23 April 1918: at 09:55 a.m., near Saint-Gobain, France, 1st Lieutenant Paul Frank Baer, 103rd Aero Squadron (Pursuit), shot down an enemy Albatross C two-place biplane. This was Baer’s fifth victory in aerial combat, making him the first American “ace.” ¹
Paul Frank Baer was born 29 January 1894 at Fort Wayne, Indiana, the fourth of four children of Alvin E. Baer, a railroad engineer, and Emma B. Parent Baer.
In 1916, Paul Baer served under Brigadier John J. General Pershing during the Mexican Expedition to capture the outlaw and revolutionary Francisco (“Pancho”) Villa.
He then went to France and enlisted the Aéronautique Militaire, in 20 February 1917. He was sent for flight training at the Avord Groupemant des Divisions d’Entrainment (G.D.E.). He graduated as a pilot, 15 June 1917, with the rank of corporal. After flight training, Corporal Baer was assigned to Escadrille SPA 80, under the command of Capitaine Paul Ferrand, 14 August 1917 to 20 January 1918, flying the SPAD S.VII C.1 and SPAD S.XIII C.1. Baer was next transferred to Escadrille N. 124, the EscadrilleAméricaine, under Georges Thénault. This unit was equipped with the Nieuport-Delâge Ni-D 29 C1.
After the United States entered the War, Baer was transferred to the 103rd Aero Squadron, American Expeditionary Forces, and commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant with a date of rank retroactive to 5 November 1917. At that time, the 103rd was under the command of Major William Thaw II, and was operating near La Cheppe, France, flying the SPAD S.VII C.1 chasseur.
Lieutenant Baer is officially credited with 9 victories, and claimed an additional 7. After shooting down his ninth enemy airplane on 22 May 1918, Baer and his SPAD S.XIII C.1 were also shot down. He was seriously injured and was captured by the enemy near Armentières and held as a Prisoner of War. At one point, Baer was able to escape for several days before being recaptured.
For his service in World War I, 1st Lieutenant Paul Frank Baer was awarded the United States’ Distinguished Service Cross with one oak leaf cluster (a second award). He was appointed Chevalier de laLégion d’honneur by Raymond Poincaré, the President of France. He was also awarded the Croix de Guerre with seven palms.
After World War I, Baer, as a “soldier of fortune,” organized a group of pilots to fight against “the Bolsheviks” in Poland. He returned to the United States, departing Boulogne-sur-mer aboard T.S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam, and arriving at New York City, 4 November 1919. He then flew as a test pilot, an air mail pilot in South America, and worked as an aeronautical inspector for the U.S. Department of Commerce, based at Brownsville Airport, Texas. In 1930, he was employed as a pilot for the China National Aviation Corporation.
Baer was flying from Nanking to Shanghai for with an amphibious Loening Air Yacht biplane, named Shanghai. The airplane crashed after striking the mast of a boat on the Huanpu River. He died at the Red Cross Hospital at Shanghai, China, at 9:00 a.m., 9 December 1930. A Chinese pilot, K. F. Pan, and an unidentified female passenger were also killed. General Hsiung Shih-hui and four other passengers on board were seriously injured.
Paul Baer’s remains were returned to the United States aboard S.S. President McKinley and were buried at the Lindenwood Cemetery in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
In 1925 a new airport was opened in Fort Wayne and named Paul Baer Municipal Airport. During World War II, the airport was taken over by the military and designated Baer Army Airfield. It is now Fort Wayne International Airport (FWA).
¹ TDiA would like to thank CMSgt Bob Laymon USAF (Ret.) (AKA, “Scatback Scribe”) for pointing out that while Lt. Baer was the first American to become an ace flying in the American service, that,
LIEUTENANT COLONEL LEO K. THORSNESS UNITED STATES AIR FORCE
Rank and organization: Lieutenant Colonel (then Major), U.S. Air Force, 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron
Place and date: Over North Vietnam, 19 April 1967.
Entered service at: Walnut Grove, Minn.
Born: 14 February 1932, Walnut Grove, Minn.
Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. As pilot of an F- 105 aircraft, Lt. Col. Thorsness was on a surface-to-air missile suppression mission over North Vietnam. Lt. Col. Thorsness and his wingman attacked and silenced a surface-to-air missile site with air-to-ground missiles, and then destroyed a second surface-to-air missile site with bombs. In the attack on the second missile site, Lt. Col. Thorsness’ wingman was shot down by intensive antiaircraft fire, and the 2 crewmembers abandoned their aircraft. Lt. Col. Thorsness circled the descending parachutes to keep the crewmembers in sight and relay their position to the Search and Rescue Center. During this maneuver, a MIG-17 was sighted in the area. Lt. Col. Thorsness immediately initiated an attack and destroyed the MIG. Because his aircraft was low on fuel, he was forced to depart the area in search of a tanker. Upon being advised that 2 helicopters were orbiting over the downed crew’s position and that there were hostile MiGs in the area posing a serious threat to the helicopters, Lt. Col. Thorsness, despite his low fuel condition, decided to return alone through a hostile environment of surface-to-air missile and antiaircraft defenses to the downed crew’s position. As he approached the area, he spotted 4 MIG-17 aircraft and immediately initiated an attack on the MlGs, damaging 1 and driving the others away from the rescue scene. When it became apparent that an aircraft in the area was critically low on fuel and the crew would have to abandon the aircraft unless they could reach a tanker, Lt. Col. Thorsness, although critically short on fuel himself, helped to avert further possible loss of life and a friendly aircraft by recovering at a forward operating base, thus allowing the aircraft in emergency fuel condition to refuel safely. Lt. Col. Thorsness’ extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.
AIR FORCE CROSS
CAPTAIN HAROLD EUGENE JOHNSON
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pleasure in presenting the Air Force Cross
to Captain Harold Eugene Johnson (AFSN: 0-3116556/42372A), United States Air Force, for extraordinary heroism as Electronics Warfare Officer of an F-105 aircraft of the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, Tuy Hoa Air Base, Vietnam, engaged in a pre-strike, missile suppression mission over North Vietnam on 19 April 1967. On that date, Captain Johnson guided his pilot in attacking and destroying a surface-to-air missile installation with an air-to-ground missile. Through his technical skill, he immediately detected a second missile complex and guided the pilot into visual contact. Diving into a deadly barrage of anti-aircraft fire, his aircraft bombed and successfully destroyed this site. In the attack on this second missile site, a wingman was shot down by the intense anti-aircraft fire, and the crew members were forced to abandon their aircraft. Flying through hostile missile threats, Captain Johnson’s aircraft engaged and destroyed a MiG-17 while attacking a superior MiG force. He aided in the rescue efforts for the downed crew, engaged additional MiGs, and damaged one in the encounter. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness, Captain Johnson has reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.
General Orders: Department of the Air Force, Special Order GB-363 (April 19, 1967)
Action Date: 19-Apr-67
Service: Air Force
Company: 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron
Regiment: 355th Tactical Fighter Wing
Division: Tuy Hoa Air Base, Vietnam
A description of the air battle follows:
The first MiG kill of the day was recorded by Maj. Leo K. Thorsness, pilot, and Capt. Harold E. Johnson, Electronic Warfare officer (EWO), flying an F-105F. Thorsness’ flight consisted of four F-105F Wild Weasel aircraft, each plane being manned by a pilot and EWO and being specially equipped to locate and attack SAM sites. The flight was ahead of the main strike force and was committed to suppress SAM activity in the target area. About 8 to 10 MiG-17s attacked as the flight prepared to strike a SAM radar site with Shrike air-to-ground missiles. The Thorsness flight split up into three parts: the third and fourth aircraft entered into separate MiG engagements while Thorsness and his wingman continued the attack against the radar. The time was then about 4:55 p.m. Johnson provides an account of the encounter:
“We found and delivered our ordnance on an occupied SAM site. As we pulled off the site heading west, Kingfish 02¹ called that he had an overheat light. He also headed west, and the crew, Majors Thomas M. Madison, pilot, and Thomas J. Sterling, EWO, had to eject from their aircraft. We headed toward them by following the UHF-DF steer we received from their electronic beepers and saw them in the chutes. . .
“As we circled the descending crew, we were on a southerly heading when I spotted a MiG-17 heading east, low at out 9 o’clock position. I called him to the attention of Major Thorsness. . . .”
