Sports Heroes Who Served: Minor League Baseball player earned distinction during World War II

Keith Bissonnette played infield and outfield baseball in the minor leagues from 1940 to 1942.

He played for the Leesburg Anglers in the Florida State League, batting .277 with 67 runs batted in 134 games as the first baseman.

Keith Bissonnette, middle row, sixth from left, with a baseball school all-star squad in 1939. (Courtesy photograph)

In 1941, he played 32 games with the Utica Braves of the Canadian-American League, batting .286.

He was then optioned to the Augusta Tigers of the South Atlantic League, playing as an outfielder and first baseman and batting .291.

In 1942, he played second base for the Jacksonville Tars, batting .326 in 59 games. Later that year, he played for the St. Paul Saints, batting .237 in 42 games.

The itinerant baseball player’s sporting days were over when the Army issued him a draft notice at the beginning of 1943, as World War II was happening.

In February 1943, he was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Force, where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

In April 1944, he was assigned to the 88th Fighter Squadron, 80th Fighter Group, which was based in Karachi, India, then relocated in October 1943 to Nagaghuli, India, then relocated to Tingkawk Sakan, Burma in August 1944; with another relocation in January 1945 to Myitkyina, Burma.

Bissonnette flew more than 200 missions, first in a Curtiss-built P-40 Warhawk fighter and then in a Republic Aviation-built P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bomber.

The P-40 was a single-engine, single-seat fighter and ground-attack aircraft, flown in all theaters of operation.

Its armament consisted of two .50 in Browning AN/M2 “light-barrel” dorsal nose-mount synchronized machine guns and two .303 Browning machine guns in each wing.

The P-47 was effective as a short-to-medium-range escort fighter in high-altitude air-to-air combat and ground attack in all theaters of operation.

Republic P-47N Thunderbolt, Thunderbolt flew its first combat mission–a sweep over Western Europe. Used as both a high-altitude escort fighter and a low-level fighter-bomber, the P-47 quickly gained a reputation for ruggedness. Its sturdy construction and air-cooled radial engine enabled the Thunderbolt to absorb severe battle damage and keep flying.

Its primary armament was eight .50-caliber machine guns. In the fighter-bomber ground-attack role it could carry five-inch rockets or a bomb load of 2,500 lb. When fully loaded, the P-47 weighed up to eight tons, making it one of the heaviest fighters of the war.

Missions included supporting Allied ground forces during the battle for northern Burma and the push south to Rangoon, bombing and strafing troop concentrations, supply dumps, lines of communication and artillery positions.

The 88th also flew military supplies from Assam, India to Kunming, China. It was called “flying the hump” because aircraft had to fly over the towering Himalayan Mountains which lay between India and China.

On March 28, 1945, Bissonnette was killed when his P-47 crashed near Keng Tung, Burma. It was not determined if it was an accident or if he was shot down. The Enderlin, N.D., native was 44.

During his time in the China-Burma-India Theater, Bissonnette was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal with one oak leaf cluster, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters and the Purple Heart Medal.

Editor’s note: Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

A P-40 Warhawk is shown in the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, May 2, 2005. (Air Force photograph)

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