The 79th Fighter Group Book Review

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The 79th Fighter Group: Over Tunisia, Sicily, and Italy in World War II

By Dan Woerpel

Hardcover in dustjacket, 264 pages, illustrated, appendixes, indexed, twelve color profiles

Published by Schiffer Publishing July 2001

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0764313223

ISBN-13: 978-0764313226

Dimensions: 8.8 x 1.0 x 11.1 inches

The 79th Fighter Group first saw combat over North Africa in early 1943 equipped with Curtis P-40 Warhawks.  After the Axis armies were defeated in North Africa the Group moved on to Sicily, and then the Italian mainland where it was re-equipped with Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, which it flew until the end of the war.  The Group was mainly engaged in ground attack and interdiction missions as the Luftwaffe presence was reduced while the Italian Campaign progressed.  138 Axis aircraft were claimed destroyed in the air; the list of ground targets destroyed is also impressive and includes damaging the Italian aircraft carrier Aquilla.

The Group was comprised of three squadrons; the 85th Fighter Squadron “Flying Skulls”; 86th FS “Comanches”; and 87th FS “Skeeters”.  For a time the 99th FS was also attached while the Group was in Sicily.

Being a unit history, the book follows the 79th Fighter Group from its formation to the end of occupation duty in Germany.  The account is quite detailed and covers each mission the squadrons flew with an accounting of claims and losses from each.  While this can get somewhat repetitive, there are enough personal accounts from the pilots to keep things interesting.  The author has done an outstanding job of describing the overall strategic progress of the war which provides vital context for the Group’s movements and assignments.  There is also an entire chapter devoted to the experiences of pilots shot down behind enemy lines and their successful evasion or ultimate captivity.

Many Schiffer publications consist almost entirely of photographs with a small portion of the book devoted to text.  This is not one of those books.  Although there are a number of photographs the focus of this work is on the history.  While I would always prefer more pictures there are enough here to help tell the story.  These are augmented by twelve nicely done color illustrations by artist S. W. Ferguson which are rendered in perspective.

The 79th Fighter Group was unique in the number and variety of Axis aircraft which its personnel rebuilt and returned to flightworthy condition.  While other units would also occasionally refurbish a few captured aircraft, it was almost an obsession with the 79th.  There is mention of some of these aircraft but I would have liked to have seen much more material included on this as it was a defining peculiarity of the unit.

This is a large book, definitely not just an evening’s read.  I did find it interesting and informative.  It is well-written and I enjoyed the author’s style.  If you’re interested in the Italian Campaign or the daily operations of a Fighter Group then I would not hesitate to recommend this book.

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Captured Focke-Wulf Fw 190s of the 79th Fighter Group

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Not to be out done by their sister squadrons, the 79th Fighter Group / 85th Fighter Squadron “Flying Skulls” restored at least three Fw 190s to flying condition.  Here are two which they discovered at Gerbini, Sicily in August 1943.
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One of the aircraft was this Fw 190A-5 of II Gruppe of Schnellkampfgeschwader 10 (II./SKG 10), Werk Nummer 181550.  Mechanics of the 85th FS have already begun painting out the Luftwaffe markings.
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“B” wore the standard Luftwaffe camouflage of RLM 74/75/76 when captured.  The US insignia is applied over a yellow band and the Hakenkreutz on the tail has been painted out.  The rectangular patch just aft of the “B” within the yellow band on the radio access panel was retained even after the aircraft was repainted.
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A nice view of the starboard side showing details of the original Luftwaffe camouflage.  The Wk.Nr is visible on the tail.

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A color photograph after repainting showing the fuselage was repainted with a dark camouflage color.  Wings and horizontal tail planes are yellow with red tips, the forward cowing and spinner are also red.  The Flying Skulls unit insignia appears on both sides of the fuselage and there is evidence of an inscription below the cockpit which has been painted out.

