RAF-American Don Gentile cited in Congressional Gold Medal ‘Dear Colleague’ letter

Don Gentile with his Spitfire Vb while serving with No. 133 Squadron RAF at Biggin Hill in 1942. Photo via Imperial War Museums.

16 March 2017 | British Columbia, Canada. With Congressman Tim Ryan‘s introduction of H.R. 1553 (“To award a Congressional Gold Medal to all United States nationals who voluntarily joined the Canadian and British armed forces and their supporting entities during World War Two, in recognition of their dedicated service”) the largely overlooked saga of the legion of Americans who volunteered to serve with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Royal Air Force (RAF), and associated paramilitary organizations, is finally receiving national exposure via a governmental initiative. With passage, more than 70 years after the fact, these valiant and American men and women will finally be honoured by the U.S. Government. Dominic Salvatore ‘Don’ Gentile would be one of the many. With the reference to his name in the “Dear Colleague” letter prepared for Congressman Tim Ryan’s staff, Don Gentile’s prowess and success as a RAF-American and USAAF fighter pilot has now again come to the forefront.

As Karl Kjarsgaard of Bomber Command Museum of Canada and Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada) explained in a ‘Friends Feedback’ article (Friends Journal, Congressional God Medal, Fall 2016, page 4), “The RCAF played an important role in staffing the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, which also supplied a sizable number of personnel to RCAF and RAF combat squadrons. . . .” Additionally, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force states on its Eagle Squadrons webpage, “Americans flocked in droves to British and Canadian recruiting stations. Approximately 15,000 joined the Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force where, as a rule, they were assimilated into various flying units.” These ‘Yanks’ were in the fight against Nazism and Fascism long before their homeland — the United States.

Captains of the Clouds film poster.

Despite the fact that the classic 1942 Warner Brothers film Captains of the Clouds, which starred James Cagney, touched on the fact that numbers of Americans crossed the border into Canada and enlisted in the RCAF and RAF, the American and Canadian publics are generally unaware of the considerable number of Americans who went abroad, risking their U.S. citizenship, to jointly serve the Mother country (England) and the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ and the ‘British Commonwealth of Nations.’

A 20th Century Aviation Magazine volunteer possesses an ancillary connection to Dominic ‘Don’ Salvatore Gentile, an Ohioan, who was one of the famed RAF Eagle Squadron members. Our administrative member recently spoke about Don and why the man inspired him to pursue aviation as a pastime.

Don Gentile with Mustang Shangri-La’ circa 1943. USAF photo.

“I was born in the city [Dayton, Ohio] often referred to as the ‘Birthplace of Aviation’ (see the 14 June 2003 The Cincinnati Enquirer article It’s official: Ohio IS the birthplace of aviation) to a father who was employed at Gentile Air Force Station*, which was named after Don Gentile,” stated the staffer. He continued, “We resided in a home in the vicinity of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and probably predictably when a mere child I became enthralled with airplanes because I often saw and heard them overhead. Mind you in those days sonic booms produced by military jets going supersonic after takeoff was not uncommon.”

Reflecting upon his childhood, the interviewee then said, “History fascinated me and Supermarine Spitfires and North American P-51 Mustangs quickly grabbed my attention. It was also the era of the popular Ford Mustang, which was named after the famous North American Mustang fighter, and these sleek and sporty roadsters therefore likewise caught my eye.”

George Vaughn and one of his WACO biplanes circa 1976. Photo: 20th Century Aviation Magazine.

He elaborated, “My first airplane ride was arranged by a local legend, George “Sky King” Vaughn, who told the co-owner of his beautiful WACO YQC-6 cabin biplane to take my brother, father and me up for a flight. For us boys, leaving the ground were magical journeys of wonderment. Our father had taken flying lessons in 1941, but to us flying was a new experience. In fact, he confessed, “That first ascension into the sky set the stage for my brother and me to eventually become licensed aircraft mechanics and pilots.”

