Thursday, November 8, 2012

Veterans Day for Oregon's Airmen, 1944


Story by Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., Lt Col, USAF (Retired),
142nd Fighter Wing Historian

As we celebrate Veterans Day, let us remember the original members of the Oregon National Guard’s first aviation unit, the 123rd Observation Squadron, who remained in the unit all through its World War II existence, including the wartime overseas deployment to China. 

Redesignated as the 35th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (35PRS) before going overseas (and as the 123rd Fighter Squadron after the war), these Oregonians and many other American Airmen of the wartime 35PRS operated the F-5E Photo Lightning in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of operations.

On Nov. 11, 1944, the squadron’s George Flight, a small detachment of four aircraft and required personnel, was operational at the forward airfield of Yunnanyi, 130 miles west of Kunming near the Burma border. 

On this day, known then as Armistice Day, 1st Lts. William W. Dean III (later MIA) and Estal W. Behrens (later KIA) flew combat aerial reconnaissance missions. 

Dean flew F-5E #806 on a two-hour 30-minute photo recon mission along a strip in between Bhamo, in the northern part of Burma, eastward across the border back into China at Manhsien.

Behrens flew F-5E #810 on a two-hour and 45 minute “Tri-Met” mission along a portion of the famed Burma Road from Wanling south to Lashio.  The Trimetrogon configuration of two oblique right and left cameras and one vertical camera was used for aerial photo-mapping, a welcome capability in the poorly charted expanses of the CBI.

Both missions were flown over enemy occupied areas of Burma surrounding the northern part of the Burma Road, toward which Allied forces from India and China were approaching in the hard-fought Burma campaign of 1944.

Just a few days before, on Nov. 5, 1944, the squadron lost its first member in the war, when 1Lt Franklin H. McKinney was declared missing in action.  Recently a report by the government of Thailand reported that his F-5E aircraft, #811 has been found in Ban Mae Gua, Sobprab Sub-District, Lampang Province in Thailand.  This report has yet to be verified.

As Armistice Day, 1944 progressed westward across the planet to the Europe Theater of Operations (ETO), the 371st Fighter Group (371FG, today’s 142nd Fighter Wing) was involved in split operations.  Group personnel were at Dole Airfield in eastern France not far from the Swiss border, and the group’s P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers were at Dijon Airfield, some 30 miles to the northwest of Dole.  The aircraft were flown to Dijon as a result of flooding at Dole the day before due to the Doubs river overflowing its banks.  Back in the Dole tents, mess halls and line equipment were hastily moved to higher ground as the floodwaters spread.

The group was informed that it would continue these split operations between Dole and Dijon until the Doubs receded and the aircraft were able to return to Dole, which turned out to be 11 days later.  However, on Nov. 11, the weather was terrible and there was no flying at all.  Rain, mud, snow and flood would hamper the group’s plans.

In this period the 371FG was flying missions in and out of nasty weather in support of the Franco-American 6th Army Group, which included the U.S. Seventh Army.  In the last week of October, the group’s 405th Fighter Squadron had just flown a remarkable series of aerial resupply missions in support of the “Lost Battalion” in Vosges Mountains, many in miserable weather, losing 1Lt Robert A. Booth and two P-47 aircraft in the process.

The service and sacrifice of the personnel in these flying units on Armistice Day, 1944, in China, Burma and in France, gives an inspiring example of service and sacrifice for us today.  On many subsequent Armistice Days since WWII, and continuously since the early 1960s, men and women of the ORANG’s 142nd Fighter Wing have maintained Aerospace Control Alert, serving and sacrificing on what for many citizens is perhaps just another holiday. 

But it’s not just any holiday.  We should pause on Veterans Day to remember and honor our veterans and all their years of dedicated duty for our community, state and nation, whether overseas or stateside now, at war in 1944 or in peace today, ready to defend, 24/7.

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