Presentation Date: January 24, 2008
COL Richard G. Candelaria USAF (Ret)
Ace Fighter Pilot, 435th FS, 479th FG, ETO, 6 Confirmed Aerial Victories
Autograph policy for the evening:
* Must attend and pay for dinner (plus contribute the usual food or dessert)
* Two (2) autographs per person
* Any additional autographs, providing time permits, will be 2 autographs per $5 * Born July 14, 1922 in Pasadena, CA (GEN Robin Olds born the same day & flew in same FG)
* Joined USAAF as aviation cadet & earned pilot wings February 8, 1944 @ Williams Field, AZ
* Assigned to fighters with 479th FG and sent to England
* Flew P-51Hs, named "My Pride 'n Joy"; downed two (2) FW-190s December 5th, 1944
* Downed four (4) Me-109s on April 7th, 1945, plus a strong probable on an Me-262 jet
* Six (6) days later, April 13th on his 75th combat mission, shot down by ground fire
* Evaded ten (10) days, then captured and spent rest of war as a POW (his Spanish helped!)
* Awards and decorations include SS, DFC, PH, AM with 11 OLC
* After WWII, joined the Air National Guard; commanded the 8195th FS, flying F-86 Sabres
* Successful entrepreneur: co-founded Taco Bell and several electronic companies
* Featured on History Channel Dogfights Series
Ace Fighter Pilot, 435th Fighter Squadron, 479th Fighter Group
Golden Gate Wing Speaker, January 24th, 2008
"When I became a fighter pilot in Europe, escorting heavy bombers, I learned what the meaning of ‘true guts’ is. Any time you meet a bomber pilot, go up and shake his hand.
"Those bombers were shot to pieces by antiaircraft fire, by enemy fighters… they would come home in shreds. They were flying aircraft that shouldn’t be flying but they were fighting their way home. Most of the time they didn’t make it, but many times they did. And all fighter pilots would look down on a bomber pilot fighting his way home and say, ‘we have nothing but respect for them.’ "
Richard Candelaria recalls very well the days in his flight training when he and his fellow fighter pilots made fun of bomber pilots, calling them ‘bus drivers’ among other unflattering names. He also remembers how bombardiers retaliated for jesting insults at their fellow bomber crewmen.
"The bombardiers would go up to the mezzanine with balloons filled with water. And guess what, ‘Bombs Away!’ And all the fighter pilots were drenched, and there was nothing we could do about it."
Candelaria was born July 14, 1922 in Pasadena, CA (coincidently, the late fighter ace Robin Olds was born the same day and flew in the same fighter group). As long as Richard Candelaria could remember, he wanted to be a fighter pilot.
"I used to read about the Lone Eagle, G8 and his Flying Aces, and even the Red Baron, and I thought, that’s the thing to be." And, as many World War II combat pilots will tell you, Candelaria says he never thought about dying. "It happens to everybody else, it doesn’t happen to you."
Fresh out of high school, Candelaria went to a recruiting station, where he discovered he needed a college degree and to pass exams before he could become a pilot. The bombing of Pearl Harbor changed those prerequisites.
Candelaria was in his third year of college when America found itself at war. In January 1942, he boarded a train with another 200 southern California boys, all headed for a classification center at Nashville, Tennessee.
These young men, Candelaria recalls, had developed a winter routine of skiing on Mt. Wilson or at Big Pines in the morning and surfing at the beach in the afternoon. Their arrival at Nashville was a shock, as they were met by chilling temperatures, snow on the ground, and tests to see if they could make it as a pilot. In addition, there were typical military camp duties, like ‘Mess Management" (a more officer-friendly title for "kitchen patrol") and guard duty from 8:00 p.m. to midnight.
"I used to take towels and wrap them round my neck. And I thought if only I could get on that Mess Management. You know, it’s warm in there and there’s food and drink. Instead I’m out there walking a beat."
Within ten days, Candelaria got the news he was hoping for. He was qualified to take pilot training, and was in the first group of 100 chosen.
A train brought the new cadet back to California. In Santa Ana and Oxnard, he had ground school, but at the latter base there were Stearmans – wood, fabric and wire PT-17 biplanes with open cockpits.
"Your flight instructor had gosport tubes. That meant you had these little things in your ears, and he was able to talk to you but you couldn’t talk back to him. He would call you all kinds of names and there was nothing you could do about it."
Candelaria revels at memories of flying solo. And when he was transferred to Chico, California, he was filled with the sensations of night flying: aircraft exhaust ports lit by flames and instruments critical to knowing how the aircraft was functioning.
The question of whether Candelaria wanted to fly bombers or cargo planes or fighters had already been answered in his mind, and with instructor recommendations, that question was answered February 8, 1944. The new pilot got orders to report to twin-engine fighter training at Williams Field in Chandler, Arizona.
