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Issue 06/09/11 - Vol. 42, Issue 22

Eagle Squadron Memories
By Frank Lorey III

In September 1939, as war winds buffeted Europe, Americans watched warily as the German blitzkrieg swept across Poland. Despite the United States’ official policy of neutrality, many realized it was just a matter of time before the nation was drawn into the developing conflict, especially after the invasion of France and the Low Countries in May 1940 made Nazi intentions clear.

Some Americans, not wanting to wait for an official declaration of war, sought to enlist wherever they could. To young pilots and would-be airmen, the early tales of aerial battles lent a romantic allure to combat flying. Adding to the excitement was the recent development of sleek new fighter aircraft such as the Supermarine Spitfire, capable of flying well over 350 mph.

As Britain’s Royal Air Force faced off against Germany’s Luftwaffe, the need for competent pilots became increasingly apparent. Famed World War I Canadian ace Billy Bishop suggested that recruiters look to America for a promising source of new pilots and air crewmen. Despite the unfavorable legal climate engendered by America’s Neutrality Acts, the Clayton Knight Committee was set up to recruit pretty much anyone who was interested in flying.

Clayton Knight was a World War I pilot veteran with connections, and along with Bishop and another WWI pilot, Homer Smith, he worked out a recruiting plan. Knight approached the chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps, Major General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, who was happy to supply a list of recent Air Corps washouts—the first targets of the recruiting efforts. Many possessed good flying skills but were a little too unruly for the Army Air Corps. About three hundred were signed up by May 1940. Eventually more recruiters spread out across the country, seeking volunteers with some aviation experience. The new recruits were actually signing up with the Dominion Aeronautical Association, a supposed civil aeronautics firm that just happened to have its main office located next door to the Royal Canadian Air Force headquarters in Ottawa. By the fall of 1941, more than 3,000 Americans had been successfully recruited, and by the end of the year that number had swelled to 6,700.

Many Americans were attracted by the prospect of flying Spitfires against the Germans, and a total of 244 U.S. pilots eventually joined the three new Eagle Squadrons that had been formed.

Colonel Steve Pisanos was a man who couldn't wait to fight the Germans, as he was one who signed up with an Eagle Squadron recruiter before the United States entered the war. Technically, he wasn’t officially an American. Pisanos had come to the U.S. from Greece in the summer of 1938, and shortly afterward had taken basic flying lessons on his own. He had renounced his Greek citizenship, but it wasn’t until May of 1943 that he became a naturalized citizen—in London of all places. Of the event, he remarked, “Uncle Sam and I are best friends, and I felt nothing but gratitude. I was the first to become a citizen outside of the U.S.”

After advanced training, Pisanos shipped out to England in February 1942. He received training in tactics before joining an operational unit, flying Milmasters, Hurricanes, P-40 Kittyhawks and P-51A Mustangs during his final training phase. He was assigned to the 268th Army Co-operation Fighter Squadron, and began flying combat missions over Holland in the P-51A. Known to his fellow pilots as the “Flying Greek,” he came to the attention of Squadron Leader Chesley Peterson in No. 71 Squadron, and was officially transferred in early September 1942.

In his one month with No. 71, he flew Spitfires and Hurricanes, before transferring into the 334th Squadron, 4th Fighter Group, 8th Fighter Command, at the end of September, when the Eagle Squadrons were disbanded. The American Eagle Squadron pilots were heavily recruited by the USAAF, as “in reality we had Ph.D. degrees in fighting—we had experience.” The recruiter said, “You come with us—you are an American, would you accept a second lieutenant [commission] in the Air Corps?” Once he was with the 334th, he flew the P-47 and occasionally the P-51 again.

“The Spitfire was a great aircraft, but it was limited because it had no fuel capacity to go great distances,” Pisanos recalled. He also rated the P-47 in the same fashion, as it “could not stay with the bombers on long-distance missions, and the Luftwaffe would just wait there for the fighters to turn back.”

As for the P-51, Pisanos emphasized, "That was it!" He participated in the first escorted Berlin mission with the 4th Fighter Group, and when the Germans saw the P-51 escorting the bombers, they knew they had lost the war.

Pisanos wound up his combat career in a spectacular way. On March 5, 1944, he shot down four German aircraft, giving him a total of 10 victories in the space of 110 missions spanning 300 combat hours. On the way home, he experienced engine failure, and had to crash-land in France. Successfully evading capture, Pisanos managed to join up with members of the French Resistance, and was based in Paris until it was liberated in August of the same year. Because he knew too much about the Resistance, Pisanos was permanently grounded for combat and sent back to the States, spending the rest of the war as a test pilot at Wright Field, Ohio.

