June/July Dakota Territory Air Museum P-47 Update

The Thunderbolt is in the restoration shop as the various systems are finished.


This month, work on the final wing systems, fuselage details, and control surfaces continued. The shape of the cowling is becoming complete, and the windshield has been attached permanently.

Acid Wash

It was a common practice for factories to use an acid wash on areas of aluminum that were to be spot welded. Part of an accurate restoration includes duplicating this acid wash since it was very visible on the airplane.

Control Surfaces

The left flap and elevators were the final control surfaces to be finished.


Work on the wings was primarily centered on the ammunition and gun bay doors and the landing gear. Landing gear gap seals were installed as the fitting on the gear doors was completed.


The complex shapes of the cowling make the assembly a difficult job, but Mike has made remarkable progress. Much of the outer skin was fitted this month.


This month the windshield was installed and bulletproof glass was also installed behind the windshield. This installation is interesting in that, unlike most bubble canopy fighters, the armored glass is a separate part from the windshield itself. It mounts inside the windshield on top of the instrument panel.


During the period from late May through mid-July, much of the work focused on the underside of the fuselage where the turbosupercharger and ducting are located.

Lieutenant Donald McKenna

Lt. McKenna in front of a P-47
Lt. McKenna in front of a P-47

Don McKenna grew up in Storm Lake, Iowa. He graduated from St. Mary’s High school in 1939 and then attended Buena Vista College (now Buena Vista University) in Storm Lake for a year.

Before enlisting in the Army on December 3, 1942, Don had worked for a time as a railroad clerk for the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco.

Four of Mr. and Mrs. Joe McKenna’s sons enlisted. One of Don’s brothers, J. Orton McKenna also joined the Army Air Force. Brothers Raphael and Robert served with the army in the Pacific theater.

Dan Sokolowski, Don McKenna’s nephew,  generously shared information and photos about his uncle to make this article possible.

Flight Training

Cadet Don McKenna stands in front of a PT-19 during primary flight training.
Cadet Don McKenna stands in front of a PT-19 during primary flight training.

Basic military and flight training during the war could take a considerable amount of time. In Don McKenna’s case, it would be almost 1 ½ years before he was ready to ship overseas to join the fight in May of 1944.

The first step after basic army training was primary flight training at Corsicana, Texas. At Corsicana, Don flew Fairchild PT-19s.

Cadet McKenna and a flight instructor. Photo courtesy of Dan Sokolowski
Cadet McKenna and a flight instructor. Photo courtesy of Dan Sokolowski

The next stage in Army Air Force flight training was basic training. For this Cadet McKenna moved to Enid, Oklahoma. Basic was the stage where pilots were introduced to more advanced aircraft like the BT-13. The Vultee aircraft was larger and faster than the primary trainers. Instrument and night flying were also part of the basic training program.

Formation of 12 AT-6 trainers over the Guadalupe River near Foster Field, Summer 1942, USAAF photo
Formation of 12 AT-6 trainers over the Guadalupe River near Foster Field, Summer 1942, USAAF photo

Foster Army Air Field Base near Victoria, Texas was the next stop for Don. The cadets were introduced to even faster, more complex airplanes in Advanced training. At Foster, they flew the North American AT-6 Texan. Commonly referred to as the T-6, this trainer was a much more complex aircraft, with features such as retractable landing gear, a larger engine, a variable-pitch propeller, and hydraulics. Those who mastered the AT-6 would then go on to specialized training in fighters, bombers, transports, etc.

One of the resources that would have been used at Foster just happens to have been added to AirCorps Library this week. It’s a manual called “Instructors Manual for Advanced Single-Engine Flying” and heavily features the T-6.

Don on the wing of a P-47. Photo courtesy of Dan Sokolowski
Don on the wing of a P-47. Photo courtesy of Dan Sokolowski

After winning his wings at the conclusion of advanced training, Cadet McKenna became Second Lieutenant McKenna. Now officially a pilot, he was assigned to single-engine fighters. Specialized P-47 transition training took him to Bruning Army Air Field near Bruning, Nebraska. 

