Courtesy of Mr. Robert Bourlier
HISTORY OF THE 118TH
TACTICAL RECONNAISSANCE SQUADRON
WORLD WAR II, 1941-45
Charles L. McMillin
Lt Col, USAF (Retired)
118th TRS, 1943-44
History relates that in 1662 a royal charter was issued by Charles II that among other things resulted in the union of the Hartford and New Haven colonies, a forward step in the formation of the Connecticut colony. In 1687 Sir Edmund Andros, British administrator of the New England colonies, visited Hartford and attempted to execute "quo warranto" proceedings against the royal charter. Tradition explains that in the course of a discussion at night over surrender of the charter, the candles were extinguished and the charter itself (which had been brought to the meeting) was removed from the table and spirited away where it was hidden in a large oak tree, afterwards known as the "Charter Oak." Thus, history and tradition were combined many years later to produce the insignia of the 118th Observation Squadron that was approved by the War Department in 1928. In 1953 the USAF authorized the addition of a fleur-de-lis to the insignia presumably to commemorate the squadron's service in France during World War I. This emblem in its basic and slightly modified form has been used by the 118th in all its various tactical designations for over 64 years. The insignia represents a colonial secretary running with the royal charter of 1662 to hide it in the oak tree. At the top of the emblem are the letters "F.E.A." printed in international code which stands for the Latin words which means in English: Faithful and Alert - the squadron motto.
CHAPTER I - THE EARLY YEARSThe history of the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron dates back to August 1917, when the unit was activated as the 118th Aero Squadron at Kelly Field, Texas. After little more than basic individual and unit training at Kelly, the squadron departed by train for the East Coast enroute to France. After a brief stopover at Garden City, Long Island, New York, they sailed for Europe on the 13th of January 1918, arriving at St. Maixent, France on the 29th of that month. The squadron, re-designated the 639th Aero Service Squadron in France, was credited with honorable service from January to November, 1918, but as a construction and support unit, it saw no real combat action. The Fleur-de-lis on the post World War II squadron insignia reflects that service in France. The war ended in November, but the 639th remained in France until May of 1919 when it returned to the United States and was demobilized at Mitchell Field, New York, on the 6th of June 1919. Shortly thereafter, the squadron's place in history was perpetuated when it was reactivated as the 118th Observation Squadron and assigned to the National Guard Bureau.1 As a National Guard unit the squadron became a part of the 43rd Division, at that time made up of National Guard Troops from Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont. Since there were no airfields in Connecticut capable of handling military type aircraft, the 118th was initially assigned to the Rhode Island National Guard for duty. However, after the opening of Brainard Field in Hartford in October 1922, efforts were immediately launched to secure the Air Service unit of the 43rd Division for the State of Connecticut. Rhode Island, apparently without a great deal of argument, soon relinquished its claim and the squadron was reassigned to Connecticut as the 118th Observation Squadron, Connecticut National Guard. The first Commanding Officer of the new squadron was Major Talbot 0. Freeman - a Bostonian and a Harvard man who had served with the Air Service in the AEF in France. Although not a native of Connecticut, he had lived in the state prior to the war and was apparently well known there, thus his appointment to the rank of Major in the Air Service of the Connecticut National Guard in July 1923, and his assignment to duty as Recruiting Officer for the 118th Observation Squadron. The assignment order also designated him to be the Commanding Officer of the squadron when it was officially organized.3 Major Freeman's recruiting efforts seem to have paid off very handsomely. When the squadron was officially organized on November 1, 1923, there were some 66 officers and enlisted men officially on board (Appendix I), including Harry W. Generous and one Anthony E. (Red) Mazotas, one of three brothers who later gave long and distinguished service to the Connecticut National Guard. Red Mazotas was to eventually serve 41 years with the 118th Squadron, including service in India and China during World War II, before his retirement in 1964 as a Chief Master Sergeant, Connecticut Air National Guard. Harry Generous had served as a Staff Sergeant in the Cavalry of the Connecticut National Guard, but accepted an appointment as a Sergeant in the 118th Squadron when the unit was organized, and remained there until he was accepted for Air Corps pilot training.4 After graduation from flying school he returned to the 118th and by 1930 had been promoted to Captain and had become a flight commander in the squadron. Captain Generous was destined to be the 118th's first WW II wartime Commanding Officer, and would ultimately rise to the rank of Colonel before his retirement from the United States Air Force in 1955.5 During the 1920's and 30's, the 118th "grew and prospered" but since this history deals primarily with the 118th in World War II, it is not necessary to go into that period in detail here.7 It is probably sufficient to say that the 118th in those days developed the organizational strength, leadership abilities and technical expertise that enabled it to provide key personnel and cadres for the rapidly expanding Army Air Corps of the 1940's as well as providing the enlisted nucleus of the organization that made possible the outstanding combat record in China in WW II. People like Charlie Bagdigian, Bob Begley, Leo Biernat, Earl Davison, Joe Galiette, Red Mazotas, John Suhie and others who became the ranking NCOs in the squadron in China were outstanding examples of the kind of individuals the 118th was able to recruit and train in the pre-war years. The 118th entered the 1940's with war in Europe already a reality and eventual U.S. involvement becoming more and more likely. The 118th was preparing to meet