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The Story of Charles Hoffman
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So great, it takes three posts!
Charles L. Hoffman talks about WWII and his tour in Italy
I'm a ...|
The Story of Charles Hoffman
So great, it takes three posts!
Charles L. Hoffman talks about WWII and his tour in Italy
I'm a lucky guy. I flew 50 combat missions in “The Big One” and lived to tell about it. Many of my buddies weren't so lucky. I was also fortunate to fly one of the sweetest fighters ever built--the Lockheed P-38 “Lightning.”
My story, unlike many sagas that have come out of World War II doesn't take place in Jolly Olde England. Rather, the scenes of my experiences are the deserts of Tunisia and Libya, the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, the craggy spine of Italy, the Alps of Italy and Austria, the south of France, the jumble of the Balkans, and the omnipresent Mediterranean Sea. Few movies were made about the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO) and even fewer movie stars served in this area.
My combat career started while I was still an aviation cadet at Craig Army Air Field (AAF), Selma, Alabama in May 1943. The Army Air Force was testing a program to see how well aviation cadets with about 35 hours in the North American AT-6 “Texan” could do in a fighter plane. Consequently, when I showed up on the Craig Field flight line one morning for a normal training mission, I found that ten of us were to report for Curtiss P-40 “Warhawk” transition training. We had seen the well-used Warhawks on our flight line, but hadn't imagined we would be using them.
When we reported to the instructor, he started talking to us as though we were familiar with P-40 specifications. It eventually dawned on him that we had not attended ground school and knew absolutely nothing about the aircraft. He promptly produced a test with questions about P-40 oil temperatures, coolant temperatures, speed limits, the hydraulic system, and the operation of the coolant control door. We didn't know the answers so he read the questions and gave us the answers. When he didn't know the answers himself, he “winged” acceptable answers. After he finished the test, he gave each of us a grade of 100 and assigned us a plane.
We gathered our flying gear and went to the planes to get some “cockpit time” (just sitting in the cockpit and getting familiar with the controls, instruments, and switches). There were different models of the Warhawk, ranging from original P-40s to F-models, including some that had seen their better days in the African desert. After about an hour, the instructor poked his head in and asked how things were going. Being a good cadet, I answered, “Great, sir.” He asked me to cover my eyes with one hand and identify certain items in the cockpit. When my hand wavered uncertainly, he firmly guided it to the correct location. This continued until we had covered every salient feature in the cockpit. Then he asked if I'd like to fire up the engine. Upon my affirmative response, he called over the fireguard and we proceeded to start the engine.
The noise from the Allison engine was deafening (probably contributing greatly to my current hearing difficulties). The instructor then yelled that the training outline called for the student on his first flight to practice some shallow and medium turns and return to base to shoot several landings. He thought I would be better off to do a few turns and then some acrobatics. Maybe I should try some rolls first. I WAS DUMBFOUNDED! This guy wanted me to fly the plane now! However, he was a combat veteran and no student questioned the words of such an august person.
I shakily got my taxi instructions from the tower and proceeded to the runway. A million questions were going through my head, but I didn’t dare go back and tell the instructor I wasn’t ready. To do so would be the same as resigning from the program and I wanted to be a pilot.
I started my take-off roll and I couldn’t believe the amount of torque the P-40 developed. Thank goodness Craig Field had a wide runway, because I used all of it. I took off to the east and am proud to say that I kept that P-40 under total control.
I did have a little trouble with the landing gear. Initially, when I raised the gear handle nothing happened. After the second try, I remembered there was a level on the stick that you had to operate with your little finger to get the gear up. The level opened the hydraulic valve to the gear and flap systems. It was a bit of a “safety valve” that had been added to the system to make the pilot do two things to get the gear up or down.
I had only a few other problems in my short flight. Montgomery, Alabama (50 miles east of Selma) was in sight before I managed to close the coolant doors. A Johnson bar-type lever controlled the doors, and when I unlocked it, I was almost shoved through the canopy. The plane flew like a dream, but in order to fly it you had to trim, trim, and trim again. A five-mile-an-hour change in airspeed required a change in the rudder and elevator trim. I had no other problems in this or any of my subsequent P-40 flights in the test program.
The same can’t be said, however, for one of my compatriots. At the end of his first P-40 flight he made a good approach and attempted a three-point landing. He touched down, however, on the main gear first, causing the plane to bounce in the air. He tried to add a little power to fly it back on the ground, but again he bounced. Realizing he could not salvage this landing, he quickly applied go-around power. Since he had trimmed the plane for a glide (full left rudder and up elevator), the application of a high power setting caused the P-40 to pitch up at a steep angle and start rolling to the left. (Unless one anticipated a sudden power change and re-trimmed accordingly, there was no way a normal human being could keep a P-40 under control.)
My fellow cadet did a wingover to the left, still continuing in the original direction of the landing, but now vertical. He struck the ground nose first, tearing off the prop as the P-40 dropped on its belly and skidded backwards. When the dust cleared, I could see the pilot, with his chute slung over his shoulder, walking towards Base Operations. After going a couple hundred yards, he suddenly stopped, turned, and stared at the broken P-40. He then dropped his chute and changed his direction for the barracks. His next stop was Cadet Headquarters where he resigned from the program.
On 28 May 1943 I was commissioned a second lieutenant and designated a pilot in the Army Air Force. After 10 days’ leave, during which I went home to Memphis, Tennessee, I reported to Dale Mabry Field, Tallahassee, Florida in early June 1943 for processing and subsequent assignment to Sarasota AAF, Florida for my formal combat crew training in the P-40.
The main gate at Dale Mabry was on the runway side of the base, so the road to the administration buildings and the quarters passed around the end of the main runway. When the planes were on a landing approach, the tower would activate a signal to stop vehicles on the main road. As my taxi approached the end of the runway, the signal light turned red and we waited for a Republic P-47 “Thunderbolt,” which I later learned was being flown by a Chinese student pilot. We anxiously watched him get lower and lower on his approach. The runway was about 50 feet above the surface of our road and it looked as though he was going to land on our road! At the last moment he applied full power, but it was too late. He struck the ground about 10 or 15 feet below the level of the runway, scattering pieces of the P-47 up the hill, over the top, and all over the end of the runway. The pilot, of course, was killed. This was my introduction to combat crew training.
I was soon assigned to the 337th Fighter Group, 303rd Fighter Squadron at Sarasota AAF for my P-40 training. Training at Sarasota was very intensive, but since I already had 10 hours in the P-40 while stationed at Craig, my transition was easy. Because of this, I was not required to attend ground school. This made it possible for me to fly mornings and afternoons and finish the program in four, rather than eight weeks.
Escape and evasion training was conducted at Lido Beach two or three afternoons each week. One might think participation would be grudging, but not so! There were lots of girls at Lido Beach.
We almost lost a couple of guys during the training that prepared you for parachuting into the water. We were required to jump from a 10-meter platform into the deep end of a swimming pool. This didn’t seem to be so bad until we found this must be done while wearing a Mae West, flight suit, boots, and a fully-deployed parachute. There was a lot of thrashing around trying to unbuckle the parachute harness, inflating the Mae West, and swimming out from under the parachute. Some of the guys needed lifeguard help when the exercise got the best of them.
I flew several models of the P-40, but mostly the “N” because it was only 500 pounds heavier than the British “Spitfire.” Rumors abounded that we were flying the “N” because we were scheduled to fly the Spitfire in North Africa. The “N” was much lighter than other models of the P-40.
I’ve already mentioned that the P-40 was a torque machine. One of our pilots was preparing to take off when he moved the throttle too quickly to take-off power. The result was such a violent ground loop to the left that he damaged the right wingtip. He quickly closed the throttle, applied right brake, and managed to damage the left wingtip.
The P-40’s torque taught me a lesson about taking care of my equipment. During ground operation one could turn most airplanes right or left by using the rudder. Not so with the P-40! Because of the torque, the only way to turn to the right was with full right rudder and braking; therefore, the right brake would wear out much faster than the left. One day I came rolling up to the parking space like I was the hottest pilot on the base. When I got out of the cockpit, the crew chief pointed to the right brake. It was so hot that smoke was curling up as though it would soon burst into flames at any second. My lesson for the day—intermittent braking prevents overheating. My penitence—help the crew chief change the brakes.
The instructions we received during transition training were sometimes of dubious quality. Our flight leader was a big, strong fellow. He told us that when dive-bombing, we were to fly over the target, split S, pull the gun sight onto the target, hold the sight on the target while doing a half roll, drop the bomb, and then chandelle to the left. At 400 MPH, no normal human can turn the P-40 to the left. The engineers designed drag in the right wing and offset the vertical stabilizer, both causing the plane to turn to the right. At high speeds, with the engine power reduced, this offset design was more than a person with average strength could handle.
Sometimes our maintenance wasn’t too hot either. On air-to-ground strafing training missions we only used the outboard gun on each wing. The idea being that, if we could hit the target with the outboard guns, the other two guns on each wing would be on target also. One day I did the preflight on my P-40 and found it was not airworthy, so Maintenance assigned me one that was “ready for air-to-ground.” This, of course, meant to me that only the outboard gun on each wing was armed and there was a practice bomb on the fuselage rack. When I made my run, all six guns fired and I totally destroyed the ground target. The range officer accused me of skipping my bomb into it. The frame holding the target was made of 4x4 timbers and those six guns made splinters of it. This impressed me as to the power of six 50-caliber machine guns.
Accidents had been a way of life in the flight school and they continued in transition training. A friend demolished a P-40 one day during take-off. Just after he became airborne, the electric prop control malfunctioned and drove the blades to a full-bite position, causing the engine manifold pressure to exceed the maximum level. He could do nothing but throttle back and crash land straight ahead. Across the road from the airport was an orange grove. Fortunately, the trees were planted so that he could line up with a space between the rows and he descended in a nice glide. His wings began to clip the tops of the trees, and gradually worked their way down to the trunks. There, the hammering became too great and both wings sheared off the fuselage. The cockpit, led by the engine, continued nicely between the trees until it slid to rest.
His problems weren’t over yet. The correct procedure for take-off in the P-40 was to lock the canopy in the open position. The canopy lock wasn’t easy to operate, so we usually didn’t bother with it. After all, we closed the canopy as soon as possible after take-off because of the exhaust noise. This was one time that he should have locked the canopy. To brace himself for the impact, he had placed his left hand on the windshield frame. During the crash landing the canopy slammed shut on his hand, breaking all four fingers, and trapping him in the cockpit. He had to sit and wait until the crash crew could extricate him. In a somewhat painful and expensive way he had proved to the rest of us that the P-40 was a solid plane. He went on the become a P-40 “ace.”, totaling five P-40s in his career.
Because the space between the two main wheels was narrow, the P-40 wasn’t an easy plane to land—one could easily lose directional control. This was especially true when there was a crosswind. One of my fellow pilots lost control upon landing and, in an attempt to save the landing, he applied full power. Torque and improper trim (those old bugaboos) caused him to lose control of the plane and strike the ground in an extreme yaw. The gear collapsed and the plane slid across the ramp into the side of a hangar. The hangar was made of bricks for the first eight or so feet and then metals. The engine punched a hole through the bricks, but the wings tore off the plane. The engine, cockpit, and tail section ended up on the hangar floor. The pilot climbed out unhurt.
I remember only one fatal accident while in P-40 training. We entered traffic for landing by approaching the runway at cruise speed and at about 700 feet above the ground. When we were over the desired touchdown point on the runway, we would make a tight turn to our down-wind leg for landing. The landing control officer judged the turn to be “proper” if there were condensation streamers coming from the wingtips. If you didn’t pull a streamer, he would advise, “Loose pitch—take it around.” On this day there was very little moisture in the air and it was almost impossible to pull streamers. One of the pilots had been sent around several times because of a “loose pitch.” On his fatal approach he attempted to satisfy the landing control officer by entering such a tight turn that the plane stalled, snapped into a spin, and crashed. Unfortunately, this was a case of our ignorance of aerodynamics. We didn’t realize that it was easy to cause streamers on a humid day and very difficult on a dry day.
Finally, on 30 July 1943 I was directed to return to Dale Mabry Field and draw my equipment for overseas assignment. This included a parachute, winter and summer flying suits, jackets, boots, winter and summer uniforms, gas-resisting overalls, gas masks/canisters, bedroll, half of a two-man tent, steel helmet, and personal items—a total of 175 pounds allowed. Needless to say, I conveniently “misplaced” a lot of this stuff before reaching my final destination—North Africa.
Forty-two newly trained P-40 pilots were sent to the 36th Street Airport in Miami, Florida for transportation overseas. We were to be flown by a Pan American DC-4 to Natal, Brazil, via Guantanamo, Cuba and Georgetown, British Guiana.
It was quite an experience for a bunch of single-engine pilots to be getting on a big, four-engine bird. We couldn’t believe the size of the thing! Eager to see as much of the plane as possible, some of us boarded early and started investigating the interior—some in the cockpit and others back in the cabin. Suddenly, one of the guys in the rear of the place yelled, “This thing has a kitchen on it!” Like a bunch of rubes, we all rushed to the back of the cabin. This caused the center of gravity to shift rapidly aft and the tail of the plane sank to the ramp. Our flight was delayed several hours while the tailskid was repaired.
Since this was a commercial flight, there were some civilians on board. Al Jolson and his accompanist were en route to Africa to entertain the troops. He regaled us on the plane with songs and stories and we got to see his show in Cuba and Brazil.
Our flight from British Guiana to Natal took us across the Equator. When crossing the Equator, the custom was to start a “short snorter.” Everyone took out a fresh one-dollar bill and started collecting signatures. One of my great disappointments of the war was when my wallet was stolen in Casablanca and I lost my “short snorter” with Al Jolson’s autograph.
In Natal it was late winter and the weather was just great. Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables made the meals a joy to attend. Of course, things like this came to a quick end, as I was to learn many times over in the next year. We were soon loaded into the bomb bay of a converted Consolidated B-24 that the Army had designated a C-87 “Liberator Express.” Although classified as a cargo plane, it was far from being an acceptable mode of air transportation. The plane reeked of gasoline fumes and we complained to the crew about it. They shrugged it off as an everyday occurrence for the C-87. Understandably, we were unable to smoke for the entire flight.
