The first time Arnol Sellars flew one in the skies over Europe, he was sold on the P-47 Thunderbolt.
“It was a good ol’ airplane,” he said. “You could shoot all kinds of bits off of it and it would still bring you home.”
But it wasn’t invulnerable. And on his 56th and final mission of World War II, Sellars learned that the hard way.
Forced to bail out of his plane after taking two direct hits, he spent the last few weeks of the war in a German hospital with a broken leg.
Sellars knows he was lucky. Many other airmen who were shot down over Europe died, either there or later as a result of their injuries.
It was partly those airmen Sellars was thinking of a few years ago when he took on a project that remains close to his heart.
The Tulsa resident, who flew missions over Italy and later Germany, became the stateside liaison for a team of Italians looking for World War II aircraft crash sites.
“We left hundreds and hundreds of wrecked airplanes all around the (Italian) countryside, and there are a lot of efforts now to find these planes,” said Sellars, 91.
He has played sleuth for several of the sites that have been discovered, tracking down information about the pilot and family members.
“(The Italians) were so glad to find a survivor. And I’m glad to do it.”
“I’m glad somebody’s interested enough to find out as much as they can.”
Born and raised in Tulsa, Sellars graduated from Central High School in 1942.
Joining the Army Air Corps on deferment, he started classes at the University of Tulsa but was called up for service soon after.
Sellars had dreamed of flying since playing with model airplanes as a child, and was “gung ho” to make that a reality with the Air Corps, he said.
By April 1944, he had his wings. Six months later, he arrived in Italy for assignment with the 522nd Fighter Squadron, 27th Fighter Group.
“They put me right to work,” he said.
To prevent supplies and arms from reaching German forces, the squadron carried out mission after mission, attacking and trying to destroy bridges, railroads and enemy supply trains and convoys.
Sellars remembers his first mission well. The goal was to dive-bomb a bridge, and “I wasn’t quite prepared. I missed the thing completely,” he said. “But I got better.”
Boasting eight 50-caliber machine guns with two 500-pound bombs under each wing, Sellars’ P-47 was well armed.
And the P-47 was elusive.
It would “dive like a falling piano,” he said. “So if you got in trouble you could get away.”
By that stage in the war in Italy — Sellars flew most of his missions out of Pontadera in Tuscany — there were almost no enemy aircraft left, he said. But the antiaircraft fire coming from the ground still posed a serious threat.
Wherever they flew over enemy-held territory, “huge, big puffs of black smoke” from German 88 mm guns greeted them, filling the skies.
It was the same way in France and Germany, where Sellars’ squadron moved in January 1945. There, they continued assisting ground forces, “blowing up bridges, strafing ground troops, shooting up trains, cutting rail lines.”
The bail out
April 2, 1945, started out like business as usual for Sellars. But it didn’t end that way.
His assignment was to fly to Heilbronn, Germany, and look for “targets of opportunity.”
“It was a stupid mission,” Sellars said. “But publicity was a very important thing to our leaders. They liked to be able to tell the newspapers how many sorties we flew each day. So somebody at headquarters said ‘Gee, let’s go get some more sorties’ ” so they could boast a bigger total than other squadrons.
Encountering heavy ground fire en route to Heilbronn, however, Sellars’ plane and two others in his group of four aircraft were shot down. One pilot was killed. Sellars and the other were taken prisoner. The one who got away made it back to base, he said, but “his plane was shot to ribbons.”
Sellars’ plane had been hit twice. After the first hit, to the nose section, he still hoped he could fly it back.
“But I tried and I couldn’t. It was like I was sitting there flying a 7-ton glider. Then they shot me again.”
The second hit took off part off his left wing, and Sellars was forced to bail out. As he did, the tail of the plane clipped his left leg, breaking it below the knee. He didn’t realize it until he landed.
On the ground “I was thinking I’d better get up and get out of there. Then I looked down.”
His leg was pointing at a 90-degree angle, foot sticking out awkwardly.
So there would be no getting away. Picked up shortly after by German soldiers, Sellars was taken to a field hospital.
“There were a lot of German soldiers there missing limbs, etc. I was in good shape compared to most of them.”
He was there only briefly before being taken to another hospital.
It looked like Sellars might not make it there, though. During a stop in one town, residents wanted to take him out of the jeep and hang him, he said.
“But the soldiers, bless their hearts, said, ‘No. He’s a POW.’”
The last part of Sellars’ brief time as a prisoner of war was spent at a hospital in Ludwigsburg, Germany. Staff there were friendly and took good care of him, he said.
The fact that Germany’s defeat was imminent probably had something to do with how he was treated, Sellars admits.
In fact, he added, “all of the Germans kept coming by to practice their English with me.”
But whatever their motives, Sellars remains deeply grateful. He still has a letter that the hospital director wrote him congratulating him on his freedom.
With the arrival of Allied forces, Sellars was evacuated from Ludwigsburg to a U.S. Army hospital in Paris.
That’s where he was, confined to his bed with a cast on his leg, when the war in Europe officially ended a few days later.
“What a celebration that was!” Sellars said. “Any patients who were ambulatory went out and came back talking about the free drinks and how many kisses they got.”
In his condition, though, there would be no party for Sellars. All he could do, he said, was “lay there, seeing it out the window and wishing I could get out there.”
A ‘big, common experience’
Several years ago, Sellars tracked down the hospital in Ludwigsburg where he had been cared for and wrote officials there a letter.
“I thanked them for being so nice to a frightened little guy,” he said.
He also donated money to a program at the hospital that cares for children with special needs.
Even in the madness of war, it seems, Sellars had found things to be grateful for.
He’s particularly grateful for the man it made out of him. His basic character didn’t change, he said, but he definitely grew up.
“I had been to foreign countries I had only dreamed of, had been in a lot of peril and had the fool scared out of me.”
After the war, Sellars went to college on the GI Bill. He married his wife, Betty, and they raised three children together. At the time of her death, the couple had been married 64 years.
After the war, Sellars continued his service with the Air National Guard, attaining the rank of captain. He flew P-51 Mustangs, which were like “sports cars” with wings — “a joy to fly.”
But he still can’t say he prefers them to his old P-47s.
“Both were excellent airplanes,” he said.
Sellars didn’t talk much about the war for years. As he’s grown older, though, he’s become an amateur historian on the subject, making friends and contacts all over the world, especially through the crash-site project.
“Each generation has got their war to fight,” Sellars said. “They just have to stand up and do what seems to be best. I hope that all of them, whatever their crisis, have theirs solved with everybody in the country behind them. That was so gratifying.”
With WWII, he added, “everybody in the country was involved in it. You either had somebody in it, or you had a defense job. Everybody contributed to it. We had this big, common experience.”