78th Fighter Group ~ Duxford Eagles

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78th Fighter Group ~ Duxford Eagles

Postby Skybax » Wed Sep 29, 2004 8:48 pm

from Tim Cheek`s Duxford Airfield History: On 24 March 1943, a convoy of trucks arrived at Duxford's main gates carrying the advance party of the 78th Fighter Group, United States Army Air Force (USAAF), which was, it turned out to be stationed there for the next two and a half years. With the US now firmly in the war, the USAAF was moving into Britain, and to East Anglia in particular, in a big way. The 8th Air Force, of which 78th FG was a part, occupied many airfields either leased or purpose-built for them, ready to attempt daylight bombing to complement the RAF night raids. Fighter support was an essential part of this plan and during 1 - 8 April 1943 the 78th FG, under the command of Lt. Col. Arman Peterson, brought in 75 of their Republic P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft to Duxford. Having moved in, the Group began working up the three squadrons, the 82nd, 83rd and 84th Fighter Squadrons, to operational status. Twelve Duxford aircraft flew an uneventful fighter sweep with the 4th FG from Debden on 8 April, but it was not until five days later that the 78th flew its first mission from Duxford. Just before noon on 13 April, Lt. Col. Peterson led the P-47C Thunderbolts of 83rd FS into the air from Duxford. The 12 aircraft of the 78th joined two squadrons from the 4th FG in a sweep over the northeast corner of France at approximately 30,000 feet. They penetrated as far as the Luftwaffe base at St. Omer, but sighted neither enemy aircraft nor flak. Lt. Col. Joseph L Dickman baled out northeast of Calais on the way back but was picked up by RAF air-sea rescue. He was awarded the Group's first Purple Heart. Less than 4.5 hours after the 83rd landed, Lt. Col. Peterson took off again, leading 12 aircraft of the 82nd to the St. Omer area. With the 82nd was one squadron from the 4th FG and one from the 56th FG. Again the report read, "No enemy aircraft; no flak." The first enemy aircraft were sighted by Duxford pilots two days later when the 84th Fighter Squadron flew its first mission. The 84th sent up 12 aircraft, and the 82nd and 83rd put up six each to form a second squadron. Those two squadrons and one from Debden were cruising over Belgium when enemy planes were reported over an airfield. The pilots were eager, but lost the enemy aircraft in cloud cover before they could be engaged. With three missions under its belt in co-operation with other groups, the 78th struck out by itself for the first time on 17 April, 1943. That day Lt. Col. Peterson led two squadrons of 16 aircraft each on two missions, both of which proved uneventful. All three squadrons furnished aircraft for the two composite squadrons on both missions. The first flak was sighted by the group over Rotterdam on 21 April, but no damage was reported. As the unit's experience increased, so did its striking power, and on 29 April it sent out its first formation of three 12-aircraft squadrons. On 3 May two squadrons put up 16 aircraft each, and the other provided 15. Just before 17:00 on the next day the 78th settled into what was to become a familiar pattern of operations. For the first time, Lt. Col. Peterson led three squadrons of 16 aircraft each, and for the first time the 78th escorted bombers. The Thunderbolts cruised uneventfully over Dunkirk, Calais and St. Omer, encountering neither enemy aircraft nor flak. During the next two weeks the group flew two more uneventful missions. On 14 May 1943, later considered as a turning point in the aerial war over Europe, the 78th encountered the Luftwaffe for the first time in combat. Leading three squadrons of 16 planes each, Col. Peterson (just promoted to full Colonel), took the 78th up to support bombers which were to attack targets at Antwerp. The Group encountered more than 20 Focke Wulf FW190s and Messerschmitt Bf109s in the Antwerp area, and dogfights broke out over the sky. Maj. James J Stone (then CO of the 83rd and later, as Lt. Col., Station CO) and Capt. Robert E Adamina of the 82nd achieved the first 78th FG victories, each shooting down one FW190. Three pilots - Capt. Adamina, Capt. Elmer E McTaggart and F/0 S R Martinek of the 83rd - were lost, but none was killed. Capt. McTaggart lost 25 pounds in weight while becoming the first Duxford pilot to evade capture, by working his way south-ward across the Pyrenees into Spain. Capt. Adamina, who set his