After one of the longest, most miserable flights of my life, we arrived in Dakar, Senegal on the West African coast. Compared to the luxuries of Natal, Dakar was “the pits” and a fitting introduction to the comforts of the MTO. Our “accommodations” were tents with dirt floors and wooden rack beds with rope “slats” woven to support our blankets, which served as mattresses and sheets. About this time I was wishing for the bedroll that got “misplaced” in transit. The meals were poorly prepared “C” rations eaten from mess kits. We had to eat quickly before the flies got the best parts.
Thank goodness the stay in Dakar was short; however, our next destination wasn’t much better. Marrakech, Morocco was a desert area also, but the city did have some nice hotels, and if one looked hard enough, one could find a decent restaurant.
It was in Marrakech that I first saw the black troops of the French Army. These men were all over six feet tall (I was five-four) and so black that they looked dusty. No troops were better disciplined than these men were. A soldier’s uniform consisted of a fez, a pair of short pants, an overcoat with red lining, and a military rifle of considerable vintage. The soldier would button the top of his overcoat at his neck and button the bottom flaps behind his legs, thus exposing the red lining.
Their camp was on the road between the airport where we were quartered and the city. It consisted of a white gravel road with tents equally spaced on each side, a flagpole, and the commander'’ tent at the end of the road. The camp entrance, guarded by two sentries, was a pile of rocks on each side of the road. There was no fence or marked boundary around the camp; however, discipline dictated that the soldiers could enter and leave only by the main entrance. No troops ever gave a thought to leaving camp by way of the open area around the tents.
The antique rifles were precious to these French troops. The worst punishment that could be administered to these soldiers was to take their rifles away. It was a disgrace to be seen without a rifle. When the men went to the city on pass, they took their rifles with them (sans the bolts). They would form up and the senior man would march them to town. They went everywhere as a group—bars, shows, restaurants, etc. Since they could not take the rifles inside these places, they stacked them outside and one soldier remained to guard the treasured possessions.
After a few days we journeyed on to Casablanca. Now we had really moved uptown—a beautiful city with nice hotels, restaurants, bars, stage shows, museums, unusual buildings, and unusual people—but no Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman.
It was in Casablanca that the military system of censoring mail briefly broke down for me. We were directed not to tell the folks back home where we were because it might help the enemy. (Personally, I think we gave the enemy too much credit.) Anyway, I saw some postcards that had pictures of Casablanca and, in English, gave explanations of the subjects and where the pictures were taken. In my message to the folks I wrote that I couldn’t tell them where I was, but they somehow figured it out.
The replacement depot in Casablanca directed that 25 P-40 pilots be assigned to the Ninth Fighter Command. At that time the Ninth was somewhere east in the Libyan Desert and we understood some of its groups were flying Spitfires. The rumor we heard at Sarasota about flying Spitfires must have been true! Needless to say, we were a happy bunch of fledgling fighter pilots.
We boarded two Douglas C-47s for our flight east. We stopped in Oran, Algeria for fuel and then pressed on for Algiers. We had to spend a little time in Algiers because of engine trouble on one of the C-47s. Apparently, the trouble wasn’t adequately fixed because, upon landing in Tunis, Tunisia, we were grounded for several days for an engine change. Some of the pilots went on to the Ninth Air Force, but 19 of us waited for our plane to be fixed.
On August 23, 1943, a pivotal day in my life, a captain (a high-ranking officer for a bunch of first and second lieutenants) instructed us to gather our gear and get aboard the 6x6 trucks that had rolled up in front of Base Ops. Without question, 18 of us (one guy was in town) climbed aboard and began the dusty ride to a place called Mateur (about halfway between Tunis and Bizerte, a major port in North Africa). After passing through the town of Mateur (a dirty, wide place in the road), we started to see fighter planes flying in what appeared to be a traffic pattern. Some were P-40s and some were P-38s. The P-40s (these were from the 325th Fighter Group) were flying over the left side of the road, so when our truck started slowing down to turn off the main road, we all leaned in anticipation of a left turn—after all we were P-40 pilots. We almost fell out of the truck when it turned right! We yelled, “Hey, you turned the wrong way!” but the captain assured us that we were on the correct road. It seemed that replacement pilots for the P-38s had been slow in coming and we were about to make a quick transition from a light-weight, single-engine plane to a heavy, twin-engine job. At the time I didn’t know it, but I was about to start flying the best and most desirable fighter in the Army Air Force.
The trucks stopped in front of the group commander’s tent where we unloaded and stood in a line of sorts. Lt Colonel Ralph S. Garman, Commanding Officer of the 1st Fighter Group and the three squadron commanders welcomed us. They split us into three groups, the first six in the line went to the 27 Fighter Squadron, the next six to the 71st, and the last six (which included me) to the 94th. Just by chance I had become a member of the World War II version of the famous “Hat-in-The-Ring” squadron of World War I fame—Eddie Rickenbacker, Raoul Lufbery, et al.
The 94th had lost the use of its "Hat-in-the-Ring" emblem shortly after World War I. Captain Eddie used the "Hat-in-the-Ring" to advertise some of his post-war business ventures (such as the Rickenbacker automobile--a casualty of the Depression) and the War Department directed the 94th to find another emblem; so, it adopted an Indian chief in profile--hence the name of the squadron's athletic teams, the Indians.
When World War II cranked up, Rickenbacker convinced the authorities to re-adopt the "Hat-in-the-Ring;" to which they acceded. Later, he distributed miniature "Hat-in-the-Ring" pins to 94th pilots when he visited the unit in May 1943. I received my pin sometime after I joined the squadron and still have that pin today. When Captain Eddie handed out the pins, General Carl Spaatz was with him and told everyone that they were authorized to wear the pin above their wings. We got away wearing the pins overseas, but back in the States we got so much guff from "by-the-book" types, that we stopped wearing them.
Bigwigs were always passing through. Sometime later, I received a bottle of whiskey from General Jimmy Doolittle. The folks back in Memphis, Tennessee would never have believed that little Charlie Hoffman would have, in the space of a month, rubbed elbows with Al Jolson and Jimmy Doolittle! War was a great equalizer.
We quickly began our transition to the P-38—after all, there was a war going on. The invasion of Italy was imminent and the 1st Fighter Group, with its long-range P-38s, was to play a vital role.
Transition training was simple. I read the operating manual, talked with the crew chief, and spent a lot of cockpit orientation time. When I was ready to fly one of the P-38s, I grabbed my parachute, headset, and throat mike, and headed for a plane that the status board showed to be in commission. The crew chief, like most of the pilots, didn’t want to have anything to do with a single-engine throttle jockey, so as I approached the plane he quickly changed its status to “Red X,” which placed it out of commission. This happened several times over the next few days. My debut as a P-38 pilot seemed to be on hold.
On 27 August I ran into a tech sergeant that I had known in my enlisted days at Maxwell Field in the communications section. After bringing each other up to date on our careers, I told him about my “Red X” problem. He introduced me to a crew chief friend and, all of a sudden, there was a plane in flying commission!
I was ready for my first P-38 flight. The chief helped me get strapped in and talked me through the engine starts. The field at Mateur was a dry lake, so the taxi strips and the runway were outlined with used oil, empty cans filled with sand, and oil drums painted yellow. The plane was pointed toward the taxi strip, so all I had to do was release the parking brakes and start rolling.
No one had told me, nor had I picked it up while reading the ops manual, that the hydraulic pressure for the brakes had to be pumped up by pressing rapidly on the brake pedals. By the time I realized how to get the brakes to work, I had crossed my taxi strip, passed dangerously close to some foxholes, and was rapidly arriving at the next taxi strip. I turned down that strip and proceeded to the runway as if nothing had happened.
After checking the mags and controls I was ready to go. The standard procedure for taking-off in the P-40 was to release the brakes and slowly advance the power to the proper manifold pressure (about 54 inches). The P-38 manual called for about 45 inches, depending on the aircraft weight. Again, I had not been informed that the proper way was to hold the brakes, advance the power to 30-35 inches, release the brakes, and then move the power to the desired pressure. When I talked to the chief, he said most of the pilots used full power for take-off. Believing the chief, I moved into take-off position and started advancing the throttles to the full-power position.
It was a good thing I was on a dry lakebed because, due to asymmetrical power, I swerved from one side of the runway to the other until I realized I had enough airspeed for take-off. I figured it was much better to be in the air fighting this monster than on the ground. It was then I saw the manifold pressure on the left engine was over 60 inches. I had moved the left throttle so far forward that the turbosupercharger had kicked in.
In a short time I had the thing under control and found it flew like a dream—no torque, easy to keep trimmed, and much quieter than the P-40. I didn’t know what to do with my left hand; in the P-40 you had to change the rudder trim when the airspeed changed as little as 5 MPH. Of course, now there were two of everything—engine instruments, throttles, mixture controls, prop controls, coolant doors, and oil cooler doors. Another small difference was the flap control being on the right side of the cockpit.
As I’ve related earlier, my P-40 instructor at Craig Field told me the best way to get the feel of an airplane was to do aerobatics. He may have been right, but one had better know the best entry speeds and power settings for the various maneuvers. Due to lack of speed, I stalled out of the first two or three loops and Immelmanns I tried. Fortunately for me, the P-38 was a most forgiving airplane in a stall; it just slowly dropped its nose below the horizon and the airspeed started to increase. Unlike the P-40, it didn’t snap into some unusual attitude. After two hours, I returned to the base, where I learned the P-38 was quite easy to land. I finished August 1943 with three hours of flying time.
While I was learning to fly the P-38, the 1st Fighter Group was doing some heavy fighting. On 25 August it attacked enemy fighter bases in the Foggia, Italy area and destroyed 88 planes. For this action, the group was awarded its first Distinguished Unit Citation.
Five days later on the 30th, the 1st earned another DUC while escorting B-26s of the 319th and 320th Bombardment Groups to the Aversa, Italy marshalling yards. Seventy-five enemy fighters intercepted the formation and a wild melee broke out. The fighters were beaten off with 13 P-38s lost, but the bombers got through unscathed and made a successful bomb run.
During 1-5 September I flew a little over 9 hours in the P-38. Most of this was getting the feel of the plane and flying formation with some of the combat-experienced pilots. One of the pilots, Lt Ralph A. Thiessen, was very helpful. He told us how to handle a twin-engine plane when one engine was out. Knowing that the most critical time to lose an engine was just after take-off, Thiessen suggested practicing engine-loss procedures. I climbed to about 8,000 feet, put the gear down, set the flaps to take-off position, slowed the plane to just above a stall, applied take-off power, pulled one throttle to idle, and held the nose straight ahead with the rudder. If a wing started to drop, I used the rudder, not aileron, to level the wings. I thanked him a number of times for that sound advice. Unfortunately, Ralph (affectionately know as “Mother Thiessen,” because he was so fastidious) was later killed in a Stateside training accident.
Meanwhile, the British Eighth Army had invaded Italy via the “toe” of the Italian “boot” on 3 September. That same day, the Italian government agreed to an armistice that would be effective on 8 September.
My first combat mission was on 6 September. I told Lt James P. Dibble, Red Flight Leader (I was assigned to fly his wing), that I hadn’t yet fired the guns on the ’38. He replied, “Don’t worry. When you see me shoot, you shoot. Your main job is to stay on my wing and not disrupt the formation.” If you think the Thunderbirds fly close formation, you should have seen me when we arrived over Italy that day.
About two weeks earlier on 24 August the 1st Fighter Group had been made a part of the 42nd Bombardment Wing of the Northwest African Strategic Air Force. The Wing also included the Martin B-26 “Marauders” of the 17th, 319th, and 320th Bomb Groups and the P-40s of the 325th Fighter Group.
On 6 September we departed Mateur to escort our B-26s to bomb the enemy airfield and satellites at Grazzanise, Italy, north of Naples. Shortly after the bomb run, about 20 Me-109s, Macchi 200s, and Macchi 205s attacked the formation. The Group bagged three of the enemy and lost none. Lt Richard J. “Dick” Lee of the 94th Squadron got one of the victories. Rather than returning to Mateur, we landed at Dittaino, Sicily, which would be our temporary base for a while.
Dittaino was not far from the city of Catania, which was located on the eastern coast of Sicily, and smoky Mount Etna was north of us. We were supported by the British, which meant that we existed on their “C” rations. This meant ox tail soup, hardtack, and tea for breakfast; hardtack and tea about 10 A.M.; ox tail soup, hardtack and tea for lunch; hardtack and tea about 3 P.M.; and ox tail soup, hardtack, and tea for dinner. We were happy to trade the hard candy from our “D” rations for oranges, eggs, and what passed for coffee.
From Dittaino we supported the invasion of Italy at Salerno. We were temporarily assigned to the 12th Fighter Wing (Provisional) for the invasion because the XII Air Support Command did not have enough fighters to provide ground support for the invasion troops and top cover for the troop and supply ships off the coast of Italy. A typical mission was to provide cover over the invasion fleet and attack targets as assigned by ground control.
On 8 September I flew one of those typical missions. We flew top cover for the invasion convoys as they approached the Gulf of Salerno. I saw no enemy aircraft that day. On that same day the Italian government announced they had surrendered to the Allies, but since the Germans were still in charge, we didn’t expect it would be any easier.
“D Day” for Salerno was 9 September, 1943 and my mission on that day gave me a taste of what this war was all about. The controller ordered our flight to attack a convoy of about 400 vehicles of all types on the road between Pola and Lagonegro, south of Salerno. We strafed a convoy at Sala Casalina and three trucks were left burning. Flying at no more than 50 feet above the ground, we approached the top of a hill. It was here that we came under heavy ground fire. Lt Dibble and Lt Stanley W. Wojcik (on his first mission) were hit. Both aircraft went out of control and struck the ground. I was flying the number 4 position (Tail-end Charlie, literally) and I did not see anyone escape. Some pilots thought they saw Dibble pull up to about 3,000 feet and bail out. Later we learned that Dibble was killed and Wojcik had been captured. Wojcik and I had graduated in Class 43-E, attended the P-40 training at Sarasota, and had been assigned to the 94th at the same time. I shall never forget how important Lt Dibble was to me. He took good care of me on my first combat mission.
As I mentioned earlier, Dittaino was near Mount Etna. Our missions started very early in the morning, so we were taking off while it was still dark. In a combat area there were no runway lights on the field and we were not permitted to use our landing lights. We used a flashing beacon at the end of the runway to help us maintain directional control. Since we could not use our navigation lights, the only way we could locate and join our flight leader was for him to flash his identification light located on the underside of the plane. Red Flight Leader used his red light, White Flight Leader used his white light, and Blue Flight Leader used his green light. When there were 12 airplanes taking off at very close intervals and trying to locate their leaders in the dark, it got very exciting. On a 9 September mission later that day, one of my good friends, Lt Frederick B. Messmore of the 71st Squadron, flew into the side of Mt. Etna during the early morning take-off and form-up. There was a red beacon on top of Mt. Etna and I believe my friend mistook the beacon for his flight leader. There was no official explanation for his accident.
