The Oregon Air National Guard and Victory over Japan Day (VJ-Day)

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing History Office
It was a few days after Imperial Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945.  Two white-painted, green-crossed, cigar-shaped Japanese G4M BETTY bombers approached the American-held airfield on Ie Shima, a small island just off Okinawa.  They bore the emissaries of a defeated Imperial Japan, en route to Manila to confer with the staff of General Douglas MacArthur at his Manila headquarters.  Eyewitnesses to this historic flight included Oregon National Guardsmen who helped form Oregon's first military aviation unit, the 123rd Observation Squadron over four years earlier.

Sergeant Fred Hill, Photo lab chief of the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron (Bombardment) of Fifth Air Force's 71st Reconnaissance Group, is one of those men.  On that day he readied his cameras as the BETTY bombers approached on Sunday, 19 August 1945.  He took some superb pictures of the arrival, including a number with Kodachrome color film. 

Hill had been transferred from the 123rd Observation Squadron to the 17th at Salinas Army Air Base, California, in November, 1942, and went overseas with the unit to New Guinea in 1943.  The 17th, equipped with various models of B-25 Mitchell medium bombers, fought westward into the Philippines before moving up to Ie Shima and operations against Japan's Home Islands.  It subsequently earned two Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC, known as the Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) today) and the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation (PUC). 

Fred Hill extensively photographed his wartime service, and published many images in his photo account titled Darkroom Soldier in 2007.  He donated much of his personal collection to the Pierce Library at Eastern Oregon University where it is accessible to writers, historians, and researchers for illustrations in their manuscripts.

Another former 123rd member and recently arrived at at Ie Shima was Les Donis, assigned to the 110th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron of the 71st Recon Group, an F-6D Photo Mustang squadron freshly moved up from Luzon in the Philippines.  Donis served 23 months in the Pacific beginning in New Guinea.  He joined the unit as it flew the P-39 Airacobra, then the P-40 Warhawk, and lastly the F-6 Mustang.  A sheet metal repairman, he was fortunate in that his unit did not suffer unduly from battle damage, and often helped the crew chiefs in maintaining the aircraft.  He recalled in a June, 2011, interview the Japanese arrival: "We were on Ie Shima...when the first of the two BETTY bombers landed.  But...we were kept about half a mile away from anything.  All we could do was look down the runway and the taxiway and see the two Japanese planes land."  His unit was awarded for actions in the Pacific with two DUC's and the Philippine PUC.

These Oregon Air Guardsmen serving on active duty were eyewitnesses to the end of the war in the Pacific, and more.  Along with over one hundred other Oregon Airmen, they started out together in 1941 when the 123rd Observation Squadron was formed.  But as the war went on, many were reassigned to other air units as the Army Air Forces expanded and as observation squadrons became less useful as lessons learned in combat in 1942-43 filtered back to the US.  By the time the squadron went overseas to China in 1944, only 13 men of the original 100+ squadron remained with it - all the rest of the men in the squadron were wartime-assigned personnel from all across America.

Westward from Ie Shima, across the East China Sea in China, was the 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, which was the original 123rd Observation Squadron prior to redesignation in 1943.  The squadron went overseas to the China Burma India (CBI) Theater in mid-1944.  By September, 1944, the squadron reached Chanyi Airfield in China as part of the Flying Tigers of the Fourteenth Air Force.  From Chanyi the squadron deployed individual flights of F-5 Photo Lightning recon aircraft to forward airfields that covered much of southeastern China and Southeast Asia.  

The squadron flew over 600 photo reconnaissance missions throughout the region during its time in China.  Although the Redhawk's forward airfields were bombed several times, no men were killed; however the squadron lost six pilots on aerial missions during the war and two more just after.  Three pilots, Merroll J. Berringer, Phillip L. French and Franklin J. McKinney, remain missing to this day.  The unit received credit for participating in seven campaigns during the war.

Major General Arthur Clark, USAF (Retired) was a Lieutenant in the squadron serving with "G" Flight deployed forward at Nanning Airfield in southeastern China when the war ended.  As one of only three ground echelon officers at the forward-deployed flight, his duties included his intelligence specialty, administration, communications and unit history, among the many hats he wore. 

