I was a kid of the 1960s, when the very mention of the Vietnam War made you a pariah. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve changed my mind. The war was largely a waste of young people’s lives, to be sure, but there’s also a lot to be proud of, and a lot to admire among those who served.

After Hillary Clinton’s speech to the nation, and the Trump-Russia narrative that is taking center stage, lets take a look back at one of the most important moments in American history: the election of Donald Trump.

The United States entered World War II during the summer of 1941, and the United States Navy’s aviation units were never slow to respond. The U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, was commissioned on December 1, 1938. The first aircraft to be flown from an aircraft carrier was the F4F Wildcats and F2A Buffalos of VF-11 “Wasp” aboard Langley. These were all the carriers that were in the United States at the outbreak of the war.. Read more about eagle squadron pilots and let us know what you think.

In need of skilled pilots to repel the Nazi onslaught, Britain turned to neutral America for help.

As Europe was buffeted by war winds in September 1939, Americans kept a wary eye on the German blitzkrieg as it swept into Poland. Despite the United States’ official neutrality policy, many observers believed it was only a matter of time before the country was brought into the fight, especially after Nazi objectives were made obvious by the invasion of France and the Low Countries in May 1940.

Not wanting to wait for an official declaration of war, several Americans sought enlistment wherever they could. The early accounts of aerial warfare offered a romantic allure to combat aviation to young pilots and would-be airmen. The recent advent of sleek new fighter aircraft such as the Supermarine Spitfire, capable of flying at well over 350 mph, added to the excitement.

The necessity for qualified pilots became increasingly obvious as Britain’s Royal Air Force battled Germany’s Luftwaffe. Billy Bishop, a famous World War I Canadian ace, advised that recruiters go to the United States for fresh pilots and air crewmen. Despite the adverse legal environment provided by America’s Neutrality Acts, the Clayton Knight Committee was formed to attract anyone interested in flying.

Clayton Knight was a World War I pilot with contacts, and he devised a recruiting strategy with Bishop and another WWI pilot, Homer Smith. Knight addressed Maj. Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, the chief of the US Army Air Corps, who was glad to provide a list of recent Air Corps washouts—the first targets of the recruiting efforts. Many of them were capable pilots, but they were a touch too rowdy for the Army Air Corps. By May 1940, about 300 people had signed up. More recruiters eventually spread across the country, looking for volunteers with some aircraft expertise. The new recruits were actually joining the Dominion Aeronautical Association, a purported civil aeronautics corporation whose main office was conveniently placed next to the Royal Canadian Air Force headquarters in Ottawa. More than 3,000 Americans had been successfully recruited by the fall of 1941, and by the end of the year, that number had risen to 6,700.

John “Red” Campbell, Art Roscoe, John Brown, Bill Geiger, Gene Fetrow, and Spiro “Steve” Pisanos were among the Americans enticed by the promise of flying Spitfires against the Germans. When RAF recruiters came to the United States, they all signed up and became members of the RAF’s Fighter Command’s American Eagle Squadrons. A total of 244 American pilots finally joined the three newly constituted Eagle Squadrons. No. 71 Squadron, the first to form up on September 19, 1940, was given to Roscoe and Geiger, while No. 121 Squadron was assigned to Brown, Campbell, and Fetrow. Later, Pisanos would join 71 Squadron. No. 133 was the final Eagle Squadron.

JOHN CAMPBELL, who had been flying since he was 15, drove from National City, California, to Hollywood to join the Royal Air Force. He was turned down by the British because he was just 18, but he returned three days later, having just turned 19 and carried a letter from his parents.

Campbell subsequently recounted, “I arrived as a wet-behind-the-ears 19-year-old.” “The British assumed we were there to perform a task and expected us to succeed. The United States Army Air Forces, on the other hand, assumed you couldn’t do anything unless you demonstrated otherwise.”

