14 September 1944 — Germany
The 36th Fighter Group, 22nd Fighter Squadron moved to England in the spring of 1944 and assigned to the Ninth Air Force. The group’s nickname was “The Fightin’ 36th.” Their mission was to support the D-day landing at Normandy with armed reconnaissance, escort and interdictory missions. They moved into France in July and supported the break though at St. Lo. They also provided air support for Lt. General George S. Patton’s fast moving 3rd Army. The group was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for missions on 1 September 1994 when they attacked German columns south of the Loire in order to disrupt the enemy’s retreat across central France. In September, the group moved to an airfield at Athis, France to continue operations.
On 22 September, 2nd Lt. Harry J. Vibbert, Jr. was piloting a P-47D Thunderbolt with serial number 44-19567. His mission that day was an armed reconnaissance mission to Nancy, France. Vibbert was hit by flak at about 17:30 hours as he approached Nancy, France. Weather at the time was hazy with poor visibility. The aircraft caught fire but Vibbert somehow managed to bail out. However, he suffered very severe burns to his arms, legs, throat, forehead, and broke his ankle when he landed in his parachute. He was caught by German soldiers and marched him for several miles, despite his severe injuries, to a military installation. While standing at attention in front of a German officer seated behind a desk, he collapsed from exhaustion. He was taken to a German hospital for treatment of his burns. He spent several weeks in the hospital before he was transferred to Dulag Luft – Oberusal and then to Nürnberg.
Missing Air Crew Report 9794 was filed on 22 September 1945 seven days after the incident. It may have been because the fighter group was on the move to another airfield.
When Vibbert arrived at Stalag XIII-D, Nürnberg, he soon discovered several other pilots he had known in flight school, Phil Wright, Joe Schultis and Ray Trombley. Wright and Schultis had been shot down but Trombley had caught a wing tip of his P-38 on a tree while strafing a large concentration of trains and locomotives in Hungary. The plane cart wheeled, caught fire and Trombley had been badly burned. The four flight school classmates had been reunited at Nürnberg. Wright recalls that Harry Vibbert had a “indomitable sense of humor.” In an article written years later, Wright explains the warm relations these four men had:
In a way, Harry was Ray’s savior. Though even more badly burned than Ray, his face wasn’t as disfigured as Ray’s nor was he as overwhelmed by his condition. But only Harry, with his unflagging humor, could allow him to get away with dubbing Ray “Prune Face” and himself “The Brow” – from the comic strip characters in Dick Tracy.
Whenever Ray sank into a funk, Harry would say, “Come on “Prune Face,’ I’m ‘The Brow,’ and I’m the boss,” and Ray would buck up. It was beautiful to watch what those two men did for each other. One giving – one receiving – both gaining. It’s a memory I’ll treasure forever. . . . .
Years later, I visited Harry in the veteran’s hospital in Detroit – he was dying of cancer – and he kidded me about getting bald. For Christmas that year he sent me a cheap red pen embossed with his name and a dime store comb. I treasure them. He died shortly afterwards. I loved that man, a only men who share in combat can.