By Capt. Arthur F. Brown, Capt. Fredrick S. Burkhardt and 1st Lt. Rudolph A. Tholt
Toward the last half of November the Group was dealt what to them considered a below-the-belt punch when higher headquarters took away the Mustangs and substituted Thunderbolts in their place. This, coupled with the fact that October and November had seen two floodings of the Marne which inundated the field brought the morale of the entire unit to its lowest point. The base at Orconte was right on the banks of the famous Marne River and, when the long fall rains set in, the river got out of hand and twice overflowed its banks, each flood causing a relocation of the Group living and operational areas. The second flood made the strip itself unserviceable and, pending a move to a new base further east, our planes had to operate from the large field at St. Dizier.
A line P-47D Thunderbolts from the 353rd FS taxi out for a mission. The group's conversion to P-47s began on November 17, 1944, when the 356th FS begin re-equipping and retraining followed by the 355th FS then the 353rd FS. It took four week to complete the transition. The 356th flew the group's first P-47 mission. It was an inauspicious "leaflet dropping" mission on 26 November. (National Archives)
By the first of December the new field at Rosiere-en-Haye (dubbed as "Rosie in the Hay"), about six miles north of Toul on the Toul-Metz highway, was ready to receive our planes and the Group once more packed up and moved eastward. Here they settled down for the winter and made themselves very comfortable indeed, becoming, in fact, a part of the village life. The new base was a great improvement over the one just left behind and, though existence never quite approached the peak of enjoyment reached in Brittany, the winter was passed quite comfortably. The Ardennes breakthrough attempt by Von Rundstedt's forces furnished a good deal of excitement both for those who stayed at the base and for the pilots who shared in the negation of the threat by their work over Bastogne and other vital points in the Battle of the Bulge. It put a crimp in the gala plans for Christmas Day but it caused no material damage or discomfort to the Group other than operational losses and even the great New Year Day attempt by the Luftwaffe didn't include a visit to our base. Besides participating in the Battle of the Bulge our pilots and planes worked in support of the crossings of the Rhine, both by the American and British armies, and flew deep into Germany to keep the weakening Luftwaffe from making use of whatever power it still had left. In February a couple of days were knocked out of the schedule to celebrate the return of the Mustangs and once more the Pioneer Mustang Group could fly without its fingers crossed.
Into Germany and End of Hostilities
The war was going well now and the final push seemed to be underway indicating that the end might come almost any day, so much so, in fact, that, the members of the Group wondered if we would see the end of the war while we were still stationed in France. The answer came at the beginning of April when the unit was ordered to move into Germany. On the 8th of that month Headquarters was closed at Rosiere and opened at the former Luftwaffe base at Ober-Olm, five miles west of Mainz, Germany. The Jerries had carried out rather extensive demolitions before leaving this field but there was enough left there for our organization to set up quite comfortable and efficiently and the short stay at this station was not without pleasures.
The happiest event to take place at this our first German base, was the return of our original Commanding Officer, Colonel Martin. Word had been received from higher headquarters that he had made his escape successfully and would probably be able to return for a few days visit to the Group. His escape march had been an eleven-day ordeal which had aggravated the leg he had injured when he went down over enemy territory but, except for a limp, he was just about the same as we all remembered him. He stayed with us for several days, visited with all the old-timers, gave a fine speech to all the members of the Group and then left by plane on the first leg of the trip which would bring him back to his family in the good old USA.
The Russians were closing in from the east and as General Patton's forces turned their main effort southward our planes too began flying more and more into Czechoslovakia and Austria.
As was suggested above, our stay at this base was short, several days less than a full month, but was quite pleasant. This was our first stop in hostile territory and though any forebodings proved unfounded, there was the added zest of being bonafide conquerors at last to add in the excitement of everyday life. The base itself was better equipped than any we had been at since leaving Boxted and we had unlimited DP's to do the usual menial work around the station. The enemy didn't threaten us any and operations were routine patrols and fighter sweeps which stretched further and further eastward as the enemy withdrew further into its homeland. Opposition was sporadic in the air and our pilots had to find most of their targets on the ground. The Russians were closing in from the east and as General Patton's forces turned their main effort southward our planes too began flying more and more into Czechoslovakia and Austria. The final rout was rapidly developing and the end was expected almost every day, especially after the American and Russian forces joined at the Elbe River. The death of our Commander-in-Chief, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the only sad news item in a glorious month of victory.
Towards the end of April another quick move was completed and the first day of May saw our planes operating from another former Luftwaffe base just east of Ansbach, about one hundred and fifty miles southeast of Mainz. This base had really been a large installation and there was scarcely any war damage in evidence. Everyone was billeted in roomy, comfortable barracks and served in cheerful, well-equipped mess halls, theaters and recreation buildings. The hangars were large and efficient and the strip itself in good condition. Once again there was plenty of outside help available to take care of most of the fatigue duties and to offer the men a somewhat expanded social life. The war was almost over and this was a happy period when many of our pilots who had been in German POW camps were freed and found their way back to the Group where sentimental reunions of old buddies were an almost hourly occurrence. Another indication of the proximity of the Great Day were the incidents in which Luftwaffe pilots flew their planes into our base to surrender to the American forces. So certain was everyone that V-E Day was only a matter of the moment that the actual announcement of the cessation of hostilities, on the 7th of May, came as definite anti-climax. However, the celebrations that night were none the less spontaneous and thorough. A day to which every one had looked forward for so long simply could not be overlooked no matter how anti-climatic it might be. The war was over and we were practically a peacetime army again.