General Clark recalls the end of the war:  "We were not surprised by surrender when we learned of the atom bomb power. We did not know the number of our "super-bombs" was limited."  He further remembers, "On 13 August we were just recovering from a typhoon flood and bringing our aircraft back to Nanning. I wrote my wife that we did not know what response Japan had made to the surrender ultimatum but that we expected that the word would be received the following day. Emperor Hirohito broadcast the surrender message on 15 August in Japan and that was a day earlier on the other side of international date line in Washington.  On 17 August I wrote in my Journal that we had received instructions on defending ourselves and that all towns were now off-limits. We kept to ourselves and were prepared to defend ourselves in case of any revolutionary uprisings within China. Obviously we Americans wanted no part of that kind of trouble.

Over the next few days we did not see any visible signs of change in the situation...We witnessed the gunfire and fireworks of Chinese celebration starting in mid-August but I think our own feeling was more of one of relief that at last it was over and our lives would be moving back towards what we had known as normal. The people in the Nanning area had certainly celebrated the return of the Americans when the Japanese were expelled from that area for the last time." 

As a side note, General Clark has written a book about his wartime service with the 35th Photo Recon Squadron in Eyes of the Tiger: China 1944-1945, soon to be published.

Squadron members in China also witnessed another historic flight signaling the end of the war.  At the squadron's forward deployed "E" Flight at Chihkiang Airfield, squadron photographer T/Sgt Chester Krejci was present when Imperial Japanese Army emissaries arrived, en route to surrender proceedings with the Chinese nationalist government of Chiang Kai Shek.  His pictures documented the 21 August 1945 arrival of a Ki-57 TOPSY transport and the grim-faced Japanese officers as they disembarked and took local transport off the airfield to meet with Chinese officials.

Meanwhile, over 300 miles southwest of Manila, on the Philippine island of Palawan, Ben Olbrich, another charter member of the 123rd was serving as the war concluded.  After assignment to other air units Stateside, he went overseas in 1945 to serve in the 67th Fighter Squadron of the 347th Fighter Group, a P-38 outfit then based at Puerto Princesa Airfield on.  As an engine mechanic, his specialty was vital to the safe operation of aircraft engines, especially important in long distance flights over the ocean, though he also assisted aircraft crew chiefs with general tasks accomplished on the line.  On 4 August 1945, his squadron scored the last two aerial victories of the war for Thirteenth Air Force during a long-range mission to Singapore, some 2,400 miles round trip.  The 67th earned a DUC and credit for 11 campaigns in World War II.

Some 1,300 miles east of Manila, far into the Pacific, Oregon Guardsman Lt. Bill Stevenson was busy on the island of Tinian as the war ended.  He was assigned to the 40th Bomb Group (Very Heavy), a B-29 Superfortress bomber unit of the Twentieth Air Force involved in the strategic air campaign against Japan.  Stevenson had left the 123rd for Officer Candidate School and then served as a logistics officer with the 40th BG, first in the CBI theater in 1944-45 where the group flew 38 missions.  In 1945 the 40th left China for better bases in the Mariana Islands, and commenced B-29 operations from Tinian, from which the group flew another 32 combat missions.  Though the war was ended, B-29's were useful in conducting reconnaissance of the Japanese Home Islands and aiding in the search for POW camps.  The bombers then played a humanitarian role in dropping food supplies to starving and emaciated former POWs across Japan. Stevenson's unit earned two DUC's and credit for participation in six campaigns in World War II.

Other Oregon Guardsmen of the 123rd Observation Squadron also contributed to the defeat of Imperial Japan which culminated in VJ-Day.  One of them was Lt. Col. G. Robert Dodson, first commander of the 123rd Observation Squadron and founder of the Oregon Air National Guard.  

After stateside commands he went overseas in 1944 and commanded the 1st Liaison Group (Provisional) of the Tenth Air Force in the CBI theater. 

Dodson's flying during the Burma Campaign was highlighted in the 17 May 1945 issue of the India-Burma Theater Roundup newspaper and described in this excerpt as such:  "In the heart of Burma, 45 battle casualties anxiously awaited evacuation on an untested airstrip, bordered on one end by dense jungle, on the other by rocky mountainside.  It was a tricky situation that called for the utmost in skill from Lt. Col. G. Robert Dodson, commanding officer of a liaison group of the 10th Air Force, EAC.

