Fighter Command History
The 7th Fighter Command had its beginning at Wheeler Field on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. On 7 December 1941 nine squadrons were based at Wheeler Field. They were split between the 15th and 18th Pursuit Groups of the 14th Pursuit Wing. The Wing, commanded by Brigadier General Howard C. Davidson, was the fighter element of the Hawaiian Air Force (HAF) which was a major unit of the Hawaiian Department, United States Army. The HAF also included the 18th Bomb Wing based at Hickam Field and the 86th Observation Squadron based at Bellows Field. Ninety nine (99) P-40's and 39 P-36 aircraft were assigned to the 14th Wing. The 18th Wing had 33 B-18 and 12 B-17D aircraft assigned to it. The 86th Observation Squadron was equipped with O-47B aircraft. On 7 December two of the Fighter Squadrons had their aircraft at Haleiwa on the north coast and Bellows Field where they were undergoing gunnery training. A capability to detect and intercept attacking aircraft was demonstrated on the 17th of November. However, fate, in a series of decisions, events, and personalities would step in to prevent this capability from being used. As a result, the deplorable, unready condition on that fateful Sunday morning in December lead to the decisive, if short lived, one sided victory for the Japanese. It was from their perspective as decisive as any air battle that would be fought over the next four years.
Soon after the United States declared war on the Axis the overseas air units in given areas were designated numbered Army Air Forces. This followed the four (1st-4th) that had previously been established within the country. The air units under Gen MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific Theater became the 5th Air Force, Panama the 6th, Central Pacific the 7th, England the 8th etc. The 14th Pursuit Wing formed the basis for the 7th Fighter Command which came into existence on the 23 January 1942 with the establishment of the 7th Air Force. General Davidson was the first commander and was followed by Brigadier General Bob Douglas. On 15 April 1944 Brigadier General Earnest M. ("Mickey") Moore who had been on duty in the Pacific since August, 1939 took over.
Of the nine fighter squadrons at Wheeler on December 7th, eight eventually became involved in support of the WWII 20th Air Force. Three of these were the 6th, 19th and 73rd Squadrons which along with the 333rd Squadron participated in the Marianas campaign and operated out of Saipan. The 19th, 73rd and 333rd were part of the 318th Fighter Group which was formed in October of 1942. They were launched by catapult off "jeep" carriers and provided ground support for the Marine and Army units engaged in the battles for Saipan and Tinian. After Guam, Saipan and Tinian were secured, these squadrons along with the now independent 6th Night Fighter Squadron and their P-61's provided island air defense. In addition, the 318th Fighter Group aircraft flew interdiction missions to Pagan, Iwo Jima, Truk etc. with their P-47's and later acquired P-38's With the taking of Iwo Jima a need for the Group no longer existed in the Marianas. After being re-equiped with long range P-47N's, they moved to Ie Shima and participated in the Okinawa Campaign.
Five of the nine 7 December squadrons joined the 20th Air Force on Iwo Jima. (A detachment from the 6th Squadron provided the initial night air defense of the island). These were the 45th, 47th, and 78th Squadrons of the 15th Fighter Group and the 46th and 72nd Squadrons of the 21st Fighter Group. The 21st Group headquarters was established in May 1944. The 531st Squadron which was transformed from an attack (A-24's) to a fighter squadron and joined the Group then. Another Wheeler squadron, the 44th, along with the 18th Group headquarters was moved to the South Pacific Theater early in the game. They joined the 12th Squadron which had been under the 7th at Christmas Island since August 1942. The Group was joined by the 70th Squadron and they went to Guadalcanal and the 13th Air Force in April of 1943. The Group's 78th and 6th squadrons were transferred to the 15th Group and the 19th Squadron to the 318th Group when the 18th left the 7th Fighter Command.