Thunderbolt down on the water, is believed to be the first - and perhaps only - pilot to ditch a P-47 successfully. The success of the Thunderbolts in protecting bombers that day, although the claims were small and the losses were felt, strengthened the belief of higher officers that the bomber escort theory was sound. In the first two months of operations, the 78th FG had proved to be the most successful of the three Fighter Groups and began to establish a high reputation. Morale was high and several well-known stars of the cinema and radio came to Duxford, including James Cagney, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The 78th formed a dance band, the Duxford Thunderbolts, which as well as playing for Station dances appeared in Cambridge and London and at other 8th Air Force bases. Radio broadcasts were also made, and some were relayed to the US. On 26 May, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Duxford to officially welcome the 78th FG to the station. On 15 June, the Station CO, Wg. Cdr. Matthews, formally handed over the command of Duxford to Col. Peterson - as Station 357 of USAAF VIII Fighter Command. From 14 May to 1 July operations followed a fairly routine programme, bomber escort and fighter sweeps with only a little action and few losses, and during this time the P-47D was introduced to service, which was an improvement over the earlier version. On 1 July, however, the 78th was dealt a severe blow. The highly respected and popular CO, Col. Peterson, was lost. The group destroyed four FW190s, probably got another and damaged five others for the loss of one man - the CO, who had led the group since its formation in the US in May 1942. Morale sagged. Comedian Bob Hope and singer Frances Langford visited the station two days later, and even the Hollywood gagster admitted he had trouble getting laughs out of his Duxford audience. The Fourth of July wasn't much of a holiday, either, with an uneventful mission being flown during the noon hour and followed by an outdoor supper on the athletic field. On 12 July a new CO arrived, Lt. Col. Melvin McNickle, who had been US liaison officer with 601 Squadron's Bell Airacobra's the the Autumn of 1941. On 14 July a wounded Duxford pilot, 2nd Lt. A V DeGenaro of the 82nd, risked drowning rather than let his plane crash into a town and earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest US award for valour. While escorting bombers which attacked an airfield at Amiens, Lt. DeGenaro destroyed two FW190s and damaged another. During combat, however, he was severely injured in both hands, his right knee and both ankles. Because of his injuries, he had to fly his Thunderbolt with his forearms. His instruments were shot out, his right aileron was gone, his right wing was badly shot up, and his tail surfaces were damaged. Although barely able to manoeuvre the plane, he found the English Channel and headed across, ducking into low clouds to evade three pursuing FW190s which followed him almost to the British coast. He had planned on making a crash landing, but after crossing the coast he discovered his safety belt was unfastened (he had unhooked it in combat) and was unable to fasten it again because of his wounds. Realising that baling out over land would mean his aircraft would crash into a coastal town, he headed out to sea again, baling out in view of a fishing boat which then rescued him. The mission of 30 July 1943 marked several milestones in Duxford's combat history. For the first time the fighters carried drop tanks, enabling them to fly right into Germany (though in these early days the tanks were not pressurised and so were dropped before the aircraft reached the enemy coast, thereby allowing pilots to gain altitude and have more manoeuvrability against enemy fighters). The Group was providing escorts for bombers returning from Kassel and flew as far as Haldern. The pilots claimed 16 victories (7 Bf109s and 9 FW190s) and the 78th became the first American unit to run its victories into two figures on one mission. Capt. Charles P London, of the 83rd, shot down one Bf109 and one FW190 to become the first American "ace" (five victories) in the European Theatre of War. Maj. Eugene P Roberts, of the 84th, shot down two FW190s and one Bf109 to become the first American in the European theatre to score a "triple". For fighting off superior numbers of enemy fighters in getting his triple, the major won the group's second Distinguished Service Cross, and went on to become the second "ace" that