The 20th Century Aviation Magazine assistant continued, “A decade later, when a teenager, I enrolled as an aircraft maintenance student in a government-approved ‘Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic’ program at a facility in Clayton, Ohio. My first year class was an eclectic group. Amongst my classmates were young neophytes such as myself, a Second World War U.S. Army Air Forces Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress mechanic, a former U.S. Air Force Convair B-36 Peacemaker crew chief, and a U.S. Navy Reserve aviation machinist mate first class whose duty station was Naval Air Station Glenview. The patient and kind William F. Laufer successfully oversaw and motivated the lot. I remember him fondly.”

The speaker then added an important aside: “Mr. Laufer once regaled us in the classroom with his personal recollections of Don Gentle. That morning he also recalled seeing Gentile performing, in a Mustang, tight turns around a church steeple in Piqua, Ohio.” The staffer confessed, “Being in love with aviation and airplanes, and still being very impressionable, I drank it all in.”

Don Gentile on the wing of his P-51B Mustang ‘Shangri-La’. Photo: USAF

Author Philip Kaplan, in Two-Man Air Force, explains (page 7) that Don Gentile, as a high school student in late 1939, “was one of the many young men craving involvement.” Like fellow Ohioan of First World War famed ace Edward ‘Eddie’ Vernon Rickenbacker, he desperately wanted to become a fighter pilot. With the goal of flying for one of the U.S. Military aerial branches, Don, still a high school student, made written inquiries about joining one of the services. Yet, Don’s offers of enlistment were rebuffed, due to his not possessing the requisite university degree, by the U.S. Army Air Corps, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps.

Yet, to paraphrase a truism, “When the door is closed a window of opportunity often opens.” As fate would have it, shortly after being rejected by the three services Don encountered (Kaplan, page 8) an RCAF officer “who told him about the Eagle Squadron and the part it was playing in helping the RAF fight the enemy.” The RCAF representative was likely working on the behalf of the Clayton Knight Committee out of an office in Cleveland, Ohio. At the time Clayton Knight personnel were actively seeking American recruits for RAF and RCAF service; the RAF and RCAF desperately needed aircrew to replace the many being killed, wounded and/or captured daily on operations.

The impromptu encounter with the Canadian left an indelible impression upon young Don who wanted to fly military aeroplanes. In (page 27) his brief 1944 One Man Air Force book, Don Gentile explains that he desperately wanted to join the RAF to fly, at least until America joined the war, because he did not possess the requisite college education required in 1941. However, as Philip Kaplan points out (page 8), “The British, however, with pressure for more and more pilots mounting on the RAF every day, could not afford the luxury of the US qualification criteria.” So for those men who could not meet this educational requirement or possessed minor physical imperfections, Canada and Britain represented possible avenues into the war as flyers.

Don contacted the Clayton Knight Committee about enlisting in the RCAF or RAF, and, as Philip Kaplan states (pages 8-9),”In August 1941 he received a reply requesting that he go to the recruiting office in Windsor, Canada, to complete the initial paperwork.”

Don Gentile himself records the reasoning he provided to his parents on page 26 of his 1944 book. Gentile writes, “[I]f I joined the RAF now, I’d get to be a pilot, and when we came into the war I could transfer over and be a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force.” Therefore, Don said and did everything he could to obtain his mother and father’s permission to enlist.

Finally, according to Don (page 26), “In September, 1940 . . . Dad drove me . . . to Cleveland to enlist in the RAF.”

Although his determination and steadfastness eventually paid off, Don did feel guilt about his behaviour toward his family. He further states (page 27), “I felt like a louse as the train pulled me on past Ohio [a state that borders Canada] and toward Canada.”

With ‘processing in’ completed in Canada, Don was sent (Kaplan, page 8) to the Polaris Flight Academy in California “for three months of advanced flying training. . . .” In his 1945 book Two Hundred Thousand Flyers Willard Wiener states (page 152) the following about the installation: “This school, at Lancaster, California, was constructed for the express purpose of training RAF cadets under Lend-Lease.” Wiener continues, “The Polaris Flight Academy was located in the California desert. It was commissioned in 1941 and was utilized until shortly after Pearl Harbour for both RAF and American Eagle Squadron instruction.”