that eventuality. In 1940 the squadron was detached from the 43rd Division to become a part of I Army Corps, Aviation. Simultaneously, plans were being drawn up "for the entire unit to move to Jacksonville, Florida for intensive training over a period of an entire year". The squadron was called into active service on February 24, 1941, and on March 15, 1941, the first 118th aircraft departed for Jacksonville, Florida. The ground element of the squadron departed by train several days earlier and reached Jacksonville in time to meet the aircraft as they arrived. The total unit strength at the time of the move to Jacksonville, including the officers and enlisted men who accompanied the aircraft, was about 20 officers and 146 enlisted men; 24 of whom were to remain with the squadron until the end of the war (Appendix II). The Squadron Commander was Major Harry W. Generous, later Commanding Officer of the 66th Observation Group to which the 118th was at that time newly assigned. The year 1941 was a year of transition for the 118th. It saw many of the old hands depart for new assignments as the demand for experienced people to staff and lead the new Air Corps units, then being organized, continued to grow. It began to receive more new officers, many of them fresh out of Air Corps Flying Schools. One of them, Lt. Robert W. Wierman, was later to become the squadron's much-respected CO during the period in which it was adjusting to its role as a "fighter reconnaissance" squadron. By mid 1941, the squadron was also beginning to show many new faces in the enlisted ranks as more and more of the old guardsmen departed. Many of the new arrivals were selective service enlistees, including a group from Connecticut that, although they had not been members of the old National Guard outfit, helped to continue the decidedly "Yankee" influence in the enlisted ranks of the 118th. Members of this early group of replacements who, as NCOs, were to remain with the squadron until the end of the war included Privates Ed Straska, Carl Johnson, Paris Pucilli, Rueben Ladd and Joe Ostrowski.9 In any event, by the end of September 1941, although the squadron strength remained about the same as when the unit was called up eight months earlier (The Air Force Archives show the squadron strength on September 30. 1941, as 23 officers and 151 enlisted men10 many, if not most, of the original members of the 118th had now departed. As the year progressed the pace of squadron activities also picked up. Individuals came and went as many of the squadron's enlisted men found themselves attending various Air Corps and Army schools to sharpen their technical skills and specialties. Others found themselves more often off on maneuvers in such unlikely places as Fort Benning, Georgia; Camp Beauregard, Louisiana; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Laurens, South Carolina.11 The 118th, like most other observation squadrons was diligently preparing itself for a mission that had not changed substantially in nearly 20 years. The role of Observation Aviation during most of the 20's and 30's was to give close support to Army Reconnaissance activities at Division level; thus the original assignment of the 118th to the 43rd Division. In fact, AFM-1 in the mid 1930's described the mission of Observation Aviation in combat as "to reconnoiter and observe, in accordance with reconnaissance regulations within the reconnaissance zone of the unit to which it is assigned or attached; observe and adjust fire for the field artillery; support front line units by observing and reporting enemy assemblies which constitute an immediate threat, by locating front lines and by maintaining contact between units; and performs such missions within its capabilities as may be ordered by the Commander. Reconnaissance Aviation carries out long range reconnaissance". Pursuit (fighter) units were regarded as primarily concerned with air-to-air combat, including defense against enemy air attack, while attack and light-bomber units were considered responsible for close support of ground forces and interdiction of the battlefield. All these missions, plus those assigned to Observation Aviation, were for the most part based on the experience of the war in France in 1917 and 1918. All were tasks later undertaken by the 118th Squadron as part of the 23rd Fighter Group, 14th Air Force, in China - tasks foreign to the prevailing concept of Observation or Reconnaissance Aviation in the 1930's. This concept of operations for observation units carried forward with little noticeable change into the early 1940's as the 118th found it self firmly committed to training with Army Ground Forces during the Louisiana, Carolina and Tennessee maneuvers of 1941 and 1942. Again, the function of Observation Aviation in those maneuvers bore little resemblance to the mission the 118th would be asked to accomplish in China. However, the mission was to change drastically after Pearl Harbor when many observation units were given a new task that they had in no way anticipated or prepared for in the 1930's. Observation units had in fact remained assigned to Army Ground Forces until mid-summer, 1941, when the War Department authorized the organization of five "Air Support Commands"; one Air Support Command to be assigned to each of the four domestic Air Forces and one to the Air Forces Combat Command.13 The five Air Support Commands were to include all light bomb units, all observation units, tow target squadrons, special photo squadrons, observation balloon squadrons (practically unheard since the war in the trenches in WW I), and special units to handle parachute troops, airborne troops and glider borne troops.14 Simultaneously with the establishment of the new commands, the then existing eleven regular and National Guard Observation Groups were officially allocated and assigned to them. The 66th Observation Group, to which the 118th was now assigned, became a part of the 3rd Air Support Command, 3rd Air Force. The 1st Air Support Command, of which there will be more to say later, was assigned to the 1st Air Force and established at Mitchell Field, Long Island, New York. However, the mission of Observation Aviation remained basically unchanged until January 1942, when most units, including the 118th, were diverted to Anti-Submarine patrol operations.
