20th Fighter Wing History

Early History of the 20thFW's Squadrons WW I

It was August 1917. It had been only fourteen years since the first powered flight and ten years since the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Army Signal Corps had been formed. Air power was in its infancy and growing. The possibilities were endless. New innovations were occurring everywhere you looked but the Great War raged in Europe and the US was gearing up for its part in that war. Three squadrons familiar to us all were formed at Kelly Field, Texas - the 55th, 77th and 79th Aero Squadrons (AS). It is also believed the first 78th AS was also formed there. Only the 55th's history would survive this initial formation to connect with the current squadrons. The Air Service hadn't yet figured out what it would look like, so there were many fits and starts as the service grew. By September the three squadrons had their designations changed to Aero Construction Squadrons (ACS). On 17 September 1917 the 55th ACS was on its way to NY for deployment to the AEF. By November 1917, the 77th and 79th had moved to NY for deployment to the AEF. In the AEF the squadrons were involved in construction of training facilities in France. The records do not reflect where the 78th ACS was.

In January 1918 a new numbering scheme for aero squadrons was established. Numbers 1-399 would be for Aero Service Squadrons (AS), 400-599 Aero Construction Squadrons (ACS), 600-799 Aero Supply Squadrons and 800-1099 Aero Repair Squadrons (ARS). The 55th became the 467th ACS, 77th became the 489th ACS, 78th became the 490th ACS and the 79th became the 491st ACS. All four squadrons went on to serve the AEF building facilities in France.

To add to the complexity of their history, the 77th, 78th and 79th ASs were born or reborn at Rich Field, Waco, Texas on 20th, 28th and 22nd February 1918 respectively. Our histories are linked to these squadrons (with the exception of the 55th). On 28 February the three squadrons moved by train to Hicks Field, Fort Worth, Texas. The 77th then moved to Taliaferro Field # 2 (later named Barron Field), Everman, Texas. As near as can be determined the squadrons provided a support role at their respective bases whose mission was training new pilots. As part of the stateside renumbering system all non-flying permanent party squadrons had their numerical designations changed to an alpha designation to free up those numbers for flying units.

The 55th ACS was demobilized on 16 March 1919 at Garden City, NY. The 78th (Sq. A) and 79th (Sq. B) were demobilized on 15 November 1918. Records show the 77th (Sq. A Barron Field) demobilizing on 18 November 1918 but recently found records show the squadron demobilized in March 1919.

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P-12B of the 55th Pursuit Squadron. The squadron insignia at the time was a medium blue circle with a yellow surround, on which was superimposed a yellow swastika. This was the squadron insignia until 4 May 1932.

It All Started With Balloons

The 20th can trace its beginning to the authorization of the 20th Balloon Group which was authorized on 18 October 1927 as an inactive element of the Department of the Army Air Arm. The group was redesignated a Pursuit Group (PG) in May 1929 and finally activated on 15 November 1930 at Mather Field, California. The first combat unit of the 20th PG was the 77th Pursuit Squadron (PS), activated on the same day as the 20th PG. The 55th PS was also activated on 15 November as part of the 2nd Bombardment Wing, but attached to the 20th PG. The 55th wouldn't be assigned to the 20th PG until 15 June 1932. The 80th Service Squadron provided administrative and support functions for the group. The 78th PS was attached to the 6th Composite Group until it was assigned to the 3rd Attack Wing.

Upon activation, the group welcomed the arrival of the first of many famous airmen to grace its ranks. Major Clarence L. Tinker, its first commander, led the group until 13 October 1932. Major Tinker, part Osage Indian, gained fame as Major General Tinker, World War II Commander of the Seventh Air Force in the Pacific Theater. Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, was named in his honor a year after his death during the Battle of Midway in 1942.

The first combat aircraft of the 20th PG was a P-12 with serial number 29-355 assigned to the 77th PS. The group's P-12s were single-seat biplane fighters that featured two .30 caliber machine guns, an open cockpit, a 500 horsepower Pratt and Whitney engine, and a top speed of 180 miles per hour.

On 15 May 1931 the 20th PG made a cross-country trip while going on maneuvers. These maneuvers were part of the first of its kind for the Air Corps. "The Great Air Armada" put on shows in Chicago, NY, Boston, and Washington, DC. The maneuvers consisted of all Air Corps aircraft with the exception of basic trainers, around 640 aircraft.

