The 1st Pursuit Group was dispersed but otherwise readY' for war on 7 December 1941. The 94th was at El Paso, Texas, with twenty P-38s, on its way to March Field, California. The remainder of the group, under Major Robert S. Israel, Jr., group commander, was at Selfridge. At 1800 on 7 December the group received a message from Headquarters, 1st Air Force, directing it to proceed to March Field. Group personnel stayed up all night _P,reparing for the deploymenalthough the first echelon of support personnel did not leave Selfridge until 9 December. The 94th arrived at San Diego on 8 December; the 27th and the 71st, flying twelve P-38s and twenty-four P-43s, arrived two days later. The last contingent of group 1 personnel left Selfridge on 12 December and the group reassembled on the 14th.
Not long after its arrival on the West Coast, the 71st, in the process of converting to P-38s, adopted a unit emblem. The 27th, with its Falcon, and the 94th, with its Indian head, used traditional designs. The 71st adopted a more aggressive and flamboyant device. "In accordance with the motto of the 1st Pursuit Group" (conquer or die), the 71st chose:
A bleached skull as the centerpiece of its insignia. The three yellow bolts, or flashes of lightning, represent the flights composing the squadron. Death, with red eyes and a gruesome smile, rides out of tlie 2 clouds on three flashes of yellow, against a bright background of blue.
The 71st used this emblem throughout the war, but not long after the end of the war the Flying Fist" of the contemporary emblem replaced the death's head, reflecting an Air Force decision to do away with morbid characters in its unit emblems.
The group began 1942 with an assigned strength of 902 (81 officers and 911 enlisted), against an authorized strength of 1,260 (149 and 1,111, respectively). Newly assigned personnel increased unit strength, but the numbers gave no real sense of the situation. As the Air Corps expanded between 1939 and 1941, it often called upon the 1st Pursuit to provide cadres for new groups and squadrons. When the Air Corps organized new units after Pearl Harbor, it continued to use the 1st as a source of cadres, but on a much larger scale. On 3 January 1942 the group lost 124 men to the 51st Pursuit Group. On 1 February 129 more returned to Selfridge, where they became the core of the 80th Pursuit Group. Finally, on 25 April, as the group prepared to deploy to Europe, 474 enlisted men and 24 officers, including group commander Israel, since promoted to lieutenant colonel, were reassigned and formed the cadre of the 82d Pursuit Group. Morale and performance suffered as a result of these moves.
The War Department recognized that the problems plaguing the 1st affected other units as well. In March 1942, General Henry H. Arnold, Chief Army Air Forces (AAF), contacted Eddie Rickenbacker recovering from injuries suffered in an airliner crash more than a year before. Arnold gave Rickenbacker a plane, a crew, and a mission: to visit flying units, :talk to these boys, inspire them, put some fire in them," and to look for reasons morale and performance seemed to be lagging throughout the United States. Rickenbacker's tour began on 10 March 1942, and by his own count he visited forty-one groups in forty-one states in thirty-two days.
Rickenbacker's travels took him to California, where he met with his old squadron, the 94th. The pilots assembled and, after giving them a pep talk that recalled the uadron's heritage, Rickenbacker asked the _pilots to explain what was wrong. Their complaints ranged from bad food to limited flying time, a familiar litany Rickenbacker heard elsewhere on his tour. But one pilot voiced a complaint that Rickenbacker resolved to handle personally. Why, the pilot asked, was the 94th using the Indian head insignia? What had become of the hat-in-the-ring?
On his return to Washington, Rickenbacker broached this and other questions to Arnold, who handled the easy one first: on 12 April 1942 he informed Rickenbacker that the hat-in- the-ring device would be reassigned to the 94th. The other problems Rickenbacker described to Arnold would not admit to such an easy solution. Rickenbacker placed the blame for the continuing morale problems not on the pilots - "There was nothing wrong with these boys. They were America's best: keen, alert, inspired, enthusiastic, fit. They craved action. " - but on the AAF itself, especially its maintenance and supply systems. As Rickenbacker saw it, the root cause of the morale problem was obvious: the pilots wanted to fly, but "the system" forced them to undergo "severely curtailed training. They wanted to give it all they had, but we were not letting them."
There was not enough equipment. It was not only a shortage of planes. The obstacles lay in the entire complex of maintenance .... There were not enough parts and equipment in inventory at any base I visited. Nor was there an efficient distribution system. Requisitions would go into supply and it might be days, even weeks, before the necessary part or parts arrived...As a result, planes were grounded for weeks at a time for want of parts.