I flew my fourth combat mission on 10 September. It was another patrol covering the invasion troops. Ground control assigned us no targets and we saw no enemy aircraft. One P-38 from another squadron was lost due to enemy ground fire.
The next day we were tapped again to patrol over the invasion beachhead. We were dispatched to strafe an enemy column and four trucks were destroyed. Most of the mission was to fly top cover for the ships off the coast of Italy. Although I flew two times that day, “they” gave me credit for only one combat mission. Such were the ways of the operations folks.
The following day we were sent to patrol the coast from Salerno to the Isle of Capri. Several enemy planes were seen, but they took evasive action and we made no contact with them. On the beachhead the Allies were desperately battling a German counterattack that threatened to push them back into the sea.
It was becoming very difficult to keep the aircraft in commission. Dittaino was an advanced echelon base, thus we had limited facilities (not that Mateur was that much better). Pilots and ground crews were kept very busy throughout these operations. The pilots were, in many cases, flying two missions a day the mechanics were hampered by a lack of equipment and having to fill the planes from five-gallon gas cans—a very laborious process.
Like the others, I pitched in to help. After completing my mission, I told my crew chief that I would come back to help him with some of the maintenance and the refueling. It was about a mile from the tent area to the flight line, so I planned to hitch a ride. Just as I reached the road, a jeep with a captain at the wheel approached. I stuck out my thumb and yelled, “Hey captain, how about a ride?” He stopped and I jumped in the back seat. It was then I noticed the person the front passenger seat was a two-star general! I apologized for not recognizing him as a general officer, but he assured me that it was no problem. He asked where I was headed and I explained I was going to my plane to give the chief a little assistance and refueling and maintenance. The general had his driver take me right to the plane. I executed my best salute and climbed aboard the plane. As I began to work, I noticed my crew chief kept looking past me and when I turned I realized the general and his driver were still there. I returned to the jeep to explain to them that I would be there for some time and it wouldn’t be necessary for them to wait for me to finish. With that information, the general and his driver sped off to wherever they were originally bound.
We continued to fly missions in support of the Salerno. Mission #7 on 13 September was a “milk run.” We patrolled the coast between Agropoli and Capri. It was a short mission with no flak and no fighters. The next day we dive-bombed, destroying nine trucks and several boxcars in an area south-southeast of Salerno. It too, was a short-duration mission and we encountered neither flak nor fighters.
Dive-bombing in a P-38 was quite different from the P-40. The angle wasn’t nearly as steep and things didn’t happen so fast. We came in at about a 50-degree slope, pulled the gunsight through the target to the 100-mil ring, and then released the bomb. It was almost like lob bombing.
On the 10 September mission, Flight Officer Joseph B. Boyd, a member of the 71st Squadron (and one of the 18 of us “shanghaied” into the 1st Fighter Group on 23 August), had been hit by flak and was last observed descending on a heading toward Sicily. He didn’t make it back that day and there was no sign of him in the water. Every day we were reminded to search for him while en route to and from the Salerno area. On 14 September F/O Boyd returned, somewhat the worse for wear. A British launch found him floating in the water off the coast of Sicily.
He shared with us some very useful information about ditching the P-38. He advised us to be completely ready before hitting the water because the aircraft sank rapidly. We should get the canopy off, the windows down, the cockpit cleaned up, the oxygen hose disconnected, and the dinghy attached to the parachute harness—then get out fast!
He damaged his dinghy and his Mae West had a slow leak. Eighteen hours in the water with nothing but a leaky Mae West for flotation and a small canteen of water made for a miserable time. He went down late in the afternoon and he could see the Sicilian coastline and Mt. Etna. That night the current carried him north and the next morning he could just see the top of Mt. Etna. It was most discouraging; however, the will to live was strong and Boyd continued to paddle until the Brits found him.
I flew two missions on the 15th. The first one was dive-bombing truck convoys and supply points around the invasion beachhead. The bombing was successful, but not spectacular. On the second mission we bombed railyards, troop concentrations, bridges, and other targets of opportunity, inflicting severe damage. Enemy flak in the Eboli and Campangna area (south-southeast of Salerno) was heavier than on past missions, but we had no losses.
By the 16th the enemy threat to the beachhead was over. I attempted to fly a mission on that day, but had to turn back because of engine trouble. The rest of the squadron had to jettison their bombs and chase enemy aircraft, but didn’t catch them. Almost as retribution, I had two combat missions on the 17th. On the first one we dive-bombed targets of opportunity in the Campangna, Serre, and Attaviano area. On the second mission, while dive-bombing a railway bridge near Benevento, we encountered heavy flak.
One of our pilots either received a hit in his wing near the aileron or the blast and debris from another pilot’s bomb struck his plane. The hit caused his aileron to be stuck in the fully deflected position. He started descending in a tight spiral that looked like a spin. About 2,000 feet above the ground, he regained control of the plane by using full rudder against the turn, closing the throttle on the engine outside of the turn, and using maximum power on the other engine. Later, he was able to regain control of the aileron. If he had been in a single-engine airplane, he would hot have been able to recover. Having two engines gave him the advantage of asymmetrical power and rudder to overcome the aileron deflection.
On 18 September we were released from the duty of ground support for the invasion and returned to our base at Mateur. Also, we received the good news that we had been removed from combat operations for about two weeks. We spent the next few days getting back to normal—doing the laundry, relaxing, fixing things around the tent, and eating some pretty good meals. We didn’t appreciate how good our chow was until we had to live on British rations.
For the next few days we flew training missions. On one mission Lt Dick Lee was leading a group of three four-plane flight. He had us in a very tight formation and then he started a descent to gain airspeed before pulling us up into a loop. This was the first time I had ever accomplished a loop while in formation.
Major General James H. Doolittle (Commander of the Northwest African Strategic Air Force) and Brigadier Robert W. Webster (42 Bomb Wing Commander) passed through on 26 September to present verbal and written commendations to the Group for the work we had done during the past operations.
Our two-week stand-down didn’t last long. On the 30th I pulled my 13th mission. We carried two 1,000 bombs on each plane to bomb highway bridges in the Liri Valley north of Naples. The bomb pattern looked pretty good, but we found it was difficult to do much damage to those stone-arch structures.
I closed out September 1943 with a little over 62 hours in the P-38, more than I had accumulated in all of my P-40 training.
Our base at Mateur left me with some “fond” memories. As I mentioned earlier, it was located on a dry lakebed and it had a range of mountains around it—much like the desert of California. Like any desert, Mateur had its share of formidable insects. Hairy, brown spiders (almost as large as my hand), scorpions, and mosquitoes were plentiful. The mosquito net was a “must” to keep all three from my body.
My morning ritual was built around these crawly “visitors.” First, I captured the spiders in a large juice can that had a small amount of gasoline in the bottom and set fire to the gasoline. I had to do it this way because the spiders usually had hundreds of their young attached to their bodies. Next, I made sure that all the scorpions were out of my boots and clothing (which I had kept on the bed with me) before I put them on. Now I was ready to clean up and get some breakfast.
The usual breakfast fare was powdered eggs, Spam, canned butter, orange marmalade, and pretty good bread and coffee. (The Army Air Force broke me of the habit of using milk and sugar. The milk was a terrible-tasting canned product and the sugar was so coarse that it wouldn’t melt.) Our cooks were magicians, considering what they had to work with. They had a hundred different ways to fix Spam and they could doctor the powdered eggs with Spam and other things we were afraid to ask about. The coffee was probably the best item on the menu.
We had a few diversions at Mateur—one being the movies. After dark, the men carried small metal stools to the “movie theater.” Actually, the stools were the frames that protected the fins on our 500- and 1,000-pound bombs while in shipment. (I’ll bet that some of the Tunisians that wandered throughout our tent area are still using those stools.) We had only one projector, so the operator would declare an intermission at the end of each reel. Since our help wasn’t what you’d call “top-notch,” it wasn’t too unusual to see the first reel of the movie and have it followed by the third or fourth. At times this really didn’t matter, because the Germans would arrive for their nightly raid on the port of Bizerte and we would have to shut down the movie due to the blackout (no indoor theater for us). Also, these were the same movies we had been seeing for the past month. In fact, we had seen all these movies before—in the States. The first-run movies were still being seen by the 8th Air Force boys and didn’t make it to North Africa.
We did have a nice feature that somewhat approximated the luxuries of 8th Air Force. Not too far from our base was a military hospital which, of course, meant NURSES! I was introduced to the hospital just after we completed our tour at Dittaino. Every pilot that flew missions during September received a ration of liquor. My 12 missions qualified me for a fifth of bourbon. A young flyboy with a bottle of bourbon was well received at the hospital. The only problem was that I had to fly my 13th mission the morning after my visit to the hospital. This was when I learned that 15 or 20 minutes of pure oxygen before take-off could do wonders for a hangover. So that I would not run low on oxygen, my understanding crew chief replenished the supply before I departed on the mission.
Within sight of Mateur was Hill 609. This was the location of a last major stand by the Germans before they evacuated Africa. The hill had not been cleared of munitions and we had been warned not the visit the area. As you might expect, a warning like this only served as an invitation to some people to see what it was that “they” didn’t want us to see. I heard that unexploded grenades and shells hurt several men. Some did come back with German weapons that had been abandoned.
Hill 609 also became the final resting-place for a German Ju-88 bomber and a British Beaufighter. On one of the Germans’ nightly raids, the Beaufighter locked onto the Ju-88 and was observed firing at it several times. On one of the passes he started firing and the Ju-88 exploded. Seconds later the Beaufighter exploded. He had not shot the bomber down; rather, it had struck Hill 609 and the fighter quickly followed suit.
While we were on the air-echelon to Sicily, our parachute tent at Mateur burned down. I had been issued a parachute before leaving the States and it hurt to think I had lugged that thing from Miami to Mateur (almost a month en route) just to have it destroyed before I ever got it fitted. As it turned out, it really didn’t matter because I found the backpack-type parachute I had been using was much better suited for the P-38. With a backpack chute I could sit on a soft cushion, rather than a hard dinghy. If I wore a seat pack, a tightly folded one-man dinghy replaced the seat cushion. I might add that the compressed air bottle was positioned so I felt as though something was stuck up my butt. The backpack chute placed a two-man dinghy with a nice, soft rubber cushion between my bottom and the dinghy—a real advantage on a six-hour mission!
On 1 October 1943, Naples fell to the Fifth Army—the first major Italian city to do so. At the time we thought Rome wouldn’t be too far behind, but the Germans, dug in behind the Gustav Line that stretched across the waist of Italy, weren’t going to give up that easily.
On 3 October I flew my 14th mission—dive-bombing bridges around Naples. Our missions were designed to disrupt surface traffic as much as possible. If a bridge was destroyed in this part of Italy, it was very difficult for the Germans to find alternative routes. We were after one of those stone-arch bridges so prevalent in the area. In many cases a near miss could do more damage than a direct hit, but these were tough targets to knock out. With our dive-bombing ability, we got plenty of those near misses. Flak was light and we saw no fighters.
The next day the squadron was alerted that we would be moving to provide cover for British and American shipping in the Dodecanese Islands located off the southwest coast of Turkey. During September the British had over-extended themselves in the Aegean—moving too far into territory controlled by the enemy. German counter-moves had put the British into a bit of a “sticky wicket” and they had to withdraw. Our task was to cover the ships that were taking them out and keep the Luftwaffe off their backs. To provide this coverage, we had to fly out of eastern Libya.
On 5 October I took off from Mateur for the six-hour flight to our new base. We were told to load all of our living equipment on a C-47 that was to support us in the move. For once I played it smart—I decided to put my bedroll, air mattress, some changes of clothing, food, cigarettes, and toiler articles in the gunbay and baggage compartment of my plane. As it turned out, the C-47 crashed en route and all equipment was lost. Unfortunately, this also included the kitchen, tents, rations, water containers, and spare parts for the planes.
Our desert airfield, known as Gambut #2, was located about 20 miles from the Mediterranean coast and between Tobruk and the Egyptian border. I have no idea where it got its name—there wasn’t a building or settlement with miles of the place. There were four or five Australian troops stationed there to support any aircraft that might use the field. These guys were really happy to see some English-speaking people.
For the first three days my crew chief and I slept under the wing of the airplane. Each morning we received a canteen of water and were told we could drink it, wash in it, or whatever, but that was all we would get for the day. Needless to say, beards starting sprouting and you maneuvered to the up-wind side of everyone. The water shortage was so bad that we had to use fine sand for the initial cleaning of our mess kits.
When the trucks delivered our fuel, they just dumped several 55-gallon drums on the ground in front of the plane. It took about 750 gallons to fill the wing and drop tanks of a P-38. One complete revolution of the hand pump would move about one quart of fuel from the drum to the aircraft, so refueling took a lot of time and energy. Since we were on an air-echelon, we were working with a skeleton ground crew and they needed all the help they could get. All of the pilots were quick to assist the maintenance folks.
Until our replacement kitchen arrived, we used cold “C” rations. We ate them from the can because there wasn’t any water to wash out the mess kits. Later, someone located a German water trailer out in the desert. After some tire repairs, a trailer hitch modification, and a thorough cleaning, it was cleared by our doctor for use. We hitched it to a personnel carrier and transported some water from a nearby British military installation. At last we were able to wash and shave!
On 7 October, I took off on what should have been my 15th combat mission. I experienced aircraft trouble after more than two hours en route and had to return. Just my luck, because the squadron encountered some Ju-88s, Me-109s, and FW-190s. A 71st Squadron pilot destroyed one Ju-88.
I flew again the next day and got to shoot at my first enemy airplane in flight. We spotted a German ship convoy that appeared to be a landing party. There were two Ju-88s giving them top cover and also bombing a small town on Leros Island. Flak was pretty heavy over the convoy. When the Ju-88s made their turns at the end of the convoy, we made a gunnery pass on them. After several passes, we saw many large pieces coming off one of the Ju-88s and it ditched between the ships of the convoy. The other ’88 escaped to the north. By this time we were too low on fuel to give chase. The downed Ju-88 couldn’t be credited to any one pilot, so it became a squadron victory.
