By Lt. Col. (ret.) Terrence Popravak, jr., 142nd Fighter Wing History Office
/ Published March 20, 2015
PORTLAND AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Ore. -- Among the many awards and decorations that are given in the U.S. Armed Forces, many are familiar with the Outstanding Unit Award. The Air Force OUA is "...awarded by the Secretary of the Air Force to numbered units that have distinguished themselves by exceptionally meritorious service or outstanding achievement that clearly sets the unit above and apart from similar units."
But there is another significant unit award with origins going back to time of the Bataan Campaign of World War II which is given to a unit for distinction in combat with the enemy. Called the Presidential Unit Citation in the Air Force since 1957, it was originally designated in WW II as the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC).
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."
For the 142nd Fighter Wing of the Oregon Air National Guard, which has received the USAF Outstanding Unit Award seven times over the years, the unit's lineage and honors also reflect the battle honors of the DUC. This was given during World War II when the 142nd was designated as the 371st Fighter Group, then a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter unit of Ninth Air Force that flew and fought in the European Theater of Operations, 1944-1945.
In March, 1945, as Allied armies in Germany pursued the remaining Nazi forces west of the Rhine River the 371st Fighter Group was based at Metz Airfield (Y-34), France, continuing its job in the XIX Tactical Air Command of Ninth Air Force supporting General George S. Patton, Jr.'s Third Army. The 371st Fighter Group's actions in support of Third Army from 15 to 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 the group was stationed at Fürth/Industriehafen Airfield (R-30), near Nürnberg (aka Nuremberg), Germany, as part of Allied occupation forces.
The citation for the 371st Fighter Group's DUC was contained in Headquarters Ninth Air Force General Orders No. 117 (27 June 1945), and War Department General Orders No. 84 (5 October 1945). It read 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 in this period as seen at the fighter squadron-level:
"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! ...all personnel went home tired but hopeful for the next day, and praying that the weather would hold."
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. Four P-47's were lost in action and 49 others were damaged in various degrees. 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, was hit by flak while strafing enemy vehicles near Hecken, Germany. His plane was observed going down at a 45 degree angle from 1,000 feet and it crashed and exploded in some woods. 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 Lt. Harold H. Spicer, 405FS, was strafing military road traffic a few miles south of Birkenfeld, Germany, encountered accurate small arms fire and was apparently hit. He was able to fly his aircraft back to 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 he was hit by anti-aircraft fire; his plane badly damaged, he was forced to bail out. As he floated 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 rescued by 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 escaped but was 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 evade 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, was conducting an identification pass on motor transport southwest of Bad Kreuznach, when his flight was taken under fire by 20mm and 37mm flak. He called out that he was hit, and soon another squadron member spotted a downed 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 him killed in action. 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 WW II.
On this 70th anniversary of the actions for which the 371st Fighter Group was awarded the DUC, the members of the 142nd Fighter Wing salute those who served in the unit during World War II. The group's actions in the culminating phase of the Rhineland Campaign contributed to the destruction of the Wehrmacht in the West. Their efforts helped set the conditions for Third Army's successful approach to and crossing of the Rhine River in March, 1945, to begin the final campaign to end the war in the European Theater of Operations. It is an accomplishment that every Redhawk can be proud of.