87th FS-Charles Jaslow “The WWII memoirs of pilot Charles Jaslow”
Charles Jaslow, Pilot – 87th Fighter Squadron, 79th Fighter Group
Aircraft Accident – Bradley Air Field and Philip “Flip” Cochran
I graduated from flying school on Apr. 29, 1942, and was assigned to the 57th Pursuit Group which was stationed at Bradley Field, CT. John Hundley (my roommate through flying school) and I took the train to New York City and spent the weekend there en route to Bradley. Hundley was from Monroe, LA, and had never been any further north than Sumter, SC, so the city was quite an experience for him. I suggested we try to get a room for the weekend at a hotel. Easier said than done! When we arrived at Penn Station, we checked at the USO office but they couldn’t do anything for us. They suggested we try the Officers’ Club at the Sherry-Netherland hotel at 59th St. and Fifth Avenue. So we checked our luggage and took the subway there – we were both almost out of money.
The Sherry-Netherland Hotel is one of the poshest in NY and it had converted a lounge into an “Officers Club”. We went in (we were brand new 2nd Lts.) and went to the bar. There was only one other person in the “club” – an elderly gentleman sitting at the bar. He struck up a conversation with us and bought us a drink. As we conversed, he listened to our story with interest. He introduced himself (although I’ve forgotten his name) and explained that he was a retired colonel in the Air Corps living at the hotel. We told him we were trying to find a room for the weekend with no success and he volunteered to take care of it. He went to a phone, made a call, and came back with the word that we had a room at a residential hotel near Greenwich Village. Then he asked if we had any money and we told him that all we had was an advance which was very little – whereupon he pulled out his wallet and gave each of us $50! We were flabbergasted, to say the least, but he gave us his name and told us to send him the money when we were paid. We questioned his trusting us and his answer was classic for the times: “You’re Officers, aren’t you? Officers are gentlemen!”
He bought us another drink, and then we took a cab to the station for our luggage and then to the hotel and stayed in a wonderful suite for the weekend. I often wondered how that retired colonel had enough money to live at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in NY in 1942!
I took Hundley everywhere – a ride on the double-decker Fifth Avenue bus from one end to the other and back, Broadway, Statue of Liberty, and best of all, the Astor Roof. Hundley was a trumpet player and his idol was Harry James, who was playing at the Astor Roof. We had dinner somewhere then headed over to the Astor and told the maitre d’ that we just wanted to see Harry James because Hundley played the trumpet.
Remember, this was early May, 1942. We were flying officers with wings and the war was just starting. The maitre d’ took us to a table for 2 directly in front and the side of the band, where Hundley could see and hear Harry James. We had no sooner taken our seats when the waiter came over for our order and told us a group at another table was picking up our tab. We thanked them and spent the evening listening to music and drinking. At one of the intermissions, Hundley even went up and talked to James which made his year!
We left NYC by train to Windsor Locks, CT and checked in. The group commander, Col. Pete McGoldrick interviewed each of us to assign us to a squadron. We were both assigned to the 65th Squadron, who’s CO was Major Philip Cochran.
Philip “Flip” Cochran
Philip G. Cochran was truly a remarkable man, and even after all these years, I still feel honored to have known and flown with him. Cochran had gone to Ohio State and a classmate was Milt Caniff, who wrote the comic strip “Terry and the Pirates”. Caniff wrote Cochran into the strip as “Flip Corkin” — it was very obvious to anyone who knew him. He also included Capt. Art Salisbury in the strip as “Art Solitary”. Everyone called Cochran ‘Flip’ and we became his “sports” – pilots.
Our aircraft were P-40s, and the 57th Group was at Bradley Field to check us out in the planes, because Bradley was a larger field and had longer runways than the home bases of the various squadrons. The 65th was based at Groton Long Point just outside of New London, CT. Our first few flights were just to get used to the plane – fly it and learn its mannerisms. Then we were told to start “short field” take-offs and landings. By this time we must have had about 3-4 hours in the plane – which is not very much. Our home base, Groton Long Point, had a very short landing strip of one runway about 1500 ft. long. One end of the runway ended in Long Island Sound and the other at the New York, New Haven and Hartford electrified railway with tall high-tension wires directly in line with the runway, so we had to learn how to take off and land at that field.
