May 3rd, 2018. Rex Poutré died today and America lost another of its valiant heroes. Colonel Rex L. Poutré fought his last battle and surrendered peacefully. As an Air Force pilot and career officer he had done more than his share to defend our country and to ensure its constant readiness. He fought in the skies over Germany—scoring 4 kills in air combat as a P-51 pilot—flew F-84 ground attack missions in Korea—and flew Forward Air Controller (FAC) missions in Vietnam. These and many other accomplishments highlighted his service throughout the war years and the Cold War.
There is something about flying….it gets in your blood. And, for some people, like Rex Poutré, once you start you can’t quit. Once a pilot….always a pilot.
For Rex, this love affair with flying began early in life. He was born in Concordia, Kansas, in 1920, the middle son of French-Canadian parents. Before even reaching high school age, he had already developed a strong work ethic… delivering newspapers, selling bananas door-to-door for 15 cents a dozen, and sweeping floors in the offices above the shops on the main street of his home town. His passion for flight began to blossom when he got a job at a nearby airstrip washing airplanes—with the bonus of an occasional ride. In 1934, at age fourteen, he got his big chance: a local entrepreneur formed a flying service using two airplanes—a three-place Travel Air and an American Eagle Sportster. Young Rex Poutre signed on as a helper for the summer and accompanied the pilot/owner on his barnstorming tour around Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.
He was hooked, so he sent his parents a postcard announcing his intent to drop out of school and pursue his dream of flying. At the next town, his dad was waiting for him in the family car. “Get in,” he said, and young Rex was trundled home and back to parochial school to resume his studies.
Throughout the next few years his determination persisted. In 1938, he was graduated from high school and promptly headed west to pursue his dream. Hitch-hiking across country, his luck took him to Los Angeles. But for a small town boy, the confusion of the big city was too much to handle. He quickly abandoned LA and moved to nearby Riverside where his older brother, already in the Army Air Corps, and stationed at March Field, could offer him some assistance. Young Rex got a job in Riverside with Bell Telephone and enrolled at a nearby Junior College intending to earn an Associate Degree as a prerequisite to entering military pilot training. Shortly thereafter he was transferred by Bell to Pasadena where, in 1940, he obtained his degree at a college in Pasadena.
Returning from church on December 7th, 1941, he heard the news about Pearl Harbor. The next morning he was back in Los Angeles to volunteer for pilot training. His application was accepted but there were no openings available—flight schools for the thousands of volunteers had yet to be established. He returned to Pasadena to resume work at Bell Telephone but they couldn’t accept him because he was already in the Army Air Corps! Without a job, and without military pay, he was in a predicament. Then, to his amazement, Bell Telephone graciously offered to continue paying him until he entered flight school so, for the next eight months, he enjoyed $75 per month income—with nothing to do but wait!
In 1941, Santa Ana Airbase was created on what is now the Orange County Fairgrounds, only a couple of miles from Lyon Air Museum. Second Lieutenant Rex Poutré was sent there, along with thousands of others, to receive his pre-flight training. Bud Carter, one of our Lyon Air Museum docents, and a B-25 pilot in WW II, often talks about the training he received at that airbase, especially the incessant marching that filled in the hours not spent in classroom lectures, tests, and physical exams. Rex Poutré was in one of the first groups sent there, even before the dusty field tents were replaced with long rows of two-story barracks and classrooms.
After a few months at Santa Ana, Rex was transferred to nearby Hemet field for flight training in the Ryan ST, known in the Army Air Corps as the PT-22—a two-place, open-cockpit, single-wing trainer. Next stop was Garner Field in Taft, California, near Bakersfield, for more training—this time in the PT-13, the famous Stearman biplane. He trained alongside Chuck Yaeger (they had the same instructor) who was later to become the first pilot to break the sound barrier.
By then Lt. Rex L. Poutré was well on his way to becoming a fighter pilot. Advanced training in the AT-6 Texan, like the one we have at Lyon Air Museum, was provided at Luke Field in Arizona where over 17,000 new pilots learned their skills during WW-II. Rex was one of a much fewer number who also soloed in the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk—the rugged little fighter that was the legendary aircraft of the American volunteers in China (The Flying Tigers) that fought so valiantly against the Japanese at the beginning of WW-II. After only a few hours in the P-40 he was ready for gunnery school at Chandler, Arizona, and the latest the U.S. had to offer—the twin-engined Lockheed P-38 Lightning. In an interview conducted for Palm Springs Air Museum a few years ago, he described it this way:
“The P-38 was a Cadillac: two engines with counter-rotating props, so no torque to fight with rudder on takeoff—a tricycle landing gear—and a steering wheel! A beautiful plane to fly.”
