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361st Fighter Group (USAAF)

361st Fighter Group (USAAF)

361st Fighter Group (USAAF)

History - Books - Aircraft - Time Line - Commanders - Main Bases - Component Units - Assigned To

History

The 361st Fighter Group (USAAF) provided fighter escorts for the Eighth Air Force's strategic bombing campaign and also carried out a number of ground attack missions.

The group was formed in the US in February 1943 and crossed the Atlantic to join the Eighth Air Force in November 1943. Its main role for the rest of the war was to provide fighter escorts for the Eighth's heavy bombers.

As with most of the Eighth Air Force's fighter units, the 361st also carried out a range of ground attack missions and fighter sweeps. It took part in the Big Week attack on the Luftwaffe (February 1944), supported the D-Day landings and the breakout from St Lo and Operation Market Garden (September 1944)

The group took part in the Battle of the Bulge. Bad weather limited the air involvement early in the battle, but it cleared at the end of the December. On 26 December the 361st carried out fighter sweeps and escorted medium bombers on a busy day for the tactical air forces.

In February 1945 the 361st and 352nd Fighter Groups became the first in the Eighth Air Force to move to the Continent, moving to Chievres in Belgium. VIII Fighter Command had moved to Charleroi in the previous month, but plans to move heavy bomber units were abandoned. The group returned to England in April 1945 and flew its last combat mission on 20 April 1945.

The group returned to the US in November 1945 and was inactivated on 10 November.

Books

Aircraft

January-May 1944: Republic P-47 Thunderbolt
May 1944 onwards: North American P-51 Mustang

Timeline

28 January 1943Constituted as 361st Fighter Group
10 February 1943Activated
November 1943To England and Eighth Air Force
21 January 1944Combat debut
20 April 1945Last combat mission
November 1945To United States
10 November 1945Inactivated

Commanders (with date of appointment)

Col Thomas J J ChristianJr: 10 Feb 1943
Col Ronald F Fallows:14 Aug 1944
Lt Col Roy B Caviness: 31Aug 1944
Lt Col Joseph J Kruzel: 20 Sep 1944
Lt Col Roy B Caviness: 3 Nov 1944
Col Junius W Dennison Jr: 2 Dec 1944
Lt Col Roy B Caviness: 15 Apr 1945
ColJohn D Landers: 29 Jun 1945-unkn.

Main Bases

Richmond AAB, Va: 10 Feb1943
Langley Field, Va: 26 May 1943
Millville AAFld, NJ: 20 Jul 1943
CampSprings AAFld, Md: 28 Aug 1943
RichmondAAB, Va: 20 Sep-11 Nov 1943
Bottisham,England: 30 Nov 1943
LittleWalden, England: 26 Sep 1944
Chievres,Belgium: 1 Feb-Apr 1945
Little Walden,England: 9 Apr-3 Nov 1945
Camp Kilmer,N J: 9-10 Nov 1945.

Component Units

374th Fighter Squadron: 1943-1945
375th Fighter Squadron: 1943-1945
376th Fighter Squadron: 1943-1945

Assigned To

July-September 1943: Philadelphia Fighter Wing; I Fighter Command; First Air Force
1943-1944: 66th Fighter Wing; VIII Fighter Command; Eighth Air Force
September 1944-: 67th Fighter Wing; 1st Air Division; Eighth Air Force
1944-1945: 65th Fighter Wing; 2nd Air Division; Eighth Air Force
23 Dec 1944-31 Jan 1945: Attached to 100th Fighter Wing; XIX Tactical Air Command
1945: 66th Fighter Wing; 3rd Air Division; Eighth Air Force
1945: 65th Fighter Wing; 2nd Air Division; Eighth Air Force


361st Fighter Group

The 361st Fighter Group was a World War II United States Army Air Forces combat organization. It served primarily in the European Theatre of World War II.

During World War II the group was an Eighth Air Force fighter unit stationed in England. Primarily assigned to RAF Little Walden in 1943. It claimed 226 air and 105 ground aircraft destroyed. It flew its last mission on 20 April 1945.