October. Lt. Quince L Brown, of the 84th, suffered engine problems and lost altitude, and whilst he was hedge-hopping home he shot up a freight locomotive and a gun battery to the west of Rotterdam. This was the first recorded ground-strafing by an 8th AF fighter pilot. On a sadder note, 78th lost its second CO within a month. Station CO Lt. Col. Melvin McNickle, who had succeeded Col. Peterson, was shot down and became a prisoner of war. Two other pilots also were lost that day, one evading capture. Lt. Col. James J Stone, who had been with the 78th since its formation and who had achieved its first victory some two month previously, became the new Station CO. The rest of the year was fairly routine and the Group settled down to escort missions and sweeps. On 4 September, General Hap Arnold Commander-in-Chief of the US Air Forces came to Duxford. He was given a demonstration of the latest British and American fighters and after an inspection gave a talk on the history and future of the US Army Air Forces. Amongst US personnel Duxford became known as "one of the finest and most comfortable of any Army Air Force station overseas - Country Club of the European Theatre. Escort work continued in the New Year, but by January 1944 the 78th was ready to start a new type of mission; fighter-bombing. Improvements in drop tank technology meant that range was increasing all the time, enabling a bomb load to be carried to a target and dropped, followed by some strafing (or air combat). Such low level ground attack, often on railways and airfields, was designed as a softening up process in anticipation of the invasion. On 25 January 1944, the Group was briefed for its first fighter-bomber mission and took off to bomb an airfield in France, but weather caused the aircraft to bring their bombs back. On the last day of the same month they went out again and dropped 35 500-pound bombs on runways of an airfield at Gilze-Rijen in Holland. A week later two flights, one from the 82nd and the other from the 84th, made the first organised strafing attacks undertaken by Duxford aircraft. Lt. J W Wilkinson of the 82nd and Lt. P E Pompetti of the 84th destroyed aircraft on the ground, and two FW190s were destroyed in the air. Addition damage included six other aircraft hit on the ground, three freight locomotives damaged, one tugboat damaged and three airfields strafed. From 20-25 February, the 78th reverted to escort duty. A "Blitz Week" was planned, aimed at ball-bearing plants and aircraft production centres, to hinder production of the expanding German fighter force. This was considered necessary to allow Allied bombers to pursue their strategic bombing programme without excessive losses and to gain air supremacy for the coming invasion. Participating were the 8th and 9th Air Forces in England and the 15th in Italy. Duxford contributed more than 10% of the fighters for "Blitz Week", and claimed 16 victories for the loss of one pilot. The Thunderbolts of Duxford operated almost every day of May on fighter escort and strafing missions. On 19 May the 78th, using large drop tanks, supported B-24 Liberators attacking Brunswick. The Group encountered heavy opposition but shot down ten Bf109s and two FW190s, returning to base without loss after over four hours in the air. The day brought the Group's victory total past 200 and was a fitting climax to the end of Col. Stone's service with the 78th. Three days later he handed over command to Lt. Col. Frederic Gray. At the beginning of June the build up to the invasion of Europe by the Allies began. The 66 Fighter Wing group commanders flew into Duxford for frequent conferences at the nearly Sawston Hall HQ and tension mounted. Duxford became far removed from a country club as security was tightened. Passes were hard to get, travel was restricted and carbines, gas masks and helmets were carried constantly. On the first five days in June the 78th took part in bomber support and ground attack on coastal defences six times. After the aircraft had returned from operations on 5 June, the Station cut all ties with the outside world. The Newmarket to Royston road (A505), which separates the airfield from the domestic site, was closed, the first and only time during the war. Even official traffic was blocked and detoured around the Station. No telephone calls went from or came into the base and in-coming and outgoing mail was frozen. British civilians and American Red Cross workers on or near the field were kept where they were - those on post at the time