To Barksdale By Sea

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USS Grant used to transport the 20th Pursuit Group from San Francisco to New Orleans via the Panama Canal.

The Group remained at Mather Field for a little less than two years until 15 October 1932. On that date an advance party of more than 200 officers, enlisted men, and their dependents, under the command of Captain Thomas Boland, sailed from San Francisco aboard the USS Grant. They traveled through the Panama Canal and debarked at New Orleans, Louisiana, on 30 October 1932. On the following day, they arrived at Barksdale Field, Louisiana. The 55th PS's P-12s arrived at Barksdale on the same day. The 77th PS followed suit on 15 November 1932.

Major Millard F. Harmon, first commander of the newly opened Barksdale Field, took over command of the 20th PG on its arrival at Barksdale. Just prior to its transfer to Barksdale, the group was assigned, along with the 3rd Attack Group, to the 3rd Attack Wing in June 1932. The 3rd Attack Wing and Group operated out of Fort Crockett, Texas.

The 20th had hardly settled at Barksdale Field when, on 7 November 1932, it took part in its first tactical pursuit exercise from the new base. En route to Fort Crockett, its 27 P-12s engaged in mock aerial warfare over Beaumont, Texas. By February 1933 when Barksdale Field was formally dedicated, the group's training program was in full operation. Its aerial training mission focused on the development of procedures and techniques for engaging enemy aircraft and provided for the protection of vital industrial centers, airdromes, and bombardment aircraft. The 79th PS joined on 1 April 1933.

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P-26A of the 77th Pursuit Squadron. 20th Pursuit Group P-26 aircraft did not have squadron markings. To identify them the cowl ring had a red scallop with a white strip and the engine face was also red. Similar paint scheme would be used for the 55th and 79th squadrons with their respective colors. Also note the long tube in front of the windscreen. This was the telescopic gun sight. The aircraft was armed with a pair of .30 caliber machine guns firing through the prop from below the fuselage.

In October 1934, the group (by then three flying squadrons strong) made its first aircraft transition from the P-12 to the Boeing P-26 Peashooter. This open cockpit monoplane had a 600 horsepower engine and a top speed of 253 miles per hour. Like the P-12, it possessed two .30 caliber machine guns. Unlike its predecessor, it also featured wing-mounted bomb racks.

In February 1935, the 20th PG was joined at Barksdale by the 3rd Attack Wing and 3rd Attack Group. Joint operations by the two combat groups were highlighted in 1937 by their participation in two aerial demonstrations, the first on behalf of the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the second during the American Legion Convention in New York. These demonstrations illustrated the effectiveness of newly developed pursuit and attack tactics and the significant firepower unleashed by A-17 and P-26 aircraft.

First Closed Cockpit Fighter

The 20th Pursuit Group acquired its first aircraft with a closed cockpit, the Curtis P-36 Mohawk, in September 1938. The P-36 had a 1,050 horse power engine, and a top speed of 303 miles per hour. It could carry up to 400 pounds of bombs on its undercarriage.

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P-36A formation showing all three squadrons of the 20th Pursuit Group's aircraft. L-R: 77th, 55th and 79th Sq. with red, blue and yellow nose bands respectively. The P in PT identifies the aircraft as pursuit and the T, being the 20th letter in the alphabet, identifies the aircraft as from the 20th Pursuit Group.
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P-36A of the 77th Pursuit Squadron with maintenance crew. Photo from Floyd Huffman

On 15 November 1939 the 20th moved to Moffett Field, California, stayed there less than one year, and moved again on 9 September 1940 to Hamilton Field, also in California. At Hamilton the group changed aircraft once again, this time to the Curtis P-40 Warhawk. This was the top of the line pre-World War II pursuit fighter. It had a range of 750 miles, a top speed of 343 miles per hour, and six .50 caliber machine guns in the wings.

