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Forged in War

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Peter Thompson
  • 33rd Fighter Wing

(Editor’s Note: This is the first article in the "Sharpening the Spear" series on the 33rd FW history)

For over 70 years, the 33rd Fighter Wing has earned their title, “Nomads.” During each of our country’s largest contingencies, the unit would uproot and take the fight to different corners of the world. Because of that constant flexibility during the better half of the last century, one of the main themes for the historic unit is change.

Throughout the different aircraft, missions and locations, the one constant was being at the forefront of our global reach. However in 2009, the wing would be faced with its biggest change yet, a different mission set all together. They would no longer be the warriors who wield the spear in war, instead they would sharpen the spear and create the warfighter.

Newly formed in 1941, the 33rd Fighter Group began flying the P-39 "Airacobra." Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the group became part of the defense forces along the eastern coast of the United States.

The fighter group was one of the most active American fighter groups, taking part in Operation Torch in North Africa. It was at this time the group swapped to the P-40 “Warhawk” while participating in the Tunisian campaign.

 In one memorable engagement against the Luftwaffe on 15 January 1943, the Nomads destroyed almost every bomber that attacked their airfield at Forward Operating Base Thelepte, Tunisia.  For this defense, the Nomads received a Distinguished Unit Citation.

The Nomads were active participants in the attack on Pantelleria, and the invasions of Sicily and Italy.  Its leading "Aces" were its Commander, Gen. William Momyer, with eight aerial victories, and Maj. Gen. Levi Chase, the top American "Ace" in Tunisia, with 10.  Overall the Nomads recorded 114.5 aerial victories during World War II. 

As the war progressed, the fighter group transitioned yet again, this time to the P-38 “Lightning” as they were positioned in China. This new aircraft brought huge advances to the Army Air Force’s airborne capability. The Lightning’s powerful engines, 50-caliber machine guns and 20-mm cannon coupled with capable pilots drove terror into the minds of axis aviators. They were so effective, it was called, “der Gableschwanz Teufl.” German for “fork-tailed devil.”

As the war came to an end, the group would return to its original ground attack role, supporting from Burma. In November of 1945, the unit returned to the United States and was deactivated.

Their next big aircraft changeover was to the F-4C Phantom II upon the unit’s reactivation in 1965, as the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing. Again, huge advancements had been made increasing the warfighter’s capabilities. This fighter aircraft was able to carry twice the payload of a WWII-era bomber.

The United States Air Force activated the 58th, 59th and 60th Tactical Fighter Squadrons under the 33rd TFW, newly assigned to Eglin Air Force Base. Two years later, the 58th TFS’s Gorillas deployed the F-4E for Operation CONSTANT GUARD II. It was during this time that the 33rd TFW would begin a legacy and gain its notoriety in jet-fighter combat, and the title “MiG Killers.”

While deployed to Udorn Air Base, Thailand, Maj. Phillip W. Handley and his weapon systems officer, Lt. John J. Smallwood, from the 58th TFS, recorded the first and only supersonic gun kill in Vietnam when they shot down a MiG-19 on June 2, 1972, with a 300-round burst. After four missiles had misfired, this gun kill against the highly maneuverable MiG-19 dispelled the perception that American aviators had lost their dog fighting skills.

The squadron downed its second and last MiG in Vietnam on 12 August, 1972. Capt. Lawrence G. Richard, U.S. Marine Corps, and Lt. Cmdr. Michael J. Ettle, U.S. Navy, shot down a MiG-21 during a target weather reconnaissance mission. Additionally, Capt. Steve Ritchie, assigned to the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the only Air Force “Ace” during Vietnam, scored three of his five MiG-21 kills using a 58th TFS F-4E.  

By now, the Nomads had defined their purpose in military aviation. Since the 33rd FW’s initial activation, it had grown accustomed to transitioning between platforms, but on the horizon was an aircraft that they would build their foundation and legacy around—an aircraft designed and built as an “air superiority fighter.” The F-15C Eagle would become the cornerstone of lasting fame and success.