off his plane,” Green wrote in his illustrated biography, Herky: The Memoirs of a Checkertail Ace. “We just missed having a head-on collision…as he passed beside me, his plane exploded in a tremendous ball of fire.”

Green’s plane was so badly damaged it was junked. A mechanic presented the young pilot with a 20-milimeter cannon shell fragment he found stuck in the engine.

“If that fragment had been a tiny bit lower, the engine would have stopped dead, and my tale would be considerably different — if I were alive to tell it,” he wrote.

Aboard P-40s, Green shot down two more German aircraft. Piloting faster P-47 “Thunderbolts,” he bagged another 10 Nazi planes, six of them on the fateful mission in January, 1944.

Green’s plane was grounded for repairs. So the 23-year-old western Kentuckian flew Capt. Bunn Hearn’s P-47 in an attack on Nazi airfields around Villaorba, Italy.

Green spotted four lumbering Junkers-52 triple-engine transports lined up, apparently for landing. Green got behind the trailing German plane and shot it down. “I switched to the next plane, got off a quick burst setting it afire, and then switched to another, followed by a fourth, all with the same fatal results,” he wrote.

Seeking other targets, Green pounced on an Italian Macchi 202 fighter and destroyed it. (Italy pulled out of the war in 1943. While some Italians joined the Allies, others kept fighting alongside the Germans.)

Green’s last kill was a German Dornier 217 twin-engine bomber. He set it ablaze and watched it crash into the earth.

As he finished off the Dornier, Green noticed tracer rounds streaking from his eight, wing-mounted .50-caliber machine guns, a sign he was running out of ammunition. So he headed for home.

Green thought he had taken off with 400 rounds of ammo for each gun. He really had twice that amount.

The P-47 “Thunderbolt” could haul 800 rounds per gun, Green explained. “Most of us, however, carried only 400 rounds…because we felt the weight reduction significantly improved aircraft performance,” he wrote.

Monument to Green

As a warning to pilots, 317th Squadron armorers slipped five tracer rounds onto the 400-round ammunition belt when there were 50 shots left, Green said.

“After landing, I learned that Bunn did not subscribe to that theory. His plane was loaded with the full 800 rounds per gun. His armorer just attached two of the 400-round belts to achieve the 800-round capability. This meant that five tracers were fired just before the end of the first 400 rounds, as well as the second 400 rounds.”

In any event, after the 325th switched to the fabled P-51 “Mustang,” generally considered the best fighter of World War II, Green shot down another five German warplanes, bringing his total to 18.

To be rated an “ace,” a fighter pilot had to down at least five enemy planes. Thus, Green became one of the few Army Air Force fliers who were aces in two different fighters.

After Green left the Air Force, he spent 18 years with Hughes Aircraft in California. Green is in the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame.

Green was thinking about his old Kentucky home in his first dogfight, which looked like his last. Before he downed the Messerschmitt, Green shook off two more 109s, but went into a spin and almost crashed.

“I knew that death was sitting in the cockpit with me,” Green wrote. “….There was no time for my life to pass before my eyes, but I did have time to wonder how in the world a small-town, country boy like me had gotten himself into such a mess.”

His plane was number 13. Afterwards, he switched to “lucky” 11.

While ground crews couldn’t save his shot up P-40, Green wrote that they were renowned innovators, sometimes using flattened Spam cans to patch bullet holes in wings, tails and fuselages.

While Green was always a fighter pilot, he once flew a twin-engine B-25 bomber on a supply mission to Cairo, Egypt’s capital. He returned to base with souvenir fezzes, 60 gallons of whiskey, 300 pounds of peanuts and a hitchhiker, he recalled in his book.

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Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history from West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of five books on Kentucky history, including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo and Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase. Reach him at bcraig8960@gmail.com

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