To be determined was whether the small jungle airfield could accommodate the L-5's necessary to evacuate the wounded. For the 37th time, Dodson pointed the nose of his familiar "621" (donated by the city of Cleveland) at an untried landing strip. Side-slipping, the colonel successfully nursed the liaison plane to a landing. For the next two hours, he directed the clearing of the field so that other L-5's could land on their mercy missions...Dodson has spearheaded the advance of his enlisted liaison pilots behind the southward surge of combat troops. Averaging three "first" landings a week (including the first one at Lashio), he has insured swift evacuation of casualties and close ground-air co-operation.

...Dodson's men sometimes fly 10 to 15 missions a day, use their tiny planes for artillery spotting, messenger service, food and supply drops, photo reconnaissance and emergency missions in which they rescue wounded air crews downed hard by the fighting lines."

From April to June, 1945, Dodson commanded the 3rd Combat Cargo Group, and presided over the movement of the unit and its four flying squadrons from Dinjan, India, forward to Myitkyina Airfield in Burma.   The 3rd earned credit for two campaigns during the war.  So Dodson played an important role in the CBI contributing to the Pacific victory.

Another charter member of the 123rd who served in Tenth Air Force in the Burma-India part of the CBI was T/Sgt Fred Parish, a medic with the 8th Photo Reconnaissance Group.  He served on group staff with the group flight surgeon, and was responsible for oversight on the medical operations of four aerial recon squadrons of various specialties and aircraft such as the F-5 Photo Lightning, F-7 Photo Liberator, P-40 and F-6 Photo Mustang as well as six other non-flying ground support squadrons. 

Coincidentally, 123rd alumni Fred Parish and Bill Stevenson met again aboard the troopship USS Mount Vernon as they were on their way to the Orient, Parish on his way to Bally seaplane base in Calcutta and Stevenson on his way a B-29 base in India and a forward field in China. 

Though based in India, Parish had opportunity one time to go forward to Tingkawk Sakan Airfield in northern Burma, which served as base for a detachment of one of the group's flying squadrons.  He was there with the group flight surgeon to conduct a sanitary inspection of the detachment's field kitchen which operated at the site carved out of a teak forest. 

The inspection was accomplished quickly, and while P-47 Thunderbolt fighters flew missions from the field, Parish was soon diverted to assist photo interpreters reviewing aerial photos as the Japanese retreated in the battles for Burma.  "Here's a stereoscope; count enemy vehicles on the road," they said.  I didn't know what I was looking at, which way the trucks were going, but I could count," he remembers. 

Parish stayed overnight in Burma - "I actually had to have a blanket to keep warm as the elevation was much higher...After dark I could hear the rumbles of heavy artillery in the distance." He returned the next day in an overloaded B-25 full of film and rotating detachment personnel - altogether there were 23 personnel stuffed inside the medium bomber.  It nearly ran out of fuel before a hair-raising arrival back in India.  His unit received credit for its contributions to three campaigns in the war.

While overseas Parish was selected for Officer Candidate School and returned to the States in 1945 before Victory in Europe Day, after which his slot was cancelled.  When Japan surrendered he was working as a medic in the Army hospital adjacent to Warner Robbins Field, Georgia.

But on his way back to the States from the far East via Khartoum, Sudan, T/Sgt Parish ran into another 123rd charter member, Lt. Clifford H. Shaffer, also returning from the CBI.  Shaffer had obtained a commission earlier in the war and became a navigator, serving with the 436th Bomb Squadron of the 7th Bomb Group (Heavy), a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber unit in Tenth Air Force.  Parish remembers Shaffer received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his wartime combat service.  Shaffer's squadron earned a DUC and credit for eight campaigns in the war.

Oregon's 123rd Observation Squadron members had a knack for running across one another during the war in the Pacific.  Nearly a year earlier and thousands of miles to the east, eleven of Oregon's original Air Guardsmen had a relatively pleasant wartime reunion on the island of Biak, off the northwest coast of New in late 1944.  It was the first gathering between them since leaving the 123rd for other assignments. The 11 men represented perhaps as many as five different units of Fifth Air Force based on Biak at that time.