After passing his written and flying evaluations, two additional weeks of intensive instruction and evaluation awaited Don at Ottawa, Canada. The end result was that Don Gentile received an RAF commission, at the rank of Pilot Officer, on 11 November 1941. Concluding a short leave, Don departed Ohio by train for Halifax, Nova Scotia. There he embarked on a ship for the voyage to England.

Spitfire Mk Vb from 4th Fighter Group in 1941 – EN783 was flown by Steve Pisanos of the 334th FS and previously under RAF colours with No. 71 Eagle Squadron. Photo USAF.

Once in England, Don found that his flying proficiency was impeding his progression to an operational squadron; he was posted as an instructor. After a short while Don was able to No.133 Squadron RAF, one of the three famous ‘Eagle Squadrons’ which consisted largely of American volunteers serving under British commanding officers and flight commanders.

Once on strength with No. 133 Squadron, Don Gentile began to learn how to fly and fight in fighter aeroplanes. In (page 28) One Man Air Force, Don states: “I was lucky enough to get attached to the Eagle Squadron, in which some of the finest fighter pilots who ever lived were working . . . . There were not many better teachers of attack and defence than those killers, and of those who were better teachers quite a few were in the Eagle Squadron.”

4th Fighter Group memorial in the NMUSAF Memorial Park. Photo: USAF.

When Don Gentile joined No. 133 Squadron their mounts were Supermarine Spitfires. On 1 August 1942, at the controls of a Spitfire Mk. V, Don shot down two (a twin-engine Junkers Ju-88 fighter-bomber and single-engine Focke-Wulf Fw-190 Würger fighter) Luftwaffe aircraft while flying cover for the troops predominantly of The Canadian Army, which were undertaking ‘Operation Jubilee’ (also known as the ‘Dieppe Raid’). Afterward, Don received the British Distinguished Flying Cross.

No 133 Eagle Squadron RAF Supermarine Spitfire Mk Vb code MD-U EN951. Photo: American Air Museum in Britain.

During September 1942 the Eagle Squadrons completed their transfers to the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) and the 4th Fighter Group. The practical experience these RCAF and RAF fighter squadron veterans brought with them into the USAAF provided the inexperienced American unit with instant competence and effectiveness.

In fact, writer Tamar A. Mehuron apparently concurs, for in an Air Force Magazine (October 2007) article he writes: “Having flown for Britain for two years, the Eagles brought to their green American units a core of badly needed combat experience. After helping the RAF in its time of desperate need, many of the Eagle pilots continued to serve valiantly for the remainder of World War II.”

Eagle Squadrons exhibit at NMUSAF. Photo: USAF.

The National Museum of the United States Air Force’s (NMUSAF) Eagle Squadrons webpage confirms this fact by stating the following: “[T]hey provided numerous experienced combat veterans who proved invaluable to the inexperienced AAF fighter pilots who began to arrive in England in large numbers in 1943.”

A number of the transferees became highly successful combat pilots and a standout was Don Gentile.

In September 1943 Don Gentile became a USAAF flight commander. At that point he and his mates were flying massive Republic P-47 Thunderbolts. Don was credited with a third-share of a destroyed Ju-88 on 16 December 1943. Gentile claimed an Fw-190 on 5 January 1944. On 14 January he downed two Fw-190s, and another FW-190 fell to his guns on 25 February.

A P-47D at the National Museum of WWII Aviation. Photo: 20th Century Aviation Magazine.

After conversion (at the end of February 1944) to the North American P-51B Mustang, which was equipped with the Packard-built version of the superb British Rolls Royce Merlin inline aero engine, Gentile speedily tallied 15.5 additional aircraft destroyed between the period of 3 March and 8 April 1944. ‘Buckeye Don’s’ first victory flying the Mustang was on 3 March; on that day he claimed a Do 217 destroyed in aerial combat.

Don Gentile, after downing 3 Fw-190s on 8 April 1944, assumed the title of top scoring 8th Air Force ace. One must remember that at this point the Luftwaffe ranks were still filled with numerous highly proficient flyers, and Don’s proficiency during this era attests to his flying and fighting proficiencies. Gentile’s final tally of official victories was 21.83 aerial victories and 3 damaged and 6 ground kills.

