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Strange journey of 'Little' Olson

Henry Olson's AVG ID photo Henry Olson was a crew chief in the 3rd Squadron Hell's Angels. He was a small man and a skinny one, so of course he was nicknamed "Little Olson" to distinguish him from the squadron leader. At left is his AVG identification photo, which would have been taken at Toungoo, Burma, in the late summer or fall of 1941. Though you'd never know it to look at him, Olson was about 24 when the picture was taken.

As with most of the ground crewmen, he isn't much mentioned in the AVG histories, except for the great raid on Magwe in April 1942. As Fritz Wolf told the story in a wartime magazine, an RAF Hurricane crash-landed on the airfield in the middle of the raid: "The pilot looked trapped for sure. But Crew Chiefs Johnny Fauth and little [Henry] Olson jumped out of their shelters and rushed to the wreckage, breaking through and rescuing the RAF pilot from the burning mass." Olson drove the injured pilot off the field in a jeep, but Fauth was hit by a Japanese machine-gun bullet and then caught in the explosion of a bomb, causing injuries from which he died that night.

Later, in the fall of Lashio, Olson drove Olga Greenlaw to safety at Loiwing, on one occasion shooting out the tires of a Chinese truck that tried to run them off the road. He served to the AVG's disbandment, perhaps as late as July 4. Olga recalled that he was among the pilots and crew who "drifted in" the AVG office that Harvey Greenlaw ran in Delhi. Presumably he was one of the hundred or so AVGs who took passage on Mariposa, arriving at New York harbor on August 22, 1942.

Henry Olson for Congress in a
wannabe uniform His story now takes a strange twist: he evidently went home to Minnesota, where he was recruited to run for Congress as a Flying Tigers pilot. Wrote Time magazine in its inimitable style (7 Sep 1942): "Slender, underweight (132 lb.), blue-eyed Henry L. Olson, 25, onetime farm boy, was invalided home last summer--weighing 112 pounds. He had been with the A.V.G. in Burma and China nearly a year, was twice shot down. He is Democratic candidate for Congress from the Ninth District--a vast area of wheatfields, Indian reservations, woods, lakes, muskeg."

He did some campaigning by air, though he may not have been the actual pilot of the Stinson light aircraft shown in Life magazine (24 Aug 1942). The caption however was sure of his flight status as a Tiger: "Henry L. Olson, 25, was a member of the A.V.G.'s Third Pursuit Squadron..., was shot down twice and wounded in air battles over Burma and China. He carried a piece of Jap shrapnel in his knee until he got back to a Miami hospital on July 15. Then he went home to fish and rest on his father's Minnesota farm. Leading Democrats persuaded him to run for Congress in the Ninth District, now represented by a Farmer-Labor Isolationist. (Primary date: September 8.) Olson is doing some campaigning by plane..., thinks Congress could use a man who has fought in the air over China. He also wants to prove that once-isolationist Minnesota is 'all out for the war effort.'"

Pilots of the 368th Fighter

Olson didn't get the nomination, apparently, because there was no further news of his candidacy, and anyhow he soon turned up as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Above is a group photo of the "Thunder Bums" of the 396th Fighter Squadron, 368th Fighter Group, with Henry Olson the small guy in the ball cap, at right in the front row. (A tip of the virtual hat to "Zeke Striker" for pointing me to the photo.) As the story is told, Olson's Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was named Johnny Fauth in honor of the buddy killed at Magwe. (Again, there was a Clarence Olson in the squadron, so the former crew chief was again distinguished by the nickname of "Little.")

I haven't located any other details of Olson's service with the 396th FS, but the squadron was activated on 1 Jun 1943 at Westover Field, Mass., then moved to Farmingdale, N.Y., before shipping overseas. It was stationed at Greenham Common and Chilbolton, England, for the first half of 1944, moving to France in July and Germany in April 1945. Its campaigns are listed as "Air Offensive, Europe; Normandy; Northern France; Rhineland; Ardennes-Alsace; Central Europe." It received a Distinguished Unit Citation at Mons, Belgium, in September 1944.

Any further information will be welcomed.