One of the “claims to fame” of the 371st Fighter Group is that of being the first USAAF combat unit to be based on the European Continent soon after D-Day.
By the 11th of June, word went around at Frisky’s home ‘drome at Bisterne Airfield that an advanced echelon (advon) was to be assembled and to be sent off to France in order to set up flying operations at a yet to be determined advanced landing ground (ALG), at a destination perhaps not even yet taken from the enemy. The ALG would be similar to that which Frisky used at Bisterne. So preparations were made in the unit to identify the men and equipment that would be first in France.
On 13 June 1944, the 1220th MP Company, Det “A” departed Bisterne for the marshaling area. They were joined by elements from the group HQ which left early the next day, at 0500 and 0900. The flying squadrons also contributed to this “advon” with personnel and vehicles rolling out on June 14. The 406FS history identified the marshaling area as being near Weymouth, England. The 404FS history records they were loaded aboard U.S. Navy LST numbers 50 and 502. The 405FS history records waterproofing its vehicles after arrival at the marshaling area, boarding transport at 2100 hours on 15 June, and finding out that they would be headed to an airfield near Ste. Mère-Église, a contested area near the active front. So much for the conventional wisdom of the Air Corps going to cushy bases, but Frisky was up to the challenge.
It appears that weather caused a delay in the arrival and disembarking of the 371FG in Normandy. The 406FS history mentions having to remain aboard LST another night due to stormy weather and rough conditions at sea. But the next day, 17 June, all elements landed at Utah Beach. The 404FS records landing at Utah, Sugar, Red Beach on the morning of the 17th. The 405th disembarked at 1200, proceeded to a de-waterproofing station, stripped the vehicles of that gear and headed out, to arrive at A-6 by 1500. Wrote the 405FS squadron historian “On the convoy ride we all got our first view of the stupidity and destruction of war.” The 406FS history merely records their advon arrived the same day.
The 371FG Warbook remarks that for thiose traveling on vehicles, “…the trip from the beach to the bivouac area was not at all unpleasant. They exchanged friendly insults with the infantry as they passed, going in the same direction. The Footsloggers were amazed that the Air Corps Groundlings should be venturing so close to where the bullets were flying; Frisky’s cohorts yelled something about being there to keep the thick Infantry skulls from being cracked by the Boche. The verbal exchanges smacked of mutual admiration.”
Not everyone was fortunate to ride in a convoy to the new field. Some had to make a seven mile march to get there, as the Warbook recorded, with “…the heavy packs, the hot sun above, and the “Achtung! Minen!” signs on either side. Identifying organizational code markers, Jayhawk, Bluebell, Jawbone, hastily tacked up to every possible post of fence – like Burma Shave ads – struck a peculiarly comforting American note.”
The 405th fortuitously arrived and quickly claimed a bivouac area near the perimeter track of the field which already had fox holes dug into it, saving the men hours of digging. Scant days before these positions shielded combat troops battling the enemy and combat engineers building the field.
It should be mentioned that in this transition period, 371FG fighters were active from the homefield, and also began using advanced landing grounds which began to open up as places to land and refuel, or recover a battle damaged aircraft. June 15 saw the 406FS escort a C-47 into A-1, St. Pierre du Mont. On 17 June, the 406FS flew a morning mission from Bisterne, then landed at A-2, Cricqueville-en-Bessin, at 0745 in order to refuel, departed at 1040 to conduct a second mission, and then returned to Bisterne. The next day, 18 June, Lt. Thiede of the 406FS landed his battle-damaged ship at A-6, Beuzzeville, and later the same day Lt. Unruh brought his damaged ship down at A-2.
Although the 371FG claims to be the first AAF unit based in France, there is at least one other known competing claim to being the first AAF unit to be based in France. That being the 366th Fighter Group, another P-47 outfit of 9th Air Force which established its advanced echelon at A-1 Airfield, St. Pierre du Mont, near Omaha Beach. It’s of note that these groups today are both based in the greater Pacific Northwest, with the 371FG, now the 142d Fighter Wing, at Portland ANG base in Oregon,
and the 366FG, now the 366th Fighter Wing, at Mountain Home AFB in Idaho.
Given that the movement of the entire fighter group would take many days more beyond the arrival of the advanced echelon on 17 June, it seems the bragging rights are centered on which unit got its advanced echelon into place the earliest. Two standard references for USAAF unit history to evaluate this issue are “Air Force Combat Units of World War II” and “Combat Squadrons of the Air Force World War II.”
The first reference, “Air Force Combat Units,” includes the combat group histories, and shows the 371FG at Beuzzeville (A-6) as on June 1944, with no specific date of arrival in the month. The 366FG is shown as being at St. Pierre du Mont (A-1) as of 17 June 1944.
So we turn to the “Combat Squadrons” reference and look at the dates of arrival in France for the pertinent individual fighter squadrons. In the 371FG, the 404FS date for Beuzzeville is shown as circa 23 June, which is when the squadron’s aircraft arrived from Bisterne to be permanently based at A-6. The 405FS arrival date is shown as 17 June, which is when the advanced echelon arrived. The 406FS arrival date is circa 17 June. As for the 366FG, its 389FS arrival date at A-1 is 17 June; the 390FS on 20 June; the 391FS on 17 June. It looks like a tie for at least two of the squadrons to be in France as of 17 June, though the 404FS official history cleary shows the squadron’s advon arrival on 17 June, which makes for all three of Frisky’s flying squadrons making it to A-6 on 17 June.
But without more definition of the specific times of arrivals of the advanced echelons of the two groups, it is hard to make a definitive judgment about which one was technically the “first” to base itself in France. And how does one define that, even if only looking at the advon? Is it based on just one squadron’s arrival time? Or is it based on the arrival and closure of the entire advon for the group, including the group HQ and the flying squadrons?
But for the purpose of this web log, it will assume that Frisky’s advon with all constituent parts made it all to A-6 first. And thus the 371st Fighter Group claims being the first USAAF combat unit to be based in France, shortly after D-Day, with a complete advanced echelon in place at A-6 Airfield on 17 June 1944.
Maurer, Maurer, Editor, “Air Force Combat Units of World War II,” AF Historical Research Agency website, accessed at: http://www.afhra.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-090529-055.pdf
Maurer, Maurer, Editor, “Combat Squadrons of the USAF World War II,” AF Historical Research Agency website, accessed at: http://www.afhso.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-101202-002.pdf
LST-502 entry at NavSource, accessed at: http://www.navsource.org/archives/10/16/160502.htm
“The Story of the 371st Fighter Group in the E.T.O.” Army & Navy Pictorial Publishers, Baton Rouge, LA, 1946
Beuzeville Airfield, Wikipedia entry at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beuzeville_Airfield
Saint-Pierre-du-Mont Airfield, Wikipedia entry at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint-Pierre-du-Mont_Airfield
142FW F-15C image at: http://www.142fw.ang.af.mil/shared/media/photodb/photos/101002-F-8260H-150.jpg
366FW F-15E image at: http://www.12af.acc.af.mil/shared/media/photodb/photos/030624-F-8833H-054.jpg