The ranks of Eagle Squadron members have greatly dwindled over the past few years. In 2006, they held their last official reunion. Of the 17 living members at the time, only five were doing well enough to attend. Steve Pisanos has finished his book of memoirs, which was released in December 2007.

Another of the volunteers was John "Red" Campbell.  He had been flying since age 15, and traveled from National City, near San Diego, to Hollywood to enlist with the RAF. They turned him down because he was only 18, but three days later—having just turned 19 and carrying a letter from his parents—he came back.

“I arrived as a wet-behind-the-ears 19-year-old,” recalled Campbell. “The British assumed we were there to do a job, and expected we would do it. This was quite different from the United States Army Air Forces, which assumed you couldn’t do it, unless you proved otherwise.”

Campbell already had significant flight experience when he joined up, and had also formed quite a picture of aerial warfare from the pulp magazines of the day. The popular magazines were instrumental as a recruiting tool, as many stories concentrated on the seemingly glamorous life of a fighter pilot. He credits those magazines as the real reason he signed up. “I thought that every time you went up, you shot down five,” said Campbell. He would learn that it was quite different in real life.
After flight training in the U.S. and Canada, he joined a convoy bound for England. At his assigned base, Campbell then checked out in a Miles Master. With the Battle of Britain already raging, he got three weeks of training in Spitfires, about 25-30 total hours, with none on instruments.

“I only flew two ops in them, and they were enjoyable to fly,” he said. The Spitfire training started with “sitting for a half-hour in the cockpit with a flying sergeant putting me through cockpit drills.” The next morning he would check out a parachute, show the instructor he knew the cockpit drills and then taxi out, open up the throttle and take off.

Campbell then got five weeks on Hawker Hurricanes—a total of about 54 hours—and as he recalled that was “more than most guys.” They flew two or three times daily, but the Eagle Squadron members were given the old beat-up Hurricane Mark Is. Eventually the Americans received Hurricane IIC models, which they used on fighter sweeps through Belgium and northern France. He felt the greatest difficulty in flying both the Spitfire and Hurricane was having to change hands from throttle to stick, and to the gear and flap controls.

Campbell really took to the Hurricane, and lamented the fact that the press largely overlooked it during the Battle of Britain. He noted that the “Hurricane got 80 percent of the kills, while the Spitfire got 100 percent of the credit. You never ran into a German pilot that was shot down by a Hurricane—they always said it was a Spitfire.”

He felt that the Hurricane made a better gun platform, as it was more stable, and was best used against the German bombers. The Spitfires were deployed at higher altitudes, and were more likely to engage enemy fighters. Campbell considered the Hurricane easier to land, stating, “It did not float like the Spitfire, you just flare to land, and it lands.”

In comparison to the German Messerschmitt Me-109E, Campbell said the Hurricane “lost most to the 109 at low level, where the 109 was faster, so we had to use tactics.” But he added that “at altitude, the Hurricane was faster, could turn better and had a better gunsight.”

Campbell also flew Hurricane IIDs at Gibraltar, which he said were “the first of the four cannon-equipped models designed for tank busting.” He was later assigned to the Far East campaign, went to Port Sudan on an aircraft carrier, and took off from there for Java and Singapore. He was at Ceylon when the Japanese attacked and claimed “they got such a bloody nose that they didn’t try it again.”

Campbell said that the “Hurricane could out-turn both the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and the Nakajima Ki.43 Oscar. In the slow, turning battles the Spitfire got eaten up, so Hurricanes remained in production until the end of the war.”

Campbell fought against both the Zero and the Oscar, and “got shot down twice, and I shot down two each of them.” The first time he went down, he made it back to his base after two and a half days to find all his personal effects gone. “I saw my wingman sleeping, and said, ‘Boo, this is the ghost of Red Campbell and where is my stuff?’ That woke him up in a hurry.”

The last time he was shot down, over Java, Campbell became a POW for the rest of the war. He was sent to a disease-plagued labor camp, and weighed only 98 pounds when the camp was finally liberated.

Recommended for further reading: The Flying Greek: An Immigrant Fighter Ace’s WW II Odyssey With the RAF, USAAF, and French Resistance, by Col. Steve N. Pisanos.