During the Cold War the unit was redesignated as the 127th Fighter Group, and allotted to the Michigan Air National Guard. Today, the 127th Wing is a part of the USA's national defense, being part of the United States Air Force Air Combat Command's First Air Force.


361st Fighter Group (USAAF) - History

Two P-51Ds done around 15 years ago. “Lou IV,” flown by group commander Thomas Christian, and “E2-S” flown by Urban Drew.

Both kits done with the True Details resin cockpit and Falcon vacuform canopies. “E2-S” has (if you look carefully at the photo) the early ‘tear drop” canopy, available in the Falcon “Mustang Special” set.

The 361st Fighter Group, comprising the 374th, 375th and 376th Fighter Squadrons, came into existence on February 10, 1943 at Richmond Army Air Base, Virginia. The unit was formed with trained personnel from the 327th Fighter Group, and new graduates of flight schools and technical schools. The Commanding Officer was Major Thomas J.J. Christian, Jr., great-grandson of the famous Civil War general “Stonewall” Jackson.

On May 1,1944, the 361st received 17 new P-51B Mustangs and began re-equipment from the P-47. The first all-Mustang mission was flown on May 13, and on May 19 the 361st flew their first escort mission to Berlin. On May 27, Maj. George L. Merritt, Jr., commanding the 375th Fighter Squadron, became the group’s first ace when he shot down a Fw-190 near Lille.

The 361st was in the thick of things with the invasion of Normandy in June, flying six strafing and dive-bombing missions on June 6 alone, during which 15 locomotives and an ammunition train were destroyed, as well a 23 trucks and armoured cars and two enemy aircraft on the ground. The group continued to fly ground attack missions throughout June and July during the Battle of Normandy, demonstrating real proficiency in dive-bombing, and also demonstrating the vulnerability of the Mustang, with it’s liquid-cooled engine, to ground fire as 10 pilots were killed or posted Missing in Action during that time. On June 29, the group scored 16 aircraft destroyed on a strafing mission to Oschersleben, Germany. On August 12, 1944, four dive-bombing and strafing missions were flown against rail transportation targets in France with the loss of Lts. John E. Engstrom and Merle C. Rainey of the 375th FS, Lt. Clarence E. Zieske of the 374th FS and the Group Commander, Col. Thomas J.J. Christian, Jr.

In September,1944, the group provided air cover for Operation Market Garden, the airborne assault on northern Holland that ended in the defeat of the British 6th Airborne Division and the likely extension of the war by 5-6 months as a result of the British failure.

Urban L. Drew joined the USAAF in October 1942 and graduated in Class 43-I, where he was assigned to the replacement base at Bartow, Florida to learn to fly the P-51 after completion of the course he remained as an instructor until receiving an assignment to the 375th Fighter Squadron, 361st Fighter Group in May 1944. While a junior pilot, Drew had more P-51 time than anyone else in the group, which had just transitioned to the P-51 that month, and he did quite a bit of instruction of pilots with more combat experience than he had. During his tour with the “Yellowjackets,” Drew flew 75 missions and rose to command first “A” Flight and later the 375th Squadron, during which time he scored 6 victories. His most notable combat came on October 7, 1944, when he shot down two Me-262s of Kommando Nowotny and became the first Allied pilot to shoot down the new jet fighter, and one of very few to shoot down two. Years later, he was awarded the Air Force Cross for this. He also sank the Bv-238 V1 prototype six-engine flying boat at Lake Schaal by strafing with the three other pilots of his flight. Following his ETO tour, Drew was assigned to the 413th Squadron, 414th Fighter Group, flying P-47N’s at Iwo Jima in 1945. After the war, he helped organize the 127th Fighter Group of the Michigan Air National Guard and later was appointed the first Air Adjutant General of the State of Michigan.


