Paul Ostrander '46: Fight for the Sky

Lt. Ostrander in front of a P-47 plane Duxford, England, 1944. (Courtesy Photo)

A minister’s son and a thoughtful pacifist who wanted to study law, Paul Ostrander probably never dreamed he would become a fighter pilot.

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After transition training, Ostrander deployed to England, assigned as a replacement pilot with the 78th Fighter Group, based near the village of Duxford, north of London. He was in elite company; the “Duxford Eagles,” as the 78th’s pilots were known, had already compiled an enviable air combat record against the vaunted German Luftwaffe over their own territory. 

By autumn Ostrander was flying missions over the continent in one of the group’s checker-nosed P-47s. Flying top cover high above American bomber formations that were striking strategic targets in Germany, the group’s P-47s would meet enemy fighters that rose to attack the bombers in encounters that often developed into one-on-one dogfights.

Unlike many pilots who tried to run up a personal string of “victories” in aerial combat, Ostrander took satisfaction in fulfilling the primary mission of escorting bombers and protecting their crews. In December, 1944, he wrote his family: “The other day I was talking to a bomber pilot about operations, it made me quite happy. On the way home from escort missions we always stay with the struggling, damaged bombers to cover them. This pilot said that when they are behind and damaged by German fighter planes and [they] see our fighter planes [we] look just like angels from heaven. I’m happy to know I am able to do some good.”

That month the 78th switched from P-47s to the new P-51 “Mustang,” the hottest (some said the prettiest) fighter in the Army Air Force inventory. Equipped with long-range fuel tanks, the P-51 could escort the bombers anywhere in Germany. It was also a ship that Ostrander delighted in flying. His personal P-51 was humorously nicknamed the “Porcelain Pillbox”.

More missions followed, mostly bomber escorts but increasingly, hazardous low-level strafing attacks on tactical targets as well: airfields, railroads, bridges, flak towers. In January he wrote again, revealing mixed feelings about these operations. “I think that I am near to being a pacifist. I admit I am not a good soldier when it comes to strafing in particular. I never get that urge to…tear down to the ground and shoot everything that is German.” But, he concluded, “When I read an article like the one on the November Reader’s Digest, ‘Nazi War factory’ I know that if I were to come close to anything like that I would be certainly moved to do something.”

Although not as publicized as the aerial “dogfights,” the low-level ground attack missions were important—and risky. More American fighter pilots were downed by anti-aircraft fire than by German pilots in air combat. Ostrander’s letters reflected a maturity brought on by combat and increasing responsibility beyond his age. Just 20, he was now a flight leader and would soon become assistant operations officer of his squadron. His wingman and good friend was Lt. Jim Moore. Together they made a tight team, watching out for each other in the air.

On Feb. 3, 1945 the 78th escorted over 1,000 heavy bombers to Berlin. Afterward, the group’s pilots went down on the “deck,” seeking targets of opportunity. They strafed an airbase at nearby Luneburg, leaving 15 Nazi planes burning and damaging 11 more. Ostrander got two and damaged one. “We made our first attack from out of the sun about eight miles from (the) airdrome,” he wrote in a report, “I saw bullets strike an FW 190 but it did not catch fire. The second time over, the plane I attacked burned quickly and on the last pass the third German fighter caught fire just as I pulled away.”