CHAPTER II - CHANGING ROLES AND MISSIONSDecember 1941, found the 118th back at Jacksonville after a month of maneuver duty at Laurens, South Carolina. Although relations between the United States and Japan had become increasingly strained during the past weeks, there was little thought of immediate hostile action, and most people were looking forward to a period of peaceful relaxation during the holidays. The 118th was no exception. Sunday, December 7, 1941, was expected to be a time for rest and recreation. For some at least, it started out that way. Bob Wierman and several other squadron officers, along with a number of enlisted men, left early Sunday morning for a day of deep-sea fishing off Jacksonville Beach. Not until they came ashore late Sunday evening did they learn what everyone else had known since early afternoon. The "Japs" had attacked Pearl Harbor1! It would be more than two years before the 118th had an opportunity to move directly against the Japanese, but there was no doubt that we were at war. In the hectic days following December 7th, all was confusion. No one knew what to expect. Following President Roosevelt and the Congress' declaration of a State of War with the Empire of Japan, and the subsequent declarations of war by Germany and Italy, the threat of enemy attack was very real. The 118th, like all other military units and installations went on full 24 hour alert; civilian clothes were "no longer authorized for wear by military personnel", and rumors and reports of saboteurs and possible sabotage were everywhere. German submarines now openly attacked shipping in American waters, sometimes within sight of land along the Florida and Georgia coast, and the 118th prepared for its first wartime mission. In early January, 1942, the 66th Group, including the 118th was relieved from its assignment to the 3rd Air Support Command and assigned to the newly created Eastern Theater of Operations whose primary responsibility was the organization of anti-submarine operations along the East Coast.2 As part of that organization, the 118th moved to Charleston, South Carolina, and began anti-sub patrol operations on January 22nd. The other squadrons of the 66th Group, the 97th and 106th, were assigned to Miami and Jacksonville respectively. In March, the newly created 19th Observation Squadron joined the 106th at Jacksonville, giving the 66th its full squadron complement and a basic organization that was to continue until August 1943. The 118th began anti-sub operations equipped with already obsolete 0-46 and obsolescent 0-47 aircraft. Neither were designed for offensive operations, and certainly not for over water reconnaissance that took them as much as fifty miles offshore for extended periods of time. The 0-46 was a single engine, two place, parasol wing type mono plane whose basic design was laid down in the very early 1930's. The parasol wing design afforded both the pilot and observer an excellent downward view (after all the aircraft had been designed for close visual and photo reconnaissance of the battlefield), but combined with an extremely long nose and radial engine cowling it made the pilot's forward visibility, by modern standards, absolutely terrible.
The 0-46's offensive armament normally consisted of a single .30 caliber Browning machine gun mounted in the right wing just outboard of the propeller arc. Defensive armament consisted of a second .30 caliber gun on a flexible mount aft of the observer's position. With the addition of an A-3 bomb rack underneath the fuselage it was possible for the 0-46 to carry a pair of 100- pound general-purpose bombs if the situation demanded it. But, even with the addition of the bombs, the 0-46 hardly posed a serious threat to German U-boats roaming the waters of the Atlantic off the East Coast of the United States. Just to complicate matters, the A-3 installation provided less than a foot of clearance between bombs and runway, which made returning to base with unexpended ordnance a potentially exciting proposition. Thus, as a practical matter, most 0-46 missions were flown without bombs (unless there was a known target in the area), and most squadrons, including the 118th, came to depend more and more on the 0-47 to fulfill the squadron mission.
The 0-47, for its day and time, was an excellent airplane. A big, single engine, three place, mid-wing monoplane, built by North American Aviation, it was one of the largest, if not the largest, single-engine aircraft in the Air Corps inventory when it was developed in the mid 1930's. In addition to the pilot and observer, it was designed to carry a gunner to handle the flexible .30 caliber machine gun in the rear cockpit. Fully loaded it had a gross weight of nearly four tons - still a good-sized machine, even by today's standards. Unlike the 0-46, it provided the pilot with excellent forward visibility. It handled extremely well for such a large airplane, and new young pilots trained on the North American AT-6 in Advanced Flying School found it easily mastered and a pleasure to fly. Offensively and defensively the 0-47 was generally in the same league as the 0-46. It too could be fitted with bomb racks that were not part of the original design, giving it a similar bomb carrying capability. The most notable physical characteristic of the 0-47, other than its size, was a large "bathtub" in the lower fuselage that accommodated a camera station, manned as an alternate position, by the observer who was normally seated in the second of the fore and aft oriented crew positions. Pilots who flew the 0-47 during this period recall how a simple "2G" turn, catching an unwary observer standing up in the middle cockpit with a heavy hand-held aerial camera in his hands, could have him "hanging on" to keep him and his trusty camera from winding up in the bottom of the bathtub. Needless to say, relations between the would be fighter pilots in the front seat and the observers in the rear, many of whom were holdovers from the National Guard days, were frequently more than a little strained. Nevertheless, the 0-47 was a good airplane, but it lacked the capabilities necessary for serious combat operations in the 1940's. Except for brief stand-downs due to bad weather, anti-sub patrol was a dawn to dark, seven days a week operation. Predawn takeoffs and landings well after nightfall became routine, in attempts to catch the U-boats on the surface in the early morning or late evening hours. Examination of pilots' logs from early to mid 1942 indicate that 0-47 missions averaged 2½ to 3 hours in duration, with the 0-46 missions being somewhat shorter. Possibly 95 percent of the flying was over water, in an environment foreign to the squadron's previous experience, inspiring a common feeling that "if we had wanted to see this much water we would have joined the bloody Navy". Dawn to dusk operations meant a virtually around the clock effort for engineering (maintenance) and other support personnel, an effort that established a pattern for the superior ground environment that contributed substantially to the success of