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Wing heritage rooted in WWII Luftwaffe dogfights

Captain Phil "Ritz" Smith, 4th Operations Group F-15E Strike Eagle demonstration team, flies in close formation with the P-51 Mustang "Glamorous Gal," flown by retired Capt. Dale "Snort" Snodgrass at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., April 26, 2009.  The U.S. Air Force Heritage flight was established in 1997 to commemorate the Air Force's 50th anniversary and display the evolution of airpower.  (U.S. Air Force Photo by 2nd Lt. Matthew D. Schroff)

Captain Phil Smith, 4th Operations Group F-15E Strike Eagle demonstration team, flies in close formation with a P-51 Mustang, flown by retired Capt. Dale Snodgrass, during the Wings Over Wayne Air Show at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., April 26, 2009. The warfighting heritage of 4th Fighter Wing, which currently flies Strike Eagles, is strongly rooted to the successes experienced by 4th Fighter Group Mustang aviators in World War II. (U.S. Air Force Photo by 2nd Lt. Matthew D. Schroff)

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. -- The 4th Fighter Wing was born in war. In the early stages of World War II, American volunteer aviators flew for the British Royal Air Force Eagle Squadrons. When the United States formally entered the war in 1941, the three Eagle Squadrons became the 334th, 335th and 336th Fighter Squadrons of the 4th Fighter Group.

Despite being dealt a setback by the RAF in the Battle of Britain, the German Luftwaffe still ruled the skies over Europe. In order to invade Europe and defeat the Nazis, Allied airpower had to knock the Luftwaffe out of the sky.

The 4th Fighter Group played a significant role in making this happen.

Initially flying British Spitfires and P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, the group had limited success against the Germans.

In January 1944, Col. Don Blakeslee took command of the fighter group. His inspired leadership would make all the difference.

American fighters could only escort our bombers part of the way to the target because of their limited range. As a result, American bombers were getting clobbered by German fighters. In March 1944 Blakeslee helped the group convert to P-51 Mustang fighters, which could fly much greater distances. The 4th Fighter Group was able to escort the bombers to Berlin and back, and then tangled with German fighters every step of the way.

Before converting to Mustangs, the group shot down 150 German aircraft total. After converting, they shot down 150 aircraft in the first month alone, followed by more than 200 the following month.

By the time of the Normandy invasion of June 1944, the Allies had secured air superiority over Europe. With great pilots like Don Gentile, Vermont Garrison, John Godfrey, Steve Pisanos and Kidd Hofer, the fighter group would ultimately destroy 1,016 German aircraft - a record for American fighter groups - and count 81 aces in their ranks.

The performance and dedication of our 4th Fighter Group heroes not only helped win World War II, but set the standard for today's 4th Fighter Wing heroes.

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Editor's note: Doctor Roy Heidicker, 4th Fighter Wing Historian, will present a lecture on the 4th Fighter Group's contributions to allied airpower in World War II at the Wayne County Historical Association and Museum May 7 at 7p.m. The museum is located at 116 N. William Street in downtown Goldsboro.

Though the lecture will recount tactics, technology and aircraft, its true focus will be on the Airmen who risked their lives to achieve victory in Europe.

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