By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired), 142nd Fighter Wing History Office (Volunteer)
/ Published May 27, 2016
PORTLAND AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Ore. -- On Memorial Day we remember and honor the service and sacrifice of the men and women in the armed services who have died defending our country and citizens.
The Oregon Air National Guard remembers and commemorates the loss of unit members in defense of the nation. During World War II, Oregon's first military aviation unit, the 123rd Observation Squadron, lost 11 men, with another three yet missing, as well as a former member who died in Imperial Japanese captivity. These losses include four of the squadron's charter members, who were killed while in service with other units they transferred to well after the war began.
One of those charter members who fell in World War II was Thad Cobb Williams. A Portland resident, he enlisted in the spring of 1941 to help start the squadron, and attained the rank of Corporal by late 1941.
Later on during the war, Thad C. Williams volunteered and was accepted for pilot training; he subsequently earned his wings and a commission as an officer. He then went overseas in September, 1944, and joined the 410th Bombardment Group (Light), a Ninth Air Force unit operating the Douglas A-20 Havoc twin-engine light attack bomber in the European Theater of Operations, where he was assigned to the group's 646th Bomb Squadron (Light). That same month his new group moved from Gosfield Airfield in England to Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) A-58, Coulommiers Airfield, about 34 miles west of Paris.
Fellow charter member of the squadron Fred Parish of La Grande, Oregon, remembers him. "I well remember Thad Williams. While Thad and I were not close friends, I liked him. He had a flair for humor and an "air of confidence" that carried him along."
Williams participated in a number of combat missions (one former crewmember estimated about 25) in the next five months of the war in Europe. His period of service in the 646th Bomb Squadron (L) covered at least two military campaigns, including the Rhineland campaign (15 Sep 1944 to 21 Mar 1945) and Ardennes-Alsace (16 Dec 1944 to 25 Jan 1945).
His service likely included the five-day period during the epic Battle of the Bulge when the 410th Bomb Group (L) flew 411 A-20 sorties and dropped 1,768 500-lb bombs on Nazi forces during their last major offensive in the west. Some crews flew up to three missions a day in this "...all-out effort to stop (Field Marshal) von Rundstedt and his racing columns," and ground crews worked as hard as the fliers to facilitate this successful surge in combat operations.
For its outstanding combat performance from 23 to 25 December 1944 the group it earned a Distinguished Unit Citation (today's Presidential Unit Citation).
By March, 1945, the 410th Bomb Group (L) was based at Juvincourt Airfield (ALG A-68) in northern France. It was from Juvincourt that First Lieutenant Thad C. Williams flew his final combat sortie, details of which are contained in Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) 13167.
On Tuesday, 13 March 1945 he was flying Douglas A-20J-15 Havoc attack bomber, serial number 43-21740, on an afternoon combat mission against Nazi Germany. Just past the Initial Point and on the bomb run against Rhein-Main Airfield south of Frankfurt-am-Main at 1706 hours, his aircraft was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire north of Frankfurt. A burst of flak knocked out the right engine on the A-20. Williams had to feather the prop, get rid of the bomb load and fight to regain control of his damaged A-20.
Sgt. Beverly R. Ricketts was aboard another A-20 in the formation and saw what happened: "I was looking directly at the ship when it was hit. Smoke came pouring from the right engine and the ship went into a bank toward the engine that was hit. The ship slid under us and disappeared from, my sight. I kept trying to watch the ship, but as we were in a slight bank ourselves, I couldn't see very well. When we straightened out, I could see the ship below us and it looked as though the pilot had righted himself. That is the last I saw of the ship."
Regaining control of the stricken aircraft, Williams steered his damaged A-20 back west toward friendly territory, but it was a losing fight as the damaged aircraft rapidly lost altitude. They crossed back over the Rhine River and were around 20 miles southwest of the target area at about 2,000 feet altitude with mountains ahead when Lt. Williams ordered his two crew member gunners, Sgt. Kenneth N. Davis (Beaverdam, Virginia) and Sgt. Merlin L. Evans (Lebanon, Oregon), to bail out, which they did successfully; Evans jumped first, then Davis.
After landing a hundred yards apart in a wooded area the two non-commissioned officers spent a week walking westward through the mountains before they reached American lines. Sgt. Davis reported that he last observed Lt. Williams the day he bailed out, as he watched their aircraft heading west, level and apparently under control but heading towards some mountains. Sgt. Evans later stated that he didn't think the pilot had enough altitude to bail out and that he did not know if Williams was injured or not.
As things turned out, Lt. Williams was initially listed as Missing in Action, and when he did not turn up within a year afterward he was administratively reclassified as Killed in Action on 14 March 1946. But his remains were eventually discovered and recovered years after the war, in either 1948 or 1949, as reported in the Oregonian newspaper of August 4, 1949 as transcribed in the Find A Grave website entry for Thad C. Williams:
"Funeral services will be held at 11 a. m. Saturday at Riverview Cemetery Chapel for 1st Lt. Thad C. Williams, 9th air force bomber pilot who was killed in France March 13, 1945. Officiating will be Rev. F. M. Arnold and Rev. C. M. Cline, with the American Legion participating.
"Lieutenant Williams was born January 29, 1918, at Blissville, Ark. He was a member of Phi Lambda Epsilon fraternity and in 1941 was a charter member of the 123d observation squadron of Oregon National Guard. During the war, he was trained at Santa Ana and Stockton, Cal., and at eastern centers. In September, 1944, he went overseas."
It is ironic and perhaps bittersweet to consider how Thad C. Williams started out his military aviation career in 1941 with the 123rd Observation Squadron at Swan Island Airport and that his career of service and sacrifice returned him some eight years later to a place about eight miles upriver at the Riverview Cemetery at 8421 SW Macadam Ave in Portland.
Fred Parish is saddened by his fellow charter member's loss and remembers that Williams was "Really a great guy. He had great potential in my opinion. All of our men who died defending our country were exceptionally fine individuals - a very great loss to our nation."
On this Memorial Day 2016, we remember 1st Lt. Thad C. Williams, a 123rd Observation Squadron charter member who fell in battle. As the pilot and aircraft commander on that fatal day, he ensured his crewmembers survived the loss of their aircraft, even at the expense of his own life. We salute him, and all Oregon ANG-related personnel who have fallen in service to their community, state and nation. On Memorial Day let us honor these and all such men and women in uniform who gave everything they had for we American citizens to have our freedom.