The 78th Fighter Group was activated in January 1942 amidst the rapid expansion of the US military that occurred in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entrance into the Second World War just over a month before. In May 1942, the unit was expanded and trained in California, composed of the 82nd, 83rd and 84th Fighter Squadrons and equipped with twin-engined Lockheed P-38 Lightnings.
The following November, the Group was shipped overseas to England and by December had settled at former RAF station Goxhill in Lincolnshire. From late January, the 78th began to be equipped with Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, single-engined fighter-bombers that became one of the main American fighters in the European Theatre of Operations.
During this same period, it was decided that the 78th would be temporarily moved to RAF Duxford in Cambridgeshire in a wider effort by the US 8th Air Force to move its fighter groups closer to the bomber groups, or ‘big friends’, that they would be charged with escorting. In late March, men from the 78th began to arrive and by early April the whole group had completed its move.
Station 357 (DX)
Duxford, established by the Royal Flying Corps in 1918, had been an operational Royal Air Force fighter base since 1924 and had the distinction of being the home of the first squadron (No. 19) to be equipped with the new Supermarine Spitfire. From July to September 1940, Duxford had been crucial in the defence of Britain against the Luftwaffe onslaught, and was the base of the famed ‘Duxford Wing’ led by Douglas Bader.
Just prior to the arrival of the 78th Fighter Group, Duxford served as the base of the RAF’s Air Fighting Development Unit (AFDU), a technical research establishment that tested new aircraft such as the P-51 Mustang and developed fighter tactics.
With the arrival of the 78th, Duxford was officially designated as USAAF Station 357 (DX).
From the outset, the luxuries of Duxford quickly became apparent to the Americans, especially when compared with their basic and barely habitable accommodations at Goxhill. At Goxhill, the site was spread out such that the cold and dingy barracks were two miles away from the aircraft hangars, and worse, a mile away from the toilets and any running water.
Now the Americans were quartered in heated brick buildings with hot water, bathing facilities and nearby entertainment facilities such as a theatre, sports fields and an Officer’s Club complete with a bar and slot machines.
‘It was like the Grand Hotel!’, remembered Clark Clemons, an 84th Fighter Squadron pilot who arrived later in the war. The living quarters were grouped close together with the hangars situated just across the road, while the LNER train line at Whittlesford could take those with 48-hour leave passes to the historic sites and pubs of Cambridge or to the bright lights and dance clubs of London.
For enlisted ranks, which included those that served as ground crew, the experience was not always quite as glamourous. Some were quartered in small huts with just a stove for heat. ‘I had to live in the shanties and we froze to death in the winter time’, remembered Harold Carlson, who served as a mechanic and then as a clerk. ‘[We] had overcoats and everything else on the top of our beds, and we were still cold’.
Despite these hardships, the men still managed to make Duxford home. ‘The barracks walls were decorated with pin-up girls such as Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Alexis Smith and Varga’s calendar girls … popular dance bands heard on Armed Forces Radio helped relaxing after the day’, recalled Staff Sergeant James Tudor. [from ‘Eagles of Duxford’ by Garry L Fry, 1991].
The friendly invasion
As with the hundreds of thousands of Americans arriving in the UK at this time, the merging – and sometimes clashing – of cultures was inevitable. The Americans, most of whom had never been abroad, were experiencing British culture for the first time while also bringing their own cultural quirks with them. Len Thorne, a British AFDU test pilot who was present at Duxford during the arrival of the 78th, was particularly surprised at ‘their habit of having their pork chops with peanut butter and Jell-o all on the plate at one go and eating it with a fork!’.
The array of pubs in the local area became popular destinations during the evening, most of which could be reached by bicycle, although it took time for the Americans to adjust to British pub culture.
‘[They] never understood that when the landlord called time, that was it, even in wartime you had to clear out, drink up and go home’, remembered Len Thorne, leading to an incident one night in which an American pilot who ‘was a little annoyed at being made to leave … went round into the car park where they had their jeep or whatever they were in, whipped out a revolver and fired all six shots into the wall of the Red Lion [at Whittlesford], and promptly drove off.’
