What’s in a Number Anyway? The Origins of the 142nd Fighter Wing

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing History Office (Volunteer)
A numerical designation is a primary means of identifying a given military unit.  The 142nd Fighter Wing of the Oregon Air National Guard is no different and the two organizations have come to be associated with each other ever since 24 May 1946, seventy years ago.

But on that Friday 70 years ago, the 142nd, which was in 1946 designated as the 142nd Fighter Group, actually began a new era in the unit's life.  For on that day, the 371st Fighter Group, an inactive combat unit that served in the European Theater of Operations during World War II, was purposely redesignated as the 142nd Fighter Group and allotted to Oregon. 

This World War II veteran unit, activated on 15 July 1943 at Richmond Army Air Base, Virginia, trained in the eastern US before going overseas by ship in early 1944.  The 371st Fighter Group then flew the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter in combat in the Ninth Air Force, from April, 1944, to May, 1945, earning credit for participation in six northwest European military campaigns against Nazi Germany (Air Offensive, Europe; Normandy; Northern France; Rhineland; Ardennes-Alsace and Central Europe).  The group was also awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation (Germany, 15 - 21 March 1945; called the Presidential Unit Citation today), and was cited in the Belgian Army Order of the Day for actions 6 June - 30 September 1944.  After the successful completion of European operations, the unit returned by ship to Camp Shanks, New York, where it inactivated on 10 November 1945.

Oregon is not unique among National Guard units in this inheriting the lineage and honors of a World War II combat group.  The US Army Air Force inactivated most of its combat groups in the months following victory in the Second World War.  At the same time, plans were afoot to build up the air element of the National Guard in order to provide a more capable reserve force for future needs.  The US had little reserve air unit capacity going into World War II, without which our forces were at a disadvantage against the enemy in the early period of the war. 

Wishing to avoid a repeat of that difficult early-war experience, defense planners arranged for the air arm of the National Guard to be built up.  In order to perpetuate units that had amassed a distinguished combat record in WWII, many inactive combat groups from World War II were redesignated with National Guard series numerical designators in the 100's, and were then allotted to the various states bringing with them their individual unit lineage and battle honors.  Whether by purpose or whim, Oregon received the previously designated 371st Fighter Group as the 142nd Fighter Group on 24 May 1946.  And the 142nd Fighter Group, the 142nd Fighter Wing of today, inherited the lineage and honors of the 371s t Fighter group.  No other unit or organization owns the history of the 371st Fighter Group.  The 142nd Fighter Wing IS the 371st Fighter Group, albeit with a different number.

It should be noted that the Oregon's first military aviation unit, went through a similar redesignation process which began during World War II.  Activated as the 123rd Observation Squadron on 18 April 1941, the unit was inducted into federal service in September, 1941.  It earned credit for one military campaign in 1941-1942 (Antisubmarine, American Theater). 

By 1943 the unit was redesignated as the 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron and prepared for overseas duty.  The squadron deployed by ship to India, then flew over the Hump into China where it flew combat reconnaissance operations in the Lockheed F-5 Photo Lightning from September, 1944, to September, 1945.  The unit received credit for participating in six more military campaigns against Imperial Japan (India-Burma; China Defensive; New Guinea; Western Pacific; Central Burma and China Offensive) before its postwar return by ship from India to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, where it inactivated on 7 November 1945.  On 24 May 1946, the unit was redesignated as the 123rd Fighter Squadron and returned to Oregon.  The 123rd Fighter Squadron IS the 35th Photo Recon Squadron, which IS the 123rd Observation Squadron, albeit with a different number.

But the wartime and postwar renumbering of many USAAF air units and allotment to the National Guard created a kind of institutional memory and knowledge gap about unit history which is sometimes difficult to overcome.  Many ANG personnel are unfamiliar with their unit's early history and only know it by the current numerical designation. 

This is easy to understand given the time and distance of what happened.  In Oregon's case the World War II units inactivated and assigned personnel were scattered to the winds, either leaving the service or transferring to other units.  Six months later the units were revived and began a new era of existence with a new numerical designation, nearly 3,000 miles from where they last existed, with an almost completely different roster of personnel.  It is easy to see how such a gap in institutional memory developed.

Nevertheless, the 142nd Fighter Wing and 123rd Fighter Squadron each have substantive World War II-era lineage and honors which belong to no other unit. 

Who will remember the 371st Fighter Group's role in the Normandy landings, or battlefield "adoption" of grievously wounded French farm girl Yvette Hamel, or the vital help rendered to save the surrounded soldiers of the "Lost Battalion" from destruction in the Vosges Mountains of France?  Or the moves to England, France, Germany and Austria?  Or the 55 men killed in operations, the 20 held as POW's and the five men still missing in action?  The men and women of the 142nd Fighter Wing will!

And who will remember the 35th Photo Recon Squadron's critical photo work that helped enable the China defense against Imperial Japan's largest land operation in World War II, or the work to regain northern Burma and reopen a land supply line to China, or pushing back the tide of the enemy's ill-gotten occupation?  Or the moves to India, over the tallest mountains in the world to China, and the multiple detachments operating locations?  Or the 14 men killed in operations, the one POW and the three men yet missing in action?  The men and women of the 123rd Fighter Squadron will!

The men and women of these Oregon ANG units remember the Airmen who served in the 371st Fighter Group and 35th Photo Recon Squadron and commemorate their lineage, achievements, honors and sacrifices as their own because they are - they belong to no other units.  On days like National Former POW Day (9 April), Memorial Day (the last Monday in May), National POW/MIA Day (third Friday of September) and Veterans Day (11 November), this rich heritage is remembered, as is the outstanding postwar history of the 142nd Fighter Wing and 123rd Fighter Squadron. 

So on this 24 May, the day in 1946 when the 371st Fighter Group was redesignated and became Oregon's 142nd Fighter Group; when the 35th Photo Recon Squadron was redesignated as the 123rd Fighter Squadron, we remember the numerical changes and the lineage and honors that were perpetuated through them.  May all Air National Guard units with similar origins remember their roots as time goes by.

Note:  To view online the official USAF references describing the World War II origins of the 142nd Fighter Wing and 123rd Fighter Squadron, see:

371st Fighter Group.  Maurer, Maurer, editor, "Air Force Combat Units of World War II," Office of Air Force History, 1983; see 371st Fighter Group entry on pages 257-258.  Viewable online at:  http://www.afhso.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-100921-044.pdf

35th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron.  Maurer, Maurer, editor, "Combat Squadrons of the Air Force - World War II," Office of Air Force History, Washington D.C., 1982; see the 35th Photo Recon Squadron entry on page 169.  Viewable online at:  http://www.afhso.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-101202-002.pdf