Story by Sara Lindau
ec. 5, 1944. Don Strait, strapped into his single-seater P-51 Mustang with the checkerboard blue and red nose, flew high over Berlin, escorting B-17 long-range bombers. Dozens of German FW 190s came out to fight, and Strait fired, sending first one then a second German plane into a sharp dive.
With these two kills, Strait became an ace.
World War II ended, but the fascination with the Jersey Jerk and the man who flew it never has. Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Don Strait is something of a celebrity. An article about him titled "The Making of an Ace Over Berlin" is due for release in a British magazine. He jokingly refers to the writer's cramp he developed while autographing 550 tiny metal plates for a collector's edition of the new diecast model of his P-51.
Strait is the surviving ace fighter pilot with the most kills - 13.5 - for the 356th Fighter Group. Now 93, he can easily recall all 122 missions he flew for the allied forces between 1943 and 1945, most of them in the Jerk.
For the record, "Jersey Jerk" was Strait's second choice in nicknames. His first, the "Jersey Bounce," was already taken. His crew came up with the plane's new name, clearly referring to its pilot.
"Only a jerk would fly a single-seater plane from England over the North Sea and risk being shot down by the Luftwaffe," Strait says and laughs.
Today, he is enjoying retirement in North Carolina, where he has spent the last 10 years or so turning part of his Foxfire Village home into a museum where he displays oil and acrylic paintings of the Jersey Jerk in action. Newspaper clippings, including a 1945 edition of The New York Times announcing Strait's wedding - "Major Donald Strait, Ace Pilot, Marries" - are among his keepsakes along with a metal seat from the old Yankee Stadium (Strait is still a fan). He says the museum is mostly for his grandchildren, but a Pentagon historian paid a visit in order to document Strait's military exploits. Among his many awards are the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, Victory Medal, European Theater Ribbon, American Defense Ribbon and U.S. Air Force Exceptional Civilian Service Award.
But Strait came close to a career in insurance. In 1940, he ditched that hated job and joined the Army Air Corps. He was 21. "Becoming a pilot was the only way to go."
In September 1943, Strait, who had been promoted in June to first lieutenant, left his native New Jersey and deployed to England where his group, part of the 361st Fighter Squadron, 8th Air Force, was stationed at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk.
By November 1944, he was commanding the 361st and leading 16 P-51s when they spotted 40, then 100, enemy planes.
"We've got the whole damn Luftwaffe!" he shouted over the radio. Strait and his pilots, low on fuel, were forced to break off and return to England, but not before reporting that the outnumbered P-51s had downed 23 enemy planes. Not one of the American planes was lost. "This engagement became our highest victory day of the war," Strait says.
After the war, he went to work for the New Jersey Air National Guard. He served as squadron, group and wing commander for the U.S. 108th Tactical Fighter Wing during the Korean War and Berlin crisis. President Dwight Eisenhower appointed him deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force responsible for Reserve and ROTC affairs, at the Pentagon.
It was in this job that Strait met another famous pilot, Charles Lindbergh. Strait says Lindbergh was in danger of losing his Reserve status due to "inactivity" and he administratively helped him retain it. As a boy, Strait had followed Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic and, after the meeting, he received an autographed photo of Lindbergh's own famous plane, The Spirit of St. Louis.
Strait left active military service to take a job as general manager and vice president of a private aviation company. But he remained in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. He flew an F-86 all over the country with the New Jersey Air National Guard. He kept flying well into the early 1970s before fully retiring in 1978 at age 60. In 1989, he was inducted into the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame.
The one thing Strait's museum is missing is a relic of the Jersey Jerk. The real thing is long gone, destroyed after the war. Another loss was his best friend, Ray Gansberg, who went missing the day Strait became an ace. Gansberg's remains were later found and buried in an American cemetery in Europe.
Strait is as chipper as many men 30 years younger, but with the museum of his life in the next room, he has to stop and remember.
"You can't believe how much I think about it. Everybody's gone now." O