The Wing’s First Purple Heart

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing/Public Affairs

On August 7, 1782, General George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, established the original Purple Heart, then called the Badge of Military Merit. August 7 is now known as Purple Heart Day.  It was 75 years ago this year that a member of the 142nd Fighter Wing, which was designated as the 371st Fighter Group during World War II, first received the Purple Heart medal.

The Badge of Military Merit was never abolished after the Revolutionary War, nor was it used again. Interest grew over time to revive the badge and after General Douglas MacArthur became the Army Chief of Staff in 1930, he directed an effort be made to do so. Army heraldic specialist Ms. Elizabeth Will was tasked to redesign the newly revived award, and created the design sketch used for the present medal.

The new Purple Heart Medal was first awarded February 22, 1932, on the bicentennial of Washington’s birth. It was a fitting tribute to Washington’s memory and military achievements.

On June 5, 1944, Major Edmond A. “Buster” Goolsbee, Operations Officer of the 406th Fighter Squadron, became the first member of the 371st Fighter Group (redesignated as the 142nd Fighter Group, later fighter wing, after the war) to be honored with the Purple Heart. He was the first pilot in the group to be wounded in action against the enemy, which occurred on May 21, 1944, during a “train-busting” mission at Rennes, France.

The whole 371st Fighter Group flew out on a train hunt in France on that day, led by the commander of the 405th Fighter Squadron, Major Harvey L. Case, Jr. Two trains were destroyed and another badly damaged, but it wasn’t without a price.

As Major Goolsbee passed over the first train, German light flak found the range. A piece of it pierced his canopy and hit him in the shoulder from behind, wounding him; his instrument panel and gas and hydraulic lines in the cockpit area were smashed or damaged.  From the group’s “warbook” published after the war:  “Ground crews and officers, gathered around the loudspeaker to listen to the progress of the mission, chilled to the sound of his voice, high with excitement, whining through the air. “Someone lead me in; I’m a cinch for the Purple Heart!!””

Hit and bleeding, “Ma” or perhaps better known as “Buster” Goolsbee returned to Bisterne Airfield in England, landed his flak-ridden P-47 safely and received prompt medical attention. Perhaps a bit too prompt as this quote from the 406 Fighter Squadron’s history for May 1944 suggests: “In spite of this (wound and damage) he was able to make his way across the channel OK and land at home base in good enough shape to bitch loudly at the Medical Corps for not feeding him before hacking the shell fragments out of his shoulder.”

Major Goolsbee left the hospital a few days later of his own volition and returned to duty with the usual well-chewed cigar in his mouth.

The second train cost Frisky something too, when 406FS P-47 pilot Lt. Robert R. Meyer lost two cylinders on his big Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engine during his pass from a well-placed German 20mm cannon shell. He sweated his return back across France and the English Channel to England, oil pressure dropping along the way, until there was no pressure left. Fortunately he was able to recover at Warmwell Airfield after a safe landing.

The third train was no different from the first two, insofar as cost was concerned, as Lt. Francis E. “Francisco” Madore found out. Making a minimum altitude approach to reduce his exposure to enemy fire, he took evasive action against the light flak as he neared the target. But a tree suddenly interposed itself between him and the train. His mighty Thunderbolt clipped the top of the tree with a wing, chopping off a portion of both tree and wing, and bringing some of the tree back with him to England in the wing and fuselage. “He (Madore) claimed that the wing would stall out at IAS.” Fortunately he was also able to get his beaten aircraft back across the channel for a safe landing.

Two weeks after the “train-busting” mission over France that fairly busted Frisky’s chops, pilots assembled under a “mottled-gray sky” in the field behind headquarters used for a baseball diamond. Those slated to receive an award were “slicked up in Pinks, and wearing blouses.” On June 5, 1944, Brig. Gen. Alvan C. “Ack-Ack” Kincaid, Chief of Staff, IX Tactical Air Command, presided over the ceremony, and presented 371FG members with awards earned during the group’s early operations in the ETO. Gen. Kincaid, himself a recipient of the Purple Heart, presented Maj. Goolsbee with the Purple Heart. And so it was, on this day before D-Day in 1944, a member of the unit received his first Purple Heart, the first of many more.