General Arnold promised Rickenbacker that the AAF would try to deal with the problems he had uncovered. Events soon took care of complaints about a shortage of flying time.
As a result of strategic decisions made by the United States and Great Britain before the United States entered the war, America based its military strategy in the spring of 1942 on the notion that Germany posed a greater threat than Japan, and that the United States and its allies would, therefore, pursue a "Germany first" strategy. To implement this decision, the AAF developed plans to deploy a large part of its air strength to England. Planners aimed to have American air units in combat over Europe by mid-1942, with an eye toward an invasion of continental Europe in 1943. If, however, either the German or the Russian war efforts seemed near collapse, the air units could support an immediate cross-channel invasion in 1942. Both plans called for an accelerated buildup of American aviation strength in England. The War Department dubbed the movement of AAF units to England in 1942 "Operation Bolero." The 1st Pursuit Group formed the vanguard of the Bolero buildup. On 23 April 1942, the War Department ordered continental commands to prepare various air units for overseas movement. The group received its alerting message on 29 April. Movement orders arrived on 14 May. They divided the group into two components. The air echelon consisted of eighty-five P-38Fs, a like number of pilots, a maintenance officer and sixty-five crew chiefs, an armament officer and five weapons specialists, and a communications officer and five radio and flight instruments specialists. These eighty-eight officers and seventy-five enlisted men moved by air throughout the deployment. Two flight surgeons and 200 additional enlisted men assigned to the air echelon made the initial movement across the United States by rail, but they flew on C-4 7 transports for the trans-Atlantic legs of the trip. The ground echelon, 99 officers and 872 enlisted men, moved from the United States to England by ship.
The newly designated 1st Fighter Group (effective 15 May 1942) began its deployment to England on 17 May. Between then and 19 May, the air echelon left California for Dow Field, Maine. The ground echelon moved to Fort Dix, New Jersey. It arrived on 24 May and boarded the Queen Elizabeth on 3 June, where it joined the ground components of the 97th Bombardment, 31st Fighter, 60th Transport, and 5th Air Depot groups. The Queen Elizabeth sailed on 4 June and arrived at Gourock, Scotland, five days later. The ground echelon of the 1st Fighter Group then moved to an RAF station at Goxhill, England, where it settled in to await the arrival of the air echelon.
The fighters had a more interesting time of it. By 25 May all three squadrons were at Dow, where they began training for the long flights ahead. The deployment from California afforded the group time to practice its long-distance, high-altitude formation flying, but during the stay in Maine the pilots continued to practice long formation flights. The Bolero deployment was to be a test: never before had the United States attempted to send fighters, even long-range, twin-engine aircraft like P-38s, on such a long over-water deployment in the face of uncertain weather conditions. The AAF believed that "the confidence of all pursuit pilots must be developed," so the group continued to fly progressively longer flights "to accustom pilots to the rigors of long hours in the air." Official specifications on the P-38, used for planning the deployment, decreed that with 570 gallons of fuel, cruising at 15,000 feet at 200 knots, the P-38 could fly for six hours and still have fuel for at least an extra hour's flying left as a reserve. AAF planners used 1,443 miles as a safe maximum ferry range.
Training progressed smoothly; the 1st Fighter Group had a great deal of experience with this type of operation. The transoceanic legs were scheduled to begin in early June, the exact date depending on the weather, but events half a world away forced a change in plans. The Battle of Midway loomed in the Pacific, and the War Department decided to move units to the West Coast to defend the region if the Japanese succeeded in their plan to smash the United States Pacific Fleet. The 1st Fighter Group therefore headed back toward California. It was at Morris Field, North Carolina, on 6 June when it learned that the Japanese fleet, minus four aircraft carriers, was in retreat in the Pacific. The group returned to Maine and began its Bolero deployment on 24 June.
The trans-Atlantic ferry route comprised four legs. The route ran from Maine to Goose Bay, Labrador, thence to Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland. The group generally travelled in cells of five aircraft, with a B-17 escorting four P-38s. The rest of the air echelon moved in C-47s.