361st Fighter Group (USAAF) - History

Constituted as 361st Fighter Group on 28 Jan 1943. Activated on 10 Feb 1943. Joined Eighth AF in England in Nov 1943. Entered combat with P-47 aircraft on 21 Jan 1944 and converted to P-51's in May 1944. Operated from England during 1944 but sent a detachment to France for operations in the Battle of the Bulge (Dec 1944-Jan 1945), moved to Belgium in Feb 1945, and returned to England in Apr 1945. Served primarily as an escort organization, covering the penetration, attack, and withdrawal of bomber formations that the AAF sent against targets on the Continent. Also engaged in counter-air patrols, fighter sweeps, and strafing and dive-bombing missions. Attacked such targets as airdromes, marshalling yards, missile sites, industrial areas, ordnance depots, oil refineries, trains, and highways. During its operations, participated in the assault against the German Air Force and aircraft industry during Big Week, 20-25 Feb 1944 the Normandy invasion, Jun 1944 the St Lo breakthrough, Jul 1944 the airborne attack on Holland, Sep 1944 and the airborne assault across the Rhine, Mar 1945. Flew last combat mission on 20 Apr 1945. Returned to the US in Nov. Inactivated on 10 Nov 1945.

"1943 - The Americans Arrive

However, during the summer of 1943, the Air Ministry Works Directorate began work on enlarging and improving the facilities at Bottisham in preparation for the arrival of new tenants: the 361st Fighter Group, United States Eighth Air Force, comprising the 374th, 375th and 376th Fighter Squadrons, plus seven support units. Having arrived in the UK aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Group, Commanded by L/Col. Thomas J.J. Christian, Jr., was established in December 1943 as the last 8th Air Force fighter group to be equipped with the P-47 Thunderbolt and was tasked with providing escort to the Eighth’s daylight bombing offensive as well as conducting ground attack missions. On 3 January 1944, RAF Bottisham was officially handed over to the Americans and the base was renamed Army Air Force Station F-374. On the 21st, the Group flew its first combat mission and, a few days later, the main runway was widened using Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) to allow for formation take-offs.

During the first four months of 1944, the 361st gave a good account of itself against the Luftwaffe, despite the range limitations of the P-47 but, in May of that year, converted to the long-range P-51 Mustang. Successes continued during the summer, but not without losses which included one of the squadron commanders and the Group CO, who were both killed in action over France. In September, L/Col. Joseph J. Kruzel took command of the Group and the 376th Squadron took a heavy toll of enemy aircraft on the 27th. However, by the end of the month the Group had moved to Little Walden in Essex and Bottisham fell silent. In total, the 361st had flown 214 missions, claiming 148 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air and 86 on the ground, for the loss of 39 pilots."

Bottisham, England, 30 Nov 1943
Little Walden, England, 26 Sep 1944
Chievres, Belgium, 1 Feb-Apr 1945
Little Walden, England, 9 Apr-3 Nov 1945


Captain Donald J. Strait

By Stephen Sherman, Dec. 1999. Updated June 29, 2011.

H e scored 13.5 victories with the 361st FS, 356th Fighter Group, being the top ace of this group, achieving all but three of his kills in Mustangs, largely in the final months of the war.

He was born on April 28, 1918 and grew up in Verona, New Jersey . Strait had wanted fly since he was a youngster, and after a brief, uninteresting stint with Prudential Insurance Company, he enlisted in 1940 in the 119th Observation Squadron of the New Jersey National Guard. He started as an armorer and moved up to become an aerial gunner in the two-seater O-46 and O-47 observation planes. In early 1942, he qualified as an aviation cadet and started his training at Maxwell Field, Alabama. After moving up through Primary and Basic Training, he received his wings and his commission in the United States Army Air Force in January, 1943.

Receiving his first-choice assignment as a fighter pilot, he began flying the P-47 Thunderbolt at Westover Field, MA. Moving up to the dramatically more powerful Thunderbolt, and flying it out of the snowy New England conditions was a real challenge. After checking out in the P-47 and completing "transition training" he was assigned to the 356th Fighter Group, then at Bradley Field, CT.

On reporting to his CO, he mentioned his background in the NJ Air National Guard and his desire for extra duty in aircraft maintenance. He was duly appointed assistant engineering officer, and got the chance to undertake all aircraft flight tests. As typical of American Fighter Groups, the 356th pilots underwent further, more advanced training in the P-47s before leaving the United States for England in August, 1943. By this time, Strait had been promoted to Captain .