War was raging overseas but he was still in the U.S. and a long way from combat. Time was fleeting. His transfer to Dale Mabry Army Air Field in Tallahassee, Florida, put him closer to the action—at least he was nearing the east coast and one step closer to Europe—but his excellent flying abilities were holding him back. Instead of being sent overseas, he had been assigned to be an instructor in the P-40. So, for the next 1-1/2 years he taught others the skills he excelled in. Although disappointed to be missing out on the action overseas, he enjoyed the opportunity to fly all of the other fighter planes the Air Force had at the time—including the Bell P-39, the early model P-51 Mustang (the one with the birdcage canopy and Allison engine), and the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.
“I remembered seeing the first P-47 arrive,” he said. “It was huge compared to the other fighters of its day. When it taxied up to the hangar, I saw three cushions thrown from the cockpit, one after another. Then a tiny young girl, she couldn’t have been much more than five feet tall, climbed out onto the wing. She had ferried it to Florida from the factory. I could hardly believe that a little girl like that could fly this big airplane, twice the size of a Mustang. The P-47 was a beautiful airplane, and fun to fly—nothing like the P-39, which was terrible.”
Now a Captain, Rex Poutré was tired of watching others complete their flight training and head into a war zone. He was afraid the war would be over before he could see any action, so he made yet another request for transfer to the battlefront. This time he got his wish. Within a few days he was on the train to New Jersey and was soon on the high seas aboard the Mauritania, sister ship to the Queen Mary, headed for Liverpool. His assignment was to fly the latest model P-51 Mustang to escort B-17 Flying Fortresses on their raids over NAZI Germany.
The long voyage to England went without incident—the speed of the Mauritania apparently enabled it to outrun the German U-boats. On arrival, the dockside scene at Liverpool was chaotic. Thousands of GIs were scrambling to disembark, regain their land legs, find their meeting points, and get transportation to their assigned units. For Captain Poutré it was the 339th Fighter Group operating out of Fowlmere, near Cambridge, just north of London. The 339th was equipped with the P-51D, an improved model with a bubble canopy and the Packard-built Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. It was literally to be his home in the air for nearly a year. In that time he would fly his mandatory tour of 300 hours, all deep into hostile German territory.
Southeastern England during the war years had been transformed into a quilt work of airfields—dozens of them converging on a few thousand acres of flatlands reaching out towards the chalk lined coast—with France and the concentrations of enemy beyond. On any given night, hundreds of British bombers would venture eastward intent on raining destruction on German military targets—but unable to avoid imposing staggering losses on civilians in the surrounding cities. By day, the American bombers would trace similar paths across the English channel hoping to apply their precision bombing techniques to focus more accurately on the munitions factories, storage depots, transportation networks and oil refineries that provided military lifeblood to the NAZI war effort. American fighter squadrons, outfitted with the “long legs” of the P-51D Mustangs, were welcomed as “little friends” who could extend their protective cover far into the German homeland. As with the bomber crews, their greatest challenge was to survive the trip—defying horrible weather conditions, anti-aircraft gunfire, opposing Me-109 and FW-190 fighters, and the risk of collisions with other allied aircraft while flying blind through overcast skies.
In that interview a few years ago, he was asked if he was ever scared and, if so, when? He laughed at the question and with a wide grin on his face answered: “Yes, I was—from the minute I arrived in England.”
I’m sure there was more truth than humor to his answer. After over three years of preparation in the comfort of isolated America, he was now on the doorstep of the greatest conflict ever waged on earth, and the signs of war were all around him: uniforms everywhere, anti-aircraft gun emplacements, sand-bagged barricades, bomb shelters, military vehicles racing urgently in all directions—a bewildering scene of chaos mixed with orderly intent. Within a few days of his arrival, he settled into his assignment and became a valuable part of that enormously complex but highly disciplined machine of war—flying protective escort for B-17 bombers on their raids deep into enemy territory. His very first mission was an eight hour sortie into the German heartland. The target: Munich. This was no longer training, this was the real thing. He had to be bursting with apprehension and uncertainty. What would he encounter? How would he respond? In spite of all the hundreds of airmen surrounding him, he would still be alone in the sky with his thoughts as his closest companion.
Whether fear is the right descriptor or not, he was entering a new phase in life in which the existence of danger was not just a sporadic occurrence, as had sometimes been the case in training flights, it was now almost continuous—hour after hour, day after day, no matter how he felt physically or emotionally, his obligation demanded total commitment—regardless of risk.