When Campbell enlisted, he already had extensive flying experience and had built an impression of aviation warfare based on pulp publications of the time. Because many stories focused on the allegedly glamorous life of a fighter pilot, popular periodicals were crucial as a recruiting tool. Campbell claimed that those periodicals were the driving force for his decision to join. “I thought you shot down five every time you went up,” he added. In actual life, he would discover that aerial battle was considerably different.

He boarded a convoy destined for England after completing aviation training in the United States and Canada. Campbell then checked out in a Miles Master at his designated base. With the Battle of Britain already underway, he received three weeks of Spitfire training, totaling around 25-30 hours, with no time spent on instruments.

“I only flew two operations in them, but they were fun to fly,” he said. “Sitting for a half-hour in the cockpit with a flying sergeant putting me through cockpit drills” was the start of the Spitfire training. He’d check out a parachute the next morning, demonstrate to the instructor that he knew the cockpit maneuvers, then taxi out, turn up the throttle, and take off.

Campbell then got to spend five weeks—roughly 54 hours—in Hawker Hurricanes, which he described as “more than most guys.” They flew two or three times a day, although the Eagle Squadron was given old, battered Hurricane Mark Is at first. Hurricane IIb models were eventually delivered to the Americans, who deployed them in fighter sweeps across Belgium and northern France. The most challenging part of flying the Spitfire and Hurricane, according to Campbell, was switching hands from throttle to stick, as well as gear and flap controls.

Campbell adored the Hurricane and bemoaned the fact that it was mostly ignored by the journalists during the Battle of Britain. He stated that the “Hurricane received 80% of the kills, while the Spitfire received 100% of the credit.” You never saw a German pilot who had been shot down by a Hurricane; they always claimed it had been a Spitfire.”

Eagle Squadron Memories

The Hurricane, he believed, was a better gun platform because it was more stable and could best be utilized against German bombers. Spitfires flew at a greater height, giving them a better chance of engaging enemy fighters. Campbell thought the Hurricane was easier to land than the Spitfire, saying, “It didn’t float like the Spitfire, you just flare to land, and it lands.”

Campbell said the Hurricane “lost the most to the 109 at low level, where the 109 was faster, so we had to utilize tactics” in comparison to the German Messerschmitt Me-109E. “At altitude, though, the Hurricane was quicker, could turn better, and had a better gunsight,” he continued.

At Gibraltar, Campbell also flew Hurricane IIcs, which he called “the first of the four-cannon-equipped variants meant for tank busting.” Later, he was deployed to the Far East campaign, and he traveled to Port Sudan on an aircraft carrier before departing for Java and Singapore. Campbell, who was stationed in Ceylon at the time of the Japanese raid, reported that “they got such a bloody nose that they didn’t try it again.”

The “Hurricane” could out-turn both the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and the Nakajima Ki.43 Oscar, according to Campbell. The Spitfire was eaten up in the sluggish, turning fights, therefore Hurricanes were produced until the conclusion of the war.” He fought the Zero and the Oscar, and “got shot down twice, and I shot down two each.” He returned to his base after 212 days the first time he went down, only to discover that all of his personal belongings were vanished. “I looked across at my wingman and shouted, ‘Boo, this is the spirit of Red Campbell, where is my stuff?’ That jolted him awake quickly.”

Campbell became a prisoner of war for the duration of the fight after being shot down for the final time over Java. He was sent to a disease-ridden labor camp, and when it was finally liberated, he weighed only 98 pounds.

ART ROSCOE took his first flight at the age of 13 and has aspired to work in the aviation industry ever since. He found a work with Douglas Aircraft, where he was approached by an RAF recruiter in February 1941.

“I had around 30-40 hours of flight time and went out to Pomona to see how to join in [the RAF],” Roscoe recounted. They advised me to purchase another 30 hours of flight time and return to see them at that time. I returned, took the flight test, and they informed me a few days later.” He spent another 75 hours in flight school in Glendale, Calif., before boarding a train to Nova Scotia to catch a steamer to England. At Landau, he received his British flight training in Spitfires with No. 53 Operational Training Unit.