When they arrived at their first base at Goxhill Aerodrome outside London, they were surprised not to find their airplanes waiting for them. Before leaving the States, they had understood that they would receive their new planes directly at Goxhill, and all the pilots had loaded the planes with all sorts of goodies: whiskey, spare parts, music records, etc. When their finally picked up their aircraft from the Eighth Air Force depot at Burtonwood, all the "goodies" had disappeared. They soon moved up to their operational base at Martlesham Heath, Suffolk, just five miles from the North Sea, which made it relatively easy to find when returning from a mission in bad weather.

The 356th made its first combat sorties in October, 1943, with sweeps over Holland and northern France sightings of Luftwaffe planes were quite rare, and the group took over a month to score its first aerial victory. Strait's first combat occurred on February 6, 1944, when his flight bounced a pair of FW-190s while on an escort mission. He immediately attacked. The 190s split apart and he chased one down to the deck. He scored hits on it and the pilot bailed out - Strait's first kill. But he and his wingman had used too much fuel, and barely made it back to base. He shot down a couple more Bf-109s while flying Thunderbolts, on February 10 and May 19. Having completed well over 200 combat hours, he was entitled to rotate home, but agreed to continue front-line flying, provided that he was given command of the 361st Fighter Squadron. He took a 30-day leave and returned to Europe in September, 1944. He and Captain George May, the intelligence officer, reviewed daily sightings and disposition of the Luftwaffe, which helped him plan and lead the squadron's missions.

The group flew their first Mustang mission on November 20, the same day that Strait assumed command of the 361st FS.

He led the squadron again on November 26, 1944, when it flew an escort mission over the heavily defended Ruhr. After linking up with the B-17s just east of Holland, the pilots were advised of 40 bandits approaching from the south. As Strait's sixteen Mustangs arrived in the Osnabruck area, they spotted the 40 Bf-109s at 25,000 feet. They dropped tanks and attacked. Then Strait spotted about another 150 German fighters at various altitudes, preparing to attack the bombers.

"We've got the whole damn Luftwaffe!" he radioed. He closed to within 350 yards of an enemy airplane and fired it dived away smoking. Strait's wingman saw it crash. Strait soon bounced another 109, but it eluded him. He spotted a third and closed to within 300 yards, and exploded it (a shared kill with Lt. Shelby Jett ). After this dogfighting, fuel began to be a concern, so they headed home. That day the 356th FG destroyed 23 enemy aircraft without losing a single American.

After two more victories on December 5, Strait found more air combat on Christmas Day. In action again against Bf-109s, he had a nasty moment when his first victim left oil and engine coolant all over his windscreen. Skidding away, Strait almost rammed his foe. He continued shooting down German planes in 1945: an Fw-190 on Jan. 14, another Fw-190 on Feb 14, and three Fieseler Storch light observation planes on Feb 20. His 13.5 aerial victories led the 356th Fighter Group.

After the war he rejoined the NJ Air National Guard , and served on active duty during the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam. He retired from the Air Force in 1978 with the rank of Major General , and was inducted into the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame in 1989.

  • Eric Hammel, Aces in Combat: The American Aces Speak, Vol 5, Pacifica Press, 1998
  • Jerry Scutts, Mustang Aces of the Eighth Air Force, Osprey Publishing, 1994

Another great collection of American fighter pilots' stories, 39 altogether including WWII and Korea. Don Strait's story is here, as are ETO aces Ben Drew and Henry Brown. You can read about the role of fighters over Torpedo 8 at Midway. For comic relief, check out Jack Ilfrey's story of his Portugal detour.


