THE 357th - INCEPTION
The 357th Fighter Group started forming upon orders from Fourth Air Force Command in late 1942 at Hamilton field, located near San Rafael, which was north of San Francisco. It was to include the 357th Headquarters Group plus the 362nd, 363rd, and 364th Fighter Squadrons. The commanders of this new group were to be Lt. Col. Stetson,-Group CO, Major Graham-Operations Officer, Capt. Craven-Intelligence Officer, Major Romine-Group Adjutant, Capt. Dregne-Training Officer, Capt. Hubert Egnes-362nd CO, Capt. White-363rd CO and Capt. Lauler-364th CO. Hamilton field was an Army Air Force permanent base and had been in operation for a few years. The arriving personnel were billeted in hastily built tar paper covered buildings located a long walk from the main compliment of permanent buildings. The area was jokingly called "Mud Flats". Personnel time was spent in various duties around our area, plus the normal military duties, such as KP, guard duty , etc. In fact there was very little to do here, except to bide time waiting for the full compliment of personnel to arrive, at which time the group would move to a training base and to start actual training on airplanes.
After a few weeks, orders came down from Headquarters for the 357th to be moved to that training base. On March 4th, 1943 the 357th began their first move. We were shipped to the Nevada desert area near Tonopah, to a base named the Tonopah Bombing & Gunnery Range. It was at this base that the group received their first planes-P39 Bell Airacobra planes. These planes had tricycle landing gear and the Allison engine in the rear of the pilot. It was quickly dubbed the "Tumbler" by the pilots, due to its unusual characteristics in handling while doing various maneuvers. The group started their training as an actual combat fighting team. The barracks area was a brisk walk from the flight line, which had no hangars, so all of the work had to be done outside. There was always a lot of blowing sand, being located in the desert and with always some wind to keep it stirred up. The group had very few planes to start, so turns had to be taken by the pilots in order to get some flying time. Ground crew time was spent in working very hard to keep the planes flight ready, as they had been used before the 357th got them and were not in the best condition. The training time here was spent in doing some practice strafing and bombing with practice bombs. On June 3rd, 1943, the 357th was moved again and would be split up for the first time. The 362nd Squadron was shipped to Hayward Airdrome, near Hayward ,California and Group Headquarters plus the 363rd and 364th Squadrons being shipped to the Santa Rosa base. Approximately 1 month later, Hdq. and the 363rd Squadron went to Oroville and the 364th went to Marysville.
During this period of time the group did practice gunnery and practice bombing. Tow target planes were used to pull tow targets, which were approximately 6' wide X 20' long sections of white screen wire. The ammunition was dipped in various colors for each plane and the pilots would go up and make passes firing on that tow target that was being towed by a tow plane. After which time, the tow target was dropped by the tow plane and retrieved by the armorers, then the number of hits was rcorded to let each pilot know how many hits he had made on the target. Dive bombing and skip bombing were also practiced by the pilots. During this period of time the group was getting new pilots and training was going full tilt. After Col. Stetson left for another assignment, Col. Chickering was promoted to Group CO and Major Graham took over as 364th CO for awhile.
On September 28th, the group received orders to be shipped out. The 362nd Fighter Squadron was moved to Pocatello, Idaho, the 363rd Fighter Squadron , with 357th Group Headquarters was moved to Casper AA Field in Wyoming and the 364th Fighter Squadron was moved to Ainsworth, Nebraska. It was rumored the 357th Fighter Group was at first planned to go to the South Pacific Theater, but due to the immediate need for an invasion of France to conquer Hitler, the plans were changed. The 357th would now be sent to the European Theater Of Operations.
During late October, the Group was given it's final inspection by Command and received a report of "Combat fitness & training of personnel & equipment considered satisfactory & recommended for overseas movement". In November of 1943, the 357th Fighter Group shipped out enmasse' to Camp Shanks, New York to await their transfer to the ETO. On November 23, 1943 the group boarded the Queen Elizabeth for the 5 1/2+ day trip across the North Atlantic to land in the Firth Of Clyde in Scotland. Due to the ship being overloaded, we were placed on the promanade deck and were told to use our sleeping bags in which to sleep. It was an uneventful crossing and done unescorted. We were told that it took a U-Boat approximately 5 minutes of tracking a ship to fire its torpedo and get a hit, so the ship changed course every 4 minutes, which meant a definite lurching of the vessel whenever this happened. This tended to keep us awake and alert!!