the 118th in China, 2½ years later. The 118th continued to perform anti-sub duty until mid-August, 1942. Then, as the anti-submarine mission on the East Coast became more and more a task for the U.S. Navy and Air Force squadrons (fighter), and one liaison squadron. Finally, in April 1943, the observation groups were redesignated reconnaissance groups, and the observation squadrons were redesignated reconnaissance squadrons (bomber, fighter and liaison). As the concept of operations was changing, training concepts were also changing. In August, 1942, the 1st units equipped with larger twin and multi-engine aircraft with much greater range and superior offensive capabilities, the 118th and the 66th Group were relieved from their first war-time assignments, and once again assigned to cooperative training in maneuvers with the Army Ground Forces. Early in September (September 8, according to one source3) the 118th arrived in Tullahoma, Tennessee, where it was to spend the next two months providing air support to the ground forces in the Tennessee maneuvers of late 1942. Maneuver duty, to some extent, provided a welcome change from the grueling routine of anti-sub patrol. But, returning to duty with the ground forces after nearly a year's absence, much of it spent in performance of what was technically a "combat" mission, was also somewhat of a letdown. However, times were changing, and things were changing for the 118th too. Concurrently with their release from anti-submarine operations, the 118th and the 66th Group were released from assignment to the Eastern Theater of Operations and reassigned to the 1st Air Support Command. The lst Air Support Command, although still located at Mitchell Field, New York, had come under the control of the 3rd Air Force in August 1942 and would move to Morris Field, Charlotte, North Carolina, in late October.4 There they would be joined by the entire 66th Group in November. By late 1942 it was evident that the purely observation type aircraft had become obsolete. They had proved inadequate for rendering proper support during maneuvers, and the Army Air Forces had begun to adopt a new concept of operations to meet current reconnaissance requirements.5 To meet those requirements it was decided that observation groups in the future would be made up of one medium observation squadron (bomber), two light reconnaissance and 3rd Air Support Commands agreed on a plan to assign all squadrons of an observation group to a single station so they could be trained together as a unit, and where from a central location, flights, squadrons or detachments could be sent out to furnish support as needed by ground units.6 Thus, at the conclusion of the Fall maneuvers, the 118th, the 106th and the 97th Squadrons moved from Tullahoma, Tennessee to Charlotte, North Carolina where they were joined by the 19th Observation Squadron from Pope Field, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. At Charlotte, all would begin a new phase of training that within the next 12 months would see three of the four squadrons committed to overseas deployment. As the 66th Group moved to Charlotte the old observation aircraft were rapidly being phased out, and the squadrons began receiving a variety of "new" aircraft including A-20's, B-25's, P-39's, P-43's, and a new complement of L-2, L-3, L-4 and eventually, L-5 Liaison aircraft. As a result, from November 1942 to March 1943, the squadrons became, in effect, composite squadrons, each operating bomber, fighter and liaison aircraft simultaneously. In early 1943, composite flights, detachments and squadrons, that frequently included aircraft and personnel from more than one of the parent squadrons, were dispatched to such exotic and out of the way places as Apalachicola, Florida; Camp Blanding, Florida; Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Langley Field, Virginia; and Fort Myers, Florida, in support of such diverse activities as Marine or Infantry amphibious landing exercises, Infantry and Artillery training problems, and air-ground coordination training. By December 1942, in addition to the loss of the observation aircraft, most of the original officer personnel of the old 118th were long gone. In addition, many of the second generation of pilots had also departed and the same was true of the enlisted ranks. Increasing numbers of the experienced NCOs and technicians had been lost to the still expanding Army Air Forces, and many of the new enlistees who had joined the squadron since mid 1941 were also leaving for new assignments. On the other hand, as the observation groups along the East Coast were relieved of their anti-sub duties, and at the end of the Tennessee maneuvers, many of the old observation squadrons were temporarily deactivated or placed on standby status. As a result, many of the officers (mostly pilots and observers) and some of the enlisted men from those squadrons were assigned to more active units, including the 66th Group. The 103rd and 152nd Observation Squadrons, then stationed at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, in particular, sent a number of people to the 66th Group and ultimately to the 118th Squadron. Among that group were several pilots who were to remain with the 118th until mid to late 1944 in India and China, including Perry Cox, Earl Davis, Warren Christensen and Carl Eley from the 152nd, and this writer (Charles McMillin) from the 103rd. Four of the five eventually held key positions as flight leaders or, as in the case of Earl Davis, Assistant Operations Officer with the squadron in India and China. Enlisted men who came to the 66th Group from the 103rd included: John Burke (best remembered at Fort Devens for his skill in the kitchen), Norm Collette, Ed Munczenski, and Porter (Squadron Mess Sergeant until the 118th left India for China). Burke, Collette (one of the squadron jocks), and Munczenski eventually joined the 118th and remained with the squadron until the end of the war in China. The same order that transferred the pilots from the 152nd and the 103rd also transferred Harold Bahlke, later the 118th Communications Officer, from the 15th Observation Squadron to the 66th Group.7 By late 1942 the squadron began to assume its final configuration insofar as officer personnel was concerned. Tom Crittenden was already on board as Squadron Supply Officer, having joined the squadron in July 1942, fresh out of Officer Training School, and Leon Watkins, the Squadron Engineering Officer, commissioned directly from enlisted status, arrived early in December. Ross Foster, the Squadron Photo Officer, also joined the group, and later the 118th, at about the same time. These Officers, plus Phil Dickey, the Squadron Armament Officer, who arrived in October 1943, remained with the squadron until well after the squadron reached China, and were the individuals directly responsible for providing the ground logistical support environment that made possible the outstanding combat record of the 118th in China. The success of the squadron is thus a direct reflection of the quality of their efforts.