361st Fighter Group

Constituted as 361st Fighter Group on 28 Jan 1943. Activated on 10 Feb 1943. Joined Eighth AF in England in Nov 1943. Entered combat with P-47 aircraft on 21 Jan 1944 and converted to P-51's in May 1944. Operated from England during 1944 but sent a detachment to France for operations in the Battle of the Bulge (Dec 1944-Jan 1945), moved to Belgium in Feb 1945, and returned to England in Apr 1945. Served primarily as an escort organization, covering the penetration, attack, and withdrawal of bomber formations that the AAF sent against targets on the Continent. Also engaged in counter-air patrols, fighter sweeps, and strafing and dive-bombing missions. Attacked such targets as airdromes, marshalling yards, missile sites, industrial areas, ordnance depots, oil refineries, trains, and highways. During its operations, participated in the assault against the German Air Force and aircraft industry during Big Week, 20-25 Feb 1944 the Normandy invasion, Jun 1944 the St Lo breakthrough, Jul 1944 the airborne attack on Holland, Sep 1944 and the airborne assault across the Rhine, Mar 1945. Flew last combat mission on 20 Apr 1945. Returned to the US in Nov. Inactivated on 10 Nov 1945.

Redesignated 127th Fighter Group. Allotted to ANG (Mich) on 24 May 1946. Extended federal recognition on 29 Sep 1946. Ordered into active service on 1 Feb 1951. Assigned to Air Training Command. Redesignated 127th Pilot Training Group in Mar 1951. Used F-51, F-80, and F-84 aircraft while serving as a training organization. Relieved from active duty and returned to ANG (Mich), on 1 Nov 1952. Redesignated 127th Fighter-Bomber Group.

Squadrons. 107th: 1951-1952. 197th: 1951-1952. 374th (later 171st): 1943-1945 1951-1952. 375th: 1943-1945. 376th: 1943-1945.

Stations. Richmond AAB, Va, 10 Feb 1943 Langley Field, Va, 26 May 1943 Millville AAFld, NJ, 20 Jul 1943 Camp Springs AAFd, Md, 28 Aug 1943 Richmond AAB, Va, 20 Sep-11 Nov 1943 Bottisham, England, 30 Nov 1943 Little Walden, England, 26 Sep 1944 Chievres, Belgium, 1 Feb-Apr 1945 Little Walden, England, 9 Apr-3 Nov 1945 Camp Kilmer, NJ, 9-10 Nov 1945. Detroit-Wayne Major Aprt, Mich, 1 Feb 1951 Luke AFB, Ariz, 23 Feb 1951-1 Nov 1952.

Commanders. Col Thomas J J Christian Jr, 10 Feb 1943 Col Ronald F Fallows, 14 Aug 1944 Lt Col Roy B Caviness, 31 Aug 1944 Lt Col Joseph J Kruzel, 20 Sep 1944 Lt Col Roy B Caviness, 3 Nov 1944 Col Junius W Dennison Jr, 2 Dec 1944 Lt Col Roy B Caviness, 15 Apr 1945 Col John D Landers, 29 Jun 1945-unkn. Col David T McKnight, 1951 Col Maurice L Martin, 6 Aug 1951-unkn.

Campaigns. Air Offensive, Europe Normandy Northern France Rhineland Ardennes-Alsace Central Europe.

Insigne. Shield: Gules (scarlet) a bendlet divided per bend into five equal parts, the center azure, and the outer two or, and of the first (dark red), between in chief three fleur-de-lis in pale, of the third, and in base a giant (Saguaro) cactus footed to the sinister by an apple blossom stemmed both proper. Motto: Parati Stamus - We Stand Ready. (Approved 30 Jul 1954.)

Data from Air Force Combat Units of World War II By Maurer, Maurer, Published 1986


The “Big Beautiful Doll” Story

As previously reported, on February 5th 2016 P-51D Mustang N351BD crashed in Arizona with the tragic loss of both souls on board. This particular aircraft was painted as “Big Beautiful Doll.” It the name used by Colonel John D. Landers on his aircraft during World War 2. I thought that it would be a fitting tribute to N351BD, its owner Jeffrey Pino, and passenger Nicholas Tramontano to look at the background of the name and the man behind it.

John D. Landers was born on 23rd June 1920 in Carter County, Oklahoma. By 1938 he had relocated to Johnson County, Texas and employed by the Lone Star Gas Company. With World War II in full swing, he enlisted in the USAAF in April of 1941 and completed his flying training at Stockton Field Aviation Cadet Flight School in California.

