John Howard Wheeler was born on February 3, 1921 in Springfield, Hampden County, Massachusetts. He was the son of Ernest and Irene. Ernest James Wheeler was born in August 1889 in Springfield. He was a banker and became President of the Springfield Bank. Irene Wheeler (née Kenyon) was born in August 1891 in Springfield.
John grew up in Springfield with his parents and his two older brothers Ernest James, Jr. (born in August 1914 in Springfield) and George Kenyon (born in September 1917 in Springfield). They were both Navy World War Two Veterans. The family was relatively well off.
John attended local schools and graduated from Classical High School in 1939. Then he went on to Loomis Chaffee School, a college preparatory school in Connecticut, graduating in 1940. Then he went on to Babson Institute, a business school in Wellesley, Massachusetts (now Babson College), graduating in 1942.
John was a brilliant student and regarded as a good fellow. He loved studying, sports and invested himself in the life of each school he attended. During his school years, he was a member of the School Band (as a saxophonist at Classical High School), belonged to many clubs as Traffic Squad, Welfare Board (as a treasurer) and played in sports clubs (Soccer, Golf, etc.). John’s nicknames were Jack, Whack and Jackson.
He was described as being a "rare compound of oddity, frolic and fun, who relished a joke and rejoiced in a pun"; and a brilliant, smart, calm, optimistic and active boy with a lot of ambition. He was conscientious and diligent about his work. He was reflective, but also a happy and jubilant fellow, a competitor and excelled in sports. He was especially talented in mathematics. His goal was to work as a financial accountant or in financial management and he hoped to enter a financial firm after Babson Institute, and did so – working briefly for Scovell, Wellington & Co, an accounting firm.
From Civilian to Fighter Pilot
John enlisted in the US Army Air Corps Reserves in the first days of September 1942. Prior to enlistment, John took pre-flight aeronautic courses in a night school in Springfield.
He began his training as an aviation cadet pilot on March 7, 1943. He was assigned to the Cadet Flying Program, which required the candidate to be unmarried, between 19 and 25 years of age, athletic and to have at least two or three years of high school education. The Program was tough and only the best candidates graduated. Those who did not graduate were assigned to the regular army.
The Cadet Flying Program included Training School and Pilot School. Training School consisted in Classification (to determine if the Cadet would be a pilot, a navigator or a bombardier) and Pre-Flight (to learn basics of flying). Those who graduated were sent to Pre-Flight School.
Pre-Flight School consisted of : 1- Primary Pilot Training, including 60 hours in USAAF airplanes with a civilian employee instructor. 2- Basic Flight Training, including 70 hours in the air in a two-seater aircraft with more weight, power and speed compared with those earlier in the training. Cadets also learned flying in formation and by night. It was decided at this stage if Cadets would go to the single-engine or to the twin-engine advanced school (John went to the single-engine advanced school). 3- Advanced Pilot Training, including 70 hours in the air. Cadets were prepared for combat, increased their skills in navigation and formation and instruments flying. They learned aerial gunnery and combat maneuvers. At the end of the advanced training, pilots graduated and received their wings and commissions and entered Transition Pilot Training. In "Transition" newly graduated pilots trained for the first time with the type of airplane they were to fly in combat. This was the last step before they were deployed overseas.
So John Wheeler was first sent to the Nashville Army Air Center in Nashville, Tennessee for classification. Then he attended Pre-Flight School at Maxwell Field, Alabama, beginning on April 11, 1943. During his months of training, John spent a lot of time learning his skills both in and after classes. Each course ended with tests and every trainee needed to have a good average to continue to the next stage. John received his commission to Second Lieutenant on November 3, 1943 at Marianna Army Airfield, Marianna, Florida, an advanced single engine training school. He trained there with the 17th Single-Engine Flying Training Group, 28th Flying Training Wings, Eastern Flying Training Group. After he received his Pilot Wings at Marianna Airfield, he joined the transition pilot training. Once he completed his training, he shipped overseas to England in March 1944.
USAAF pilots usually landed in Gourock, Scotland and moved on to Atcham, England. Atcham Airfield was home of the 495th Fighter Training Group, which only flew P-47s. There the pilots were taught tactics for the European Theatre Operations.
