The 386th Air Service Group of the Army Air Force was formed on 22 July 1944 from an existing unit, the 13th ASG. The 386th ASG was to support the 15th Fighter Group and its new fighter planes: P-51 Mustang and P-61 Black Widow nightfighter. This support involved getting to know every facet of these new fighter planes, learning how to repair them and to prepare and maintain airfields for them.
Both the 386th Air Service Group and the 15th Fighter Group were members of the VII Fighter Command. A mutual respect developed between the pilots of the 15th FG and the men of the 386th ASG, on whom the pilots would depend during battle.
The mission as planned....
As related by Major Richard Feuille, the final Commanding Officer of the 386th, the Group had a preliminary mission and a primary mission.
The preliminary mission of the 386th ASG would be to assist the 5th Marine Division during the expected 72 hour battle for Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima (meaning Sulfur Island) was a small, barren volcanic island near Japan, about 5 miles long and, at its widest point, 2 1/2 miles wide. Some soldiers called it Pork Chop for its shape, but it was also notable for its smelly sulfur "geysers". The plan was for the 386th ASG to unload supplies, water, food, ammunition and medicine from landing craft and carry it to the Marines. Within 3 days, military planners estimated, Iwo Jima would be won.
The 386th would then undertake its primary mission: to support the VII Fighter Command, primarily the 15th Fighter Group pilots. The 386th would repair Motoyama Airfield No. 1, located on the southern third of the island, and organize supplies and an overall system to service P-51s, P-61 Black Widow nightfighters and other fighter planes.
What made the P- 51 and P- 61 fighter planes important?
Strategic importance of Iwo Jima
In addition to needing escorts, the B-29s, based at the distant Mariana Islands, had no place to retreat for emergency landings, repairs and refueling. It became clear to US military strategists that a base closer to Japan was critical to the war effort.
Iwo Jima, on which the Japanese had constructed two airfields, was selected as the island to conquer. Control of the island would allow the US to conduct intensive air bombardment and establish sea and air blockades.
So to recap, the US needed Iwo Jima in order to effectively attack Japan with B-29 Superfortresses. The B-29s needed the VII Fighter Command, particularly the 15th Fighter Group with their small fighter planes serving as protective escorts. The VII Fighter Command needed the 386th Air Service Group to develop and maintain air fields, make repairs, and do whatever was necessary to keep the planes flying.
The "72 hour battle" lasts more than a month
For ten weeks prior to the landing of the Marines at Iwo Jima on 19 February 1945, the US intensively bombed the island in order to ensure a swift victory for ground forces. However, the plan did not succeed. Victory was offically claimed on 16 March, which surprised the men on Iwo because the fighting was still intense: in the next 10 days the Americans suffered an additional 5,000 casualties! Further, the Journal of the 386th reports that organized resistance did not end until late April.
Why wasn't the pre-invasion bombing successful? The Japanese understood the strategic importance of Iwo Jima, and had assigned one their finest military leaders to fight "to the last man" to retain control of the island. In preparation for attack, the Japanese had built extensive underground fortresses and tunnels, complete with lighting, communication system, ventilation and food supplies. Thus, when the Marines landed at 0830 on the morning of 19 February, the island was silent; no enemy could be observed. However, the Japanese, with their numerous underground observation-and-attack points, observed the Marines. Once the first wave of Marines was ashore, with the second wave disembarking,, the Japanese opened fire. The Marines had no cover. One source reports that 25% of the onshore Marines were casualties by noon. The bloodiest battle of WWII had begun.
Mission Expanded : Men of the 386th work tirelessly to do whatever is needed.
The 386th ASG had arrived by ship two days before the battle, and waited impatiently to be called ashore. The first contingent of the 386th set foot on Iwo Island five days after the Marines landed. What had been anticipated as a brief period of hauling supplies, medicine, food and ammunition to support the 5th Marine Division became an extended physical ordeal. Often under fire, the men of the 386th ASG hauled supplies across the steep sandy beaches of Iwo. However, the greater challenge, as told by Major Richard Feuille, was the heartwrenching job of evacuating wounded Marines. Walking among thousands of casualties, the men tirelessly carried the wounded on pallets from the island back to "hospital" ships. The Marines were grateful.
The commander of the 5th Marine Division expressed his appreciation for the men of the 386th Air Service Group and its attached unit, the 384th Aviation Squadron:
STATES MARINE CORPS
From: The Commanding General
1. The Commanding General, 5th Marine Division greatly appreciates the cooperation and assistance rendered this Division by the personnel of the 386th Air Service Group and its attached unit, the 384th Aviation Squadron. Your men have been most helpful and cooperative in the handling of casualties. Their untiring work has been of inestimable assistance in the treatment and evacuation of this Divisions wounded.
