When Three Became One: The Foundation of the Modern 142nd Wing, May 24, 1946

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

On May 24, 1946, three different entities with three different histories came together for the first time to create what we know as the 142nd Wing based at Portland Air National Guard Base, Portland, Oregon.


Chronologically-speaking, the first of these was established on March 13, 1941 when Portland Air Base (PAAB) was officially established.  The base was still under construction, but enough personnel, equipment and facilities were available to declare it an active military installation.  Through the rest of 1941, the base grew and a fighter unit. The 55th Pursuit Group, became the primary air unit stationed at the base.


The second entity came just over a month later, when the 123rd Observation Squadron, Oregon National Guard, was activated in a simple ceremony held at the Portland Armory in downtown Portland, Oregon.   Following activation, the squadron trained and equipped at Swan Island Municipal Airport, Portland’s first airport.  There were plans to build a National Guard hangar at the new Portland-Columbia Municipal Airport (PDX today), but the 123rd Obs was federalized in September, 1941 and sent to Gray Army Air Field at Fort Lewis, Washington, and then war came before such plans could be implemented.


The third entity didn’t come into being until July 15, 1943, when the 371st Fighter Group was activated at Richmond Army Air Base in Richmond, Virginia.  For the rest of the year the group and its three fighter squadrons trained and equipped at various bases on the east coast of the United States.


When America entered World War II after the Imperial Japanese attack on Hawaii in December, 1941, PAAB served as a base for bomber-type aircraft used for coastal patrol missions.  The base was also a stop for various military transports as well as newly-built aircraft enroute to other destinations. 


Portland’s coastal patrol mission lasted into 1943, when the base’s mission changed to fighter training.  At first it served as final training for an existing fighter group, but later changed top a replacement training unit, qualifying pilot training graduates in fighter aircraft such as the P-39, P-63 and later the P-38.  This training role lasted into 1945, when the base continued to serve as a transport stop.  With the end of the war PAAB provided an Armed Forces Separation Center for thousands of military personnel returning to civilian life before being placed into a caretaker/reserve status.


The war took the 123rd Observation Squadron around the world.  It also flew coastal patrol missions from Washington State for the first six months of the war, as well as myriad support missions for army training exercises, anti-aircraft artillery exercises, and also photo work on camouflaged facilities in the region, e.g., coastal defense fortifications, naval bases, war production facilities and such to determine the effectiveness of the camouflage measures. 


In 1943, the unit was selected for a new mission and was redesignated as the 35th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (35th PRS) and began preparations for overseas service, to include participation in the Oregon maneuver, the largest military training exercise ever held in the state of Oregon. 


The squadron left the US by ship in April, 1944, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, and the western Indian Ocean.  Then it entrained to cross India from Bombay to Calcutta, and there prepared to enter combat in the China-Burma-India (CBI theater of operations which it did flying into China in September, 1944 with the F-5E Photo Lightning reconnaissance aircraft. 


The unit conducted hundreds of photo recon and photo mapping missions against Imperial Japanese installations and units during the war from a main base and several far-flung detachments covering targets in southern China and Southeast Asia.  It was during this part of the war that the distinctive Redhawk emblem was designed and placed upon the 35th PRS F-5E aircraft.


After the war, the squadron retraced its route back to the States, and  returned to the US where it was inactivated on November 7, 1945.  The squadron received credit for participating in seven military campaigns during the war. 


Returning to the 371st Fighter Group, the group deployed to Great Britain by ship in Feb-Mar, 1944 and became part of Ninth Air Force.  It flew its first combat missions on April 12, 1944, two fighter sweeps, then in following days more fighter sweeps, fighter-bomber and escort missions.  The group flew two fighter-bomber missions over Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, was one of the first groups to be based on the continent after D-Day and supported General Patton’s Third Army from the breakout at Normandy on the epic drive across France. 


Moving on to various expeditionary airfields across France, the 371st helped US Army move up from the landings in southern France to the German border, including direct support of the “Lost Battalion” in the Vosges Mountains in October 1944.  The group helped repulse Operation Northwind, the German offensive supporting the Battle of the Bulge, and hammered the enemy forces trying to evacuate across the Rhine River which garnered the unit a Distinguished Unit Citation (Germany, 15-21 Mar 1945).  The 371st was one of the first combat groups to be based in Germany and when the war in Europe ended was at a second base in Germany.


After the war, the group moved to Austria for occupation duty and then left Europe to return to the US where it was inactivated on November 10, 1945.  The group received credit for participating in six military campaigns during the war, was awarded the DUC (now called the Presidential Unit Citation (PUC)) and was cited in the Belgian Army Order of the Day for actions between 6 Jun – 30 Sep 1944. 


In the postwar era, military planners implemented plans to create a robust reserve component in hopes of averting in the future the significant and serious initial readiness shortfalls experienced in the world wars.  The air component of the National Guard was significantly built up, and Oregon was included in the plans.  On May 24, 1946, the War Department published an order which renumbered various World War II-era combat groups and squadrons with 100-series numbers for National Guard service.


And so, the 371st Fighter group was renumbered as the 142nd Fighter Group and allotted to Oregon.


Effective the same date, the 35th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron was renumbered and redesignated as the 123rd Fighter Squadron and allotted (essentially returned) to Oregon.


Portland Army Air Base, with no active duty assigned, and a modest air reserve presence, had ample space available to accommodate the newly-assigned National Guard air units.  There was no need to build additional or separate National Guard facilities.


And so, it came to be that the 142nd Fighter Group and 123rd Fighter Squadron were assigned together and found a home at Portland Army Air Base as three different histories came together.  Soon the roar of Merlin engines of P-51 Mustang fighters flown by National Guard pilots would fill the air at the base the base.  In essence, May 24, 1946 is a unique kind of foundation day for the modern 142nd Wing, Oregon Air National Guard, as we know it at Portland ANG Base today.  The citizen Airmen of the three continue to proudly serve community, state and nation.