Here, then, is what the Group had done since its first combat mission on the first of December, 1943, until the end of hostilities in May 1945. Its planes had flown 1,384 missions and 18,334 sorties in May 1945. Its planes had flown 1,289 missions and 13,911 sorties having been flown since D-Day June 6, 1944. From the first of December, 1943 until D-Day, 95 missions and 4,423 sorties had been flown. The combat operations of the Group encompassed 17 months and 8 days and, with the exception of the period from the 26th of November 1944 thru the 16th of February 1945 when our pilots flew P-47 Thunderbolts, the great Mustangs, or P-51's, had been the tool with which the Group carved its enviable record. During this period of combat operations a total of 187 pilots were killed, lost or otherwise missing in action. Nine of these men were killed in non-combat flights, 42 were officially reported killed in action, 5 were still officially listed as prisoners of war at the war's end, 81 were known to have returned to duty or to be safely back in the United States and 50, still unaccounted for, were officially listed as MIA. For claims of 957, 53, 428 against enemy aircraft alone, this was not a bad percentage.
The 354th Fighter Group, of all the fighter groups in the entire ETO had the highest total of claims against enemy aircraft destroyed in the air with a total of 701 E/A destroyed in aerial combat, the closest rival being the 8th AF's 56th Fighter Group with 677 E/A so destroyed. In the totals for claims of E/A destroyed on the ground and in the air, the 354th ranked third on the list, the 56th Fighter Group with 1,0051/2 being first and the 4th Fighter Group (also an 8th AF unit), with 1,002, being second. But, in all fairness to the Pioneers, it must be pointed out that the 56th FG had begun its operations in the ETO in April 1943 and the 4th FG even earlier in March 1943 while the 355th Fighter Group also predated our introduction to combat (in December 1943) by getting into the fight in September 1943. So, as the youngest of all these famous Groups, the 354th is especially proud if its outstanding record of achievement.
Besides its air record we are proud to list the following claims by our pilots against ground targets. We cannot claim the list as being complete for statistics were not compiled from the very beginning of our operations; but what we do have at hand show that the Group accomplished the following destructions at least: 1,543 M/T destroyed and 691 damaged, 96 A/V destroyed and 54 damaged, 532 locomotives destroyed and 52 damaged, 1,465 railroad cars destroyed and 3,817 damaged, 26 bridges destroyed and 29 damaged, 75 gun emplacements silenced and 37 damaged, 11 storage or ammo dumps destroyed and 4 damaged, 13 hangars destroyed and 24 damaged, 623 buildings destroyed and 211 damaged, 230 railroad cuts made plus 15 probably made and 69 road cuts made and 7 probably made. In addition, they attacked and damaged or destroyed at least 19 marshalling yards and 9 airdromes. They were also claims of 34 horse-drawn vehicles destroyed and 24 damaged and at least 287 enemy personnel known to be killed or wounded. March 1945 had been the biggest month for operations with 242 missions and 2,567 sorties being flown and the 23rd of March 1945 was the greatest day for Group activities with 23 missions and 180 sorties being flown on that day alone. August 25, 1944 was the biggest day for claims against enemy aircraft and our pilots brought in claims of 51-1-8 on that day. The 353rd Fighter Squadron had the most claims for one mission when, on the 12th of Sept. 1944, its pilots claimed 31-0-1.
Since the end of the war the Group has been assigned to the Occupational Air Force and moved to another more permanent base at Herzogenaurach, Bavaria, about ten miles northwest of Nuremberg to sweat out the eventual return to civilian life. The Group has been a great team whenever it has been needed and the pride every member of the Group feels in his organization and in himself is based on fact and on the record of the Group. It had the best planes and the best equipment, surely but, what is more important, it had the best pilots and the best mechanics and the best ground organization to back them up. It could be proud of its newest private as well as its oldest officer and it could be proud of the 100th Fighter Wing, XIXth TAC and of every less intimate higher echelon of command under which it had served. One might conceivably sit around our day rooms and offices for days at a stretch without hearing anything but bitching and griping, but that is the surest sign of a healthy organization and it has never proven advisable to question the loyalty of any man of the 354th Fighter Group. Whatever the Group does in the future and no matter how many of our old-timers may go on to rosier assignments or return to civilian life, the spirit of the men who made up and make up the fighting "PIONEER MUSTANG GROUP" will carry on according to the tradition which found root way back at Hamilton Field, Calif., in Mid-November of 1942 and blossomed into full-fledged maturity from the 1st of December 1943 to the 7th of May 1945. That much has been tested and proven.