Mission #16 on 9 October turned out to be interesting and educational. We provided cover for a friendly convoy in the Karpathos Straits. Not one enemy aircraft was spotted. Earlier that day 14th Fighter Group P-38s had massacred a large flight of Ju-87 “Stukas,” leaving nothing for us. On our return to Gambut, the surface winds had reached about 50 MPH and the dust was so thick we could not safely land. Eventually we found a friendly, alternative base of the Island of Rhodes.
The airfield had Spitfires, but the pilots were Greek. They had escaped from Greece when the Nazis invaded and made their way to England for pilot training. At first, their reception of us was a little cool, but when we told them about the Ju-88 we had bagged the day before, we became guests of honor. They broke out fresh eggs, Greek bread, wine, and other goodies. In less than a year, I would marry an American girl whose father came from Greece and we would spend many happy days visiting her relatives in Athens and the surrounding environs.
On 12 October our stint at Gambut was finished and we returned to Mateur. After our return, we learned we had been sent to Gambut because a Beaufighter squadron located in the same general area had been surprised on the ground by the Germans and had all their planes destroyed or badly damaged. We received a very nice commendation from the commander of the RAF’s 201st Group, thanking us for coming to their aid. Later in the month, Prime Minister Churchill expressed his appreciation for our support of the British operations in and around the Dodecanese Islands.
On 13 October Italy became an ally when they declared war on Germany and Italian fighters began escorting some of our B-25 bombing missions. Less than two months earlier we were shooting at them and now we were on the same side!
The autumn rains had begun in Tunisia and the dry lake at Mateur was starting to fill up. The mud was a little like that of Texas - if you let it dry, you had to chip it off like cement.
I flew my 17th mission on 21 October. The Group escorted B-26s of the 319th and 320th Bomb Groups to hit rail and highway bridges at Marsciano, Montemolino, and Orvieto, Italy. A group of Me-109s attacked the bombers very aggressively. Our flight turned into the attacking aircraft, but no one got any decent shorts. The Group shot down six enemy aircraft and we lost three, all from the 71st. Lts. John T. Hanton, Donald D. Kienholz, and F/O Willard R. Duff, all of the 94th, each got an Me-109.
Because the action had been furious and I was flying in the number 4 position, I had used an inordinate amount of gas. There was no way I could make it back to Africa, so I diverted to Sardinia. It was really nip-and-tuck on the fuel. I reduced my engine to about 1800 RPM and used just enough manifold pressure and a slight descent of 200 FPM to maintain airspeed. I used a fuel tank until the pressure would start dropping, then changed to another tank. By the time I had the field in sight, I had drained my leading-edge tanks dry and the main tanks both indicated zero fuel.
I requested the tower allow me a straight-in approach and landing. They approved and had the emergency equipment standing by. I decided I would not lower the landing gear until I was absolutely sure I could make the runway—even if the engines should quit. Just as I lowered the gear, the tower frantically called for me to abort my landing because they had a B-26 with an engine out just behind me. I told them to tell the ’26 to land on the right side of the runway because I was going to use the left. Just as I touched down the B-26 passed me like I was parked. He touched down and eventually ran off the end of the runway because of excessive speed.
I turned off at the first taxiway, but ran out of gas before I could reach the parking area. If I had tried to go around like the tower requested, I probably would not be writing this today. At low altitude, with the gear down, and go-around power on, losing an engine would have meant total loss of control of the plane and probable fatal consequences. After a couple of cigarettes and a refueling, I headed back to Mateur.
On 23 October we escorted our Marauder friends from the 319th and 320th to bomb railroad bridges at Marsciano. The bombers were successful, but about five minutes from the target we were attacked by about 10 Me-109s. They appeared to be firing rockets at the bomber formation. We turned into their attack and they broke off. The Group claimed 2 Me-109s destroyed, 2 probably destroyed, and 2 damaged. We had two planes damaged. Again, I was not in position to get a good shot.
Mission #19 on the 24th was escorting B-26s to bomb bridge and railroad viaducts at Terni. The 27th Squadron was attacked by about 20 ‘109s and Macchi 202s. The 94th and the 71st continued providing cover for the bombers until we heard the 27th’s call for help. We turned to support them, but did not sight any enemy aircraft. The bombing mission was successful.
Our missions were quite long because we were stationed in Africa and the B-26s were based in Sardinia. This meant we had to take off, get in group formation, and fly 30+ minutes to join the bombers at Sardinia. Several times we made the trip only to find the bomb group had cancelled the mission due to bad weather in the target area. To correct this problem, we were to relocate to Sardinia as soon as our new base was ready.
Meanwhile the weather soured and our landing strip at Mateur turned into a mud hole. Since the ground echelon in Sardinia was not ready for us yet, we were dispatched to a field near Djedeida. Djedeida was a small town on the road between Mateur and Tunis. The Germans built the field, which consisted of one rather narrow runway that was partially constructed from an old road. The Germans used a little winding road along a hillside as a taxi strip and they had cut revetments into the slope. It was great set-up for the Germans, but our P-38s were much too large for the taxi strip and the revetments.
Djedeida gave me my first opportunity to operate a P-38 on a paved surface. Up to now, pierced steel planking (PSP) had been the only hard surface from which I had flown. PSP consisted of metal panels about 10 to 12 inches wide and about 10 feet long. The panels had holes in them to make the lighter and the edges were bent down for strength. They had hooks and slots so that hey could be assembled like a giant Erector set. PSP stabilized a landing surface, provided the soil under it didn’t get too wet. In that event, the weight of the planes would push the PSP down into the muck.
The narrow runway prevented us from taking off in formation—a real time- and fuel-saver on long missions. Instead, we had to take off singly, which meant flying through a lot of prop- and wing-wash. One of our pilots decided to beat the take-off turbulence by staying low and leaving further down the runway. His high speed while still on the ground caused his P-38 to “hug” the runway. Alarmed at his situation, he applied a lot of nose-up pressure, which caused a sudden rotation. The high G-force tore off both of his drop tanks (165 gallons each), forcing an early return to base.
It was beginning to turn cold in North Africa and we didn’t have any way to heat our tents until we discovered ethylene glycol (antifreeze) would burn with a very hot, blue flame. We cut the bottom out of a heavy-duty oil drum (sides were about 8 inches high), placed some large stones in it, and poured the antifreeze over the stones. With a little 115-octane avgas to start the fire, we were soon toasty warm.
F/O Cyril L. “Cy” Nolen, the “wild man” in our squadron, decided to liven things up a bit one day by tossing 50-caliber tracers into our fire. This produced a bright red flame and, from time to time, one of the slugs would rocket across the tent. We warned him that he could start a fire if he wasn’t careful. When Cy tossed a 20mm tracer into the fire, we abandoned the area post-haste. Sure enough, he started a fire. We were lucky to get our gear out of the tent before the whole thing went up in flames. Again, I had to sleep under the wing of the airplane for a couple of nights.
Shortly after this, the commander of the 325th Fighter Group came to visit our group commander. The 325th had recently converted from P-40s to P-47s, but their commander flew over in a P-40. When he was ready to leave he couldn’t get his plane started. Since it wasn’t important to get the P-40 back right away, our commander flew him back to his base in one of our “piggybacks” (a P-38 with the radio equipment moved to the nose to provide a small area for a passenger behind the pilot).
Several of us had flown the P-40 back in the States and we were curious as to what could be wrong with the plane. One of our crew chiefs had worked on the ’40, so we got him to check it out. He found that the starter dogs were stuck and he was able to free them with a screwdriver. We decided it would be fun to fly the plane, so we flipped a coin to see who would go first. As fate would have it, Cy Nolen won.
Before I relate Cy’s flight, one should understand the P-40’s power-on stall characteristics. Stalling with the power on could result in some violent maneuvers. First, the rudder controls would lock in the full left or right position and the stick would lock in the full aft or forward position (usually aft). This would result in a spin in the direction of the applied rudder. The controls could not be moved until the power had been moved to idle.
Anyway, Cy started the plane, taxied out, and took off. He made several low passes over the field and pulled up into several rolls. (This was known as “beating up the field.”) He made a pass, pulled up, and started rolling. In the middle of the third roll he “slopped out” and came very close to the ground. The next pass he was going a little faster and was able to complete the three rolls. Then he approached and pulled up into an Immelmann. At the top the plane stalled, snapped a couple of times, and headed for the ground.
We could hear the engine power was still on and we started yelling for him to cut the power. Of course he could not hear us, but our collective ESP must have been working because the exhaust stacks started popping, indicating that the power had been cut. Immediately, the plane started to stabilize and Cy pulled out of the dive. He couldn’t have been more than 10 or 15 feet above the ground. As expected, Nolen returned again at a much greater speed and completed the Immelmann. Unhappily for Cy, Lt Col Robert B. Richard, the Group Commander, was witness to his exploits. When Nolen parked the P-40, Col Richard was there to ground him for 30 days.
We shared Djedeida with a British squadron that flew the Wellington (known as the Wimpy) medium bomber. The condition of these planes was so bad I was afraid to walk under the wings, much less fly one of them. The crewmembers were a carefree bunch—casual in dress, always had a bottle handy, and looking forward to their night missions over Italy.
Their missions consisted of individual aircraft flying in trail about 10 or 15 minutes apart. The lead ship would outline the target with flares and each succeeding ship would bomb the area identified. They usually started taking off just after dark and would continue until about midnight. Shortly after the last plane departed, the first planes would start arriving home. Trying to sleep on the night they flew was almost impossible. An example of their carefree attitude was the remark one of them made following a mission:
“West had a great mission—no flak, no fighters, and we lost only three planes.” We would have called that a disaster!
On the last day of October I flew my 20th mission. We escorted B-26s to bomb the docks at Anzio. We observed several hits on the docks and small ships. Almost like the British Wimpy pilots, we had no flak, no fighters, but we all returned home safely.
Home, in this case, was not Djedeida, at least not right away. Because of a damaged aircraft on our runway, we diverted to Sidi Ahmed. I had seen some P-39s flying around in the area and this was their base. Their mission was to patrol the African coast in the vicinity of Bizerte, our major seaport in this part of North Africa. It was just a short 20-minute flight to Djedeida after the runway was cleared.
On 1 November 1943 the 1st Fighter Group and the 42nd Bomb Wing became part of the newly formed 15th Air Force, commanded by General Doolittle.
During the first few days of November 1943 our ground echelon arrived in Monserrato, Sardinia, near Cagliari. They began preparing the field for our arrival later in the month. Monserrato had a new, hard-surface runway and taxi strips and there even was a hangar, albeit without a roof, for the ground support people!
On November 6th we were back to dive-bombing bridges and rail lines around Montemolino, and strafing targets of opportunity on the way back. We hit a train, destroying the engine and about 20 boxcars. Also, several trucks were hit, but there was no flak and no fighters. Due to excessive fuel use, I had to land in Sardinia and then return to Djedeida.
Three days later on mission #22 we escorted B-24s at a much higher altitude than we usually flew with the ‘26s. This mission was to the Villar Perosa ball-bearing works west of Torino. We saw 12 and 15 enemy fighters in the area, but only one contact was made with them. Lt Dick Lee, leading one of the flights, destroyed one FW-190 for his third aerial victory. All aircraft returned safely.
The flak was very heavy and concentrated in box form. (An area about 2,000 feet square would be saturated in one salvo.) This was different from the tracking-type flak we had experienced in southern Italy. There was a lot of noise if you were in the affected area.
All of our winter flying gear had been transported to Sardinia with the ground echelon, so we were ill prepared to fly at altitude. The P-38 cockpit was very cold because air entered around the guns. The heating system was almost primitive; air was collected from around the manifold and distributed to the cockpit via a flexible hose that the pilot could direct as desired. I wore all the clothing I could find (two uniforms, two pairs of socks, gloves, and leather flying helmet). During the mission I sat on one hand and flew with the other. I stuck the heater hose in one boot until that foot was warm, then put it in the other boot. Two of our pilots were sent to the hospital and damaged feet. I still suffer from a slight case of frostbite in my thumbs and index fingers.
I flew again on 15 November and it turned out to be a tough day for me all around. We picked up B-25s over Sardinia and set course for a bombing mission to Athens, Greece. I really wanted to make this one, but I had trouble with the turbosupercharger on one of the engines. The throttle linkage mechanically operated a waste gate that allowed engine exhaust to drive the turbo. When the throttle was advanced on my problem engine, the gate would go to full open, allowing too much exhaust to escape and causing an overspeed. At our altitude I needed the turbo to provide enough engine power to stay with the formation. When I would advance the throttle on the bad engine to a point where the turbo cut in, the manifold pressure would surge well beyond the desired setting. When I reduced the throttle, the turbo would cut out and the power would drop so low that I could not keep up with the group. I tried for over three hours to maintain my position in the formation, but eventually I had to return to base. I used so much fuel trying to keep formation that I had to stop off again in Sardinia before returning to Djedeida.
Mission #23 on 21 November was escorting our old friends, the 319th and 320th Bomb Groups, to hit bridges over the Cesano River and at Fano, Italy. Cloud cover made it impossible for the B-26s to find the target, so they selected a secondary target, a railroad bridge south of Fano. One direct hit was seen, along with several near misses. (We sure could have used some of today’s “smart bombs” against those Italian bridges—it would have saved a lot of lives and aircraft.) Fifteen enemy aircraft were reported, but only four made passes at the bombers. One of our pilots took a long shot at an FW-190 and it was seen trailing smoke as it left the area. Two of our planes were slightly damaged. Again, I had to divert to Sardinia for fuel.
As I mentioned earlier, our missions were long because we had to pick up and drop off the bombers at or near Sardinia. When one flies the number 3 or 4 position, one uses much more fuel than number 1 or 2. Many times other pilots and I had to divert to Sardinia to refuel before returning to Africa. This problem was rectified, of course, once we moved to Sardinia.
We took the 319th and 320th to Italy again on the 22nd. We escorted them to bomb the railroad marshalling years at Foligno. No flak or fighters were reported. Again, this was a long mission where we had to go to the target by way of Sardinia. Since there were no enemy fighters, I was able to fly back to Africa without a “pit stop” in Sardinia.
It took a few days before I flew my 25th mission. The weather had been bad in the target area for almost a week. Several times we were briefed for a mission only to have it called off at the last minute. We were already airborne for a couple of them before they were cancelled. Of course, #25 was significant because it was the halfway point in the number of missions required to complete a combat tour.
