First Campaign: The 371st Fighter Group in the Air Offensive, Europe

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

Note:  This is the first installment of a planned series of articles describing the six military campaigns in Europe which the 371st Fighter Group, today’s 142nd wing, flew and fought in during the liberation of Northwest Europe in World War II.

Eighty years ago today, April 12, 1944 the 371st Fighter Group (371st FG) began combat operation in the European Theater of Operations (ETO).  Getting into combat in the Air Offensive, Europe campaign required some changes in the unit’s mission and tactics, and overcoming obstacles unique to the theater, all of which were successfully accomplished through grit and determination. 

The military campaign known as the Air Offensive, Europe commenced for the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) on Independence Day, July 4, 1942 when six USAAF combat crews of the 15th Bombardment Squadron (Light) in borrowed Royal Air Force (RAF) Douglas Boston (A-20 Havoc) light bombers conducted an air raid with six RAF Bostons of No. 226 Squadron against German airfields in the Netherlands.  Two American and one British Boston were lost on the raid, which was directed to take place on July 4th by President Roosevelt himself, as a demonstration of US engagement of the enemy on the European front.

For the nascent US Eighth Air Force, growing to later become the “Mighty Eighth,” that first mission was a small blow against the enemy but it initiated the air offensive campaign.  Heavier blows began on August 17, 1942, when a dozen Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress heavy bombers attacked a marshalling yard in Rouen, France with no losses and the American participation in the air war in Europe began in earnest.  Many more air units deployed to the United Kingdom, and an additional numbered air force, Ninth Air Force, was added in the buildup of American air power conducting this campaign.

Campaign Origins and Parameters

War Department General Orders 89 (1944, originally established the "Air Offensive, Europe" as a recognized military campaign for which battle honors could be awarded to a unit.  The combat zone this campaign transpired in was the European Theater of Operations (ETO), exclusive of the land areas of the United Kingdom and Iceland.  The time limitation considered for participation credit lasted from July 4, 1942 to June 5, 1944. 

Specifically identified units were given official credit for participation in the campaign as listed in War Department General Orders 85, Units Entitled to Battle Credits (October 10, 1945).  The 371st Fighter Group, Ninth Air Force, was identified as one of these units on page 4 of GO 85.

The 371st Road to War

As for the 371st Fighter Group and its road to war in Europe, the group was activated on July 15, 1943 at Richmond Army Airfield, Virginia and trained there and at various other bases along the eastern seaboard into early 1944.  The group made it all the way through stateside training in the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter without any fatalities, a remarkable event in the context of a massive and rapid creation and mobilization of air, land and sea forces in World War II.

On February 1, an advanced echelon of three officers left the group for air transport over to England.  On February 14, the rest of the group moved by train from Richmond and arrived the next day at Camp Shanks, near the New York port of embarkation.  After various administrative actions, boat drills and other training, the group boarded the British troop transport ship RMS Mauretania and departed the US on February 28.  Mauretania was a newer ship, a former luxury liner built in 1938 and at the time the largest ship built in England.  But shipping across was not a luxury, as the vessel was modified to carry many more service personnel than civilian passengers and was crowded.

Arrival in England

On March 6, Mauretania docked in Liverpool, England, and over the next two days group members entrained and headed across England for Ringwood and their base a few miles away at Bisterne, in western Hampshire, England.  “At long last the 371st had moved into a theatre of operations with spirits high for the events that waited” concluded the group’s first historical report, which was “In compliance with IX Fighter Command Memorandum 20-4.”

In the group’s initial period of service overseas, it was assigned to the 70th Fighter Wing, IX Fighter Command (IX FC), Ninth Air Force.  It was one of 18 fighter groups which would be assigned to Ninth Air Force by the time of D-Day, and one of 13 P-47 groups in the command.

