PORTLAND, Ore. --
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy, France, commencing the western land effort to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny. Over 150,000 Allied soldiers, including over 13,000 airborne troops, landed from aircraft and ships on or behind five heavily defended Normandy beaches; some 9,000 of them became casualties that day.
Although the initial landings took place on June 6, 1944, they commenced a military campaign for Normandy that lasted from 6 June to 24 July 1944, a seven-week series of battles to establish and defend the beachhead and prepare for the actual movements outward from the beachhead to liberate the continent. The 142nd Fighter Wing, then designated as the 371st Fighter Group, played an integral role in the preparation of the battlespace before the landings, on the day of the landings and in the following Normandy Campaign.
The group commenced combat operations in Northwest Europe from Bisterne Airfield in England in the spring of 1944 with the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter. It flew its first combat mission on April 12, 1944, described in the article titled “The Curtain is raised for the 371st Fighter Group in the European Theatre of Operations,” at:
The 371st continued combat operations leading up to the D-Day air efforts over Western Europe, conducting fighter sweeps, armed reconnaissance, interdiction and escort of heavy and medium bombers. The group lost its first two pilots in this early period. As D-Day began on June 6, the group was postured for operations on call by the Ninth Air Force. Personnel waited nervously through the day, listening to reports of the landings over the radio, waiting and wondering, chomping at the bit to join in and do their part.
They were not denied, and by late morning orders came in; the first P-47 took off for Normandy at 1241 in the afternoon. Of the 8,700 sorties flown by Allied fighters, bombers and transport aircraft that day, the 371st Fighter group flew two combat missions of 112 sorties, dropping 275 bomb weighing 500 pounds each (over 68 tons) and firing nearly 50,000 rounds of .50-caliber machine gun ammunition on enemy targets. One aircraft was shot down by anti-aircraft fire on the second mission of the day with the pilot, 2nd Lt. Joseph E. LaRochelle, being captured as a Prisoner Of War (POW) by the Germans; he was the group’s first POW.
(For more details on the group’s D-Day combat missions, see “The 371st Fighter Group on D-Day, June 6, 1944,” at: https://www.142fw.ang.af.mil/News/Features/Display/Article/438242/the-371st-fighter-group-on-d-day-june-6-1944/ and “D-Day, June 6, 1944, The Longest Day,” at:
The euphoria of the day soon gave way to a sort of routine, sometimes turned deadly, as the group sustained efforts supporting the beachhead. After the D-Day landings, from June 7 to 17, the group provided combat air patrols over the landing beaches and seaward approaches. It was during this period the unit’s first air combat took place, with both losses and aerial victories occurring on June 8, and afterward as the German Luftwaffe responded to the landings. The radio communication in one dogfight gives a sample of the dynamic nature of aerial combat:
“Hey, Augarten, where in the hell are you?” exclaimed flight leader Capt. Uno Salmi after his Largo Blue flight broke into a pair of approaching FW-190 fighters with Salmi knocking down one. “I’m 500 yards behind an FW-190!” exclaimed his element leader Lt. Rudolph “Rudy”Augarten as he pursued the other.
As things turned out Augarten didn’t get that FW-190, but during the Normandy campaign pilots of the group were credited with ten aerial victories. For a more detailed look at this first day of the group’s air combat, see “First Blood in the Air,” at:
On June 14, the group went into the expeditionary mode, deploying an advanced echelon from England by sea and land to Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) A-6, just outside the famed village of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. It arrived on 17 June at ALG A-6, also known as Beuzzeville-au-Plain, La Londe, or Manche. From this airfield carved out of the farm fields and hedgerows of Normandy, the group continued the fight.
On June 18, the 371st commenced armed reconnaissance missions inland against German ground forces, hammering much enemy equipment and many troops. This coincided with a strong American effort to seal off the base of the Cotentin peninsula and cut-off German forces within. After one particularly effective mission that day which ambushed an enemy convoy trying to leave Cherbourg by the last road left open, the Commanding General of the Ninth Air Force, Lt. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, commended the group’s performance: “…In the course of these operations the 371st Fighter Group killed from eight hundred to one thousand enemy troops, destroyed 98 motor vehicles and one flak tower. In addition, extensive damage was done to radar stations, gun emplacements, artillery batteries, railway equipment and barracks.”
With the ferocious German response to the Allied landings, the fighting in Normandy was heavy, at times savage, and the 371st experienced its share of pilots and planes lost in combat, with others wounded and damaged. Fourteen pilots were shot down by fighters or flak, or forced to bail out over enemy-held territory due to engine failure, their aircraft lost. Seven were killed, two were taken as prisoners of war, two evaded capture on land and returned to friendly lines, one was picked up by a British destroyer at sea and two, though initially captured, managed to effect escapes and evaded back to friendly-controlled territory.
On June 21, the fighters left England and deployed into ALG A-6 to continue operations on the continent – by the end of the month all remaining personnel were on their way to France. Now safely ensconced on liberated French soil, the group continued to generate airpower for the Normandy campaign. It was at A-6 that the group celebrated its first birthday on July 15 that year.
At a celebration that afternoon, group commander Col. Bingham T. Kleine announced that the group had become a “father,” as it temporarily “adopted” a grievously wounded French farm girl transferred to the group from a nearby Army field hospital that moving up near the front lines. Mme. Yvette Hamel was doted on by members of the group and her heartwarming story of survival and recovery is told in: “The French Farm Girl of the Flying Field: Yvette Hamel and the 371st Fighter Group,” at:
The campaign in Normandy continued on until the breakout from Normandy began on July 24, with Operation Cobra, with the 371st in the thick of the action. For its role in the Normandy campaign the 371st Fighter Group was awarded the second of its six campaign credits in World War II, by War Department General Orders 102, (Dated) 9 November 1945. After Normandy, over nine months of hard fighting remained before the war in Europe ended in Nazi defeat. And the 371st Fighter Group played an important role in achieving that outcome, earning credit for participation in four more military campaigns and being awarded the highest level of unit award, the Distinguished Unit Citation (Presidential Unit Citation today).
On this 75th anniversary of the landings in Normandy, we salute the personnel of the 371st Fighter Group, today’s 142nd Fighter Wing, and its attached units that generated 112 combat sorties to help make these landings successful and the thousands of sorties flown over the course of the campaign. Their efforts also prevailed in completing the campaign in an epic defeat of Nazi forces.
To learn more about the contributions of airpower in Normandy, see the National Museum of the Air Force D-Day 75th Anniversary webpage at: https://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Upcoming/Events/D-Day-75th-Anniversary/
For a great overview of the Normandy Campaign, see the US Army Center for Military History’s brochure online at: https://history.army.mil/brochures/normandy/nor-pam.htm