Number 25 finally came on 28 November. The mission was to bomb an airfield at Salon de Provence, France near Marseille. This was my first time to fly over France. We could not observe the bombing because the visibility was so limited. There were 35 of us and we were bounced by 7 FW-190s. It was obvious they were experienced pilots because they really kept us busy protecting the bombers. The Group claimed three enemy aircraft destroyed, but none were scored by the 94th.
On 29 November we left Djedeida to join the ground echelon at Monserrato, Sardinia.
A sad thing happened when we landed at Monserrato. Lt Russell E. Williams (a pilot with whom I had gone through cadet training, P-40 combat training, and all of the assignment depots in Africa), was killed upon landing on the new runway.
The runway was made of a mixture of cement and crushed seashells. The shells would flake off and cause prop damage, so the people maintaining the runway would use street brushes to sweep the loose shells to the edge of the runway and then pick them up later for disposal. On this particular day, there was an 18-inch pile of shells on the right shoulder of the runway, running the full length of the strip.
Upon landing, Williams’ right main tire blew, causing his plane to swerve to the right. By the time Russell regained control he was paralleling the runway; however, his nose wheel was plowing through the pile of shells. The drag on the nose gear was too much and it collapsed. The nose of the plane dug into the shells and the aircraft slowly flipped over on its back. The crushed canopy pushed Russell’s head down so severely that he choked to death of his oxygen mask. The crash crew tried to lift the plane, but this was impossible, because the P-38 weighed more than 18,000 pounds. Our crash equipment had not yet arrived from Africa.
I was airborne at the time and had to divert to Elmos, Sardinia and wait for the runway to be cleared. Obviously, this could not happen without the emergency equipment, so we eventually had to make a precise landing on the left side of the runway.
The apartments the ground echelon had located were as nice as had been rumored. It was great to get out of tents and have a solid, dry floor under our feet. Since we in the air echelon were the last to arrive, the only apartments left were those on the third and fourth floors. The view was great, but climbing those stairs several times a day got old fast.
We had to walk about a half-mile to the dining hall, but it was worth it. The cooks had a regular kitchen in which to prepare the meals and they were able to supplement the menu with local, fresh vegetables. We sat at tables and ate off real plates! A real kitchen and real apartments—it was almost as if we had been transferred to 8th Air Force!
A co-occupant of the airdrome was the famous Italian Air Force “Black Cat” squadron of the 155th Autonomous Fighter Group. They were touted to be on par with the German “Yellow-Nose” squadron. The rumor was that only fighter aces could fly with them. Later we found that this was not true, but I will say they were good pilots. Since their Macchi 202s, 205s, and Reggiane 2001s could fly inverted, the Italians would buzz the field in a tight formation with half of the planes inverted. Our planes were limited to a very short time in the inverted position. The P-38 did not have a fuel injection system and the oil system needed gravity to work properly. In the inverted position, the engines quickly became starved for lubrication and fuel. All the Italian planes were exceptional aircraft. We were glad the Germans insisted on flying their own aircraft.
My first mission from Monserrato came on 1 December. We escorted our old pals, the B-26s, to bomb railroad bridges at Sarzana, near La Spezia. The bombing appeared to be very effective. Twenty enemy aircraft attacked us. They were very aggressive and appeared to be experienced combat pilots. They continued their attack well out to sea. We lost four aircraft and pilots of the 27th Squadron destroyed two enemy planes. Two of those lost were F/O Duff from the 94th and from the 27th, Lt Eldon E. Vondra, one of the “shanghaied” P-40 pilots.
I sighted Vondra’s lone P-38 with an engine on fire and being attacked by three enemy aircraft. I turned into them and forced them to break off. I remained with Vondra until he had to “hit the silk.” Hovering over him, I dispersed two enemy fighters that attempted to strafe him while he was still descending in his chute. Unfortunately, this was all for naught—we never saw Vondra again. I eventually received the Distinguished Flying Cross for this action, but it was tarnished by the loss of my friend.
I hated to fly on 6 December. The previous night we received our liquor ration for the missions flown during the past two months. The squadron received two ounces of liquor for each sortie flown. Since some of the pilots had returned to the States or had been lost, the ration was divided among those left. Most of us received a quart of a terrible-tasting, vile-smelling whisky called Old Overholt Rye. Some guy back in the States got rich when he unloaded this stuff on Uncle Sam because he couldn’t have sold it on the commercial market. With nothing but a canteen of water as a chaser, we had one, gross party. There were smelly bodies all over the place.
My flight that morning was not a combat mission. The operations officer sent Lt Robert A. “Smokey” Vrilakas and me to Catania, Sicily to pick up one of our planes that had been repaired following a belly-landing while we were supporting the invasion of Italy back in September.
We flew to Sicily in a piggyback P-38 with the side window rolled partially down because we both were suffering from terrible Old Overholt hangovers. I read the map while Vrilakas flew. When I shifted the map, the bottom half tore off and was sucked out the window. Murphy’s Law was operating in those days too, because the airfield for which we were looking was on the south side of Sicily and that part of the map was no longer with us.
After several sweeps along the coast, we spotted the field and landed. We parked next to the plane I was to pick up and I put my chute, helmet, and other gear on the wing. We found that the only “repairs” made to the plane were new props and a few patches on the belly. A mechanic approached and asked, “Are you going to fly the Colonel’s plane?” I responded in the affirmative and we hurried off to the operations building.
On the way we discussed what the mechanic had said and came to the conclusion that some colonel on base had “adopted” our plane—patches and all. Since the 94th was short on aircraft, we decided that we would file a flight plan for some base in North Africa to cover our tracks while we took the plane home to Sardinia. Because we had no idea of the condition of the plane, we decided I would take off first and then let Vrilakas know if everything was OK.
Just after I got airborne, I gave Vrilakas the signal to join me. There was a ceiling of about 6-700 feet and the clouds were about 500 feet thick. Just after I entered the overcast, the right engine began to cut out and backfire. Reducing power didn’t help; consequently, I had to kill the engine and feather the prop. There was no way that I could return to the field with “the Colonel’s plane,” so with Virlakas leading, this became the longest (over 300 miles) single-engine flight I ever made in a two-engine aircraft.
When we got back to our base we were met with some good news. F/O Duff, one of the pilots shot down on the 1 December mission, had returned after evading the Germans and being picked up by friendly forces.
The next day, the second anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, was a memorable one for me. General Webster, Commander of the 42nd Bomb Wing, presented me with the Air Medal and my first oak leaf cluster. There may be other medals and presentations, but receiving your first medal for combat will always have a very special meaning—and the excitement of it all.
On the 8th we got some bad news. We were to leave our idyllic life in Sardinia for a place called Gioia del Colle, Italy. It was a tiny town about 20 miles south of Bari, a major port on the Adriatic Sea and site of Headquarters, 15th Air Force. I flew my 27th mission on that same day. We escorted B-26s to hit the Foligno railroad yards, but ended up dropping on the Spoleto viaduct because of the overcast.
On the 9th we flew to Gioia del Colle. The field had a very small grass landing area—almost circular and no runways. To land, we flew very close to a fence line on one side of the field and skimmed over the road on the other side. Buildings and hangars blocked out the possibility of landing and taking off in most directions.
Our sleeping quarters regressed from a nice apartment building in Sardinia to a chicken coop—I’m not kidding! We had no shelter; not even tents were available, so we cleaned out a long, narrow chicken coop located near the base. For ventilation, we raised and propped open shutters on the sides of the structure. This had to be done from the outside because there was chicken wire over the openings.
Three of us, Jack P. Muffitt, Herschel W. J. Baird, and I, were soon “adopted” by an Italian doctor and his family. They invited us to dinner one night and it was really an education. Actually, I think they were trying to interest us in some of the young women in the family. They served a fantastic meal—the best wine and dessert. This was also my introduction to snails. The snails were cooked (barely), placed on an oyster half-shell, and floated in lemon juice. When I passed my plate to the doctor, he started heaping the snails on it. When I indicated that was enough, he replied, “No buono?” Of course I had to say the snails were “buono.” As soon as I said that, he put four or five more on the plate. I don’t recall the main entrée, but I know it must have been great after several months of “C” rations. In fact, I don’t recall the snails being too bad either. I do know that they served a different wine after each course and there were many courses.
Following dinner, we rolled back the rug to dance. The doctor’s wife was a talented musician and Muffitt, who had played in Shep Field's dance band before he went into the service, provided the music. Muffitt could play any instrument you put in his hands. Suddenly, the room was filled with pretty, young girls and the chaperones. We danced and attempted to communicate until the wee hours. The adults must have been keeping records, because the next time we visited the house, only the more popular girls and some new ones were there.
Again, all good things had to come to an end. By the end of the year we moved to a new field. Just before we moved, we had to tell the good doctor and his family the bad news that Jack was lost on a 3 January 1944 mission to Turin. He was last seen in a slow spiral from which he never recovered. It was believed that he passed out due to a lack of oxygen. The mission was escorting B-17s and that was usually at an altitude of 25,000 feet or higher.
On 12 December I gave myself the thrill of a lifetime. I was flying locally with some of the new pilots, giving them some close formation experience and teaching them how to do a crossover when making turns. This was a maneuver that kept you from having to make major power changes when the formation made frequent turns. I was so busy watching them and instructing that I forgot to change my fuel tanks at the proper time. Consequently, I ran out of gas in the right engine.
The proper way to get a new supply of fuel to the engine and get it started was to close the throttle, switch to another tank, wait for the engine to start running again, allow time for it to stabilize, and then bring the power back up to the desired setting. I didn’t want to upset the new pilots, so I just changed tanks. This was a mistake.
With the throttle open, the surge of fuel to the engine caused one large backfire that blew the intake manifold completely through the cowling and started a pretty healthy fire. I immediately closed the throttle, moved the mixture control to idle cut-off, and feathered the engine. As soon as the fuel was shut off to the engine, the fire went out. Now all I had to do was make my first single-engine landing on a postage stamp-size airfield. All went well, except the engineering officer wasn’t too happy with me.
Mission #28 on 15 December was a high-altitude escort of B-17s to bomb the Bolzano marshalling yards. No flak and no fighters, but it was very cold. I always put my canteen on the floor next to my seat and it froze on that mission. We still did not have adequate winter flying gear. There was some talk about equipping us with electrically heated flying suits. The equipment officer said they were known as “underwear by GE.” If they kept me warm, I didn’t care what they called them.
We didn’t have many navigation aids to guide us back to our base in bad weather. We depended on a crude system called direction finding (DF) steering. We transmitted a signal to two receivers on the ground and an operator took triangulation readings to fix our position. From this he could tell us what heading to fly to get to our destination. When the weather was bad, we could get steers to a point over the Adriatic Sea, descend below the clouds and then ask for a heading to our base.
On the 20th of December the ceiling was very low and the visibility limited. Red Flight Leader had managed to get the squadron below the overcast and was being directed back to the base. They were flying very close to the ground because of the low ceiling. When Spacebar, the Group’s ground control, gave them a heading correction, the squadron had to make a turn. This turn brought them into an area where the slope of the terrain rose sharply. Lts Lipowicz and Harmer and F/O Charles H. Brown (all of the 94th) were flying lower than the others in the squadron and they struck the ground near Mottola almost simultaneously. Lt Francis E. Mackle of the 27th Squadron suffered the same fate in a separate, but similar, incident that day also. Harmer, Mackle, and Brown were killed instantly and Lipowicz died on the 23rd. Some Merry Christmas!
Death could strike quickly in war. Harmer and Lipowicz were so new to our squadron, I didn’t even know their first names, nor could I find that information in any of my sources, personal or official.
On 22 December 1943, the 1st Fighter Group officially went strategic. We left our B-26 compatriots of the 42nd Bomb Wing and “moved in” with the B-17s of the 5th Bomb Wing. The 42nd moved back to the 12th Air Force, as it became the USAAF’s tactical air arm in the MTO. Our sister P-38 groups, the 14th and the 82nd, and our old Mateur friends, the 325th Group, now flying P-47s, joined us. Flying the B-17s were the 2nd, 97th, 99th, 301st, 463rd, and 483rd Bomb Groups.
This was total war and we knew no holidays. Yes, I flew a combat mission on Christmas Day 1943. As an incentive to return safely, the cook told us they had received some turkeys and we would have a fine Christmas dinner waiting for us. We escorted B-17s to bomb airfields in the Udine Valley northeast of Venice. Just prior to reaching the target, the 27th Squadron was attacked by 8 or 9 enemy aircraft, believed to be Me-109s. We continued with the bombers, but it was very difficult to keep them in sight due to the poor visibility. When they made a 360-degree climbing turn to try to get above the weather, we lost them but came upon another group of our bombers. Their target was the Bolzano area. One enemy plane made a pass at our formation and a “break” was called.
During the break I lost sight of my wingman and the flight. After several turns with the single enemy airplane, he broke off the attack and descended into the clouds. I was unable to locate the squadron, but I did find Lt Kenneth M. Kirchhofer wandering around alone, so we made a formation of two and headed home.
As a result of the milling-around trying to find people, we were both low on fuel. We called Big Fence (the major DF station in Italy) and asked for a steer to the nearest friendly field. It turned out to be Madna on the coast, a few miles southeast of Termoli and home of the 79th Fighter Group. They were flying P-40s, but were in the process of converting to P-47s, and many of my friends from Florida were there.
They had finished flying for the day and were celebrating Christmas at their club. I didn’t get any of the turkey at Gioia, but had a lot of fun visiting with the P-40 guys, one of whom, George Greer, was a very close friend who had gone from Pre-flight through P-40 training with me.
We had to spend two nights because one of the planes was damaged when it slipped off the PSP into the mud. We returned home on the 27th and, to our surprise, found the squadron had not received the message that we were guests of the 79th. We were, for a short time, carried as missing in action. Later, I learned I was credited for mission #30 and received 45 minutes combat flying time for the return flight from Madna. In my mind this made up for the loss of a combat mission on 11 September.
While we flew out of Gioia as an air echelon, most of our ground support people were preparing a new base near Foggia. We could hardly wait for the move because Gioia was dangerous, the “quarters” terrible, and the food bad.
On 29 December we flew a special, and at the time, secret mission. Several weeks earlier, an American hospital group was being moved from Africa to the Bari area. A C-47, loaded with nurses and corpsmen, got lost in the weather and made a wheels-up landing in enemy-occupied Albania. They were picked up by friendly forces and managed to evade the Germans.
