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Former ANG director passes away at 88

By Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke | National Guard Bureau | Jan. 13, 2010

ARLINGTON, Va., - Retired Maj. Gen. John J. Pesch, a former director of the Air National Guard, passed away at his home in Sterling, Va., Jan. 10. He was 88.

Pesch, who was a member of the Maine National Guard, was the oldest living senior officer of the National Guard Bureau. He served as director from 1974-77.

"I'd like to recognize his great work to include service in the Second World War, his great leadership in Maine and his innovative leadership of the Air National Guard," said Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau.

Pesch was born in Maspeth, N.Y., in 1921. Before he joined the National Guard, he was a pilot in the Army Air Corps.

"He was the last of the Greatest Generation of combat fighter pilots," said retired Gen. John B. Conaway, former chief of the National Guard Bureau. "He reset the Air National Guard after the Vietnam War with new fighter force structure and established active duty rotational missions for the Air National Guard.

"He was innovative, creative, and worked well with both the Air Force and the units in the field."

He told Air Forces Times in 2005 that he flew A-24 Dauntless divebombers and A-20 Havoc attack planes at stateside bases before becoming a founding member of the 452nd Bombardment Group. He was sent to England as a pilot in the group's 731st Bombardment Squadron.

He was a captain on March 23, 1944, when German fighters shot out two engines on the left side of his B-17 during a bombing raid. Eight members of the crew bailed out, leaving Pesch and his co-pilot alone with the aircraft.

Pesch told the Air Force Times that he never gave the order to bail out. "Years later," he said. "my navigator told me that when the aircraft passed through 11,000 feet almost upside down and at an air speed of 325 miles per hour, he knew in his heart that we two pilots were dead and the rest of the crew would soon be dead too."

The navigator opened the nose hatch and bailed out. When the engineer saw this, he opened the bomb bay doors and the rest of the crew jumped. They were prisoners of war for the rest of the conflict.

Meanwhile, Pesch and his co-pilot were bracing their knees against the control column to regain control of the B-17.

"Ground fire would have destroyed our aircraft except for the appearance of a lone P-51 (Mustang)," Pesch told Air Force Times. "The pilot of the P-51 came alongside, few our left wing and gave us a thumbs-up. He strafed the sites of the ground fire and effectively escorted us to the English Channel. (We) owe our lives to that P-51 pilot. We tried to locate the pilot later, but were not successful. Whoever he is, he is our hero."

Pesch said he joined the Maine Air Guard after World War II, because he enjoyed flying.

"I liked the flying and here was an opportunity to continue flying and continue an association with the military establishment, to be with people who shared common interests," he said.

In 1949, Pesch became commander of the 132nd Fighter Interceptor Squadron, one of the first ANG jet fighter squadrons.

He was ordered to active duty during the Korean Conflict in 1951 as chief of the fighter branch for 12th Air Force in Germany. He returned to Maine the following year.

Pesch returned to active duty in 1959 and was assigned to the Air Force's directorate of operations. In 1963, he transferred to the Air Defense command in Colorado Springs, Colo., as the assistant director of operations.

He reported to the National Guard Bureau as the deputy director of the Air National Guard in 1966. He served for 35 years retiring in 1977.

Pesch was a command pilot with 6,000 hours of military flying time. His combat and service awards include the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the Meritorious Service Medal and the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters.

A memorial service for Pesch will be held at 2 p.m., Jan. 18 at the Falcon's Landing Chapel in Sterling, Va. His burial is scheduled for 10:45 a.m., March 8 at Arlington Cemetery.