After his somewhat flippant answer to the interviewer’s questions noted above, he described that the source of his anxiety over those next several months arose from a combination of the persistent cloud cover over England and on the pathways to Europe and back, the irrepressible threat from anti-aircraft flak, and the desperation of German defensive fighter attacks. No amount of training could prepare a person for the challenges he began to face—on almost a daily basis.
England is notorious for its fog and persistently cloudy weather. For fighter pilots facing bomber escort duty, it was not uncommon for them to enter a cloud layer that stretched from just over the runway to more than 20,000 feet above. From the moment of takeoff until they broke out above the clouds, over an hour later, they would be flying on instruments, eyes glued to the array of round dials that provided direction, airspeed, altitude, flight angle and the condition of their engine and aircraft. When in a tight formation of four or more aircraft, the flight leader was the only one doing the navigation, the others simply held their assigned position alongside the leader. Total concentration was required—for hours on end. When questioned, Poutré explained how the most frightening aspect of flying in heavy weather was the knowledge that hundreds of bombers were all around you, in front, to the sides, and above, and there was no way to determine if there was a safe path ahead. He recalled being tossed from side to side by the prop wash and turbulence caused by bombers as he struggled to maintain his heading and orientation—straining to see if he was about to collide with another aircraft. The danger was greatest on return to base with hundreds of bombers circling and descending through the thick overcast, searching for their home. Many who had survived the battle failed to make it safely back.
The Mustang wasn’t designed to be an all-weather interceptor. There was no radar on board, no precision navigation electronics, no second crewman in a back seat plotting the course and searching out radio beacons for guidance. It was up to the pilot in command to be the ship’s master—its navigator, its radioman and its airborne problem solver. It was his job to guide his squadron companions safely to the target, engage enemy fighters, and bring his fledglings home again, regardless of weather, mechanical problems, or even the wounds of battle. With only a few missions under his belt, that became Rex Poutré’s assignment. His background as an instructor pilot in several types of fighters had groomed him for this leadership role. Now he was proving his skill under the most difficult conditions—as the leader of less capable pilots facing a hostile and desperate enemy.
In the next year, Poutré would fly 72 missions accompanying our bombers over enemy territory to accumulate the 300 flight hours required for a ticket home. His very first mission was to Munich—a nearly 8 hour roundtrip journey—continuously harassed by NAZI fighters and antiaircraft batteries stationed along the route. As he accumulated more hours over Germany, raids on Berlin, the most heavily defended city, became routine. On these missions, hoards of enemy fighters, sometimes as many as 50 or even 100, would attack the bomber formations. It was up to the escort fighters to fend off any German fighters that pursued the bombers by diving into the attacking group and engaging in man-to-man dogfights. Our pilots learned that there were two classes of German fighter pilots—the young and inexperienced but fanatically committed to defend their homeland—and the older, highly experienced who knew every trick in the fighter pilot’s handbook. Unlike American airmen, who were sent home when they completed a fixed number of missions, the German pilots were obligated to continue fighting until the war ended…or they failed to return. The survivors were highly skilled opponents.
Rex Poutré was a religious man, taught from birth to accept the teachings of the Catholic faith. It was not his nature or education to seek out enemies and kill them, but he was also taught right from wrong. When faced with the reality of war, he relied on the strength of his training and the discipline and sense of responsibility he had acquired in his youth. On many occasions he turned to face an attacking German fighter and engage in an aerial duel in a fight for life… or death. He described how the engagements would start at high altitude in the vicinity of the bombers and how he and his opponent would circle each other in ever tightening and descending turns, often reversing directions in a scissors motion in an effort to gain a firing advantage. The combat maneuvers would continue in a downward spiral until one or the other scored a decisive hit, or one successfully managed to break off the conflict.
Poutré survived many of these desperate encounters without becoming either victor or victim. But, on March 2nd, 1945, a day of especially intensive combat, 40 German fighters attacked a flight of our B-17 and B-24 bombers as they neared Magdeburg en route to targets near Dresden. The sky was immediately filled with planes engaged in aerial duels. Poutré’s Group, the 339th, destroyed 16 enemy fighters with Poutré personally accounting for three of the total— two Me-109s and one FW-190. On the 18th of March he succeeded in damaging another FW-190, its ultimate fate unknown. Then on the 7th of April, in an air battle near Hamburg, he downed another Me-109 and he and another pilot from his squadron collaborated to down another FW-190.
By the end of April, 1945, the job of the 339th Fighter Group was over. The 339th had done its job well. It ranked 1st in the 8th Air Force Fighter Command for number of aircraft destroyed per mission, but now it was time to go home. The war in Germany was ending but there was still a war to fight in the Pacific. Rex Poutré was sure he would be joining the action there, and was eager to go. As they say: “Once a pilot…..”
