Talking Proud --- Military

Burma Banshees, "Angels on our Wings," the call of death to the enemy

The 80th Fighter Group of the 10th Army Air Force (AAF) had a motto, "Angels on our Wings," because its primary mission was to escort and conduct combat air patrols for transports "Over the Hump" in WWII. But the group's nickname, the "Burma Banshees," sent a message to its Japanese enemies in the China-Burma-India Theater that when they heard the wailing sound of a Banshee's machine, death and destruction were coming their way. The first AAF fighter squadron to this theater, during the two years it fought (1943-1945), it launched 18,873 planes on 4,719 missions, destroyed more than 200 bridges and destroyed 80 enemy planes in the air or on the ground. It received the Distinguished Unit Citation for a most remarkable defense of a critical Indian oil refinery. This fighter group kept the supply lines open to China and helped Allied bombers and ground troops defeat a Japanese onslaught that at one point in this war seemed unstoppable. Like so many other Americans in this war, the Banshees made a difference, stepping up to defend freedom, putting their lives on the line for a cause.

February 22, 2005

Update April 8, 2012: Bob Contreas’ father, Walter Contreas, was a member of the Burma Banshees. Bob has forwarded some photos from his father’s collection and I have posted them at the end of the section, “80th FG Stories & pics.” I am calling this the Contreas Collection.

80th Fighter Group (FG) "Burma Banshee" P-40N "Warhawk," 1944. A painting by Richard Groh, presented by Adam Lewis' "Adam's planes."

Gerald Wergin of Wausau, Wisconsin, became an Army Air Force (AAF) fighter pilot at the age of 19.

Lt. (later Captain) Gerald Wergin, "Burma Banshee"

He was assigned to the 90th Fighter Squadron (FS), 80th Fighter Group (FG), 10th Air Force (AF) in the China-Burma-India theater of war, known as the CBI of WWII. He named his P-40 "Miss Beverly."

Army Air Corps uniform of the late Captain Gerald Wergin, held by his wife, Jean, as she donated it to the Wausau Historical Museum, Wisconsin, in March 2005. Note the 10th Air Force patch on the right shoulder, the CBI patch on the left shoulder, the Presidential Unit Citation worn on the right breast, his pilot wings in the left breast, along with the Distinguished Flying Cross with one oak leaf cluster, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and three Battle Stars to his Theatre Ribbon. Photo credit: Marek Enterprise

Gerald was deeply affected by the war, often flying sufficiently low that he could literally see the faces of the people he was strafing or bombing. As with most Americans who fought the Japanese, Lt. and then Captain Wergin had great contempt for his Japanese enemy, and did his job bravely, courageously, and well. He flew 156 combat missions, compiled more than 500 combat hours of flying, and was one of the lucky ones to return home, after which time he built a successful construction business back in Wausau, helping to build the nation for which he risked his life.

An article entitled, "Capt. Wergin tells of blasting Jap jungle positions in Burma," was published by the Wausau Daily Record Herald, on October 6, 1945. Wergin explained things this way:

"(The enemy would) throw everything they had at us from 75 mm flak to small arms fire (during the dive bombing or skip bombing runs). They would even throw mortar fire at us at times...At first we flew missions in the Assam Valley in northeast India in close ground support for Merrill's Marauders until they cleared an air strip in Burma. From then on we operated entirely from bases in Burma ... The jungle was so dense that the Japs could hide an entire motor pool, but we would be able to spot the target through the surrounding terrain shown on the 'recon' pictures ... Those eight 50 calibre machine guns mounted on the P-47s are really effective. When we would peel off on the barges we could see the Japs going overboard and swimming around after the vessels were sunk ... The trains usually moved at night, but occasionally we would find one on the move in the day-time or being made up. They were pressed for locomotives and used diesel units interspersed throughout the trains. As we could not see the power units in the trains we would strafe the entire length of the string of cars and stop them that way ... Sometimes we would find pro-Japanese Burmese using elephants to move supplies for the enemy and strafe them. The elephants would really go to pieces when hit by 50 calibre fire."

The 80th FG was known as the "Burma Banshees." The group's motto was, "Angels on our Wings." Its enemy and the target of its destruction were the military forces of Japanese Imperial Empire. Its area of operation was the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of War, World War II (WWII), in the main, Burma and India, between 1943-1945, under the command of the 10th Army Air Force (AAF).

