Veterans of The Mighty Eighth: The Oregon Air National Guard’s connections to the Eighth Air Force of World War II

  • Published
  • By Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired) 142nd Wing History Office (Volunteer)
  • 142nd Wing / Historian's Office

On this Veterans Day, 2022, we salute all who have served in the armed services of the United States.  Of the many World War II veterans who achieved victory in the Second World War, some 350,000 of them served at one time or another in the United States Army Air Forces famed Eighth Air Force, also known as “The Mighty Eighth.”

Eighth Air Force, activated on January 28, 1942 was given the mission of strategic bombing against Nazi Germany from bases in the United Kingdom, a huge task in the “big leagues” of aerial combat.  At peak strength during the war, the large command consisted of 200,000 personnel, 40 heavy bomber groups with 2,000 bombers, 15 fighter groups with 1,000 fighter aircraft and four special support groups. 

The Oregon Air National Guard has proud connections to the Mighty Eighth of World War II.  The following are the Eighth veterans which we know about, and there are likely more.

To this gigantic organization, several “charter members” of Oregon’s first military aviation unit, the 123rd Observation Squadron, were assigned during the war:

- Capt. Kay A. Baker, was a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber pilot and combat crew commander, in the 613th Bomb Squadron, 401st Bomb Group at Deenthorpe, England completed 30 combat missions between August 24, 1944 and March 11, 1945. 

- S/Sgt. John H. Pear, was a B-17 aerial gunner, also with the 613th Bomb Squadron but in a different combat crew, 401st Bomb Group at Deenthorpe.  He completed 30 combat missions, including his first mission flown, on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

- T/Sgt. Gerald E. Wilson, was a B-17 flight engineer in the 547th Bomb Squadron, 384th Bomb Group at Grafton Underwood; he was shot down on his 20th mission (to Berlin) on March 4, 1944 and held as a Prisoner of War for 15 months.

From this gigantic organization, post-World War II, a number of Mighty Eighth veterans joined the Oregon ANG and helped build the organization into the outstanding command that it is today.

- T/Sgt. Neil O. Buley, was a crew chief in the 14th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron based at Mount Farm, England.  The squadron operated the Lockheed F-4/F-5 Photo Lightning, Supermarine Spitfire PR Mk XI and late in the war the North American P-51 Mustang fighter to fly as escort for the photo recon aircraft.

- Capt. Gordon L. Doolittle was a P-38 Lightning and P-51 Mustang pilot in the 435th Fighter Squadron, 479th Fighter Group, Eighth Air Force’s last fighter group to join.  He flew 70 missions and achieved three aerial victories (two Me-109 and one FW-190) in his combat tour in the group.  He joined the Oregon ANG after the war, eventually commanding the organization from 1962 to 1977 and retiring as a major general.

- 1st Lt. Raymond J.  LeDoux served as a B-17 Flying Fortress navigator in the 601st Bomb Squadron of the 398th Bomb Group at Nuthumpstead.  On October 15, 1944, his B-17 serial number 43-38172, nicknamed “2 Sad” “Lovely Julie,” was hit by flak after bombs away on a mission to Cologne, Germany – the shell burst and killed the togglier and almost blew off the nose of the bomber and destroying many of the instruments for control and navigation. 

LeDoux was knocked out briefly, regained consciousness only slightly wounded, extricated himself from the damaged nose and taking position behind the pilots, he navigated from memory and provided course headings for the pilots to return to England. LeDoux later received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his navigation on that mission.

- Maj. Frank Q. O’Connor was a P-51 Mustang pilot, and an ace with credit for 10.75 aerial victories, in the 354th Fighter Group (the Pioneer Mustang Group), a Ninth Air Force Group which was the first group in Europe to receive the P-51 and which flew it in support of Eighth Air Force for the first months of its combat service in Europe.  This group trained at Portland in 1943 prior to going overseas for combat in the European Theater. O’Connor commanded the group’s 356th Fighter Squadron and completed 59 combat missions before he was shot down over Germany by ground fire during a strafing run and captured on November 5, 1944.

Capt. Stanley P. Richardson, Jr., was a P-38 Lightning and P-51 Mustang pilot in the 338th Fighter Squadron of the 55th Fighter Group.  On the first Eighth Air Force mission to Berlin on March 3, 1944, largely frustrated by bad weather, Richardson was one of his group’s 16 P-38 fighter pilots who missed the recall and continued on to Berlin.  He achieved one aerial victory in the P-38 during World War II.

In addition to personnel connections, there are also organizational connections between the Mighty Eighth and units of the Oregon ANG.  Although the 142nd Wing (designated as the 371st Fighter Group in WWII) was part of Ninth Air Force in Europe in WW II, the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter group flew several escort missions for 8th Air Force bombers, including:

- May 29, 1944 flew escort for B-17s to Metz, France on 8AF’s mission 379 to attack on German aircraft plants and oil installations with over 1,600 bombers and fighters with IX Fighter Command sending over 600 fighters in support.

- May 31, 1944, provided withdrawal escort to B-17s and B-24s returning from raids on marshalling yards and aircraft industry targets in Germany (8AF mission 382) with over 1,700 bombers and fighters, and nearly 650 IX Fighter Command fighters in support.

- On June 21, 1944, P-47 pilot 1st Lt. Victor L. Unruh (no relation to former 142nd Wing Commander David N. Unruh) was lost on an escort mission to cover Eighth AF withdrawal from Hamburg back to England on Berlin mission (8AF mission 428, the largest Eighth AF mission to date against Berlin with over 2,300 bombers and fighters despatched, with 441 IX Fighter Command sorties in support)

During 1942, the 114th Fighter Squadron (439th Bomb Squadron of the 319th Bomb Group (Medium) in WWII), was briefly in the Eighth Air Force area of operations, from September 12, 1942 to November 11, 1942.  Its time in England was not for combat though, but for staging and training in order to participate in the Allied invasion of North Africa in November, 1942.  From England, the squadron deployed its B-26 Marauder medium bombers to North Africa for Operation Torch:

- Initially stationed at RAF Shipdam (Station 115) Sep-Oct 1942. (Note:  Shipdam became the first US heavy bomber base in Norfolk, England and wartime base for the 44th Bomb Group (the Flying Eightballs) from October, 1942.)

- Then stationed at Horsham St. Faith (Station 123) Oct-Nov 1942. (Note:  This base was later home of the 56th Fighter Group (Zemke’s Wolfpack, April to July, 1943) then the 458th Bomb Group.)

Fast forward to 2022, the Commander of the Oregon ANG, Brigadier General Donna M. Prigmore, mentioned the Oregon ANG’s connections to the Mighty Eighth in her remarks to the Oregon Chapter of the 8th Air Force Historical Society at the group’s quarterly meeting in Beaverton, Oregon on November 5, 2022. 

As you can see, the memory of these Oregon ANG veterans of the Mighty Eighth and of all who served in the organization, is remembered and honored on this Veterans Day, Friday, November 11, 2022.  A grateful nation, the states and communities acknowledge the service and sacrifice of all our military veterans on this day.