While there, Don experienced an incident. Forced to hold off landing because of a busy traffic pattern during a night flight, he ran out of fuel and had to belly land the Thunderbolt in a field. The tough P-47 kept him safe from injury and his training proceeded until he was ready for combat.

At Bruning, Don met Billie Snell, who was to become his best friend and fellow pilot, whom he fought alongside throughout the war.

Donald was sent overseas in May of 1944.

He crossed the Atlantic on the RMS Queen Mary along with his friend, Billie Snell. Both men fought together in Europe and coincidently came back home after the war on the Queen Mary, the very same ship they went to war on.

Both men were assigned to a P-47 group in the 9th Air Force, the 358th Fighter Group. 

Don and Billie were even assigned to the same squadron, the 367th Fighter Squadron. Eventually, they were each assigned a P-47 and could add their own personal identifying nose art to them.

The two men chose art that related to their background, in Don’s case the cornfields of Iowa, and in Billie’s case, his native American heritage.

367th Fighter Squadron emblem. Photo courtesy of Dan Sokolowski

The 358th Fighter Group P-47s were originally part of the 8th Air Force, but when it became clear that the P-51 would be the primary escort fighter because of its superior range, the 358th was transferred to the 9th Air Force in exchange for a 9th P-51 unit, the 357th Fighter Group.1

With the 9th Air Force, the 358th FG was awarded three Distinguished Unit Citations, and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm for the part they played in the liberation of France and their support in pushing the German armed forces back across the Rhine River.

After D-Day and throughout 1945, P-47 groups in the 9th AF were primarily engaged in tactical support of the advancing Allied Armies. They were incorporated into the First Tactical Air Force. The First Tactical Air Force was an ad-hoc multinational force established in November 1944 in south east France to provide air support to the Franco-American Sixth Army Group. It operated until May 1945. The force was made up of bomber and fighter units from the American 9th and 12th Air Forces, and French First French Air Corps and Western French Air Forces.”2

1 William H. Hess, P-47 Thunderbolt at War, 1976 , Doubleday& Company New York City, NY p. 66
2 American Air Musem in Britain website, https://www.americanairmuseum.com/unit/4217, accessed 07/12/2022

From the final page of the March 1945 358th Fighter Group History, the destruction wrought by the P-47s of the 358th is remarkably chronicled in this fascinating drawing and list.

The group’s ground attack support of the 6th Army was memorialized by a commendation.

Commendation for ground support by the 368th Fighter Group forwarded from the Commanding General, 6th Army Group. Document courtesy of Dan Sokolowski

Donald was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for leading a successful and dangerous ground attack mission to the area around Heilbronn, Germany on March 13, 1945.

Document courtesy of Dan Sokolowski

On April 2, 1945, the 358th FG moved to a captured Luftwaffe base at Sandhofen, Germany. On the third day of operations from that base, (April 8, 1945 according to his Army Officer Notebook)3, Lt. McKenna shot down an Mf 109. He described the event to U.S. War correspondent Sgt, Jerry Peterson:

“I was leading one of the flights. We were briefed to dive-bomb Munich, when we saw four German planes in the vicinity of Crailsheim. The Jerries split up, and I chased one that started climbing.

He made meager attempts at evasion and then leveled out in a straight climb. 

 I closed in to 300 yards, firing short bursts. He smoked a little on the first, and on the third burst, his engine exploded and poured black smoke.

The canopy flew off as I continued firing. The pilot bailed out and the plane started spinning down from 19,000 feet. The German’s parachute didn’t open.”

During his time in combat, Don McKenna had two victories confirmed, both Bf 109s and a confirmed damage claim for an ME 262.

3 Dan Sokowlowski, personal correspondence

Lt. McKenna completed 135 combat missions during the war, his last on April 28, 1945, according to his Army Officer NoteBook.

 He wasn’t an ace or a well-known name in the news, just another American doing his duty to keep the world safe from tyranny. We were lucky to have so many like him during WWII. 16 million men and women served in WWII, and like Donald F. McKenna truly earned the honorific “the greatest generation”.    

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