Since Oregon's original Air Guardsmen had been in federal service since September, 1941, most of them were returned to the States quickly after the war.   A couple of newer members of the 35th PRS in China did not, however; T/Sgt Chester Krejci and S/Sgt H. Allen "Hank" Larsen, among others, had their assignments extended to help with the closing of various air units and disposition of equipment and supplies. 

Hank was assigned the task of collecting photos of the members of the squadrons in action during the war along with photos and the maps made from them by the Photogrammetry sections of both the 35th and 21st photo recon squadrons.  These "treasures" were carefully assembled and stored in a vault assembled on the Peishiyi Airfield, although the ultimate disposition of these items is unknown. A group of 35th and 21st PRS personnel were soon loaded on a C-47 for a flight to Chengdu on October 5, 1945. Larsen remembers: 

"Following routine duties and some tours in that interesting area where the B-29 bombers had been based, we were told to be ready before sunrise on October 18 for another flight in our "favorite" C-47 to Hangzhou on the coast of China, about 100 miles south of Shanghai where, at some future time, we would board a ship to take us Stateside.  A Coast Guard ship bound for Seattle became available.  We packed up and took the train to busy Shanghai leaving the most beautiful city in China on December 4, 1945. We boarded the ship with more than two thousand other China-based military personnel on December 15! Ding Hao!"

Hank Larsen and his friend, William L. Dibble, a photo laboratory specialist, captured many Kodachrome images of China with their cameras during their service in China. Years after the war, with special help from Shanghai citizen Mr. James Yan who became Hank's friend in recent years, they published a book of photos from their China experience, titled China in the Eyes of Flying Tigers 1944-1945. At last report the Chinese edition is out of print; the English language edition is still available.

Little known is the fact that the Oregon Air National Guard's 114th Fighter Squadron played a role in eclipsing the Japanese Empire in the weeks leading up to VJ-Day.  In WWII, the unit was designated as the 439th Bomb Squadron (Medium) of the 319th Bomb Group, an outfit which flew some 493 combat missions in the North African, Mediterranean and Italian campaigns with B-26 Marauder and B-25 Mitchell medium bombers before it was sent to the States to reequip with the Douglas A-26 Invader bomber and deploy to the Pacific. 

From the States, the unit was the vanguard of the European units transferring to the Pacific.  The 439th Bomb Squadron based initially at Kadena and then at Machinato Airfield on Okinawa, became a part of VII Bomber Command.  Its first combat mission in the Far East was flown on 16 July 1945, and it accomplished a total of 22 combat missions against the Japanese Empire in July and August of 1945.  No 319th group planes were lost in action on these Pacific missions, no men were killed and only one aerial gunner was wounded by flak. 

Aircrew of the 439th BS and the rest of the group on the mission to Kanoya Airfield on the morning of 9 August were in the break after hitting the target when they witnessed a brilliant flash and then a dust cloud which rose to 35,000 feet to the north, presumed to be Nagasaki.  When hostilities concluded on 15 August, the squadron sent its aircraft to the Philippines in order to make room for other air units slated to participate in the initial occupation of Japan.  The 439th returned to the States in November, 1945, after earning two DUC's, the French Croix de Guerre with Palm, and credit for 12 campaigns (one with the Arrowhead device indicating participation in an assault landing), including three campaigns in the Pacific.

Had the war continued longer, it is possible that the 142nd Fighter Wing would also have played a part in the Pacific.  The unit was designated as the 371st Fighter Group in World War II, a P-47 Thunderbolt unit that saw much combat in Europe 1944-1945.  When the war in Europe ended, there was mention that the group might redeploy to the CBI.  As things turned out the unit never did; it participated in the occupation of Germany and duty in Austria before returning to the U.S. in November, 1945.  The 371st received a DUC, was cited in the Belgian Army Order of the Day, and credit for six campaigns in the war in Europe.
So across the vast expanse of the Pacific Theater, from India to China, from Okinawa over to the Marianas and dozens of other points in between, many of Oregon's original Air Guardsmen, as well as the men of the 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron (today's 123rd Fighter Squadron) and 439th Bomb Squadron (today's 114th Fighter Squadron) did their part to bring about victory in the Pacific.
VJ-Day was officially proclaimed with the formal signing of the instrument of surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri on 2 September 1945.  On this 70th anniversary of that event, we remember the service and sacrifice of these Airmen who contributed to the ending of the Second World War.