The 1st Fighter Group began the Maine-Goose Bay leg on 24 June, with flights departing throughout the day. Airfields along the North Atlantic ferry route were primitive at this stage of the war. On arrival at Goose Bay, after a flight of about 600 miles, pilots found a single 1,500- by 150-foot gravel runway. Electric lights illuminated its southern edge, but spruce trees served as runway markers on the other edge and at the ends. Still, the group completed this leg without incident. 17 The second leg presented greater challenges. The preferred route to Greenland took the aircraft from Goose Bay to "Bluie West One" (BW 1) Army Air Field, located on the northern shore of Tunugdliarfik fjord near Julianehaad, a distance of about 780 miles. Greenland's second field, Bluie West Eight, was judged "a superior location for aircraft operations," but it was almost 1,000 miles from Goose Bay. As the group moved eastward it used both BW 1 and BW 8.
The third leg took the group to Reykjavik, Iceland. The 27th led the group into Iceland in early July, but the squadron did not make the move to Scotland for some months. The War Departm.ent ordered the 27th to remain in Iceland to help defend the island against German long-range patrol aircraft. The first P-38s reached Prestwick, Scotland, on 9 July, when Colonel John N. Stone, the group commander, arrived with a flight of seven aircraft. The rest of the group remained strung out behind them. The evening of 10 July found forty-six P-38s at Goose Bay, eleven at BW 1, four at BW 8, and twelve in Iceland. By 14 July the total at Bluie West 1 reached fifty-seven P-38s, but on the same day bad weather forced six P-38s from the 94th and a B-17 down on the Greenland icecap as they departed on the Greenland-Iceland leg. Rescue units picked up all the crew members involved, and these six aircraft represented the group's only Bolero losses. The 31 July 1942 Bolero Aircraft Status Report "placed the 1st Fighter Group In England."
Aircraft of the 1st Fighter Group moved to airfields near Hull, England, shortly after their arrival in Scotland. Group headquarters, the 71st, and the ground echelon of the 27th took up station at Goxhill, while the 94th moved to Kirton Lindsay. The air echelon of the 27th remained in Iceland where, on 14 August, one of its pilots participated in the destruction of the first German aircraft American pilots shot down in the European Theatre of Operations (ETO). Lieutenant Elza D. Shahan and Lieutenant Joseph D. Schafer of the 33d Fighter Squadron (P-40s) shared credit for the destruction of a FW-200 Condor, a four-engine reconnaissance aircraft.
The 27th made its way from Iceland to the United Kingdom at the end of August, about the same time the Vlllth Fighter Command, Eighth Air Force, declared the 1st Fighter Group operational. Group strength at the time consisted of 129 officers and 1,060 enlisted men. It remained under the command of Colonel Stone. As of 1 September, the group headquarters was stationed with the 94th at Kirton Lindsay, the 27th at Colorne, and the 71st at Ibsley. On the same day Colonel Stone led thirty-two aircraft on a sweep over the French coast, the group's first World War II combat sorties over the continent. German pilots who rose to meet the group examined the P-38s from a respectful distance. Their reticence disappeared on later missions. The group received new identification letters and radio call-signs on 10 September 1942. Aircraft of the 27th carried HV codes and pilots used "Petdog" as a the 94th shifted to Y ouks-les-Bains. This move separated the air echelon from most of its support components. Thanksgiving Day, 27 November, found the bulk of the group's ground echelon on a train, enjoying "a substantial meal of stew and English biscuits."28 The meal and the train ride left some members of the group thirsty, so "to finish it off, a few members of the organization were well-supplied with various kinds of alcoholic beverages; i.e., Vin Rouge, Vin Blanc, Champagne, Muscatel, and perhaps a stray bottle of Scotch or Rum. No casualties reported."2
The 94th made the group's first combat sorties in North Africa on 29 November, when six aircraft strafed the German airfield at Gabes. On the flight back to Youks-les-Bains, Captain Newell 0. Roberts and the prodigal Lieutenant Ilfrey shared in the destruction of a Bf-110. Later that day the squadron destroyed two Ju-88s and claimed two Bf-109s as probable kills. The bulk of the group's ground personnel finally caught up with the squadrons on 1 December. Since the pilots had been forced to help service their own aircraft, the arrival of the ground echelon was "greeted with great cheers from the pilots."