were not allowed to leave, and those outside were not permitted to enter. Even a visiting intelligence officer was not allowed to leave. Officers and men crossing from the domestic site to the airfield were stopped at the gate and asked their business, and if they did not have any they were not allowed into the hangar area (After the invasion began, only pilots scheduled to fly at the time were allowed inside the briefing room before or after a briefing). Blackout restrictions were tighter than ever, and special wardens patrolled the station to see that they were enforced. Several aircraft were formed into an alert flight which stayed on duty an hour before sunset until an hour after sunrise, ready to help intercept any enemy counter thrust against the impending invasion. In addition to the regular MPs and anti-aircraft gunners, an increased number of guards was on duty around the dispersal areas and a ground defence unit was kept ready to deal with any possible enemy airborne landings. Some of these restrictions had been put into effect several days earlier but were given special emphasis from 5 June onwards. Work on the Station went ahead at a feverish pace. Office workers and other personnel who normally never went near an aircraft painted black and white invasion stripes on the wings and fuselages of the Thunderbolts, while others were pressed into service as truck drivers and linking ammunition belts. By midnight on 5/6 June the constant sound of aircraft flying overhead made any sleep impossible. Transport aircraft carrying paratroops or towing gliders full of the same were heading south. At Duxford every one of 78 FG's 89 Thunderbolts was on line. D-Day had arrived. By 03:30 on 6 June, the 78th was ready and the first mission of the day took off. The job was to provide cover for the seaborne landings on Normandy. There were no major incidents, though the 83rd FS reported seeing ground rockets being fired in the distance and the 84th FS flashes over the coastal area. The 82nd, which had stayed behind, went out on the second mission as relief for the earlier aircraft. On return, the Thunderbolts were re-armed with bombs to attack rail targets ahead of the landing force and just before 10:00, the 83rd took off again. The 83rd reported seeing German truck convoys moving up towards the fighting zone and before that squadron was back, the 84th was airborne again, this time heading out on a strafing sweep against targets of opportunity in the Alcenon area. An ammunition dump near Alcenon marshalling yard exploded and the 84th claimed two locomotives damaged, 30 - 45 box wagons damaged, 8 - 10 coal wagons damaged and 10 flat wagons loaded with motor vehicles damaged. The next squadron to fly out was the 82nd, which destroyed two locomotives by bombing and machine-gun fire. The 82nd also investigated two Luftwaffe airfields but found them empty of aircraft. Just before the 82nd landed, the 83rd took off again and achieved the Group's only two aerial victories of the day. In strafing attacks, the squadron also claimed two FW190s destroyed on the ground near Mayenne and two locomotives nearby. Duxford's last mission of the day took off soon after the 83rd returned. Pilots of the 82nd and 84th went out on area support at 18:22 and touched down again at around 23:00. The 82nd searched for enemy aircraft reported by the controller but could not find them in the dusk and the pilots reported seeing heavy artillery bombardment, while the 84th damaged a few rail targets. The D-Day pace continued through the next two days and there was no let-up in the missions. On 9 June however the weather, which had not been good since the invasion began, got worse and not a single mission took off from Duxford on that day. On 10 June, the weather improved such that four missions were possible, ground attack again being the objective. On the third mission of the day a strong force of Bf109s an FW190s attacked the Group as the Thunderbolts began their bombing run. Pilots reported that some of the Bf109s bore white stripes resembling the Allied invasion markings, and that some even had British roundels. That day was one of the costliest recorded by the 78th during their two years of operations. Ten pilots, including Maj. Harold E Stump, CO of the 84th, were lost - nine missing in action and one killed in a mid-air collision. Morale, which had been high since Col. Frederic C Gray had taken command, sagged temporarily, but the intensive escort and ground attack missions continued. By the end