And of the drinks, ‘getting used to the warm beer was quite difficult’, recalled Harold Carlson.
Baptism of fire
The 78th flew its first two missions from Duxford on 13 April 1943, both led by its Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Arman ‘Pete’ Peterson, to seek out enemy aircraft over the French coast, known as a ‘fighter sweep’, but it was not until 14 May that the Duxford pilots got their first taste of real aerial combat. Led again by Peterson, all three squadrons were ordered to act as escorts for a bombing mission over Antwerp, Belgium.
‘You’d fly up and down a bomber stream, till you saw the squadron marking that you were looking for: those were your boys’, remembered pilot Frank Oiler, who joined the 84th Fighter Squadron later in 1944.
As Peterson's P-47’s approached their assigned stream of forty B-17’s, the formation came under attack by more than twenty German fighter aircraft. In the melee that ensued, the 78th scored its first aerial victory, with Major James J Stone Jr destroying a Focke-Wulf Fw 190, while two other German aircraft were counted as ‘probables’.
Unfortunately, this came at the cost of three 78th pilots: Captain Robert Adamina and Flying Officer Samuel Martinek were forced to bail out over the North Sea and spent the rest of the war as prisoners in Stalag Luft III, while Captain Elmer McTaggart, who was shot down after successfully avenging Martinek, managed to evade capture by reaching England via Spain in June. Many more 78th pilots would become prisoners of war or evade capture by the end of the war.
78th Fighter Group pilots describe being on escort missions
Robert Green: "and then you see a bomber hit, and there, there it goes. And you feel your, your heart goes with the crew."
James Peterson: "I remember one specific situation where I saw this B-17 spiraling down and I just kept saying to myself, well actually I was talking out loud, of course nobody could hear me, but I was just saying 'get out, get out, get out.' I never saw anyone get out."
The 78th’s first major loss occurred on 1 July 1943 when Peterson, now a Colonel, was killed in action during an engagement with German fighters over Holland. Peterson was extremely popular with his men and his loss sent shockwaves through Duxford.
The base, known for its cheerful and friendly atmosphere, quickly became a place of quiet mourning while some pilots went on search missions in the vain hope of finding their leader alive.
Two days later, the base was visited by American entertainers Bob Hope and Francis Langford. Hope, one of whose many talents was comedy, admitted that even he struggled to get the men of the 78th to laugh during that sombre time.
Peterson’s death, however, did not stop the pilots of the 78th from being effective in the air. At the end of July, the Fighter Group earned several ‘firsts’, including being the first unit to achieve double-digit aerial victories in one mission (destroying 16 German fighters), Captain Charles P London of the 83rd Fighter Squadron becoming the first American fighter ace in the European Theatre and Lieutenant Quince L Brown of the 84th Fighter Squadron becoming the first American fighter pilot in the European Theatre to attack a ground target.
For the next two years, the 78th Fighter Group continued to play a crucial role in the air war over Europe, serving as escorts in the increasingly ramped up strategic bombing campaign, while also being heavily involved in D-Day operations in the summer of 1944 and Operation Market Garden the following September.
The Group suffered one of its darkest days on 10 June 1944, when ten pilots engaged in a bombing run were killed after being ‘bounced’ by twenty German fighters. Just over a month later, eleven more men from Duxford were killed when a B-17 ‘joyride’ they were on crashed and struck one of the enlisted barracks.
Change came in December of the same year, when the Group’s P-47 Thunderbolts were replaced with P-51 Mustangs, whose long range capabilities allowed them to protect their ‘big friends’ all the way into Germany, drastically reducing the number of 8th Air Force casualties.
The 78th’s final mission took place on 25 April 1945, with the Group once again acting as escorts to bombers hitting targets deep into Germany. In May the war in Europe officially ended and the 78th departed Duxford the following October. In 450 missions totalling 80,000 hours of flying time, the 78th had accounted for 338 German aircraft in the air and 358 on the ground, earning two Distinguished Unit Citations. Tragically, this came at a cost of 113 American pilots.