CHAPTER III - "FIGHTER RECONNAISSANCE"The 118th and the rest of the 66th Group remained at Charlotte until late March when they moved to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, for duty in the Tennessee maneuvers of 1943. The 118th arrived at Camp Campbell on April 2nd, the other squadrons a day or two later.1 On that same day the 118th was officially redesignated the 118th Reconnaissance Squadron (Fighter) and began operations as a "fighter reconnaissance" squadron equipped, for the most part, with early model P-39 aircraft, plus a liaison section equipped with L-5's. How the 118th managed to retain the liaison aircraft in the face of this reorganization is not completely clear at this late date. However, the liaison aircraft and the Staff Sergeant pilots who flew them were to be a highly valuable asset in India and China. The pilots assigned to the newly designated fighter reconnaissance squadrons came mostly from the ranks of the pilots who had been flying single engine aircraft in the "composite" squadrons at Charlotte. Some had previous fighter aircraft experience; some did not. During the winter at Charlotte, the 66th Group had gained several contingents of new pilots, in addition to those who came from the old observation squadrons. Some were recent graduates of a P-39 or P-40 RTU (Replacement Training Unit); some were not. Some were assigned directly to the 118th on arrival, and some were assigned to other squadrons during the interim period of composite operations. Among the first of those who joined the 66th Group during this period and later served with the 118th were Frank Bickel, Ray Darby, George Kutsher and Bruce Salisbury. All but Salisbury would remain with the squadron until completion of their combat tours in China in 1944. A second group joining the 66th Group during the late winter or early spring included Don Penning, Berthold (Pete) Petersen, John Powell, O.E. Ward, and Oscar (Pop) Nislar. All but Ward would also serve with the 118th in India and China.
With the addition of all these new pilots, only a handful remained who had seen anti-sub duty with the 66th Group in early 1942.Three of those who still remained were: Major Bob Wierman, now the Squadron CO (since February 1943); Bob Gee, who had joined the squadron shortly before Pearl Harbor and who remained to become "A" Flight Commander in India and China, and Ben Preston who had come over from the 106th in the spring of 1943 to be the Squadron Operations Officer. A fourth "old timer" in the squadron, Frank Palmer, who also joined the squadron in 1942, was still on board and remained until the squadron left for India and China. Palmer was forced to remain behind because of illness, but caught up with the squadron in China in October 1944, and remained until the end of the war as a pilot and flight leader.
Although designated "Reconnaissance Squadron (Fighter)", the 118th continued for a time to perform a mission closely resembling that of the old observation squadrons. Visual reconnaissance of the maneuver battlefield continued to have a high priority, and the fighter reconnaissance squadrons still maintained a liaison officer at the "friendly" forces field headquarters to coordinate ground forces requests for intelligence. The liaison officers each spent a week or so with the "army" before being replaced and were usually pilots who had some understanding of the problems involved in obtaining the kind of information sought by the Ground Forces Commanders. Unfortunately, most of the 118th pilots now on board had little experience in working with the ground forces. A few had served in the summer and fall maneuvers of 1942, and some had participated in various training exercises with the ground Forces during the winter and early spring of 1943, but most were not ground forces oriented and none were actually reconnaissance trained. The Reconnaissance Training Unit at Key Field, Mississippi, had only recently been established, and the role of fighter reconnaissance was yet to be clearly defined. In any event, those lucky individuals chosen to serve as "liaison" with ground forces found their tour in the woods "educational" but highly frustrating enough to make one appreciate the "good life" at Camp Campbell. At the same time, the squadron pilots were learning the techniques of low-level aerial photography in the P-39. In the earlier maneuvers and on anti-sub patrol, the actual photography was a task usually handled by the observer with a hand held aerial camera, and the pilot was only responsible for getting the aircraft into the general area of the target and close enough to give the observer (cameraman) a clear view of the subject he was trying to photograph. The fixed oblique and vertical cameras mounted in the rear of the P-39 and operated from the cockpit presented the pilot with a new set of challenges - including more precise positioning of the aircraft and handling the controls and switches for operation of the cameras while traveling at close to 200 miles per hour at low level over the hills and valleys of central Tennessee. Needless to say, much of the learning that took place involved a great deal of trial and error.
