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Nomads celebrate 70 years of service

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

This year the 33rd Fighter Wing celebrated its 70th birthday on Oct. 15. During its existence, the wing was a part of the country’s largest contingencies. During each of these, the unit would uproot and take the fight to different corners of the world, earning its nickname “Nomads.”


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. They were among the first US flyers to join the African campaign in November 1942. It was at this time the group swapped to the P-40 “Warhawk.”


The Nomads and other American flying forces focused on long-range bombing of German and Japanese targets in the region. Although many of the pilots were seasoned, they were ill-prepared for this new type of warfare they encountered. The effects of this lack of experience would be evident early on as the group focused on defensive air interdiction over their base.


Eventually they would develop tactics that would turn the tides in their favor. War had taught the pilots valuable lessons including how to react to descending German pilots. The natural reaction was for pilots to turn their aircraft towards the diving fighters. This measure would reduce a pilot’s speed and therefore maneuverability. Major Phillip Cochran, a deft pilot whose abilities earned him the nickname “Mr. P-40,” advised pilots to change to a defense position and allow the Germans to fly past, exposing them to attack from behind.


 In one memorable engagement against the Luftwaffe on Jan. 15, 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 was so effective at destroying enemy aircraft it was called, “der Gableschwanz Teufl,” by some Natzi’s. 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 inactivated.


During WWII, the Army Air Forces consisted of combat groups with assigned flying units.  Some wings existed, and they usually controlled several combat groups and support organizations.  At the end of WWII, many of these wings were designated as air divisions. That was not the end of wings in the Air Force.


The Department of the Air Force was created when President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947. This deliberate move showed the countries movement towards air superiority as a major element of the nation’s defense and a deterrent of future warfare.


The Air Force began fundamentally the same as the Army it separated. Within the first year, plans would be made to create an individual identity and culture. The Air Force conducted a test of a new type of organization, the combat wing.  For the most part, the numerical designation of each wing came from the combat group that preceded it (for example, the 33d Fighter Group).


At the end of the test, each combat wing was comprised of combat group, an air base group, a maintenance and supply group, and a medical group. The 33rd Fighter Group became the combat component of the new 33rd Fighter Wing.