The balance of March was occupied with setting up camp and operations at RAF Bisterne Airfield, a former wheat field which RAF engineers had first developed in late 1943.  The airfield was handed over to US forces to use in early 1944 and it was designated as USAAF Station 415. Army engineers developed a support area with tents for personnel along a nearby treeline at a higher elevation before the group arrived.  But the group had clear brush from their tent floors as they moved in and haul coal for heating them.  They set up additional tentage for mess halls and a hospital.  Initially, candles were issued for night illumination pending the arrival of generators to power lighting. 

Bisterne was built according to a design template planned for Advanced Landing Grounds to be built on the continent after Allied forces landed in France.  As such it was an austere facility. It featured two runways surfaced with Sommerfeld Tracking, a heavy steel-netting secured to the ground by long metal spikes hammered into the ground.  The airfield was built on farmland in the Avon River Valley, with a certain quality of land which would soon affect its heavy use.  The Bisterne expeditionary experience prepared the group for what was to come in future moves across the ETO.

In addition to the moving in and adapting process, new tables of organization were implemented which saw an increase of officer strength in the flying squadrons, primarily in the number of pilots added to the fighter squadrons soon to be in combat.  Support units began arriving at Bisterne as well, weather, military police, etc. to give the 371st FG the necessary service and support for airfield operations.

An English “perk” of sorts to barren Bisterne were the once or twice daily visits of the British Women’s Voluntary Service canteen trailer, which offered hot tea and little cakes, which though not very sweet due to wartime sugar rationing were happily consumed.  Special Services began operations with movies, a book service with pocketbooks, arranging USO shows as well as facilitating construction of baseball diamonds and volleyball courts to help the morale, welfare and recreation of the men when off-duty.

Preparations for Combat

On March 11, the group’s pilots gathered at 70th Fighter Wing headquarters at RAF Ibsley to receive the first of their ETO orientation lectures. 

The next day, Bisterne’s tent site and flying field were inspected by the Commander, IX Air Support Command, Brigadier General Elwood R. “Pete” Quesada.  In the afternoon the pilots gathered again at Ibsley where Brig. Gen. Quesada, a great innovator of air-to-ground cooperation and close air support, addressed them.  The group’s pilots would soon see a lot of Ibsley and air-to-ground work. 

Before the whole group was committed to combat, group and squadron leadership flew with other fighter groups in-theater to gain some first-hand experience of flying combat in the ETO and in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO) too.  Maj. Philip E. Bacon and Capt. William P. McBride left on March 18 for fighter-bomber indoctrination and training in Italy for detached service of about 18 days.  After leadership tested the waters, the rest of the pilots in the fighter squadrons went on detached service in England the last week of March with other groups for indoctrination into the combat theater.

On March 23, the group got wings again when 75 new and/or previously operated P-47D Thunderbolt fighters were assigned.  They were at Ibsley Airfield, about three miles from Bisterne, ready and waiting for the runway at Bisterne to become operational.  These were a mix of Blocks -11, -15, -16 and -20 ships built by Republic at the company’s Farmingdale, New York factory, and all Razorback versions of the D-model. 

Squadron maintenance crews were dispatched to Ibsley to conduct acceptance inspections and make sure the aircraft would be ready when Bisterne opened for flight operations.  Among other tasks, for ETO operations the P-47s of the group’s three fighter squadrons were marked with squadron-unique alpha-numeric codes and individual aircraft identification letters on their fuselages.  The group was assigned the radio call sign Van Dyke, and each squadron had their own as well.  For the 371st Fighter Group’s squadrons, these codes and radio call signs were:

404th Fighter Squadron (404th FS): 9Q, Kismet

405th Fighter Squadron (405th FS):  8N, Discharge

406th Fighter Squadron (406th FS): 4W, Yearling

On March 25, group leadership flew their initial personal combat mission as Commander, Lt. Col. (soon to be Col.) Bingham T. “Bing” Kleine, and his Deputy, Maj. (soon to be Lt. Col.) William J. “Diamond Jim” Daley, Jr., with 406th FS pilots Capt Eric E. Doorly and Capt Uno A. Salmi joined another P-47 group to fly a first operational mission, a bomber escort sortie. 

