1st Lt James Reed Polkinghorne, Jr
June 16, 1921 to May 5, 1944
Class: 43-B-SE
Graduation Date: February 16, 1943
Graduation Rank: 1st Lt
Unit: 332nd Fighter Group, 301st Fighter Squadron
Service # O-797221
See the Virtual Museum photos of the Museum of Florida History Artifacts of 1st Lt James R. Polkinghorne, Jr

James Reed Polkinghorne, Jr was born on June 16, 1921 to Dr. James and Maggie Polkinghorne, respected business owners in Pensacola, Florida.  He was the only son of six children and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1938.  He was a student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College in Tallahassee, Florida when the United States entered World War II and he enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Air Forces at Eglin Field on May 31, 1942.

He reported to Tuskegee Army Air Field in July 1942 and was assigned to Class 43-B along with 20 other class members. Upon completion of advanced training, only seven members of his class remained, and he was commissioned a 2nd Lt and awarded his silver wings in front of his proud parents on February 16, 1943.

Class 43-B graduated from flight training on Feb. 16, 1943, at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. Left to right: Roy M. Spencer, Claud B. Govan, James R. Polkinghorne, John R. Prowell, William H. Walker, William E. Griffin, Walter M. Downs. (U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency)

It is important to note that his sister, Neomi M. Polkinghorne also served at Tuskegee Army Air Field alongside her brother, making them a rare sister/brother Documented Original Tuskegee Airmen (DOTA) combination. Only 17 years old when she passed the civil service exams for civilian work aboard Tuskegee Army Air Field, she completed a 122-hour specialized course in aircraft fabrics, including training topics on blueprint reading, mechanical drawing, seam construction, aircraft covering and code markings.

After his winging ceremony, 2nd Lt Polkinghorne was assigned to the 301st Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group.  Then operating from Selfridge Army Air Field and Oscoda Army Air Field in Michigan, he received combat training in the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and the Bell P-39 Airacobra.

On November 27, 1943 Polkinghorne was promoted to 1st Lt and in December 1943, the 332nd Fighter Group and its three assigned fighter squadrons received movement orders to proceed by train to Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia, a port of embarkation for convoy transportation to Italy.

Polkinghorne’s squadron was assigned to the Liberty ship SS Clark Mills and on January 3, 1944 the convoy departed Hampton Roads, Virginia, for a mostly uneventful trans-Atlantic crossing.  Polkinghorne’s ship arrived at the port of Taranto on January 29, 1944 and the 332nd Fighter Group was ordered to Montecorvino airfield near the city of Salerno.  The former Luftwaffe base was located about 90 miles south of the Gustav Line, a fortified German position that spanned the width of Italy.  Fierce German resistance, rugged terrain, and a bitter winter had stalled the Allied ground campaign to capture Rome into a stalemate along the Gustav Line.

The 332nd Fighter Group was initially assigned coastal patrol duties flying war-weary P-39 Airacobra’s. Polkinghorne’s 301st Fighter Squadron flew their first combat patrol, a convoy protection flight, on February 15, 1944.  In April 1944 the 332nd Fighter Group assignment changed to overland bombing and strafing missions in support of Operation STRANGLE, an initiative to interdict the Germans’ ability to supply and reinforce their frontline troops positioned on the Gustav Line.

On May 5, 1944 Polkinghorne launched in a P-39Q Airacobra from Montecorvino airfield as part of a 12-plane strike package assigned to strafe ground targets in the vicinity of the town of Terracina on the Italian western coast.  Capt Lee Rayford, the 301st Fighter Squadron Commanding Officer, was the flight leader and he divided the 12 airplanes into three equal flights of four airplanes each, appropriately designated Red, White and Blue flights.  Polkinghorne was assigned as element leader in Capt Rayford’s Red flight.

As they flew across Italy, it soon became apparent that their target area was veiled by clouds.  Sighting an opening in the clouds, Rayford ordered Red and Blue flight to descend below the overcast with him for an attack. White flight was directed to remain overhead to protect against any marauding German fighters.

But the break in the clouds was short-lived and mist quickly shrouded the descending fighters, now in a spread formation.  With no indication they would break out below the clouds, Rayford ordered the attack formation to climb out, tracers from automatic weapons fire and flak bursts from a now-alerted enemy bracketing their ascent.

As the P-39s regrouped above the clouds and began their journey back to Montecorvino, it soon became painfully clear that Polkinghorne was missing.  His P-39 Airacobra was never found or his body recovered, and the precise location of his loss covers a vast area of sea, marshland, and mountainous terrain around Terracina.

Thank you to Dr. Leo F. Murphy for researching and submitting this profile!

Dr. Murphy has written a biography of 1st Polkinghorne titled, Lost in Heaven: The Story of 1st Lt. James R. Polkinghorne Jr, Early Black Aviation History and the Tuskegee Airmen, that may be purchased at https://www.bluewaterpress.com/heaven

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