A good first question is, “What is a Banshee?”

The banshee in Irish Gaelic, is called "bean sidhe," which means "supernatural woman." She is envisioned with a sunken nose, scraggy hair and huge hollow eye sockets. Her eyes are fiery red from continuous weeping. She wears a tattered white sheet flapping around her. She wails outside the door of someone who is about to die. Those familiar with the Curtiss P-40 "Warhawk" say that she makes a mighty wailing sound when on one of her dive bomb runs, hence, "Burma Banshee."

This is the nose art of an 80th FG P-40N on a model aircraft made by Adam Lewis

Here's the real McCoy, an 80th FG aircraft nose, at an undisclosed airfield in the CBI during WWII. Photo courtesy of Randy Clower, whose father flew with the 80th FG Banshees.

The skull signified death in the sky for opponents.

Quite clearly, the “Burma Banshees” had their minds set on bringing death to their Japanese enemies, and that's exactly what they did.

This photo is by John M. Dibbs.

As an aside, we suggest all Americans page through nose art employed by our air forces during WWII. They will see what was on the minds of our fighting boys, either death and destruction to our enemies or dreams of a girl back home. We need to bring this grand tradition back.

The story we'll tell of the 80th FG is going to cover a lot of ground. There is fascinating history surrounding these men and their missions. Most of us have for much of our lives concentrated our knowledge about WWII on Europe and the Southwest Pacific. Here, we are going to concentrate on the CBI, and we will place it in the context of the overall war throughout the Pacific.

As we cover all this ground, you might feel like you're getting tangled up in a chaotic mess. That is the way we felt assembling this report. The US was not prepared for WWII in the Pacific. We were surprised at Pearl Harbor, General MacArthur swore up and down the Japanese would not attack the Philippines, and no one was ready for the speed at which the Japanese war machine conquered most of Asia.

As a result, you will see a great deal of organizational scrambling to meet the Japanese advance and you are going to meet a most intriguing cast of characters that led it. You are also going to see persistently courageous seat-of-the-pants warfighting in a most challenging environment to halt the Japanese advance on the Asian continent and turn it into a resounding and humiliating defeat for the Japanese, a people who committed some of the most horrendous crimes against humanity known to mankind in this theater of war.

The "Burma Banshees" are part of all this. Telling their story is a fun way to acquaint you this most important piece of history.

The pre-war setting of the China-Burma-India Theater of War: If asked about the war in the Pacific, most Americans will tell you that the number one player was Japan. That's fair enough, but it is crucial to understand the major role was played by China, and Japan in China. This is a brief historical overview.

The Japanese race through Asia: A short review. The word to describe Japanese ambitions in Asia is “expansion.” The Japanese had a vision of owning a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere," though their actions and crimes against humanity would hardly have accomplished such an objective.

The Allies eat up the clock getting organized: A study of the 10th AAF to which the Burma Banshees were assigned takes you into the mind-boggling organizational chaos that enveloped the Allies from the outset of the war against Japan. It has taken us considerable time and effort to piece it together. What evolved was a remarkable and workable division of effort in the war against Japan, along with a cast of characters that can compete with Monty and Patton over in Europe any day of the week.

An overview of the Banshees' missions: It's early 1943, and the 80th FG, training back in the US, said it was ready for combat. Originally, the group trained on P-47s because it thought it was going to Europe. It then received orders for India and had to train in the P-40. The group shipped out in May 1943, bound for India by way of Brazil, the Cape of Good Hope, and Ceylon. Once there, the group deployed to bases in the Assam Valley in India, just outside northern Burma. Its motto was, “Angels on our wings." We'll take a close look at what the 80th FG was up against when it arrived. That is, what missions would the group have to fly, and why.

The 80th Fighter Group, some stories and photos: Obtaining information about and photos of the Banshees has been hard, very hard. But we have obtained enough to give you a sense for these courageous men and their flying machines. Our hope is we have gotten a good enough start that veterans and/or their families will provide us more. We'll append our pages at the drop of a hat.

More war photos to round out your understanding of the environment: National Geographic magazine at the time understood the importance and environmental challenges of the CBI. We conclude our report by presenting some photos from its 1940s editions to deepen your understanding of what our fighting boys contended with.