The plan, as I recall, was for the friendly forces to capture a small airfield. A C-47 and a British Wellington bomber would land on the field and pick up the medics. The Wellington had several turrets with 30-caliber machine guns that could keep enemy troops at bay, if necessary.
We would make runs over all of the nearby German fields to keep the fighters on the ground.
The weather, usually a hindrance to our missions, turned out to be an ally on this one. We were able to fly in at low altitude to prevent detection and the enemy fighters were either kept on the ground or could not find us. We destroyed several German planes on the ground and strafed gun emplacement, barracks, and supply buildings. The fields we hit were small, supporting two or three planes. All our planes returned home safely.
The mission, however, was a failure. The downed Americans did not show up at the airfield because enemy troops and police were seen nearby. The C-47 and Wellington made several passes over the field before deciding things were not right and then they abandoned the mission. The Americans were later safely evacuated out of Albania by boat.
I shall never forget what Col Richard (I was flying his wing) did on this secret mission when we saw several men trying to get back into a small building at an anti-aircraft gun emplacement. Over the radio he commented, “Let me open that door for you,” and followed with a short burst from one 20mm cannon and four 50-caliber machine guns. Not only did he “open” the door; he demolished the whole building.
One day, when we didn’t fly a mission or censor mail, several of us drove to Bari to see the big city sights. A few weeks earlier, on 2 December, the Germans pulled a very successful bombing raid on Bari and we had heard there was a lot of damage. The Germans hit an ammunition ship in the harbor and the resulting blast leveled several blocks of the city and sank or damaged several ships. We saw a large section of the hull of one of those ships about three blocks from the waterfront, wrapped around the corner of a building!
We celebrated our return to civilization by treating ourselves to a couple of drinks and a real haircut by a professional Italian barber. This was the first time I had traveled any of the Italian roads and I saw my first olive trees too.
Many years later, I learned "the rest of the story" about the Bari raid. One of the ships destroyed in the harbor was secretly carrying mustard gas munitions—to be handy just in case the Germans got desperate and decided to use their stuff first. Many people were “burned” with gas that had seeped from the ship, but the doctors didn’t know what was causing it, so they were baffled by their patients’ afflictions.
The weather was now getting pretty miserable—cold and more than enough rain to soak everything. It seemed as though we had been in mud up to our knees forever. The crew chief kept a pair of flying boots on the wing of the plane for that, when I came out to fly, I could put on a clean pair before getting into the cockpit. The bad weather also reduced the number of missions we would fly in the next few months.
Finally, on 8 January 1944, we moved up to our new home. The new airfield was named Salsola because the land belonged to the Duke of Salsola. The Salsola River also ran nearby. It was also known as Foggia #3 (there were so many airfields around Foggia that they numbered them). It was located about 9 miles north of Foggia, about halfway to San Severo. The field did not have a hard-surface runway, but it did have PSP laid over dirt and gravel. The surface was well drained and was built over what appeared to be grazing land.
We were now back to living in tents, but the tent area was on top of a hill, so it drained well too. My tentmates and I spent the next six months doing many things to make our tent the best in all of Italy.
First, we took belly tank boxes and made wooden walls for the tent. This added to the covered area because the tent flaps that normally formed the sides of the tent were now attached to the wooden sides rather than the ground.
We “found” a ten-gallon oil drum made from a very heavy-gauge metal and fashioned it into a stove. We started out by cutting a door in the drum, placing an engine flywheel in the bottom; this gave us a dished-out area that would hold liquid fuel plus retain the heat and protect the bottom of the drum. Then, we ran a small copper tube from the stove to a 55-gallon drum on a stand outside the tent and filled the drum with 115-octane avgas. We coiled the tube just above the flywheel, sealed the end of the tube, and filed several small holes in the coil to form a burner. Next, we screwed a long pipe into the bunghole to serve as the chimney. The pipe was long enough to reach about two feet above the top of the tent. To start the stove, we would open the fuel valve briefly to allow a small amount of fuel to accumulate on the flywheel and then light it off. When the tube was very hot, we would start the fuel flowing again. The heated tube would vaporize the fuel and the stove would burn as though it had natural gas for fuel.
There was a small problem, however. Our chimney was fairly small for the stove and would frequently clog with soot. The first indication that the pipe was clogged would be the black smoke billowing into the tent. This happened often, so we had to clean the pipe regularly. To do this correctly and safely, we should shut down the stove, wait for it to cool, and then take the chimney down and clean it. In our cold weather that wasn’t comfortable or quick, and it was a dirty job, so we tried a very dangerous alternative.
We turned the fuel supply off, let the fire go out, then allowed a very small amount of fuel to vaporize on the drum. Then as a safety precaution, one of us would don his full flight gear, including helmet and goggles. This stalwart “volunteer” would enter the tent and hold a lighted match to the door of the stove. The result was a mixed blessing—the explosion blew all the carbon out of the chimney; however, we had to frantically sweep hot embers off the tent before a fire started.
Our first “volunteer” told us he was fortunate to be standing to one size when he applied the match because the blast blew the stove door out of the tent. After trial and error we learned how much fuel to vaporize, how to brace the stove door, and what protection to wear. For a while, however, when word got out we were going to clean the chimney, it usually drew a crowd.
In addition to our fancy stove, we built a stand to hold a drop tank filled with water (165 gallons) and ran a line from the tank to a basin in the tent. With this contraption, we didn’t have to walk to the outside wash area.
Six of us shared this home-away-from-home until the summer of 1944. The occupants were Lts Charles W. Howard (whom I heard was later killed in action on a second combat tour), Benjamin Hallock (later seriously injured in a plane crash near Naples), Ken Kirchhofer (later a retired Lt Col), Herschel Baird (later a retired Lt Col), Ronald P. McEwen (the only non-pilot and later a retired Lt Col), and me (also a retired Lt Col).
McEwen was the S-2 officer (Intelligence) and the brunt of our practical jokes. One night we were talking about snakes and Mac indicated he didn’t want to have anything to do with them. We naturally followed this up with stories about people finding snakes in their houses, cars, woodpiles, and, of course, bedrolls. When it was time to put out the light, Mac was visiting the latrine. We placed a large piece of rope inside his sleeping bag where we were sure it would touch his feet. When Mac’s feet felt that “snake” he let out a scream and almost destroyed his sleeping bag. He thrashed about so violently; it was a wonder he didn’t hurt himself.
During our stay at Salsola we built an impressive squadron officers’ club. We had some Italians assigned to do common labor (work in the mess, keep the area clean, dig slit trenches, etc.). As luck would have it, one of them was a stonemason. With a little day- and midnight-requisitioning, we were able to find enough cinderblocks, floor tiles, lumber, and roofing material to build a three-room club. We even had a fireplace! Damaged buildings in the Foggia were the source of glass bricks for our beautiful bar and furniture for our comfort. Parachutes that were no longer serviceable became the ceiling and some mosquito netting filled in the spaces that the round chutes didn’t cover.
The club was situated about thirty feet from our tent, so we had ready access. On nights when we had been advised there would not be a mission the next day, our flight surgeon, Doctor Kirk D. Garretson, would mix what he called a "standdown.” This was a concoction of 190-proof grain alcohol, a little water, and canned fruit juice (usually unsweetened grapefruit). We didn’t have ice, so it was a warm drink—but we cared? Since we were not permitted to have lights on the outside of structures, we rigged a rope that ran from the side door of the club to our tent. This proved to be handy because it wasn’t always darkness that made it difficult for us to find our way back home.
One more story about one of the pilots in a nearby tent.. He was a very nice fellow—accommodating, friendly, and all of the other qualities one would want in a tent mate. However, no one lived with him in his six-man tent. This was because people thought he was a jinx. Everyone that had been assigned to his tent was shot down very shortly afterwards. It didn’t take very long for the word to get to the new pilots reporting to the squadron and they too would reject an invitation to live in his tent. They would much rather be assigned to one of the crowded, and more “lucky” tents.
Eventually the pilot found a violin and he kept himself entertained by learning how to play. He ended his lonely combat tour with three confirmed aerial victories (in one day!) with the 94th.
This situation was regrettable, but pilots didn’t want to take “unnecessary” chances. They weren’t superstitious, you understand, but why tempt fate? Hence, one guy wouldn’t wash his flight suit, or another always wore a fresh uniform under his flight suit so he would be properly dressed if he were captured, or no one would live in that jinxed tent.
Hot showers, as one might expect, were hard to come by when we first set up at Salsola. A mobile shower unit would pass through the area, but this didn’t happen more than once a month. To alleviate this situation, one of our mechanics rigged an outdoor shower for the squadron. It was made of three 55-gallon drums, lying on their sides, and stacked vertically. He ran tubes between the drums so that water would move freely from one to the other, thus providing more than 150 gallons of water for the shower. He then built a heating unit somewhat like the stove in our tent. I’m sure the shower plumbing was “liberated” from apartments in Foggia. It was nice to be able to take a shower, but not having an enclosure to keep the cold wind of made us take our showers in record time. On the very cold days, we heated water on our stove and bathed in the warmth of the tent.
As it turned out, I flew only two combat missions in January. Mission #32 on the 15th was escorting B-17s to northern Italy to bomb bridges and rail yards around Arezzo. The purpose was to disrupt transportation, therefore making it easier for our ground troops who were to land at Anzio on the 22nd. Of course, at that time we knew nothing of the Anzio invasion. Everything was bogged down due to the wet weather. Only a couple of enemy aircraft were seen and they remained at a distance. Flak was quite heavy, especially over the target area.
Despite the fact we were now based in Italy, this mission lasted over four hours. This was because we formed up, flew out over the Adriatic to join with the bombers, and remained over the water until reaching a landfall point close to the target area. This helped to keep enemy fighters away (fuel shortages meant the Germans usually kept their fighters on the ground until they knew where we were heading) and avoided a lot of flak while en route to the target.
I flew again on the 18th and again escorted B-17s to northern Italy to disrupt enemy transportation around Florence. A number of bridges, rail yards, and some river traffic was hit. There were no enemy fighters and the flak was moderate.
On the same day, one of the pilots that was with me in cadet and P-40 training was transferred to the 325th Fighter Group. He had been with the squadron since September 1943 and had not flown one combat mission. He just didn’t want to fly the P-38, so he managed to stay drunk all the time. He did check out in the plane and flew locally, but refused to fly combat.
There was one incident that I’m sure contributed to his condition. When we moved to Sicily to bolster the 12th Fighter Wing during the invasion of Italy, he was supposed to fly one of our planes from Mateur to Dittaino. When he arrived over Sicily, he flew to the northern shore and started looking for the airfield (the field was on the eastern coast). He spotted a field near Palermo that had a P-38 parked on the ramp. The field had one very short north-south runway. The north end stopped at the edge of the beach and the south end stopped in a canyon. The windsock indicated that the wind was out of the north, so he maneuvered into the canyon, flew down to the runway, did a fighter-type 360-degree approach, and attempted to land. The runway had a very steep slope toward the sea and he was “hot.” The result? One P-38, wheels up, and in the water. After that, you couldn’t get him to fly even in the local area.
The 325th’s P-47s fit in with his way of life and he snapped out of his funk. Even with the four-month delay in getting started with his combat flying, he and I returned to the States at the same time.
By late January 1944 the Group was so short of combat-worthy aircraft that we were unable to get three full squadrons into the air. In fact, we were able to launch only 17 planes on our last mission. The Group should be able to provide 36 planes on a normal mission and 48 on a maximum effort. This shortage resulted in several of us going to England to pick up some P-38Hs. The H had the same fuel capacity and the G model, but it had more powerful engines. We all thought the better engine would cause our range to decrease, but later we found we were getting home with about the same amount of fuel as we did with the G model.
On 20 January I reported to a B-17 base at Amendola (located about 12 miles east-northeast of Foggia) for the trip to England. Our route took us across North Africa to Marrakech. On the 23rd we loaded our over-water gear, ammunition for the guns, box lunches, and some British money. From Marrakech we flew west over the Atlantic, passed within sight of Portugal and Spain, and eventually landed at St. Mawgan, Lands End, England.
While we were just off the coast of Spain, our pilot spotted a single-engine plane in the distance. To be safe, he decided that the gun turrets should be manned. Since I was the only one that could fit in the ball turret, I drew the short straw--no pun intended. It was fun to operate the turret, but I didn’t fall in love with the job. The plane never came close enough for us to identify its markings.
Due to bad weather, we couldn’t make the short trip from St. Mawgan to Nuthampstead, home of the 55th Fighter Group, until the 26th. We wanted to get to Nuthhampstead as quickly as possible, not just to pick up the P-38Hs, but also so we could visit London and see some real civilization. I had plenty of money to spend because I had a straight flush and a pat low hand in my last poker game.
The 55th had been flying P-38s for several months and were constantly getting their butts kicked. After talking with their pilots for a short time, we understood why. They were flying at power settings that guzzled fuel at an incredible rate. They were cruising at 38 to 40 inches manifold pressure and 2,600 RPM. We used that kind of power for climbing. Our cruise power was closer to 30 inches and 2,000 RPM. When we got to our target area, we would have plenty of fuel should we make contact with the enemy. They were so short of fuel that, at times, they had to desert friendly planes that were greatly outnumbered by the enemy. With drop tanks, they were running short of fuel after less than two hours of flight. They couldn’t believe we were flying missions that were more than six hours.
After getting a little rest at Nuthhampstead, we headed for London. It was only a few minutes’ ride via railroad. Across from Hyde Park there was a small hotel that accommodated American officers. It was a treat to be able to read the signs, get a good drink, almost be able to converse with the people (I had to ask them to repeat what they had said almost as much as I did in Italy), and to see a city about which I had always heard. I got to spend only one night and two days, but I managed to see most of the tourist attractions.
That one night, however, the Germans came over on a bombing raid and it was quite a sight to see anti-aircraft from the giving, rather than the receiving end. Hyde Park was wall-to-wall with anti-aircraft guns. Since I had never seen them in action, I stood on the sidewalk and watched. The sky was red with shell bursts, when a voice in a dark doorway called out, “You had better take shelter now.” Just as I reached the doorway, it started raining shrapnel. The voice belonged to a British officer, accompanied by his lady friend. After the raid was over, they invited me to join them for tea and cakes.
It was great to sleep on a bed with clean sheets, eat at a table set with china, and to have a cloth napkin. As before, all good things soon came to an end and I had to report back to Nuthhampstead.