This initial mission by 371st leadership was hardly flown by combat-inexperienced pilots though.  Both Daley and Doorly were combat veterans, having flown Royal Air Force (RAF) Supermarine Spitfire fighters in the RAF Eagle Squadrons, 121 and 133 Squadron, respectively, two of the 244 American volunteers who flew in three Eagle squadrons of the RAF between September 1940 to September, 1942.  The group’s 406th Fighter Squadron Commander, Maj. Edwin D. Taylor, was another Eagle Squadron veteran.

Daley had two FW-190 fighters and a share in a Ju-52 transport to his aerial victory credit already and was awarded the British Distinguished Flying Course for completing 51 operations over northern France, Holland and Belgium.  After leaving the RAF to join the USAAF in late 1942, he briefly commanded the 335th Fighter Squadron “Chiefs” of the USAAF’s 4th Fighter Group before returning to the US and joining the 371st Fighter Group.

On one long day Doorly flew three sorties as the regular pilot of Supermarine Spitfire Mk Vb serial AB910 during the infamous Dieppe Raid of August 19, 1942 – AB910 survives today as part of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

On March 27 at 2330 hours, a small number of enemy aircraft passed low over area, according to the 406th FS history report for March, 1944.  More would soon be heard, but at this point in the war, the Allies had an airpower superiority that was growing by the day as D-Day neared.

The group’s Thunderbolts finally started moving from Ibsley to Bisterne on March 29 and all reached Bisterne by March 31.  By the end of the month the group was advised that it would be declared operational within three days.  It took a little bit longer for that to actually happen due to weather and other complications.

April Baptism

As the new month began, two of the group’s squadron operations officers, Capt. Edmond A. “Buster” Goolsbee, 406th FS and Capt. Elkin L. Franklin, 404th FS, went on detached service to Italy for approximately 15 days.  Franklin departed on April 2 for Station 446 on the Italian front “to participate in operational missions in that theatre.”  He flew with the 57th Fighter Group’s 64th Fighter Squadron based at Alto Airfield on the island of Corsica in order to gain relevant combat experience from the MTO which could be applied in the ETO.  This group and its operations were featured a short time later in the William Wyler documentary “Thunderbolt!” which followed Wyler’s famous 1944 documentary on “The Memphis Belle.”

The group flew its first practice mission on April 7.  The next day it lost its first aircraft when P-47D-20-RE, serial number 42-76427 of the 404th FS caught fire on takeoff – Lt. Joseph E. Larochelle was uninjured but the plane burned and became a total loss. 

On April 9, the group received a warning order for its first combat mission, to be flown on April 10.  The pilots were briefed at 0745 on the 10th, took to their planes and started engines but soon red flares were fired at the field.  It was a no-go due to adverse weather elsewhere.

The same day, the Commanding General of Ninth Air Force, Major General Lewis H. Brereton, inspected Bisterne Airfield.  It wasn’t a pretty sight, as the bad weather and operational use had caused a lot of “rutting” of the Sommerfeld track on the airfield.  Taxiways and marshaling areas became bogs and mired aircraft in the former farmland, required extrication with Cletrac tractors. 

Brig. Gen. Quesada accompanied General Brereton and ordered the group to stop using belly tanks.  This was likely due to the worsening problem of the runway surface rippling and rutting under the weight of the heavy, combat-loaded P-47s which created a hazard to low-hanging external stores in taxiing and runway operations.  The innovative design of the advanced landing ground expeditionary airfield was truly being tested.

Another “first” mission was scheduled for the 371st on April 11.  Bad weather again forced a cancellation.

Mission One

Finally, on April 12, 1944, the 371st flew its first combat mission as a group in the ETO.  The 371st took off at 1100 for a “Rodeo,” or fighter sweep, around Caen between Trauville (Trouville) and Bayeux to engage enemy aircraft and returned by 1245.  All pilots and planes returning without any issues, no trouble from enemy aircraft or anti-aircraft guns.  The sweep coincided with and complemented an RAF Mosquito light bomber raid in the area, escorted by British Hawker Typhoon fighters. 