366th Fighter Squadron
Second Lieutenant Wheeler was assigned on April 6, 1944 to the 366th Fighter Squadron, 358th Fighter Group, 9th US Army Air Force. The 358th Fighter Group was composed of the 365th, 366th and 367th Fighter Squadrons. Those three squadrons were equipped with P-47 Republic Thunderbolts. Each plane of the 366th FS was coded with IA plus a letter. The P-47 Republic Thunderbolt (nicknamed "The Jug") was the largest one-engine fighter in the U.S. military. It was a massive aircraft equipped with a very powerful engine, armed with 8 machine guns and could be equipped with 2000 pound bombs (2x1000 pound bombs under each wing or 1x1000 pound under fuselage + 2x500 pound bombs under each wing). The P-47 was regarded as an excellent tactical support weapon, used as a bomber, fighter, and escort airplane.
John Wheeler never had his own plane. Some of the senior pilots were allowed to name and call one of the planes their own, but it would also be flown by other pilots as well.
When John joined his squadron on April 8, 1944, they were stationed AAF-157, Raydon Airfield, Suffolk, north of London. The squadron was then transferred to USAAF Station AAF-411, High Halden, Kent, south east of London on April 13, 1944. High Halden Airfield was an advanced landing ground located just in front of Pas de Calais, France and was a temporary airfield used to support Allied ground forces. Being close to the continent, they had the maximum range for aircraft over enemy territory.
At High Halden, life was filled with training, missions, rest, furloughs, card games and squadron activities (softball and baseball). The 366th FS organized a party on May 7, 1944 with beer and cider, potato salad and sandwiches, and was preceded by a softball game between officers and enlisted men; an enjoyable day in wartime. The squadron also had two mascots, Rusty and Sabu. Rusty was a cocker spaniel, owned by Lieutenant Hamilton and Sabu, a black and white great dane, owned by Captain Kimball. Sabu had the run of the base. According to Hugh Smith (366th FS pilot), "Sabu became something of a menace at High Halden during take off operations. He delighted in crouching at the side of the run, then dashing across the runway in front of the plane taking off ! […]. That big dog brightened many a day for many a pilot".
John Wheeler flew between 30 and 35 missions in Europe including armed reconnaissance, escort (known as "ramrod"), dive bombing, glide bombing, strafing and patrol. Initial targets were often railroads, bridges, marshalling yards and communications areas. Secondary targets were also identified in case the initial targets were not found or if pilots still had bombs. They could sometimes find targets of opportunity as in a convoy of trucks, enemy troops, etc. John received a briefing for each mission in the operation room. Some briefings were scheduled by order, others were last minute assignments by telephone call. The mission could come in at any time during the night or day but could also be planned well ahead of time and scheduled as weather and events allowed.
A mission was usually composed of sixteen planes, broken into four different flights of four aircrafts each (designated White, Red, Blue and Yellow). White was always the lead flight and was led by a senior officer. A flight of four pilots comprised two elements of two pilots each: an element leader and his wingman. A pilot’s position in the flight was based on his experience. After D-Day some missions of one flight of four planes or even two planes (recon or special orders like dropping leaflets), or missions of three flights of four planes (so twelve planes missions) were flown.
For his first missions, John flew with White Flight, as a wingman of Major Underwood (366th Squadron Commander) and Captain Kimball (366th Assistant Operation Officer), both were original members of the squadron. Then he often flew as wingman of Lieutenant McLellan. He flew his first mission on April 22, 1944, a dive bombing mission over Belgium.
Missions flown by Second Lieutenant Wheeler in May 1944 were focused on bombing railroads, marshalling yards, bridges and communication areas in Belgium and northern France. In general, northern France from Normandy to Pas-de-Calais and Belgium were bombed to keep the Germans guessing where the invasion would actually occur. The 366th FS was also involved in a practice mission during Operation Fabius, a D-Day rehearsal in Slapton Sands Devonshire, UK (Army, Navy, Airforce forces were involved in the operation).
These are missions among many others. On May 4, 1944, John and his squadron took off at 6:05 AM and landed at 8:30 AM. Pilots observed a naval bombardment, B-26s bombing, paratroopers and landing barges off the English coast. This practice mission meant that the squadron was going to participate in Operation Neptune and Operation Overlord. On May 13, 1944, John participated in his only mission over Germany. He and his squadron escorted Bombers to Osnabrück, Germany. On May 30, 1944, John escorted Bombers B-17 to a "Noball" target near Lille, Northern France. Noball targets were german rocket launching sites. He flew with Blue Flight, took off at 9:15 AM and landing at 11:50 AM. A convoy of 30 unknown small boats was observed off Knocke, Occupied Belgium.