In the period between 7 December 1941 and the Marianas Campaign, the 7th Fighter Command provided an air defense shield in the Central Pacific stretching from Midway to Christmas and Canton Islands. In late 1943 and early 1944, the 45th, 46th, and 72nd Fighter Squadrons along with the 531st Attack Squadron participated in the Gilbert Islands Campaign. Operating from Makin Island, these units made raids against the nearby Marshall Islands of Mille and Jaluit and provided for Makin's air defense. With the completion of the Gilbert and Marshalls Campaigns as well as the USN greatly enhanced control of the seas, it became quite evident to all that the need for massive air defense in the Central Pacific was subsiding fast. In June of 1944 the 318th Group left Bellows Field for the Marianas. The 15th Group followed them at Bellows and completed the process of converting from P-40B's, Es, Ks and Ns to P-47D23's The Group was initially equipped with P-47D20's and 21s in mid March. Members of the group had aspirations of also moving to a battle front some where. It wasn't too long in coming. On 30 August 1944 they got word that the Group would be going to Yap Island. This plan proceeded to the point of embarkation of the ground echelon. The air echelon was standing by for loading aboard the aircraft carriers. People upstairs came up with a more grandiose plan. By-pass Yap and return to the Philippines. The 15th Fighter Group was not needed for that operation due to the availability of the 5th and 13th Air Forces fighters. The ground echelons returned to Bellows and all in the Group took on a very dejected mood.
Despair didn't last as word soon came down that the 15th Group and the 21st group would be moving forward. The 15th would go first after a very quick transition to P-51D aircraft. Although only a few people were informed that the destination was Iwo Jima, new excitement reigned. The P-40's and P-47's had a very restricted radius of action. Word that the Group was getting a long range all around performer like the P-51 sent the signal that something big was afoot. In November the first P-51's arrived. The Group was provided with 10 of these new aircraft which were used in an intensive training program to get all the pilots checked out and given some experience in formation flying, gunnery and bombing. An aircraft carrier loaded with the Group's aircraft was to stop by and pick up the air echelon and proceed to the forward area. This was an impossible task since the squadrons had about 50 pilots on board at the time as a consequence of the increase in authorized aircraft from 24 to 37 aircraft. Fortunately, some training was accomplished due to delays which occurred in the over all plan allowing the Group to be equipped with nearly its full complement of aircraft before loading on the aircraft carrier Sitkoh Bay on the 2 February. Due to poor communications, the carrier was unable to load the aircraft aboard without fouling the catapult and the 79 aircraft had to be lightered ashore at Guam on the 14 February. The Group immediately flew to East Field on Saipan and bedded down with Col Lew Sanders' 318th Fighter Group while waiting for the Marines on Iwo Jima to secure the South Field.
Iwo Jima, lying about half way to the Japanese mainland from Saipan and about 750 miles from Tokyo, was invaded on the morning of 19 February by 60,000 Marines. The 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions were involved. The 22,000 Japanese ground forces dug in on Iwo turned out to be more tenacious than expected and the airfield didn't become available until D + 15 instead of D + 5 or so as was planned. An advanced party of the 15th Ground Echelon did get ashore on D + 5. On 6 March 1945 Brigadier General "Mickey" Moore, the commander of the 7th Fighter Command, led the 47th Fighter Squadron to Iwo. The following day the 7th of March Colonel Jim Beckwith the 15th Fighter Group CO led the 45th and 78th Fighter Squadrons to the island. About this same time a couple of B-29's returning from missions over Japan and in dire straits used the newly acquired but very crude airstrip as a last resort choice. This was the first of many such "saves" to come. The 548th Night Fighter Squadron with a detachment of the 6th Night Fighter Squadron came in with the 15th Group to provide night time air defense support.
Iwo as the 7th Fighter Command found it was the "hell hole of creation". The months of shelling and bombing by the Navy, 7th and 20th Air Forces had laid all vegetation and structures to waste. Shell and bomb craters were everywhere including unexploded ordnance of all types. Hulks of landing craft and ships fouled the beaches. At various places there were fumaroles of boiling sulfur with the attendant odors. In some areas foul smelling steam spewed out of he ground. Japanese bodies were every where since the Marine graves registration people were have a tough time keeping with their own dead. A consequence of this was flies by the million. C-47's sprayed DDT to control them. Initially, mortar, artillery and rocket rounds were flying everywhere. The tracked vehicles and the many other disturbances raised a huge continuous dust cloud. The 2 by 4 mile pork chop shaped island seemed to have a base of coarse black sand topped by a thick layer of pumice. The black sand extended inland a short distance. Trying to dig a fox hole in was like trying to dig one in water. The top layer of compacted pumice was much like sandstone. The Japanese had carved extensive multi-storied caves in this layer making them quite invulnerable to the bombing and shelling. They had also used cross cut saws to cut the stuff into blocks which they used in construction. Having such a fine grain it didn't take much too make dust with it. Water was severely rationed with just enough for drinking and that was about all. By chance it was found that you could bulldoze a trench about a 100 yards in on the west beach and strike boiling hot sulfur smelling brackish water. They would pump this into tank trucks and bring it around to the various units and fill up they shower tanks that people had rigged up. At least it was better than nothing. The food was terrible. The 7th Fighter Command got the Australian C-rations. A choice of a can of meat and beans, meat and vegetable stew, or meat and vegetable hash. The Marines were getting the modern US stuff so people took to going up to the front scrounging the Marine rations. "Booze" was the only worthwhile currency. It was used to buy needed items including food and construction support.