Although the squadron continued to perform many "observation type" missions, it was soon called upon to attempt some that were not previously considered a function of observation or reconnaissance aviation. In early 1943, the 1st Air Support Command had lost its responsibility for light bombardment operations and training. At the same time the 3rd Air Force, faced with the impossibility of using their fighter aircraft in ground forces maneuvers because of their involvement in RTU's, and their light and dive bombers because of overseas requirements and the shortage of trained units, was forced to begin relying on the reconnaissance units of the 1st Air Support Command to simulate bomber and fighter attacks "to the maximum extent possible within the limits of the equipment available".2 The pilots of the 118th thus began their introduction to the kinds of missions many of them would be asked to perform a year or so later in China. Although "reconnaissance" remained the primary mission, simulated strafing and bombing attacks on ground targets, although designed to "exercise" the anti-aircraft defense capabilities of the ground forces and seemingly rigged in their favor, became highly popular with most of the squadron pilots. Most exciting of all were occasional squadron attacks on the "enemy" air forces and their bases. The ensuing "simulated combat" frequently became almost as exciting as the real thing, with 15 or 20 P-39's milling around at tree top level under a broken ceiling of 800 to 1000 feet over or around the Bowling Green, Kentucky airport as one memorable example. Surprisingly, the squadron suffered no "real" casualties in any of these escapades. Most assigned missions, however, involved single aircraft performing "observation type" reconnaissance. The concept of the "two ship" tactical reconnaissance mission had not yet been universally adopted or accepted, at least as far as the 66th Group was concerned. Thus many of the pilots were only marginally proficient in formation and anything even remotely resembling combat tactics. This was particularly true of those who had served with the observation squadrons on anti-sub patrol or who had not attended a fighter type RTU. The 118th remained at Camp Campbell until late May when, as the spring maneuvers began to wind down, it moved to Chattanooga Municipal Airport to join the "enemy" forces. This was a highly popular move for many of the "unattached" personnel of the squadron. The newly created WAAC (Women's Auxiliary Army Corps) Basic Training Center was also at Chattanooga, a fact duly recognized and appreciated by a number of the troops who. Unfortunately, the stay at Chattanooga was much too brief, and the squadron soon packed up again, moving this time to Statesboro, Georgia - arriving there on 22 June 1943. Here the transition to Reconnaissance Squadron (Fighter) began in earnest. At the conclusion of the spring maneuvers, and concurrently with the 118th's move to Statesboro, the 66th Group Headquarters, and the 19th and 97th Squadrons moved to Aiken, South Carolina, where they would remain until early 1944. The 106th meanwhile moved to Chatham Field near Savannah, Georgia, where they would remain until October. They left on the 15th of that month for duty in the Southwest Pacific as part of the 13th Air Force. They were redesignated the 100th Bomb Squadron (Medium) in May 1944, and served with distinction in that capacity for the rest of the war.3 The 19th Squadron remained a part of the 66th Group until February, 1944, when they were assigned to the China-Burma-India Theater (CBI) as the 19th Liaison Squadron. The 97th Squadron, the only one of the four original squadrons of the 66th Group that did not eventually go overseas, was reassigned to the 76th Tactical Reconnaissance Group in August 1943, and was deactivated in April 1944.4 At Statesboro, the 118th began to operate more and more like a "fighter reconnaissance" squadron. Although low-level aerial photography continued to be a major concern, increased emphasis was now placed on two and four ship formation, low-level navigation and basic combat tactics, as well as aerial and ground gunnery. From mid-July to mid-August most of the squadron was on temporary duty at Harris Neck, Georgia for aerial and ground gunnery training. For some pilots this was their first gunnery practice since leaving RTU almost a year earlier, and for some it was the first since their exposure to the rudiments of aerial and ground gunnery in Advanced Flying School more than a year earlier. Nevertheless progress was being made. While all this was going on, several pilots who had not previously had an opportunity to attend a fighter type RTU were given the opportunity to do so. Shortly after the squadron arrived in Chattanooga from Camp Campbell, Ben Preston, Carl Eley, Perry Cox, "Buzz" O'Laughlin (a recent addition to the squadron) and this writer, plus several other pilots from the 19th and 97th squadrons were sent to P-39 RTU at Thomasville, Georgia. Here, in the sweltering heat of South Georgia in June and July 1943, we received our long overdue "fighter training". Among other things we learned that the P-39 was not designed for hot weather ground operations, but the emphasis at Thomasville was on aerial gunnery, formation flying and basic combat tactics plus a smattering of instrument and night flying. At the same time a group of enlisted men from the 66th Group, including Tom Lewandowski, Frank Hiss and Henry Wilk from the 118th, were sent to Thomasville for further indoctrination into the idiosyncrasies of the P-39. When this group rejoined the 118th in Statesboro in early August, the squadron was nearly intact and ready for the final phase of its preparation for overseas deployment. On the 11th of August, 1943, the squadron was finally redesignated the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, and two weeks later moved to Aiken to rejoin the rest of the group (less the 106th which was still at Savannah). By now the Army and Army Air Forces had agreed that, in the future, liaison type aircraft would provide ground units with the air support previously afforded by observation aircraft, e.g., close surveillance of the battlefield, artillery spotting and communications between frontline units. It was also agreed that the primary mission of Tactical Reconnaissance was "armed" reconnaissance and that offensive action was secondary and would be undertaken only when necessary for the successful accomplishment of the primary mission.6 This was the orientation under which the 118th commenced the final phase of its combat readiness training, but hardly a proper orientation for the mission the squadron would be asked to perform in China. The concept of Tactical Reconnaissance operations as it was now defined was derived largely from the allied Air Forces experience in the North African Campaigns. The two ship tactical reconnaissance mission, with one ship providing cover for the other in a loose combat weave, was now adopted as standard and would be used more or less successfully by Tac Recon units in Europe in 1944 and 