The Pioneer Mustang Group’s Portland Sojourn

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

The Airacobras zipped down the Willamette Valley, staying low and following the river valley south from Portland to Salem.  It was a mock attack of one squadron of the Portland-based 354th Fighter Group versus another, and the 16 Airacobras led by 355th Fighter Squadron commander Major George Bickell did their best to fly low, bobbing and weaving as they kept the four-flight formation together while avoiding natural and man-made obstructions in their flight paths as well as physical contact with each other. 

These P-39 Airacobra fighter pilots of the 355th FS made it safely to Salem and had a good time roughing up their sister-squadron on the ground, the 356th Fighter Squadron, with mock strafing attacks before returning to their temporary home at Portland Army Air Base, now Portland Air National Guard Base.

When Portland AAB came into existence in 1941, it did so as a fighter base, home for the 55th Pursuit Group and its Republic P-43 Lancer fighter planes.  Portland continued to play a role as a fighter base even after the 55th group departed the station in early 1942, though for a while the installation served as a base for bombers flying coastal patrol missions given the threat from Imperial Japanese Navy forces.

But 78 years ago, the fighters returned, in the form of Bell P-39 Airacobra fighters flown by the 354th FG.  No one at Portland could know at the time that this P-39-equipped group would a few months later introduce the legendary North American P-51 Mustang into combat in the European Theater of Operations (ETO).  But as the unit arrived in the Rose City they knew it was for the culmination of their stateside training before going to combat overseas.

The 354th FG was activated at Hamilton Field, California on November 18, 1942.  Col. Kenneth R. Martin took command of the group on November 26 and led it all the way to combat overseas.  As the unit went from paper into actual being, it grew with men and materiel to take the shape of an organized flying unit, with the group headquarters and three assigned fighter squadrons, the 353rd, 355th, and 356th.  In those early days one couldn’t tell that this group was destined for greatness.

The early months of existence were quite nomadic, with the group filling out with personnel and equipment while moving between bases in California and Nevada.  Training was the focus.

In May, 1943, orders came through sending the group up to the Pacific Northwest.  Having accomplished a good amount of training already, the unit was considered air defense capable if the need had arisen on the west coast.  Portland had lost its fighter planes back in early 1942 when defense of war industry and multiple military and naval bases in the Puget Sound region took the 55th Pursuit Group away (Note: Pursuit groups were redesignated as fighter groups in May, 1942).

As things sorted out, perhaps due to limits in space given other missions performed at Portland such as coastal patrol by multi-engine aircraft, all of the 354th FG except the 356th FS moved to Portland AAB.  The group moved in phases, with the bulk of personnel of the 353rd FS entrained and arrived at Portland first, at 0600 hours on May 4.

It was a bit of a cultural transition for the squadron, as members soon found out that Portland Army Air Base followed regulations strictly for uniform and customs and courtesies.  Still, the men found ample recreation on base with an Enlisted Men’s Club, a Non-Commissioned Officer’s Club, a squadron Day Room, a Lounge and an A&R Building.  The men found Portland itself to be a welcome change of scenery. 

The 355th FS and its aircraft arrived at Portland a month later, on June 3, having earlier sent its pilots and P-39s to Portland on temporary duty in late May to participate in maneuvers (see below).  The 356th FS was sent to Salem, with its fighters arriving on June 3.  Although the geographic separation wasn’t optimum, it worked out well enough and the 356th apparently enjoyed the semi-autonomy.

Still, the focus of the group was on training, and the tempo and pace picked up in order to prepare the group for overseas service.  Additional pilots straight from pilot training arrived for the flying squadrons.  These new pilots were put through a phased training program to bring them up to speed in the P-39 fighter.  Phase I was transition flying, focused on the basics of flying the Airacobra.  The second phase tactical formation, altitude work and ground gunnery. Phase II was composed of aerial gunnery, dive bombing, dive and skip bombing, ground strafing, ground gunnery and altitude work.  Phase III completed the training to become qualified combat pilots in fighter aircraft.  By the time the group finished up in Portland, junior P-39 pilots assigned to the 355th had averaged 150 to 160 flight hours in the P-39.

Though in a training status, the group was prepared to the best of its ability in terms of training and equipment to provide an air defense capability. The Portland Air Defense Region held maneuvers May 20-24, 1943 which included the two Portland-based squadrons.  Their performance was lauded by the region’s commander, Lt Col Wilbur H. Stratton who wrote in a letter to the group that “The willingness and spirit with which the 353rd and 355th Fighter Squadrons…performed all missions which were assigned…deserve highest commendation.  The prompt and effectual way in which all orders were carried out, aircraft maintained in commission, and missions reported was outstanding.  The entire exercise was considered very successful and the performance of the squadrons…contributed largely…”

The group’s performance was endorsed by Brigadier General Edward M. Morris, commanding general of the IV Fighter Command who wrote “I wish to take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the excellent manner of performance of duty and untiring effort displayed by the…Squadrons.  The enthusiasm and initiative of these Squadrons has set a fine example for personnel of all Fighter Groups.”

