From Enlisted to Ace

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht
  • 177th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
(The following article contains quotes from an interview with Maj. Gen. Donald J. Strait, NJANG (Ret.) by Chief Master Sgt. David P. Anderson from the Air National Guard History Program on May 15, 2008.)

Donald J. Strait was born on April 28, 1918 in East Orange, N.J., and grew up in the nearby town of Verona. As a child, he dreamed of being a pilot, and built model airplanes.

"So I used to spend the weekends, on Saturday and Sunday, up at the airport talking to crew chiefs, talking to pilots occasionally, just watching airplanes fly because I was extremely interested in aviation. It was a pretty extensive bike ride and my mother used to pack me a brown-bag lunch, and I would spend the whole day there watching these airplanes maneuver and be tested."

These experiences laid the foundation of a career in aviation, when, in 1940, frustrated with his job working for Prudential Insurance, he decided to enlist in the 119th Observation Squadron, which was located at Newark Airport.

"Between transportation and the kitchen I spent most of my time -- and on security duty. In January of '41 they sent me to aircraft armament school out at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, Co. I went to...I spent school there, about four months, where I was training as an aircraft armorer. "

Strait worked his way from armorer to Aerial gunner in the backseat of O-47 observation aircraft. During this time, the pilots he was flying with convinced him to sign up for pilot training. After qualifying as an aviation cadet, Strait was sent to flight school, where he graduated in January of 1943.

"Fortunately I was one of the 30 that went to fighters. I don't know what I would have done if they had have called me out for B-17s. I don't think I could have handled it because I wanted to be a fighter pilot so badly and I had done very well in flight school, in senior, in advanced flight school as far as doing combat maneuvers and things, flying formation. I was considered exceptional by my fight commander so...anyway, but I was sent to Westover Field for training in the P-47."

After training in the P-47 Thunderbolt, Strait and his fellow airmen were made a part of the 356th Fighter Group, and sent to England. In the P-47, and then later, the P-51D Mustang, Strait had 13.5 aerial victories, and was promoted to commander of the 361st Fighter Squadron.

At the end of World War II, Strait returned to N.J., where he served as commander of the 108th Fighter Wing, as well as commander of the New Jersey Air National Guard, eventually retiring as a major general.