By January 1942, Second Lieutenant Landers was posted to the 9th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Group in Australasia, flying the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. This, he had painted as “Texas Longhorn” depicting a snorting Longhorn with bloodied horns in front of a yellow star. With only 10 hours under his belt he embarked on his first combat missions over the Pacific.

Major John D Landers in his P-51D cockpit (Courtesy of station131.co.uk)

It was on his second sortie that he would get his firs kill as his flight of 12 aircraft were dispatched to intercept an enemy flight near Darwin, Australia. Soon into the flight, his P-40 began to experience engine problems and Lt. Landers began to fall behind his formation. He spotted a flight of seven Japanese bombers with fighter escort 2000 feet below him and decided to dive in on them. With one of the bombers in the cross hairs he pulled the trigger on the Warhawk’s .50-Caliber machine guns and claimed his first victory. With his aircraft damaged by the escorting Zero fighters he managed to catch up with his flight to claim his second bomber of the engagement.

With 6 kills to his credit and now an “Ace,” Landers was shot down over Papua New Guinea, but managed to escape from the jungle with help from some of the local population. He was returned to the US in January of 1943 and assigned a training role, but he missed combat. So he applied for an active duty posting and, after completing Lockheed P-38 Lightning conversion training, was assigned to the 38th Fighter Squadron, 55th Fighter Group at RAF Wormingford in the UK in April of 1944.

Landers continued to clock up victories against Focke-Wulf Fw190 and Messerschmitt Me410 fast bombers over France and Germany, first in the P-38 and then (after the 55th FG converted in July 1944) the P-51D Mustang. Promoted from Captain to Major he took command of the 38th FS and it is around this point that he began to adorn his aircraft with the “Big Beautiful Doll” nose art. During this time he was involved in what is regarded as the longest fighter escort mission. His flight accompanied heavy bombers on a 1,600-mile sortie over Poland and spent approximately 7 hours in flight.

Ground personnel of the 78th Fighter Group check P-51D Mustang (WZ-I, serial number 44-72218) “Big Beautiful Doll” , flown by Colonel J.D. Lander, before a mission (Courtesy of amerianairmuseum.com)

Newly promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Landers was temporarily assigned as commanding officer of the 357th Fighter Group between October and December of 1944 at RAF Leiston in the East of England. In February 1945, Colonel Landers took command of the 78th Fighter Group at RAF Duxford, England, where he remained until June of 1945. From July 1945 until the war’s end, he stood in command of the 361st Fighter Group and had accumulated many awards: the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart and French Croix de Guerre, to name a few. He passed away on 12 September 1989.

Read Next: "Big Beautiful Doll" Crashes In Arizona Two Dead

“No, I don’t carry any kind of luck charm,” Lieutenant Colonel Landers once said. “I don’t know where my luck in finding enemy planes comes from. Some of the other group commanders claim that if they dropped me into a barrel of lard, I’d bump into a Nazi plane.”

Colonel John Landers with “Big Beautiful Doll” whilst with 357th Fighter Group (Courtesy of cebudanderson.com)

Although he flew many airframes in his career, one of the most widely depicted of his aircraft is North American P-51D Mustang 44-72218. With the black and white checkerboard markings of the 78th Fighter Group proudly emblazoned on its nose, the all black rudder of the 84th Fighter Squadron and red highlighting around the squadron codes WZ-I, “Big Beautiful Doll” was a fine and no doubt a comforting sight to the bomber crews risking their lives over the skies of Europe.

In a practice originating from within the 78th FG, the checker pattern was repeated on the wingtips and towards the end of the war it was common for 84th FS pilots to paint their canopy frames red. On the left hand side of the fuselage is the kill tally for Colonel Landers. In total there are 36.5, of which 6 are Japanese aircraft, 14.5 are aerial and the remainder are ground victories. The half kill is for a shared downing of a Messerschmitt Me 262 on 30 March 1945.

P-51D Mustang D-FBBD at Duxford in 2011 (Courtesy of Wikimedia commons)

At least three restored P-51D Mustangs have been painted to represent “Big Beautiful Doll.” The first is serial number A68-192 which was initially delivered to the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1950 and flew until 1955, when it became an instructional airframe. Promoted to gate guard in 1960, the aircraft then made its way across the atlantic to become a static display piece for the Imperial War Museum in the UK as Colonel Landers aircraft.