of June, 45 missions had been flown and the general feeling was of a job well done. Security was relaxed a little and travel restrictions were lifted to a distance of 25 miles from the airfield. July was very much a case of "same as before", with a rising number of successes for the Group. On 19 July, the 78th destroyed 20 enemy aircraft on the ground in their largest strafing claim to date. That evening, however, tragedy struck at Duxford. A visiting B-17 from the 612th BS, 401st BG, had come to Duxford as the pilot wanted to visit friends serving in the 84th FS. The B-17, carrying its own co-pilot and two crewmen plus two pilots and eight enlisted men from Duxford, "buzzed" the control tower and pulled up over the hangar. However, the aircraft failed to attain height and clipped the obstruction light on the top of the 84th FS's hangar behind the tower. Most of the left wing and the left horizontal stabilizer were sheared off and the bomber rolled over, barely missing wrecking the officers' barracks and crashed into the main barracks of the 83rd FS and part of the main 82nd barracks. All twelve men in the bomber one man in the 83rd barracks were killed in the crash and resulting explosion of fire (the aircraft had been fully loaded with fuel). Chaplain (Captain) William J Zink made two unsuccessful attempts to rescue the man in the barracks. At first unable to reach him because of fumes and smoke, Chaplain Zink, grabbed a gas mask and helmet and re-entered the building, but falling beams and fire stopped him. He was presented the Soldiers Medal for his actions that day, becoming the first 8th Air Force chaplain to win that award. Most of the 83rd building had been gutted, lesser damage had been caused by pieces which hit the officers' barracks and the 82nd barracks. After the crash, squadrons held formations and checked rolls carefully for men missing in the accident. If the crash had occurred 30 minutes or an hour later, officers said the toll of men in the barracks would have been considerably higher, because by then crewmen would have been in off the line. Another tragedy also marked the summer of 1944 when Capt. James W Wilkinson of the 82nd was killed as his Thunderbolt crashed into a mountain in Wales. The 31-year-old airman, who had broken his back in a flying accident only a year earlier, went down two days before D-Day on a practice strafing flight. A few weeks later his English widow was presented with his Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star, second and third highest US valour awards. The captain had earned the medals on two occasions when, single-handedly, he had fought off and broken up entire squadrons of enemy planes attacking US bombers. The captain's widow was found dead in London a month or two after the presentation, a photograph of the airman was near her body. The group carried on, and more victories were recorded. On 28 August the 82nd FS became the first squadron, American or British, to shoot down a Luftwaffe jet aircraft. The secret Messerschmitt Me262 was known about, but hardly ever seen. On this day, the 78th were flying west of Brussels. Maj. Joseph Myers of the 82nd and his wingman, Lt. Manford O Croy, noticed the jet flying fast and low. After a long chase and some tactical moves the jet crash-landed in a field, only for the rest of the 82nd to set it alight by strafing. In mid September the 78th were heavily involved in support of the Allied airborne landings at Arnhem and Nijmegen. This was dangerous low level work designed to draw fire from the troop carrying gliders. The hazards of the operation were acknowledged by a Distinguished Unit Citation for the Group and Silver Star for Col. Gray for his leadership. On one such mission, on 23 September, 78th FG Thunderbolts were credited with saving several scores of C-47 Dakotas and Short Stirlings from almost certain destruction. After circling Arnhem, the 78th met a heavy barrage of both 20 and 40 mm light flak. Two squadrons destroyed concealed guns in a church and along nearby hedgerows. A few of the flak positions shot down three C-47 Dakotas a few minutes later, but those guns were destroyed by the third squadron of Thunderbolts. After that, three more formations of C-47 Dakotas and Short Stirlings flew up and dropped supplies right in the middle of what had been a heavily-defended area without drawing a single burst of flak. Later in the year, rain became a problem. Duxford was still a grass field and was prone to becoming muddy and flooding after heavy