In June, John and his squadron flew bombing and reconnaissance missions, mainly on the Normandy beachhead supporting the troops on the ground in the invasion effort and in southern Normandy to slow down the German troops trying to get to the front.
On June 3, 1944, all leaves and passes were cancelled. Pilots had to remain on alert, ready to take off at any time. John Wheeler flew on June 7, 1944, escorting C-47s for supply drops to ground forces, Cherbourg Peninsula Occupied France. He flew with Red Flight, took off at 4:20 AM and landed at around 8:30 AM. Pilots were briefed by 3:00 AM. They met the C-47s at Portland east of Exeter, England. There was heavy anti-aircraft fire over Normandy. The pilots remarked that the drop zone was flooded. On that day, John Wheeler flew as wingman of Lieutenant McLellan. He remembered : "the take off was a nightmare, it was still dark. […]. There was heavy low overcast and it was raining. As we taxied out, a large explosion and fire sowed where a P-51 had cracked upon our neighbouring field. I could just see a faint tail light ahead which was the next ship in my flight. We had to assemble to the right because of the traffic pattern of the field on our left […]. The weather was so bad […]. We had lost the Colonel and the rest of the group all together so we escorted C-46s […]. I have never seen anything like it, there were gliders which had brought airborne troops. They were all over the ground, most of them had their tails smashed off during landing. The ground were like a polka-dot dress with all the coloured chutes, some were supplies, some were men. We went in at 1500 feet but there wasn’t any flak, just a few machine guns with tracers and 20mm. They got several of the C-46s […]. On the ground things looked fairly peaceful, men standing around in groups and some were walking down the road […]. We got back in time for a cold breakfast".
On June 15, 1944, John Wheeler participated in two missions in a day. First Effort in the morning (a dive bombing mission, the target was the Coutance, Avranches and Domfront area west of Normandy along the coast. They strafed, bombed and destroyed armored cars, box cars, and bridges) and Third Effort in the evening (a glide bombing mission, the target was the Coutance and La Gouttière area southwest of Normandy. While they destroyed a truck, the main objective, a bridge, was not hit). Lieutenant Mc Lellan recalled : "…another bridge. This time we had 8 second delay fuses. Capt Hylen and his wingman Lt Rice went in and had a good hit, while I and my wingman, Lt Wheeler gave top cover. Rice’s bombs did not come off. Hylen’s hit the bridge. Then Wheeler and I came in for our run. Three of our bombs hit on the tracks by the bridge and one hit, but skipped off and landed in a field. Then we went on in and found some freight cars and shot the holy hell out of them, left 8 or 10 on fire. We dove in low and if there’d been telephone wires we would have hit them".
In July 1944, John and his squadron mainly flew bombing and escort missions over Normandy, Pas-de-Calais and close to Paris, aimed at supporting troops on the ground and slowing down German reinforcements. The frontline at this time was frozen in Normandy.
In a letter dated from July 1, 1944, he said that he had just reached 100 hours of flight in combat. He began to fly as an element leader.
Irene, Gold Star Mother
John Wheeler participated in an armed reconnaissance mission on July 14, 1944, south of Normandy. On this day, he flew the P-47 Republic Thunderbolt Type DE-20-RE, coded IA–E.
The 358th Fighter Group consisted of 35 planes for this mission: 10 pilots from the 366th Fighter Squadron and 25 other pilots from the 365th and 367th FS. John’s squadron was composed of three flights : White, Red and Yellow. John flew with Red Flight. The group took off from High Halden at 1:10 PM, with different objectives.
On this date, few pilots and staff were stationed at High Halden as the 358th Fighter Group and its squadrons were transferring to Cretteville airfield, Normandy. This was the last mission flown from High Halden.
The mission began with White Flight destroying four enemy armored vehicles close to Alençon. Yellow flight attacked a railroad south of Argentan. Then Yellow Flight joined White Flight. Red Flight was focused on their targets near Argentan. John Wheeler had already made his bomb run and was covering Lieutenant Smith. It was then that John Wheeler was hit by flak. He parachuted from his aircraft. His P-47 crashed at Lieu-Dit La Boissière, Saint Sulpice Sur Risle, in the vicinity of L’Aigle. John was found dead on the ground.
As John crashed in an enemy area, he might have been first buried in a communal cemetery or in a field. With the advance of the Allies, casualties formerly buried in enemy territory were transferred to US temporary cemeteries. John’s remains were buried in the temporary cemetery 3572 of Saint André de L’Eure, Plot D Row 7 Grave 134, at an unknown date.