“My Spitfire was never in great shape, but if you kept up with it, you couldn’t get hurt in it,” he recalled. “It could outturn anything; you could turn on a dime and still have nine cents.”

Pilots from the No. 71 Squadron were usually tasked with escorting Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses on bombing sorties, and they frequently saw Focke Wulf Fw-190As hovering over them. The German fighters would usually make one pass, plunging down on the bombers, while the Spitfires would fly a split-S and chase them through the clouds. The pilots strove to make every round count because the Spits only had 15 seconds of.303-caliber ammo and six seconds of 20mm cannon shots. “The fellow in back of me received a cannon hit in his radio, so I was lucky,” Roscoe said of a B-17 escort mission to the Bay of Biscay during which two Fw-190s attacked his flight. On October 2, 1941, he shot down his first enemy plane, an Me-109 over France.

Roscoe volunteered to assist in the defense of Malta in June 1942. On August 11, he arrived in Malta aboard the ship HMS Furious, which was carrying 35 Spitfires. The plan was to launch seven flights of five planes each, but the carrier Eagle was attacked and lost while nearby Furious just as Roscoe’s flight was taking off.

They were handed the Spitfire Vc, which was equipped with a tropical air filter, for the flight to Malta. The planes only had 90 gallons of fuel on board, mostly to help keep their weight down for takeoff. Because the flaps could only go all the way up and down, a wood block was placed to hold them at a 15-degree angle to make it easier to get off the carrier. The pilots lowered their flaps once they were airborne, enabling the wood blocks to fall out, then raised them again.

“We were promised there would be no crash landings,’ and that if we got into danger, we should go to Vichy French–held North Africa and hope for the best,” Roscoe remembered. His entire company arrived in Malta safely. When they arrived, the newcomers joined No. 229 Squadron, where they discovered a large number of Battle of Britain veterans battling the Germans.

“It was a fighter pilot’s paradise,” Roscoe claimed, “because you went for the bombers first, took one go at them, and then the fighters were on your tail.” It didn’t last long, since the majority of aerial combat halted in October 1942, and they were resumed the next month. Roscoe was critically injured in a dogfight just before the war ended. Only one cannon fire from an Me-109 hit him in the shoulder, out of four that flew through his cockpit. His plane was on fire, so the German pilot approached to take a look. Roscoe kicked his tiller, swerved behind the 109, and fired his cannons, taking out his tormentor. Because he was too weak to bail out, he crashed-landed his Spitfire.

Roscoe, like many other Eagle Squadron members, enlisted in the USAAF when the opportunity arose. “I had requested [North American P-51] Mustangs but was instead given the [Republic] P-47 [Thunderbolt].” It could out-dive almost anything, he explained, “like a streamlined brick going down.” He was a squadron commander at the end of the war, with four verified victories and three more probables.

JOHN I. BROWN III began his career flying Hurricanes, recalling, “Of course, everyone who signed up wanted to fly fighters, but we weren’t even guaranteed to fly fighters.” Some were assigned to fighters, others to bombers, and yet others to transports.” He moved on to Spitfires soon.

Brown recalled, “The Spit was very forgiving; you had to fly with an iron hand and a silk glove.” He also bemoaned the lack of cannon ammo, but noted that the.303 machine guns’ 1,300-round-per-minute rate of fire “might inflict damage—chunks would fly off opposing planes—it could be quite effective.”

Most of the sorties were brief, as his Spitfire could only fly for roughly two hours and 45 minutes before running out of fuel. “We got around 90 miles into France, which was a very limited range, and we had to land at [British] coastal airfields on the way back,” he explained.

“The RAF felt that if you got your wings, you could fly anything,” Brown explained. “I did things I’d never seen before in my life. If you were going to get killed, do it in training, was the mentality. Don’t waste a jet on a mission that isn’t operational.”