Thorsness continued the story:
“The MiG was heading east and was approximately 2,500 feet mean sea level. We were heading southeast and at 8,000 feet MSL. I began “S” turning to get behind the MiG. After one and a half “S” turns the MiG had progressed from the foothills over the delta southwest of Hanoi. The MiG turned to a northerly heading, maintaining approximately the same altitude and airspeed. Captain Johnson continued to give me SAM bearings, SAM-PRF [pulse recurrence frequency] status and launch indications as I continued to maneuver to attain a 6 o’clock position on the MiG.
“The first burst of approximately 300 rounds of 20 mm was fired from an estimated 2,000–1,500 feet in a right hand shallow pursuit curve, firing with a cased sight reticle. No impacts were observed on the MiG. Within a few seconds we were in the 6 o’clock position with approximately 75 to 100 knots overtake speed. I fired another burst of approximately 300 rounds of 20 mm. I pulled up to avoid both the debris and the MiG. While pulling up I rolled slightly to the right, then left. The MiG was approximately 100 feet low and to our left, rolling to the right. The two red stars were clearly discernible, one on top of each wing, and several rips were noted on the battered left wing. We continued to turn to the left and after turning approximately 130° again sighted the MiG, still in a right descending spiral. Just prior to the MiG’s impacting the ground, Captain Johnson sighted a MiG-17 at our 6:30 position approximately 2,000 feet back. I pulled into a tighter left turn, selected afterburner, and lowered the nose. I again looked at the crippled MiG, saw it impact the ground in what appeared to be a rice field. After confirming the MiG had in fact impacted the ground I made a hard reversal and descended very near the ground, heading generally westerly into the foothills.”
Thorsness then left the battle area, but returned after refueling to provide rescue combat air patrol during the search for his wingman’s aircrew. Thorsness and Johnson attacked another MiG and scored some damaging hits before they were themselves attacked by other MiG-17s. Although it is highly probable that Thorsness and Johnson destroyed a second MiG, this kill was not confirmed.
— Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter II at Pages 46 and 47.
Eleven days later, 30 April 1967, Major Thorsness and Captain Johnson were shot down by an AA-2A Atoll heat-seeking missile fired by a MiG-21 fighter piloted by Vũ Ngọc Đỉnh, 921st Fighter Regiment, Vietnam People’s Air Force. They ejected but were captured. Both men were held as Prisoners of War until 4 March 1973.
¹ Radio call sign for aircraft 2.
UPDATE: Colonel Leo Keith Thorsness, United States Air Force (Retired) died Tuesday, 2 May 2017, at St. Augustine, Florida. He was 85 years of age.
24 March 1944: At about 2230 hours, the first of 76 Allied prisoners of war interred at Stammlager LuftIII (Stalag Luft III) began to escape through a 30-foot-deep (9 meters), 320-foot-long (98 meters) tunnel, code-named “Harry.”
The prison, located just south of Sagan (Żagań) in East Silesia (now a part of Poland) was specially constructed to house captured Royal Air Force and other Allied airmen, and was controlled by the German air force, the Luftwaffe. Prior to this escape, the German captors had discovered at least 98 tunnels at the prison.
The weather was the coldest in thirty years and five feet of snow lay on the ground. The last escapee left the tunnel at 0455, 25 March. Of the 76 prisoners who escaped, 73 were soon recaptured, and of those, 50 were murdered by the Gestapo.
Popularly known as “The Great Escape,” this was the subject of a 1950 book, The Great Escape, by Paul Brickhill, who was a POW at the prison. His book was adapted into a very popular motion picture, “The Great Escape,” in 1963.
1 March 1972: Lieutenant Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger II, United States Air Force, and 1st Lieutenant Leigh A. Hodgdon, were flying McDonnell F-4D-29-MC Phantom II serial number 66-7463, call sign Falcon 54. Along with a second F-4, they were assigned to a combat air patrol (MiGCAP) mission over northern Laos.
At approximately 2000 hours, Disco, a Lockheed EC-121T Warning Star airborne early warning aircraft, alerted Kittinger to the presence of several Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 21 interceptors and gave him radar vectors toward the enemy aircraft.
Colonel Kittinger reported:
At approximately 18 miles the system broke lock but it was quickly reacquired. A slow left turn ensued to keep the dot centered. Altitudes were slowly increased from 8,200 feet to 11,500 feet. The Vc on the scope was extremely difficult to interpret; however, it appeared that we were not really overtaking the target, so the outboard tanks were dropped. Heading of the aircraft changed to approximately 360° at time of firing. At approximately 6 miles the “in-range” light illuminated, followed by an increase in the ASE circle. Trigger was squeezed and crew felt a thump as the missile was ejected; however, missile motor did not ignite. The trigger was squeezed again and held for approximately 3 seconds; however missile did not fire. Trigger was squeezed again and missile #3 fired. The missile made a small correction to the left then back to the right and guided straight away. Pilot maintained the dot centered.
