The 371st Fighter Group’s lineage and honors reflect the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC), awarded for combat actions during World War II when the unit was assigned to the XIX Tactical Air Command. Since 1957, the Air Force has designated this award as the Presidential Unit Citation (PUC).
The criteria for the DUC/PUC are as follows:
“It is conferred on units of the armed forces of the United States and of cobelligerent nations, for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy on or after Dec. 7, 1941. The unit must display such gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission as to set it apart from and above other units participating in the same campaign. The degree of heroism required is the same that which would warrant award of the Distinguished Service Cross to an individual. An individual assigned or permanently attached to, and also present for duty with, a unit in the action for which the Presidential Unit Citation is awarded may wear the emblem as a permanent part of their uniform.”
To set the stage for this award, in March, 1945, as Allied armies in Germany pursued the remaining Nazi forces west of the Rhine River, the Metz Airfield (Y-34), France-based 371st Fighter Group continued its job in the XIX Tactical Air Command, which supported General George S. Patton, Jr.’s Third Army. Frisky’s actions in support of Third Army between 15 and 21 March 1945 resulted in the award of the DUC to the group.
In this one-week period of March, 1945, the 371st supported the breakthrough advances of Patton’s “Ghost Corps,” the XX Corps, in its drive to the Rhine River. Under pressure from US Third and Seventh Armies, German forces west of the Rhine were hemmed in, and with orders not to retreat over the Rhine they were duly hammered from air and land. The 371st’s contribution greatly aided XX Corps in reaching the Rhine, and was a direct prelude to Third Army’s successful crossing of the river which began on 22 March 1945.
The 371st received its DUC award on 10 July 1945, when it was stationed as part of Allied occupation forces at Fürth/Industriehafen Airfield (R-30), near Nürnberg (aka Nuremberg), Germany.
The citation for the 371st Fighter Group’s DUC was contained in Headquarters Ninth Air Force General Orders No. 117, and reads as follows:
“The 371st Fighter Group is cited for extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy from 15 March to 21 March 1945. During this period the 371st Fighter Group inflicted tremendous destruction on the hostile forces fleeing before the Allied units closing to the banks of the Rhine River. Demonstrating steadfast determination to destroy the enemy, the gallant pilots launched a series of brilliant air attacks closely coordinated with the advances of the Third Army. Striking vigorously ahead of the advancing tank columns, they smashed the enemy’s desperate attempts to organize a holding defense. Although frequently engulfed by intense concentrations of fire from mobile artillery and small arms, they descended to treetop level to attack the motor transports, troop concentrations, and strong points of the retreating enemy. During this 6-day period the airmen of the 371st Fighter Group destroyed a total of 1702 transport vehicles, 180 factories and buildings, 57 railroad cars, 20 tanks and 7 gun emplacements. 1,407 transports, 70 railroad cars, and 59 tanks were damaged. The brilliantly successful attacks of the 371st Fighter Group constituted a material contribution to the defeat of the hostile forces in southern Germany. The courage and determination of the airmen, combined with the technical skill and devotion to duty of the ground personnel, mark the 371st Fighter Group as an organization of unusual esprit de corps, and are in keeping with the finest traditions of the Army Air Forces.”
The 371st Fighter group’s 405th Fighter Squadron’s History for March 1945 vividly describes the action as seen at the fighter squadron-level in this period:
“On the 17th, 18th & 19th the Squadron enjoyed its most successful operational days since Falaise Gap-Mortain days of last summer. Taking advantage of the perfect weather, the Squadron flew 8 eight ship missions. Perhaps the most exciting and tense days of the war were experienced by all personnel. As the first few missions came back, excited keyed up pilots unfolded the story of German rout!
Word got around quickly that one of the biggest of all field days was in the making, and by noon the Operations and Intelligence Office was a bee hive of activity. Capt. “Wilbur” Jackson, Lt. “Vince” Trainer, already harried and tired from trying to interrogate the excited sometimes almost incoherent pilots, were further confused by the stream of ground crews and Officers trying to keep up with the situation maps.