Cathy and Jeff Robinson.

Jeff and Cathy Robinson, aviation aficionados who reside in British Columbia, commented on their feelings about the significance of the Congressional Gold Medal legislation. Jeff stated: “We are Canadians with very close ties to the RCAF. My father served in the RCAF in the India/Burma region, and my daughter-in-law is currently serving at the rank of major. We feel that Canadians and Americans owe the young men from the United States, who took it upon themselves to cross the border during those early dark days of World War II, a debt of gratitude. We, meaning the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, should publicly honour them and finally recognize their patriotic achievements.”

An RCAF-American Flight Sergeant pilot preparing to fly his Curtiss Kittyhawk fighter in Alaska circa 1942-1943. Photo from book First Steps West.

Cathy added, “It was at some personal risk that those men decided to come to Canada and join our air force, and some even made the dangerous ocean journey to serve in the RAF. Furthermore, these individuals were risking the loss of their U.S. citizenship. As the United States was neutral in those early days, it was technically illegal for Americans to fight under a foreign flag. Yet, these young men saw what was happening in the turbulent world of those times and understood that they could and would do their bit to help us in our time of need.”

Jeff provided a relevant aside: “A Bomber Command Museum of Canada Web page explains that, in June 1941, President Roosevelt advised that the Neutrality Act did not prevent U.S. nationals from going to Canada to enlist in the RCAF. This allayed the fears of most of those Americans in Canadian and British uniforms.”

Hawker Hurricane MK IIa at NMUSAF. RAF Eagle Squadrons flew these aeroplanes prior to Gentile’s posting. Photo: USAF.

Jeff continued, “We accepted them and they were welcomed into the RCAF and RAF as our own. There was no special treatment or delicate handling. They became one of us and were part of our family until some voluntarily transferred into the U.S. Army Air Forces.”

“There is at last a bill before the United States Congress. It, in part, recognizes these gallant volunteer heroes who took on a cause to help defeat, at a personal cost to them as well as their families, Fascism and Nazism. Some paid the ultimate price — their lives. Recognition is long overdue for these brave young men, and their deeds need to be honoured if it is almost 78 years on,” commented Cathy.

Wartime portrait of Sir Winston Churchill in the uniform of an honorary Air Commodore in the RAF Auxiliary Air Force. Image: British national Archives.

Jeff added, “The great British Prime Minister Winston Spencer Churchill, who was by the way half American, thanked, in an early wartime speech to the British Parliament, the fighter squadrons of the RAF for their defence of the Homeland. In part, Churchill said, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day. . . .’ RCAF and RAF-Americans, such as those posted to the RAF Eagle Squadrons, were amongst the ‘few’ Churchill referenced.”

“This quote is appropriate today, considering the Bill to recognize these brave young volunteers all, but there were more than just fighter pilots that came from the U.S.A. Numbers became ferry pilots and ground crews as well and their services cannot be overlooked. I sincerely hope these brave young men and women finally get the recognition they so rightly deserve from the U.S. Government, said Jeff.

In conclusion, Cathy said, “The RCAF/RAF has a proud history and the airmen and airwomen from the United States are part of this history and desperately need to be honoured and remembered.”

RCAF and RAF Floridians display at Winter Haven Municipal Airport. Photo: 20th Century Aviation Magazine.

Undoubtedly, Don S. Gentile and his colleagues will continue to inspire pilots and aspiring pilots in the future now that they are forever linked to a Congressional Gold Medal.

Americans who wish to support the passage of this legislation are encouraged to contact their Congressman or Congresswoman and request legislative co-sponsorship and / or support of H.R. 1553.

Citizens of Canada and the United Kingdom may contact The Honourable Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and express their thanks to the Congressman and his staff for introducing this worthy endeavour.

