Wings God Gave My Soul
Remembering Greensboro’s WWII fighter ace George Preddy
The United States was fully embroiled in a protracted world war with some 15,000 Guilford County residents in uniform but, in contrast to the previous three Christmases, a sense of optimism nipped the air as the holidays approached. News of decisive victories by Allied forces in the European Theater of War following the audacious D-Day invasion of Normandy that summer had brought about a renewed sense of national pride and purpose.
Cakes and pies were less plentiful due to sugar and flour rationing, the availability of meat and other staples was severely limited as well, so Christmas dinner wasn’t as sumptuous as most would have liked. And that after dinner cup of coffee? That stuff was really hard to come by! But folks carried on as they had become accustomed. Guilford Dairy at 1700 West Lee (more recently a skate shop with the same name) still offered its famous Egg Nog for 55 cents a quart while shoppers jammed the many department stores downtown that advertised ties for Dad at a buck apiece and fur lined coats for Mom for around $65.
With nearly all essential materials directed toward the war effort the toy industry was forced to adapt. Gone were traditional cast iron trucks and Army men; Radio Flyer had to stop making their iconic metal wagons, instead producing 5-gallon Blitz cans for the duration. Every product possible had to be constructed from wood and fabric; even plastics had not yet entered the consumer market. What children wrote Santa for in 1944 (that might sound familiar today): Lincoln Logs, Raggedy Ann & Andy, Parcheesi, Ouija Boards and erector sets.
Coble Sporting Goods, located where Design Archives is now on South Elm, offered scale model airplanes designed to look like those employed by our fighting forces, including the Northrop P-61 Black Widow. Missing from Coble’s shelves, or any other retailer, were models based on the USA’s newly deployed P-51 Mustangs, like the one piloted by Greensboro’s favorite son Major George Preddy, America’s top Mustang Ace, who gained fame and recognition for blowing out of the skies a record number of the Luftwaffe’s finest. Preddy’s mastery of the air rendered Hitler’s once preeminent Messerschmitt attack aircraft impotent, his remarkable achievement served as an inspiration to Allied troops across the globe.
But what the city, his proud family and the world didn’t know was that Preddy lay dead on Belgian soil that Christmas morning, shot down not by the enemy but by our own anti-aircraft while engaged in one of his characteristic acts of bravery, the sort of daredevil gambit that secured his place in history as one of America’s fiercest warriors.
“A real tiger wound up tight.”
Born in 1919, George Earl Preddy, Jr. grew up in the Aycock neighborhood and attended Sunday School at West Market Street Church downtown. He was what they called “wiry” back then, with big Dumbo ears that protruded outward in an almost aerodynamic way, looking for all the world as if he could take flight with a strong enough backwind. His nickname, everyone had one in the 1930s, was Mouse. Topping out at 120 pounds, he sent away for the Charles Atlas course to try and build muscle mass, the one that promised to build you up so buff that bullies would no longer kick sand in your face and steal your girl. Not that party boy George Preddy had to worry much about that; pretty girls were naturally drawn to the reserved, dark-featured little scrapper who kicked ass unapologetically, who didn’t need to be the center of attention but was anyway. Some things never change.
A tenacious athlete, intensely competitive despite his small size, he graduated from Greensboro (now Grimsley) High School at age 16. Down the block from his home on Park Avenue, at the tennis courts behind War Memorial Stadium, George would take on all comers while manning the concession stand he designated ‘The Mouse Hole’ painted in big bold letters.
Fascinated with flying, at age 19 George and his younger brother Bill learned to maneuver an eight-cylinder locally built WACO biplane down at the Vandalia field on Pleasant Garden Road. Before long, they were taking folks from around Liberty and Burlington up into the clouds for a dollar a head. George Preddy Sr. recalled that time in an interview for the Greensboro Historical Museum, “Me being on the railroad, I made a trip from here to Sanford practically every Sunday and would pass along right beside of the field about a mile this side of Liberty. And I noticed there’s a little Gum Tree there which I notice now is a big tree. And if [George] wasn’t up in the air he’d be standing under that tree in the shade and wave at me. And I named the tree George’s Tree and it still stands on Highway 421 about a mile and a half this side of Liberty.”
After news broke that Hitler had invaded Poland, 20-year old George Preddy attempted to enlist in the Navy in September of 1939 but was repeatedly rejected over the next year for his slight physique. So he and Bill took off barnstorming the state in the summer of 1940, putting on exhibitions and offering rides to locals in order to raise cash to make it to the next town.
Through grit and determination, George eventually made it into the Army Air Force. They had a sudden need for experienced pilots in the fall of 1940, what with Germany shelling the city of London with little effective resistance and all.
Preddy earned his wings days after the Pearl Harbor attack in December of 1941 and within weeks he was stationed in the jungles of Australia where he made an inauspicious debut, winding up in the hospital due to a training mishap. George Preddy Sr. remembered hearing about the accident from his oldest son, “He went down near Melbourne. He said it happened just before sundown and between 15 or 20 feet of him was one of those enormous big anthills. He said those ants were very bloodthirsty. Had he not been found and brought in they probably would have killed him before morning.” He recuperated for about two months but that near death incident failed to dim his perpetual Pepsodent smile.