On 3 February in preparation for the flight back to Italy, we checked out our planes and planned the course with the B-17 crew. We would escort them to Gibraltar and then it was every man for himself.
We had a short hour-and-a-half flight from Nuthampstead to St. Mawgan and then bad weather delayed us until the 6th. The flight to Gibraltar took over six hours. Since this flight was near territory under the control of Germany, I received combat time and credit for mission #34. I can personally assure you that between England and Gibraltar there was a lot of water to look at from the cockpit of a fighter plane.
When we left St. Mawgan, one of the B-17 crewmembers decided to take a Red Cross lady back to Italy with him. The St. Mawgan tower operator reported he had seen the woman get on board. Since this kind of thing was against the rules, the security people all along our route were alerted.
The airstrip at Gibraltar was exciting—it was like landing on a narrow pier and rolling up to the beach. On approach and touchdown I whizzed past cargo ships and sailing vessels docked on both sides. It wasn’t until I neared the end of the runway that I had something else besides water and ships off both wings.
When I parked, the British military police immediately arrested me and took me to a security area for questioning. It should have been patently obvious that I didn’t have a lady passenger in my plane, but these blokes were arresting first and asking questions later. I was released shortly thereafter and given a ride to the visiting officers’ area. When the B-17 landed later, they found the woman on board.
The weather was pretty bad in North Africa, so I had time for a little sightseeing on “The Rock.” The commercial area consisted of only one long, narrow street, but anything you’d possibly want to buy was available for sale. There may have been shortages in other parts of the world, but not there. Just a short walk from the base was the Spanish border. Of course, I had to take that walk so I could say that I had set foot in Spain, albeit only briefly.
Spain was in a dicey situation, thanks to their leader, General Franco. Despite all the help he got from the Germans and Italians in winning the Spanish Civil War, he decided to keep Spain neutral, officially, during World War II. Franco still had, however, an "understanding" with Hitler; thus, his country was crawling with German agents. Portugal was officially neutral too, but she too had a close relationship with Germany. Any pilot that flew across Spanish or Portuguese borders was risking internment and a possible international crisis. So, we had to be very careful as we skirted the edges of both countries.
On the 8th I departed for Algiers, only three hours away. Again, when I landed, the military police met me at the parking ramp and arrested me. The word had not filtered down that the Red Cross lady had been removed from the B-17 when it landed at Gibraltar. I got to take a short trip to town, but it was just like all the other cities in North Africa—dirty, smelly, and the people trying to sell you all sorts of junk.
The next day I left Algiers for Tunis, where I was arrested again. This time they didn’t question me; they just took me to the bachelor officers’ quarters. Actually, I didn’t know that I had been placed under arrest until I filed my flight plan the next day. The operations officer handed me the clock from my plane and the Form 1 (flight record for the plane) and then told me I had been released from arrest. I was glad he gave me the Form 1, because I would have never missed it. In a combat zone the crew chief usually informed the pilot about the status of the aircraft; the pilot never looked at the Form 1.
I arrived back at Salsola on 10 February. It was really nice to be back “home” again, even if it was back to living in a tent and eating out of a mess kit.
I went through all the trouble of flying to England to bring back a “new” P-38H and on the first mission after my return, I had engine trouble and had to return to the base without getting combat credit. Seven out of twelve pilots had trouble with their planes on this 14 February mission. Obviously, there were some English “bugs” that had to be flushed out of our ships.
On the 19th we took off to escort 4 groups of B-17s from the target at Lake Chiem (Chiemsee), Germany back to their base in Italy. After flying for over an hour, we were told to return to base because the weather in the target area was so bad that the mission had been scrubbed. The bad weather was really putting a crimp in our effectiveness.
About this time the USAAF “bigwigs” decided to launch a simultaneous strategic assault on Germany by both the 8th and 15th Air Forces. This became known as “Big Week” and it started on 20 February. Of course, we didn’t know about this appellation or the strategy—all we knew was that we were being told to fly in some pretty crappy weather.
On the 22nd I was able to get mission #35 under my belt. We were supposed to escort the lead group of B-24s returning from their target, an aircraft factory at Regensburg. Our rendezvous was over Klagenfurt, Austria; however, the visibility was so poor that we never joined up with the bombers. After searching fruitlessly, we gave up and returned to Salsola. Obviously, there was no flak or fighters.
Two days later, I flew #36 by rendezvousing with three groups of B-24s over Steyr, Austria. Their targets were primarily aircraft factories (Daimler-Benz) and parts plants. Again, there were no fighters and no flak—basically a “milk run.” I had only three combat missions in February and virtually no excitement to speak of so much for “Big Week.”
My first mission in March was on the 2nd. We escorted B-24s on a raid over the Anzio beachhead. Forming up, joining the bombers, and the flight to and from the target took only two and a half hours. We saw no flak and no fighters. Unbeknownst to us, in the evening of the previous day, General Kesslering had broken off his second offensive against the Allied beachhead. The situation would remain a stalemate until the Allies’ breakthrough of the Gustav Line in late May 1944.
It was a stretch of the imagination to call my flight on 4 March a combat mission, but I took them as they gave them. We were to escort four groups of B-17s to our maximum range toward the target at Breslau, Germany (now part of Poland). When we arrived at the briefing, the endurance string (an indicator of the maximum range of our P-38s) was hanging straight down from the target and short of reaching Salsola. We all made sure we had a map of Switzerland handy, because that would be our only safe haven if we ran short of fuel. The weather, however, came to our rescue. Just after we made contact with the bombers, the weather ship called off the mission due to bad weather over the primary and secondary targets. We were back home less than two hours after we took off.
On 9 March the 1st Fighter Group, together with all the other fighter groups in the 15th Air Force, was assigned to the newly-formed XV Fighter Command, headed by Brigadier General Dean C. Strother.
My 39th mission, occurring on 11 March, was another “red-letter” day for me. We joined four groups of B-24s to bomb the docks at Toulon, France. About 20 Me-109s and FW-190s attacked and the sky was full of airplanes. On this mission I came to closest to getting a fighter victory. I had just pulled my nose onto a ‘109 when another P-38 came right over the top of me, almost hitting my canopy, and started firing. I had to break off my attack. It was a good day for the 94th, however, because we destroyed four enemy planes. Lts Raymond J. Geyman and Franklin C. Lathrope got one each and Dick Lee got two, making him an ace. I must have been Dick’s good luck charm because four of his five “kills” came on missions I flew with him.
This was a very long mission because of maneuvering over the target and the distance, so most of us had to refuel in Sardinia. I logged over 7 hours combat time. I was a flight commander on this mission and our successful defense of the bombers would later lead to a first oak leaf cluster to my Distinguished Flying Cross.
On 15 March I again participated in a bit of World War II history—although at the time it was just another day at the office. We escorted our old friends, the B-26s, to Cassino. The famous Benedictine monastery that overlooked the town had been bombed into rubble on 15 February because the Allied armies thought the Germans were using it as an observation post. (Whether of not they were is still being debated, but there is no doubt that the Germans used it militarily after the 15 February bombing.) This time, however, the town itself was the target. The Fifth Army was still bogged down in its assault on the Gustav Line and our bombing was to be followed by an assault by the troops—it failed. Once again, no flak and no fighters.
Two days later I departed on a mission to escort B-17s to bomb the Messerschmitt factory and airdrome at Fischamend Markt, Austria (southeast of Vienna). I had to abort because both engines were cutting out. The mission turned out to be uneventful for the Group, but extremely high flak bursts (up to 30,000 feet) were seen, signaling the Germans were using 105mm guns.
To help the Allied armies to break out of the stalemate in front of the Gustav Line, the strategists decided to begin an interdiction to weaken the German defenders by cutting off their supply lines. This campaign was called Operation Strangle and it began 19 March 1944. While it was primarily a tactical operation, 15th Air Force was occasionally called upon to hit Operation Strangle targets in the ensuring months.
On 21 March I was promoted to C Flight Commander. It may seen unusual for me to have been awarded my second DFC for my actions as a flight commander on a mission that took place before I was officially appointed flight commander. The explanation was simple: it was common practice for the assistant flight commander to lead the flight.
The 1st Fighter Group, along with the 14th, 82nd, and 325th Fighter Groups, was reassigned from the 5th Bomb Wing to the 306th Bomb Wing on 27 March. Joining us were the 31st, 52nd, and 332nd Fighter Groups. As things sometimes happen in was, the 306th Bomb Wing never received any bomber groups and it was later designated the 306th Fighter Wing in May 1944.
I am not sure of the exact date, but sometime in late March several other pilots and I were transported to Casablanca to pick up P-38Js and return to Salsola. When we were ready to leave Casablanca on 31 March, the officer in charge of the ferry group informed us that an “experienced” ferry pilot would lead us to Oran. This guy managed to get us on top of an overcast and totally lost. We were several miles south of Oran and in communication with a DF unit. All we had to do was to fly the headings given until we were over water, descend below the clouds, and reverse our course.
The “experienced” ferry pilot decided the DF unit was giving us headings that were 180 degrees off and he wanted to descend below the overcast and fly by pilotage (use a map) to get to Oran. He signaled for a tight formation and a descent. Soon after we entered the overcast, pilots lost sight of each other and the formation broke up.
I was on the end of the formation and had pulled out very soon after we entered the clouds. Later, I heard the pilots frantically talking over the radio about mountains. Moments later, four other pilots and I broke out of the overcast and found ourselves over a lake surrounded by mountains. We circled until we found a gap where the water ran out of the lake and into a river. We followed the river back to the Mediterranean and then flew on to Oran.
I spent the night in Oran so I could take it easy for a few hours and recover from my ordeal. Later, I made fuel stops at Djedeida, Tunisia and Monserrato, Sardinia before arriving back at Salsola on 2 April.
I learned later that three pilots and the “experienced” ferry pilot had flown into the ground. Apparently, we had been flying on an easterly heading with a very strong north wind. The ferry pilot had made a wind correction that was 180 degrees off. This caused us to be at least 100 miles south of the desired course. None of the lost pilots were from the 1st Fighter Group.
I found the P-38J to be a very fine machine, but it was much heavier than the “H.” To increase the range, Lockheed added what were known as “Tokyo Tanks.” These tanks were located outboard from the engines in the area that had housed the intercoolers. To make room for the intercoolers in the engine nacelles, the engineers enlarged the scoops. This, of course, not only ruined the streamlined shape of the engine nacelles; it also created more drag. With the added weight of the fuel and the drag, we found the “J’ didn’t have any better range than the “H.” Removing the intercoolers from the leading edge of the wings did solve one problem. When starting the engines on a cold morning on earlier P-38 models, it wasn’t too unusual to have a backfire damage the leading edge. This could put a plane out of service for several days.
After getting credit for only four combat missions in March, I looked forward to chalking up more in April—possibly reaching the magic 50. As it turned out, I was able to get in only six. This was because a flight commander shared leading the flight with his assistant. Also, I soon started leading the squadron and, when that happened, I flew only when it was time for my flight to lead the squadron—which turned out to be every fourth mission.
Mission #41 on 6 April was an escort of B-17s and B-24s to the Zagreb, Yugoslavia airdrome. Twenty to twenty-five enemy aircraft were reported in the area, but none attempted to attack the formation. We had been told to stay with the bombers regardless of the opportunities to attack enemy fighters. The bombers spent a lot of time over the target area, but we did not see the results of their attack.
Six days later mission #42 was a maximum effort. The 94th was able to launch 24 planes. We usually had only 3 flights or 12 or 4 flights of 16. The max effort turned out to be too much and we launched planes that just weren’t really mechanically ready to fly. As a result, seven pilots had to return early. We took B-24s of the 304th Bomb Wing to Bad Voslau, Austria to hit the assembly plant and aircraft factory there. About 10 Me-109s managed to get to the bombers after the bomb run and 2 B-24s were shot down. The enemy broke off their attack when we turned into them. Two of our planes were damaged.
My 43rd mission on 16 April was a memorable day for the 1st Fighter Group and me. I got my one and only aerial victory, although the Army Air Force did never officially credited it to me. Also, it was the 1,000th combat mission for the 1st Fighter Group in World War II. We had a 4-flight squadron (16 planes) escort B-17s of the 5th Bomb Wing to the marshalling yards at Brazov, Romania. En route to the target, we observed a Ju-52 “Iron Annie” below our formation. Lt Thiessen was leading the squadron and he sent my flight down and I attacked the transport. The Ju-52 was burning fiercely when it disappeared into the clouds below. Rejoining the squadron and completing the mission, we encountered no enemy opposition.
I was dispatched as the leader of a flight of spares on my 44th mission on 18 April. If any of the pilots had mechanical troubles and had to abort, we were to take his place. This was done to make sure we had a full complement of fighters over the target area. I really wanted to participate in this one because it involved strafing the Campo Formido Airdrome south of Udine, Italy. As it turned out, I didn’t get to replace anyone, even though I kept myself available until almost to the target.
Mission #45 on 20 April was escorting 5th Bomb Wing B-17s to hit rail yards and other Operation Strangle communication targets around Padua, Vicenza, and Castelfranco. There were no fighters and flak was very light.
F/O Cy Nolen, the “wildman” that burned down our tent in North Africa and was grounded for his flying antics with a borrowed P-40, was a spare in this mission. He was last seen making a wheels-up landing on the beach in northeast Italy. He destroyed his plane (he, like the rest of us, carried an incendiary bomb in the cockpit for just that purpose) and started running south on the beach. After a short stretch, he was captured by the Germans and shipped off to a Stalag where he spent the rest of the war.
I’m sure Cy gave the Germans a hard time, because he was a past master of mischief in our squadron. He had recently gotten himself grounded for 30 days because of a flying violation at Salsola. He had been asked to slow-time a P-38. When a new engine was installed, it was necessary to operate the engine at reduced power for about four hours before flying it a “full blast.” It was very boring to fly around the base at a slow speed for four hours, but one had to stay in the local area in case of engine trouble. Cy decided there would be no harm in doing some aerobatics as long as he didn’t exceed the low power setting and RPM limits on the new engine. He simply added a little more power to the other engine and put on a low-level airshow for us. The group commander and engineering officer were not impressed.
My last mission in April was my first as squadron leader. On 24 April 16 P-38s and 3 spares took off from Salsola to escort B-17s and B-24s to bomb marshalling yards at Ploesti and Bucharest, Romania. We experienced a lot of flak, but the enemy fighters were not aggressive. One of our pilots took a flak hit and Herschel Baird escorted him back home. Several of the bombers had been hit and strayed from their formation. We gathered them into a loose formation and escorted them back to Italy. By doing this we were able to keep several fighters away from the “cripples.”
