Redhawks at the Victory and the Journey Home

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

As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II on 2 September 1945, let us recall the role Oregon’s first aviation unit, the 123rd Observation Squadron, played in the war.  The 123rd Obs was activated on 18 April 1941 in Portland, Oregon.  After a brief period of training and equipping at Swan Island Municipal Airport it was ordered into active service on 15 September 1941 and transferred up to Gray Field at Fort Lewis, Washington. 

When the US entered WW II after the Imperial Japanese attack on Hawaii, the squadron first conducted coastal patrols off the coasts of Washington and Northwestern Oregon from 7 December 1941 to 10 August 1942.  As the war continued, the unit was redesignated as the 35th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron on 11 August 1943 and then prepared to deploy overseas with changes in station from the Pacific Northwest, reequipping and various operational exercises. 

The 35th eventually shipped overseas in April, 1944 by convoy from the east coast across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Mediterranean Sea and into the Indian Ocean and onward to India by 1 June 1944.  There in India the unit received its aircraft and completed final preparations before it flew over the Himalayan Mountains, known as the “Hump,” into China for combat operations on 12 September 1944.  The unit arrived in China as the largest Imperial Japanese offensive of the war was going on there, Operation Ichi-Go which involved more than 500,000 Japanese soldiers.  

Photo reconnaissance work by the 35th and the intelligence derived from it helped turn the tide of the war in China.  As the last month of WWII began in August, 1945, the Redhawks of the 35th PRS, then-commanded by Major Lyle B. Babcock, were spread out all over southern China as they had been since arrival the year before.  In such a large country with so many enemy forces there was a lot of photo recon work to be done. 

As of the first of the month, the squadron’s HQ and co-located “H” Flight was at Army Air Base, Chanyi (Zhanyi today), Yunnan Province, China (since 17 September 1944), with three other lettered flights at geographically separate locations across southern China – each flight was composed of three or four F-5E aircraft and about 50 officers and enlisted men:

“E” Flight, at Army Air Base, Chihkiang, Hunan Province, China (from 19 October 1944)

“F” Flight, Army Air Base, Lao Whang Ping, Guizhou Province, China (from 2 February 1945)

“G” Flight, Army Air Base, Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China, (from 31 July 1945)

In addition, an advanced element of the squadron had moved forward from Chanyi to Liuchow (Liuzhou in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), from 29 July in order to prepare the squadron headquarters and “H” Flight to move forward.  Chinese forces had liberated Liuchow on 1 July after nearly eight months of Japanese occupation.  This coincided with a command structure change as the squadron was reassigned from 14th Air Force to 10th Air Force on 1 August. 

The squadron’s total personnel strength was 51 officers and 189 enlisted men at the start of the month.  These men operated 14 x Lockheed F-5E Photo Lightning twin-engine reconnaissance aircraft (conversions from P-38J Lightning fighters), one Beech C-45F Expeditor seven-seat twin-engine transport and one North American B-25J Mitchell medium bomber.

In the month of August, weather, flooding, unit movements and perhaps logistics combined to constrain squadron operations.  The month started rough with the loss of Capt William W. Deen III who went missing on 1 Aug 1945; it was later determined he was killed that day while flying F-5E-2 serial number 43-28301, squadron number 815, during an administrative flight between Nanning and Chanyi (MACR 14849).

The squadron flew two F-5E recon missions, three B-25J night recon missions and also six ferry missions between Chihkiang and Changting by the time of the Japanese surrender.  In fact, the last mission of the war was flown on August 15 by Major G. S. Glenny, Mission Number 5 ME 176, a 4.5 hour duration sortie to Hengyang in F-5E #806.  Altogether the squadron flew more than 700 operational missions in its year in China.

As part of the chain of command shuffle and move forward, the squadron made plans to move to Liuchow Airfield.  On August 3, the squadron S-2 officer, Capt Casimir J. Ostrowski, left Chanyi with a dozen men in a motor convoy to augment the small detachment at Liuchow.  But flooding rivers and washed out roads prevented the convoy from reaching Liuchow.  The men returned to Tu-Shan from where they were flown to Liuchow, sans vehicles which were returned to “F” Flight at Lao Whang Ping.

Anticipation built as the end of the war neared with the Potsdam Declaration and the dropping of the atomic bombs.  Maj Gen Arthur W. Clark, USAF (Retired), then a 1st Lt. in “G” Flight, wrote home to his wife Mary this impression on 13 August:  “You can imagine where morale is here. I think most of us Are sweating out mail as much as we are the end of the war. We heard today that Tokyo hasn’t made her reply to our last ultimatum, yet tomorrow we should hear what the response was.  In the meantime I hope we give them hell.” (Eyes of the Tiger:  China 1944-1945, page 153)

While the squadron went through the gymnastics of moving to a new operating location, “E” Flight members at Chihkiang were able to witness the surrender of Imperial Japanese forces in China to representatives of the Chinese government on 21 August 1945.  “E” Flight photographer Chester D. Krejci was there and captured the arrival of the Japanese delegation in photographs. 

After news of the Japanese surrender, moving plans were halted, and on 27 August the Liuchow detachment was ordered to return to Chanyi.  It closed out from there and was back at Chanyi by 30 August.  The outlying detachments were also enroute to Chanyi, which soon became the location where the whole squadron was together again for the first time in over a year.

With the end of the war against Imperial Japan, squadron members and other Americans in China found themselves in a budding civil war between nationalist and communist Chinese.  There were even a couple of incidents near Chanyi including an attack against an American convoy and the hijacking of a radio jeep with the driver killed.  Arthur Clark noted on 17 August:  “We’ve received our instruction on defending ourselves.  All towns are off limits.  We’re keeping to ourselves and guarding ourselves.  If trouble comes to China, Americans want no part in it.”  Fortunately the squadron was spared any deadly incidents in this period.