The P-51's and P-61's immediately began an intense air defense effort anticipating heavy air attacks by the Japanese. Interdiction of Chichi Jima began also to preclude the Japanese from using its airfield for attacks on Iwo Jima 165 miles to the southwest. The need to provide ground support to the Marines was not planned, as it was anticipated that the ground battle would be essentially over with when the 7th Fighter Command arrived. This support was being provided by the carrier forces off shore. All most immediately the Marines asked for help from the 7th Fighter Command and ground support began. The Command had developed the use of napalm delivery by fighters but was told to leave that capability behind since the island would be secured by the time the 7th arrived. The ground support was restricted to the use of the P-51's six 50 caliber machine guns and two 500 pound bombs per aircraft. On 23 March, after the middle airfield had been captured and repaired sufficiently, Col. Kenny Powell's 21st Fighter Group, which left Pearl Harbor aboard the "Jeep" carrier Hollandia, moved in. The 15th Group was eager for them to participate in the dawn to dusk Combat Air Patrols (CAP) which proved to be very boring because of the total lack of daylight activity on the part of the Japanese Air Force. The P-61's of the 549th Night Fighter Squadron came in about the same time as the 21st Group. Light night attacks were experienced and the P-61's got a few. One of these attacks, before midnight on 25 March, caused the Marine 155 mm howitzers to stop firing star shells for battlefield illumination and several hundred Japanese broke out of a pocket and proceeded through the 21st Group and 549th tent area headed for the airfield and the newly arrived aircraft. All hell broke loose at 0400 hours and before it was over the 21st Group suffered 15 killed (Nine pilots) and 50 wounded while the 549th lost six of its enlisted men. One of the wounded was the group commander Col Kenny Powell. Initially the battle was engaged by the 21st Group pilots who suddenly turned infantry and performed brilliantly. They were eventually helped by a few Marines and men from the 137th Army Regiment who were moving onto the island to take over as the Marines left. An enemy force of over three hundred Japanese were killed and only a handful taken prisoner before the battle ended at 0930. They were the only aviation unit of World War II to be so engaged. Major Harry C. Crim, Lt. Henry Koke and Lt. Joe Koons were presented Silver Stars by General of the Air Force "Hap" Arnold for their exceptional feats and bravery in the action.