Approximately 5 to 6 seconds after launch, detonation was observed. Almost simultaneously, two enemy missiles were observed coming from the vicinity of the detonation. Evasive action prevented more thorough observations of detonation. The flight turned to a heading of 210°, maintained 9,000 feet, airspeed 500 knots, and egressed the area.
— Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, by R. Frank Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob and Charles A. Ravenstein, Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, 1976, Chapter III at Page 87.
Joe Kittinger is officially credited with the destruction of the MiG 21.
Joseph W. Kittinger II is best known for his participation in experimental high-altitude balloon flights. On 2 June 1957, he ascended to 97,760 feet (29,490 meters) aboard the Project MAN-HIGH 1. On 16 August 1960, he reached 102,800 feet (31,333 meters) and then stepped off for the longest free-fall parachute jump—a record that would stand for 52 years.
Joe Kittinger flew 483 combat missions in three tours during the Vietnam War. He was shot down 11 May 1972, when his F-4D, 66-0230, was struck by a missile fired by a MiG 21. (Kittinger’s wingman shot down the MiG.) He and Weapons System Officer 1st Lieutenant William J. Reich were captured and held at the infamous Hanoi Hilton for the next 11 months.
21 February 1910: Group Captain Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader, Royal Air Force, C.B.E., D.S.O. and Bar, D.F.C. and Bar, FRAeS, DL, the legendary fighter pilot of the Royal Air Force during World War II, was born at St. John’s Wood, London, England. He was the son of Frederick Roberts Bader, a civil engineer, and Jessie Scott MacKenzie Bader.
Bader attended Temple Grove School, Eastbourne, East Sussex, and St. Edward’s School in Oxford. After graduating in 1928, he joined the Royal Air Force as a cadet at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell in Lincolnshire. Bader was granted a permanent commission as a Pilot Officer, “with effect from and with seniority of 26th July 1930.”
Bader lost both legs in the crash of a Bristol Bulldog fighter while practicing aerobatics 14 December 1931 and was medically retired, 30 April 1933.
Following his medical retirement, Douglas Bader joined the Asiatic Petroleum Co., a subsidiary of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Petroleum Maatschappij (Royal Dutch Petroleum Company) and the Shell Transport and Trading Company.
On 5 October 1933, Mr. Bader married Miss Olive Thelma Exley Edwards at the registry office of Hampstead Village, London. Miss Edwards was the daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Ivo Arthur Exley Edwards, R.A.F. On their fourth anniversary, 5 October 1937, a formal wedding ceremony took place at St Mary Abbots Church in Kensington, London.
In 1939, feeling that war with Germany was imminent, Bader applied to the Air Ministry for reinstatement. He was turned down, but was told that if there was a war his request might be reconsidered.
The Air Ministry did reconsider Douglas Bader’s request for reinstatement and after a medical evaluation and other tests, and on 26 November 1939, he was sent to refresher flight training at the Central Flying School where he was evaluated as “Exceptional,” a very rare qualification.
Flying Officer Bader was posted to No. 19 Squadron, RAF Duxford, 7 February 1940. The squadron was equipped with the Supermarine Spitfire. In April, he was reassigned as flight leader of A Flight, No. 222 Squadron, also flying Spitfires from Duxford. On 24 June 1940, Bader took command of No. 242 Squadron at RAF Coltishall, Norfolk, in East Anglia. No. 242 operated the Hawker Hurricane.
On 24 September 1940, Flying Officer Bader was granted the war substantive rank of Flight Lieutenant.
On 1 October 1940, George VI, King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, appointed Acting Squadron Leader Douglas R. S. Bader a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order. The notice in The London Gazette reads,
“This officer has displayed gallantry and leadership of the highest order. During three recent engagements he has led his squadron with such skill and ability that thirty-three enemy aircraft have been destroyed. In the course of these engagements Squadron Leader Bader has added to his previous successes by destroying six enemy aircraft.”
