171st ARS marks 75 years

SELFRIDGE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mich. -- Depending on what date one chooses to use, Michigan's 171st Air Refueling Squadron turned 75 years old either this month or last. Born into combat in a world-encompassing war, the milestone anniversary passed relatively unnoticed, with a significant portion of the squadron's current members deployed to the Middle East, engaged in combat operations against ISIS.

Today's 171st - known informally as the Michigan Six-Pack - was first constituted as the 374th Fighter Squadron on Jan. 28, 1942, and activated on Feb. 10, 1943, for service in World War II. Initially assigned the P-47 Thunderbolt, the 374th spent the war providing fighter escorts to American bombers in the European Theater. The unit was de-activated after the war, on Oct. 24, 1945, and re-designated as the 171st and allotted to the Michigan Air National Guard on May 24, 1946. Today's 171st flies the KC-135 Stratotanker, which primarily serves as an air-to-air refueling aircraft.

While that World War II service is but a distant memory now, two distinctives from the old 374th days ae still part of the 171st of today. During World War II, yellow paint around the engine cowling and tails helped identify the 374th squadron. Today, the 171st uses a yellow and black checkerboard design on its aircraft. The 171st's squadron patch and logo, a Native American chief in headdress, was designed by 374th Airmen on a bus ride from Maryland to New Jersey before the unit was shipped to England for combat operations in late 1943.

The 374th was part of the 361st Fighter Group during the war, as was the 375th and 376th squadrons. Following the war, the 375th became the 172nd Fighter Squadron and was assigned to the Michigan Air National Guard for assignment in Battle Creek on the same day the 171st was assigned to the Detroit area.

The 374th was among the final fighter squadrons created by the U.S. during World War II and didn't fly its first combat mission until Jan. 21, 1944, when it was part of a combined total of 531 fighter aircraft escorting a combined total of 198 B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers from England on a bombing raid against V-1 Missile sites and other targets in and around Pas De Calais in northern France.

The 374th would fly a total of 441 combat missions in the next 454 days, flying its last mission about two weeks before the final German surrender. Pilots from the 374th were engaged in all of the major European battles of 1944 and early 1945, to include D-Day, "Big Week" and the Battle of the Bulge. During that time, 21 pilots from the 374th were killed in the line of duty and scores more suffered injuries. The squadron also recorded a total of 53.5 aerial combat victories against enemy aircraft.

For much of the squadron's combat period Lt. Col. Roy A. Webb, Jr., from Indiana served as the squadron's commander. Webb was also the squadron's leader in terms of enemy aircraft kills. He finished the war with four aerial victories and a record of destroying five more that were on the ground, a feat which earned him the distinction of being a "strafing" ace. On June 29, 1944, just a couple of weeks after the allied D-Day invasion, Webb led an attack on the German airfield at Oschersleben following an attack by American bombers on several factories in that city. Webb, by then flying a P-51 Mustang to which his squadron had earlier converted, destroyed five German fighter aircraft on the ground and damaged another. Webb was awarded the Silver Star for that mission. After the war, Webb returned home to Indiana and died in 2010.

Another 374th pilot of note was Lt. Robert J. Stolzy, a Grand Rapids area native who was a charter member of the squadron. Stolzy kept a detailed journal during the war, a key primary source of information about the early days of the 374th. Stolzy and fellow pilot Lt. James R. Golden were awarded commendations for their efforts to aid a damaged B-17 that ditched in the English Channel following a raid on Belgium on April 13, 1944. Due to the actions of Stolzy and Golden, the 10 crewmembers of the B-17 were rescued from the water. On June 19, 1944, Stolzy and four other 374th pilots were killed in crashes over France during a bomber raid that was aborted due to bad weather. A final entry in Stolzy's diary, made by a fellow pilot, details the hope that he was able to successfully bail out of his damaged aircraft. Instead, Stolzy died in a crash. His remains were eventually returned to Michigan for burial in Kent County.

Today, the 171st's flag carries the campaign streamers from those long-ago actions. The 171st and the related 191st Maintenance Squadron have been assigned to the 127th Air Refueling Group as part of the 127th Wing since 1996. The unit operates from a home station at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in suburban Detroit.

This article is part of a series of heritage articles created as part of the commemoration of the centennial of Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Michigan, which began operation as a military air field on July 1, 1917.