TOWN 'N COUNTRY — When he was 80, Ralph Delgado Jr. had the image of a P-51 Mustang tattooed inside his right forearm. The legendary fighter was the favorite of the four warplanes he flew through his military career, and it's at the center of his best moment in World War II — when he and his propeller-driven P-51 shot down one of the new German jet fighters.
It was a story retired Lt. Col. Delgado loved to tell at reunions of the 354th Fighter Group. A filmed interview from one of those reunions is on YouTube.
Delgado, now 88, said fewer and fewer people attended the reunions in recent years, and they had to cancel the last one because only a handful could go.
Indeed, the youngest veterans of World II are in their mid 80s. And as we commemorate Memorial Day 2013, legions have already passed into history.
Delgado's medals, a portrait from the era and models of the four warplanes he flew hang on the wall of the mobile home he shares with his wife, Conchita.
His daughter Priscilla Hatch, who lives across the street, said she and her two sisters knew a bit about their father's war experience when they were growing up.
"When he started doing the YouTube, then I started learning more. I was not aware of everything,'' she said.
Delgado joined the Army 70 years ago and made it into the flight program. He shipped out to Europe in 1944. He fought in the Battle of Bulge, Adolf Hitler's last attack on the western front, which had some early success, but failed after cloud cover broke and Allied planes — which by now dominated the skies — could be brought into action.
"I said at the time, if this weather holds out, the war will be over in two months.''
He wasn't far off target.
Still, the weakened German air force had a sleek new weapon, the first jet fighter in the war. Introduced into combat in August 1944 with its main mission to attack Allied bombers, the ME 262 fighters are said to have claimed more than 500 kills before Germany surrendered in May 1945.
Allies claimed about 100 of the jets, most of them shot down while they were taking off or landing. It was the only way to get to them, because they flew too high for the P-51s, Delgado said.
He claimed his big victory in March 1945. As he and three others were returning from a strafing mission in Germany, he spotted an airfield below.
"I said, 'Hey, there are some jets down there. I could see four.' ''
The flight leader dipped his wing and dove down on them, followed by Delgado and the others.
"Sure enough, four of them were taking off. He started shooting at the last two, getting some hits. He said, 'Ralph, take the other one.' "
The jet in front of Delgado started making hard turns, going in a circle. Delgado stayed on his tail, wondering why his opponent didn't swoop up and around in a more logical dogfight maneuver. When the ME 262 pulled out of the turn and started flying straight, Delgado had his chance and fired his six 50-caliber machine guns.
He saw smoke coming out of the cockpit, then saw the canopy fly off and the pilot bail out. Delgado was watching the pilot dangling from his parachute, so close they could see each other's faces. He looked ahead just in time to see two German cross insignia looming — the underside of the crippled jet, which he almost hit.
Delgado thought it must be embarrassing to get shot down over your own airfield, with the plane's ground crew chief watching. Years later, a man researching the history of the ME 262s told Delgado that the pilot of the plane he shot down had been transferred from bombers. That explained his odd maneuvering, Delgado said, noting that Germans had so few experienced fighter pilots left that they were taking bomber pilots, giving them 10 hours practice in ME 262s, and sending them off to meet their fate.
When Delgado returned to base, it was to a celebration. Both he and his flight leader had shot down an ME 262. Delgado's crew chief climbed on the wing and shouted to the others, "He got one!''
His victory was the 700th enemy plane shot down by the 354th Fighter Group, so a military journalist took his picture.
Landing at home base was always a relief, Delgado said. As he taxied before taking off on a mission, he always recited the Lord's Prayer. He remained tense until he heard the flight leader say, "Okay, let's go home.''
For Delgado, "That was a moment of joy.''
After the war, he returned to his home state of New York and joined the reserves. He later moved to Puerto Rico, where he joined the Air National Guard, flying F-86 jets. He flew until a detached retina blinded him in one eye, and he was grounded, retiring from the military in 1975.
Flying jets was fun, he said, but nothing ever was as much fun to fly as his P-51 Mustang.
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.