Friday 2 April 2021

Imperial War Museums - When tragedy struck the 78th Fighter Group



A group of pilots of the 83rd Fighter Squadron in front of Captain Charles P London's Republic P-47C Thunderbolt
© IWM HU 57978
On 3 July 1943, comedian Bob Hope and forces sweetheart singer Frances Langford visited RAF Duxford to entertain the US Army Air Force. But the tragedy that struck the 78th Fighter Group just two days prior made for a sombre audience.
The 78th Fighter Group was formed in 1942 as the US military was expanding, when the United States entered the Second World War.

That November, they moved overseas to England. To begin with, the 78th Fighter Group were stationed at RAF Goxhill.

Later, they moved to RAF Duxford, closer to the bomber groups they would need to protect in the skies over occupied Europe.

With the arrival of an American fighter group, Duxford was designated as USAAF Station 357 (DX), part of the so-called ‘Friendly Invasion’.

Duxford was a luxury to the American servicemen, compared with their basic accommodations at Goxhill. 

Duxford had heated brick buildings, hot water and bathing facilities. As well as nearby entertainment such as a theatre, sports fields, and an Officer's club 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 78th Fighter Group flew its first two missions from Duxford on 13 April 1943, led by its Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Arman ‘Pete’ Peterson.

Originally from Flagstaff, Arizona, 28 year-old Peterson was extremely popular with his men. Instead of leading the Fighter Group from behind a desk, he flew with his men on every mission.

Flying came at a cost, and the first major loss occurred on 1 July 1943.
© IWM 
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Peterson was killed in action during an encounter with German Focke-Wulf 190 fighters over Holland.

‘The day ‘Pete’ didn’t come back reshaped the course of the 78th. Officers flew frantic and vain search missions. Ground personnel went around, scuffing their shoes into the dust and digging their hands deep into their pockets…'

When there was no sign of his return, Station 357, known for its cheerful and friendly atmosphere, quickly became a place of quiet mourning.

Two days later, American entertainers Bob Hope and Francis Langford visited the base. Comedian, Hope, admitted that even he struggled to get the men of the 78th to laugh during that sombre time. “What’s wrong with these guys?” he implied.

Despite the loss of their leader, pilots of the 78th Fighter Group at Duxford went on to achieve several ‘firsts’ in the conflict, including Captain Charles P London becoming the first American fighter ace in the European Theatre of Operations (ETO).

For the next two years, the 78th continued to play a crucial role in the air war over Europe and were heavily involved in D-Day, 6 June 1944.

The 78th Fighter Group’s final mission of the Second World War took place on 25 April 1945, as fighter escort to bombers over Germany.

The war in Europe ended in May 1945 and the 78th Fighter Group left Duxford that October, after 450 missions totalling 80,000 hours of flying time, earning two Distinguished Unit Citations.

But they left with 113 American pilots less than they came with.

Click here to discover more stories from Duxford during the Second World War.
© IWM 
We look forward to welcoming you back to IWM London, IWM North, IWM Duxford and Churchill War Rooms when we reopen from 19 May 2021. 

From 12 April 2021, you can also explore Duxford Outdoors, the historical grounds where the 78th Fighter Group served.