1945. The new tactics taught the maximum use of natural and other cover, including houses, barns, and even haystacks in approaching and departing the target area, which meant operating at minimum altitudes for sustained periods of time. Although the P-39 was equipped with both vertical and oblique cameras it was obvious, based on the North African experience, that the low level oblique photo mission was by far the most likely to be completed successfully. At Aiken, the 118th was authorized to conduct minimum altitude navigation and photo training operations on a routine basis. Minimum altitude in this case meant less than treetop level, with the two aircraft of the two ship "tactical reconnaissance pair" frequently flying on opposite sides of buildings, trees and hedge rows. Again, surprisingly, the 118th suffered no casualties from this type of operation. The concept of operation for Tac Recon was based on the still logical assumption that tactical reconnaissance missions would be conducted during daylight hours in generally VFR (visual flight) conditions. Consequently, very little emphasis was placed on instrument flight training, especially training under actual instrument conditions. Most of the training that was accomplished was done under "simulated" conditions, and most of the squadron pilots had very little if any experience in actual "weather" flying. Examination of a typical pilot's log for that era reveals a total of less than seven hours of simulated instrument flight training between January and December 1943. Much of that training was accomplished in BT-13 or BT-14 type aircraft with the balance logged in P-39's under the protection of another P-39 chase plane in basically ideal weather conditions. Although instrument cards were duly certified and issued, most pilots were again only marginally proficient in this phase of their training. This deficiency was to prove costly to the 118th while operating in China. Meanwhile, the ground echelon was being whipped into shape under the direction of the Squadron Exec, Captain (soon to be Major) James W. Jeffers. All hands were required to qualify on their basic weapons. Physical training in the form of calisthenics, organized sports and close order drill became a part of the daily routine. Lectures and classes on many subjects from "Safeguarding Military Information" to "Sex Hygiene", "Camouflage Discipline" and "Aircraft and Naval Vessel Recognition" kept the troops occupied for hours.7 The squadron had received several more new officers during the summer, and by early September was almost completely staffed with officers who would remain with the unit until late in the war in China. Stan Molander was now the Squadron Adjutant, and Bernard Braude was his assistant. Bob Burke had become the Squadron Intelligence Officer, and Vincent "Moon" Mullin had come on board as Assistant Supply Officer. With the addition of Gus Dinand as Assistant Photo Officer, and Oscar Gunther as Transportation Officer, followed a bit later by a new Flight Surgeon, Dr. John Winkley, the roster of officers was nearly complete. The 66th Group had also taken on a couple of officers who would soon play important roles in the future of the 118th. Major Edward 0. (Ed) McComas, a native of Winfield, Kansas, had come to the 66th Group from the Flying Training Command to become Group Operations Officer, with Captain Ira B. Jones, also from the Training Command as his assistant. The squadron would soon become well acquainted with both of these men. By mid-September the squadron was well settled into its new routine. On the 11th of September, the air and ground echelons participated in a memorable parade and aerial demonstration in downtown Aiken kicking off the local county War Loan Drive. According to letters of Commendation from city and county officials that personally commended Major E.O. McComas for his assistance in staging the affair, "the air show was a magnificent exhibition of flying...that thrilled the largest crowd ever in Aiken"8. The air show was highlighted by an "in trail" parade by 16 P-39's of the 118th down "Main Street" at roof top level, and a solo demonstration of the acrobatic capabilities of the P-39 by Major McComas a demonstration that even impressed the P-39 pilots who witnessed it. In September 1943, the P-39 still had a reputation as a very tricky acrobatic airplane. The unusual design of the aircraft, with the engine mounted in the fuselage behind the pilot's seat, allegedly produced a stability problem that could cause the airplane to "tumble" out of low speed, high angle of attack situations. Although no evidence was ever actually produced to show that the aircraft would actually "tumble", it did have some unusual spin characteristics and several 66th Group pilots had experienced spin recovery problems in the past six months or so. As a net result, most pilots were inclined to be somewhat cautious in putting the P-39 into unusual attitudes, especially at low altitude (the environment in which the 118th normally operated), thus making McComas' performance all the more impressive. Flying activities continued at a rapid pace throughout September. Simulated combat missions proliferated as Major McComas (Group Ops) personally took on the squadron "hot shots" and one by one "put them in their place". The squadron became more proficient in formation flying and probably reached its peak in late September for the benefit of a 3rd Air Force Inspection Team performing a final tactical inspection of the squadron before what everyone assumed would be planned movement to the Southwest Pacific. As a part of that inspection the squadron, in a "practice" scramble, was able to get 16 aircraft airborne and back over the field in squadron formation in less than four minutes from the time the pilots scrambled from the alert shack. This fine performance almost went for naught however. On September 29, 1943, the 118th suffered its first fatal aircraft accident since Pearl Harbor. On that date the squadron was shocked by the death of Major Bob Wierman, the Squadron CO, on what was described in the unit history for that month as a "routine training mission" near Aiken Army Air Field.9 Accounts of the accident vary, but Major Wierman is believed to have gotten into an uncontrollable spin and was unable to recover before the aircraft struck the ground. He may have attempted to bail out but, if so, made the attempt at an altitude too low to be successful. In any event, the squadron had suffered a great loss, and plans for overseas deployment were immediately cancelled and the future of the 118th looked very dismal indeed. The shock the squadron felt at Bob Wierman's death had barely begun to be absorbed when it received another shock. Major McComas, not exactly everyone's favorite candidate, was to become the new Squadron Commander! McComas assumed command of the 118th on September 29, 1943, and the worst fears of many of the squadron officers and enlisted men were soon realized. Bob Wierman had been an easy going individual well liked by most people in the squadron, but Ed McComas was another story.