Rex Poutré boarded another ship, this time headed for New York. From there he was put on a train to California, a journey that seemed to take forever. The girl he had met and married in Tallahassee over two years before had been anxiously waiting for his return. Two weeks of R&R (Rest and Relaxation) awaited them in Santa Monica and then another reassignment—but not to the Pacific as he expected. Instead, he was sent to Luke AFB in Arizona to become, once again, an instructor—this time, for Chinese students learning to fly the P-51. The war with Japan would have to be fought without Rex Poutré.
His experience with every fighter aircraft in the Air Force inventory, plus his illustrious tour of duty in Europe—including four victories in the skies over Germany—made Rex Poutré a valuable commodity at the war’s end. He was then to receive a series of post-war assignments that would draw him away from his chosen field as a fighter pilot and test his patience with the Air Force.
First he was sent to Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, to participate in testing of a new scheme of airborne weaponry—the use of bombs to destroy other aircraft from higher altitudes. The tests that Poutré conducted, flying a P-47 and dropping proximity-fused dummy explosives on bombers flying 4000 feet below, appeared to be effective. But, to the best of his knowledge, the technique was never used in actual warfare. From there he went to Muroc Army Air Field (later, Edwards AFB) in the California desert for work on flight safety and, shortly thereafter, was sent to the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, for a 7 month assignment—that was not to his liking. He returned to Travis AFB, in California, flying as co-pilot of a B-29, and quit active service, choosing instead to join the Air National Guard and fly P-51s again.
Not long after, the Korean conflict erupted and Rex Poutré was needed again. Now a Major, he was assigned to an F-84B squadron, his first operational role in a jet fighter. Training occurred at George AFB, in California, before shipping out to Japan with his squadron of F-84s stowed aboard an aircraft carrier. The mission was ground attack and low level bombing, roles which Poutré excelled at. He recalled how, on one dive bombing mission, he pulled out so steeply that his ejection seat latches broke and the seat slammed to the bottom—the shock blew the canopy off. He returned to Japan at 24,000 ft. with freezing air flooding the cockpit.
He continued to fly low level attack missions, recalling only one engagement with a Russian supplied MiG-15 fighter. The MiGs usually remained at high altitude attacking our bombers being defended by F-86 Sabrejets. Although surprised to see this one coming at him head on, he managed to fire a few rounds at it but it streamed past and disappeared.
After ending that job as squadron CO in Korea, he was sent to Oklahoma City as advisor to a multi-state Air National Guard group, this time flying the P-80 jet fighter.
His preferred role as a fighter pilot was soon to be interrupted again—he was sent to Command and Staff school and then to Vandenberg AFB on the California coast as Launch Control Officer for the new Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). He held various leadership positions for Atlas and Minuteman missiles until the war in Vietnam escalated. It didn’t take long for him to volunteer—hoping to get back into the seat of a fighter plane again—but, once again, the Air Force had other plans for him. Supplies flowing down the Ho Chi Minh Trail were causing havoc in the south and had to be curtailed. “Operation Tiger Hound” was one element of the countermeasures. He was assigned Commander, Da Nang Operations, responsible for all air assets used to intercept the enemy supply lines. Now a Lt. Colonel, his job included planning and scheduling the Forward Air Controller (FAC) target spotting missions using light planes like the O1-E Birddog that used smoke or flare rockets to illuminate targets for fighter/bombers to attack. Flying those dangerous missions was not his assignment but, like any good commander, he went where his troops went. On one mission, he recalled returning with 28 bullet holes in his aircraft.
Following Vietnam, he moved on to Europe where he directed Air Support for UN forces operating with the U.S. 5th Army. Fighter Squadrons from Germany, Great Britain, the U.S., and other NATO countries were under his command.
Throughout his career, he served closely with many fabled American heroes, including General Curtis LeMay, General William Westmoreland, and General Robin Olds, a triple ace with victories in WW-II and Vietnam. The nation is proud of Rex L. Poutré and all others who served our country with such commitment and honor.
On three occasions he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his gallantry.
His well deserved other awards included the following:
South Vietnam Medal of Merit
Meritorious Service Medal
Bronze Star with 1 Oak Leaf Cluster
Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation
Air Force Longevity Service Medal
Vietnam Service Medal
Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal
Air Force Outstanding Unit Award
Air Force Expeditionary Medal
Distinguished Service Medal
Small Arms Expert Marksman Medal
Air Force Commendation Medal
Air Medal with 42 Oak Leaf Clusters
“THIS IS HOW IT’S DONE”
(Captain Rex Poutré, 3rd From Left, Illustrates)
Article Written by Dave C. Wensley