On 28 April I took Baird to Bari in one of our “piggybacks” (an old P-38F) so he could pick up a P-38 he had left there for some major maintenance a couple of days earlier. While in base operations at Bari, I was talking to two B-24 pilots that had delivered one of their planes to Bari for maintenance too. They were looking for a ride back to their base. When I told them I could take one of them, they almost came to blows arguing over who would get to go.
To alleviate the situation, I told them if they would fly without parachutes, I could take both. This meant one would sit in the passenger seat behind the pilot and the other would sit in the pilot seat with me in his lap. As long as we didn’t pull too many “G’s,” it wouldn’t hurt him (me being a little guy helped too). They eagerly agreed to my terms.
When we arrived at their base, they asked me to do a fighter pattern and approach. This called for coming over the runway at about 20 feet and 230MPH. When over the desired touchdown point, we pulled up into a chandelle, lowered the gear at the top, continued a descending turn back to the runway, and rolled out just as we came over the runway. We did it all the time, but it was really a thrill for a first-timer.
When we pulled into the parking place, I left the engines running, set the parking brake, and stepped out onto the wing. The look on the face of the guy that parked us was something to behold—a single-seat plane had just landed and three people got out! It was like one of the clown cars at the circus.
For my departure, I made several high-speed, low-level passes over the field, executed some rolls, and finished with an Immelmann. Cy Nolen would have been proud of me that day!
The weather in April had gotten a little better and there were some more planes in the air around Foggia. Hardly a day went by without some joker making low passes over our field at Salsola. One day we had a P-51 and a B-25 buzzing us at the same time. Another time, a B-24 came across so low that he hit a pole on one of our tents on higher ground. It broke the pole and collapsed the tent, but apparently didn’t damage the B-24. He departed the area rather quickly after that pass.
Early one morning a fully loaded B-17 took off from a base a couple of miles southwest of us. He lost power and made a wheels-up landing off the end of his runway—less than a mile from our tent area. We watched the crash crew approach as the plane started to burn. All of the crewmembers had evacuated the plane and were well away from the wreck. The crash crew milled around only briefly, then backed away. In just a few minutes there was a loud explosion and the B-17 vanished. It was very humid that day and when the plane exploded, we could see the shock wave heading toward us. It was so strong it almost knocked us down. We then understood why the crash crew debated for only a moment before they elected to back away from the burning bomber.
On one of my trips to the big city of Foggia, I fell out of love with the Red Cross. We were hardly on speaking terms even at that time because earlier they had charged me ten lira (ten cents) for a cup of coffee and a doughnut when I had returned from a combat mission. This time I was out of cigarettes and they had some at a counter in the hall where we had gathered to read, dance, and listen to music. When I asked for a package, I was told it would cost 25 lira. After I opened the package, I found a note that stated some women’s club back in the States had donated the cigarettes to “our brave men in the Armed Forces.” I have never forgiven the Red Cross for those two acts and have resisted knowingly contributing to them for over 55 years now.
I flew three missions in May 1944. This was because I flew when my flight led the squadron and, for the last mission, of the month, when my flight led the squadron and our squadron led the group.
On 5 May, Baird, Lt Warren G. Campbell, and I left for the rest camp on the Isle of Capri. We spent a week doing nothing but eating, drinking, and taking it easy on the beach. Our hotel was located on the highest point of the island and it overlooked the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was a first-class establishment, operated by an Italian staff that had been there for years. The dining room was formal and the bar was quiet and reserved. If we wanted noise and excitement, we had to go to the little business community at the landing. This was where we shopped, made arrangement for sight-seeing tours, rode a mule to the ruins on top of the mountain, and took a boat ride to the Blue Grotto.
The most exciting thing that happened on our furlough, however, occurred while we were in Naples waiting for transportation to Capri. We spent the night in a typical GI hotel and walked a couple of blocks to the mess facility. During the night there was an air raid, but we didn’t pay much attention to all the noise. The next morning, however, we found one of the bombs had hit very close to us. The mess facility where we had eaten the night before was now a smoking hole in the ground. We managed to find breakfast somewhere else and took the boat trip to Capri.
Our “life of leisure” soon ended and we returned to the grim business of war. As squadron leader, I guided the escort of 5th Bomb Wing B-17s to the marshalling yards at Ferrara on 14 May. We picked up a different group coming off the target and escorted them back to the Foggia area. We covered several groups across the target before the B-17s we were to take home arrived on the scene. The target appeared to be well covered and the flak was not a problem. No fighters were observed. It was a great feeling to be responsible for the fighter cover of a major mission.
Because of my rotation as flight leader, I missed the 1st Fighter Group’s 18 May mission to Ploesti. Some 80 German fighters attacked the formation of 146 B-17s and the Group’s P-38s clashed in a wild melee. Ten enemy planes were claimed as destroyed (six victories were awarded to 94th pilots) with nine other probably destroyed or damaged. One P-38 and one B-17 were lost. For this action the Group was awarded its third, and final, Distinguished Unit Citation of World War II. Ironically, although I was assigned to the Group when it won the three DUCs, I did not fly on any of the cited missions.
Mission #48 came on 26 May and it was a long one. As group leader, I escorted 304th Bomb Wing B-24s to Grenoble and Chambery, France to hit marshalling yards. Many of our missions at this time were meant to soften-up southern France for the invasion that took place on 15 August. They also served to interdict any future German movements toward Normandy. We escorted the bombers from their IP to a safe point, then picked up another group and took them over the target. When the last group bombed, we escorted them home. In contrast, single-engined fighters would bring a group of bombers to the target area and then pick up a group coming off the target and escort them home. We had the more difficult job because the P-38 had the range to do this type of work. On this day we ran so short of fuel that four had to land in Corsica, ten in Naples, and only two of us were able to make it back to Salsola. I am sure that I was pretty low on fuel because I logged 6:15 combat time.
I would have liked to have flown on 28 May, but my flight was not leading the squadron. The 28th was the first anniversary of my graduation from flight school. We grew up quickly in this war. I was still a second lieutenant and only two months past my 23rd birthday, but had almost one year’s experience as an operational pilot. I had completed 48 combat missions and had already lead a group of 18 fighter planes on an escort mission to provide cover for a B-24 wing of approximately 200 planes.
On 30 May, I flew mission #49. Our squadron was leading the group and my flight was leading the squadron. We escorted the 55th Bomb Wing B-24s to hit aircraft parts factories in Neunkirchen, Austria. We provided cover over the target area and escorted the bombers to a safe point over the Adriatic Sea. The bombers were well protected. They were flying at 18,000 to 20,000 feet, we were immediately above them at 23,000, and P-51s were above us at 27,000. After we released the bombers, we were allowed to strafe targets of opportunity in Yugoslavia. We hit several boxcars on a siding at Medak.
I now need only one more mission to safely complete my combat tour of duty. When a pilot got this close, he had a tendency to start thinking about all the men that failed to return from their 48th, 49th, or 50th mission.
Big number 50 finally came on 4 June 1944. We escorted 5th Bomb Wing B-17s to southern France. The primary reason for this mission was to distract the Germans, drawing their attention away from Normandy, but it was also in support of the future invasion of southern France in August. We were with almost 500 bombers and that was a lot of airplanes to protect from enemy fighters! Not only were we busy with enemy planes over the target area, a Val River bridge, it was even more hectic rounding up all the damaged bombers and escorting them to safety. On missions of this length, only P-38s had enough range to provide the cover and we were few in numbers.
On the trip home, my tent-mate, Ben Hallock, had some aircraft trouble and headed to Naples to land. By the time he reached airfield he had shut down one of his engines. Just as he was about to land, another airplane pulled out onto the runway. Ben attempted to make a go-around, but his landing gear was extended, making it impossible for him to regain flying speed. He crashed off the end of the runway. He was able to escape from the plane, but received some painful burns.
Needless to say, with 50 missions under my belt, I had quite a celebration in the club that night. That same day the Fifth Army entered Rome and the first Axis Powers capital fell to the Allies. I’d like to think that Charles Hoffman could take a little credit for that event too!
When we established our tent at Salsola, there were six of us—five were fliers. All six completed their tours and returned to the States. I heard that Charles Howard was killed in action on a second combat tour—but I cannot confirm it. This was an excellent record when compared to the historical pilot loss rate of about 40 percent. I do not know where Ben Hallock is today, but the other four (McEwen, Baird, Kirchhofer, and I) attended a reunion of the 94th Fighter Squadron in San Antonio, Texas in October 1989—quite an accomplishment, I think.
Shortly after I finished my tour, Baird finished his and we were made squadron flight training officers. There were a large number of replacement pilots being assigned because many of us were finishing our missions at about the same time. Some of the newly assigned pilots had never flown a combat-type aircraft. Thank goodness most of them did attend multi-engine flight training. After we gave them a little ground school on the P-38, we were able to give them a piggyback ride so they would have some idea about how the airplane performed. They flew about five or six hours to get the feel of the plane and then we started flying formation and gunnery with them. Their formation flying made me realize how I must have scared the hell out of my leaders when I first started flying formation with only four or five hours flying time in the P-38.
I whiled away the remainder of June in the training role until the 29th when 15th Air Force decided I’d had enough and sent Baird and me to Naples for transportation back to the States.
When we arrived in Naples, we were assigned to a unit that housed, fed, and prepared personnel to return to the States. It was located at a racetrack just outside the city. The accommodations were tents, cots, lousy food, and no recreation. Every morning we had to check a bulletin board to see if our reassignment orders had been issued. If not, we had nothing to do for the next 24 hours.
On one of those nothing-to-do days, Baird and I decided we would find an airfield and try to get some flying time. We located an Army observation outfit on a little grass strip. When we asked the operations officer about some flying time, he asked us if we had ever flown a light plane. We applied in the affirmative with our fingers crossed behind our backs. He assigned us a Piper L-4 "Grasshopper" and we checked out a couple of 'chutes. We told the crew chief it had been quite some time since we had flown a plane like his, so he helped us get it started. Baird acted as the pilot in charge for the first two hours and I was in charge for the next two hours. With a certified copy of the Form 1 from the plane, we were able to collect our flight pay for the month of July. A pilot failing to fly during a three-month period would lose his flight pay for those months. I was fortunate to have flown those for hours because I didn’t get to fly again until October.
Flying around for four hours with no mission to accomplish can be a very boring exercise. To spice up the afternoon, we flew at a very low altitude over all the little villages along the coastline. We went a far south as the old Salerno invasion beach. Along the way there were plenty of fishing boats for us to “inspect.” The fishermen weren’t too happy about how close we “inspected” their boats. At the end of two hours, we returned to the base to refuel, took a little break, and then headed back into the blue. This time we had a close look at Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. We flew so close to the crater we could smell the fumes and feel the heat. Vesuvius had erupted only a few months earlier and was still seething.
The big delay in getting assigned to a ship was due to the pending invasion of southern France. Just about every vessel in the area was tied up for possible use. On about the 10th of July I was finally assigned to a ship for transportation home. It was a boat that had hauled many loads of bananas from South America in its day. I’m not sure what deck I was on, but the floor sloped to the center of the ship. We slept in hammocks that hung from hooks on steel poles. My hammock was sixth from the deck. I was so close to the overhead that I could just barely turn over. The ship was hot, so we spent most of our time on deck. When we boarded, we hoped that we would leave right away. It was not to be. We sat in Naples Harbor for four miserable days.
On one of those four days we were passing the time on deck when we saw a British Hawker “Hurricane” fighter making low-level passes near a British warship. It appeared as though he was giving the ship’s gun crews practice at tracking him with their radar or whatever gunsight system they used. He would make a pass and then pull up into a chandelle-type maneuver, dive toward the water, and then make another pass. On one pass he must have been going too slow and was unable to pull out. He hit the water at about a 60-degree angle no more than a 100 yards from our ship. There was no way he could have survived. After about three of four hours they recovered the totally-demolished plane. It was bad enough to get killed in action, but to kill oneself by making a stupid mistake was unforgivable.
Finally, on 14 July we steamed out of the harbor and joined eight other ships to make a small convoy. We were in the lead ship, so we had the comfort of having a ship on each side and two behind us acting as shields for enemy torpedoes. Later I found out why we were the lead ship. We could do only nine knots; therefore, so they put us out front so the others wouldn’t go off and leave us. It took 21 days to go from Naples to Newport News, Virginia. A good swimmer would have given us a run for the money!
Two days out of Naples our ship’s gyro malfunctioned and had to be shut down. Now there was no way to dampen the pitch, roll, and yaw that occurred when one of our two screws would come out of the water. This served to make our long voyage even more “pleasurable.” If one had his sea legs, there was plenty of food available at each meal. In fact, the cooks were encouraging people to eat three or four times a day, but I could never find more than five or six people at each sitting.
We arrived at Newport News in the afternoon of 3 August, but the authorities would not let us disembark, so we had to stand at the rail and look at the good old USA from a distance. The delay proved disastrous to me, financially. During my days on board I had parlayed $5 into $1,200 in various poker games. That last night on ship, I hit a losing streak and dropped all of it.
The next morning we disembarked and one of our first activities was to visit the mess hall and get some of that fresh food that we hadn’t had for a year. The first thing we asked for was fresh milt. Almost everyone got sick because our systems just couldn’t handle the butterfat. For dessert, we demanded nothing but ice cream. By the next day we were back to complaining about the chow—the GI’s prerogative.
I was assigned to the replacement depot in Miami, Florida with a 30-day combat leave en route. Would you believe they routed me to my hometown of Memphis by way of St. Louis? The military never changes.
Ken Kirchhofer and I ended up on the same train to St. Louis. There we separated—he went west to Kansas City and I went south to Memphis. We had about six hours in St. Louis and, since I had been stationed at nearby Scott Field during my enlisted stint, I showed him around the city. Being a GI when I was there before, the only places I knew about were the bars and dance halls. It was daylight, so only the bars were open. After visiting several bars, I “poured” him on his train and made my way to mine.
It was an overnight trip and I didn’t have any trouble sleeping. I asked the porter to wake me when he could see the bridge over the Mississippi at Memphis. It was just getting light when he woke me. All I had to do was lift the shade on my window and there was the bridge and the Memphis skyline. Both were beautiful sights. I was home and the war was far behind!