WWII Vet Creates His Own Museum
Walk through the living room of the house that Don Strait and his late wife, Louise, built in Foxfire and on into the room behind it, and you enter another world.
Since Louise died several years ago, he has turned what was once a back porch into a history lesson in the form of a room.
Strait’s children and grandchildren don’t have to ask him what he did in the war: Photos, medals, certificates, books, paintings — the whole room, in fact — tell one war story after another.
Photographs, models, exhibits and historical papers document the tale of this World War II fighter ace and his life in service from enlistee to retirement as a major general.
Strait has other interests. He plays golf, and he builds furniture and does other woodworking in a home shop. “The room” is the only part of his life looking back.
“I built it for the kids,” Strait says.
His three children are grown themselves. Daughter Donna is back in his home state of New Jersey running a girls’ school. Son Stephen is a professor of physics at Vermont Tech, while son Russ retired from the Air Force after 22 years to be a senior captain for American Airlines.
Strait is happy to serve as tour guide of his one-room museum. Much of it is devoted to what he did in his World War II fighter plane, nicknamed the “Jersey Jerk.”
“There are more photos and paintings of the Jersey Jerk out there than any other fighter,” Strait says proudly.
Many are on the walls of his special room.
Military art is traditionally photorealistic and depicts historic battles and famous military craft from ancient sailing ships to fighter planes like the P-51 Strait flew on many missions escorting bombers to targets near and in Berlin.
One of those missions turned out to be the biggest battle of the war for the unit Strait was commanding. The 356th Fighter Squadron was based at Marthlesham Heath, in Suffolk, England, part of the 8th Air Force. Strait was doing long-range bomber escort missions and air ground support of Allied forces.
That particular day, he had been leading an escort mission over the Altenbeken Railroad Viaduct in Germany. As his 16 planes were gathering at their scheduled rendezvous near Zolle in the Netherlands they received an alert.
“German bandits” were heading their way. Investigating that report, Strait spotted more than 40 German planes headed his way and led his squad in an attack. Then they discovered another 150 planes right behind the 40, all of them after the bombers.
“We’ve got the whole damned Luftwaffe,” Strait says he shouted into his radio.
He opened fire and hit the wing of one of the German planes. Down it went. In that battle, Germany lost 23 planes. Every one of Strait’s 356th group pilots got back safely to base.
That battle is depicted in one of the many original paintings on the walls of Strait’s room.
His after-action report is in a loose-leaf notebook along with all the other carefully typewritten reports of his career.
It sits on one end of a two-drawer table Strait himself built right next to his general officer’s garrison cap and beneath a framed shadow box containing Strait’s medals. A painting of the general in full uniform hangs above.
Strait’s flight suit still fits, though it is normally hanging from a coat rack at the other end of the room.
Two Combat Tours
His usual “tour” starts just to the left of the door as one enters the old porch. There’s a bookcase there with photos of him and Louise. In one, they are dancing. In another, they’re on the grass in the backyard playing with a puppy. That picture was taken during the 30-day leave Strait accepted in the deal that gave him his first command.
In June 1944, Strait had completed his tour, and he was due to head home. His commanding officer asked his young ace if he would consider taking a 30-day leave and return for another tour. Strait agreed to return, but with the promise that he command the 361st when he got back to England. On Nov. 20, 1944 — still a captain — Strait was named squadron commander.
All in all, he would complete two combat tours, first flying a P-47 and then his famous P-51 — the Jersey Jerk.
That plane is featured to the right in a print of a combat painting hanging next to photos of Strait climbing into its cockpit and another of him standing wingside. There are pictures from Marthlesham — most of that base is now a sea of small homes, though the main building was preserved as a museum.
Strait returned to the scene of his World War II adventures. There’s a photo of him from that visit, a number of books about the group and the 8th Air Force.
A U.S. flag stands in the corner, and then there are more photos of Don and Louise and a picture of his P-51 escorting a twin-tailed bomber.
Adds to His Room
Strait was born April 28, 1918, in East Orange, N.J. He enlisted in the 119th Observation Squadron, Army Air Corps in January 1940 and qualified for pilot training in March 1942, receiving his wings and commission as a second lieutenant in January 1943.
After World War II, Strait joined the New Jersey Air National Guard, serving as the squadron, group and wing commander of the 108th Tactical Fighter Wing during the Korean conflict and Berlin crisis.
His many military ribbons and medals include a Silver Star, Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters.
Strait stayed in the military after the war, when the Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force. He graduated from the Air War College in 1955 and retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1978.
Strait’s 120th mission, on March 17, 1945, was his last. Its routes out and back, and the target area over Berlin, are shown on a framed map hanging at the end of the room.
“I’d flown more missions than anybody, had more kills than anybody — 13.5 — and it was time to go home,” he says.
His ship docked in New York on May, 8, 1945 — V-E Day, the end of the war in Europe. He and Louise got married.
Now, in retirement and a widower, Strait keeps busy. He builds handmade furniture for himself and his family, “shoots his age” on the links, keeps company with a long-time lady friend — and adds to “the room.”
Contact John Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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