There at the Finish – The 371st Fighter Group on Victory in Europe Day

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

Seventy-five years ago today, May 8, 1945, the war in Europe ended with the surrender of Nazi Germany to Allied forces.  Victory in Europe (V-E Day) had arrived.  After more than five years of death and devastation between major powers which ravaged the continent, the guns were silent.  It was the 41st month that the US was at war, with more months yet until victory over Japan in the Pacific.

It was also the 22nd month of life for the 371st Fighter Group (the 142d Wing today), born for battle.  Activated on July 15 1943 at Richmond Army Air Base, Virginia, the 371st was a P-47 Thunderbolt-equipped fighter group with three fighter squadrons assigned.  The unit organized, trained and equipped in the remaining months of 1943 before deploying to the European Theater of Operations (ETO) in early 1944.  From Great Britain it began combat operations over the continent in April 1944, and moved to France after D-Day, eventually moving several times and arriving in eastern France in late 1944 supporting Allied ground forces in their campaigns and battles across northwestern Europe.

As the Third Reich’s defenses weakened in the spring of 1945, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane-equipped 371st Fighter Group claimed bragging rights as the first American fighter unit to operate east of the Rhine River, when a small group of men left Metz Airfield (Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) Y-34), France on April 5, 1945, bound for Frankfurt on the Rhine to set up enabling infrastructure, communications, living quarters and flying control at Frankfurt/Eschborn Airfield (ALG Y-74).  Three days later an advanced echelon left and arrived on the same day, followed by the aircraft on April 9. 

The combat action in April 1945 was intense with many air-to-ground missions and a significant number of aerial encounters with enemy aircraft during the last days of the Third Reich.  The group lost seven pilots in April missions.  On April 13th the group’s assistant operations officer, Maj William T. “Shorty” Bales, Jr. and the leader of an air-to-ground mission against a marshaling yard at Hainichen, Germany, attacked a pair of targets of opportunity when a pair of Me-110 fighters passed nearby at 800 feet altitude while the P-47s were working over the marshaling yard.  The formation leader pursued and shot down one of the Me-110s and witnesses reported Bales had also set afire the Me-110 he attacked and probably destroyed it.  But his P-47 may have been damaged by the Me-110 gunner as he soon radioed that he was bellying in.  He checked in on the radio after crash-landing and indicated he was OK, left the aircraft but was taken prisoner and apparently died of wounds the next day, the last member of the group to fall in battle. 

A few days later on April 17 Lt. James A. Zweizig shot down an enemy Me-262 jet fighter.  Then on 18 April 2d Lt Theodore R. Angst, with the group for only 10 days, was killed in a flying accident near Darmstadt during a training mission.  Two days later Lt. Joseph F. Butler shot down a Me-109 fighter for the group’s last aerial victory of the war.  On the same day as this last aerial victory, Capt William A. Jack was shot down and crash-landed by an autobahn near Nuremberg, Germany.  He evaded captivity for two days before his badly burned hands forced him to seek aid - he was the last member of the group to become a prisoner of war.

Amidst some uncooperative spring weather that affected flying operations the group’s last bombing and strafing mission was flown on April 29.  As the aircraft returned to Frankfurt the 371st received orders to move again, even though the end of the war seemed near.  The group was ordered to ALG R-10 at Illesheim, in Bavaria.  On April 30, an advanced echelon elements on the ground departed for the new field in a well-practiced move.  But two days later they were redirected further eastward to ALG R-30 at Fürth/Industriehafen near Nuremburg in Bavaria.  This was the same day when major a collapse occurred in the Third Reich, with 900,000 German soldiers in northern Italy and western Austria surrendered unconditionally, Berlin fell to the Russians and news that dictators Hitler and Mussolini were both dead.

There was a special mission flown on May 3, the longest ranged armed reconnaissance of the war for the group, some 600 miles out and back from Frankfurt to reach the area of the Kiel Canal up by the Baltic Sea.  All three fighter squadrons sent up 12 aircraft each for a 36-aircraft show.  Bad weather enroute frustrated the group’s mission and all three fighter squadrons, 404, 405, 406 got separated – only seven P-47s from two of the squadrons reached the target area between Lubeck, Kiel and Flensburg on the Danish border.  These aircraft made an attack on some barrage balloons they sighted but heavy flak, “…intense, accurate, heavy and light (caliber)…” dissuaded them from pressing attacks when the war was clearly almost over.  “This is for the birds, boys” said the leader of the seven, “Let’s get the hell out of here,” and they did, with one of them damaged by flak. 

Two days later, May 4, German forces in the north Reich, Denmark and Holland capitulated.  Back in Frankfurt the main body assembled a “motley convoy of GI vehicles and captured German trailers and cars” and departed on a 130-mile trek for Nuremberg on May 5.   The next day German forces in the south Reich surrendered.  On May 7 remaining troops in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Norway surrendered.  In the instrument of surrender signed on May 7 it was stipulated that all hostilities must cease at 2301 hours central European Time on 8 May.  And so on that day, celebration of the end of fighting in Europe began all around the world, even though technically a state of war continued into the next day.