A second uneventful “Rodeo” was flown over France in the late afternoon of the same day, around Cleres, between Le Camp and Le Treport.

In the skies over Bisterne however, tragedy also struck on this April 12 when 2nd Lt. Eugene. E. Sanderson of the 405th Fighter Squadron was circling over the field for a landing during an engineering test flight in P-47D-11-RE serial number 42-75252 (squadron code 8N-F).  Lt. Sanderson experienced a problem with the aircraft and crashed while attempting a forced landing.  He was killed and the Thunderbolt, a former 4th Fighter Group ship, was destroyed.  Lt. Sanderson thus became the group’s first fatality since activation. 

Of note, Maj. Baum, a liaison officer of the US First Army, arrived at the group on April 12.  It was a sign of future air-to-ground cooperation in the ETO.

Into the Air Offensive, Europe

The morning mission on April 13 was cancelled, but the afternoon mission, another uneventful fighter sweep, was flown north of Le Havre, between Fauxville and St. Martin.  Rain, snow and limited visibility made it a hazardous flight, with no enemy reaction noted. 

Issues with the Bisterne runway continued to be problematic.  On April 19 the group flew an escort mission and then the planes were flown to Ibsley to allow repair work on Bisterne.  Engineers began laying pierced steel planking (PSP) at Bisterne as the previous surface suffering between sodden farmland and heavy Thunderbolts was unsatisfactory.  PSP was commonly used to surface holding areas at these ALG-type airfields, and Square Mesh Track (SMT) may have replaced some or all the Sommerfeld Track metal netting on the runway at Bisterne, with additional ballast beneath. 

The group flew another fighter sweep over Rouen from Ibsley on Apr 20, then on to Chalons, some 90 miles east of Paris and saw some flak on the way back at Rouen which caused no damage. 

Personnel were kept awake on the night on April 23rd (reported as April 25th in the 404th FS historical report for the month) when enemy aircraft operated in the area and local anti-aircraft guns engaged them.  Another air raid alarm was sounded on April 28, though no enemy planes appeared.  The group witnessed what was called the Baby Blitz, the Luftwaffe’s Operation Steinbock (Capricorn in English), in which the Germans used their bomber force in night raids against targets in the United Kingdom from late January to late May of 1944. 

Two days later the group’s aircraft returned to Bisterne.  But after another combat mission and an escort mission that was cancelled, Bisterne shut down yet again.  Built to be an advanced landing ground in open fields, of a kind planned for operations on the European Continent, the runway surface material and means of securing it were just not working out well on the soft field for the heavy Thunderbolts.  The waterlogged airfield with badly rutted and bulged runways grew increasingly worse.  Punctures and even bent propellers and lost tail-wheels were becoming common occurrences.

While Ninth AF engineers worked to address the problem, on Apr 19 the group’s aircraft flew over to RAF Ibsley to operate.  The group flew at least one combat mission from Ibsley before it returned to Bisterne on April 30.

In this period when the group’s fighters flew from Ibsley, tragedy struck in the Mediterranean, when on April 20, Capt Franklin was shot down over Italy and killed, becoming the group’s first combat casualty. 

In a separate Mediterranean theater event the same day, three charter members of the Oregon National Guard’s first aviation unit, the 123rd Observation Squadron, were killed when their troop transport in a convoy at sea was attacked and sunk by German aircraft off the coast of North Africa.  These two events are described in “A Somber Thursday, 20 April 1944,” at:

The Tempo Increases in May

The month started with bad weather, so on May 1 the pilots viewed a special film on dive bombing, a role the P-47 was expected to perform in the ETO.  Also in the group briefing room for the presentation was the group’s new mascot, a fawn-colored cocker spaniel named “Flaps.” 

