This day in 1944: the 332nd Fighter Group’s low-level losses

On June 23, 1944, the three squadrons of the 332nd Fighter Group – the 100th, 301st and 302nd – were ordered to strafe the landing field at Airasca-Pinerolo in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. The flight would require the 41 P-47s to fly over the Tyrrhenian Sea at low altitude to avoid radar. Sadly, those conditions would make this a costly one for the group.

From the start, the mission was beset with problems. Gwynne Pearson’s P-47D 42-75772 crashed on takeoff, but Pearson survived. Four other Thunderbolts were forced to abort, whittling the force down to 36 planes.

The weather over the sea was hazy, with a very bright glare from the sun and a cloud base of 1000 feet. The result was that it was very hard for the pilots to discern the horizon. Near Cape Corse, 2nd Lt. Sam Jefferson’s plane dropped too low, touched the water and exploded on impact. At almost the same time, Earl Sherrard’s P-47 pancaked into the water; he scrambled out of his fighter and was later rescued. 2nd Lt. Charles B. Johnson saw Sherrard’s crash and circled to see if the pilot had survived, but he caught a wingtip and his Thunderbolt splashed into the water. Johnson, like Jefferson, was unable to escape.

A few minutes later, the lead element experienced the effects of the strange weather. Mission leader Robert Tresville, flying with Dempsey Morgan and Spurgeon Ellington as the second section in his flight, was seen frantically gesturing at his wingman, Willard Woods – Woods was so close to the water that his drop tanks were starting to kick up rooster tails.

Robert Tresville as an aviation cadet

Robert Tresville as an aviation cadet

Just after sighting the coast, according to Woods, Tresville’s own P-47 struck the water, which stripped off the drop tanks, ripped off the ailerons and bent the propeller back over the cowling. The Thunderbolt staggered back into the air momentarily, then slammed back into the sea., leaving only the tail visible. Woods later reported that Tresville had been looking at a map when he crashed.

The group never found the target – radio silence prevented the deputy formation leader from learning of Tresville’s crash and he never assumed navigational responsibility for the attack.

The loss of Tresville, who, like Col. Benjamin O. Davis, was another rare black West Pointer, was keenly felt by the group. “Tresville was a fantastic guy,” said Samuel Curtis. “He was smart, he was bright, he was strong, he was well-coordinated. HE would have gone far.” Andrew “Jug” Turner assumed command of the 100th FS upon Tresville’s death.This

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