The pace of change didn't slow down as a consequence of these activities. Preparations were made for the first B-29 escort mission to Japan scheduled for the 7 April. A practice run was made down to Saipan and back on 30 March was a somewhat discouraging. Several aircraft had to land at Saipan unable to make the return trip nonstop. The trips to Japan would not afford such a luxury. Plans were amended accordingly. Each squadron would fly 16 airplanes. Certain squadrons would provide spares that would go along with the main force of P-51's and their B-29 Navigators until just short of the P-61's point of no return. The P-61's would provide navigation support to the P-51's that returned to Iwo Jima. Anyone having problems was to abort and the spares fill in. In addition, 8 aircraft were to provide top cover for the rescue submarine and aircraft as well as the B-29 Navigators at the rally point just off Japan. Early on the morning of 7 April the 15th and 21st Groups were poised ready for the signal to start engines. The briefings of the day before and that morning had everyone eager to get the operation underway. Since there were a large number of aircraft to get off in as short a time as possible, there could be no dallying around. At about 0700 the signal came. All aircraft got airborne promptly and proceeded to the assembly point at Kita Iwo Jima, just north of the main island, where the navigation escort B-29's were waiting. The rendezvous went smoothly and the 7th Fighter Command was 750 miles away from an opportunity to settle an old score. Various aircraft had problems and the spares filled in as planned. The P-51 Manual called for a cruise speed of 207 miles per hour indicated air speed at 10,000 feet to achieve maximum range. This was compromised at 210 MPH to not only round off the number but primarily to take into account the need for the B-29's to go a bit faster to assure engine cooling. Once the long trip got under way the basic four ship fighter formation loosened up to make the flying less of a chore and to conserve fuel. As the formation neared Japan there were scattered, puffy clouds at 10,000 feet. A climb was also initiated in order to get to escort altitude and to join with the 73rd Bomb Wing which the 7th was to escort over their target in the Tokyo area. It soon became apparent that one of those clouds was the snow capped Fujiyama. This helped get the adrenaline flowing. The timing of the rendezvous was just about perfect and the 15th Group slid into position above and to right of the bomber formation while the 21st Group did the same thing on the left side. The bomber formation was supposed head toward the target area and make land fall further to the west than it did because of high tail winds. This caused the ground track to proceed over Yokusuka and the Yokohama which drew a lot of Flak. The fighter pilots were happy to be where they were instead of flying down what looked like an asphalt highway in the sky due to the flak bursts as the B-29's had to do. Contrary to the way later escorted bomber formations were flown, the 73rd was all together in one contiguous formation. They seemed to be around 16,000 to 18,000 feet. The escorting fighters had spread out into their mutual support formation and began to realize it might be a busy day, since the sky ahead was full of contrails formed by the waiting Japanese fighters who were obviously expecting the B-29's to be at a much higher altitude. The two fighter groups were flying their most experienced pilots feeling that they deserved the opportunity to participate in the first mission. This experience gave them a sense of concern however, since they expected that the Japanese would react as they would. Probably they did not because they didn't believe that the B-29's could have escorts because of the great distance involved. As the bombers neared the possible target areas along their track the Japanese fighters started their attacks and were engaged by the P-51's Major Jim Tapp leading the second section of the 78th Fighter Squadron spotted a twin engines Nick coming down and expecting it to be going very fast went after it at full throttle. It turned out that the Nick was going much slower than expected and Tapp closed very rapidly. He fired into the right engine and fuselage of the Nick before over running it. Feeling confident that the Nick would never endanger a B-29 again, and gun camera film confirmed this, he pulled back up into escort position and immediately spotted an in-line engines Tony heading in. This time he did not go full throttle and closed more leisurely on enemy. When in range (about 1,000 feet) he started firing and the Tony immediately burst into flames. As he passed over and to the left of the Tony he could see the pilot in the flaming cockpit. An element leader following in behind Tapp observed the pilot bail out and his parachute disintegrate in flames. The element leader captured this on film. Tapp next observed a twin engine Dinah, which although not a fighter, they were known to launch rockets or drop phosphorus bombs at the bomber formations. Tapp attempted to close on him but the P-51's Rolls Royce Merlin automatically shifted its supercharger into low blower because of the ram air effect of the speed and the lower altitude he had descended to. This reduced the power so that he couldn't close on the Jap although he did get incendiary strikes from the long range, but noted no killing effect. Also being at a long range and firing from a full deflection (90 degrees) the target became blanked out by the nose of the P-51 due to the large lead angle required. Pulling up from this attack he spotted an Army Oscar getting set to make a pass on a B-29 that was leaving the formation an heading for the coast with his number two engine on fire. He started his pass on the Oscar from directly abeam the left side and continued around his lead pursuit attack pattern until directly behind the Oscar. Although he was getting hits all through the pass, the Oscar did not ignite. It was being badly torn up though. On returning home, he found scrapes on the right and left engine cowling and canopy as well a piece of the Oscar's bullet proof windshield stuck in his right wing root. The Oscar was observed to spiral in to the ground. Pulling back up from the Oscar he observed the wing burn off the B-29 but also spotted six Japanese fighters coming in on his right side. He turned his flight into the six Japs and went head on with one that looked like a George. He noted flashes coming from well out on the left wing of the enemy and at first thought that flashes were coming from the enemies 20 mm cannon. In a split second the fighters passed one another and the Japs turned to fight. When they did the aircraft that he was firing at lost part of his left wing and went out of control spinning rapidly to the left. It was concluded that the flashes were armor piercing incendiary strikes which weakened the wing causing it to fail when the Japanese pilot pulled "Gs" in the turn. The US fighter tactics generally called for not attempting to dog fight or turn with the Japanese fighters so Tapp led his P-51's in a high speed climbing turn to get into position for another attack. Before this could be done however, has wing man called and said that his fuselage tank had run dry. This was the planned condition to proceed to the Rally Point to return home. As he took up a heading for the rally point the 78th Squadron merged back together with all 16 aircraft accounted for. The squadron had split up into flights for the action, but obviously had stayed in the same general airspace. All the aircraft but one arrived at the rally point at about the same time. The missing aircraft was being flown by Lt. Robert Anderson from the 531st Squadron, 21st Group who was seen to go down burning shortly after he released his external fuel tanks. Captain Frank Ayers, a 47th Squadron pilot, P-51 was siphoning fuel and had to bail out near the destroyer standing guard north of Iwo and was recovered. Witnesses and gun camera film confirmed that the P-51's destroyed 21 Japanese fighters, probably destroyed 6 and damaged 6. The Command was told that 2 B-29's were lost to antiaircraft fire and one was knocked down by a Ta-Dan bomber.