The idea was to taxi to the extreme end of the runway, line up for take-off, put down full flags (to increase lift), lock the brakes and give the motor full throttle. Once the motor was running smoothly at full throttle, you unlocked the brakes, kept the stick tucked into your stomach and started down the runway. As soon as you felt the plane airborne, you were supposed to start a gentle turn to the left (the torque of the propeller pulled you that way anyways) and get into the air. Once you had flying speed, you discreetly raised the wheels and flaps and were on your way.
Bradley Field in those days was camouflaged to look like any cultivated field and they built a false barn in the middle of the field at the junction of the two runways. Once we had learned to get the plane in the air in the short field configuration, it became a contest between all the pilots to make the first turn BEFORE getting to the false barn! That made you a “hot” pilot!
On my second flight from the ‘short field’ configuration, I got the plane in the air and started my turn before I got to the barn. However, my plane just didn’t have enough flying speed and it dove into the ground at about 120 MPH! The plane created a hole in the ground and the wings flew off and the tail bent over. The engine had been pushed back into the cockapoo and my shoes were wedged in between the rudder pedals and the engine fire-wall but I managed to get loose. We always wore not only seat belts, but also shoulder straps, so that when the crash occurred, I was locked in the seat pretty well. As far as I knew, I wasn’t injured at all. I grabbed the Form 1 (record of the aircraft) and climbed out. Within seconds, a jeep pulled up with Phil Cochran in it and the ambulance was right behind. Cochran was amazed to see me, not only in one piece, but of the cockpit and standing there.
I was placed in the ambulance and taken to the base hospital with Cochran right behind. He was in the room with me while I was examined by the doctors who found nothing wrong. As soon as the MDs said I was alright, Cochran grabbed me, put me in the jeep and drove me right back to the field and took me to a plane. He made me get in and said “Get in the air!”. I started the engine and took off with no problem. I flew around and came back in and landed with Cochran watching me like a hawk. I’m firmly convinced that, if he had not done that, I probably would never have flown again. Flip didn’t give me time to think about it!!
For every aircraft accident, there was an investigative board – and there was a board meeting on my accident. In those days, if an accident was determined to be 100% pilot error, the pilot was supposed to pay for the plane even if it took 50 years! My accident was all my fault but Flip had enough pull to convince the board to make it 95% pilot error and 5% mechanical – so I was off the hook.
After that, I continued to fly the P-40, went overseas and flew 80 combat missions, shot down one ME 109, sank an Italian destroyer and an Italian freighter, became an instructor pilot in P-47s, and then a test pilot.
I mentioned that our home base was Groton Long Point, CT. The other two squadrons were stationed at Quonset Point, RI and Bedford, MA (just outside of Boston). Once we finished our indoctrination flying at Bradley we didn’t see much of the others until we were ready to go overseas.
Cochran became quite famous during the war for the unorthodox things he did but he was a remarkable man, loved by all who knew him. He was sent to southeast Asia in charge of the Air Commandos and became quite friendly with Lord Louis Mountbatten. It is ironic that Flip was killed falling off a horse (not an aircraft!) one week after Mountbatten was killed by Irish terrorists.
Art Salisbury, who was “Art Solitary” in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates, became a full colonel and group commander of the 57th Group, stayed in Europe until 1944 and turned down a promotion to brigadier general to come home. He stayed in the Air Force and retired as a Major General in the mid 1960s.
In the 1990s the US Postal Service put out a series of stamps honoring comic strip characters, and Terry and the Pirates was included.
After graduation from flying school down in Moultrie, GA, we were sent to Bradley Field, Connecticut to join a fighter group, the 57th, and were assigned to the 65th Squadron. After checking out in the P-40 (and managing to crack one up) we went to our permanent (?) base at Groton Long Point, CT just outside of New London.
Groton Long Point had one runway, 1500 ft. long, and it was originally built for small aircraft. One end of the runway was the Long Island Sound (water) and the other end was the New York, New Haven and Hartford electrified railway with high tension wires strung right at the end of the runway. Taking off wasn’t too much of a problem but landing over those high tension wires was really tricky.