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The 85th toured their prize to other Allied units in Sicily.  This and the following photographs were taken by Bob Hanning while the aircraft was visiting the 57th Fighter Group.  Three sets of red, white, and blue stripes now adorn the rudder.
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Details of the paintjob are visible in this stern view.  The fuselage color extends over the wing roots.  US insignia were applied in all six positions.  The tips of the wings and of the horizontal stabilizers are trimmed in red.  Note the backs of the propeller blades have been stripped of paint by dust, a very common occurrence.
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In addition to tail stripes, “Jones’ Flying Circus” has been added to the cowl.  The inscription which was overpainted on the fuselage sides is unknown.
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A similar view giving a good look at the 85th FS Flying Skulls insignia.  A small rectangle under the windscreen carries lettering which unfortunately cannot be made out in the photograph.
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A nice side view as the aircraft taxis.  The fuselage color could be any one of several choices, as the ground crews would have had access to Luftwaffe, Regia Aeronautica, RAF, and U.S. paint stocks.
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A fine color study of a second aircraft, a Fw 190A-5Trop, Wk.Nr. unknown.  The tropical air filters are obvious on the sides of the cowling and this aircraft has a red fuselage instead of the dark fuselage of the first aircraft.  In black-and-white photographs both aircraft appear quite similar and this has resulted in many researchers confusing the two.
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Compare the details of this photograph with the earlier color picture of W.Nr. 181550 and you will begin to notice differences.  The Flying Skull insignia is placed higher and further aft on this aircraft.  The fuselage band is narrower, and is actually a color similar to ANA 616 Sand or RAF Middlestone with yellow trim.  Also there is a lighter patch forward just under the fuselage gun cover.
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A nice perspective view confirms the yellow wings and stabilizers with red tips, just like the previous aircraft.  Note that there is not as much wear on the back side of the propeller blades.
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A nice view of the aircraft in flight.  The fuselage red extends over the wingroots but does not go as far onto the wing as Wk.Nr. 181550.
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Another aerial shot showing the port side.  This aircraft does not appear to have carried the “Jones’ Flying Circus” inscription.  The yellow fuselage band lacks the rectangle on the radio access panel.
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In this view the inscription block under the windscreen is visible.  The two aircraft appear quire similar in monochrome photographs but quite different in color.
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The third 85th Fighter Squadron Focke Wulf was this Fw190G-3, Wk.Nr. 160057, note the drop tank fairings under the wings.  This is also a schnell bomber, it is possible all three aircraft served with II./SKG 10 before capture.  This aircraft carried the red bordered and barred US insignia in four positions.  The red cowling and cockpit have been covered, but the camouflage netting is doing little to conceal the rest of the aircraft.
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The overall white finish really stands out.  The cowling and spinner are in red, as is the fuselage band.  The anti-glare panel is in black.  The tail is striped in the pre-war USAAC convention of thirteen red and white stripes with a blue vertical band.
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This aircraft was shipped back to the United States in January 1944 where it was assigned Foreign Equipment number FE-116 and evaluated by the U.S. Navy.  The Navy gave it the standard “three tone” paint scheme (which was often more than three tones).
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Wk.Nr. 160057 was first evaluated by the Technical Air Intelligence Unit at NAS Anacostia and later flown to NAS Patuxent River.

Captured Junkers Ju 88A-4 of the 79th Fighter Group

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In October 1943 the 79th Fighter Group moved to Salsola (Foggia #3), one of a complex of former Luftwaffe airfields located around Foggia, Italy.  There they discovered Junkers Ju 88A-4 Wk.Nr. 4300227.  Keeping with the 79th’s obsession for restoring captured Axis aircraft, work soon began in hopes of adding the Junkers to the inventory of the Group’s 86th Fighter Squadron as a hack.  Here the 86th’s new prize shows off her original Luftwaffe camouflage (likely 70/71/65 with 76 wellenmuster) with the Hakenkreutz painted out on the tail and American insignia applied over most of the fuselage Balkenkreutz.
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Ground crews took only six days to restore the Junkers to flight-worthy condition using components salvaged from other aircraft.  It was the focus of much interest, 12th Air Force commander Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle even took a turn at the controls.  Here the commander of the 86th Squadron, Major Fred Borsodi congratulates a mechanic while Major Pete Bedford looks on.  The censor has removed the squadron insignia from the flight jackets of both men.
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The aircraft was named “The Comanche” and was painted with the 86th FS Comanche insignia on the port side of the nose.  The insignia was designed by Major Borsodi, seen here smiling from the cockpit for photographers.
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The Army Air Force brass had bigger plans for “The Comanche”, and ordered the 86th to give up their prize.  After 130 combat missions and 3 aerial victories, Major Borsodi had completed his combat tour and volunteered to fly the Junkers back to the United States, along with Major Bedford.  The pair left Italy on 19OCT43.  Here you can see The Comanche in full U.S. markings with an RAF fin flash and yellow high visibility panels on the wings, tail, and fuselage.  Spinners and cowlings are in red.
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They arrived at Wright Field on 05NOV43 via the South Atlantic route.  An alert air raid warden recognized the silhouette of the Ju 88 and reported it as an enemy aircraft as it crossed over Florida.  Note the propeller tips are painted in the U.S. standard yellow.
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A nice color photograph of the Comanche markings on the nose, with yellow stenciling further aft.  The aircraft was assigned Foreign Aircraft number FE-106 while at Wright Field.  This was later changed to FE-1599, although photographs do not show either number actually being applied to the aircraft.
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On the starboard side of the nose the Junkers wore the insignia of the 79th Fighter Group, an Egyptian Horus Hawk on a green field.  In Egyptian mythology Horus was the son of Osiris, who was killed by the sun god Set.  Horus avenged his father by killing Set and became the king of Egypt.  The first member of the 79th to die in combat was its Commanding Officer, Colonel Peter McCormick.  The insignia represented the 79th’s resolve to avenge their commander.  Note that the starboard cowling and spinner are no longer red and lack the wellenmuster “squiggles”, likely indicating an engine change.
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This photograph shows off the wellenmuster well.  It also shows the yellow identification markings on the upper wing covered the entire outer panels, not just bands behind the insignia as depicted in some profiles.
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Back in the U.S. the aircraft was used in War Bond drives.  The U.S. insignia was painted over and spurious German markings were applied.  In this view the port engine has also been replaced although the red spinner was retained.
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Another color photograph, likely taken at Freeman Field, Indiana.  The red spinner on the port engine has been replaced with an RLM 70 one by this time.
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During her War Bond tour, The Comanche was flown to Los Angeles in April 1945.  There it was towed into the city for public display where it was struck by a street car and damaged.  Fortunately the damage was not severe and the aircraft was repaired.
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The Comanche was retained at Freeman Field after the war in flight worthy condition.  Eventually it was flown to Arizona for storage, where it was ultimately scrapped.

