Captain Donald J. Strait
356th Fighter Group Ace
By Stephen Sherman, Dec. 1999. Updated June 29, 2011.
He scored 13.5 victories with the 361st FS, 356th Fighter Group, being the top ace of this group, achieving all but three of his kills in Mustangs, largely in the final months of the war.
He was born on and grew up in Verona, New Jersey. Strait had wanted fly since he was a youngster, and after a brief, uninteresting stint with Prudential Insurance Company, he enlisted in 1940 in the 119th Observation Squadron of the New Jersey National Guard. He started as an armorer and moved up to become an aerial gunner in the two-seater O-46 and O-47 observation planes. In early 1942, he qualified as an aviation cadet and started his training at Maxwell Field, Alabama. After moving up through Primary and Basic Training, he received his wings and his commission in the United States Army Air Force in January, 1943.
Receiving his first-choice assignment as a fighter pilot, he began flying the P-47 Thunderbolt at Westover Field, MA. Moving up to the dramatically more powerful Thunderbolt, and flying it out of the snowy New England conditions was a real challenge. After checking out in the P-47 and completing "transition training" he was assigned to the 356th Fighter Group, then at Bradley Field, CT.
On reporting to his CO, he mentioned his background in the NJ Air National Guard and his desire for extra duty in aircraft maintenance. He was duly appointed assistant engineering officer, and got the chance to undertake all aircraft flight tests. As typical of American Fighter Groups, the 356th pilots underwent further, more advanced training in the P-47s before leaving the United States for England in August, 1943. By this time, Strait had been promoted to Captain.
When they arrived at their first base at Goxhill Aerodrome outside London, they were surprised not to find their airplanes waiting for them. Before leaving the States, they had understood that they would receive their new planes directly at Goxhill, and all the pilots had loaded the planes with all sorts of goodies: whiskey, spare parts, music records, etc. When their finally picked up their aircraft from the Eighth Air Force depot at Burtonwood, all the "goodies" had disappeared. They soon moved up to their operational base at Martlesham Heath, Suffolk, just five miles from the North Sea, which made it relatively easy to find when returning from a mission in bad weather.
The 356th made its first combat sorties in October, 1943, with sweeps over Holland and northern France; sightings of Luftwaffe planes were quite rare, and the group took over a month to score its first aerial victory. Strait's first combat occurred on February 6, 1944, when his flight bounced a pair of FW-190s while on an escort mission. He immediately attacked. The 190s split apart and he chased one down to the deck. He scored hits on it and the pilot bailed out - Strait's first kill. But he and his wingman had used too much fuel, and barely made it back to base. He shot down a couple more Bf-109s while flying Thunderbolts, on February 10 and May 19. Having completed well over 200 combat hours, he was entitled to rotate home, but agreed to continue front-line flying, provided that he was given command of the 361st Fighter Squadron. He took a 30-day leave and returned to Europe in September, 1944. He and Captain George May, the intelligence officer, reviewed daily sightings and disposition of the Luftwaffe, which helped him plan and lead the squadron's missions.
The group flew their first Mustang mission on November 20, the same day that Strait assumed command of the 361st FS.
He led the squadron again on November 26, 1944, when it flew an escort mission over the heavily defended Ruhr. After linking up with the B-17s just east of Holland, the pilots were advised of 40 bandits approaching from the south. As Strait's sixteen Mustangs arrived in the Osnabruck area, they spotted the 40 Bf-109s at 25,000 feet. They dropped tanks and attacked. Then Strait spotted about another 150 German fighters at various altitudes, preparing to attack the bombers.
"We've got the whole damn Luftwaffe!" he radioed. He closed to within 350 yards of an enemy airplane and fired; it dived away smoking. Strait's wingman saw it crash. Strait soon bounced another 109, but it eluded him. He spotted a third and closed to within 300 yards, and exploded it (a shared kill with Lt. Shelby Jett). After this dogfighting, fuel began to be a concern, so they headed home. That day the 356th FG destroyed 23 enemy aircraft without losing a single American.
After two more victories on December 5, Strait found more air combat on Christmas Day. In action again against Bf-109s, he had a nasty moment when his first victim left oil and engine coolant all over his windscreen. Skidding away, Strait almost rammed his foe. He continued shooting down German planes in 1945: an Fw-190 on Jan. 14, another Fw-190 on Feb 14, and three Fieseler Storch light observation planes on Feb 20. His 13.5 aerial victories led the 356th Fighter Group.
After the war he rejoined the NJ Air National Guard, and served on active duty during the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam. He retired from the Air Force in 1978 with the rank of Major General, and was inducted into the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame in 1989.
- Eric Hammel, Aces in Combat: The American Aces Speak, Vol 5, Pacifica Press, 1998
- Jerry Scutts, Mustang Aces of the Eighth Air Force, Osprey Publishing, 1994