The Eighth and Ninth Air Forces operating out of England supported the landing forces in the lead up to and during the Normandy invasion. This tour profiles six individuals who are commemorated in the Normandy American Cemetery who lost their lives while participating in the campaign from the air.
William J. McGowan
391st Fighter Squadron, 366th Fighter Group
2ndLt. William Joseph “Bill” McGowan was born on July 26, 1920 in Benson, Minn. McGowan had anticipated a career in journalism since his father published a local newspaper.
After graduating from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, McGowan worked at several places, including the United Press in Madison, Wis, and as an editor of his father’s newspaper. In early February 1943, McGowan reported for training with the Army Air Corps.
After extensive training, McGowan received his 2ndLieutenant commission and pilot wings in December 1943. He then went to Harding Field, Baton Rouge, La. for fighter pilot training, where he married Suzanne Schaefer in February 1944. Two months later, he shipped off to England and was deployed with the 391stFighter Squadron, 366thFighter Group at RAF Thruxton. McGowan made fourteen missions as part of a number of P-47 fighter sweeps over France leading up to the D-Day invasion. He had flown over 30 combat missions in all.
On June 6, 1944, while on a low-level mission (the most dangerous types for fighter pilots) supporting the invasion on the Normandy beaches, McGowan’s P-47 was shot down. According to the official eyewitness account in McGowan’s missing aircrew report, Lt. Paul Stryker (who was killed in action later that year) said that the two pilots flew low to drop fragmentation bombs onto a train. They then pulled up surrounded by flak. Moments later, McGowan’s P-47 was hit. The plane crashed, bursting into flames near the village of Moon-sur-Elle. Not yet 24 years old, McGowan was posthumously awarded the Air Medal and Purple Heart. He is listed as Missing In Action since his remains were never recovered. He was survived by his wife of four months, his parents and two sisters.
Awards: Air Medal, Purple Heart
William J. McGowan is memorialized on the Walls of the Missing at Normandy American Cemetery.
Michael G. H. McPharlin
Headquarters, 339th Fighter Group
Plot E, Row 1, Grave 43
Maj. Michael G. H. McPharlin was a self-described misfit in the 339thFighter Group. Before the war, McPharlin was a medical student in Germany who spoke fluent German. He tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps but was rejected because of his height. Undaunted, he traveled to Canada where he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. They wanted him to serve as a medical officer, but he insisted on becoming a fighter pilot. For two years, he served in England as a member of the American Eagle Squadron of the Royal Air Force, gaining a reputation as an ace fighter pilot.
In 1942 flying with No. 71 Eagle Squadron, McPharlin shared in several FW-190 kills and one of a JU-88 bomber. He knew the Germans were monitoring RAF radio channels, so he’d reportedly curse in German and dare them to come up to fight their aircraft. During a commando raid on Dieppe, he was shot down over the English Channel and rescued. After the Eagle Squadrons were transferred to the 4thFighter Group, McPharlin returned to the United States. He was married in December 1942 and then returned to Europe, having been assigned to the 339thFighter Group.
McPharlin never actually flew a mission with the 339th. Instead, he often flew with his buddies from the No. 71 Eagle Squadron in the 334thFighter Squadron. He scored one and a half kills flying with them in May 1944. (A half kill is when two pilots shoot down one enemy aircraft).
During a strafing mission on June 6, 1944, McPharlin was reported missing. He radioed that his left magneto (an electrical generator within the engine) was out, the engine was running rough, and he was aborting the mission. His crash site and his remains were located near Evreux at 9 p.m. that evening.
Awards: Air Medal with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters
Michael G. H. McPharlin is buried in Normandy American Cemetery Plot E, Row 1, Grave 43.
George W. Rarey
379th Fighter Squadron, 362nd Fighter Group
Plot F, Row 14, Grave 25
Capt. George W. Rarey, from Enid, Okla., was a commercial artist and cartoonist before serving as a pilot with the 379thFighter Squadron. At 21 years old, he was working in the art department of the Washington Star when he met his future wife, Betty Lou. They soon married, and in early 1942, Rarey was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was sent south for preflight training and Betty Lou followed her husband around the country for a year and a half, from Florida to Mississippi, from Alabama to Massachusetts.
On November 22, 1943, Rarey and his group set sail for England. At 25 years old, he was just a few years older than many of his fellow airmen, garnering the nickname “Dad.” Rarey was one of the best-loved pilots of the 362ndFighter Group. He designed and painted the nose art for almost 30 aircrafts, including his own. Despite the incredible pressures placed upon Rarey as a fighter pilot, he was described by fellow servicemen as gentle and friendly, always drawing or sketching during his free time.
The 362ndFighter Group flew its first mission on February 8, 1944 over France. The following month, Rarey heard news from Betty Lou that he had become a father. In celebration he renamed and repainted his P-47 as “Damon’s Demon” after his newborn son. Sadly he would never meet his son. A few weeks after D-Day, Rarey took off leading a four-aircraft section on a search and destroy mission over France. A direct flak blast exploded near his aircraft and he was killed. His son, Damon, later published a book full of his father’s wartime sketches and cartoons entitled “Laughter and Tears.”