Anticipating that the pilots might get weary from the long flight to Japan, they were issued pep pills. Those that took them found that the let down after relaxing for the flight home was too deep and most never used them again. Besides Mother Nature built in her own chemical for this purpose. She also arranged for reality to return. All of a sudden that survival gear seat became harder and lumpier than ever, hunger and thirst set in, and the desire to use the relief tube became strong. To control the air speed at 210 MPH indicated, the throttle was wide open and the RPM reduced or increased with the propeller control. As the aircraft got lighter and particularly on the way home the pilot had to go to every lowering RPM in the 1,600 to 1,800 range. This of course caused the engines run very cool. The Command had begun using the 115/145 Octane leaded gasoline. This caused "lead" globules to form on the spark plugs shorting them out. The loss of even one plug out of 24 made the engine run very rough. This was most disconcerting to the pilots. It was found that by running the engine at full RPM and manifold pressure periodically during the cruise portion of the mission helped greatly to prevent the fouling from occurring. It was a long enough ride home without all the problems. This first mission and those that followed averaged about seven and a half hours.
The next mission was on 12 April. It was also an escort mission. Very little air action occurred. Major Jim Tapp did flame another Tony to become the 7th Fighter Command's and therefore the 20th Air Force's first fighter ace. It was noted that many of the airfields that were overflown had lots of aircraft on them. The Fighter pilots wanted to be given the freedom of going after them when there was no air action. This of course was not adopted as a policy but instead a fighter airfield strike was planned. The first of these was against the Atsugi airfield on 16 April. The 21st Group was to strafe the airfield while the 15th Group gave them top cover. This mission was quite successful. Twenty-one aircraft were shot down in the air. Twenty-six were destroyed or probably destroyed on the ground. Thirty-five were damaged in the air and on the ground. The fighter strikes came quite frequently from then on. Escort missions continued as well.