The Curtiss AT-9 was Candelaria’s new mount.
"We called it the Curtiss "Rock", because it flew just like one. It took off at about 110, climbed at close to 115, cruised at 120, glided at 120 and stalled out at 119."
But the experience in the underpowered AT-9 led directly to flying the RP-322, a P-38 without turbochargers. In the nacelle-enclosed cockpit, the pilot trainee sat piggyback behind the instructor and was briefed on the controls, instruments and flight characteristics prior to the instructor stepping out and saying, "come back in an hour."
Before long, 2nd Lieutenant Richard Candelaria had graduated and was ready, he felt, for combat or anything. However, his new orders listed him as a flight instructor at Williams Field near Chandler, Arizona.
Luke Airfield followed Williams, and the P-40 followed the P-38. A ticket overseas, though, accompanied Candelaria’s next move, as the Army Air Forces issued a call for fighter pilots.
"Here’s the great thing. You don’t know you’re going to the Pacific, or to Europe or to the Mediterranean or where you’re going. But you get a clue.
"Once you become an officer you buy all your clothing. You have to buy long johns… long johns? We’re not going to the Southwest Pacific. Wool this and that… everything wool. No suntans. We’re going to Europe."
479th Fighter Group
RAF Wattisham near Ipswich in East Anglia was the new base for Candelaria. The 479th was flying P-38s, and that meant the realization of his first love.
"About that time they start bringing in P-51s. We’re going to transition from P-38s to P-51s, and all the P-38s pilots went "Awww… one engine? We’ve had two and lots of safety, only one engine now?"
The other transition was the return of torque.
"The P-38 had no torque. You’ve counter-rotating props and it’s as stable as it can be. You put it on the glide path and it just comes down easy. You level off and it has tricycle gear. You get the nose gear down and it just tracks right straight down the runway.
"Now you’ve got a P-51. Number one, you’ve got torque. Right rudder, what’s a right rudder? In a P-40, you broke your right leg climbing and you broke your left leg diving. Have you ever seen P-40s in a dive? When you’re really diving, here’s what happens. There isn’t enough left rudder to keep it going straight. So here’s a whole formation going sort of sideways. Have you ever seen cars going down the road when they’re out of alignment? That’s scary."
The 479th transitioned its P-51s by first flying two squadrons of P-38s and one of -51s, then substituting P-51s for a P-38 squadron, until all three squadrons were in the single-engine fighter.
Pilots had two hours of familiarity in the new aircraft. Candelaria got through his first hour just fine, but about 15 minutes into the second hour, at about 28-thousand feet, the Mustang’s Merlin engine stopped.
"Thank God, in England there an airfield about every twenty miles. So I figure… I’m going to glide back, and I won’t have any problem. I couldn’t make it to home plate, so I chose a field I knew I could make.
"I’m coming in to land, and here’s a Wimpy, a Wellington twin-engine bomber. I’m gliding, I can’t go anywhere else, and he cuts out in front of me and lands, so I’m essing back and forth and I found out that I took that P-51 down to a very low speed and it lands beautifully. From then on I didn’t come in hot any more. I came in slow and made good landings."
Candelaria’s first mission was a 479th FG bomber escort mission beyond Berlin to Leipzig, on which Candelaria says his P-51’s engine quit after he switched from his main tanks to his drop tanks. He had been flying wing to his squadron commander and was by then over the North Sea, before he could switch the fuel controls and re-start the engine. Another pilot named Malone stayed behind, but he left to rejoin the squadron before Candelaria’s P-51 repeated is fuel problem.
"I flew that whole mission, my first in the P-51, all alone. I’d start to edge on to one of the other squadrons along the bomber stream, and every time I did they’d turn into me. I’d have to get off to the side, rock the wings and give them the signal, and they’d leave me alone. But they wouldn’t let me get close."
Spotting the 479th on its return home, Candelaria rejoined his squadron and landed with them, saying today, "Thank goodness the Luftwaffe didn’t come up that day."
His first two victories
On December 5th, 1944, Candelaria’s squadron was with a bomber stream headed to the northwest of Berlin, flying as ‘Outlaws’. He says that at the time, the Army Air Forces had begun allowing some of the fighter escorts to leave the bombers and attack enemy aircraft. The escorts became known as the ‘Snow White’ units and the P-51s allowed to attack German interceptors were called ‘Outlaws’.
As the 435th neared the target, Candelaria says the group commander got a call that the Luftwaffe was amassing fighter units not only from Germany, but also from Denmark and Norway and points well south of the German capital.
"And here was this huge gaggle. I say gaggle because they didn’t fly exactly the way we did. They would sort of bunch together, until they spread out into a company front formation and the leader would say ‘fire.’
"You’d get this burst of fire, 20-milimeter cannon shells and from Focke Wulf 190s 30-milimeter cannon shells, and of course the machine guns going. They could do a lot of damage to the bombers."