Flip Cochran had rented a large house in Groton as the home for the officers and somehow got bunk beds in several of the bedrooms so sleeping quarters were kinda jammed. However, the living room and downstairs were really plush. At one end of the room he had installed a tremendous safe in which all liquors were kept locked up tight. Gil Wymond, a 1st Lt. at the time, was “club” officer and had the combination to the safe. He was also quite a ladies’ man and knew many of the girls at the Connecticut College for Women located across the river.
Each evening, after we had eaten dinner at the “mess hall”, we’d gather in the living room and Cochran would call up the Mitchel Field weather station for the morning weather. If they predicted clear weather, no one had anything to drink, for we usually started flying around 7:00 AM. However, if the station called for fog or non-flying weather, Cochran had a number of sayings to indicate the bar was open: “Whiskey Nimbus”, “Rum Occlusion”, etc… Then Gil would open the safe and we’d drink ourselves silly.
Often Gil would call up the girls at CCW and invite some over and it became a real party. Being a flying outfit started out as a lot of fun! Many times the weather station was wrong and the morning dawned clear and bright, and Cochran and Salisbury (who roomed together) would wake everyone up out of their drunken stupor and we’d go flying — usually on pure oxygen to clear our heads.
That lasted about a month and the squadron was transferred to Rentschler Field, East Hartford, CT. We operated out of there until we went overseas. I think they transferred us to Rentschler to get us ready for wartime living, for we lived in tents, ate in tents, had no officers’ club, and in general lived a pretty miserable life out in the open.
The 65th Squadron (57th Group) was sent overseas in June, 1942 and most of us were left behind because it was thought we didn’t have enough hours in the P-40 to go into combat. So we formed the 87th Squadron of the 79th Fighter Group, with which I went overseas.
The powers-that-be wanted us to get as many hours in the P-40 as possible, and since my family lived in New York City I’d often take one of the planes, fly down to LaGuardia Field in NY, park the plane there overnight, and fly back the next day. Everything was pretty loose around the field. It was quite a sight – I’d land, pull the plane up to the Operations Building, get out, take off my flying suit under which I had my uniform, reach back for my garrison hat and put my helmet there, shut the cockpit and stroll through the terminal out to a taxi – all to the utter amazement of the people on the concourse watching the planes!
Because I’d lived in New York City, on one of these trips, I went to LaGuardia (where the ground crew had refueled the plane), got in, took off, and instead of turning north for CT headed south down the East River gaining altitude. Once I had passed the Battery, I was at about 3000 ft. and turned north up Broadway. Knowing the city like a book, I could follow the streets and avenues easily and flew up Broadway to Columbus Circle, then across Central Park to Park Avenue and straight up Park Avenue and on to Connecticut.
Around Hartford there was a dive in the center of town that we’d frequent and pick up girls. Hartford had a 100:1 ratio of women to men because of all the insurance companies, and picking up a woman was the easiest thing in the world. In fact, it was usually the other way around: the girls fighting over the guy.
Paul MacArthur, another of the pilots, got to know the Hepburn family in West Hartford (the family of Katherine Hepburn). One day they were having a garden party and Paul casually said “Let’s buzz the place” so we did. All hell broke loose because the father was a member of Congress. Another time, we were given the order to do some “dawn patrols” — those went out with WWI — so we’d get in our planes, take off, and fly as close to the ground as we could at 5 AM, waking everyone in the area up. That didn’t last very long.
The food we got in the mess hall at Rentschler was pretty bad and we’d usually end up going to a restaurant in East Hartford for dinner. It was maddening to us to have to live like we were out in the boondocks when we could go across the street and be in the town of East Hartford with everything you could want.
Phil Cochran had been the CO of the 65th Squadron but he also had a bad stomach ulcer. Brig. Gen. Cannon of the 1st Air Force was a good friend of Phil’s, and when he knew that the 57th Group was going overseas he had Phil put on 30 days sick leave to try to cure his ulcer. While Phil was in Ohio, the group was shipped out with Art Salisbury as the CO. When Phil returned from his sick leave he really blew his stack and went down to 1st Air Force HQ at Mitchel Field and was transferred out of our group shortly thereafter. He ended up at Mitchel and went overseas with the North African invasion as an “advisor”, while we got a new CO, Lt. Col. Grogan, who took us overseas to Egypt. Actually, Cochran got into “action” against the Germans before we did because we were training in the desert while the North African invasion took place.