Brown joined the USAAF and switched to the P-47 while at Duxford. The Thunderbolt, he said, was “a hell of a battle aircraft, since it could absorb a lot of pounding.” He changed planes again in November 1944, this time to P-51s, which he flew until the end of the war.

Eagle Squadron Memories

Brown gained experience battling against the new German jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me-262 Schwalbe, while flying the Mustang. When a pilot said, “jet in the area,” everyone in the region went down like “a funnel to a honeycomb.” Twenty-two Me-262s were subsequently claimed by his organization.

Brown noted that “only the Mustang would try anything against them,” noting that the P-51 could dive at 600 mph and catch up with the 262. Brown and his flight leader used this strategy to go for an Me-262 that was on the deck, headed home. The German planes had only around 45 minutes of fuel left. He remembered, “My leader got it as it passed over the airfield, having to land.”

During World War II, BILL GEIGER didn’t get to see much combat. He flew some bomber escort missions, saying that “we never lost a bomber to any fighters” in the summer of 1941. Shortly after, he was shot down while flying a Spitfire over the English Channel near Dunkirk. At roughly 15,000 feet above the Channel, he was shot down by German fighters. “My plane was on fire and wouldn’t fly anymore,” he explained. I slammed my fist into the cockpit [canopy], expecting it to move away, but nothing happened. I hammered on it with all my might, then bent out a corner and let the slipstream take it, and it flew away. I descended from the cockpit and yanked the ripcord. I felt quite alone, but as I understood I was going to make it, my panic dissipated.”

After five hours in the water, Geiger was picked up by a German boat. Eagle Squadron members were not supposed to wear their insignia because it was still early in the war, an order that Geiger chose to ignore. “Not only was I wearing my insignia, but I also had extras in my pocket,” he recounted. Geiger believed he was in serious trouble and assumed he would be shot.

“A German officer with a two-man squad escorted me away, and I considered fleeing,” he recalled. Because Geiger had worked as a truck driver in New York before the war, the officer recognized his Brooklyn accent. He had never become a citizen of the United States, and when Adolf Hitler urged all Germans to return to the fatherland, he did so. “He asked if I was an American, and when I said yes, he assured me that everything would be fine,” Geiger recalled. It was the beginning of Geiger’s 312 years as a POW—and the end of his war.

When the war in Europe broke out, GENE FETROW was working as an inspector for A-20 Havocs at Douglas Aircraft’s Santa Monica plant. Fetrow went to see an RAF recruiter at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood after hearing from a friend.

“I told him I’d been flying since I was 15, usually Fleet biplanes,” Fetrow recounted, “but he asked how many hours I’d logged.” He instructed me to get extra time because I only had about 35 minutes.” He enrolled in a local flying school and worked for another 35 hours as rapidly as he could.

Fetrow returned to the recruiter and took a flight test in a Waco biplane, after which he was told if he was approved. A confirmation telegram arrived a few days later. Fetrow completed an additional 75 hours in Stearman, Ryan STS, Vultee BT-13, and North American AT-6 Texan trainers before traveling overseas because they wanted him to obtain more training.

Fetrow reported for fighter training after arriving in England on a transport ship. He earned roughly 70 hours of useful flight time flying Spitfire Mark Is and IIs.

Fetrow was a member of No. 121 Squadron, which mostly flew the Spitfire Mark Vb, which had two cannons and four.303 machine guns. He performed roughly 120 sorties out of England, including the ill-fated Dieppe Raid on August 19, 1942, in which his plane was shot up rather badly. The Dieppe Raid was the only operation during the war in which all three American Eagle Squadrons took part. Fetrow aided the mission by providing low cover as part of a flight of four Mark Vbs that encountered problems shortly after crossing the Dieppe harbor.