Candelaria says his group commander, Kyle Riddle, called a ‘bounce’ to engage the enemy gaggle, now numbering somewhere around eighty aircraft. There were only ten aircraft in the ‘Outlaw’ 435th Squadron, but the 434th Squadron’s twelve Mustangs were also heading that way.
"I’m flying Gordon Doolittle’s wing and he takes us right into the middle of them. He’s shooting at one Fw-190, there’s another one sitting beside me and two coming from the left side. I called Gordon, but everybody else was talking and he didn’t hear me.
While Doolittle shot one 190 down and started on a second one, Candelaria engaged other 190s coming toward him and his wingman. He hit one Focke Wulf that was aiming for Doolittle, sending the 190 heading down in flames, its pilot bailing out.
"I climbed back up towards Doolittle and about that time we get attacked again. I couldn’t do anything else except break into the formation that was right beside me, and we went barrel rolling down.
"The Focke Wulf 190 had a faster rate of roll than we did, so they had a tendency to roll, and not in a straight line but in a barrel roll. We went on down and I hit the second one, and two others went right into the clouds and I lost them."
Where there’d been several hundred planes in the air a few minutes before, the sky had become empty. Candelaria joined up with another P-51 from the 434th Squadron for the flight back to England.
On April 7th, 1945, coming back from his tenth or twelfth mission over Germany, Candelaria saw something that really grabbed his interest - - Luftwaffe jets."We’re cruising along at about 350 miles an hour and were drawing up on some P-47s. Those dumb guys were in close formation. Sure, we were on our way out but we were still in enemy territory.
"All of a sudden I saw flashing above me and I mean, close. There were two Me-262 jets, pure white with the black crosses. And they were heading toward the P-47s. I called them out, and we still had our tanks on, but they didn’t shoot at us or at the P-47s. They just went right on by and were gone.
"That was my first encounter with a jet fighter. They were beautiful. Several times we found 262s, but they would always get away from us."
Then Candelaria got a special opportunity. His squadron was chasing four of the jets through broken undercast, and as the Me-262s slid away, Richard watched them fly away and then turn and enter clouds.
"I dove down and figured he would be coming out here… and, sure enough, there’s the 262… and I’ve got him. I’ve got speed and perfect condition. But I looked up and… solid ice. I’d forgotten to put the heat on the windshield, and all I could see was blank. By the time I looked over, he’d gotten into the clouds and I’d lost him. All because I’d forgotten to turn on the windshield heat."
A target-rich environment
April 7th, 1945 proved different. Candelaria had been promoted to lead Yellow Section. As he was taxiing out, he felt a bumping sensation and then heard the tower say his P-51 had a flat tail wheel. But a quick crew chief changed the wheel while Candelaria sat in the plane. He was able to take off just as the rest of the Squadron climbed out, and he got to the rendezvous point at the German/Belgian border before the rest of his fighters.
He soon found the box of B-24 bombers he was to be escorting, and shortly thereafter spotted two Me-262s. He announced the threat to the B-24s and flew head-on toward the Germans
"Instead of meeting me head-on they just lowered their noses and went below me. Since they were coming underneath me I dropped the external tanks, hoping that maybe I’ll hit one, who knows. I didn’t hit them, but it made them veer and they veered away from the bombers and made a big slow turn.
"I had been above them, picked up a lot of speed was close to 500 miles an hour. They made this wide turn and I was able to cut them off at the pass. As I got closer to them, they realized I was getting a little too close and they started to straighten out to go alongside the bomber stream.
"I was able to line up on one of them and fire. Being an old bird shooter, and a pretty good skeet shooter, I raised the sight slightly, so I’d be able to hit them as they were going away from me. Sure enough, I hit the lead plane in the cockpit and the right engine and the right engine started throwing out black smoke.
"They were still going away from me, and as I started to gain on him he rolled over slowly and then went straight down. He was still going straight down and I went after him."
Candelaria says his Mustang began porpoising as it dived, forcing him to pull back the throttle and break off his pursuit. The last he saw of the Me-262 it was still heading straight down, below the undercast at 6000 feet.
"I didn’t see the pilot get out. I didn’t see the airplane explode. For all I knew, I got him, or maybe I didn’t. Maybe he was able to pull out."
About that time, Candelaria saw glowing tennis balls racing past him from behind. He broke hard left, away from the bombers and looked in the mirror to see the other Me-262’s nose lit up like "a neon sign", blasting 30mm cannon shells at him.
After the break, the German also broke in the same direction as the first jet, leaving Candelaria no chance to pursue.
When the P-51 pilot pulled around he saw green flares, a sign that the bombers were under imminent attack. Climbing, he soon spotted the threat - - a gaggle of a dozen Bf -109s flying formation behind a leader in another 109 painted bright yellow from the spinner to the windscreen.
