The Curtain is raised for the 371st Fighter Group in the European Theatre of Operations

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing History Office
April 12, 1944, is a banner day in the history of the 371st Fighter Group, and thus for the 142nd Fighter Wing, which inherited the lineage and honors of the 371st. It is the day upon which the World War II P-47 fighter group flew its first combat missions in the European Theatre of Operations (ETO). It was also the first day the unit ever suffered a casualty, though it was not combat-related.

After flying a practice mission on 7 April, Frisky had been alerted days prior for a mission originally scheduled for 10 April, which was scrubbed due to weather. Alerted for a mission the next day, 11 April, he was disappointed yet again when the spring weather did not cooperate.

But he didn't have to wait long, for at 2235B Hours on 11 April IX Fighter Command transmitted Operations Order 139, which tasked the 371st Fighter Group with a "RODEO" mission tied in with a Royal Air Force (RAF) operation. Paragraph 1.B. (2) of the order stated "RAF MOSQUITOES ESCORTED BY TYPHOONS WILL CROSS IN FRENCH COAST AT 5000-0115E AT APPROXIMATELY 1020B HOURS AT 8,000 FT.

Para 2 set the U.S. objective for Operations Order 139, and stated "THIS COMMAND EXECUTES FIGHTER SWEEPS AND DESTROYS E/A ZERO HOUR AND DATE. 121015B" (Note: E/A is the abbreviation for Enemy Aircraft)

Para 3 contained tasking details for the 100th Fighter Wing's 371st Fighter Group (Frisky!) and the 84th Fighter Wing's 405th Fighter Group. Frisky's instructions were as follows: 'AT GROUP LEADERS DISCRETION IN AND OUT ENEMY COAST AT 10,000 FEET MINIMUM. ...NO EXTRA BELLY TANKS WILL BE CARRIED...GROUP WILL NOT ATTACK GROUND TARGETS." The group's radio callsign was "LOWCOURT," ground control at Tangmere was "ELFLIKE," emergency homing channel "COACHRIDE," and the code word for a fighter recall was "D I A B O L I C"

Wednesday, April 12, 1944, was good enough for flying, and fly Frisky did, twice! The mission briefing was scheduled for 0735 for a fighter sweep over France, around Caen, between Trauville and Bayeux. It was led by Lt. Col. George L. Wertenbaker (on temporary duty with the 371st, he became commander of the 48th Fighter Group on 23 April 1944).

Start engine time was 1029, aiming for a 1029 takeoff. Time up for the group was actually between 1039 and 1055. The group then started its climb to transit altitude beginning around 1114, to reach cruising altitude by 1157. The group dispatched 52 aircraft, though three aborted (mechanical, radio and oxygen) and two other aircraft escorted them back to base. The 406FS mission report identified the specific blocks of P-47s the squadron flew on this first mission, to include: 1 P-47D-11, 5 P-47D-15s, and 11 P-47D-16s. Frisky performed his sweep at 20,000 feet between 1200 and 1210. Visibility was unlimited in the sweep area, but no enemy aircraft or anti-aircraft fire was seen. Time down for the group was from 1235 to 1255.

IX Fighter Command sent out Field Order 142 at 1300B and Frisky flew a second sweep (target or task RODEO) later that day, same group callsign as the morning, but working with fighter control at Middle Wallop callsign "CASEY," emergency homing channel again "COACHRIDE," with a recall code word of "HAMMERHEAD." The 371st generated 48 P-47s for the mission, another fighter sweep over France, around Cleres, between Le Camp and Le Treport. Lt. Col. Wertenbaker led again; the group briefed at 1500, took off at 1625, swept between 1730 and 1743 (13 minutes) between 18-24,000 feet in hazy visibility without enemy opposition, and returned at 1835.

At least two ships aborted for mechanical problems, but with 7 spares ready the mission flew as tasked for 48 aircraft. The 406FS mission report again detailed the blocks of P-47s it used for the mission: 1 P-47D-11, 6 P-47D-15s, 3 P-47D-16s and 9 P-47D-20s, as well as the only observation reported under "URGENT INFORMATION" as "Convoy of about 35 ships South of Beach head going east."

Sadly, this day also marked the first fatality experienced by the group, when 2nd Lt. Eugene E. Sanderson of the 405th Fighter Squadron, took a ship up, P-47D-11-RE S/N 42-75252 (squadron code 8N-F), for an engineering test hop. The aircraft had previously served with the 334FS of the 4FG (as QP-W). For reasons unspecified in the group history, Sanderson "...was killed when his plane crashed while circling for a landing." The Blue Book only mentions it was a "forced landing," but underlines the irony that it happened while the group was away on its first combat mission. Such are the tragic fortunes of war.

Sanderson, from Florida, had completed flying training in either Class 43F or 43G at Douglas Field in Georgia in the summer of 1943, depending which source one uses. He shipped over with the group aboard the RMS Mauretania only the month before.

So it was a bittersweet but significant day for the members of the 371st Fighter Group, to finally perform the flying and fighting mission they had been trained and organized for, and, alas, to suffer the first loss of life in the unit since its inception. Many more combat missions would be flown, many more lives sacrificed, and many more machines lost before the war in Europe ended. But this day marked the start of Frisky's direct contribution to that hard-won victory.