As a precaution, the 371st was tasked by higher headquarters to fly three morning combat air patrols on V-E Day, combat missions 214, 215 and 216, the last missions flown from Y-74 and the last missions of the war for the group, along the lines of communication between Klatovy, Czechoslovakia and Linz, Austria.  This was when many German units opposing Soviet forces were desperately making their way westward to fall into captivity under the western Allies and not the Soviet Union, in an area where General Patton’s Third Army found itself at the end of the war as American ground forces neared Prague, Czechoslovakia. 

The first mission, 16 x P-47s from the 404th FS, on station between 0800 and 0940, patrolling at 5,000 feet, reported “Long convoys of trucks, German and Allied mixed, escorted by motorcycles going west… 5-10 vehicles entering streets of Linz. Airdrome at Linz 15-20 twin-engine and single engine aircraft, also a few parked in adjacent woods. Airdrome in perfect condition. 15 miles SE on river Donau (Danube) 1 Red Cross ship observed.”

The second mission was on station between 0915 and 1110, with 16 P-47s (including one photo ship) of the 405th FS, which reported numerous observations of German and Allied vehicular traffic.  And the last mission of the war for the 371st Fighter Group was flown by the 406th FS, led by Maj John O. Daniels, 14 aircraft on station between 1005 and 1110.  “Patrolled assigned area at 4-5000 feet uneventfully.  Heavy US M/T traffic going south.”

As the group settled into R-30 news of V-E Day arrived.  Since there had been previous false announcements of the end of hostilities, group members were a bit wary of it.  At 0900 in Washington DC, 1400 London Time and 1500 in Germany, President Truman announced V-E Day.  This official announcement was welcomed by members of the group, who had a “…slight understatement of skepticism until President Harry S. Truman and Winston Churchill gave the news themselves.”  In fact the climate at the news base, R-30, was a bit anticlimactic. 

The 406th FS history noted that “The rumor of yesterday (May 7) is now confirmed – THE WAR IN EUROPE IS DEFINITELY OVER – Due to the fact that the war is only half won; to everyone’s memories of home, made more poignant due to the fact that we are one step closer; due to that hovering axe, the CBI; and still more responsible, the scarcity of intoxicants, there was surprisingly little celebration.” 

Of course personnel were glad the war in Europe was finally over, and many other thoughts soon came to mind, of home and family, of those that wouldn’t be going home, the prospect according to rumor the unit would be sent to the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater to help finish the war in the Pacific, questions on the point system and who would have enough for a discharge, who would have to stay in an army of occupation, etc.  

Amidst the news of the end of the war, several German aircraft flew into R-30, no doubt piloted by those glad to reach western Allies –occupied territory.  “The squadrons took the training aircraft, gave them fresh coats of paint and the use of additional German equipment began,” recorded the group’s May history.

But there wasn’t much time to rest at this point, as orders came down for the next day’s missions on the first day of peace in Europe.  The fighters flew in to R-30 from Y-74 in the morning of May 9 and three more patrols were scheduled for the late afternoon and early evening hours, the first missions to be flown from ALG R-30; the first “peacetime” missions in Europe.  The 404th led by Capt Stobaugh was first up with 16 P-47s, on station between 1640 and 1730 Recce area Linz-Klatovy at 5000’ without incident” in the first mission after V-E Day.  The 405th was next, on station with 16 aircraft from 1730 to 1920.  One of the P-47s had an engine failure and bellied in about five miles southwest of R-30; Lt Egan was unhurt. The squadron reported “Patrolled as briefed at 5000’, uneventful.”  Then the 406th finished the day with 15 P-47s on station from 1845 to 1930 with the same report as the 405th.   From the air, all was well on the ground on the first day after the war in Europe ended.

It was all a lot to process there on V-E Day, May 8, 1945, and the 371st Fighter Group, the 142d Wing today, was there, part of the Allied effort that achieved the victory.  This was reflected in the unit being awarded credit for participation in six campaigns and the Distinguished Unit Citation – the highest unit-level award.  Statistically speaking there were many achievements in the group’s operational performance, many of which were captured in an earlier VE-Day article found here.

On this V-E Day, 75 years later, we note that Europe as a whole has enjoyed a long period of peace since the Second World War.  The 142d Wing contributed directly to bringing that peace to Europe in 1945, and has since contributed as seen in unit deployments to NATO areas in West Germany in the 1980s, in Iceland in the 1990s, and more recently to The Netherlands and Romania in 2015 and to The Netherlands and Bulgaria in 2018.  In addition to maintaining a constant aerospace control alert status for the greater Pacific Northwest the 142d Wing remains ready to deploy in an expeditionary setting when and if the need should arise.