After recovery, Preddy found himself without assignment until he was forwarded to Major John C. Meyer of the 352nd Fighter Group who wrote in retrospect, “I remember the first time I met George Preddy. I was quite disappointed. He had come to me due to the recommendation of Jack Donaldson who had known him in the Pacific.” Surely, Meyer thought, Donaldson must be thinking of some other guy not this scrawny, beady-eyed lad.
Operating out of Bodney, England with the 487th Fighter Squadron, while piloting a P-47 Thunderbolt christened ‘Cripes A’ Mighty’ (after the expletive Preddy was prone to using when he got excited) George Preddy downed his first enemy warbird on December 1, 1943 in a melee over Rheydt, Germany. Major Meyer gradually realized that Preddy was unusually aggressive and tenacious when it came to spotting and eliminating the enemy, a demeanor one veteran of the Blue Nosed Bastards of Bodney referred to as, “Wound up like a ten dollar watch.”
Preddy’s next winged steed, ’Cripes A’ Mighty 2nd’, was one of less than a couple thousand P-51B Mustangs manufactured during the war. Considered America’s first modern dog fighter, it was a supercharged, high-speed predator equipped with a revolutionary British designed 12 cylinder Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that could engage the enemy at heights above 25,000 feet. It proved to be a perfect fit for George Preddy, with man and machine becoming one. Within two weeks piloting his P-51B, with five enemy aircraft destroyed, Lt. Preddy had earned the title of Ace. In the following weeks 10.83 Balkan Crosses, each representing a kill, would be painted on his plane’s cowling.
He was a minimalist painter on a canvas of death. With exceptional marksmanship and precision targeting, Preddy sent spurts of hot lead in short, staccato bursts tearing into truck engines, surgically strafing locomotives in a way that left Nazi supply trains irreparably disabled on the tracks. One of his fellow pilots was quoted as saying, “Flying with George, you knew you were going to stay out until the last drop of gasoline. Just enough left over to get back to the base. He was a hunter, he went out looking.”
By then, Mouse had earned a new nickname: Ratsy.
In June of 1944, Preddy settled into the cockpit of ‘Cripes A’ Mighty 3rd’, one of the Army Air Force’s newest and most advanced fighters, the P-51D. By the first week in August he had bagged an additional 17 German warplanes in support of the Allied D-Day invasion. This marked the beginning of the end of the Third Reich.
Turns out George Preddy could be as formidable at the craps table as he was at high altitude Nazi sniping. When a sortie over Germany was cancelled for the morning of August 6, 1944, a night-long drunken crap game ensued that ended with Preddy raking $1,200 of his fellow aviator’s cash off the table. He purchased a War Bond, mailed it to his mother, then passed out. It was a short respite; the 487th Squadron was rudely awoken by reveille just 20 minutes later. Their morning mission was back on — Target: Berlin.
Despite being three sheets to the wind, Preddy insisted on leading the six-hour sortie escorting B-17s to carpet bomb Hitler’s backyard. First order of business was for Preddy to mount a small platform and brief his flyers, which he attempted to do but promptly fell on his ass, causing his commanding officer to remark, “George is drunk!”
Head reeling, with Cripes A’ Mighty 3rd cruising at 32,000 feet, Preddy threw up into his oxygen mask then hurriedly attempted to wipe up the mess and regain his composure. That’s when he spied more than 30 ME 109s bearing down in formation towards them. In close succession, Preddy downed five Messerschmitts as easily as a game of Asteroids then dove to treetop level after a sixth. What happened next was detailed in Preddy’s encounter report: “The enemy aircraft were down to 5,000 feet now and one pulled off to the left. I was all alone with them now so went after this single 109 before he could get on my tail. I got in an ineffective burst causing him to smoke a little. I pulled up into a steep climb to the left above him and he climbed after me. I pulled it in as tight as possible and climbed at about 150 miles an hour. The Hun opened fire on me but could not get enough deflection to do any damage. With my initial speed I slightly out-climbed him. He fell off to the left and I dropped down astern of him. He jettisoned his canopy as I fired a short burst getting many hits. As I pulled past, the pilot bailed out at 7,000 feet.”
Despite destroying six Luftwaffe fighters in less than five minutes, a European Theater of War record, the 25-year old pilot swore he’d never again take flight with a hangover. The famous shot of a bleary-eyed George Preddy in his cockpit flashing the OK sign with both hands was taken after landing on August 6th. With that Clark Gable mustache and innate machismo, this was the guy Howard Hughes dreamed of being. For his superior ability, Preddy was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, Distinguished Service Cross and, after August 6, Colonel Meyer nominated him for a Congressional Medal of Honor. Preddy had become, in Meyer’s assessment, “the greatest fighter pilot who ever squinted through a gunsight.”