The group spent the remainder of 1942 in combat and on the road. On 3 December the 27th lost three aircraft in a dogfight over Bizerte, but claimed three probable kills in return. On the same day the 94th lost two of four aircraft dispatched to strafe the airfield at Gabes. On 4 December the 27th lost two more over Bizerte, but in the same battle Captain John D. Eiland scored the 71st Fighter Squadron's first-ever combat kill, an FW-190. On 7 December Major (Lieutenant Colonel as of his promotion the next day) Ralph Garman replaced Colonel John Stone as group commander. The 94th joined the 71st at Maison Blanche on 12 December, but between 15-17 December all three squadrons moved to a new station at Biskra. Christmas, 1942 proved no better than Thanksgiving. The diarist of the 71st noted: "Christmas Day and most of the squadron personnel are comfortably (??) enjoying (??) a rail trip across the plains and mountains of North Africa."
The morale of the group sagged as 1942 ended. Training and combat losses were heavy. Relatively inexperienced American pilots met veteran German crews, with predictable results. The group accumulated some kills, but the tally was about even at best. Group aircraft had deteriorated: some of those flown in combat were veterans of the move from California to Maine, Operation Bolero, and the flight from England to North Africa. The group had few replacement parts and virtually no replacement aircraft. Three P-38 groups flew in the theater, the 1st, the 14th, and the 82nd. They normally mustered about ninety operational aircraft between them. On a good day the 1st Fighter Group could launch thirty aircraft. Operating conditions at the newly established North African airfields were bad, adding to the wear and tear imposed on the planes, pilots, and ground crews. Bad tactics, for the most part imposed by Twelfth Air Force operations officers, did nothing for either morale or scores. The Germans proved that American plans to send unescorted bombers to attack distant targets were unworkable. Bomber units wanted fighter escort, ancl the P-38 was the only fighter in the theater that had the range to do the job. Bomber-oriented staff officers gave little thought to effective long-range escort tactics; lacking any better ideas, they simply directed the P-38s to fly close escort with the bomber formations. Ordered to fight defensively in close proximity to the bombers, the P-38s yielded the tactical initiative to the Germans.
Fighter tactics proved to be no better conceived. The P-38s flew and fought in tight four-plane flights. The flight leaders selected targets and generally did the only aimed firing. The other three planes in a flight tried to stay close to the leader, and if they fired at all it was usually on the leader's cue and at the leader's target. Given the P-38's firepower, the resulting cone of fire_was often lethal to any enemy aircraft that encountered it, but it was hardly an efficient way to use the aircraft. The group's pilots recognized the difficulties, but the herd instinct was difficult to overcome in the heat of combat. As one pilot put it, "there was a kind of unspoken hope that in a formation somebody would see a threat in time to call it out, or that the German pilots would be more reluctant to attack four Americans than one, two, or three."34 As pilots gained experience, they worked out better tactics. By mid-1943, the group used more fluid formations composed of a pair of two-ship elements. Each element was theoretically independent, but they usually worked together. Three flights (twelve aircraft) made up a standard squadron formation. Operational procedures changed too. In time, escort fighters received a longer leash. This allowed them to rove around the bomber formation and attack intercepting fighters as they formed up for their attacks on the bombers.
The group's diarist described the camp at Biskra as "a vast space of nastiness." Personnel lived and worked in tents. The nearest shower was about three miles away, at an Army camp near Mateur. These indignities were apparently bearable, but by all accounts everyone complained about the food, the much-maligned C-ration. The rations "came in cans, the cans came in crates, the crates undoubtedly came in wholesale lots, without end, day in and day out." Everyone quickly grew tired of the hash, meat and beans, "or other concoctions," cooked up in tubs and served on the chow line.
The group flew almost daily. On 7 January 1943 the Italians shot down and captured Lieutenant J.C. Harrison Lentz of the 94th near Tripoli. They put him on a submarine for the trip to a POW camp in Italy, but the British caught the submarine cruising on the surface and sank it. Lentz managed to escape. The ship that sank the submarine picked him up and took him to Malta. From there he made his way back to his squadron, which he rejoined on 19 January. A flight of four Ju-88s bombed the airfield at Biskra on 10 January, destroying three aircraft, damaging another, and wounding three enlisted men. The group diarist reported a few days later that group morale was excellent because everyone had "received exercise digging foxholes."