The days totals mounted by the hour as the bombline changed by the hour, until, when the last mission landed at 2000 hours, the Squadron had destroyed or damaged more than 400 German vehicles for over 50% of the entire groups total! Saddened by the death of Lt. Spicer on the last mission, all personnel went home tired but hopeful for the next day, and praying that the weather would hold. (Note: First Lieutenant Harold Spicer was actually lost on 18 March 1945)
With the clear dawning of the 18th the tension again became acute. As mission after mission came back with stories of long columns of German vehicles bombed and strafed, the situation map again became the center of interest. Hourly the bomb line seemed to make phenominal (sic) leaps, until late in the afternoon it was necessary to change the entire map for the second time during the day. At the end of the day the picture of utter destruction that was taking place became clear, as, again racking up more than 50% of the group totals, the 405th destroyed or damaged 371 enemy vehicles, and “weather” promised clear skies for the morrow.
The 19th was but a repetition of the previous two days. The Wehrmacht, openly fleeing, was being rapidly destroyed as it tried to cross the Rhine. As the end of the day approached someone suddenly realized that the last mission up was the 500th combat mission flown by the squadron. A fitting end to this days occasion was the total of more than 350 enemy vehicles destroyed or damaged, thus, in 3 days, the Squadron accounted for more than 1000 enemy motor transport vehicles; almost as many as in the entire preceding 11 months of operations.”
Higher headquarters noted the incredible results the 371st was getting and sent the group a message: “My heartiest congratulations to the air and ground personnel of your organization whose teamwork, Courage, and devotion to duty have made possible the devastating blow today. XIX TAC. ——WEYLAND——“
In this weeklong period, the 371st Fighter Group generated more than 1,000 sorties and flew over 2,000 combat hours. The P-47 pilots expended 589 x 500-lb bombs and some 932,463 rounds of .50 caliber machine gun ammunition, not counting the 9,540 rounds lost on four aircraft that were lost.
The four P-47’s lost were a sort of the tip of the iceberg for aircraft impacted by all these missions, with 49 other Thunderbolts damaged in various categories of damage. Flak was responsible for a lot of this damage, but there was also some received due to the low-altitude nature of much of the work. At least three aircraft were damaged from wires or cables, a couple more from exploding vehicles, and one from the fragments of its own bombs.
In addition to the air-to-ground work, on 21 March the group’s 405th Fighter Squadron had an aerial engagement with a group of over 15 Me-109 fighters about seven miles west of Ludwigshafen, Germany. First Lieutenant Ray H. Sanders described the encounter as follows:
“I was flying “Discharge Yellow” Three, on an armed recce in Kaiserslautern and Rhine River area when 15 bogeys were called in at 10 o’clock at 8,000 feet. The aircraft were identified as Me-109’s and we jettisoned our bombs and my wingman “Discharge Yellow” Four and I dived down on the last Me-109 in the enemy formation from 9,000 feet. The e/a saw us and broke east. I opened fire with a 10 degree deflection shot at range of 1,000 feet and observed strikes on the side of the fuselage. I then sighted at his tail and observed strikes while closing to 500 feet.
All this time the Me-109 was diving, and we were now on the deck. A ball of fire was seen and the Me-109 started smoking. I was hit by flak and broke off, and my wingman started firing at him. My wingman fired a few bursts and observed strikes on the Me-109. After I broke off I looked back and saw a large cloud of dust move across a field, a road, and then another field, in the very direction the Me-109 was flying. The flak was intense so we pulled up and left.
I claim one Me-109 destroyed (shared with 2nd Lt. C. E. Lindley, Air Corps).”
The reports and summary above recap the chief accomplishments of the unit, but do not tell of the human cost to the 371st Fighter Group, even though it pales compared to enemy losses. In this week of intense operations, four pilots went Missing in Action (MIA) between 16-19 March 1945:
16 March 1945, 2nd Lt. Christo G. Harris, 404FS, flying P-47D-30-RA serial number 44-32975, as Yellow Two in a formation of eight aircraft, dropped his 500-lb bomb on a troop concentration at Neunkirchen, then proceeded north to hunt for enemy vehicles. While strafing four enemy vehicles near Hecken, Germany, someone called out light flak. Harris was apparently hit by this flak and his plane was observed going down at a 45 degree angle from 1,000 feet (at grid coordinate L-755460 in the Modified British System). Though it did not appear to be smoking or damaged in any way the aircraft crashed and exploded in some woods at 1330 hours (at grid coordinate L-755460 in the Modified British System, to the southeast of the former Hahn AB). His crash site was later found and he is buried at Plot D, Row 5, Grave 9, in the Luxembourg American Cemetery at Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. Lieutenant Harris received the Purple Heart and the Air Medal, with five Oak Leaf Clusters, for his service and sacrifice in World War II.
