The 371st Fighter Group on D-Day, June 6, 1944

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Terrence Popravak USAF (ret.)
  • 142nd History Office
June 6, 1944, will always be remembered for the successful landings by Allied forces on the beaches in Normandy, France. We should also remember the contributions of the Airmen who helped make that outcome possible. Some 8,000 Allied aircraft of all types were available for D-Day operations, and played a key role in the pre-invasion preparations as well as on the day of the landings.

One of the many air units which contributed to this mighty undertaking was the 371st Fighter Group, which flew the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bomber. What many people may not know is that after World War II, the 371st Fighter Group was designated as the 142nd Fighter Group and allotted to the State of Oregon. Today's 142nd Fighter Wing of the Oregon Air National Guard is the direct descendant of the 371st Fighter Group, and thus carries the 371st's lineage and honors to this day.

For most participants, the arrival of D-Day came suddenly, and with little if any advance notice. Remembered Victor Kramer, an armorer assigned to C Flight of the group's 404th Fighter Squadron, "The only way we knew it was D-Day was when it happened! Where and when was completely top secret! Everyone knew we would land in France; they just didn't know where!"

Another 404th Fighter Squadron member, maintenance troop Ralph Powers Jr., noted in his unit's diary: "The previous day orders had come through to paint black and white stripes on all aircraft before dark -- invasion stripes. We were notified that we were restricted to the area for the next 24 hours and to get a good night's rest," Powers' diary said. "By the time we turned out for a 0400 pre-flight and briefing, we knew the score. This was D-Day."

Vic Kramer recalled, "At the time we were in Southern England, near Bisterne at a field we built on flat remote farmland, which was free of trees, wires, etc. and near roads where trucks could reach us." According to fellow squadron member Powers, the 404th was the first squadron to get into the air.

Said pilot Francis E. Madore of the group's 406th Fighter Squadron "We escorted gliders on D-Day to St. Mere Eglise and did some dive bombing and strafing on the beach on gun emplacements."

Fellow pilot Milton A. Seale, assigned to the group's 405th Fighter Squadron, remembered that the 371st was chosen to lead the gliders across the English Channel to Normandy on June 6. "What a sight," he said. "Our group of fighters were on the deck, meaning as low as possible just above the water. Above us were hundreds of gliders and the English Channel was filled with ships of all sizes and landing craft by the bunches." The group's mission was to "strafe anything that moved," and any enemy strongholds they found, Seale recollected.

An unusual D-Day assignment for a group member was that of pilot Lee Marshall. He summarized his D-Day time as follows: "Went overseas, ETO with the 371st Fighter Group (Jugs) and flew first 12 missions from Ringwood, England prior to going onto the Normandy Beach Head, Omaha Red, on D-Day, 6 June 1944 with the Aviation Engineers to help build all the landing strips in the invasion." He rejoined the group later once it moved over to France to operate at an advanced landing field in Normandy.

One 371st Fighter Group pilot was lost in action on D-Day. 2Lt Joseph LaRochelle of the 404th Fighter Squadron had completed 35 combat missions by June 6. On D-Day he was shot down and taken prisoner. According to Power's diary, "It was a dive-bombing mission during which Lieutenant LaRochell's plane collected a load of German flack, and he was forced to hit the silk just off the Cherbourg Peninsula, near Granville. Several more ships were shot up, although they were able to make it home."

For many the invasion was the biggest event of the war. Wrote Power's in the squadron diary "The waiting ground crews who excitedly scrambled up the side of the returning planes said, 'What does it look like over there?'"

It was a very busy day for the group. Vic Kramer recalled "The invasion took place on June 6th and our planes were very active flying maybe five, six, and seven sorties each day and the reason for that is that we only had to fly to the Normandy area and bomb and strafe the enemy troops and then we turned back and rearm and reload."

As the group surged in the first days to maximize support to the landings, the Airmen coped with the demand. "Three or four hours sleep was the rule rather than the exception, yet no one kicked. This was what they had come over for. Ships would take off and many would limp back splattered with flak and riddled by ground fire. Late at night weary ground crews and pilots clambered slowly aboard trucks to return to the area, only to be up again before daylight," read the 404th's diary.

"An inborn pride welled up in the pilots and ground crews alike in the ability of their 'babies.' They could take it and still come home," wrote Powers in the squadron diary.

And it would be many more combat missions all across northwestern Europe, and, sadly, many more losses, before the Airmen of the 371st Fighter Group would victoriously complete their mission in Europe. But the Normandy invasion was a signal event in the war, and all 371st Fighter Group members can be justly proud of their part on that D-Day. On this D-Day anniversary, we remember them too, and thank them for their distinguished service in World War II.