The next aircraft to adopt the scheme is serial number 44-63634, which was originally built under licence by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in Australia in 1951. It was then delivered to the Australian Air Force where it remained in service until 1958, when it was sold to a private owner. In 1973 the aircraft crashed in the Philippines and was sold to legendary warbird pilot Ray Hanna in Hong Kong who restored it and flew it over to the UK. This particular aircraft becoame somewhat of a celebrity with appearances in the movies Empire of the Sun, Memphis Belle, Saving Private Ryan, and Red Tails. In 2001 it adopted the “Big Beautiful Doll” paint scheme and was an airshow favorite until, in 2011 and now registered as D-FBBD, it was lost in a mid-air collision with a Douglas A-1 Skyraider at the Duxford based Flying Legends airshow.

The third of these airframes is P-51D 44-63634, which was accepted by the USAAF on 29 November 1944. In 1963, it was sold and put on the US register as N6149U and seemed to go through several transformations. In 1968, it was heavily damaged in a wheels up landing at Springfield, Illinois and then re-appeared in 1992, completely restored and in the hands of renowned display pilot Ed Shipley as “Big Beautiful Doll.” In May 2014 ownership transferred to Jeffrey Pino under the registration N351BD. Then in October of that year the aircraft developed a fault with the landing gear, forcing Jeffrey to make a text book gear up landing for which he was applauded.

Jeffrey Pino with his P-51D (Courtesy of airnation.net)

Sadly, on 5th February this year, both “Big Beautiful Doll” and its owner departed into the Arizona skies on their last flight. Time will tell what caused this tragic accident but I for one, as an avid warbird enthusiast, am grateful that people like Jeffrey Pino and Nicholas Tramontano are willing to put their time, money and lives into keeping the memory of these wonderful aircraft and the people that served with them alive.


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The 4th Fighter Group Assigned to Shuttle Bombing Mission

At the time of Irwin’s visit to Debden, the 4th Fighter Group was preparing for a special mission of great secrecy and prestige. Just before D-Day, the Italian-based 15th Air Force had sent a force of B-17s with P-51 escort to bomb targets in Eastern Europe and then on to the Soviet Union where they landed at specially prepared bases. Known as shuttle bombing, these missions not only gave American heavy bombers the chance to hit targets normally beyond their range by eliminating the return trip, but also provided tremendous propaganda value and bolstered cooperation with the Soviets.

At the end of June, the Eighth Air Force was poised to duplicate the 15th’s shuttle feat by sending B-17s with escort from England against targets near Berlin and then on to the Ukraine non-stop. Accompanying the bombers would be the red-nosed Mustangs of the 4th along with one squadron from the 352nd Fighter Group. Hofer had been grounded for the mission by the 4th’s Commander, Colonel Don Blakeslee, for refusing to be vaccinated in preparation for the upcoming shuttle. Even worse, Blakeslee denied Hofer access to the bar at Debden’s officer’s club. In the end, Hofer relented and took his shots Blakeslee relented and cleared him for the mission. At that point the last great adventure of Ralph K. Hofer was set in motion.

A plane from the 4th Fighter Group attacks a German airdrome near Leipzig in February 1945.

On June 21, 1944, over 1,100 heavy bombers with nearly the same number of escorting fighters rose from bases throughout England bound for targets in Berlin and eastern Germany. Of these, the shuttle force consisted of 144 B-17s escorted by the 68 P-51s of the 4th and 352nd Groups. Colonel Blakeslee led the shuttle escort up from Debden at 0728 hours then initiated an easterly climb for high-altitude rendezvous with the bombers. He had briefed his pilots on the importance of avoiding combat with German fighters if at all possible, since anyone forced to jettison his drop tanks before passing Berlin would be unable to complete the nearly 1,500 mile trip to the Ukraine. This mission, he told them, was strictly for show, and he expected all 68 Mustangs to land en masse at Piryatin some seven and one half-hours after takeoff. Additionally, he cautioned them about Soviet sensitivity to having the Americans in their home airspace and warned that stragglers deviating from the briefed flight plan were likely to be attacked by Red fighters.


