With Wings as Eagles: The Beginning

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Ryan Campbell
  • 107th Attack Wing
The 107th Attack Wing is one of the original units of the New York Air National Guard, having been allocated to the state of New York on May 24, 1946, shortly after the end of World War II. It was then on Dec. 8, 1948, that the 107th was given federal recognition and commenced flying operations with an initial strength of 100 Airmen assigned.

Over the following 70 years, the 107th distinguished itself at home and in combat, and set many milestones and records along the way. However, the story of the 107th does not simply start in 1948. To trace the origins of the wing, we go back to the beginning in 1942 with the 339th Fighter Group as recounted by Maj. Gen. John B. Henry, Jr.

The 339th Fighter Group began it's existence at Hunter Field, Savannah, Georgia, on August 10, 1942, as the 339th Bombardment Group (Dive). The group then moved at reduced strength on February 6, 1943, to Drew Field, Tampa, Florida. Over the next few months, personnel and equipment were assigned to bring the group up to strength while flying the Douglas A-24 Banshee and the Curtiss A-25 Shrike dive bombers. On July 3, the 339th moved to Walterboro, South Carolina, and began conversion to a fighter-bomber group. Dive bomber pilots were transferred out and replaced by fighter pilots, and Bell P-39 Airacrobras began to arrive.

On August 12, I, John B. Henry, then a lieutenant colonel, received orders to proceed to Walterboro to assume command of the group. On that day, I fell into more good luck than I deserved. I was about to have the privilege of being part of one of the best flying organizations in the Army Air Forces. I was told of the group's conversion underway, and the bottom line was that we had three weeks to complete the manning, equipping and organizing of various squadrons and support elements. We would then move all of it to the California desert to provide air support to ground troops training in the Army's Desert Training Center. When I heard we were expected to be at Rice Field in 30 days, I had grave misgivings about being able to accomplish such a gargantuan task. To move a well established group from east to west coast in 30 days might have been a reasonable task, but for one that was still converting to fighters, it seemed questionable. Nevertheless, we had no choice but to do our best to comply.

I was announced as commander of the 339th Bombardment Group (Dive) on August 17, and the 339th changed its name to the 339th Fighter-Bomber Group on August 20, with three redesignated squadrons: the 503rd, 504th and 505th Fighter-Bomber Squadrons. I will be grateful always to the commanders of units from which the pilots and aircraft came. I could not have done better if given the privilege of making the selections. We received 65 top-notch pilots, including the five bomber pilots who remained to fly fighters. I saw no substandard officers or "hangar queen" aircraft being passed to the 339th. Through the super-human efforts of a group of highly motivated people, many of whom were working together for the first time, we made it. The ground elements departed by rail and 49 P-39 aircraft flew out on September 10, and arrived at Rice Field on September 17.

The 85th Fighter-Bomber Group to which I was assigned previously had spent six months on the California desert in the same role we were getting, so I knew what to expect. I knew from the 85th's experience that the air support requirements for the Army Desert Training Center were minimal. This meant that we would need to fill a significant amount of slack time with other activities. We would need to develop a flying training program to improve the skills of our pilots and to prevent the boredom that stems from idleness. Therefore, I took with me a copy of the training materials used by the 85th to train individual combat pilot replacements. The use of this material, along with the knowledge and expertise we had in our squadron commanders and operations officers who had come from fighter groups in Florida, enabled us to develop a well balanced and meaningful combat pilot training curriculum. This kept us busy when we were not responding to the infrequent calls to provide aircraft to support Army troop maneuvers.

The California Desert Training Center area was commanded by a major general who also commanded the Army division that was in training at the time. In our case it happened to be Maj. Gen. Alexander Patch. He had priority on our flying activities, and we were to respond to any and all demands that he levied upon us at whatever place and time that he designated. The 339th had been transferred literally out of the Army Air Forces to the command of the Desert Training Center which had the same status as an overseas theater of operations. Aside from assuring that we kept enough aircraft in commission to satisfy the Army troop training needs, they were not concerned with how we occupied our time. Thus, we could pursue our own training program without outside interference. With the flight line force and the group's supply section pulling together, we were able to maintain a high aircraft flyability rate despite the low supply priority granted by the Army Air Forces. No small part of this achievement was due to the old American ingenuity and determination to overcome obstacles on the part of all concerned.

The pilots entered seriously into the spirit of this training and in so doing developed a high level of skill in gunnery, formation flying, bombing and other flying requirements that make up a good combat pilot. Three things contributed directly to the success of this program. One was the rigid stability of our personnel and aircraft. War Department regulations prohibited the transfer of a single individual or aircraft from the group throughout it's tour in the maneuver area. This stability for six months had a very favorable effect. Secondly, our isolated location forced all personnel to live on base full time, which assured maximum personnel availability at all times. Thirdly, there was abundant good flying weather; every day was a fair weather day with unlimited potential for flying, enabling the squadrons to pile up training accomplishments in rapid fashion. However, the good weather served us badly for the eternally inclement British weather we would have to endure a few months later.

About six weeks before our tour in the desert was to end, an Inspector General team from Third Air Force came to Rice to determine the general condition of the 339th. They remained three days and departed without leaving an exit report. I thought that was rather brief but assumed the inspectors had seen enough to make their findings in a later report. My concern was that we may have been judged deficient to the extent that they saw no point in delving further. However, we never received a report of that team's findings, orally or in writing.

Ten days later a rather large group of officers headed by a full colonel arrived unannounced. My initial reaction was one of alarm, that the previous team had found serious problems. That fear was short-lived. The team leader, Col. John E. Barr, informed us that his team was to give us an Operation Readiness Inspection (ORI) with a view of sending the 339th overseas directly from Rice Field. This was a tremendous morale boost and generated great enthusiasm among our personnel. For eight days this team examined in minute detail our training, supply, administration and medical records. They inspected personal and technical equipment and noted shortages that would have to be filled for overseas readiness. The operations segment of the team put us through every phase of combat operational flying, culminating in a maximum effort group formation with all aircraft of three squadrons in the air and assembled in a group formation on a timely basis. The exit briefing informed us that we had passed an excellent ORI and would be recommended for filling a Third Air Force obligation to the Eighth Air Force in England. Assignment to the prestigious Eighth Air Force was a tremendous surprise, one that exceeded our dreams. Enthusiasm ran high!

Soon we began receiving equipment that was to accompany the group overseas. Other equipment on the overseas Table of Allowances was shipped directly to the port of embarkation. The 339th left Rice Field in early March 1944, and arrived at Camp Shanks, New York, on March 12. One week later we boarded the HMS Stirling Castle along with several other fighter groups, arriving at Liverpool, England, 13 days later. The group went by rail to Fowlmere on April 5, to be equipped with about 75 North American P-51 Mustangs in the next three weeks, and was then redesignated in May as the 339th Fighter Group.

Many original members of the 339th Fighter Group believed that the plan from the beginning was for the group to train in the California desert for six months and then proceed to an overseas location. However, the intent was strictly to fill an obligation to support Army Desert Training Center activities, after which we would likely have other stateside training responsibilities or else be broken up for assignment as replacement personnel. Fortunately, our story had a very happy ending. The moral to this story is that a group of conscientious young men who were in the Army to fulfill their patriotic duty to their country in time of peril were recognized and rewarded for their hard work, zeal, self discipline and talents.