Awards: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 8 Oak Leaf Clusters
George W. Rarey is buried in Normandy American Cemetery Plot F, Row 14, Grave 25.
George R. Moon
451st Bomber Squadron, 322nd Bomber Group, Medium
Plot D, Row 1, Grave 34
TSgt. George R. Moon was born on February 1923 in Salmon Bay, Wash. As soon as Moon was old enough he joined the U.S. Army Air Forces where he studied avionics.
In his letters home he lamented about the long exercises, living quarters, and daunting inspections, stating, “Oh-h-h Mommy. I wanna go home.”
After graduating with the Tryndall Field Aerial Gunners Class 42-14, Squadron B in April 1942, Moon became Acting Section Chief at air bases in South Carolina and Louisiana. Five months later, he was sent to Great Sailing, Andrews Air Base, England with the 41stBomb Squadron, 322ndBomb Group.
Moon, a B-26 radio operator/aerial gunner on the B-26 Marauder ‘Pickled-Dilly,’ had been waiting for transport home after completing his missions when on July 7, 1944, his best friend, who had a wife and child at home, was ordered on one final mission. Moon volunteered to take his place. The ‘Pickled-Dilly’, on its 106th mission, was sent alongside 32 B-26s and three Pathfinder aircraft on a bombing mission to the V-1 Flying Bomb Headquarters at Château de Ribeaucourt, France. Attacks from German fighter aircrafts began immediately in the Oisemont area. The onslaught of 40-50 twin and single engine enemy fighters did not let up until ten miles out of the English Channel. Heavy flak and searchlights resulted in many casualties. The ‘Pickled-Dilly’ was one of nine B-26s that were shot down on the mission. All aboard were killed.
Awards: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 11 Gold Stars, Purple Heart
George R. Moon is buried in Normandy American Cemetery Plot D, Row 1, Grave 34.
Walter F. Perra
7th Fighter Squadron, 20th Fighter Group
Plot B, Row 17, Grave 24
2ndLt. Walter F. Perra and his four brothers and sister grew up in Ceres, Calif.. Medrick, Walter’s brother, was a talented tool and die maker who worked for Douglas Aircraft, making aircraft for the war effort in World War II. His brother, Joe, also served in the war as a navigator and bomber who flew from North Africa and Italy to Germany and Austria.
Walter was a P-38 pilot assigned to the 77thFighter Squadron, 20thFighter Group. He was training at the Santa Ana Army Air Base by February 22, 1943, and wrote many letters home: "I still hope I'll be classified for pilot training."
By April 8, 1944, Perra was stationed in Kings Cliffe, England and he wrote many letters to his family about the kindness of the English people. From April 1944, through early June of that same year, Perra flew 14 missions. Walter was then assigned to fly fleet support for the D-Day invasion.
When D-Day arrived, Walter was assigned to support the fleet for what he referred to as “the Big Show." He flew five more sorties during the invasion, attacking German trains bringing supplies to the front lines. He became Missing in Action on June 15, 1944, while flying over Dreux. Hit by enemy fire, according to French eyewitnesses, he could have bailed out and saved himself, but chose to steer the aircraft away from the town of Les Corvees below him before trying to bail out at only 100 ft. above the ground. He was killed instantly. The civilians of Les Corvees and Dreux held a ceremony in 1944 to honor Walter, and buried him in secret, defying the Germans. He lay buried and listed as missing in action until a few months after the war ended and an American Graves Registration unit was able to discover his identity. A small monument to Perra, erected by the villagers of Les Corvees, is located near the original crash site.
Awards: Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart
Walter F. Perra is buried in Normandy American Cemetery Plot B, Row 17, Grave 24.
Bernard L. McGrattan
335th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group
Plot B, Row 3, Grave 41
Capt. Bernard L. “Big Mac” McGrattan, a fighter pilot in the 4thFighter Group during World War II, was born in New York in 1920. In 1941, while the United States was still neutral, he volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force, and served in England with the British Royal Air Force as an operational pilot before receiving a commission as a Flight Officer in the U.S. Army Air Forces on May 26, 1943. He joined the 335thFighter Squadron of the elite 4thFighter Group. After deployment to Europe, the 4thFighter Group, nicknamed the “Debden Eagles,” was re-equipped with Mustang P-51s in January 1944. McGrattan excelled and became an ace by scoring eight-and-a-half kills in the spring of 1944, greatly contributing to the excellent record of the unit. It destroyed more enemy aircrafts in the air and on the ground than any other fighter group of the Eighth Air Force.
On June 6, 1944, McGrattan, now promoted to section leader, was chosen for bomber escort. He was shot down and killed over the town of Rouen, France on D-Day. He was 24 years old.
Awards: Distinguished Flying Cross with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters
Bernard L. McGrattan is buried in Normandy American Cemetery Plot B, Row 3, Grave 41.