During February 1943 all three squadrons happily left Biskra for a new station at Chateau d'un du Rhumel. On 17 February the Group was assigned to the newly activated North African Strategic Air Force, part of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder's Mediterranean Air Command. At an awards ceremony held on 22 February the pilots of the group who had participated in the Bolero deployment received Air Medals. Lieutenant Shahan also received a Silver Star for his victory over Iceland. At the end of February the War Department announced a new rotation policy. Pilots with fifty combat missions and 150 hours in combat found themselves reassigned to other duties. The first personnel changes made under this policy occurred on 3 March, when the 71st lost five pilots, all of whom had joined the squadron in Los Angeles. As the ground campaign in North Africa progressed, the Germans and the Italians began an airlift to evacuate personnel from Africa to Italy and Sicily. The transport formations offered tempting targets to the group's fighters. On 5 April the group launched twenty-six aircraft on a sweep. With the 71st flying top cover, the 27th and the 94th attacked a large formation of transports escorted by fighters. The group claimed eleven Ju-52s, a Bf-109, and a Fiesler "Storch" destroyed, while the 27th lost two pilots. The 71st's turn came on 10 April, when it destroyed twenty Ju-52s, an FW-190, and an Italian fighter at no cost to itself. Group morale improved after these victories. When the Germans resorted to other means to evacuate their forces, the group expanded its tactics. In late April the P-38s turned their attention to the freighters and barges moving out of Tunis and Bizerte, using dive and skip-bombing tactics to harry the fugitives. The North African campaign ended with the capture of Tunis on 7 May 1943.
The end of the campaign brought the group a brief respite. While all three squadrons still flew weather reconnaissance, rescue escort, bomber escort, and ground attack sorties over the Mediterranean, Sicily, and Southern Italy, the hectic pace of the North African campaign gave way to a more relaxed schedule. On 1 August the 71st Fighter Squadron's diarist noted that: "We hope the whole month will be more like this. It's like something out of Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi with nothing happening and the weather being ideal for lolling around and appreciating the virtues of taking life easy."
The respite was brief. On 15 August, for example, the group launched sixty-one sorties. Twenty-four aircraft made dive-bombing attacks in southern Italy, twenty-nine P-38s escorted B-26s to Sapri, Italy, and eight more flew a search-and-rescue escort mission. Even this was only a prelude to the last week of the month. On 22 August the group's pilots began flying top-secret, low-level formation flights. The pilots apparently had some difficulty keeping their mouths shut; on 24 August the diarist of the 71st reported that all personnel were confined to base "because the word about all this secret practicing has leaked out." Support personnel knew that all three squadrons launched maximum-effort missions each day and that "everyone comes back looking like the cat that ate the canary."
The group flew the well-rehearsed mission on 25 August. The target was the Foggia airfield complex in southern Italy. The 1st Fighter Group launched sixty-five aircraft under the command of Major George A. Rush, the group's operations officer, who flew as leader of the 71st's contingent. After joining up with eighty-five more P-38s from the 14th and 82nd Fighter Groups, the 150-plane formation proceeded at extremely low altitude to the target area 530 miles from base. The P-38s split into squadron-strength formations and hit eight airfields in the Foggia complex. The pilots "swept across the enemy fields, strafing the widely dispersed aircraft, gun positions, enemy troops, and other military targets.1146 During the attack, pilots of the 1st Fighter Group destroyed or damaged eighty-eight enemy aircraft, most on the ground, while the strike package as a whole claimed 150 aircraft destroyed or damaged. 47 The group lost two P-38s, one each from the 27th and the 71st, and these two squadrons each had one aircraft damaged.48 The diarist of the 71st claimed that "for all the secret practicing and worrying, the mission was sure a floperoo as far as we were concerned." The War Department thought differently: the 1st Fighter Group won its first Distinguished Unit Citation for this mission.
The group won a second Distinguished Unit Citation on its next major mission. On 30 August the group launched a forty-four plane formation, led by Lieutenant Frank J. Mcintosh of the 27th, to escort B-26s of the 319th and 320th Bombardment 27th, to escort B-26s of the 319th and 320th Bombardment Groups to attack the railroad marshalling yard at Aversa, Italy. As the American formation crossed the Italian coast, 75-100 enemy fighters attacked it. The P-38s, outnumbered by at least two-to-one, met the defending fighters. During a forty-minute air battle the group destroyed eight, probably destroyed three, and damaged three more German aircraft, at a cost of thirteen missing. The bomber formation completed its work without interference and returned to base without a loss. The 71st called it a "bad show," but again the War Department disagreed. In 1946 the group received a DUC for its performance on this mission.