*Author’s Note: GlobalSecurity.org explains the origins of Gentile Air Force Station: “In 1955 reorganization under the Air Force Logistics Command resulted in a change in titles for the installation and specialized depot organization. The installation was named Gentile AFS and the organization designated Dayton Air Force Depot (DAFD).”

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20th Century Aviation Magazine thanks Jeff and Cathy Robinson and all those, named and unnamed, who contributed to this article.

Suggested Viewings

RAF Eagle Squadron

 

4th FG ace Don Gentile and his P-51B Mustang ‘Shangri La’

 

Captains of the Clouds. Warner Brothers, 1942.

Sources & Recommended Readings

Americans in the British Flying Services, 1914 – 1945

http://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/americans-in-the-royal-air-force/americans-in-the-british-flying-services-1914-1945.aspx

Americans in the Royal Air Force

http://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/americans-in-the-royal-air-force.aspx

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_B-17_Flying_Fortress

Bomber Command Museum of Canada

http://www.bombercommandmuseum.ca/

Caine, Phillip D. Eagles of the RAF. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1991.

Caine, Phillip D. The RAF Eagle Squadrons: American Pilots Who Flew for the Royal Air Force, Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 2009.

Convair B-36 Peacemaker

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convair_B-36_Peacemaker

Dieppe Raid

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dieppe_Raid

Dominic Gentile

https://web.archive.org/web/20081024134000/http://nationalaviation.blade6.donet.com:80/components/content_manager_v02/view_nahf/htdocs/menu_ps.asp?NodeID=294704283&group_ID=1134656385&Parent_ID=-1

Dominic Salvatore “Don” Gentile

http://acesofww2.com/USA/aces/gentile/

Dominic Salvatore “Don” Gentile

https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=22996

Dominic Salvatore Gentile

http://www.americanairmuseum.com/person/42678

Don Gentile

http://www.4thfightergroupassociation.org/uploads/8/2/0/3/8203817/336_gentiledsweb_a.pdf

Eagle Squadrons

http://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/americans-in-the-royal-air-force/eagle-squadrons.aspx

Eagle Squadrons

http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/MuseumExhibits/FactSheets/Display/tabid/509/Article/196915/eagle-squadrons.aspx

Focke-Wulf Fw 190

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focke-Wulf_Fw_190

Gaffen, Fred. Cross-Border Warriors: Canadians in American Forces, Americans in Canadian Forces From the Civil War to the Gulf, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1995.

Gentile Air Force Station

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gentile_Air_Force_Station

Gentile, Don. One Man Air Force. New York. L.B. Fischer Publishing Corporation, 1944. Reprint edition by Isha Books. New Delhi, India, 2013.

Gentile Station

http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/gentile.htm

Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada)

http://www.57rescuecanada.com/

It’s official: Ohio IS the birthplace of aviation

http://www.enquirer.com/editions/2003/06/14/loc_ohioflight14.html

Junkers Ju 88

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junkers_Ju_88

Junkers Ju 88D-1/Trop

http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/MuseumExhibits/FactSheets/Display/tabid/509/Article/196268/junkers-ju-88d-1trop.aspx

Kaplan, Philip. Two-Man Air Force. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Books, 2006.

Laufer, William F.

http://www.libraries.wright.edu/special/collectionguides/files/ms486.pdf

Maj. Don S. Gentile

http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Visit/MuseumExhibits/FactSheets/Display/tabid/509/Article/196913/maj-don-s-gentile.aspx

Major Dominic S. Gentile

http://acepilots.com/usaaf_gentile.html

Naval Air Station Glenview

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naval_Air_Station_Glenview

No. 133 ‘Eagle’ Squadron

http://www.americanairmuseum.com/unit/3979

No. 133 Squadron RAF

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._133_Squadron_RAF

Supermarine Spitfire
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supermarine_Spitfire

The Americans In The RCAF

http://www.bombercommandmuseum.ca/americansrcaf.html

The Fourth Fighter Group

http://www.4thfightergroupassociation.org/

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

http://www.bombercommandmuseum.ca/bcatp.html

The Last Flight of Don Gentile

http://www.warbirdsnews.com/warbirds-news/flight-don-gentile.html