We Remember Victory in Europe Day (VE-Day), 1945

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing History Office

In his famous speech given to soldiers just before D-Day, General George S. Patton Jr. asked them to reflect at some point in the future when their grandson might ask them "What did you do during the great World War Two?"  For the World War II veterans of the 142nd Fighter Wing of the Oregon Air National Guard, they can say they flew combat, often for General Patton and Third Army, back when the wing was designated as the 371st Fighter Group.

As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, when the forces of fascism were defeated in the European Theater of Operations, we remember the role the 142nd Fighter Wing played when it was the 371st Fighter Group and honor the men and women who helped achieve that victorious outcome.

Activated at Richmond Army Air Field, Virginia, on 15 July 1943, the 371st Fighter Group trained in the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane, and the approximately 950 personnel (about 150 Officers and 800 Enlisted Men, growing to over 1,000 personnel in overseas service) deployed to Europe for combat operations in the spring of 1944.  The unit soon added the air-to-ground mission to its skill set, and helped prepare the way for the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, on 6 June 1944.

The 371st Fighter Group was in the thick of things in several campaigns across Northwest Europe in World War II.  After commencing combat operations from England in April, 1944, the unit moved to Normandy, France, soon after D-Day.  As part of XIX Tactical Air Command (XIX TAC) it supported Patton's Third Army in the breakout from Normandy and the spectacular move across France in the summer of 1944.  The group moved forward several times in order to keep pace with the advancing ground troops.

In the fall of 1944, the 371st was temporarily assigned to the Allied First Tactical Air Force (Provisional) and played a vital role in helping Allied forces advance to the German border after the invasion of southern France in August, 1944.  Most notable was its part in the relief of the US Army's "Lost Battalion" in the Vosges Mountains.  The unit later played a part in repulsing the enemy in both the Battle of the Bulge and a less well-known supporting enemy offensive, Operation Northwind, the last major German offensive on the western front in World War II.

Returning in the new year to XIX TAC and support of Patton's Third Army, the group employed the Thunderbolt with devastating results as Third Army closed to the Rhine River and began to cross deeper into Germany.  When the war ended on 8 May 1945, the outfit was based at Fürth/Industriehafen Airfield in Bavaria, Germany.  The group's 405th Fighter Squadron history for May, 1945, described the welcome news as follows: 

"8 May 1945 - VICTORY IN EUROPE!  at last by teletype, we receive word that Germany has surrendered.  As the TWX was slowly read off, a slight cheer went up from those present.  The word spread like wildfire and exultation, pride and relief were felt by all, but there seemed to be no desire for an unchecked celebration.  It was here; it was what we had come here for; it was what we had all thought about for 15 months; it was here and it was gone, another event in another day leading all thoughts to "what next"."

But it was not a day of rest for the group's members, though the good news was no one was shooting at them.  On 8 May, each of the three fighter squadrons flew patrol missions in relays of 12 to 16 aircraft each along the lines of communications between Klatovy in Czechoslovakia and Linz, Austria, from 0800 to 1100.  The 405th Fighter Squadron's mission report was telling:  "Numerous German M/T (Motor Transport) scattered in recce area heading all directions.  1000 plus German M/T and 500 troops heading W 1015 hrs escorted by allied vehicles.  Allied troops throughout the area.  Columns of 30-40 German M/T which appeared to be preparing for surrender in 15-20 small towns throughout the recce area.  100 plus single engine and twin engine a/c on airdrome at Q-8860 (just SW of Ceske Budejovice in Czechoslovakia)."

Immediately after the war in Europe ended, rumors flew wild about the unit's next mission, including deployment to the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater to take part in the air war against Japan.  But as the war in the Pacific ended the 371st moved to Hörsching Airfield near Linz, Austria, for a period before returning to the States. 

To sum up the 371st Fighter Group's vital statistics which contributed to the Victory in Europe, consider the following:

Missions Flown:  1,749
Sorties Flown:  17,866
Ammunition Fired:  5,390,321 Rounds
Bombs Dropped:  4,167 Tons

Mission Results:
Enemy aircraft destroyed in the air:  71 (including at least two Me-262 jet fighters)
Enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground:  165 
Military Transports destroyed:
Armored Vehicles - tanks:  254
Locomotives:  231
Railroad Cars:  2,338
Bridges:  28
Gun Positions:  118
Dumps:  34
Buildings: 1,105
Road Cuts:  145
Rail Cuts:  446
Vessels and barges:  18
Horse-drawn vehicles:  501
Marshalling yards attacked:  159
Airfields attacked:  11
Troop concentrations:  40
Troops:  1,215
Horses:  538
Artillery guns:  2
Barrage balloons:  4

On the other hand, there was a cost to providing this combat airpower, in the form of 371st Fighter Group men and machines:

Personnel Killed in Action:  41
Personnel Killed in the Line of Duty:  9
Personnel still Missing in Action:  5
Prisoners of War:  19 (two managed to escape captivity; in addition, two other officers detained under unusual circumstances by non-German combatants returned to friendly control.)