Acting Squadron Leader Bader, D.S.O., was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross 7th January, 1941: “Squadron Leader Bader has continued to lead his squadron and wing with the utmost gallantry on all occasions. he has now destroyed a total of ten hostile aircraft and damaged several more.”
In March 1941, Acting Squadron Bader was promoted to Acting Wing Commander and assigned as Wing leader of 12 Group’s “Big Wing” at RAF Tangmere, just east of Chichester, in West Sussex. The Big Wings were large formations of three to five fighter squadrons acting together to intercept enemy bomber formations.
Acting Wing Commander Bader was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Service Order, 15 July 1941: “This officer has led his wing on a series of consistently successful sorties over enemy territory during the past three months. His qualities of leadership and courage have been and inspiration to all. Wing Commander Bade has destroyed 15 hostile aircraft.”
On 9 August 1941, Bader was himself shot down while flying his Supermarine Spitfire Mk Va, serial W3185, marked “DB”, along the coast of France. His prosthetic legs caught in the cockpit and made it difficult for him to escape, but he finally broke free and parachuted to safety.
Bader was captured and held as a prisoner of war. He was initially held at a hospital in occupied France and it was there that he met and became a life long friend of Adolf Galland, also a legendary fighter pilot—but for the other side! After arrangements were made for replacement legs, Bader escaped.
On 9 September 1941, Acting Wing Commander Bader was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross. “This fearless pilot has recently added a further four enemy aircraft to his previous successes; in addition he has probably destroyed another four and damaged five hostile aircraft. By his fine leadership and high courage Wing Commander Bader has inspired the wing on every occasion.”
He was recaptured and taken to the notorious Offizierslager IV-C at Schloss Colditz near Leipzing, Germany, where he was held for three years. Units of the United States Army 273rd Infantry Regiment, 69th Infantry Division, and the Combat Command Reserve, 9th Armored Division, liberated the prison 15 April 1945 after a two-day battle.
Douglas Bader was repatriated to England. On 28 August 1945, Squadron Leader D.R.S. Bader, DSO, DFC (Ret) was promoted to Wing Commander (temp), and in September Wing Commander Bader was assigned as commanding officer of the R.A.F. Fighter Leaders School. On 1 December 1945, Wing Commander (temporary) D.R.S. Bader DSO DFC (Ret.) is granted the rank of Wing Commander (War Substantive).
On 21 July 1946, Wing Commander Bader reverted to the retired list, retaining the rank of Group Captain.
During World War II, Group Captain Bader was officially credited with 22 enemy aircraft destroyed, shared credit for another 4; 6 probably destroyed, shared credit for another probable; and 11 damaged. (26–7–11). Group Captan Bader was appointed a Chevalier de la légion d’honneur by France in 1945, and awarded the Croix d’ Guerre.
Bader received civil aviator’s license 3 July 1946. He returned to work for Shell in a management position which involved considerable travel. He flew the company’s Percival Proctor around Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He remained with Shell until 1969, having risen to managing director of Shell Aircraft International.
In the years following World War II, he also worked unceasingly to better the lives of other disabled persons. He would tell them,
“Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do this or that. That’s nonsense. Make up your mind, you’ll never use crutches or a stick, then have a go at everything. Go to school, join in all the games you can. Go anywhere you want to. But never, never let them persuade you that things are too difficult or impossible.”
In the New Year’s Honours, 2 January 1956, Douglas Bader was appointed an Ordinary Commander of the Most Excellent Order (C.B.E.), by Her Majesty The Queen, for services to the disabled.
He was the subject of Reach For The Sky, (Collins, London, 1954) a biography written by Paul Brickhill, who also wrote The Great Escape. (Brickhill had been a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III.) In 1956, a movie of the same name was released, starring Kenneth More as Bader. Bader was the author of Fight For The Sky: The Story of the Spitfire and Hurricane (Sidgwick and Jackson, London, 1973).
Thelma Bader died in 1971 at the age of 64 years. The couple had been married for 38 years.
Bader later married Mrs. Joan Eileen Hipkiss Murray. She had three children from a previous marriage, Wendy, Michael and Jane Murray.
4 June 1976: The London Gazette announced that The Queen would confer the Honour of Knighthood on Group Captain Robert Steuart Bader, C.B.E., D.S.O., D.F.C., “For services to disabled people.”
Group Captain Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader, CBE, DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar, FRAeS, DL, passed away 5 September 1982, at the age of 72 years.