Upon Anchoring in the Firth Of Clyde, the 17,000 plus total personnel on board for the crossing were picked up by ferry boats and taken to shore. The 357th was placed on a train to start its journey to the new base at Radon Wood-Station 157, also called Radon, which was a village approximately 6 miles from the town of Ipswich. During the night train ride, the train stopped twice, as there were air raid alerts and all lights had to be doused and the train stopped. The group was all moved in by December 7, 1943. This was a very new base, with the engineers still working on it and it was literally a large mud puddle. If you got off of the pavement any place you would sink in the muck. England was still being hit with day time air raids for a short time and then the Germans stopped the daytime raids and concentrated on their night time raids. A lot of the time at the Radon base was helping get the base ready for occupancy and digging trenches, so we could leap in for protection during the air raid alerts. The 357th was placed in the 9th Air Force, which was to be the primary support for the American Forces during and after the invasion of France. The 357th received very few planes in Radon, as planes were still in short supply and needed for the combat ready groups-both British and American. The P51 Mustangs we received were used planes from the British, which needed quite a bit of work, so the pilots got very little training during the early transition period from those old P39's to the P51's. The first missions flown by the pilots were flown by a few pilots at a time and with the 354th Fighter Group, which had been on several combat missions. The 357th Fighter Group was then transferred from the 9th Air Force to the 8th Air Force and moved to Airfield F-373 at Leiston, England, which would prove to be our permanent base for the duration of the war. When the 357th arrived at Leiston, they were dubbed "The Yoxford Boys" by the German propaganda radio's Lord Haw Haw.
The 357th Fighter Group really got down to the business of getting into combat. Our destiny had been changed from the 9th Tactical Air Force to the 8th Strategic Air Force. Our principle duties here were to escort heavy bombers over targeted areas, plus strafe and bomb various military areas. It was during this period of time that our pilots amassed a record number of enemy aircraft destroyed in aerial combat and a large number on the ground. They also developed the addition of a new weapon, which was to drop their wing tanks partially full of fuel and then strafe them with tracer ammo to set the target on fire. I can remember one day we were called to the communal site area to get a so called dressing down from an Inspecting General from 8th Air Force Command. Our pilots were just returning from the successful mission, where they set a record that still stands in aviation history-56 1/2 enemy planes destroyed on one combat mission. The pilots were coming and doing their victory rolls across the field, while we stood in awe at the spectacle. The Inspection General then told us "I was sent down here to talk to you about losses of some of your planes, but after that display of victory rolls I can not do it!! "Good work and God Speed". We also participated in the shuttle bombing missions-bombing Germany on the way to Russia, then bombing Germany on the way to Italy from Russia and then bombing Germany again on the way from Italy to England-creating a triangle of movement.
We found the people in this area of England very nice and glad that we had finally decided to join them in their fight to stop Hitler and the Nazi movement. They were all on a very tight rationing here. One of the English farmers told us that each person was allowed one egg per week and the balance was to be turned over to the government for the armed forces. I can remember eating a lot of powdered eggs and powdered milk while in England along with a lot of brussels sprouts. Rationing was really evident in towns when we would go in some times and order a lunch-the sausages were mostly a grain meal of some sort with an added meat flavor-we called them "ersatz sausages". The people accepted their plight and shared with us as much as possible. In turn we would furnish them with some cigarettes, candy and gum purchased from our PX.
We were issued one small bucket of coke per night to burn in a small coke stove in each Nissen Hut. We would light it after evening chow and it would finally warm us up and keep us warm until around 9 or 9:30,then it sarted getting cold and we had to retire for the night. A buddy of mine, Herbert Adolphson had been a welder in a ship yard in Port Angeles, Washington and he came up with the idea of cutting down oil drums and welding them together to make little wood burning stoves, with a top door to load wood and a bottom door to clean out ashes, for us to use to burn wood. When they built the base a lot of trees were cut down and a lot of the branches were just left laying around on the ground. the farmers that owned the ground told us that we could clean up the area by cutting the wood and that we could use it if we wanted, so that is exactly what we did. From then on all of the Nissen Huts did the same thing and we stayed a lot warmer.
The 357th set many records during this period of time and developed a very large number of aces and quite a group of triple Aces. Some of our pilots made "Ace in a Day" or 5 eneny planes destroyed on a single mission. The 357th always worked as a team and I think it showed in the success that they accomplished. We took part in the greatest invasion ever attempted and I can remember waking up in the very early morning and heading for the flight line with the sound of many bombers in the sky and many fighter planes joining them. We spent a few days & nights down on the flight line curling up under benches or anyplace we could find to get a little rest, as our planes were sent out in various flights and it seemed that we always had some planes on a mission. I can also remember the end of that Invasion Day, when all of the bombers and fighters started returning. It was quite a sight, looking across the North Sea and to see that amount of planes returning from a sucessful mission-It almost blackened the sky & made all of us feel very proud. We could now see that at some time in the future the end of this horrible warwould be in sight. After the invasion, the 357th fulfilled their commitment by setting additional records and establishing the second best record in the ETO for enemy planes destroyed, while being the second youngest group.
At the end of the war with Germany, some of our personnel were sent home to be discharged, using the point system that had been established. Shortly after that, the group received orders to move to Neubiberg, Germany to be a part of the Air Force Of Occupation. The personnel of the group continued to keep a number of the planes flight ready and additional personnel was sent home to be discharged every few weeks.
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