P-47 Aircraft destroyed:  90+
P-47 aircraft damaged:  Many more than destroyed.  No summary figure has yet been determined.  But for comparison, during the period 15 to 21 March 1945, the time when the 371FG earned the DUC, the group recorded 45 aircraft damaged in varying degrees from the many combat missions flown in that period.

For this service and sacrifice in World War II, the 371st Fighter Group received credit for participation in six military campaigns, including the Air Offensive, Europe; Normandy; Northern France; Rhineland; Ardennes-Alsace and Central Europe.  In addition, the unit received the Distinguished Unit Citation for combat over Germany, 15 - 21 March 1945, and was cited in the Belgian Army Order of the Day for actions from 6 June to 30 September 1944.

At this point, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the essential contribution of the 600 men of the 371st Fighter Group's attached units.  Unlike a modern wing, in the Second World War a combat group relied on a variety of attached units to provide essential air base operability and maintenance/technical specialties.  The attached units that enabled the P-47s of the 371st to accomplish the mission are as follows:

98th Service Squadron
1590th Ordnance, Service and Maintenance Company
2204th Trucking Company (Aviation)
1028th Signal Company
1242nd Quartermaster Company
2062nd Engineering Aviation Fire Fighting Platoon
1194th Military Police (Aviation)
Detachment "J" of the 21st Weather Squadron
Detachment "V" of the Ninth Flying Control Squadron

And even this is not complete without mention of the man and several women of the American Red Cross field office who were with the 371st Fighter Group in the ETO, who endured the same field conditions and air base hazards the rest of the group and attached units did as they moved from airfield to airfield across northwestern Europe.  And we remember French farm girl Yvette Hamel, grievously wounded by the enemy, who convalesced with the 371st in France.   All of them contributed to the mission of the unit.

And one should not overlook some unusual members of the 371st Fighter Group team.  Late in the war, the group received ten displaced persons, Russian civilians, from the CIC (probably US Army Counter Intelligence Corps) for mess hall and area duty.  In June, 1945, Polish displaced persons picked up the duty as the Russian civilians were returned to Soviet control.    

Lest we forget, at least four of the original members of the 123rd Observation Squadron, who were reassigned to other air units during the war, were committed to combat in Europe and the service and sacrifice to bring victory.  Three of the men, M/Sgt Bruce C. Green, T/Sgt Albert R. Miller, and S/Sgt Leonard W. Mayer, were lost when the ship transporting their 32nd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron's personnel, the S.S. Paul Hamilton, was sunk by German air attack in the Mediterranean Sea on 20 April 1944.  The other, Sgt. John H. Pear, was an aerial gunner in the 613th Bomb Squadron of the 401st Bomb Group (Heavy).  He completed 30 combat missions in the B-17 Flying Fortress, including D-Day.

The 371st Fighter Group eventually returned by ship to the United States.  On 10 November 1945, the 371st Fighter Group was inactivated at Camp Shanks, New York.  But just six months later, on 24 May 1946, the unit was redesignated as the 142nd Fighter Group and allotted to the state of Oregon, retaining the lineage and honors earned by the 371st Fighter Group in World War II.  This was done as part of the buildup of the nation's air reserve components after World War II, when many World War II US Army Air Forces combat units with a distinguished history were redesignated and allotted to the National Guard. 

Following a pre-war plan, the Oregon (Air) National Guard's aviation operation was established at Portland Army Air Base on the south side of the Portland-Columbia Municipal Airport.  The 142nd Fighter Group was extended federal recognition on 30 August 1946; years later it was redesignated as the 142nd Fighter Wing we know today, the Guardians of the Pacific Northwest. 

Although the designations changed over the years, from 371 to 142 and from fighter group to fighter wing, it is the same aviation unit.  That is why we join in the commemoration of Victory in Europe Day, and why the men and women of the 142nd Fighter Wing remember the achievements and sacrifices made by the 371st Fighter Group team in World War II.