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Today's word on journalism

Monday, September 3, 2007

"I've always been all over the lot in my writing. Except for poetry -- even though they say all the old-time sportswriters use plenty of it. Maybe it's just part of what we do."

--Frank DeFord, 2006

Utah Air National Guard veteran got his start in P-51 over Nazi Germany

By Staff Sgt. Christiana Elieson

April 27, 2007 | The date that will live in infamy was a day that changed the United States and a day that young Roland R. Wright, and future Utah Air National Guard general, knew he would be headed to a war overseas as soon as his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was over.

"I was serving as a missionary in the Northwest states mission," states the nearly 90-year-old Wright. "I was in Oregon when Pearl Harbor happened and that was near the end of my mission. I knew we'd be going to war when we got through (with my mission)."

"I always had an interest in flying and it was my burning desire to become a fighter pilot," he stated.

Because of this desire when he returned from his mission he signed up for the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet. During his time with the cadets he was one of the few chosen to go to fighter pilot training. By doing so he was able to fulfill a dream.

"I was fortunate enough to be one who was chosen for fighter pilot training," he said. "I graduated fighter training in April of '44. I went over (to Europe) as a replacement pilot."

It was in Europe he joined one of the most famous fighter pilot organizations of the war, the 357th Fighter Group, who were better known as the Yoxford Boys and contained many well-known flyers like Chuck Yeager.

A British defector had coined the Yoxford Boys' name after a small town in Northeast England. Lord Haw Haw, the man who had now allied himself with Germany, used the name over the radio waves as a way to demoralize the troops, Wright said. He would states things over the radio waves like Yoxford, "you lost a lot of boys yesterday" in a bombing run.

The P-51s Wright would fly in the unit had just recently been assigned to the unit to escort long-range bombers as quite a few lives and planes had been lost because of the lack of protection these planes had. The P-51 was a small single-seater fighter with a propeller on the nose of the aircraft that had been developed by the United States to protect the rest of its fleet of aircraft. The escort mission began in February 1944.

"I had never flown a P-51," recalled Wright. "I had flown a P-40, and I had only 200 hours of flying and was sent out on my first mission. You learned by on-the-job training."

It was a time that all military pilots learned the ropes of their trade by just getting in the plane and doing their job. It was a lesson some never had the time to learn.

"One of the real challenges was learning to fly in (bad) weather," stated Wright. "About one-third (of the pilots) lost their lives (due to) weather."

When asked about what it was like to lose so many pilots Wright replied, "It was a different world then. It was tough. I think all of them that I knew knew (the losses) were typical."

During his 16 months in Europe, 77 men in his unit were killed in action and 42 were captured as prisoners of war. There were only 75 men in his unit at a time.

"When we first started, our mission was just to protect the bombers," said Wright.

Soon, however, the mission started to change to a chase and destroy.

"Sometimes we would follow them to their bases. Many times we got shot down or there wouldn't be enough gas to get back to our line, so we sustained some pretty heavy losses," Wright relayed. "I never got shot down, but I almost went down behind the lines."

In late 1944 the Germans developed a fighter that was faster than the P-51. It was known as the MA-262. According to Wright it caused quite a fuss in the ranks of the fighter pilots.

On a mission over France in his P-51 named "Mormon Mustang" his unit encountered two of the MA-262s.

"We split our flight to try to catch them," said Wright. "My wingman got shot down" flying over a German airbase to take out the MA-262, then the guy in the MA-262 turned his aircraft around "and I shot down the plane."

The dog fight, however, took too much fuel and Wright now had no way to get the plane safely back to his airbase.

As his gas gauge neared empty he and his flying companions went below the clouds to see if they could find a possible place to land the aircraft safely. What they found was an airfield that had German aircraft and snow that had been untouched. Wright stated the idea of landing in a German airfield at that time was better than landing in a civilian area as a few days before civilians had killed a pilot with pitchforks after he landed his aircraft.

After landing the aircraft he was to signal if the site was friend or foe. When he landed a vehicle came hurriedly out to greet him and to his relief it was a French unit. He signaled his wingmen that it was safe to land and the destruction of his plane was not needed.

"When I landed I learned the French had taken over (the airbase from the Germans) five days before," he said.

The fuel needed to get his aircraft back home took five days to reach him and his comrades. It was brought in five-gallon cans by Gen. George S. Patton's armored division, said Wright. The front lines were in Dijon, only 60 km away.

As they retuned back to their base, the weather was a thick fog. Flares were shot into the air as they were only signal strong enough to show the pilots where the end of the runways stood. Richard Peterson, who Wright said could do things with an aircraft that were truly amazing, lead his two wingman to the safety of a runway before landing himself.

The MA-262 that Wright shot down was the eighth German fighter to be taken out of commission in a dog fight during the war.

"I was sent to England to tell the story on the BBC," Wright said. "For that mission I was also given the Distinguished Flying Cross." Wright's work in the military continued through the beginning of the occupation of Germany.

"Our group was sent to occupation duty in Munich, Germany at the end of the war," he stated and it wasn't long after that when he returned home. After he returned home he began school at the University of Utah and married Marjorie, who died in 1994.

When an ad came out seeking former fighter pilots to join a budding organization called the Utah Air National Guard he approached his wife about joining. She replied, "'You must do what you like to do, and I will support you.'"

It was then he joined the Utah Air National Guard.

"I was one of the first 10 accepted. I felt like a millionaire," he stated because he got to do the things he loved.

"I was fortunate enough in my life to have three love affairs," he states. "My wife - who was the best one the P-51 and the F-86."

The F-86 was the second aircraft and the first jet he flew with the Utah Air National Guard.

He retired from the Utah Air National Guard in 1976 as a brigadier general and is still involved with the Guard today.

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