Experimental takeoffs also were accomplished  on this day, with a flight of 406FS P-47s loaded with 250-lb bombs under the wings and a centerline belly tank.  The aircraft returned, landed and rearmed with 500-lb bombs to test it again.  They found that with both loadouts they needed to use the entire runway to take off.

On May 2, the group managed one combat mission from Bisterne, an escort of A-20 Havoc light bombers over France which was a “milk run” in light of the fact that it encountered no enemy opposition.  But then the P-47s took off late and the bombers waiting for them at the rendezvous over the English Channel ran low on fuel and returned to their base just as the first fighters were arriving to escort them.  It was a less than stellar performance by the new-to-the ETO group, but provided valuable operational lessons.

On the return to Bisterne, P-47D-20-RE serial number 42-76560, a 404th Fighter Squadron plane flown by Lt. Lamb, would not lower one of its main landing gear.  Lamb tried every which way; it still wouldn’t come loose and so Lamb chose to belly-land which he did safely.  The aircraft was repaired and  flew on in combat until at least into October, 1944.

The next day, Col. Dyke F. Meyer from the 366th Fighter Group, who had just completed his command tour of his group, came to Bisterne to speak to the group’s pilots about operational procedures.  His group was already “broken-in” to ETO operations, having flown its first group mission on March 14, 1944.  After the briefing, Col. Meyer led the 371st Fighter Group on a fighter sweep to the French coast at Cayeux, south to Montes, circling around Rouen and departing at St. Valery en Coux, drawing some flak at three points along the way, but no enemy aircraft sighted. 

But the aircraft operations surfacing at Bisterne continued to adversely affect flight operations.  A rash of flat tires and a soft foundation causing “a billowing wave of steel…rose up before each ship on takeoff and landing, slowing it up and creating a hazard.”  This forced another temporary relocation, and on May 4 the group flew its planes back to Ibsley once again where the group occupied the southern and eastern parts of the field with the 48th Fighter Group on the opposite side.  It was an awkward arrangement to be split between Bisterne and Ibsley, but group personnel did their best to continue operations.  Pilots shuttled back and forth to fly.  Maintenance crews at Ibsley had to return to Bisterne for meals.  Bombs and drop tanks had to be sent from Bisterne to Ibsley.  Not ideal but the group managed.

From May 7 to 12, the group flew at least eight combat missions, including twice daily on three days.  The missions including dive bombing enemy airfields at Conches and St. Andre and a bridge at Monte Cassicourt.  On May 9 the group escorted A-20 light bombers to D’Enfer.

On May 11, during the takeoff for a mission, Lt. Willis R. Walling of the 404th experienced an engine malfunction with sudden explosions in the engine compartment while flying P-47D-20-RE 42-76391.  Rather than bail out he circled back to try and land at Ibsley but as the engine lost power his ship dropped from the sky as it neared the southeast part of the field.  Lt. Walling veered away from a cottage but lost further altitude and struck the Women’s Institute Hall in Ibsley just outside the airfield boundary before crashing to the ground. 

Stunned, climbing out from the wrecked, burning plane now just inside the airfield perimeter, Lt. Walling was quickly helped to get out and away from the P-47 by a nearby anti-aircraft gun crew.  He suffered burns and injuries which required hospitalization and looked like he might not fly again.  Miraculously, no one was hurt on the ground. The cottage he steered away from had been occupied.  The Women’s Institute Hall, however, was to be  a place for some local school children to rehearse a play on a stage inside.  But the rehearsal was delayed by a nurse’s sudden, unexpected visit to the Rockford school to conduct a check on the health of the children and thus the hall was empty.  After a month of recuperation, Walling returned to flying duty.

Meanwhile, the group flew on to dive-bomb a marshaling yard at Creil, France, and another mission later that day to dive-bomb an airfield near Meriville.  On May 12, more dive-bombing, versus the railroad bridge at Liege, Belgium and two bridges at Etaples (sp).  May 13 saw escort of B-26s against shore installations on the Normandy coast.

