A new fighter group was activated on June 1, 1943 and was assigned to the Los Angeles Air Defense Wing, IV Fighter Command, of the United States Fourth Air Force at March Field, California. One week later, three squadrons were assigned to the group, each with a cadre of 40 enlisted men; The squadrons were led by captains, while a lieutenant colonel commanded the group.
The group moved to Van Nuys, California, in August, and by mid-September, each squadron had a roster of between 40 and 44 officers and from 189 to 217 enlisted men. Training intensified in October to include mock dogfights in the air over the Pacific, with the three squadrons flying out of separate fields in Southern California.
Sadly, during training, a number of aircraft crashed and several pilots were injured or lost their lives.
Just after Christmas, the 364th Fighter Group passed muster and was deemed ready to engage an enemy. At that time, men assigned to the group did not know where they would be going. The question was answered when, on January 13, orders were received and the next day, the entire group departed California on a troop train bound for New York, arriving five days later. The men received final physicals and 12-hour passes on a staggered basis until, at about 8 p.m. on February 1, all were boarded onto another train, then transferred to ferries in New York Harbor, arriving at a cargo dock under cover of night.
A first-hand account of that night is in the history book of the 364th, produced in 1991 by those who had survived the ensuing months and years of war, and finally were ready to share their memories of it.
“We had time to guzzle hot coffee (viewed now in retrospect as a fabulous luxury) and doughnuts proffered by the Red Cross. The more enterprising, though perhaps not too security-minded, of the squadron were able to learn from the M.P.s that our ship was the Queen Elizabeth, that we would go unescorted, and land in Glasgow in seven days. All of which predictions proved correct.”
The ship, planned as a luxury transatlantic liner, had been outfitted earlier as a troop carrier, and she did, indeed, sail to Europe with precious cargo, but with no military escort. The men of the 364th Fighter Group, now part of the 8th Air Force in Europe, boarded a train immediately upon disembarkation for transfer to Honington Field in Suffolk, England, “where both officers and enlisted men were quartered in more luxurious quarters than we had ever had in the United States of America.”
Mission No. 1 was flown by two of the squadrons of the 364th Fighter Group on March 2, 1944, less than one month after arriving in England. They “supplied withdrawal for bombers returning from Germany.” The account of that first mission notes: “Lt. Kenneth Nicholson had to abort. Returning on one engine, he belly landed the P-38. The plane was the only casualty.”
During the rampup to D-Day, operations for the 364th Fighter Group were “costly,” with the loss of 18 pilots in May and 137 planes aborted. It was just the third month of combat for the group
On June 5, 50 P-38s were a part of Mission 62, termed an “area support mission” in the official records. The invasion fleet had departed from the English coast, and “Neptune” had begun. Missions 63 through 117 were flown in the 10-day period from June 6 through June 15. The following day, the three squadrons of the 364th Fighter Group returned to flying “normal” combat missions.
Once again, from the history of the 364th Fighter Group:
“Major Brad McManus led off the first section of the 383rd at 0330 hours with 16 planes flying. The take-off was in a blinding rain and trying to make formation over the base was a challenge to say the least. . . .
“On the day’s last mission of the 8th of June, Lt. Loren Wilson (383rd) was heard to say over the R/T, ‘Hell, B.B. (his flight leader, Lt. B.B. Wilson) I’ve lost you. I’m going back.’ Lt. Wilson never returned to the base and a crashed P-38 was later found south of London. This was the only loss the Group suffered while flying 321 sorties.”
Today, on the 77th anniversary of D-Day, I cannot help but return to the entries that detail this one American fighter group’s part in that war. Just last week, on Memorial Day, we paid tribute to those who lost their lives, not only on D-Day, but in all the battles waged by this country against foes around the world.
However, for me, World War II remains unique. My father was there — first in California to train with the newly-formed fighter group. He was on that five-day troop train journey from the West Coast to the East, and he was on board as the liner decked out in battleship grey, the ship he called “the Lizzie,” made her way unescorted from New York to Scotland. He was there at Honington on June 6. He was 25 years old. Even though he did not fly, I know he waited with concern for planes and pilots to return from each mission. I know he grieved when they did not return as scheduled.
He did not talk about those days, nor did he talk much about the war, or about other battles in other wars. I suspect he carried vivid memories of the war years, but he chose not to share them with me. But the pride he felt about being a member of the 364th Fighter Group during World War II was something he never hid.
The last Mission of the 364th was flown from Honington on May 6, 1945, not quite two years after the fighter group’s activation. During its short life span it achieved a remarkable record, flying P-38s and, later, P-51s. My father returned home from England in July 1945, with the expectation of being transferred to the the Pacific Theater of Operations. Thankfully, the war ended before he received his orders. The fighter group was deactivated on November 10, 1945.
So, now I try to piece together the stories I wish I had heard from him, and I share his pride in the unit, and the service members — all of them — who played a part in the effort that culminated in D-Day 1945.