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P-40 of the 55th Pursuit Squadron at Oakland Municipal Airport in 1940. This is not a B model, but just a P-40. No production A models were made. B models had the star insignia on the fuselage and no tail stripes. This model P-40 sports two .50 cal. machine guns in the nose and one .30 machine gun in each wing. Photo from Bill Larkins

Several events in 1941 marked the group's assignment at Hamilton Field. Deployed flights spent the first part of 1941 at Muroc Lake, California, and Esler Field, Louisiana, conducting maneuvers. Also in January 1941 the group gained Lieutenant Colonel Ira C. Eaker as its commander. Colonel (later Lieutenant General) Eaker remained with the group until September 1941. In October 1941, the group split into its component squadrons and deployed to various locations on the east coast, with group headquarters temporarily established at Morris Field, North Carolina. In December 1941, the 20th reassembled at Hamilton Field, California. Two days later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

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P-43 Lancer 77th FS Spartanburg, South Carolina Spring 1942. Photo from Arthur Harszy

The 20th PG made several station moves following the United States' declaration of war on Japan. Until February of 1942 the 20th performed air defense operations. From Hamilton Field it returned to the east coast and Wilmington, North Carolina, to Morris Field, North Carolina. The group's mission at this time was to act as a training unit to create new fighter groups. The group would receive new personnel, train them, and then they would be transferred out in mass to form a new unit, leaving only a small cadre behind to start the process over again. This process is believed to have been used for as many as six new Fighter Groups. The individual squadrons were stationed at various fields in South and North Carolina and Florida. While at Wilmington, the group exchanged its P-40s for P-39 Airacobras as part of its training role. Additionally, the group received P-43 Lancers while in the Carolinas, also for training purposes. The P-43 was obsolete at this point and was never on the official record of the group. This aircraft was the predecessor of the P-47 Thunderbolt. At the end of September 1942 the group moved to Paine Field, Washington - all in the latter part of 1942.

In January 1943 the group moved to March Field, California, where it acquired its P-38 Lightning aircraft. At March the group would once again proceed with training new members but this time the results of the training would deploy to England as the 20th FG to write its pages of history.

To Europe in "Luxury" on the Queen Elizabeth

Eight months later, on 11 August 1943, the personnel of the 20th departed California aboard three trains and arrived at Camp Miles Standish, Massachusetts, five days later. From this European staging area the members of the 20th embarked on the HMS Queen Elizabeth and departed for the United Kingdom on 20 August 1943. If the members of the 20th had expected a typical Queen Elizabeth pleasure cruise, they were sorely disappointed. The ship had been refitted to accommodate over 19,000 men. Staterooms designed for two or three people had 20 to 30 bunks double and triple stacked for officers and enlisted men. In addition to these conditions, enlisted personnel also served shifts of 24 hours on deck, followed by 24 hours below deck. This doubled the number of personnel the cramped quarters could accommodate.

Due to its high speed, the HMS Queen Elizabeth traveled unescorted, despite the ever-present threat posed by German submarines. The five day trip across the Atlantic was reported as uneventful, except for long chow lines (two meals per day) and frequent boat drills. On 25 August 1943, HMS Queen Elizabeth dropped anchor and the men of the 20th disembarked at the Firth of Clyde. From there they were transported to the docks at Greenock, Scotland, and then, by train, to their new home, King's Cliffe Airfield, North Hamptonshire, England. Fortune smiled on the 55th FS at this time. Due to space restrictions they had to be stationed at RAF Wittering, about five miles from the rest of the group. The facilities at RAF Wittering were much superior to those at King's Cliffe. The 55th Squadron joined the rest of the group at King's Cliffe in April 1944.

King's Cliffe

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P-38H of the 77th FS in September 1943. Pilots simulate a scramble for this publicity shot as they wait to fly their first operational mission.

Arriving at King's Cliffe, the group faced the prospect of operating from one of the poorest airfields in England. The buildings were old and inadequate and airfield facilities were close to nonexistent. The only thing in abundance was poor weather and mud. Overcoming the initial shock of these conditions the group soon settled in and got on with the serious job of flying. The group was assigned to the Eighth Air Force throughout the war.

Prior to the 20th's arrival in theater, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt served as the primary U.S. fighter aircraft in Europe. This aircraft was a formidable match for the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) fighters in air-to-air combat but lacked one important feature--range. Without sufficient range, the conduct of daytime bomber escort missions, first into Europe and then Germany itself, proved nearly impossible. That problem was perhaps best illustrated on 14 October 1943 when 60 of 293 unescorted bombers (20 percent), dispatched against the ball bearing works in Schweinfurt, failed to return from their mission.

The P-38 Era Begins

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P-38H of the 55th FS based at RAF Wittering, England Aug 1943 to Apr 1944 then King's Cliffe, England until the end of the war.

With the arrival in Europe of the Lockheed P-38, the long range escort mission of the Eighth Air Force began in earnest. Initially, due to a lack of available aircraft the 20th conducted operations as an attached component of the 55th FG. Full group operations for the 20th commenced in late December 1943 when the group became fully equipped with P-38s.