In the meantime, Allied forces invaded Sicily on 9 July 1943. They cleared the island after a short land campaign during which the 1st Fighter Group flew air superiority, ground support, and interdiction missions. On 9 September 1943 American forces invaded Italy near Salerno, while Commonwealth forces landed in the heel ofltaly. The group flew from a temporary airfield at Dittaino, Sicily, during the early days of the Italian campaign. Most pilots flew at least two sorties a day, and ground crews refuelled the aircraft from five-gallon cans. The stay in Sicily was temporary; the air echelon returned to a new station near Mateur on 18 September. There followed a series of station changes as the group moved closer to the advancing Italian front. On 5 October the air echelon moved from Mateur to Gambut, near Tobruk, Libya. Between 4-6 November the air echelon moved to airfields near Tunis. At about the same time the ground echelon moved to Monserrato airfield, Sardinia, to prepare for the arrival of the group's aircraft. The air echelon crossed to Monserrato on 29 November.
Conditions at Monserrato were plush compared to those in North Africa. Pilots lived in a modern apartment house, unheated but otherwise palatial. Rooms were airy and comfortable, and morale soared. Group personnel had access to plenty of fresh food, bathing, and recreational factilities. The brief idyl ended on 9 December, when the group moved to Gioia del Colle, near Bari in the heel of ltaly.
The group's morale improved by January 1944, but the supply situation had, if anything, deteriorated. On 4 January the group could muster only thirty-two operational aircraft. The buildup for the cross-channel invasion of France received higher priority, so the 1st, and most of the other units fighting in the Mediterranean, languished at the end of a long, tenuous, and inadequately fed supply line.
On 8 January 1944 the group made the last of its many moves since late 1943. On that date both the air and ground echelons moved from Gioia del Colle to Salsola airfield, a former German base in the Foggia complex. Group headquarters remained at Salsola until February 1945, although the field flooded in the winter and was essentially abandoned from late fall through early spring. The sixty-mile-long complex of bases around Foggia became the home of the Fifteenth Air Force, organized on 1 November 1943. The 15th became the long-range, strategic bombing force in the Mediterranean theater, while the 12th became essentially a tactical air force.
Despite the frequent moves and the shortage of aircraft, by late January 1944 the 1st Fighter Group had reached:
... a level of tactical proficiency higher than ever attained before. It flew smartly and competently, and handled itself professionally in the battle areas. There was an absence of landing and takeoff accidents. Guns and sights seemed to work. Mostly, it seemed to have finally gotten a good estimate of the enemy. There was less confusion in a dogfight, and less panic by the flight and element leaders.
One member of the group attributed the improvement to experience, better tactics (by now a four-flight, sixteen-plane formation was standard), and better pilots, who benefited from more instrument and gunnery training and better tactical training for the type of missions being flown.
Newer aircraft, P-38,Js, began arriving in the spring. On 16 April 1944, the group flew its l,OOOth combat mission, when forty-eight P-38s escorted a force ofB-24s to bomb Brasov, Rumania. This milestone drew less attention than a softball game played between the 27th and the 7lst on 5 May. With $800 riding on the game, virtually the whole group turned out to watch the 7lst beat the 27th 6-5.
Aerial activity accelerated as the weather improved during the spring of 1944. The group earned another Distinguished Unit Citation for a mission on 18 May. The target for the heavy bombers that day was the Ploesti Romano-Americano Oil Refinery in Rumania. The 15th Air Force dispatched a force of about 700 bombers, but bad weather encountered en route to the target forced most to turn back. The 1st provided withdrawal cover for the bomber force. The fighters encountered the same bad weather that caused most of the bombers and their escorts to turn back, but the 1st Fighter Group's formation leader, Captain Walter F. Flynn of the 27th, decided to press on to the target area in case any of the bombers had gotten through. When the fighters arrived over the target, they found a force of about 140 bombers under attack by about eighty fighters, which had already destroyed six bombers. The forty-eight P-38s went to the aid of the bombers and pressed their attacks against the Germans until they drove them all off. The bombers returned to their bases without further losses. The 1st Fighter Group destroyed ten, probably destroyed three more, and damaged six German fighters at a cost of one P-38, whose pilot parachuted to safety en route to base.
