Rigby family / Deseret Morning News graphic
Rigby during training in Tallahassee, Fla.

What became known as the Battle of the Bulge started on Dec. 16, 1944, and Alden Rigby found himself assigned to a base known as Y-29 close to Asch, Belgium.

At the time, "they were having the worst weather that had been seen in many decades in Europe. Our ground troops were suffering from the cold. We knew the 101st was surrounded at Bastionne — that was only 20 minutes' flying time from where we were. We could hear the big guns going off to the east. It was the first time I had seen or felt the war from the ground. It was something else."

For three days — Dec. 25-28 — the weather cleared. "We were flying two to three missions a day. Some historians have recorded that those three days saved the Battle of the Bulge. We were able to provide a lot of help to the ground troops."

But on Dec. 29, the fog moved in again. "The ground troops were in deep trouble, not only from the cold, but some of them had moved so fast, they had outdistanced their supplies. But we couldn't do anything. All we could do was sit on the ground and curse the weather. And some of those guys were pretty good cursers."

On the morning of Jan. 1, the fog lifted a bit, and after "some haggling, we got permission for 12 aircraft to go up. We were supposed to fly a short patrol and then escort some bombers to Berlin. Didn't happen."

What they didn't know was at that very moment, German aircraft were heading their way. Adolf Hitler had amassed a force of about 1,200 German fighters and sent them to strike 16 Allied bases in the Netherlands, France and Belgium, with about 50-60 planes to hit each base.

"We had 12 planes on the runway waiting to take off — all 'full-up' with fuel, which means the weight and balance shifts to the rear, and makes the aircraft unstable for maneuvers. Plus we had 85 bigger aircraft wingtip to wingtip on the ground. I was number four in line on the runway, and the first thing I see is flak at the end of the runway, coming from the gun emplacements. The next thing I see is the first wave of German aircraft, about to make their first pass on the field."

Rigby figured he had two choices — slim and none. Slim was in the air; none was on the ground.

"We didn't wait for tower clearance, we just took off, one after another. That meant we had to fight the propwash from the plane ahead of us, and it's a miracle we were all able to lift off."

He had barely got his gear wheels up, when he spotted his first German aircraft, a FolkWolf-190. He started firing, and hit tail and nose. "He went in from about 500 feet off the ground."

Rigby was still climbing, when he saw another Messerschmitt 109, "but at this point my gun sight went out. I had no reference to where I was shooting. I wasted a lot of ammo before he went down."

Rigby had loaded his ammunition with tracers in the last 300 rounds, so he would know when he was running out. He had seen those tracers go out. "I was now in deep trouble. I had no gun sight, I was high on fuel and I was low on ammunition."

He thought he better save those last few rounds, "in case someone got on my tail." Then he spotted an American P-47 trying to shoot it out with a more-nimble 109. "I really didn't want to get into that fight. But I knew the P-47 was in trouble." He waited for a few minutes until the planes shifted, and the German plane had a distinct advantage. "I didn't have a choice but to come up underneath." Guessing at his aim, he shot a few rounds, and the German plane slammed into the ground.

"I didn't know if I had any ammunition left, and was going to go back, when I saw another 109. It was being flown by the best German pilot I had seen at any time. It was in a running battle with two other P-51s."

He watched the maneuvers for awhile, then, one of the Americans chased the German plane right by Rigby. "He turned broadside to me 40-50 yards away. At that range, my gun sight wouldn't do any good anyway. I pulled my trigger at point-blank range, and saw his cockpit shatter. He went down."

Rigby was finally down to a fuel weight that was good for fighting, "but the fight was over. I flew around for 10-15 more minutes, but nothing was going on. I went back to the field. When we opened my doors, I had not one round of ammunition left."

The battle was over, and what was most amazing was that the group had not lost a single plane in the air and only one on the ground. Not a single American had been killed.

The Germans had not only lost half their attacking force, but some of their most experienced pilots. In all, the battle at all 16 bases cost the Americans 200 aircraft. But the Germans lost some 300 planes and most of their veteran pilots. It was, said historians later, essentially the end of the German Luftwaffe.

But it could have ended differently. "We were at the right place at almost the wrong time," says Rigby, who earned a Silver Star for his actions on that day. If they had all been caught on the ground, they would have likely died, he says. "One minute or even 30 seconds later, the day would have been a total disaster."

E-mail: carma@desnews.com