One of the early highlights of the group's World War II exploits entailed the escort of a bombing mission into the Bordeaux area of France on 31 December 1943. This 1,300 mile round trip constituted the longest fighter escort mission to date. That distance, in fact, stretched the P-38s beyond their operational limits, forcing 17 of 31 aircraft to land at other bases due to insufficient fuel.

Lightning Limitations

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P-38J of the 79th FS Kings Cliffe England Spring 1944. MC and the white square identify it as 79th.

Despite its advantages of range and speed over its German contemporaries, the P-38 suffered limitations which resulted in less than a break-even rate in enemy aircraft downed versus 20th aircraft lost. Within a 90-day span, from 31 December 1943 to 31 March 1944 the operational ledger disclosed 52 German aircraft destroyed while the 20th's losses amounted to 54 pilots. By the end of the P-38 era in July 1944, the 20th's kill rate improved slightly; the group logged 84 pilots lost versus 89 German aircraft destroyed in the air and 31 destroyed on the ground.

The P-38 was ill-equipped to deal with the extreme cold and high moisture conditions that prevailed at the operating altitudes of 20,000 to 33,000 feet over Northern Europe. A high number of group casualties resulted from engine failure at altitude. Thrown rods, engine explosions and unexpected power reduction during flight were all fatal flaws that the Axis aircraft exploited. The P-38 was equal to any German fighter at altitudes below 15,000 feet, but was usually at a disadvantage above that altitude.

Despite the shortcomings of its aircraft, the 20th earned a healthy reputation based on its escort of successful bombing raids and its secondary mission of ground strafing. From the outset of its World War II operations, the 20th's mission concentrated on escorting medium and heavy bombers to targets on the continent. It retained this primary mission throughout the war. Its escort missions completed, however, the group began to routinely strafe targets of opportunity while en route back to England. Pilots of the 20th focused their strafing attacks on railways and railroad cars. That preference soon earned them the title of "Loco Boys."

Ground Attack

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P-38J of the 20th FG pulls up after strafing German supply train in the days following the Normandy landings. Note: invasion stripes on the wings.

In addition to its escort mission, the group furnished light bomber sorties. Between April and August 1944, pilots of the 20th FG machine-gunned, dive-bombed, skip-bombed, and high-level-bombed German airfields, trains, barges, flak positions, gun emplacements, barracks, radio stations, and other targets throughout France, Belgium, and Germany. Early in that period, on 8 April 1944, the group earned a Distinguished Unit Citation for "extraordinary heroism, determination, and esprit de corps in action against the enemy." During attacks against two German airfields near Salzwedel, Germany, the group destroyed or damaged 43 enemy aircraft on the ground and three in the air. Group pilots then deployed over a broad front, sweeping the area westward on withdrawal. During that sweep, German fighters made a rear attack on the P-38 formation, destroying four of the group's number. In counterattack, the 20th brought down three Me109s and an FW190 and dispersed the remaining force. The 20th aircrews continued their withdrawal west, and resumed their attacks on ground-targets of opportunity. Such was the ferocity of its attacks that day that the 20th Group recorded the destruction of 50 aircraft, 300 soldiers, 18 locomotives, 50 railway freight and oil tank cars, 30 oil tanks comprising three oil storage dumps, four high tension towers, two hangars, an electrical power house, six factories, one railroad station, 16 flak towers and gun positions, and two bridges.

The invasion of Normandy in early June 1944 featured 20th FG daylight escort operations in support of Allied fleet movements. The P-38 was specifically chosen for the task due to its distinctive shape (dual-boom fuselage) and the ease with which fleet anti-aircraft gunners could distinguish it from enemy aircraft. In July 1944, the P-38 era for the 20th came to an end. On 19 July, Lieutenant Colonel Cy Wilson, the Group Commander, led 49 Lightnings on a bomber escort mission into Southern Germany. The next day two squadrons of P-38s operated with one squadron of P-51s. The group flew its final P-38 combat mission on 21 July.

Transition to the P-51 (in Less than a Week)

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77th FS tries out their new P-51Ds over the England.

By 22 July 1944, the 20th had completely transitioned to the new North American P-51 Mustang. Lieutenant Colonel Wilson equated the P-38 to flying an "airborne ice wagon," when compared to a P-51. With its extended range and horsepower, the P-51 helped sweep the last remnants of the Luftwaffe from the air. From mid-1944, many missions were flown unopposed by Axis aircraft.

