A Cyclone-Roaring December 7: The 123rd Observation Squadron Goes to War

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

You may hear the thunder of the 123rd Fighter Squadron’s jet engines on takeoff from Portland Air National Guard Base, a sign of readiness.  But on this December day in 1941 that sound was a roar, the roar of a nine-cylinder Wright R-1820-57 Cyclone 9 radial engine of 1,060 horsepower for a propeller-driven aircraft taking off on the squadron’s first patrol of the Second World War.

When the naval forces of Imperial Japan attacked our military and naval bases in the territory of Hawaii on December 7, 1941, Oregon’s first military aviation unit, the 123rd Observation Squadron, now the 123rd Fighter Squadron, was already serving on active duty at Gray Army Air Field adjacent to Fort Lewis, Washington.

The squadron was ordered to active duty less than three months before, on September 15, 1941, and on September 25 left Portland by air and rail for Gray Field.  Air was but two aircraft, carrying two people each, all the new squadron had at the time as the US was in the midst of a great defense expansion and aircraft weren’t yet plentiful.  The rest of the 100+ members of the unit went by train.

At Gray Field, the squadron was given a primary aircraft of assignment, the North American O-47.  The O-47 was a portly observation aircraft with seats for three crewmembers, powered by the R-1820 powerplant used on the famous Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber and Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber, among many others.  See the USAF Fact Sheet for more details on the O-47 

It was in the squadron’s only O-47B (the rest were A-models with 975 hp engines) that the unit flew its first operational sortie of the war, a coastal patrol.  See the previously published article “Head West!! Oregon National Guard’s Initial Response to Pearl Harbor Attack” for more details on that first wartime mission on the Day of Infamy.

From then on to 10 August 10, 1942, the 123rd conducted regular coastal patrol missions, termed “Inshore Anti-Submarine Patrol” in the O-47 and also in the Stinson L-1A (aka O-49) Vigilant light observation aircraft.  See the USAF fact sheet for the L-1A.

The squadron flew these patrol missions between Tillamook Head, Oregon and Destruction Rock/Island off the Washington Coast.  A detachment of the squadron was based at Moon Island Airport (Bowerman Field today) near Hoquiam, Washington, from March 15, 1942 to conduct these patrols. 

Some 11 officers, 13 NCO’s and two enlisted men served as members of a combat crew and received credit for participating in these operational missions in the 70th Observation Group’s General Order No. 5, 29 May 1943.  They were authorized to wear the American Theater Ribbon pending creation of a medal for the campaign.  The squadron received credit for its part in the American Campaign – Antisubmarine.

On this Pearl Harbor Day, we remember that Oregon’s first aviation unit, the 123rd Observation Squadron, was ready, willing and answered the call to duty when war suddenly became reality.  As on December 7, 1941, Oregon’s Air National Guard remains ready, willing and able to answer the call.