We as Allies Remember Jack T. McWilliams

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

Armistice Day – In 1918, on the 11th day of the 11th month, at 11 minutes past the 11th hour, the guns of the First World War became silent.  In the aftermath of that conflict, with the permission of our Allied partner France, American soldiers who died on the battlefields in France were buried there with honors.  Those hallowed grounds are well-maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC).

A generation later, war broke out in Europe again.  American forces mounted expeditionary operations again, this time to help liberate the continent from fascism, in concert with our Allies, including the Free French.   One of the American units which contributed to the effort was the 371st Fighter Group, today’s 142nd Wing.  It was then a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane-equipped outfit which fought across Northwest Europe from April, 1944 to May, 1945.

Until this day, grateful French citizens remember the Americans who helped to liberate their country from Nazi occupation. 

One of those Americans whom they so respectfully remember is First Lieutenant (1st Lt.) Jack Theodore McWilliams, a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter pilot from Montana in the group’s 405th Fighter Squadron.  On this Armistice Day, 2023, now known as Veterans Day for the United States, French citizens in the village of Kauffenheim, in eastern France some 30 miles north of Strasbourg, will pay their respects to him.  They will dedicate a memorial plaque to Lt. McWilliams, whose last combat mission ended mere yards from the village.  

Jack T. McWilliams

Lee E. McDuff, a fellow P-47 pilot in the 405th Fighter Squadron who was shot down in September, 1944 and became a prisoner of war, was one of Jack’s friends and several years ago recalled this about his friend:  “Jack was about five-foot nine-inches tall and had dark brown hair…Jack lived near Flathead Lake, between Sommers and Kalispell, Montana. His commutes were always very long to get home.

First, he took the plane to Missoula, then took the train and then a boat to cross Flathead Lake. On leave, he needed more time to travel than for his family. He was a strong man whose robustness came from the work done during his adolescence by loading railway sleepers. For this work he had a leather epaulette on which he loaded the crosspiece. I think it had a hook like the cotton balls. Using this hook, he would load a crossbeam and carry it over his right shoulder. He was muscular almost like a gorilla. He never had a problem with the P-47. He was a strong, tough guy, friendly, easy to talk to, calm.” 

McWilliams’ father was a World War I veteran, and he had a younger sister and brother.   He enlisted in the Army in July, 1942 and eventually became a pilot.  Jack married Miss Jean Bull in May, 1944, and shipped out overseas for Europe shortly after that.

Loss of Lt. McWilliams

First Lieutenant McWilliams joined the group’s 405th Fighter Squadron (today’s 190th Fighter Squadron of the Idaho ANG) as a replacement pilot in France in the late summer of 1944.  He completed 35 combat missions before he went missing in action on his 36th.  His fateful mission occurred during the time and in the area affected by the German Wehrmacht’s Operation North Wind, the last German offensive on the western front during World War II, launched in order to relieve pressure on the German units up to the north which were caught up in the larger-scale Battle of the Bulge.  McWilliams’ last mission appears to have been in the US Army VI Corps area, at a time when that corps was being hit hard on three sides by German attacks.

According to squadron operational reports, Jack McWilliams was on a fighter-bomber mission, one of a dozen pilots and P-47s led by his squadron commander, Major Gavan Robertson, on the morning of January 14, 1945.  After all aircraft bombed their targets of enemy strongpoints and mobile guns in Buhl, France just west of the Rhine River, the squadron began to turn to head back to home base at Tantonville Airfield. 

Just then, the formation’s top cover flight, Blue Flight with four P-47D Thunderbolt fighters at 9,000 feet, was suddenly bounced at 1015 in the morning by 15 German Me-109 fighters.  The Messerchmitts came out of the sun in a one-pass, hit-and-run attack.  The flight leader saw them before they hit, and called out on the radio for the flight to break into the enemy aircraft as they rapidly approached.  But McWilliams, flying as Blue 3 in P-47D-28-RE serial number 44-20149, didn’t hear the call or break quick enough.  He was hit by an Me-109, possibly flown by Hauptman Alfred Hammer of Jagdgeschwader 53, and McWilliams aircraft’s fuel tank exploded and burned as his stricken Thunderbolt spiraled down.  He wasn’t seen to bail out when Blue 4 last observed him still spinning downward through 4,000 feet. 

McWilliams and his P-47 came down in a swampy area in the Hatten Forest about a half mile south of Kauffenheim, France.  It was nearly all covered up by swampy waters after impact.  Back at Tantonville, the squadron generated a Missing Air Crew Report (MACR #11327) and he was carried as missing in action.

After the Battle

The military officially declared him dead in 1946, even though he was still missing.  In three years of military service Lt. McWilliams was awarded with the Air Medal with a silver oak leaf cluster, and the European Theater of operations ribbon with three bronze stars signifying his participation in four military campaigns in Europe during the war.  Jack T. McWilliams was 22 years old at the time of his loss.

In December, 1951, American military personnel were prompted by some development to excavate the crash site, using pumps to empty water from the marshy crater.  They recovered human remains and also a couple of .50-caliber machine guns with serial numbers which correlated to McWilliams and his missing P-47. 

On January 4, 1952, the Defense Department informed the parents of Jack McWilliams that the remains of their son and his aircraft had been found, nearly seven years after he went missing.  The family opted to have his remains returned to Montana.  News was carried about this in the January 27, 1952, issue of the Inter Lake paper, which indicated his body was to be returned to Montana on March 12, 1952, with funeral on March 15, and burial in the veterans section of Conrad Memorial Cemetery. He was survived by his parents, John and Opal, his wife Jean, brother Gerald, and sister Myrle.