The group's next noteworthy mission was not nearly so successful. Again the target was the Ploesti Romano-Americano refinery. Heavy bombers had been unable to knock out this target, so 15th Air Force decided to attack it with fighter-bombers. The 82nd Fighter Group provided the fighter-bombers, thirty-six P-38s. The 1st Fighter Group provided cover for the 82d. The 1st launched thirty-nine aircraft thirteen from each squadron. Like the Foggia raid, the attack formation approached the target at low altitude. In this case the defenders were waiting, and at least one hundred enemy aircraft intercepted the seventy-five P38s.
As the strike force neared the target, aircraft from the 82d moved into the lead, followed by those of the 94th, the 27th, and the 7lst, which lagged about three miles behind the rest of the formation. Enemy fighters concentrated on the isolated 7lst; by the time the 27th and the 94th could turn to help, the 7lst had lost eight of its thirteen fighters. One 7lst pilot, Lieutenant Herbert B. Hatch, shot down five of the attacking Germans on this mission, but his success did not make up for the losses (a ninth 7lst plane went down on the way home). The rest of the American fighters fared little better; the 1st Fighter Group lost a total of fifteen planes, while the 82d lost nine, or more than one-third of the strike package. Captain William N. Richardson, the 7lst Fighter Squadron's diarist, calJcd this "the worst day in the history of the 7lst Squadron."
The remainder of 1944 proved less eventful. On 11 August the group deployed sixty aircraft to Corsica to support the allied invasion of Southern France (Operation Dragoon). During this deployment the group's highest scoring pilot Lieutenant Thomas E. Maloney of the 27th (eight air-to-air kills), fell to flak. After crash landing in the Mediterranean, he floated to a French beach, which turned out to be mined, and injured both his legs when he set off one of the mines. He laid on the beach for ten days before a French farmer rescued him. Doctors saved his legs, and he was soon airlifted back to the United States. On 15 December the group returned to the Foggia complex but landed at Lucera, ten miles west of Salsola.
January 1945 proved a quiet month. Because of bad weather, the group flew on only eight days that month. The group's last major deployment began at the end of January, but the mission was an important one. During Operation Argonaut, the 1st Fighter Group escorted the British and American delegations to the Yalta Conference. The group deployed a total of sixty-one aircraft to Gibraltar, Oran, Malta, and eventually to Yalta itself. The deployment began on 28 January. From then until 4 February, the P-38s escorted the ships and planes carrying Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and their aides eastward to the Crimea. The return voyage began on 11 February and ended on 21 February, when the distinguished travellers exited the Mediterranean. Returning P-38s went to Salsola, reoccupied in mid-February when the runways dried out.
As the war in Italy drew to a close, the 1st Fighter Group found itself flying more ground-attack missions. Losses to flak rose accordingly. On 31 March 1945 antiaircraft fire claimed Colonel Arthur C. Agan, 1st Fighter Group Commander, who became a prisoner of war. The group ranged over all of southern Europe and into Germany during the last days of the war. Lieutenant Warren Danielson of the 27th shot down an FW-190 on 15 April during a ground-attack mission to Passau and Regensburg, Germany, the group's last aerial kill of the war. Thus, to the 27th went the distinction of having shot down the group's first and last aerial victims. The group flew its last wartime mission on 6 May, when five P-38s from the 27th escorted two RAF bombers on a supply drop to Yugoslavia.
Between 4 June 1942 and 6 May 1945 the 1st Fighter Group flew 20,955 sorties on 1,405 combat missions. The group scored 402.50 aerial kills: 27th - 176.50; 71st -102.00; 94th -124.00. The group also claimed 149 ground kills, 98 probables, and 231 damaged. The group lost 204 pilots killed or missing in action and twenty-eight pilots during training missions. The group demobilized quickly at the end of the war. On 15 September 1945 what remained of the group moved to Caserta, near Naples. On 16 October 1945 the 1st Fighter Group was deactivated at Caserta, ending thirty-six years of continuous service to the nation.
Well-travelled P-38 Lightning of the 27th Fighter Squadron, photographed in Italy in 1944.
Lieutenant Herbert P. Hatch, 71st Fighter Squadron, who downed five enemy aircraft on one mission in 1944
Preflight intelligence briefing
P-38 Lightnings of the 27th Fighter Squadron, Late 1944
Lockhed P-38F, "Bat Out Of Hell" from 94th Fighter Squadron in Tunisia, 1943
Members of the 94th Fighter Squadron loading the guns of a P-38 in Italy, 1944