During the first month of P-51 operations, pilots of the 20th FG demonstrated the increased air superiority of the Mustang by destroying 70 enemy aircraft. Their own losses numbered only 14 over the same period--a far better kill-to-loss ratio than they had achieved with the P-38. The increased range of the P-51 enabled group pilots to extend their coverage of European operations by two to three hours flying time. Standard flying time for a P-38 ran approximately four hours. Missions of six or seven hours were not uncommon for the P-51.

By November 1944, Allied air superiority had been so firmly established that the Luftwaffe attempted only two more full-scale interdiction missions against Allied bombers before the end of the war. On 2 November 1944, a German force of about 250 fighter aircraft intercepted 1,121 Eighth Air Force bombers and their fighter escort en route to the synthetic oil plants in Merseburg, Germany. In the ferocious air battle that followed, Eighth Air Force fighters destroyed 148 German planes, more than half the attacking force. Aircrews of the 20th Group contributed to the elimination of 33 enemy aircraft on that day. Lieutenant Colonel Robert P. Montgomery led the 20th's assault, destroyed three aircraft himself and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his performance.

Bomber escort missions by the 20th FG for the remaining eight weeks of 1944 met little German resistance. Weather conditions, limited the group's participation in the Battle of the Bulge. Nevertheless, Eighth Air Force (including the 20th) bombing and ground strafing of German road and railway lines of communication effectively strangled the enemy to death, and by 10 January 1945 the German army had begun its retreat to the Rhine.

The Luftwaffe's Last Push

Germany launched its final major air defense operation on 19 January 1945. This last full-scale attack against Allied bombers lasted approximately 20 minutes. In those 20 minutes, over the German homeland, aircraft of the Eighth Air Force downed a total of 121 out of 214 attacking aircraft without the single loss of a fighter aircraft. Only nine B-17s, two percent of the total force, were lost.

The late introduction of Luftwaffe jet aircraft, far superior to the P-51 mainstay of the Allied fighter force in both speed and high altitude performance, came too late to alter the course of the air struggle over Europe. The Me262 twin jet and Me163 single rocket engine aircraft first appeared in small numbers at the end of 1944. Though not a great threat in air-to air combat, (they lacked maneuverability), these aircraft proved almost impossible to stop when they attacked the heavy bombers.

The balance of the war featured little German resistance to Allied air power. Bombers of the Eighth Air Force saturated the German homeland almost at will. Strafing attacks by Allied fighters, including the 20th, paralyzed German communications, transportation, and airfields. During February 1945, pilots of the 20th FG expended approximately 165,500 rounds of ammunition, more than 16 percent of its wartime total expenditures. The 20th led all Eighth Air Force fighter groups in the destruction of enemy aircraft during that month.

In the last month of the war, aircrews of the 20th downed their first Me262s. On 10 April 1945, during airfield attacks around Potsdam and Brandenburg, 20th pilots destroyed five Me262s in individual encounters, while the group as a whole eliminated a total of 55 German fighters (mostly on the ground) without a single loss.

28 Aces

At the end of World War II, air aces (pilots who destroyed five or more enemy aircraft) of the 20th FG numbered 28. The 77th FS claimed group bragging rights with 10 aces, including the top three. Captain Ernest C. Fiebelkorn and Captain Charles H. Cole each had 11 total victories. Captain Fiebelkorn is generally acknowledged as the top 20th ace because his victories included nine in the air and only two aircraft destroyed on the ground. Captain Cole's total included five air victories and six on the ground. Captain James M. Morris missed out on sharing top honors with a victory total of 10 2/3, seven and one-third in the air and three and one-third on the ground. The 55th followed close behind the 77th with nine aces, the 79th had five and the Headquarters section claimed four.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 20th lost 73 pilots to the Germans during the war, with a further 11 killed during training flights. The 20th also counted 56 of their number inhabiting Nazi prisoner-of-war camps during the war. Ten others bailed out in Axis territory, but evaded capture and eventually returned to Allied lines.

Following the war, the 20th FG returned to the United States for inactivation at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey on 18 October 1945. It became activated again on 29 July 1946 at Biggs Field, Texas. In October 1946, the group relocated to Shaw Field, South Carolina, where it was assigned under the 20th FW on 15 August 1947.