The remains of Second Lieutenant John Howard Wheeler were finally transferred to The Normandy American Cemetery of Colleville Sur Mer, and he is buried in Plot D Row 21 Grave 32.
He was awarded the Purple Heart, the World War Two Victory Medal and the AAF Pilot Wings when he graduated. In combat, he was awarded the Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters. The Air Medal was established in May 1942 and given to airmen whose combat duties require regular and frequent flying, for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight and action against enemy. The bronze oak leaf clusters represented one additional award and subsequent awards of the same decoration. He was awarded the Air Medal on June 13, 1944 and received his first bronze oak leaf cluster. He received a second oak leaf, and a third oak leaf by general orders on June 27, 1944. He was posthumously awarded the last two on August 14, 1944.
The USAAF report states: "Lt Wheeler was last seen circling in light flak near Alençon and it is believed he was hit. No details known".
Hugh J Smith also recalled, "Four of us were in formation very near Argentan. It seems I was the only one of the flight who had not made a bomb run when we heard reports that one of the other squadrons was being attacked by German fighters. Someone told me to get rid of those bombs. I made a run on some unrecalled target, Wheeler stayed up to cover me. After releasing the bombs at about four hundred feet, I made a steep climbing turn to the left. At this point someone, probably DeGruchy (Red Flight’s leader) told Wheeler and me to get back into formation because of enemy fighters in the area. I could see what I thought was Wheeler’s aircraft almost over Argentan. He was the object of intense anti-aircraft fire. I opted not to try rejoining Wheeler and continued the climbing left turn to rejoin DeGruchy and Joe Test. Wheeler did not rejoin the flight […]. The returning flights were all down at home base by 1610 hours from what had been one of their toughest missions so far. It also turned out to be the last one the 358 FG would fly from High Halden".
A German Luftwaffe report related an aerial combat between 2:36 PM and 2:45 PM. 20 Focke Wulf-190 Jagdgeschwader-26s & 15 Messerschmidt-109 Jagdgeschwader-27s engaged a group of P-47, for one loss and five victories. The 366th Fighter Squadron (White and Yellow Flights) was bounced by all these German fighters. Lieutenant Hamilton, flying with the squadron, was also shot down.
French archives said that "For our part, we saw two aircrafts duels above our heads. An American was hit, the airman was strafed during his parachute descent. Its winner has shaved the vegetable garden and landed on a plateau between Aube and here" ( here = Saint Sulpice sur Risle ). "The airman was wounded to the eyebrow, it's a twenty-year-old lieutenant, who shot down his second plane during the day".
After studying the archives, we can say that John Wheeler was hit by enemy flak and was unable to rejoin his flight. He lost altitude for an unknown reason and met the German fighter airplane of Non Commissioned Officer Paul Taube in the vicinity of L’Aigle. Having been attacked or on the way to be attacked, John parachuted and was strafed during his parachute descent. He was badly wounded and was found dead on the ground.
Paul Taube was piloting a Focke Wulf-190 Jagdgeschwader-77 and claimed a victory alone in the vicinity of L’Aigle at 2:40 PM. He said that he shot down a P-47, at an altitude of 2624 feet, after he met a group of P-47s over a forest south of L’Aigle. Running out of fuel, he was forced to land in a field. He had just shot down another P-47 in Tilly Sur Seulles at 2:27 PM.
The German government notified John Wheeler’s parents that he died of his wounds in Germany as a result of combat.
Second Lieutenant John Howard Wheeler, you are not forgotten.
1- 1930 US Census
2- 1940 US Census
3- Springfield Daily Republican
5- "Thunderbolts over High Halden", Orchard Print & Design, Graham J HUKINS
6- 358th Fighter Group War Diaries
7- Classical High School 1939 Yearbook
8- Loomis Chaffee School 1940 Yearbook
9- Babson Institute 1941 Yearbook
10- Babson Institute 1942 Yearbook
11- Macr 6880
12- Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, Springfield, Massachusetts
13- US Headstone and Internment Records
14- The American Battle Monument Commission
15- With the help of Claiborne Stokes, Historian of the 367th Fighter Squadron
16- Courtesy of the Wheeler Family
"This story is part of the Stories Behind the Stars project (see www.storiesbehindthestars.org). This is a national effort of volunteers to write the stories of all 400,000+ of the US WWII fallen here on Fold3. Can you help write these stories? Related to this, there will be a smartphone app that will allow people to visit any war memorial or cemetery, scan the fallen's name and read his/her story."