Contents

Lineage

Assignments

    , 10 Feb 1943 , 28 Aug 1943
    , 30 Nov 1943 , 12 Dec 1943 , 11 Mar 1944 , 8 Aug 1944
    , 1 Feb 1945 , 10 Apr 1945
  • Army Service Forces, 3 Nov-10 Nov 1945

Operational Units

  • 374th Fighter Squadron (B7) 10 Feb 1943-24 Oct 1945
  • 375th Fighter Squadron (E2) 10 Feb 1943-24 Oct 1945
  • 376th Fighter Squadron (E9) 10 Feb 1943-24 Oct 1945

Aircraft Flown

Stations assigned

    , Virginia, February 10 – May 26, 1943 , Virginia, May 26 – July 20, 1943 , New Jersey, July 20 – August 28, 1943 , Maryland August 28 – September 20, 1943 , Virginia, September 20 – November 11, 1943
    (USAAF Station 374), England, November 30, 1943 (USAAF Station 165), England, September 26, 1944 , Belgium February 1 – April 1945 (USAAF Station 165), England, April 9 – November 3, 1945 , New Jersey, November 9–10, 1945

Operational history

World War II

Constituted as 361st Fighter Group on January 28, 1943. Activated on February 10, 1943. Joined Eighth AF at RAF Bottisham, England in November 1943. The group was under the command of the 65th Fighter Wing of the VIII Fighter Command. Aircraft of the group were identified by yellow around their cowlings and tails.

The 361st FG entered combat with P-47 aircraft on January 21, 1944 and converted to P-51's in May 1944. The unit served primarily as an escort organization, covering the penetration, attack, and withdrawal of B-17/B-24 bomber formations that the USAAF sent against targets on the Continent.

The group also engaged in counter-air patrols, fighter sweeps, and strafing and dive-bombing missions. Attacked such targets as airdromes, marshalling yards, missile sites, industrial areas, ordnance depots, oil refineries, trains, and highways. During its operations, the unit participated in the assault against the German Air Force and aircraft industry during the Big Week, February 20–25, 1944, and the attack on transportation facilities prior to the Normandy invasion and support of the invasion forces thereafter, including the Saint-Lô breakthrough in July.

The weight of the heavy P-47 fighters soon began to tell on the wet surface making take-offs tricky. A team of American engineers were called in during January 1944 and, in three days, they constructed a 1,470-yard-long runway with pierced-steel planking. This feat was considered a record for laying this type of prefabricated surfacing. The runway, which was aligned NE-SW, became the main at Bottisham the other also being constructed of PSP.

In September 1944 the 361st FG moved to RAF Little Walden. At Little Walden, the 361st served primarily as a B-17/B-24 escort organization, covering the penetration, attack, and withdrawal of bomber formations that the USAAF sent against targets on the Continent. The group also engaged in counter-air patrols, fighter sweeps, and strafing and dive-bombing missions. Attacked such targets as airfields, marshalling yards, missile sites, industrial areas, ordnance depots, oil refineries, trains, and highways.

The group supported the airborne attack on Holland in September 1944 and deployed to Chievres Airdrome, (ALG A-84), Belgium between February and April 1945 flying tactical ground support missions during the airborne assault across the Rhine.

The unit returned to Little Walden and flew its last combat mission on April 20, 1945.

On November 10 the 361st Fighter Group returned to Camp Kilmer New Jersey and was deactivated.

Cold War

During the Cold War the unit was redesignated as the 127th Fighter Group, and allocated to the Michigan Air National Guard on May 24, 1946.

The group was ordered into active service on February 1, 1951 as a result of the Korean War and assigned to Air Training Command. In March 1951 it was redesignated as the 127th Pilot Training Group, being assigned F-51 Mustangs, F-80 Shooting Stars and F-84 Thunderjets while serving as a training organization.

The 127th was relieved from active duty in November 1952 and redesignated the 127th Fighter Group.


Watch the video: 375th Fighter Squadron, 361st Fighter Group Coop Campaign (December 2021).