Also on 30 August, the squadron was reassigned again, from 10th AF back to 14th AAF.  Morale in the squadron was high with the war over and with V-J Day at hand.  Personnel anticipated the return home and by 6 September all personnel from the outlying flights were at Chanyi. 

At Nanning, Arthur Clark had work to do before going back to Chanyi as he noted on 31 August:  “I burned 1000 pounds of maps and classified stuff.  Today, I got on a transport plane (still full of manure from horses they’d been carrying) and came to Chanyi.”  There he found that transfers of “essential personnel” and fillers from other units changed the squadron’s roster as postwar demobilization began.  Clark and four other officers found themselves being transferred to the 21st Photo Recon Squadron to carry on some more work – Clark mused “So it’s off for more work in China. And on my baby’s second birthday. …I’d thought I was going home. It’s kind of tough.” 

At the start of September squadron strength was 46 officers and 185 enlisted men and by 15 September it was 32 officers and 78 EM, a decrease of more than 50% as the squadron had been declared surplus to Theater requirements.

The euphoria of going home was dampened by an aircraft accident that took place on 13 September, when 1st Lt. Hillie N. Asteriou was killed during a routine flight at Shwangliu, China, a base of the 21st Photo Recon Squadron; a man on the ground was killed too.  His death brought the squadron’s losses in the China theater to seven men in thirteen months of operations.  Sadly, it wouldn’t be the squadron’s last WWII loss.

On 16 September a memorial service was at 1300 in the squadron’s dayroom at Chanyi to honor the officers who gave their lives in overseas service or were missing in action:

Lt. Kenneth E. Shafer (Killed 15 Nov 44)

Lt. Jack W. Berringer (Missing 21 Nov 44)

Lt. Franklin J. McKinney (Missing 5 Nov 44)

Lt. Estal W. Behrens (Killed 2 Feb 45)

Lt. Phillip L. French (Missing 30 Jul 1945)

Capt. William W. Deen, III (Initially missing, later found killed, 1 Aug 45)

Lt. Hillie N. Asterious (Killed 13 Sep 45)

The squadron’s departure from China was heralded on 18 September when the squadron was readied on two-and-a-half hour notice for movement by vehicle to Luliang, Yunnan Province, China, a staging area for processing movement to the U.S.  The Redhawks left their aircraft behind for disposal – at least three of the F-5E recon planes were transferred to the Republic of China Air Force and continued service in the RoCAF.  The squadron was at Luliang less than a week, and on 24 September three Douglas C-54 Skymaster four-engine transports flew the squadron back over the Hump to Barrackapore, India. 

There in India the squadron moved by truck to Camp Kanchrapara, Replacement Depot #3, US Forces India-Burma Theater, near Calcutta.  The squadron had encamped at Kanchrapara during its journey to China in 1944.  By the end of September the squadron was processed and awaiting shipment to the US.

And shipment it was, by ship, from India to the United States.  The squadron embarked aboard the troop transport USS General C. C. Ballou (AP-157) at Calcutta and departed on 10 October 1945 for the long voyage home carrying 110 members of the 35th PRS.  Of the 110 Redhawks on the roster there were still at least four of the original 1941 charter members of the squadron with the unit after four-and-a-half years:  Major Harvey E. Lounsbury, Jr., First Sergeant Lorne W. Restau, T/Sgt Harry A. Bachman and T/Sgt John W. Buckner.

It was during this time that the squadron suffered one more loss when Flight Officer Stanley C. Price died.  One source indicates that he died on 26 October 1945 aboard ship seven days out of Calcutta without listing a cause.  This was when the ship was heading west in the Mediterranean Sea.  Another source indicates he died from diphtheria in India. 

And though these losses of the squadron in overseas service are noted, there are more Redhawk losses to remember from the war.  Four original charter members of the squadron were killed in action serving in other units.  On 20 April 1944, M/Sgt Bruce C. Green, T/Sgt Albert R. Miller, and S/Sgt Leonard W. Mayer, who had been transferred to the 32nd Photo Recon Squadron,  were killed when their transport, the SS Paul Hamilton enroute to Italy, was torpedoed by German aircraft in the Mediterranean Sea and catastrophically exploded killing all 580 men aboard. Click here.

Another was Thad C. Williams.  He joined the squadron as an enlisted man and later applied and was accepted for pilot training.  After becoming a pilot he went overseas in September, 1944, the same month the squadron flew into China.  There he was assigned to the 646th Bomb Squadron of the 410th Bomb Group (Light), a combat unit in Europe.  On 13 March 1945, 1st Lt. Thad C. Williams was flying an A-20 Havoc bomber when his aircraft was critically hit by anti-aircraft fire over Germany.  He ordered his two crewmen to bail out as he flew the aircraft towards friendly territory; they did and survived but Williams did not. Click here.  

The squadron eventually reached New York and disembarked from the transport for Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, on 5 November 1945.  It was inactivated two days later.  However, some six months later, on 24 May 1946, the squadron was redesignated as the 123rd Fighter Squadron and returned to Oregon.  And so ended the Redhawk’s worldwide deployment saga in the Second World War.  

The 123rd Observation Squadron/35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron was awarded the following battle honors for participation in seven military campaigns during World War II:  Antisubmarine, American Theater; India-Burma; China Defensive; New Guinea; Western Pacific; Central Burma; China Offensive.  These honors are part of the proud lineage of today’s 123rd Fighter Squadron of the 142nd Wing which we remember on this 75th anniversary of V-J Day.