Our film for today is William Wyler’s “Thunderbolt”, shot during 1944 in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO) by the Army Air Forces and released to the military in 1945 and to the public in 1947. Starring P-47D Thunderbolts and their pilots flying missions from Alto Air Base on Corsica and their supporting personnel, the film begins with an explanation of how the footage was shot. Army Air Forces B-24 pilot Jimmy Stewart introduces the picture.
The footage is not all pleasant. You should be aware that the film, shot and produced during wartime, wastes little time before getting to the meat of the issue in Italy during the war. However, there is no better way to get a feel for the war, particularly the air war, and how it was fought in that part of the world. The P-47 Thunderbolt, also known as Jug, was a punishing fighter-bomber well suited to the kind of war in the air being fought in the MTO. Footage from this film was used in several other films and movies. You’ll probably recognize some of it.
The group featured in the film is the 57th Fighter Group, consisting of the 64th Fighter Squadron Black Scorpions, the 65th Fighter Squadron Fighting Cocks, and the 66th Fighter Squadron Exterminators. The film also mentions that the 57th Fighter Group moved 58 times in two years. That seems like a lot of moves but having started out flying P-40Fs in North Africa during 1942 it seems entirely plausible that the Group moved many times. The 57th moved to Corsica on March 30th 1944.
Earlier, while stationed in North Africa flying P-40Ks, the 57th participated in the April 1943 aerial battle over the Gulf of Tunis at Cape Bon known as Operation Flax. The group destroyed approximately 74 enemy transports and fighters. Nearly that many more enemy aircraft were lost when they attempted to ditch at sea or crash land on beaches in the area. This action became known as the “Goose Shoot” or “The Palm Sunday Massacre.”
As you will see in the film, the 57th flew missions at a hectic pace, averaging about 48 sorties per day against railroads, lines of communication, and vehicular transportation targets- primarily behind enemy lines. The 57th earned a Distinguished Unit Citation during the time Wyler was filming for their attacks against the German forces in the Florence-Arezzo area. Later the Group flew missions in the French campaign against Elba in June 1944 and later during the invasion of Southern France.
The 57th flew many of their missions in support of Operation Strangle, an air interdiction effort with the goal of preventing essential supplies from reaching German forces in central Italy and to compel a German withdrawal. For operations in the MTO, the 57th Fighter Group earned three Distinguished Unit Citations and the French Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) with Palm (awarded in late 1967). We hope you enjoy “Thunderbolt!”