McComas was a hard driving individual, who on first acquaintance tended to intimidate and overpower those subordinates with which he came in contact. He proceeded to give the squadron the "shock treatment" in an effort to restore its shattered morale. The relatively relaxed atmosphere was gone and all hands began to feel the heat. But more importantly, McComas was determined that the 118th be recommitted to an overseas assignment, and largely through his own efforts persuaded the powers that be that the 118th was still a viable organization whose combat readiness should not be wasted. Indications were that the 118th had originally been committed to the Pacific Theater (even the new P-39Q's with their long range auxiliary fuel tanks that began to arrive in late September seemed to have the squadron pointed in that direction), but it now seems likely that by the fall of 1943 there was little future for a P-39 Tac Recon Squadron in the Pacific. It is possible that the squadrons' commitment to the Pacific might have been cancelled anyhow, even without Bob Wierman's fatal accident. In any event, after the cancellation of that commitment the future of the 118th remained cloudy until the decision was made to re-equip the squadron with 18 P-51B's "that just happened to be available" and the squadron and the airplanes were recommitted to the 14th Air Force in China - a decision that in part seems to have been made to satisfy Claire Chennault's continuing demands for more modern aircraft to replace the P-40's with which the 14th Air Force was then equipped. McComas' assumption of Command was quickly followed with the replacement of Ben Preston by Ira B. Jones as Squadron Operations Officer. Preston had injured his back at Thomasville and had been operating at something less than teak efficiency ever since. As things turned out McComas probably did Preston a big favor by having him replaced. On the other hand, Ira Jones turned out to be an outstanding officer, who soon gained the respect of virtually everyone in the squadron, and who achieved a fine record in combat in China.
On the 12th of October the 118th was relieved from assignment to the 66th Group and assigned to the 75th Tactical Reconnaissance Group of the 3rd Reconnaissance Command for further training as a Tac Recon Squadron.10 This would require the squadron to move to Key Field, Meridian, Mississippi for a period of six or seven weeks prior to movement to the port of embarkation for shipment overseas. So, instead of going directly overseas, we were to experience one more "stateside" move. On October 16, the squadron suffered its second fatal accident in less than a month when Lt. Francis (Buzz) O'Laughlin was killed while on a cross-country flight to the Tri-cities area of East Tennessee. His luck ran out when his aircraft struck a mountain while he was attempting to let down through bad weather in the vicinity of Bristol, Tennessee. O'Laughlin had been very popular and his loss was another serious blow to the squadron.
His was the first of several fatal accidents during the next year or so in which lack of experience in instrument flight in actual weather conditions was most certainly a significant factor. The squadron left Aiken by convoy on October 24 1943, for Meridian. It bivouacked that night at Fort Benning, Georgia, and arrived at Key Field on the 25th, where transition into P-40 and P-51 aircraft began almost immediately.11 Although there was some additional training in Tac Recon Operations and tactics, the major task for air and ground crews alike was to get "checked out" in the new aircraft.
(To be continued)
FOOTNOTES AND SOURCESChapter I. 1) 118th Tac Recon Sqdn History, Sept 1943; Flying Yankees, 1973; Combat Squadrons of the Air Force, 1968.
2) Flying Yankees, p-1.
3) Flying Yankees (See added references on following page)
4) Personal reminiscences, Harry W. Generous, 1979.
5) Flying Yankees, p-16
6) Flying Yankees, p-4.
7) A more detailed account of the activities of the 118th during the 20's and 30's can be found in Flying Yankees - Connecticut Air National Guard, compiled by Col. Carl D. Jenson and CMSGT Edward W. Burton, CANGR, 1973.
8) Flying Yankees, p-12.
9) Flying Yankees, p-17.
10) 118th Tac Recon Sqdn History, September 1943.
11) Flying Yankees, p-19.
12) History of the 1st Tactical Air Division, Sept 1941.
13) History of the 1st Air Support Command, Sept-Nov, 1941. 14) History of the 3rd Air Force, June 1944, p-165.
CHAPTER II. 1) Personal reminiscences, Mrs. Robert W. Wierman, 1978.
2) History of the 3rd Air Force, June 1944, p-168.
3) Combat Squadrons of the Aix' Force, p-346.
4) History of the 3rd Air Force, June 1944, p-183.
5) History of the 3rd Air Force, p-185.
6) History of the 3rd Air Force, p-194.
7) Special Order Number 151, Hq I Air Support Command, Mitchell Field, New York, 2 November 1942. Chapter III. 1) Combat Squadrons of the Air Force, p-346.
2) History of the 3rd Air Force, D-204.
3) Combat Squadrons of the Air Force, p-331.
4) Combat Squadrons of the Air Force, p-325.
5) Special Order Number 121, Hq 66th Reconnaissance Gp., Campbell Army Air Field, Camp Campbell, Kentucky, 27 May 1943.
6) History of the 3rd Air Force, p-205.
7) 118th Tac Recon Sqdn History, September 1943.
8) History of 1st Tactical Air Division, Dec 41-Mar 44, Appendix C.
9) 118th Tac Recon Sqdn History, September 1943.
10) 118th Tac Recon Sqdn History, September 1943
11) 118th Tac Recon Sqdn History, September 1943.