Major General Keller E. Rockey
Even during the first weeks of battle, the 386th prepared an airfield and organized service and repair operations. Although the airfield runway was unfinished -- and designed for smaller planes -- the 386th welcomed the first landing of a B-29 on 4 March. As noted in the Journal of the 386th ASG, this landing boosted the men's spirits, as they saw the first tangible result of their efforts and those of their Marine comrades. However, as Ed Swaney notes in his excellent brochure, the ambiance on Iwo Jima did not tempt the pilot to rest overnight:
THE BATTLE FOR IWO JIMA by Ed Swaney (an excerpt)
On March 4, 1945, fourteen days after the battle had begun and twenty-two before it ended, a B-29 bomber pilot radioed Iwo Jima, requesting permission to land. He explained that his plane had been hit by anti-aircraft fire over Japan, that he had a broken fuel line, that the valve on his reserve 1,000 gallon tank was frozen, and that he had, hopefully, just enough to make it to the island. This was a real problem for the Seabees on Iwo Jima because they had just started to work on the main runway of the southern airfield called "Chidori" by the Japanese and "Motoyama No. 1" by the American forces. But the Seabee commander, knowing that a Superfort with eleven men aboard was in serious trouble, ordered the runway cleared of the roadgrading equipment. The Seabees grabbed shovels and filled holes made by American naval shells and Air Corps bombs as best they could. The pilot was advised that his landing would be a rough one, but still better than ditching in the sea. The plane landed safely, the fuel line and valve were fixed and the plane was refueled. It was just dusk and the Seabee commander asked the pilot if he would like to stay overnight with the men on the island. The pilot looked to the North and saw artillery and mortar shells falling around the No. 2 airfield and said, "No thanks, I think we had best be underway."
In the next 164 days, which takes us to the end of all hostilities of World War II, August 16, 1945, and one week after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, over 2,400 B-29 bombers, in trouble, landed on little Iwo Jima, saving the lives of an estimated 27,000 airmen.
The 386th worked beyond the call of duty both during and after the Battle. The Commendation below, given to the 386th by the VII Fighter Command at the end of April 1945, expresses thanks and specifies the expanded mission taken on by the 386th. (This letter is mentioned in Journal of the 386th ASG.)
VII FIGHTER COMMAND AAF
25 April 1945
1. I desire to take this opportunity to commend the officers and men of the 386th Air Service Group for outstanding service and devotion to duty in the early phases of the Iwo Jima campaign.
2. An advance party of this group landed on D plus 5, and the majority of the group's assault echelon landed the following day. Preparation for the execution of the group's primary mission of supply and maintenance of Air Force units was begun immediately. Despite congestion on the beaches, occupation of its area by combat and construction units, and enemy action, the group was ready to perform its functions a week later, two days prior to the arrival of the first Army fighter planes.
The group set up its facilities for supplying food, water, gasoline, oil, ammunition, and thousands of parts and supply items to all AAF units with remakable speed. Through the efforts of the 386th Service Goup, the 15th Fighter Group was able to operate as a tactical combat unit immediately upon arrival at Iwo Jima.
Arriving pilots found crash trucks, fire trucks, an ambulance ready for any emergency, and skilled personnel prepared to perform second, third, and some fourth echelon maintenance in mobile repair units and improvised shops.
In addition to superior performance of its assigned mission, this service group worked night and day to render assistance to all AAF units on the island in locating and transporting equipment and supplies. The group rendered services far beyond those normally expected, and performed such achievements as the establishment of a communication center for all AAF units, opening the island's first post exchange [PX] and Red Cross Area, and one of the first Army dispensaries.
The efficiency with which the group performed advanced maintenance and salvage work has expedited the return of many B-29 aircraft to their bases, and has kept a maximum of fighter aircraft in commission.
3. The cheerful and willing cooperation, the tireless energy, and devotion to duty on the part of all personnel have resulted in outstanding achievement by the 386th Air Service Group. These achievements reflect a high state of discipline and training in accord with the finest traditions of the Army Air Forces.
/s/ E. Moore
Subsequent to the battle, towards the end of the war, the 386th ASG was awarded the Meritorious Service Unit Plaque. Each man received a wreath patch to wear on his right sleeve. A partial copy of the plaque is below; most of the content is identical to the Commendation above, indicated by four dots....
VII FIGHTER COMMAND AAF
27 July 1945
AWARD OF THE MERITORIOUS SERVICE UNIT PLAQUE
AWARD OF THE MERITORIOUS SERVICE UNIT PLAQUE. Under the provisions of Section I, WD Circular Number 345, 23 August 1944, a Meritorious Service Unit Plaque is awarded by the Commanding General, VII Fighter Command, to the following named unit for superior performance of duty of exceptionally difficult tasks during the period 1 March 1945 to 1 May 1945:
386th Air Service Group, AAF.
This organization exhibited an unusually high degree of efficiency, devotion to duty and resourcefulness....
The efficiency with which the group performed advanced maintenance and salvage work expedited the return of many B-29 aircraft to their bases, and has kept a maximum of fighter aircraft in commission.
The military record of the 386th Air Service Group regarding appearance of personnel, military courtesy, discipline, and related subjects has been superior and is a credit to themselves and the Army Air Forces.
BY COMMAND OF BRIGADIER GENERAL MOORE:
JAMES F. GARBER, Jr,
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