In the early afternoon of Tuesday, May 25, 1Lt Donald M. Schultz of the 353rd FS was conducting gunnery passes over the local gunnery area, but had to bail out of his aircraft, P-39N serial number 42-9122, over Sam Jackson Park.  He landed atop the old VA hospital, and less than 50 feet away from the surgery to which he was rushed after landing and which then became his home for treating his injuries for several weeks.  His aircraft came down about one mile south of Oregon University Medical School.  The incident was carried in Time and Newsweek magazines and later was featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.  Lieutenant Schultz later returned to the squadron though he was unable to resume flying.

On June 8, Capt Bickell of the 355th flew a piggy-back P-39 down to Oakland, California, where Major General William E. Kepner, Commander, Fourth Air Force, accomplished an inspection and a ride. The results were not encouraging and it was decided to discontinue the piggy-back ride concept for the Airacobra as it didn’t accomplish its intended purpose.  General Kepner would soon go overseas also, and take command of VIII Fighter Command in Eighth Air Force in England in the epic air battles to come that wrested control of the air from the German Luftwaffe.  The 354th Fighter Group would become one of his units to accomplish that purpose, which enabled the successful Allied landings on D-Day, a year in the future.

In the third week of June the group deployed pilots, aircraft maintenance (engineering back then) and armament sections to Tonopah, Nevada for dive bombing, aerial and ground gunnery training.  Pilots also received additional training in aircraft recognition, computing lead and angle of attack and map reading.  This was just as well as Oregon’s weather west of the Cascades proved problematic for fighter training.

One of the pilots of the 354th FG assigned to the 355th FS was Clayton Kelly Gross, a Spokane, Washington native who later returned to the Portland area for work and retirement.  He wrote about his experience as a young fighter pilot in his 2006 book “Live Bait – WWII Memoirs of an Undefeated Fighter Ace.”  As a young pilot, “I really never experienced a problem in flying the P-39. A lot of people did.  It was truly said that the first 100 hours in the Airacobra were dangerous because it had characteristics unlike any other plane.  We did lose a lot of pilots in training.  I still loved the aircraft…All of our training was fun because all flying was fun.”

In this advanced phase of training, people and machines worked hard.  Lt. Gross found on 23 July that machines can be cranky when his P-39’s engine broke down after 15 minutes “…in the midst of a grand and glorious mock dogfight.”  He barely had time to look for a place to land but did so successfully on a partially completed runway of the Aurora airport, a gear up landing as he didn’t know what kind of surface he would encounter.  He stayed with the aircraft all day waiting for relief and transportation back to the base.  Hundreds of local citizens gathered through the day and Gross answered many of their questions, including more than twenty times that people asked if his P-39 had wheels.  After three hours “…a very nice lady from a nearby farmhouse brought me a sandwich with homemade bread slices over a half-inch thick.  She also thoughtfully brought a huge glass of milk – nothing too good for our fighting men!  I sat on the cowling and answered more questions and ate.”

Through June and July, selected groups of men from the 353rd were sent to Camp Withycombe in Clackamas, Oregon, in order to train and qualify in small arms.  The men lived in tents while at the range for up to ten days at a time.  The 355th accomplished similar training at Clackamas in August.  The enlisted men fired the Springfield rifle on the familiarization course and qualified on the M1 Carbine.  Officers fired the Springfield, M1 Carbine, pistol and sub-machine gun on familiarization courses.

On August 9 the 356th FS held a mock dogfight with a P-39 flown by Lt. Montijo versus a P-40 flown by Captain Howard, found that at high speeds the P-40 could out-turn the P-39.  On the other hand, at low-speeds the P-39 held the turning edge and could out-dive and out-climb the P-40. Such dissimilar air combat training was helpful in maximizing capabilities and minimizing limitations of one’s own aircraft compared to a different design, and is still a highly useful form of training for fighter pilots flying today.

An essential part of training before movement overseas was with bivouac, or field conditions.  At least two of the squadrons (the third did not mention it in their official history for that period) deployed from Portland to Troutdale Airport for bivouac training, designed to give the men some experience with simulated combat in field conditions, living in tents and working in an austere location, a scenario which very well could have played out depending on where the group was sent overseas.  The 355th FS departed by truck for bivouac at Troutdale on August 18 and stayed a couple of days.  The squadron’s aircraft flew in and the squadron then continued operations in field conditions. 