Bisterne became home field again on May 14 after yet more repairs were completed.  A mission on May 15 to France to dive-bomb an enemy airfield east for Chartres looked like a scrub as Col. Kleine led the group across the channel with a 10/10 undercast beneath them.  They pressed on and found a hole in the clouds, under which the airfield fortuitously appeared.  The hole was large enough to expose the airfield and dispersal areas which the group then attacked accurately.  Bad weather in the afternoon cancelled a second mission that day.

Between May 16 and 19 the group conducted air-to-ground training to hone its skills.  It practiced glide and skip bombing against pin-point targets like gun emplacements, tunnels and bridges at the Portland Bill with at least four missions in the period.  The 406th historical report for the month mentioned viewing a Navy dive bomb training film on May 18, possibly the same dive bomb film group pilots viewed earlier in the month, and shown again for the benefit of new pilots who joined the squadron. 

Back on operations on May 19, the 371st  flew a mission to dive-bomb an enemy airfield at Veauvais-Tille, France.  A heavy undercast didn’t allow for target acquisition and the group attacked a secondary target in the Poix area.  An attack against another airfield near Beauvois, France in the evening repeated the pattern of May 15, flying over a 10/10 undercast until a hole appeared over the target.  They promptly bombed it; enemy guns fired at them on the way back without result.

May 20 saw the group fly two missions, including its 20th combat mission, against railroad marshaling yards at Creil and Busegny.  Railroads were hit again the next day, with three trains “busted” at Rennes, and Maj “Buster” Goolsbee was hit by enemy small arms fire, becoming the first group member of the group wounded in action.  He became the group’s first recipient of the Purple Heart, America’s oldest medal, described in “The Wing’s First Purple Heart,” here.

There was little rest on the schedule as D-Day approached.  On May 22 and May 23, the group provided fighter escort to Eighth Air Force heavy bombers.  “Pilots…were amazed at the number of bombers in the massed formations and took pride in the overwhelming airpower the Allies were assembling against the Luftwaffe.”  On the second mission, escorting B-17s to Metz, in eastern France, the pilots noted heavy flak.  Flak would remain a persistent threat for the duration of the group’s time in combat in the ETO.  The 406th FS historical report for May recorded that they flew B-26 escort on these two days.

May 25 saw a dive-bombing mission against bridges, including the Elbeuf Railroad Bridge; most of the bombs missed although hits were observed on the eastern approach and the marshalling yard to the east.  This time several aircraft were damaged by enemy flak, heavy, moderate, accurate from northwest of the bridge.  Lt. Col. Kleine was promoted to Col. Effective this date.

Bomber escort closed out the rest of May, with the group’s fighters flying missions on all five days:

- May 27, B-26s to Beaumont Le Roger Airfield noting heavy flak again

  -- Late in the day (1925 hours takeoff) the 406th FS escorted A-20s to and from the marshaling yard at Amierir (Amiens), France; the squadron’s pilots thought the bombing results were good, though the first bursts were short of the target and the others landed in the target area.  They saw one bomber go down over target. (Note:  This was the “Bloody Saturday” mission for the 416th Bomb Group (Light) which sent 41 A-20s and lost five on this mission, including one over the target area and another which struggled back to crash-land (total loss) due to battle damage on the English coast.  The short bombs noted by the 406th pilots were due to the premature drop of bombs by an A-20 in the lead flight in the first box of bombers which was hit by flak ten seconds before the planned release – other two flights behind them in the lead box formation mistook that for the signal to drop and salvoed their bombs.  The second box of A-20s hit the target as noted.)

- Two escort missions on the May 28 with B-17s to Metz and B-26s to St. Pierre De Vauray,

-- 406th FS escorted B-26s to Liege, Belgium.  And flew a second mission for B-26s going to Browershoven (probably Brouwershoven in the Netherlands) and then to Bruzes (possibly Bruges, Belgium) to strike rail lines in that town.