A Hero’s Welcome
George Preddy and Cripes A’ Mighty 3rd parted ways after that fateful day in August, the Mustang was reassigned and would hold the record for most victories in the air before being shot down in April of 1945. As for America’s most famous WWII Ace, he was given a month off in September and a flight back to Greensboro, after a stopover in Washington, D.C. where his parents and a phalanx of reporters were waiting for him. In interviews he was unflinchingly modest, deflecting credit to his wingmen and support crew.
A gala homecoming was held on September 15 at War Memorial Stadium, a few yards from the tennis courts where George Preddy had manned his Mouse Hole concession stand just a few years earlier. A telegram was read from legendary World War I Ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, who’s record Preddy shattered, that stated in part: “Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to grasp Major Preddy’s hand and offer my heartfelt congratulations and appreciation for his great contribution to all Americans and to the citizens of your community.”
A wristwatch was presented to George Preddy on behalf of the city but when the hometown hero addressed the crowd it was with genuine humility, reminding the assembled that his was a group effort. “Rather than make this a celebration for any one person, let us make it a token and a tribute to all fighting men from Greensboro and Guilford County,” Preddy said. “The American fighter will sacrifice his life for the Four Freedoms and it is up to the American people to see that these sacrifices are not made in vain.”
In an interview over WBIG in Greensboro, Preddy talked extensively not about himself but another native son, broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, who had accompanied his unit when they first sailed into England. “Ed Murrow was right there when the Allies invaded Normandy and followed them onto the beaches to bring firsthand news to the anxious people in America and England,” Preddy said. “He rode in an English bomber to Berlin on a raid at night. Ed Murrow knows what he speaks about because he has spent every available moment getting a better insight into the feelings of the war-stricken peoples of Europe.”
It was precisely this reserved nature and matter-of-fact affability that spurred the War Department to offer Preddy the opportunity to forego putting his life on the line in order to tour the nation on behalf of the War Bond effort. It wasn’t even a consideration for the pilot. In a letter written while relaxing in Greensboro he stated, “I must go back, back to do my part, back to fly and give again. And I’m not afraid. My plane may be shot away but I have wings. Wings not of wood or steel or stuff but wings God gave my soul. Thank God for wings.”
Major George Preddy returned to duty with a new assignment, commanding officer of the lowest performing unit of the 352nd Fighter Group, the 328th Squadron. In November of 1944, his squadron broke the European Theater of War record for most enemy aircraft obliterated in one mission, 24 in all.
On December 23, equipped with not much more than spark plugs and screwdrivers, Preddy’s crack squadron made an uncertain landing onto an improvised steel-matted strip in an area designated only as Y-29 near Asch, Belgium. Tents, fuel, a few guards, fresh snowfall and hostile Nazis awaited their arrival to provide air support for the Battle of the Bulge. What they didn’t have was any sort of repair crew.
Weather conditions grounded the squadron until the afternoon of December 25. Before taking off on a search and destroy mission, George proudly displayed the red socks on his feet his mother had sent for Christmas and was quoted as saying, “Preddy’s going hot today!”
After a few hours in the sky without action the 328th flew into a ferocious dogfight already in progress. Preddy radioed out to his squadron, “Looks like they started without us, let’s join ‘em!” as they dove into the thick of battle. After making easy work of two Luftwaffe fighters, Preddy spotted an escaping FW 190 fighter. American anti-aircraft gunners were stationed nearby so Preddy was aware that pursuing the enemy at treetop height would be perilous because he’d be hidden from view until he was directly overhead of those gunners. He set out after the 190 anyway.
It was just a momentary burst that rang out from that .50 caliber machine gun on the ground, the briefest possible touch of the trigger, before the gunner recognized a Mustang fighter speeding overhead. That ack-ack tore into Cripes A’ Mighty’s armor but it appeared as if the resultant crash landing was one the pilot could potentially walk away from. But Major George Earl Preddy, Jr. was likely dead from a direct hit before the plane ever hit the ground.
In a letter home George’s younger brother Bill Preddy, just beginning his service in the Army Air Force in late-1944, wrote to his grieving parents, “A man’s span on this earth is not measured in years. That is least important. To find happiness, success, and most important, to find God is the zenith of any man’s worldly activities. I think a man has not lived until these things have been achieved. Some have lived a complete life in a few short days. George lived his life in the last year and a half. His life was full, rich in success and happiness. His work was himself.”
Tragically, Bill Preddy was also killed in action in April of 1945. Grave markers for both brothers can be found in Lorraine American Military Cemetery in St. Avold, France.
If yours is a Merry Christmas then you, like the rest of us, are indebted to those brave young men and women who defeated fascism, that generation they’ve labeled ‘The Greatest’ because, truth to tell, they were.
Billy Ingram has written and/or produced 7 books including Hamburger², a book (mostly) about Greensboro’s unique vagrancies and anomalies.