Memorial Effort

In the years since, several things happened which resulted in the effort to make a memorial to Jack McWilliams.  In 2007, his niece, Ms. Jackie Young (named for her uncle) sent an inquiry to Strasbourg in an effort to find the precise location of her uncle’s crash site.  Eventually that request came to the attention of Mr. Roger Keck of Strasbourg, France, who in 2015 began detailed research to find the identity of the pilot whose plane crashed in between Kauffenheim and Leutenheim, as no one in the nearby villages knew whose airplane had crashed near them on that winter day in 1945. 

With help from Ms. Young, from Mr. Roland Muller of the Hatten Museum, Jerome Leclerc at the Espace de Mémoire Lorraine 1939-1945 Museum in Nancy, France, the 142nd Wing history office and 371st Fighter Group veteran Lee McDuff, Mr. Keck was able to put the pieces of the puzzle together and share the information with everyone he was working with.  He then became an advocate for creating a memorial to McWilliams.  We are grateful for his patience and persistence to see this recognition effort through. 

In 2017, Mr. Keck worked with Kauffenheim and nearby village of Leutenheim to publish pamphlets which explained the story of Lt. McWilliams that were distributed to each house in the villages.  The pamphlets told the story and conveyed hopes from Jack’s family and his unit that a memorial might someday be established in honor of his sacrifice.

On the 75th anniversary of Jack McWilliam’s loss, in January of 2020, the Saint Barthelemy Catholic church in nearby Leutenheim held mass at 9:30 a.m. in which citizens remembered Jack McWilliams

In March, 2023 the mayor of Kauffenheim, Mr. Remy Bubel, declared his intent to make a memorial in the village for Jack McWilliams, adjacent to the existing World War I and World War II stone memorials for fallen members of the village. 

In May, 2023 Colonel Pierre Lauga, French Air Force (Retired) contacted Ramstein Air Base to make a request for an honor guard to participate in a prospective memorial ceremony on November 11.  USAF participation was confirmed in August, and on-site planning was conducted in October.  Many people have been involved to craft an outstanding memorial event.  The memorial is emplaced near the church at the center of the village, about 330 yards from the crash site.

In October, 2023 a local citizen retrieved a rocker arm from the Pratt & Whitney R-2800-59 18-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engine and an unidentified piece of wreckage from the crash site, which will be displayed after the memorial ceremony.

Memorial Ceremony

The ceremony will begin at 2:30 p.m. and last about 50 minutes.  An American honor guard from Ramstein Air Base, Germany will participate with French military counterparts.  Musical accompaniment will be provided by l’Harmonie-Roppenheim ensemble.

After the arrival of the official party and an introduction by Mayor Remy Bubel of Kauffenheim, four French politicians will then give remarks, including Councilor of Alsace Mr. Michel Lorentz, Grand Est Region Regional Councilor Ms. Evelyne Isinger, Senator for the Bas-Rhin Department Mr. André Reichardt and Deputy of the National Assembly for the Bas-Rhin Department’s 8th Constituency, Ms. Stéphanie Kochert.

After Ms. Kochert’s remarks, an unveiling of the new memorial to Jack McWilliams will be made by Mr. Keck with a USAF officer attending.  A dedication will be made as well to the stone memorials which remember citizens of Kauffenheim lost in the First and Second World Wars.  A poem by Charles De Gaulle will be read and a benediction made for the plaque and stone memorials.

Following the dedication will be the rendering of honors to the fallen, with a wreath laying for Lt. McWilliams by councilors Mr. Lorentz and Ms. Isinger, and to the village fallen by Mayor Bubel, Senator Reichardt and Deputy Kochert.  Afterwards there will be a minute of silence and then the national anthems of the United States and France.

Following the departure of the official party and the end of the formal ceremony, there will be a reception in the village hall where pertinent pictures and artifacts will be displayed.

This elaborate ceremony on Armistice Day is a sign of the continued friendship between the nations and citizens of the United States and France which dates back to our Revolutionary War.

Other 371st Fighter Group Individual Memorials in France

The individual memorial dedicated to Lt. McWilliams is not the only one which grateful French citizens have made to remember the sacrifice of those who came across the sea to help liberate their country.  Memorials for at least four other 371st Fighter Group P-47 pilots are in France, for 1st Lt. Robert A. Booth at Le Val-d’Ajol in the Vosges Mountains, 1st Lt. Harry W. “Pop” Strahlendorf in Octeville near Cherbourg, 1st Lt. Henry Wieczorek in Mortagne, Vosges region and 2nd Lt. Bradley B. Clark (older brother and only sibling of American Bandstand’s Dick Clark) in Omelmont, Meurthe-et-Moselle.  Another memorial creation effort is underway to remember 1st Lt. Robert A. Mezzetti.   In addition, there is a memorial at the site of the former Tantonville Airfield which pays tribute to the 18 P-47 pilots of the 371st and the 86th fighter groups who gave their lives during the time when their groups were stationed there, from December, 1944 into April, 1945.

And there are other somber memorials underneath the crosses in ABMC cemeteries across France, the 371st Fighter Group fallen who never came home after the war.  Eighteen Airmen (16 officers, two enlisted) are buried at five different ABMC cemeteries in France (Brittany, Epinal, Lorraine, Normandy and Rhone).  Four more men (three officers, one enlisted) are remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at two ABMC cemeteries in France (Brittany and Lorraine). 

On this Veterans Day / Armistice Day 2023, we salute all of our veterans who served our community, state and nation.  We also render another salute, to our French friends assembled in the village of Kauffenheim to honor our Jack T. McWilliams - Un grand merci de vous souvenir de nos honorés qui sont tombés pour notre liberté sur le sol sacré de votre patrie !  (Many thanks for remembering our honored ones who fell for our freedom on the sacred soil of your homeland!)