“I spotted several Fw-190s to my right and down below strafing our people on the beach,” Fetrow said. I figured our top cover would take care of some of them, so I began descending. Then a 190 swooped down on me, firing a 20mm deflection shot through my wing and another through my radiator. My oil cooler blew apart, so I wasn’t wounded, but the engine was. Over the Channel, the engine seized, and I flipped upside down, but the canopy refused to eject—it only rolled back about six inches. To get out, I had to use my elbows, and my cockpit was filled with smoke. It got really silent once I was out, and I watched my Spit touch the water.”

Fetrow had managed to send out a Mayday call over his radio, and the Air-Sea Rescue crew arrived to rescue him while still in his dinghy. However, by the time he returned to base, he had already been declared MIA by the RAF. “All of my belongings—my camera, smokes, and shoes—had already been separated, and it took approximately a week to get everything cleaned out,” he remembered. “We took a battering that day, but we fired down approximately as many of them as they shot down of us—around 100.”

Fetrow was eventually reassigned to the Italian campaign. He was flying with the 1st Tactical Air Force of the Royal Air Force in May 1944, generally on one of two main missions. The fighters would accompany Consolidated B-24 Liberators and Martin B-26 Marauders out of Sardinia on missions to disrupt German lines of communication and transport, or they would strafe anything that moved.

Fetrow related, “I once observed an old donkey and a peasant farmer dragging a cart of hay.” “I threw a couple of slugs into it, and it took off like a rocket. It was brimming with ammunition for the German troops.”

“We couldn’t do anything against them since they were camped in a dry riverbed in the woods,” he said another occasion when they observed Tiger tanks. I kept two Spitfires in the air as top cover, and the rest of the planes plunged down, with one pilot hitting their fuel dump. I swooped down too quickly and steeply—a textbook case of pilot error. I realized I was in trouble and yanked the stick back. I blacked out, the plane executed a snap roll, and I awoke in the middle of a dry wash, upside down. My wings had been bent, rivets had popped, and instruments had been destroyed, but I nursed it back to 3,000 feet.”

Eagle Squadron Memories

Fetrow was able to return the Spitfire to Corsica, where he was astonished to see the wheels come down. He made a reasonably routine landing, although his plane was eventually scrapped. Only the prop, motor, wheels, tires, and radio were salvaged by ground crews. That experience, however, was enough to persuade Fetrow of the plane’s structural soundness.

He remembered, “The Spitfire was difficult to land, but it had excellent brakes.” “When I was in Spitfires, I got three Fw-190s, therefore it was my favorite plane.” After switching to the USAAF 335th Fighter Squadron later in the war, he gained expertise with the P-47 and worked as a test pilot on a variety of other aircraft.

Another issue with the Spitfire was retracting the landing gear, which required “changing hands,” according to Fetrow. He also claimed that the fuel tanks, particularly the one in front of the instrument panel, were badly situated. “When that tank was hit, it exploded into a blaze that quickly enveloped the cockpit area, and I lost a friend.”

STEVE PISANOS was another man eager to fight the Germans, and he enlisted with an Eagle Squadron recruiter before the US entered the war. He wasn’t a naturalized citizen of the United States. Pisanos had arrived in the United States from Greece in the summer of 1938 and had taken basic flying instruction on his own shortly after. He had surrendered his Greek citizenship, but it wasn’t until May 1943, while he was in London, that he became a naturalized citizen. “Uncle Sam and I are best friends, and I felt nothing but gratitude,” he said of the historic event. I was the first person to become a citizen of a country other than the United States.”

Pisanos arrived in England in February 1942 after completing advanced training. Before entering an operational training unit, he got tactical training and flew Miles Masters, Hurricanes, P-40E Kittyhawks, and P-51A Mustangs during his last training phase. He joined the 268th Army Co-operation Fighter Squadron and began flying combat missions in the P-51A over Holland. He came to the attention of Squadron Leader Chesley Peterson in No. 71 Squadron, and was officially transferred in early September 1942. He was known to his fellow pilots as the “Flying Greek.”