On August 23, the 356th FS left Salem for a bivouac at Troutdale for three days.  A report on the experience prepared for the squadron commander afterward recorded this:  “During the squadron’s stay, the organization was subjected to numerous strafing and dive-bombing attacks.  From this, personnel of the organization learned various important lessons among these the fact that they should seek cover and remain motionless during an attack so as not to attract attention, to seek proper cover for self-protection and not to congregate in any large mass not under cover.”

During the war, various aircraft manufacturers sent their test pilots to visit military units for demonstrating aircraft capabilities, sharing their useful technical knowledge of the airframes they were truly experts on.  On August 19, Bell Aircraft Corporation representative and test pilot Gerald A. “Jay” Demming did this for the 356th showing them “…muddy field take offs, slips and skids, short landings, slow rolls, etc.”

In addition to training, the fliers of the group also conducted mock attacks on airfields, their own home base at Portland, as well as back and forth with Salem.  During one simulated airfield attack on Portland, P-39s came in from the north, skimming the Columbia River before pulling up over the levy to hit the base.  At this most inopportune time, one of the pilots flew a bit too low, his propeller hit the water and pulled him in.  The P-39 hit the water like a stone going from 200 mph to zero and sinking before the pilot could even get out of the cockpit.  Observers thought the pilot was doomed as the aircraft sank and no pilot showed on the surface, but 30 minutes later he appeared on the surface.  The aircraft was later raised, dried out, and with some spare parts replacing some components it returned to service.

But there were other missions in which the pilots did not swim or walk away, as evidenced by the loss of the following eight 354th FG Airmen during the period of the group’s training here in the Pacific Northwest.  

In Memoriam

2nd Lt. Jim E. Duncan, 355th FS, 15 June 1943

Pfc. Merle R. Bittner, 353rd FS, 29 June 1943*

Sgt. Max A. Hall, 353rd FS, 4 July 1943

2nd Lt. Ray Basham, 356th FS, 22 July 1943

2nd Lt. Charles W. Ryland, 356th FS, 3 August 1943

2nd Lt. Alexander Johnston, 355th FS, 13 August 1943

2nd Lt. Verne W. Rhing, 355th FS, 13 August 1943

1st Lt. Benjamin Q. Bredehop, 355th FS, 22 September 1943

*while on detached duty at Tonopah, NV

As the group achieved its training objectives, the focus shifted to preparing to move overseas.  The men were granted furloughs and packing took place.  By the first of October the furloughs were done and on October 5, 1943, Special Order 272, paragraph 2, by Headquarters Portland Army Air Base set the wheels into motion for the group to go overseas.  In the evening of the next day, October 6, 1943, officers and men of the group with full packs on their backs boarded a troop train for the east coast.  The train was supposed to depart at 1930, and then delayed until 2230, but did not actually roll out until 0030, classic military hurry up and wait. 

But the 354th FG was on the way from Portland to fulfill its glorious destiny, eastward across the USA, east across the Atlantic Ocean to England and then for combat operations further east over Northwest Europe.  There the group earned it sobriquet as the Pioneer Mustang Group, the first USAAF fighter group to take the Rolls Royce Merlin engine-equipped version of the North American P-51 Mustang fighter into combat in early December, 1943.  The group distinguished itself in combat achieving the highest number of aerial victories (701) of any fighter group in the ETO and the P-51 Mustang gained much fame. 

One of its pilots, James H. Howard, who earlier flew and fought with the Flying Tigers, became the only fighter pilot in the ETO to receive the Medal of Honor after his epic 30-minute series of dogfights in his 11 January 1944 solo defense of a group of B-17 heavy bombers under attack by some 30 Luftwaffe fighters. 

The time the 354th FG spent in Portland in the summer of 1943, even with Pacific Northwest weather, even with the Bell P-39 Airacobra, was profitable for the members and helped them sharpen their skills for air combat.  It was one example of the operational training performed by Portland-based air units since the base was established in 1941.  And the training at Portland ANG Base continues today, sharpening the skill sets of this generation’s Air Warriors of the 142nd Wing.  

The 354th Fighter Wing, the northernmost USAF fighter unit in the world, serves on active duty today at Eielson AFB, Alaska, running the Red Flag-Alaska (formerly Cope Thunder) joint/coalition tactical air combat employment exercises.  Oregon’s 123rd Fighter Squadron sometimes takes part in these simulated combat environment exercises, which continues a Portland connection to the 354th Fighter Wing.

Special thanks to Mr. Daniel Carrizales, 354th Fighter Group Historian, for his outstanding support for this article.  For more information on the 354th FG in World War II, please check out his 354th Fighter Group website at: