EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
Nearly 80 years ago, the U.S. was attacked on its home soil. This attack would serve to kick-start the U.S. military’s entrance into the second world war.
Just before 8 a.m., Dec. 7, 1941, the citizens of Honolulu, Hawaii, were just awakening to get ready for another beautiful Sunday in paradise. Sadly, the rest of the day was clouded in tragedy as the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Service attacked U.S. Naval Base Pearl Harbor, killing 2,400 Americans and destroying nearly 20 U.S. naval vessels, including eight battleships and more than 300 aircraft. The following day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan and officially brought the U.S. into World War II.
“Pearl Harbor was a crucial and a defining moment in the history of the United States,” said Cedric Clark, the 354th Fighter Wing historian. “Pearl Harbor was the paradigm shift that shook us from the stance of isolation and non-intervention to force us to meet militarily the expansion of the Axis powers.”
While the 354th Fighter Wing was not assigned to the Pacific Theatre at the time, it did contribute heavily to the war effort on the European front as the 354th Fighter Group. The 354th FG was activated almost a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor and was originally headquartered at Hamilton Field, California, to train in the P-39 Airacobra fighter aircraft. The group was later moved to the United Kingdom and was the first U.S. Army Air Forces unit to fly the P-51 Mustang earning its nickname the “Pioneer Mustang Group.”
“From the time the unit arrived to its first combat mission on Dec. 1, 1943, the 354th [FG] had 20 days to attain operational readiness; maintenance, munitions, aircrew and all the support functions to pioneer through the employment of a new P-51B Mustang aircraft. The unit continued to demonstrate this effort of excellence throughout the war,” Clark said.
For most of the war, the group’s main mission was to provide escorts for bomber aircraft, however the Pioneer Mustang Group wreaked havoc upon the German Luftwaffe. During this time, the 354th FG earned many accolades; including the French Croix de Guerre with Palm and two Distinguished Unit Citations-- awards given for distinguished acts of heroism involving combat with the enemy.
Among its accomplishments, the 354th FG had 44 pilots earn the title of Ace (pilots with 5 or more enemy aircraft destroyed). Among them, Lt. Col. Glenn Eagleston was the leading ace, downing more than 18 aircraft. The 354th FG is credited with 701 confirmed aircraft shot down in air-to-air combat, the most out of any air unit during the war.
Today, the 354th FW is part of U.S. Pacific Air Forces and is located outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. Recently, the wing stood up one of two F-35A Lightning II fighter squadrons and is the first U.S. military unit to host the F-35A in an Arctic climate.
“There are many examples of the pioneering spirit within the history of Eielson Air Force Base and the 354th Fighter Wing. Ben Eielson, the man this installation is named after, braved the frozen Arctic, to be the first to fly from North America to Europe by going over the North Pole in 1928. Another example is how Capt. James Howard, the 356th Fighter Squadron commander during World War II, earned the Medal of Honor for single-handedly engaging over thirty German warplanes in 1944,” Clark explained. “The legacy of the pioneering spirit continues every day at Eielson with the unrelenting display of readiness, resiliency, dedication, and mission focus by its Airmen.”
Nearly 80 years later, the 354th FW is now fighting a new enemy alongside many of the same units attacked on that fateful December day. A lot has changed since World War II but one thing will always remain in the 354th FW’s repertoire, the ability to overcome new challenges.