By Chris Henry, EAA Lifetime Member 41434 and Zack Baughman, EAA Lifetime Member 530987
On August 26 the wheels of the P-47 Dottie Mae left the Nampa, Idaho ground for its first public flight. This moment was special for anyone who is a fan of World War II history and even more special for lovers of the P-47 Thunderbolt. The aircraft took part in the Warhawk Air Museum’s annual Warbird Round Up, where more than a dozen warbirds turned out for a great event. However, the star of the show was Dottie Mae.
The story of Dottie Mae is fascinating. It first rolled off the assembly line at Republic’s Evansville, Indiana plant in 1944 as P-47D-28-RA, serial number 42-29150. The aircraft was then deployed to the 9th Air Force where it joined the 511th Fighter Squadron of the 410th Fighter Group. Pilot Lt. Lawrence “Larry” Kuhl had 17 missions under his belt when he was given the new airplane, which he named Dottie Mae in honor of his wife back home. Kuhl commissioned a member of the ground crew to paint the nose art on the left side of the cowling, choosing artwork based on the December 1944 Roberto Vargas calendar pin up “Santa’s Little Helper.”
On December 16, 1944, Dottie Mae undertook her first combat mission, the first of 90 over the next five months. Kuhl flew 39 of those missions. On May 8, 1945, the war in Europe was over. Twenty Thunderbolts from the 410th Fighter Group were sent on an “aerial demonstration” flight to a POW/concentration camp at Ebensee, Austria, which had been liberated by Allied forces only three days prior, to boost morale. Lt. Henry Mohr was flying Dottie Mae at the time, and while flying over Traunsee Lake he got too low and struck the water. Although Mohr escaped, the aircraft sank to the bottom of the lake, where it would spend the next 60 years.
Dottie Mae was rediscovered in April 2005 and recovered by Trojan Aircraft Services and Sandy Air Corp in June of that year. WWII veteran Jack Croul purchased the airplane and together with restoration specialists Vintage Airframes of Caldwell, Idaho; Allied Fighters of Nampa, Idaho; and Anderson Aeromotive, Dottie Mae was fully restored using much of its original parts.
The airplane made its first post-restoration flight on June 23, 2017. The Warbird Round Up in August was its first public appearance and flight. A special short film was played inside one of the hangars at the Round Up, explaining the 10 plus year restoration effort that went in to this aircraft.
There to celebrate the public unveiling were three men special in Dottie Mae’s past. Two pilots that flew the P-47 in combat, Kuhl and Ralph Vankerkove, and one of its ground crew, armorer Leonard Hitchman. After the short film, the hangar doors raised, and outside sat a shining Dottie Mae. The aircraft looks like it did when it rolled out of the factory.
The large crowd cheered when pilot John Maloney started Dottie Mae up for its flight. Together with a Corsair, P-38, and P-51 from the Planes of Fame collection, Dottie Mae made several passes before coming in to a standing ovation. The tears in the eyes of Larry Kuhl, Ralph Vankerkove, and Leonard Hitchman said it all. Those tears are the greatest compliment that the restoration crew will ever receive.
Chris Henry and Zack Baughman are staff members of EAA.