He was born on a Pembina, North Dakota farm on May, 17th 1923. He died today, Christmas Day, in 1944.
Donald J Emerson enlisted as a US Army Air Forces armourer as soon as he’d finished high school. Early the next year, 1943, he learned that entry requirements for pilot training had been lowered and he jumped at the opportunity. By January 1944 he was a fighter pilot.
On March 9th, 1944, Emerson joined the 336th Fighter Squadron of the famed 4th Fighter Group, 8th Air Force. The 4th, led by the stalwart Col Don Blakeslee, had been formed around a cadre of American pilots who’d risked it all to volunteer for the RAF Eagle squadrons. It was a hot group, and the 336th was a hot outfit. It’s members included Don S Gentile, John T Godfrey, James A Goodson, Willard W Millikan, Freddie W Glover and more.
Emerson made First Lieutenant on May 20th, 1944. Between June 21st and July 5th he took part in Operation Frantic II, a shuttle mission to Russia. On July 27th he was promoted to Captain, and Flight Commander during August.
He flew most of his 89 combat missions in his assigned P-51D #44-13317 “VF-B” which he’d had decorated with another ‘fighting Don’ – a fists-up, fighting mad Donald Duck. Funny, and fearless.
The artist-was probably Fred Rice of Alamosa, Colorado, whose other works included Gentile’s ‘Shangri-La’ and ‘Donnie Boy’.
On Christmas Day, 1944, while flying bomber escort in a different P-51D (#44-15054 “VF-D”) Emerson led his section against a group of FW 190s that were attacking the big friends. In the ensuing melée he took on six of the 190s single-handedly, and downed two of them. Unable to find him in the heavy cloud cover, his section could only follow the action via his sporadic radio calls.
Finally, alone, out of ammo, and down on the deck, Emerson announced that he was ‘on the deck and heading for home’.
Then, just as he crossed the lines into safer airspace, Emerson was caught by a burst of anti-aircraft fire. His plane crashed on British-held territory near the small town of Sittard, Holland, hard by the German border. He was probably dead before it hit the ground.
Donald Emerson was buried near the crash site the next day. HIs body is now permanently interred in the American Military Cemetery near Maargraten, Holland.
I doubt Emerson ever thought that he was going to die. Still, he must have known that he could, and yet he went anyway. More importantly, his name isn’t only Don Emerson and he didn’t only die on Christmas.
So don’t keep all your remembrance for one autumn day each year, then take it out and parade it down the street for everyone to see. Hold it close to your heart and touch it often. Even today. Those shortened lives leave holes in families, and whole families that never got started, so that you and I can enjoy the things we enjoy on Christmas.
We’d dishonour people like Don Emerson if we didn’t celebrate what they gave us.
But there’s room for a little remembrance too, don’t you think?
Happy Holidays to you and yours,
David Foxx | airscape Editor