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110112-F-1234P-008 — An OA-47 observation/patrol aircraft like the type used by the Wisconsin National Guard’s 126th Observation Squadron in 1940. Wisconsin National Guard file photo

MILWAUKEE — Before the unit that became 126th Air Refueling Squadron and eventually Milwaukee’s 128th Air Refueling Wing was part of the Wisconsin Air National Guard, it supported the June 6, 1944 D-Day beach landings at Normandy, France.

Formed in November 1940 as the 126th Observation Squadron, the Wisconsin National Guard unit was called to active duty in June 1941 and sent to Hyannis Army Airfield in Massachusetts. It performed antisubmarine patrols off the coast of New England for more than a year until the unit deactivated in 1942 and its personnel sent to other units. The Army reactivated the squadron in March 1943 at Fort Meyers Army Airfield as the 126th Reconnaissance Squadron, originally as a tactical reconnaissance unit. By August of that year the unit’s mission changed to photographic reconnaissance, and its name changed to the 34th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (PRS).

A drawing by Sgt. Bill Walker, a photo lab member of the 34th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron, depicts the F-5 “My-Little D-Icer” conducting the squadron’s first “dicing” reconnaissance mission along the French coast. U.S. Army

The 34th PRS was assigned to Europe as part of the 9th Air Force’s 10th Photo Reconnaissance Group, and drew an important mission in the spring of 1944 — photographing the Normandy beaches ahead of the D-Day landings.

According to Roy and Bernice Crown Teifeld, from a Jan. 25, 2018 article for Aviation History Magazine, the 34th PRS flew the P-5 — a stripped-down version of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning — equipped with cameras rather than guns. Between May 6 and May 20, 1944, these aircraft flew 11 photographic reconnaissance missions at about 400 miles per hour, 15-50 feet above the surface to avoid German radar. Also in order to avoid detection, each mission was a solo flight — no other reconnaissance aircraft, no escort fighters.

Because the pilots considered the success of these missions as essentially a roll of the dice, the missions were referred to as “dicing” missions. However, pilots relied on the speed and maneuverability of the P-5 to, as squadron commander Col. W. Donn Hayes put it, “get out of trouble faster than they could get into it.”

An image of shore defenses on the Normandy coast, later known as Omaha Beach, taken by the 34t Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron during a May 19, 1944 “dicing” mission to obtain visual information to assist with planning the D-Day Normandy beach landings. U.S. Army file photo

High-altitude images were also taken of the Normandy coastline, and the return flights to England were at altitudes beyond the reach of anti-aircraft firepower.

As many as 200,000 photographs were printed from those dicing missions. Those images were used to fashion a precise scale model of Omaha and Utah beaches two weeks before the invasion. Combat engineers from the 146th Engineer Battalion’s Special Engineer Task Force — assigned the mission of clearing obstacles from Omaha Beach — memorized the natural terrain features as well as enemy strongholds and obstacles to prepare for their work on D-Day and beyond.

“Thanks, gentlemen of the 34th, for your important contribution,” Lt. Raymond Lanterman, officer in charge of Gap Team 9, wrote to the daring pilots, “without which our mission could well have been a failure.”

For its efforts that helped U.S. forces prepare for one of the most significant days of combat in World War II, the 34th PRS received the Presidential Unit Citation, the Army’s highest unit award.

The 34th PRS continued supporting the U.S. Third Army in Europe until V-E Day.

After the war, the 34th PRS was redesignated the 126th Fighter Squadron and allotted to the Wisconsin National Guard. Volunteers began meeting in October 1946 to organize the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s first unit, which received federal recognition June 25, 1947 shortly before the U.S. Air Force officially came into existence. The Milwaukee-based unit became a refueling unit in 1961. It is known today as the 128th Air Refueling Wing, which carries on the Citizen Soldier and Airman tradition, fulfilling its dual mission as both the state’s first military responder during emergencies and as the primary combat reserve of the Army and Air Force.