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‘Victory by Valor’ during WWII

The 20th Fighter Group, now the 20th Operations Group, flew variations of the P-38 during World War II while they were stationed at King’s Cliffe.

A P-38J Lightning is parked at Royal Air Force King’s Cliffe, Northamptonshire, England, circa 1943. The 20th Fighter Group, now the 20th Operations Group, flew variations of the P-38 during World War II while they were stationed at King’s Cliffe. (Courtesy Photo)

Pilots assigned to the 20th FG became known as the “Loco Boys,” due to their destruction of Axis locomotives during World War II.

A P-38J Lightning assigned to the 20th Fighter Group (FG) pulls up after strafing a German supply train, circa 1944. Pilots assigned to the 20th FG became known as the “Loco Boys,” due to their destruction of Axis locomotives during World War II. (Courtesy Photo)

The officers took the picture prior to participating in D-Day, also known as the invasion of Normandy.

U.S. Army officers assigned to the 77th Fighter Squadron pose for a picture in front of a P-38 Lightning at Royal Air Force King’s Cliffe, Northamptonshire, England, circa 1944. The officers took the picture prior to participating in D-Day, also known as the invasion of Normandy. (Courtesy photo)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory,” declared President Franklin D. Roosevelt during an address to Congress.

The address was a response to an attack on U.S. soil the day prior, which claimed more than 2,000 lives.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese military forces attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in an attempt to weaken the United States Pacific Fleet. The “Day of Infamy” would act as a catalyst, beginning the involvement of the U.S. in what would become one of the largest armed conflicts in history— World War II.

Two years later, the 20th Fighter Group, now known as the 20th Operations Group, moved from March Field, California, to Royal Air Force King’s Cliffe, Northamptonshire, England, to support the European war front, Aug. 26, 1943.
Due to lack of resources in the group’s new home, the 55th Fighter Squadron had to be based out of Royal Air Force Wittering, England, until April 1944.

“When we got there, according to some sources, the airfield was very bad and the buildings were inadequate,” said Christopher Koonce, 20th Fighter Wing historian. “They basically had to build the place up from scratch as soon as they got there and conduct missions at the same time.”

During the group’s stay at King’s Cliffe, the pilots were primarily responsible for escorting medium and heavy bomber aircraft to targets in Europe. After the escort missions were completed, the pilots routinely strafed targets of opportunity while flying back to England. Pilots assigned to the 20th FG destroyed approximately 400 Axis locomotive engines, one of the common targets of opportunity, earning them the title of “Loco Boys.”

“(Europe) didn’t have interstate systems,” said Koonce. “It might be five miles (to their destination) as the crow flies, but it might take you twenty miles to get there. Locomotives traveled straight and were able to get equipment and troops wherever they needed quickly as opposed to using the road system.”

Between April and August 1944, 20th FG pilots also performed light bomber sorties, bombing German airfields, trains, barracks, radio stations and other targets throughout France, Belgium and Germany.

The 20th FG accomplished their missions with the P-38 Lightning from 1943 to July 21, 1944. Although the aircraft had many successful missions, they were not well-equipped to handle the extreme cold and high moisture conditions present in the operating altitudes over Northern Europe.

“We adapt,” said Koonce. “In the early days of aviation, we were adapting all the time. We’d have one aircraft and we’d build something that was better.”

On July 22, 1944, the group had completely transitioned to the North American P-51 Mustang, which allowed aviators an extended flying range and more horsepower. During the aircraft’s first month of operations, 20th FG pilots demonstrated their new capabilities, destroying approximately 70 Axis aircraft. After mid-1944, many 20th FG missions ran unopposed by enemy aircraft.

On June 6, 1944, commonly known as D-Day, American and British airborne divisions spearheaded the invasion of Normandy, France, to liberate northwestern Europe and end the Nazi regime. Above them, pilots assigned to the 20th FG as well as other P-38 fighter groups assigned to the 8th and 9th Air Forces, provided continuous protection from air attacks.

“It was World War II,” said Koonce about the importance of the 20th FG’s presence in England. “We were at war with an evil empire and every man, woman and child was involved.”

The 20th FG completed more than 300 missions during its time in England and returned to the U.S. in Oct. 1945, after Victory in Europe Day was proclaimed May 8 of that year.