In May the 78th Squadron aircraft were modified to carry the 140 pound 5 inch High Velocity Aircraft Rockets (HVARs). This added a new dimension to the P-51's capability. On the first use of the rockets against Matsudo airfield northeast of Tokyo, Major Jim Tapp and his wing man Captain Phil Maher set the whole hanger line on fire. The HVAR carried a modified 5 inch Naval gun projectile. The fighter sweeps were so devastating to the Japanese that they started evacuating their aircraft from southern Honshu as they got warning. They also towed them off into the "woods" some distance from the airfields. The intent presumably was to save them for the anticipated invasion of Japan. This action, of course, took considerable pressure off the B-29's In May the northern most field on Iwo was completed and Col. Bryan B. Harper flew in with his 506th Fighter Group and their 85 P-51's to join in the fray. The 457th, 458th and 462nd Squadrons formed the Group. After a few missions to Chichi Jima they made their initial VLR effort against Kusumigaura Airfield on 28 May. They made a good showing too. They were credited with destroying or damaging 50 aircraft on the ground and destroying one in the air. They lost two aircraft and one pilot. The fighter strikes were almost always directed toward aircraft on the ground. Secondary targets on these missions were usually transportation. Having seen the beating the Marines took on Iwo a lot of pilots hated to bring home any ammunition. As a consequence, small ships, boats and the railroad running stock took a beating. Strikes against airfields were not everybody's favorite past time. Quite the contrary, no other action that the fighter pilots engaged in was more dangerous. In spite of this, the P-51's were out after ground targets until the very end. Col. Jim Beckwith went home after the second very long range (VLR) mission. He was replaced by Lt. Col. Jack Thomas. Jack had been with the 7th Fighter Command from before the war. He lead the 45th Squadron in the Gilberts Campaign and returned to the States when it was over with. Eager to get back into combat he returned to the theater. On 19 July his aircraft disintegrated on a very high speed strafing run against Kagamigahara Airfield and he was killed. He was replaced by his vice commander Lt. Col. John W. Mitchell. John was very well qualified for the job having served a tour in the South Pacific Theater with the 347th Fighter Group. On 18 April 1943, then Major Mitchell, led his squadron on a miraculously successful intercept of Admiral Yamamoto's Betty bomber that was bringing him to Bougainville from Rabaul on the eastern tip of the New Britain island. He led his squadron of 16 P-38's from Fighter Two airstrip on Guadalcanal on an over two hour dead reckoning flight at low altitude to arrive off Bougainville at the precise time Admiral Yamamoto's flight arrived. It was the longest successful intercept ever flown by Americans. It eliminated a powerful leader who had planned the Pearl Harbor attack. It was a big blow to the Japanese and a morale booster for the Americans. For this feat John was awarded the Navy Cross. Colonel Mitchell had 8 kills on his first tour with the 13th Air Force and 3 with the 7th Fighter Command. John was credited with 4 MiGs during the Korean war.
The Fighter Command was further augmented in late July when Col. Henry Thorne brought in the 414th Fighter Group to Field #2. The 414th was equipped with the new, long range P-47N's The 413th, 437th and 456th squadrons made up the Group. The Group had staged through Saipan and flew a couple of missions to Truk to gain experience. The Japanese on Truk had a lot of antiaircraft artillery experience and destroyed one P-47N killing the pilot and damaged two others. They flew their first VLR mission from Iwo on the 1 August. On 4 August there was a somewhat ironic event. After all the daylight CAP flights with no action since he arrival of the 7th Fighter Command on Iwo Jima, a Jap Dinah showed up. Being the "Johnny come latelys" a CAP flight from the 414th's 456th Squadron was up. The four pilots in the CAP flight each 1/4 aircraft apiece for the 414th's only kill.
The 7th Fighter Command, as did other 20th Air Force units, flew escort and ground attack mission between and after the two A-bombs. After a delay of two hours waiting for word on surrender on 14 August 200 P-51's and P-47N's took off various target areas in Japan. The word "Utah" was to be transmitted should the surrender word come from the Japanese. Hearing this the Command was to abort. The number of aircraft seen in the air and visible on the ground was very sparse. The 15th Group, with the 20th's top ace with 12 aircraft destroyed in the air, Major Robert W. Moore leading, was assigned airfields in the Nagoya area, but the airfields were bare. A bunch of steam locomotives in a marshaling yard in northern Nagoya took a beating as well as other rolling stock between there and the coast. Lt. Philip Schlamberg of the 78th Squadron was shot down and killed. Major Eddie Markham, the 47th Squadron CO had bail out over the off shore submarine and Lt. Elmer Owens had to bail 100 mile north of Iwo.
The 21st and 506th Groups escorted the 73rd Bomb Wing over Osaka. It was a milk run for them as there were no fighters aloft and the flack was light. No one suffered any losses. Lt. Col. Bob Rogers, Asst Ops Officer, 7th Fighter Command, who had flown against the Japanese on 7 December 1941, led the escort and was the only man in the AAF to fly combat missions on the first and last days of the war. The 414th Group was also assigned targets in the Nagoya area. They strafed three airfields and saw nothing but derelicts. Two of there aircraft were hit by anti-aircraft fire. On the way home Lt. Harold Regan bailed out of his P-47 over a Navy destroyer and was recovered but died of injuries.
Thirty minutes south of Honshu the signal "Utah" was broadcast. The end had come.
20th Air Force Fighter Aces
Major Robert W. Moore
45th & 78th Sqdns 15th Group 12
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