From Wausau High to fighter pilot wailing a Banshee over Burma

Gerald P. Wergin, Wausau High School Class of 1940, by all accounts was smart as a whip, a court jester in home-room, and a "pest" to many of the young lassies at whom he probably winked a few times. By February 1944 he was a lieutenant in the US Army Air Corps, a fighter pilot with hard-earned silver wings, and a "Burma Banshee" of the 90th Fighter Squadron at Jorhat, India. His P-40 "Warhawk" had a bloodthirsty skull on its nose, and by the time it was over, Captain "Junior" Wergin had tucked 156 combat missions under his skinny belt. How does a young man from next door get there from here? That's the story we'll try to tell.

December 15, 2005

OnWisconsin

This is a photo of a group of Wisconsin-born Army Air Force warriors, enjoying a "cool one or 20" in Calcutta, India, during the China-Burma-India (CBI) Campaign of WWII. Lt. Gerald Wergin of Wausau, a "Burma Banshee" fighter pilot, is the one on the far left. Look at the lads, especially the three bartenders, even at war, it's "On Wisconsin, Always Forward!"

An estimated 8,432 men and women from Wisconsin died in WWII. The web site Wisconsin Stories presented by Wisconsin Public Television and a production of the Wisconsin Historical Society allows viewers to read the stories of more than 50 Wisconsin veterans and to watch the television series on line. The Wisconsin Historical Society also has prepared lesson plans for teachers and is designed to be used with the what the Public Television presented. We commend both of these to your attention. PortalWisconsin.org has said this about both these efforts:

"(The Wisconsin WWII veterans) helped shape the modern world and pave the way for freedom. They have been hailed as members of America's greatest generation. But ask Wisconsin's World War II veterans about their experiences, and they are unfailingly humble. Their war memories are moving, yet their stories are couched in terms like, 'I didn't do anything special and 'We did our jobs the best we could.'"

GilpatrickKristin

Kristin Gilpatrick, born in Edgerton, Wisconsin and a UW-Eau Claire grad, has written four books on the subject. Gilpatrick now lives in Monona, Wisconsin. She has taken a keen interest in Wisconsin veterans, not only documenting the stories of these veterans, but also participating actively with the Soldiers Home Foundation in Milwaukee.

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One of her books has a title that really sounds the theme of what we want to tell you in this, our report. That title is, The hero next door. One reviewer published by Amazon.com said:

"Gilpatrick documents the lives of 14 WWII heroes from Wisconsin in a very personal manner. She makes the reader realize that we encounter heroes every day. These humble friends and neighbors have made personal sacrifices for the good of everyone in this country. A must read for anyone that is a veteran, or has a veteran in their lives."

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80th Fighter Group (FG) "Burma Banshee" P-40N "Warhawk," 1944. A painting by Richard Groh, presented by Adam Lewis' "Adam's planes."

The Burma Banshees belonged to the 80th Fighter Group (FG) of the 10th Army Air Force (AAF) whose missions were to escort and conduct combat air patrols for transports “Over the Hump” in the China-Burma-India (CB) Theater of War, and conduct ground attack operations in Burma in support of forces in contact with the Japanese enemy occupation forces there.

Not many Americans know that we fought three wars in the Pacific: a largely amphibious and air war designed to island-hop from Australia all the way to the Japanese home islands if necessary; a second largely naval war on the high seas designed to destroy the Japanese fleet; and a ground and air war in the CBI designed to throw the Japanese out of mainland Asia. Many Americans who fought the CBI War feel they have been forgotten and played third fiddle to the other two wars in the Pacific, all of which played second fiddle to the war in Europe.

WerginJeanWe have been given access to CBI war papers and photographs of Gerry Wergin by his wife, Jean (shown here), who still lives in Wausau. Gerry passed away of natural causes in 1998 and is buried in Wausau.

Kristin Gilpatrick has hit the nail on the head. Our heroes of war are men and women who live next door, and so too was Gerry Wergin. Indeed, these heroes have always lived next door, they still live there, and they always will. As told by Gilpatrick, they are a humble bunch and it is hard to get them to convey their stories because of that. In our case, we've had to reconstruct the story largely from Gerry's papers and from researching history. He told his family precious little about his war experience, though it was very obvious to the family that the experience remained with him for his entire life.

Here is Lt. Gerald P. Wergin saddled in his P-47D "Thunderbolt II " somewhere in Burma during the CBI War in the Pacific. He's typical of the American fighter pilot: young, cocky, brazen, bold, courageous, and confident. Thumbs are always up. Lt. Wergin was a "Burma Banshee," first flying the P-40 "Warhawk" and then the P-47 "Thunderbolt II" out of airfields first in India and then in Burma.

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Lt. (later Captain) Gerald Wergin, "Burma Banshee"

The Burma Banshees belonged to the 80th Fighter Group (FG) of the 10th AAF, and Wergin belonged to the 90th Fighter Squadron (FS).

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Following the war, he became a successful businessman in Wausau, the founder and owner of a construction company, a man well known and respected in Wausau.

While he operated that business as intensely as he fought against the Japanese, down deep, he was a “Burma Banshee” all the way, very proud of his service. Rather than a grave stone worthy of a "Captain of Industry," his grave marker is a simple military one, black and gold bronze:

Gerald P. Wergin
Captain United States Army Air Force
World War II
April 3, 1922 - July 9, 1998
DFC & OLC AM & 3 OLC

The bottom line translates to the Distinguished Flying Cross and Oak Leaf Cluster (means two DFCs), Air Medal and three Oak Leaf Clusters (means four AMs).

There are three things we'd like to accomplish in this report.

  • First, we want to use Gerry's papers to highlight what it took to make the arduous trip from Wausau High School to become a second lieutenant in the Army Air Force good enough to wear the silver wings of a fighter pilot. Nearly all pilots in those days went through a routine like this, so it should bring back some memories, which we urge they write down for posterity.
  • Second, we briefly want to expose you to some of the history that drove the mission tasking which Gerry and his colleagues had to execute. We hope you'll find our brief summary motivation to study the history in greater depth. It's fascinating stuff.
  • And finally, we want you to see him and his chums as they were, "over there," and conclude by bringing them home in what turns out to be kind of a funny story. GI stories are always among the very best.

For ease of handling, we are going to publish this in sections:

Training to be a fighter pilot for WWII

This history that drove the mission tasking

The chums "over there" and the trip home, a funny conclusion to their war