18 March 1945, 1st Lieutenant Harold H. Spicer, 405FS, was in a formation of eight P-47’s that bombed motor transport and rail traffic; they then strafed military road traffic. A few miles south of Birkenfeld, Germany (at grid coordinate L575115 in the Modified British System) they encountered accurate small arms fire. Lt. Spicer was apparently hit, but was able to fly his aircraft back toward the home field at Metz. Unfortunately he crashed near the airfield and was killed. He is buried in the Luxembourg American Cemetery, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg, at Plot H, Row 14, Grave 67, Lieutenant Spicer was awarded the Purple Heart and the Air Medal, with an Oak Leaf Cluster, for his service and sacrifice in World War II.
18 March 1945, 1st Lt. Edward R. Kirkland, 406FS, flying P-47D-30-RA 44-32961, was the leader for the squadron’s fourth mission of the day (his second) with an assigned target at Birkenfeld. While strafing some military transports on a road leading out of the town Kirkland was hit by anti-aircraft fire; his plane badly damaged he was forced to bail out (at grid coordinate L-5917 in the Modified British System). As he was floating down in his parachute, civilians shot at him slightly wounding him in the neck. When he hit the earth, the civilians attempted to hang him but he was recused by some German soldiers, taken to a German aid station, where he was treated for one day, and then taken to a POW camp. During the confusion of an air raid, he managed to escape but was soon recaptured by a German patrol. Then another opportunity presented itself. “Utilizing the everlasting lure of the American cigarette, Kirkland knocked two guards’ heads together as they were lighting them and made his second escape.” He managed to avoid capture and soon joined up with one of General Patton’s advancing spearheads, the 4th Armored Division. He returned to duty with the unit on 27 March 1945.
19 March 1945, 2nd Lt. Frederick W. Nerney, 406FS, flying P-47D-28-RA Serial number 42-28620 in a formation of eight Thunderbolts went MIA on the squadron’s third mission of the day. He was conducting an identification pass on motor transport near Meisenheim (at grid coordinate L-9424 in the Modified British System), southwest of Bad Kreuznach, at 1030 when his flight was taken under fire by 20MM and 37MM flak. He called out that he was hit, turned up a small valley and over a hill lost to sight. Another squadron member up at 5,000 feet spotted a downed aircraft and descended to investigate, finding a yellow-nosed P-47 (the 406th squadron color) with a wing afire and smoke obscuring the cockpit area. On 19 April the unit received a teletype from Third Army reporting Lt. Nerney had been killed in action and his body and pistol found in a recently captured area. He is buried in the Lorraine American Cemetery, St. Avold, France, at Plot A, Row 29 Grave 22. Lieutenant Nerney was awarded the Purple Heart and the Air Medal, with Oak Leaf Cluster, for his service and sacrifice in World War II.
On this 70th anniversary of the actions for which the 371st Fighter group was awarded the DUC, we salute the men of the 371st Fighter Group who served in World War II. The group’s actions in the culminating phase of the Rhineland Campaign of World War II helped destroy the Nazi Wehrmacht in the West between the Siegfried Line and the Rhine River. Their efforts Helped set the conditions for Third Army’s approach to and crossing of the Rhine River in March, 1945, to begin the final campaign in the war in European Theater of Operations, a notable achievement.
Of note, the 371st Fighter Group’s DUC belongs to the 142nd Fighter Wing of the Oregon Air National Guard, which inherited the lineage and honors of the 371st Fighter Group when it was redesignated as the 142nd Fighter group and allotted to Oregon in May, 1946. The 371st Fighter group exists today as the 142nd Fighter Wing, Today’s men and women assigned to the 142nd Fighter Wing can take pride in Frisky’s DUC as well as all of the World War II accomplishments of the 371st Fighter Group.
“Redhawk Battle Honors: Distinguished Unit Citation,” 142nd Fighter Wing website, at: http://www.142fw.ang.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123442500\
“The Story of the 371st Fighter Group in the E.T.O.,” Army & Navy Pictorial Publishers, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1946
371st Fighter Group and 405th Fighter Squadron histories for 1945
General Otto P. Weyland picture, from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_P._Weyland
Rhineland Campaign map, from: Rhineland, US Army Campaigns of World War II, at: http://www.history.army.mil/brochures/rhineland/rhineland.htm
142nd Fighter Wing F-15 picture, from 142FW website, at: http://www.142fw.ang.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123438811