It took 65 years but in 2009 the US fighter pilot Captain William Overstreet was finally honoured as a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for his role in the liberation of France.
Known for low-flying his P-51 Mustang fighter, he had criss-crossed the skies above France many times during 1944, before, during and after D-Day, usually escorting allied bombers en route to Germany, peeling away only to deal with what he called “pesky” Luftwaffe fighter planes. He had painted his Mustang with the words “Berlin Express” because he believed his plane would one day land in that city.
He was never one to boast about his exploits – his squadron comrade Chuck Yeager became more famous, particularly after becoming the first pilot to break the sound barrier – but Overstreet claimed to have screamed under the iron lattice base arch of the Eiffel Tower in the wake of a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane a few weeks before D-Day. According to Overstreet, the German pilot had reckoned that his own anti-aircraft guns on the ground would do away with his pursuer and that flying under the Eiffel Tower would see the American off.
Firing continuously, the Berlin Express, according to its pilot’s account, followed his prey through the arch, scattering Nazi soldiers on the ground. The Messerschmitt was hit several times but the fate of its pilot was never known and Overstreet did not claim a “kill,” or even a “probable”. He said he then followed the contours of the river Seine and returned to the base of his 363d Squadron, part of the US 357th Fighter Group at RAF Leiston in Suffolk. The group was part of the Eighth Air Force of the United States Army Air Forces, which would later become the USAF.
So, did he really do it? Threading that needle of the Eiffel Tower sounds impossible but it has been done a handful of times since. A Royal Canadian Air Force Mosquito fighter-bomber was photographed going through the arches shortly after the liberation of Paris to cheers from the streets below. A couple of adventurers did it later, including the former US marine pilot Robert Moriarty in 1984, who recorded it on camera from his Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft (do not watch the video if you are of a nervous disposition). An unnamed pilot did it in September 1991 in a stolen light aircraft. He landed in a field outside Paris and disappeared.
Many Parisians remember seeing an American fighter with a red-and-yellow chequered nose chase a Luftwaffe plane close to the Eiffel Tower in spring ’44. Resistance fighters on the ground said that seeing an American plane chasing a German along the Champ de Mars gardens towards France’s most emblematic monument was a major inspiration and encouraged them to “come from the shadows” to help liberate Paris and eventually France.
According to Overstreet, his exploits were “no big deal. There’s actually more space under that tower than you think. Of course, I didn’t know that until I did it,” he said. He said he had had no time for maths or geometry, simply thinking that if the Messerschmitt could go through that gap so could the Mustang. In fact, the base arch of the Eiffel Tower is significantly wider than a football field and as high as an office block of perhaps 12 storeys.
Overstreet had no children but his closest relative, his niece Anne Keller, told The Independent why she thought he hadn’t reported something that was surely one of his most memorable exploits: “He was a quiet guy, conservative and a devout Christian. To Bill, escorting our bombers towards Germany was a secret mission. He had been told never to mention it. And his squadron had been told, whatever you do, stay away from Paris for political reasons. But when a Messerschmitt attacked his convoy, he thought ‘to heck with this’. He was totally in violation of his orders but he was also focussed on taking that plane out, so he followed him over the rooftops and through that arch.”
On receiving the Légion d’Honneur award in 2009 from the French ambassador to the US, Pierre Vimont, Overstreet said: “I had followed this 109 from the bombers when most of the German fighters left. We had a running dogfight and I got some hits about 1,500 feet. He then led me over Paris, where many guns were aimed at me. He figured I’d get around and he’d have time to get away. He was wrong. I was right behind him, right under the Eiffel Tower with him. And when he pulled up, I did get him. But, listen, that’s a huge space.
“As soon as he was disabled, I ducked down just over the river, a smaller target for the Germans, and I followed the river until I was away from Paris.” Asked by the ambassador what he remembered of Paris that day, he replied: “I’m not sure. I was a little busy. A lot of people don’t believe I did it. I don’t blame ’em. I got back to Leiston with barbed wire under the tail, cat tails on the wing tips and leaves in the air scope.” (Cat tails are wetland plants that rarely grow beyond 10 feet high.) I didn’t do anything special. We were a team.” He dedicated his award to “my comrades who never made it home.”
Before arriving in Europe, he was known for doing loop-the-loops over and under the Golden Gate Bridge. “We liked to buzz farmers, sunbathers or anything,” he recalled. “We got into a lot of trouble but, with hindsight, if you were picking pilots for combat, who would you pick? The fellows who flew straight and level, or the ones who pushed the envelope and tested the limits of their planes?”
He was born in Clifton Forge, Virginia, the son of direct descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers. He was a student at Morris Harvey College (now the University of Charleston) in West Virginia when Pearl Harbour was attacked and he enlisted in the army to be trained as a pilot. In November 1943 he disembarked from HMS Queen Elizabeth at Greenock and headed south by train to Leiston in Suffolk.
Apart from his Eiffel Tower encounter, he once got his P-51 Mustang to safety from Nazi-occupied territory after being hit by anti-aircraft flak which cut his oxygen supply and left him semi-conscious. Several weeks after his Eiffel Tower adventure he and his group flew eight D-Day missions to support the allies landing below. On his return to the US, he taught military students in Florida before becoming, for the rest of his life, an accountant. He remained involved in charities and war veterans’ groups and, at his funeral, friends and family wore red and yellow, the colours of his old squadron.
William Bruce Overstreet Jr, fighter pilot and accountant: born Clifton Forge, Virginia 10 April 1921; married 1944 Nita Brackens (deceased); died Roanoke, Virginia 29 December 2013.Reuse content