Valor: Gung Ho Fighter Pilot

Aug. 1, 1993

Long after World War II, a friend of retired Lt. Col. Edwin L. Heller mentioned a former fighter pilot who had flown with Colonel Heller in Europe. Ed Heller grunted. He didn’t like the man. Why not? After searching his memory for specifics, Heller replied, “He wasn’t gung ho.”

Few are better qualified to pass judgment on that score than Ed Heller, who flew two European theater combat tours and two extensions as a member of the 352d Fighter Group, totaling 520 combat hours, who is credited with 19.5 enemy aircraft destroyed, and who then served an interrupted Korea tour in F-86s that led to many months behind bars in China.

In the spring of 1944, VIII Fighter Command began organized strafing of German airfields, the most dangerous of fighter tactics. On April 24, Heller and his flight leader attacked a heavily defended field. Heller destroyed three aircraft, but his flight leader was shot down. On his solo return to the UK, Ed Heller strafed two other airfields, burning four more enemy planes and damaging five. For that courageous achievement, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He later added seven more, making him a leader in ground kills.

Ed Heller’s most memorable air-to-air combat came May 8, 1944, on an escort mission over Germany. Early on, his wingman had to abort, and Heller became tail-end Charlie in a three-ship flight. In an engagement with some 30 German fighters, he shot a Bf-109 off his flight leader’s tail, then damaged another that dove for the ground 20,000 feet below. Heller gradually closed on him. The German pulled out on the deck and led Heller a wild chase around steeples, buildings, trees, and haystacks, preventing his pursuer from drawing enough lead to fire. Running out of obstacles, the -109 pilot made a tight left turn, and the two fighters ended up in a Lufbery circle with Heller slowly gaining on the German.

In desperation, the German pilot broke out of the circle. As he pulled up over a bridge, Heller hit him again, and the Luftwaffe pilot crash-landed in a river. At that point, Heller’s coolant blew up, covering his windscreen, but enough was trapped to form steam that kept the engine turning for the two-hour flight to Bodney, where he landed in marginal weather. A day to remember.

In 1952, Ed Heller was in Korea commanding the 16th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron of the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing. By Jan. 22 of the next year, he had flown 46 missions, shot down 3.5 MiGs, and been promoted to lieutenant colonel.

The next day, his fortune changed over North Korea. Cannon fire from a MiG broke his right arm, severed the F-86’s control stick, and disabled the ejection system. The Sabre went into an uncontrollable vertical dive from 40,000 feet, and there was no way to get out. When it reached denser air, the F-86’s nose came up and it slowed to perhaps 650 miles an hour. Looking up, Heller saw an eight-inch shell hole in his canopy. As the plane rolled into another dive, he stood up in the seat and was sucked through the shattered canopy. His left leg struck the horizontal stabilizer with what seemed a minor impact.

Heller was able to hook his left thumb into the parachute’s D-ring. Still tumbling at high speed, he blacked out when the chute opened. His left leg, with a compound fracture, dangled uselessly. When he had recovered his senses from an agonizing landing at a high rate of drift, he was confronted by a peasant armed with a large bolo knife.

Once the peasant was convinced Heller had no gun, he and his companions loaded the suffering man into an ancient truck for an excruciating ride over hub-deep potholes to a village. Heller discovered that, though his air battle had begun over North Korea, he had landed across the Yalu in Manchuria. That border crossing at the will of the winds was to be a key issue during his next 28 months as a prisoner of the Chinese, who informed him he would never be released unless he signed a confession that the border crossing was on orders from his commanders.

Though Colonel Heller was not tortured physically, he spent his imprisonment in solitary confinement, lying painfully on a plank bed in rudimentary conditions for more than two years. Eventually a third operation gave him the use of his left leg, now somewhat shortened as a result of inept surgery. Until the eve of his “deportation” to Hong Kong on May 31, 1955–almost two years after the war ended–he was interrogated and pressured constantly to sign a confession.

What was the top item on Ed Heller’s agenda after a reunion with his family? To get a waiver on his left leg and return to flight status. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, Lt. Col. Ed Heller sat at Homestead AFB, Fla., in the cockpit of an F-100 armed with iron bombs, ready to hit a missile site in Cuba.

Ed Heller retired from the Air Force in 1967 and now lives at Grass Valley, Calif., with his wife Johanna, still–and always–a gung ho fighter pilot.

Thanks to retired Col. Dennis O’Connor for nominating Colonel Heller and to Ed Heller for making his records available.

Published August 1993. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.