rain. The 78th nicknamed Duxford "The Duckpond". At each end of the field a mat of Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) had been laid down for Thunderbolts preparing to take off. This helped while the aircraft were stationary but trying to take off or land in water was no fun. It was therefore decided to lay a PSP runway as well, 3500 ft long by 150 ft wide; when added to the mats at either end the total length would be 4100 ft. To allow the work to proceed, the 78th FG moved in the first week of December to Bassingbourn, about ten miles down the Royston road to the west, the base of the 91st Bomb Group. With the 78th gone, Army engineers laid the runway and on 11 December the Thunderbolts returned. To allow missions to be flown from Bassingbourn, ground crews and pilots had to be trucked there and back daily because briefing and de-briefing was done at Duxford, so the return to Duxford was most welcome. Other changes were now taking place. The North American P-51 Mustang was being introduced to virtually all 8th Air Force Fighter groups and the 78th's turn was about to come. Several war-weary P-51Bs and Cs were delivered for pilot training, but some of the men did not take too kindly to them as they were pleased with the robust Thunderbolt and were concerned that the Mustang's liquid cooled Merlin engine was too vulnerable to flak during low level strafing. But its longer range was the decisive factor, so the conversion went ahead. There were some teething problems and on 29 December Lt. Huie H Lamb of the 82nd, unable to bail out, set his crippled Mustang down in the North Sea and was picked up by RAF air-sea rescue. By 5 January 1945 all three squadrons of the 78th FG were flying P-51 Mustangs. The mission tally rose, but there were still set-backs and February was the costliest month during the whole period of operations from Duxford. Eighteen pilots were reported missing in 16 missions, and three pilots were killed on the way home (some of the missing however, were found to be safe at the end of the war). The tally for the whole of February's strafing missions was 105 locomotives, 19 oil tankers and numerous other targets destroyed. Also during February, the Station had two changes in CO. Col. Frederic C Gray, who had taken over in May 1944, went to 8th Air Force HQ early in the month and was replaced by Lt. Col. Olin E Gilbert. Later in the month Lt. Col. John D Landers took command, and Lt. Col. Gilbert became his deputy commander. By April the Group had gone from strength to strength. On the 10 April, 52 enemy aircraft on the ground were destroyed and another 43 damaged. All records were broken on 16 April; tasked with giving freelance support to bombing attacks on airfields deep in Eastern Germany and Czechoslovakia, the Group's pilots succeeded in destroying 135 enemy aircraft and damaging 89 more, for the loss of three P-51s. This became the best strafing record for the Group and for the 8th Air Force during the war, and was achieved some 650 mile from base! On 17 April, the 78th achieved their final claims of the air war. After breaking escort the aircraft swooped over airfields in the Prague area and destroyed 15 and damaged 13 enemy aircraft. Five more uneventful missions, the last on 25 April, brought the end of combat flying from Duxford. On their final mission, the 78th were one of the two 8th Air Force Groups selected to escort RAF Avro Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron (The Dambuster squadron) in an attack on Hitler's Bavarian mountain retreat at Berchtesgarden. The raid was an anti-climax as the retreat was shrouded in snow and low cloud, so the Lancasters instead bombed the nearby SS barracks. On 8 May the war in Europe ended. The next day the Victory Proclamation was read out and there was an official Review. During the course of the next six months, the 78th FG was gradually de-activated and the personnel and equipment made ready for return to the US. On 1 August 1945 an open day was held at Duxford so that all the local people could see the aircraft and meet the men and about 5000 visitors turned up. By November, Duxford was quiet. A small party remained to tidy up, after which, on 1 December 1945, Duxford was officially handed back to the RAF. In 2 years of operations the 78th FG completed 450 missions totaling over 80,000 hours of operational flying. Aircraft destroyed: air - 338.5 / ground - 358.5 / total = 697 78th FG losses: planes = 167 / men = 93
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