World War II fighter pilot and ace Alden Rigby vividly remembers his part in the Von Rundstedt Offensive, as the Germans call it, or the Battle of the Bulge. He and 12 other pilots made it off a runway in Asch, Belgium, where they were ready to take off on a mission when a wave of enemy fighters attacked their base.
"Eleven of us got twenty-four (of them) without losing a man," said Rigby.
The battle began Jan. 1, 1945, with 50 or 60 Focke-Wulf 190s, when gun embankments around the allied forces Y-29 base began firing. The Germans were accompanied by 109s flying top cover for them.
Rigby said the fighters had all the elements of success: speed, altitude and surprise. "That was a miracle to even get off the ground," he said.
First Lt. Rigby flying a P-51 Mustang, was able to get off the ground despite heavy prop wash on the steel planking runway and immediately found himself following Ray Littge's aircraft.
"There's a Focke-Wulf 190 pulling right in on his tail so I tell him to break left," said Rigby. "(Littge) does and that Focke-Wulf 190 just filled my gunsight."
When Rigby's guns hit the cockpit, the enemy aircraft rolled over and into the ground.
There's no time to find Littge and get on his wing, in this fight.
"Here comes a Focke Wulf 190 right under me," said Rigby. "He's right on the treetops, so I swing around and bear down on his tail but now my gun sight (light) was gone so I start kicking things back and forth ... spraying ammunition all over the place. I am finally lucky enough, not good, but lucky to hit him enough times at treetop level that smoke comes out that he just plows into the ground."
That's two enemy aircraft down. "Now number three, that's a little more difficult," said Rigby. "He's in a fight with an American P-47 and the 47 has his wing on fire but he's still in the fight, so I'm below all of this (again at treetop level) but I don't have a choice. The Thunderbolt mushes to the outside and I just come up in between them in the circle and point the nose ahead and just good guessing - but good guessing - and a short burst goes through his wing and cockpit and he goes straight in. The final fight for me that day was with a very talented German who was holding his own in a dogfight with two Mustangs over the base. Finally one of the Mustangs forces him to come across the front of me broadside and less than 50 yards distance. I fired my few remaining rounds and at such close range my bullets shattered his cockpit and he went in making it four for the morning.
"All of this happens in 25 minutes," Rigby said.
"Keep in mind all of this action is below 1,000 feet so bailing out is not an option," he said.
The World War II veteran said, "Funny how thirty minutes can change your whole perspective."
When asked about how he prepared for the war as a pilot, he said, he operated on the theory of "Surround yourself with greatness. I've never professed to be the greatest fighter pilot. As a matter of fact, I have always thought that I had to practice more and do every maneuver more and better than anyone else and that's taken a lot of my time."
Rigby describes fighter pilots as a different breed and that confidence is a pilot's right arm. "Don't exceed your ability," he urged as he encouraged balance in that approach. Rigby encourages any service person contemplating service to make the most of it. "It comes only once," he said.
Rigby married his wife, Eleen, before his service, and spent some time as an instructor before catching up to his buddies that he had entered training school with in the European Theater.
"We were married in June of 1942," he said.
Eleen described herself as writing letters every day and Alden doing the same. "Sometimes three, four, five or six letters would come at once," she said, after a long period of not hearing anything. "Everyone was in the same situation," she said as she described the challenges of living through that hard time.
For his efforts in that battle, Rigby was awarded the Silver Star. With the downing of those aircraft and another aircraft in a previous battle, he was given the distinction of being able to join the ranks of those pilots called "ace."