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Making and recording history

IWM FRE 280

1st Lieutenant Stanley G. Markusen (left) of Saint Paul, Minnesota, was the 78th Fighter Group’s Public Relations Officer, whose duties included releasing information to the newspapers and receiving VIPs. Importantly for us, he was also the Group’s Historian. He was responsible for sending each month’s reports to the 66th Fighter Wing at nearby Sawston Hall, marked for the attention of the Wing’s Historian.

On 1 July, he submitted a full report, plus enclosures, of the Group’s activities for the month of June. There were hundreds of pages of documents, some of which we’ve been looking at over the last few weeks of blogging and tweeting. One report that we didn’t manage to include was Pfc Brennan’s ‘Orderly Room History’. In it he rather memorably describes how his unit was told about special new D-Day precautions:

‘The evening of the day of the invasion the Captain called a special squadron formation at which time he briefed us on the measures to take in case this base was attacked. When alert 1 goes off we are to get fully dressed. We are to remain in the barracks until further orders from higher headquarters. Under no circumstances is anyone allowed to go out unless he wants to get his rectum shot off.’

The 78th Fighter Group played its part in the build up to and execution of D-Day. The missions carried out by the Group’s pilots helped to secure the skies over the Normandy beaches, and prevented the German army from reinforcing the defences. General Hap Arnold summed up the contribution of the USAAF on 16 June:

‘Your sustained maximum efforts leading up to and during the operation against the European Continent have permitted our surface forces to operate unhampered from enemy air opposition and have paved the way for them to move forward with greater speed. This together with the direct blows against Germany itself has shortened the remaining time for defeat of the enemy. I regret that I cannot visit every unit to commend you and your commanders personally for the energy, aggressiveness, and teamwork you and they have displayed in accomplishing your missions. The job is not over. I wish you all good fortune in keeping the German Air Force subjugated and in carrying on until the final collapse of the Axis.’

As the preceding tweets have shown, this success came at a high price. Not all of the Group’s losses were sustained in combat. In May John Hartman died in an explosion while trying to rescue a crewman from a crashed aircraft. Two days before D-Day, James Wilkinson was killed when his P-47 crashed in Wales. All of these deaths, whether caused by combat or by accident, had profound consequences for the friends and families the men left behind. ‘You were always very happy to see them come back,’ recalled Fred Haueter in an interview he recorded with us. ‘I can remember when Lieutenant Hunt didn’t come back. I guess I was almost kinda sick. Even thinking about it now, it’s kinda hard.’

This will be the final entry in this set of ‘Duxford, D-Day and the 78th Fighter Group’ blogs. They’ve hopefully provided an insight into one part of the huge undertaking that was Operation Overlord. I’ll leave the last word to Stanley Markusen, by reproducing the narrative summary that he wrote at the end of a momentous month. In it he describes the Group’s losses, including the horrific toll on 10 June:

‘Flying for the first time for a full month under the command of Colonel Frederic C. Gray, the 78th Fighter Group abandoned its customary role of escorting heavy bombers to Europe and flew mostly fighter-bomber missions.

With the advent of the invasion of northern France, the group started carrying 250, 500 and in rare instances, 100 pound bombs. A terrific loss incurred on one day when 10 men were lost in combat fairly close to the landing zone. One squadron lost its C.O., the 84th losing Major Harold E. Stump. Along with Stump, operations officer, Captain Billy Hunt, went down. Flight leader James Casey also was lost. The 83rd Fighter Squadron lost a major on his first operational mission Major Donald McLeod – a veteran of the African theatre, and a man who had spent considerable time with the RAF on Malta.

The 82nd Squadron lost their temporary C.O., Captain James Wilkinson in a routine flying crash two days before D-Day. He had gone to inspect the site where a locomotive was to be placed for an experimental strafing by himself and other pilots. Crashing into the side of a small mountain, Wilkinson was killed – an ironical fate depriving him of the chance to fly in the invasion he had so long looked forward to at this base.

Captain Ben Mayo took charge of 82nd Squadron, with Captain Holly assuming the leadership of the 84th. The 83rd Squadron also lost one of their best pilots, Lt. Bill McDermott, when he had a mid-air collision with Lieutenant Kochanek.

For the first time in months no award ceremony was held.

Colonel Gray was promoted to a full-colonelcy toward the end of the month. He had shared the destruction of a Focke-Wulf 190 on D-Day with Lt Massa. The latter went down on the disastrous 10 man loss a few days afterwards.

The only remaining member of the original 78th Fighter Group now flying is Major Eby, operations officer. All the rest of the men have been transferred, killed or are missing in action – with the exception of a few men now on detached service to the Zone of the Interior. Public relations stories for the month of June reached a new high – totalling over a thousand.

The group has suffered a lot of casualties of late – several of them in non-operational flights. It has added a good number of new pilots – with the ground officers and enlisted men remaining, with one department exception. The Medical section has had a complete turn-over, from the group surgeon to the squadron surgeons in the fighter group and the service group.

The group flew forty five combat missions in June, the highest number ever. Several days saw three separate missions.

Restrictions were lifted for travelling a distance of 25 miles – no more.’

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