"I picked him. That was a mistake. I should have known that anyone who wants to be seen that much must be an old veteran. And boy, it was like having a tiger by the tail. This guy was good.
"Nobody had ever beaten me in a fight. Y’know sham fights between friendly airplanes or anything else. Nobody had been able to shake me. This guy shook me, kicked me, turned me every way but loose.
In a series of turns, Candelaria kept trying to get a lead on the 109, but it escaped, headed toward the bombers and knocked out an engine on one of the B-24s before the P-51 caught up with him.
"Do you think I could hit him? Uh-uh. He could play the fiddle, make it dance, do everything else with that 109. At some points when we were trying to get on each other’s tail, we were canopy to canopy, even vertically."
Candelaria says it seemed they had been fighting for a half an hour or so, when it was probably only a minute or two. He finally hit the 109 with bullets, and the Messerschmitt began streaming coolant. Another hit and it was weaving and then the engine caught fire. The 109 went down, the canopy came off and Candelaria watched as the pilot got out, his parachute blossoming as the pilot dropped into the woods.
There were still a dozen enemy aircraft nearby. One of them made a mistake by attacking too fast, sliding past the P-51 as Candelaria retarded his throttle.
"I lined up on him, hit him, and he exploded. At about that time I tried to line up another one. Now this time there were glowing golf balls, 20 millimeters, coming from the nose of the Me-109. So I do a barrel roll and another fellow slides past me and I was able to hit him.
"And just about the time I think I’m really going to give him a good burst, there’s two more over here… several here… everywhere I look there are 109s. I was in a target-rich environment for a change.
Candelaria skidded his P-51 as another enemy fighter passed him. He squeezed the trigger but didn’t know if he hit the plane. Right behind him more glowing golf balls streamed by, so he barrel-rolled and a 109 slid past him. That led to the P-51 and the 109 going into a Lufbury circle, with Candelaria sliding up and down to try to get the nose of his P-51 on-target and other Me 109s joining into the turning, descending circle of planes.
"I don’t think I hit the first one, but the second one I did hit, and he started to try to out-turn me. As he started to turn, I kept gaining on him and I could see him start to wobble. Just as I pressed the trigger, I know I didn’t hit him, but he cartwheeled right down on the ground.
The other members of Candelaria’s flight were on the radio and looking for him, helped when they saw the explosion of one 109 and the last 109 hitting the ground. As the P-51s hurtled down, the Luftwaffe fighters scattered into the clouds. Candelaria and his comrades searched the ground, found the shattered remains of four Me-109s in the area, and watched the bombers drop their payload on the target. Then, they started for home, with George Williams flying on the new ace’s wing.
"Of the victories that come about, many of them come because of luck. Because if you don’t have a chance to encounter the enemy over the target, you’re not going to get a kill."
As Candelaria said to a friend of his who became a millionaire in the oil industry, "you have to be at the right place at the right time. And one more small item, you have to do the right thing."
From good luck to bad
April 13th, 1945 was but six days later. The Army Air Force had sent Candelaria to London for some broadcasts, and Richard had returned to the 435th for his next mission.
April 13th happened to be a Friday, and proved to be a day of misfortune for the man who had just become an ace and was heading out on his 75th combat mission. The 435th was tabbed as the Outlaw squadron for targets of opportunity at the airfield at Rostock, in eastern Prussia.
When the P-51s got to the airfield, they crossed over, noticing only two antiaircraft batteries firing. Candelaria told his flight he would make a first pass to knock out the guns so the others could work over the field. It probably seemed like a good idea, but as his P-51 bored-in to strafe the emplacements he’d seen, everything changed.
"All of a sudden from every side, camouflage is coming off and man, it’s like a Christmas tree lighting up. You’ve got machine guns, you’ve got 20-millimeters, 40-millimeters… none of the big guns, the 88s, were firing at the moment."
As he started pulling up, Candelaria says he simultaneously felt something stinging his body and noticed the oil pressure going down. A 20mm shell had penetrated the firewall and instrument panel and exploded, sending fragments of metal and glass spraying toward the pilot.
Given the warmth of the day, Candelaria had chosen to sit on his flight jacket, offering no protection from the projectiles. He says he felt something warm coming down from his scalp and a sting in his left arm and wrist. He chose to fly as far as he could before bailing out.
For the next ten days he successfully evaded enemy soldiers before being captured and escaping. Freedom was short-lived though, as Candelaria was recaptured and ended up spending the final month of the conflict in Europe as a prisoner of war.
After WWII, Richard Candelaria joined the Air National Guard and he commanded the 8195th Fighter Squadron, flying F-86 Sabres. In private life, he was a successful entrepreneur, co-founding the El Torito restaurant chain and several electronics companies.