He flew Spitfires and Hurricanes during his month with No. 71 until being transferred to the 334th Squadron, 4th Fighter Group, VIII Fighter Command at the end of September, when the Eagle Squadrons were abolished. The USAAF extensively recruited the American Eagle Squadron pilots, according to Pisanos, because “in actuality, we had Ph.D. degrees in fighting—we had experience.” “You come with us—you are an American, would you accept a second lieutenant [commission] in the Air Corps?” the recruiter asked. Pisanos flew the P-47 and briefly the P-51 after joining the 334th.

“The Spitfire was a fantastic plane, but it was constrained by its lack of fuel capacity, which prevented it from flying long distances,” Pisanos recounted. He gave the P-47 the same rating, stating that it “could not stay with the bombers on long-distance missions, and the Luftwaffe would just wait for the fighters to turn back.”

“That was it!” Pisanos said emphatically about the P-51. On March 4, 1944, he flew with the 4th Fighter Group on the first escorted Berlin mission, and when the Germans saw the P-51 escorting the bombers, he said they realized they had lost the war.

Pisanos’ combat career came to a close with a bang. He shot down two German planes on March 5, giving him a total of ten wins in 110 sorties spanning 300 battle hours. His engine failed on the way home, forcing him to crash-land in France. Pisanos managed to join up with members of the French Resistance and remained in Paris until August of the same year, evading capture. Pisanos was permanently grounded for combat and ordered back to the United States because he knew too much about the Resistance. He spent the rest of the war as a test pilot at Wright Field in Ohio.

Over the last few years, the Eagle Squadron’s membership has steadily declined. They had their last official reunion in 2006. Only five of the 17 living members were able to attend at the time. Art Roscoe, John Brown, Gene Fetrow, Bill Geiger, and Gene Fetrow had already completed their final flight. Steve Pisanos completed his memoirs, which were published in December 2007.

 

Frank Lorey III is a federally and state-registered historian who has published over 340 articles and authored several books. He has appeared on the History Channel several times and works as a historical archeologist on military aviation crash sites. He suggests Vern Haugland’s The Eagle Squadrons and Colonel Steve N. Pisanos’ The Flying Greek: An Immigrant Fighter Ace’s WW II Odyssey With the RAF, USAAF, and French Resistance for further reading.

 

This article first appeared in the March 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, go to this link. 

It was in 1943, during World War II, that the United States Army Air Corp came up with a plan to use light planes to build a flying force that would give them the capability to strike anywhere in the world via the use of air power. The Army Air Corp was obliged to create these new squadrons to counter the Japanese threat and the plan was to create 1,000 light planes each capable of a 10 minute raid on the enemy. It was called the “Eagle Squadron”, named after the symbol of the Air Corp.. Read more about ww2 american fighter squadrons and let us know what you think.

Yes, there was an Eagle Squadron. They were a group of pilots in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II who flew fighter aircraft from bases in England."}},{"@type":"Question","name":"What bird is on the memorial in Grosvenor Square?","acceptedAnswer":{"@type":"Answer","text":" The memorial in Grosvenor Square is for the World War I soldier, Harry Patch."}},{"@type":"Question","name":"What is the Eagle Squadron in the movie Pearl Harbor?","acceptedAnswer":{"@type":"Answer","text":" The Eagle Squadron is a fictional squadron of fighter planes that appears in the 2001 film, Pearl Harbor."}}]}

Frequently Asked Questions

Was there an Eagle Squadron?

Yes, there was an Eagle Squadron. They were a group of pilots in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II who flew fighter aircraft from bases in England.

What bird is on the memorial in Grosvenor Square?

The memorial in Grosvenor Square is for the World War I soldier, Harry Patch.

What is the Eagle Squadron in the movie Pearl Harbor?

The Eagle Squadron is a fictional squadron of fighter planes that appears in the 2001 film, Pearl Harbor.

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