- May 29, Penetration support for 8th AF B-17 and B-24 heavies with escort to the French coast as the bombers flew on to hit aircraft plants and oil installations in Germany and Poland. The group contributed to the 592 IX Fighter Command sorties which supported 8th AF, which sent 993 heavy bombers and 673 fighters of its own on the mission deep into enemy/enemy-held territory.

- May 30, Withdrawal support for 8th AF B-17s and B-24s which attacked aircraft industry targets in Germany, from Gillenfield (Gillenfeld), Germany back to England, a mission which lasted 4 hours and 15 minutes for the group and ran the P-47s low on fuel; some had to land and refuel elsewhere like at Manston on the Channel coast before returning to Bisterne.  Part of the 637 IX FC fighters supporting 8th AF that day.

  -- 406th FS escorted to the Meulan Railway Bridge, in France.  Some flak noted as the bombers dropped at least one span. 

On May 31, IX Fighter Command put up 647 fighters of all types to help various 8AF operations that day and the 371st did its part to escort 8th AF B-24 Liberator heavies to attack the Brussels marshaling yard though this mission was cancelled just short of the target due to adverse target area weather conditions with rain and sleet.  They escorted the bombers over the English Channel, and encountered flak in the vicinity of Dunquerque described as heavy in caliber, moderate in intensity and accurate in aim.  Major Daley attacked a target of opportunity on the way back, blasting a train locomotive, though he was injured when a close-aboard flak explosion tossed his Thunderbolt violently which wrenched his back and briefly hospitalized him upon his return to Bisterne. 

Another pilot experienced a frightful thermal current which caught him as he was flying through cloud at 24,000 feet.  It brought him down through the overcast to 4,000 feet before he could see the ground and orient himself to get his P-47 in control again.  Said 404th FS P-47 pilot Lt. Willard E. Richter, “I stepped right up and said hello to St. Peter.”

By the end of May the group had completed 30 combat missions, with D-Day not even a week away.

Lull Before the Storm

June started out quietly with four days of “regular garrison duties” which proved to be the “lull before the storm.”  On June 2, the 406th FS flew dive-bomb mission bridge near Gaillon, France and hit two spans in exchange for two P-47s slightly damaged by flak.  The 404th Fighter Squadron flew an escort mission on June 5, and afterwards an awards ceremony was held.  Pilots received air medals and Maj. Goolsbee the Purple Heart in the ceremony presided over by Brig. Gen.  Alvin C. Kincaid, the IX Tactical Air Command Chief of Staff.

But the men of the group knew D-Day was nigh when they received orders to paint the black and white recognition stripes on their aircraft fuselages and wings.  The 406th FS history noted these were applied on June 3.   Crew chiefs and assistants worked into the night to finish the job on time.

In sum, from April 12 to June 5 the group flew fighter sweeps, dive-bombed railroad marshaling yards, bridges and airfields, strafe targets of opportunity, and escorted 9th AF light and medium bombers and 8th AF heavy bombers during the Air Offensive, Europe campaign.  It had seen and felt the enemy’s anti-aircraft guns in action, and heard Luftwaffe bombers at night over England, but hitherto had not engaged enemy aircraft in battle.  That would soon change.

By the time of D-Day, the 371st successfully established itself as a credible fighting force in the ETO despite rapid growing into additional mission tasking and dealing with obstructions like the operating surfaces at Bisterne.  It illuminates some of the variety of challenges in transition to new mission taskings and environments. 

The experience the 142nd Wing is already undergoing in transition to the new F-15EX Eagle II later this year may not be “under the gun,” literally speaking, as with the 371st Fighter Group, but change is still a challenge.  And, like the 371st in 1944, the 142nd Wing in 2024 will also achieve mission success as it enters the F-15EX era.

In the next installment, we will highlight the group’s efforts and accomplishments in the Normandy Campaign, which began on June 6, 1944 and lasted until July 24.