The first time Hewitt Youtz crash landed, he hit the ground belly up and skidded into a grape vineyard.

Certain the plane was going to explode, he jumped out and ran. Youtz felt like he ran 100 yards in 10 seconds, parachute between his legs, inflatable dingy on his back, dressed in layers that, although meant to keep him warm and safe, felt cumbersome when escaping a craft that might burst into flames: wool socks, high-top shoes, a flight suit, sheepskin pants and jacket, oxygen mask, life preserver, 45 shoulder holster gun.

He was dive bombing rail yards in Munich when the bombs on his P-38 wouldn’t come off. On the third pass, they released, but heavy flak shot out Youtz’s right engine.

He bent the throttle forward to keep up with the squadron, running on one engine.

“And it blew up over the coast of Yugoslavia and left me in a very, very quiet airplane,” Youtz said.

Youtz was told to bail out, but he said no. He would try to ride it out, save himself and plane. There on the British-held Isle of Vis, 20 miles away, he spotted the airstrip, tumbled down and took off running.

The plane didn’t explode. One hundred yards away, Youtz tried to light a cigarette but couldn’t. His hands were shaking.

A British flight surgeon and American mechanic came to check on him. The mechanic asked if he wanted anything off the plane.

To this day, Youtz has no idea why he asked for what he did.

The clock.

The mechanic probably expected him to ask for the camera, Youtz thinks now. “Why in the hell would a guy want a clock off of an airplane?”

For every mishap in the air, Youtz refuses to say he was shot down.

“I prefer to say that I was shot up and couldn’t get home,” he said. “The end result was the same, a long way from home and on the ground.”

Youtz flew 21 missions with the 27th Squadron, 1st Fighter Group. Of the 11 pilots assigned to the squadron on Oct. 1, 1944, three had already completed one tour of duty — 50 missions — and had volunteered to fly another. One died. The other two were taken as prisoners of war.

A self-appointed historian of the squadron calculated the casualties. Of 150 pilots of the fighter group, 73 were killed. In Youtz’s group, four died.

“The guys that didn’t come home, you’d say, ‘Oh, Bob didn’t make it back today,’” Youtz said. “... You just kind of tossed it off.

“You pretended you were bulletproof and you just forgot about it.”

Most American fighter planes at the time were single engine, Youtz said, but the P-38 was a twin engine. It carried one person, the pilot, but could haul a large load: up to two 1,000-pound and four 500-pound bombs on a short mission, two belly tanks and four 500-pound bombs on a long one.

Youtz trained for more than a year before he graduated and became a fighter pilot. Overseas, he encountered problems several times.

There was the crash landing on the Isle of Vis. Once, his oxygen mask quit working and he had to dip down to 10,000 feet so he could breathe. And then, he found himself 400 miles from base, one engine down again.

Youtz had escorted B-17s to Vienna, Austria, and before the planes returned to Italy, the colonel suggested the P-38s fly over the Vienna railyards to see what the bombers hit. Antiaircraft battery on the ground shot out his right engine and the electrical system. He couldn’t feather the propeller.

He steered the plane to a Russian emergency landing field in Hungary, 100 miles away.

The plane landed without error. But when Youtz inspected the plane, he found a hole the size of his palm on the leading edge of the right wing, between the cockpit and right engine. Antiaircraft fire severed a cable of 27 electrical wires in two.

Youtz spoke only English, the Russians only Russian. He communicated with a middle-aged Hungarian man who was sure they could fix the plane. The man had worked for General Motors for several years in the 1920s before being laid off in the Depression and returning to Hungary.

The chopped wires were not color-coded, and using a battery, small light bulb and electrical wire, they rubbed wires together until the light bulb lit up.

Youtz spent eight days with the Russians, but he couldn’t leave until a Russian general interrogated him. Where did he come from? Where was he going? How high could the plane fly? How fast was it?

He passed the test. A fuel truck drove up, and Youtz was allowed to go.

Usually, Youtz’s squadron escorted B-17s and B-24s to their bombing targets, flying missions once or twice a week within 700 miles of base in Foggia, Italy. Sometimes the P-38s would dive down to strafe targets of opportunity. Youtz’s squadron of 16 once hit six planes in an airfield near Munich; Youtz responsible for three of them.

In February 1945, Youtz escorted much more precious cargo: Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The 1st Fighter Group was chosen to escort President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Churchill and “the other biggies” to the Yalta Conference, a meeting among Roosevelt, Churchill and General Secretary Joseph Stalin to discuss postwar Europe.

Three squadrons — 48 planes — assisted the secretive mission.

From Athens, Greece, to the conference in Crimea near Ukraine and back to Alexandria, Egypt, Youtz was one of four planes to escort Churchill. The pilots were ordered to shoot down anything that came within five miles, although it didn’t come to that.

Youtz never spoke to Churchill, but when they landed in Egypt, he received a photograph of Churchill and a message with the seal of the prime minister stamped on top: “With Mr. Churchill’s Compliments and Thanks.”

It hangs on the wall in his home office in Riverton, next to a filing cabinet where he keeps a P-38 model his son gave him, painted in the squadron’s signature red. His dog tag hangs from the nose, and below it sits the clock from the crash on the Isle of Vis.

Sixty-six years later, it still keeps time.

They served with honor

Some have said that 1,000 World War II veterans die each day in United States. History dies with each one.

"They Served With Honor" is a special project by the Star-Tribune to collect stories from Wyoming World War II veterans. We will feature one story each week through Veterans Day 2011.

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