Captured Messerschmitt Bf 109G-2/Trop “Irmgard” of the 79th Fighter Group

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Highlanders examine Messerschmitt Bf 109G-2/Trop W.Nr 10605 assigned to 2.(H)/14.  The aircraft was flown by Leutnant Wernicke, and was named “Irmgard” by his mechanic, Uffx. Bopp.  On 20FEB43 while on a photo reconnaissance mission near Zarzis, Tunisia the aircraft was damaged by ground fire.  Lt. Wernicke made a successful wheels-up landing and evaded capture.
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The aircraft carried a camera in the underside of the fuselage aft of the wing.  Camouflage was the standard RLM 78 / 79 desert scheme with areas of the fuselage overpainted in RLM 76.  The spinner was 1/3 Weiss and 2/3 RLM 70.
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The aircraft survived her landing in good condition and was deemed to be repairable.  Mechanics of the USAAF 79th Fighter Group soon had her up on her landing gear and replaced the propeller.  Markings have already begun to evolve.  The German Balkenkreutz have been overpainted with yellow on the fuselage and a dark brown on the upper wings.  U.S. insignia have been applied to the fuselage but do not yet appear on the wings.  The aircraft has also received an RAF fin flash over the Hakenkreutz along with red wingtips and propeller spinner.
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A color photograph showing that the fuselage number was retained for a time, and was in fact Black 14, not Red 14 as claimed by some sources.  Note the extent of the yellow area under the fuselage.  The entire undersurfaces were repainted yellow as evidenced by the aileron mass balance and landing gear cover. 
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Irmgard is seen here parked next to a P-40F of the 86th Fighter Squadron / 79th Fighter Group.  The 79th Fighter Group had a penchant for restoring and flying captured Axis aircraft, each of the Squadrons operating several examples.
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Here mechanics crank the inertial starter prior to a test flight.  The pilot appears ready to go, despite the missing canopy.  Squadron pilots who were deemed unlikely to “prang” the captured aircraft were given a chance at the controls.  In many pictures of Irmgard the canopy has been removed.  Fuselage codes and American wing stars are in place in this photograph.
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A beautiful color shot which shows off Irmgard’s new paint.  She now bears the fuselage codes and squadron insignia of the 87th Fighter Squadron / 79th Fighter Group.  The rudder shows signs of overpainting, and the yellow on the underside of the fuselage extends all the way to the tail.
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Badge of the “Skeeters” of the 87th Fighter Squadron.  There are differences in the details of the insignia applied to Irmgard.
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A nice photograph of Irmgard on the 79th Fighter Group’s flightline.  The forward fuselage code “x8” has been partially removed revealing the Black 14 code which still remains underneath.  The P-40F in the background wears the badge of the 86th Fighter Squadron, another Squadron within the 79th Fighter Group.
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A close up of the 86th Fighter Squadron unit insignia which replaced the 87th FS insignia on Irmgard.  The canopy is still missing in this photograph.  A P-40 is visible in the background.
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The 79th FG gave up their prize in November 1943, turning her over to Wright Field in Dayton Ohio for testing.  Here she has apparently suffered anther belly landing, and reveals still another modification to her markings.  The forward fuselage codes are entirely removed, and she now bears the squadron badge of the Comanches of the 86th FS / 79th FG.  Her original port wing is in the background, replaced by another in RLM 74 / 75 and full Luftwaffe insignia.  Note the wheel bulge on the replacement wing.  The ultimate cowl and spinner markings are anyone’s guess.  Certainly a number of options for a modeler!