At the height of the war, the life expectancy of a fighter pilot was measured in weeks, for a bomber crew it was perhaps even less. With tours of duty standing at around 30 missions, it was rare to find anyone who survived these tours without at least serious injury or mental health issues. Many paid the price with their life.
Whilst aircraft could be salvaged, patched up, repaired and put back into the air, it was not so easy for crewmen to be returned to battle so quickly. It was therefore, very rare to find anyone completing one or even two missions in a front line aircraft. Of course the subject of what constitutes a mission is in itself open for debate, ‘milk runs’ leaflet drops etc all create fractions of a mission, but this aside, for any airman to surpass 100 missions was indeed rare.
Pilots and crews occasionally transferred across theatres, especially at the end of the war in Europe, or conveyed via the U.K. to the Middle Eastern theatre during these hostilities. One such man was Ashley E. Woolridge, initially a 2nd Lt. in the U.S.A.A.F. during the Second World War.
Woolridge was born on November 8th, 1916 in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. He graduated from school in 1934 going on to West Point Military Academy and then achieving a BSc from Lock Haven State Teachers College also in Pennsylvania. He used his numerous qualifications to teach Maths, English and Science at Hanover High School until 1941, when, just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, he enrolled in the U.S. Aviation Cadet Detachment, graduating in July of 1942. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. and pilot of the Air Corps.
Woolridge’s first operation was to fly the northern route to England with his group the 319th Bomb Group (Medium) operating the B-26 ‘Marauder’. The 319th initially arrived at East Anglia along with three other medium bomb groups. The 319th were sent to RAF Shipdham where they regrouped before being posted to nearby Horsham St. Faith (now Norwich airport). A period of low-level training across the Norfolk countryside, saw the unit posted to their designated theatre in north Africa. A number of accidents due to poor weather saw Woolridge’s crews suffer before experiencing any battle at all.
The 319th began transferring to Africa in the Autumn of 1942, joining the Twelfth Air Force, who would attack targets in Tunisia until early 1943. After further training, Woolridge and the 319th went on to support the Sicily and Italy campaigns: Salerno, Anzio and Monte Cassino.
At the beginning of November 1944, he was awarded command of the 320th BG, a sister group of the 319th and one who had followed them across the Atlantic and onto Africa.
By early 1945 he had achieved 106 missions, accumulating in excess of 440 combat hours. He and the groups he had served in, had gained a number of distinguished awards including Unit Citations. Personally, he gained a Silver Star, a DFC with two clusters, a Presidential Unit Citation with two clusters and two Personal Croix De Guerre Avec Palms. At the end of 1945, in November, he was discharged from the Air Force with a remarkable record of achievement behind him.
In civilian life he joined a number of church groups, married Barbara Anne Leitzinger on September 16th, 1948 and raised a family many of whom preceded him in death.
Ashley Woolridge eventually died on Monday, May 3, 2004 at the age of 87. He was buried at Hillcrest Cemetery, Clearfield,
Pennsylvania. His memorial stone depicts a B-26, the aircraft he flew 106 incredible missions in and achieved so much with.
His full obituary can be seen on the ‘Findagrave‘ website.