Herman Ernst, who began his military service as a trombone player in the Tennessee National Guard, was one of the first American aces of a new and highly specialized type of aerial combat--night fighting. His love of flying began in his youth in Chattanooga where he went for 15-minute flights with a local airplane club whenever he could save two dollars from his lunch money. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, his National Guard unit, the 181st Field Artillery, moved to California where he successfully tested for flight school.
After pilot training, a checkout in the B-25, and a course in aerial gunnery, Ernst was assigned to Florida for transition into night fighters. In March 1944, he deployed to England with the 422d Night Fighter Squadron (NFS), the first American unit of its type in the European Theater of Operations. Unfortunately, their P-61 Black Widows did not arrive for several months, and the crews had to fight off a move to equip them with British Mosquito night fighters.
Consequently, when the brand new P-61s finally arrived, they had to win a "fly off" against the Mosquito before the 422 NFS could begin flying combat patrols over the English Channel. Lieutenant Ernst and his radar operator, Edward Kopsel, aborted their first combat mission in mid-chase due to a mechanical problem, but they still became the first crew in their unit to score against the enemy when they destroyed a V-1 "buzz bomb" on the night of 15 July.
Their first victory against an enemy aircraft; however, did not occur until November. In December, the 422 NFS was committed to defend the besieged 101st Airborne Division against night attack during the Battle of the Bulge. During this operation, the squadron had one of its most successful nights on 26 December 1944, bagging five of the elusive night "bogeys"--more victories than they often scored in an entire month! As enemy aircraft became scarcer, the 422 NFS scored only once in the next 2 months.
Action picked up in March; however, and in one night Ernst and Kopsel downed two Ju-87 Stukas and possibly destroyed an Me-110. Their final tally of five aircraft and one "buzz bomb" was unexcelled by any American nightfighter crew in Europe. Following World War II, Lieutenant Colonel Ernst remained active in the Tennessee National Guard and Air Force Reserve. Still an active civilian pilot, he recently retired from his sound and communications business.
Herman Ernst and Edward Kopsel, who dubbed their P-61 "Borrowed Time, " since both had been sole survivors of aircraft accidents, had their best night on 1-2 March 1945. After four unsuccessful chases and receiving minor damage from flak, a ground controlled intercept (GCI) station gave them a new target. Following a wild chase, they shot up an Me-110 before it disappeared in the darkness. Soon afterwards, Ernst and Kopsel picked up a new bogey and sent a Ju-87 exploding earthward. They immediately closed on a second Stuka and sent it spinning into the ground. It was truly a successful night--two confirmed victories and a new American ace nightfighter team, one of only three in Europe!