A Little Horse Reunion

by Al Zdon, September, 2006

A Little Horse Reunion

They embraced in the shadow of the big, gray fighter plane.

They had not been close friends, and they had not seen each other in 6 years, but their brotherhood transcended time and rank and geography.

Ken Dahlberg and George Chassey had shared a war and an airplane once. Chassey had been the crew chief for Little Horse, a P-51 Mustang that flew in the 354th Fighter Group, 353rd Squadron in Europe during World War II. Dahlberg flew Little Horse on a dive bombing mission on September 5, 1944, over Germany.

“It was his job to keep them flying,” Dahlberg said. “It was my job to bring them back.”

With former Staff Sgt. George Chassey and the refurbished P-51 in 2006

With former Staff Sgt. George Chassey and the refurbished P-51 in 2006

The two had been reunited at the invitation of Paul Ehlen, a pilot and collector of military aircraft. Ehlen had undertaken the reconstruction of Little Horse, made from 80 percent authentic World War II airplane components, and 20 percent new or reconstructed parts.

He had chosen the name and painting scheme of Little Horse knowing that his friend Dahlberg had once flown the aircraft. Chassey, in his mid-80s but still working as an Episcopal priest in Columbia, South Carolina, had become aware through the grapevine that still connects the dwindling number of World War II Army Air Force veterans that someone in Minnesota had restored a version of Little Horse. He contacted Ehlen, Ehlen contacted Dahlberg, and in August 2006, the reunion was held at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

Above: Ken with “Little Horse” in 1944

Chassey and Dahlberg recalled the various fields they flew from during the war. Chassey had been sent as part of the advance party to prepare A-2, the first fighter base in France after the D-Day invasion. “They just brought in the bulldozers, cleared out the hedgerows, put the steel matting down, and called it a field.”

“A-2 was so hot, so dusty, we had trouble keeping the sand out of the carburetors and the superchargers. We were lucky we didn’t lose more planes.”

Dahlberg said that the ground chiefs were obeyed. “When the sergeant said, ‘Don’t fly it,’ you didn’t fly it. You didn’t want to kill yourself before the Germans had a chance.”

The two veterans compared some war stories. Chassey recalled when a P-47 was taking off with two 500-pound bombs aboard, attached to the wings, and one of them fell off. “There was a hole in the runway you wouldn’t believe. The whole rear end of the plane was gone. But the pilot was okay.”

Dahlberg recalled the time he “pranged” a P-51 when he was coming in after a sharp turn. “That was the tightest turn landing ever in the history of the United States Air Force. But the plane did not survive. I knew I was getting behind the power curve, and you get that `aw, shoot’ feeling.”
Chassey had joined the squadron when it was first assembled in November 1942, and he stayed with it until it disbanded in 1945.

Staff Sgt. Chassey’s job began at 5 a.m. when he and one other mechanic pre-flighted the plane. “We’d check the tires, drain the sumps, look for cracks, make sure there were no hydraulic leaks, check the coolant, and make sure there were no gouges anywhere:’ Oil was critical, he said, and a Mustang would sometimes burn five gallons of its twelve gallons of oil on a mission.

“That airplane ran every mission without mechanical failure Chassey said. “We could change out an engine in twelve hours.”

Chassey was asked what the biggest problem on the aircraft was. He laughed and replied, “The pilots:’ In a me-chanical nature, “I never wanted to change a carburetor, especially in December or January when it’s five above zero.”

Even sleeping was a challenge in the tents. Coal was rationed to a few hours a day. “First you’d put an old news-paper on the cot, then a blanket, then your sleeping bag, then another GI blanket and finally your great coat on top. Maybe you’d stay warm.”

And then head for your airplane at 5 a.m. “You’d pray, ‘Oh please let this thing start.”

Both pilot and mechanic agreed that thinking on your feet was critical to survival in a war setting. “We just had to figure things out for ourselves:’ said Dahlberg. “You learn or perish,” said Chassey.

Chassey said he got to do what few mechanics did in those days. He flew in a P-51, a rare feat since the combat version of the airplane only had one seat. “One of the pilots arranged a flight, and I had to sit in his lap.”

Dahlberg laughed. “That means there was no room for parachutes.”

Chassey said, “We did a lot of ma-neuvers, including dive bombing. My stomach is still over there.”
Over dinner later, the two talked about their lives since the war. Dahlberg asked Chassey how he got in the ministry business.

George Chassey takes a ride in "Little Horse" with owner and pilot Paul

George Chassey takes a ride in “Little Horse” with owner and pilot Paul

“It was always on my mind. After the war I wanted to spend my time building life instead of destroying it. I’ll say this for the military, it helped you understand people.”

Chassey described how it was for the ground crew when the planes Ehlen in 2006. were due to come back. “After a while you’d begin to get antsy. Where are they? Finally you’d hear them, and they’d begin coming back, one by one. You kept waiting for yours, waiting for yours. It was a happy feeling when your plane finally landed. The first thing you’d do was hop on the wing and talk to the pilot. “How did it go?”

George Chassey takes a ride in “Little Horse” with owner and pilot Paul

Dahlberg smiled. “Crew chiefs were the heartbeat of the organization.”

“Our greatest satisfaction,” Chassey said, looking at Dahlberg, “was to see the pilot come back.”

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