It was in East Hartford that I became more aware of death as a companion in this venture. First, we got word that Jim Harper had been killed in an aircraft accident in Moultrie, and it really made me sad. But it was so far away that it passed over rather quickly. Then Harry Sheraw, another of our pilots, crashed on take-off at Rentschler – this was closer to home and therefore more personal. I remember that Bunn Hearn volunteered to go tell Harry’s widow. Shortly after that, a new pilot (whose name I never did really know) spun in while trying to land and was killed. He hit the ground in the big courtyard that the aircraft plant had built in the center of the building, so no one else was hurt.
Then we got word that Marty Taub was killed in Boston – death was getting closer. We were beginning to liver with death as a constant companion, but we never discussed it. It was always in the back of my mind, at least, but I never flew with a feeling of impending doom. We also got word of another pilot in the 86th being killed, but again, I didn’t know him personally so it didn’t matter as much to me.
As the war progressed, death became a respected and constant companion. At first, reading about soldiers being killed didn’t mean too much, but when we knew the person(s) killed, it became very meaningful.
Something I had forgotten about: During that summer, six of us at the time were stationed temporarily at the field at West Point, supposedly to protect New York, but also to give West Point cadets an orientation ride in a trainer. We were given specific orders that the cadet came first – if anyone was killed, it had to be us, NOT the cadet!! That was reassuring.
One time, back in CT, Frank Huff and I went out one day to fly around and decided to buzz a lake up in the mountains. We were having a great time until Huff came too close to the water and his propeller hit the water and broke every oil line in his engine – and he hit the trees at the end of the lake! All I saw was a big cloud of smoke and dust and then the remains of the plane in the middle of the trees. I flew back to Rentschler, landed and told everyone that Huff had just been killed. The ambulance cranked up and I drove Huff’s convertible up to where I thought the lake was, but wasn’t sure. We stopped at a little airfield, I got out and commandeered a Piper Cub with a pilot. He took off and the others on the ground followed the plane. When I saw the wreckage, I had the pilot circle until I could see the cars coming up the road.
Then I made the pilot land the plane on a golf course near there. I got out and ran over to the accident site. I never knew how the pilot got that plane off the ground again – he may still be up there! Anyhow, when I got close, there was Frank sitting on the front porch of a house, smoking a cigarette, and welcoming me. I was in shock. The plane was a total wreck, but the plane was so sturdy that, like my accident at Hartford, the cockpit was intact, and so was Frank Huff.
Overseas During the War
In the Fall of 1942, I was in the 87th Fighter Squadron stationed at Rentschler Field, East Hartford, CT when we received word alerting us for overseas. The 57th Group, to which we had belonged and which had preceded us, had gone to Africa to be with the British 8th Army and we assumed that we’d join them.
We still flew a little but were mostly just sitting around waiting for something to happen. One morning in late September we gathered and were told to pack immediately as the pilots were all being flown to Grenier Field, Manchester, NH while the ground crew and officers were all going to Indiantown Gap, PA. By that night all of the pilots in the group were at Grenier. We were told we’d be there being outfitted for combat — getting more clothing, guns, survival equipment, etc. We were there for 2 weeks chomping at the bit since there were only 4 planes there for 80 of us to get flying time in. By this time we assumed we were going to India because we were given an APO number (3280) which was for India and we couldn’t figure out why we were at Grenier!
From New Hampshire to Brazil
A bunch of us were getting sick of sitting around doing nothing so one day Duke Uhrich, our squadron operations officer at that time, came up with the idea of flying a B-34, a twin-engine aircraft, down to NY for the day. So we jumped in and Duke flew us to LaGuardia. We had no idea of what we were going to do but started out at LaRue’s for drinks. Then Duck got the idea of getting tickets for “Star and Garter”, the Gypsy Rose Lee musical that was playing on Broadway. So we all wandered over and managed to get a set of tickets in the last row of the orchestra for that night.
After the show we started to visit bars and ended up at LaRue’s just about closing time. Duke didn’t want to fly back in the dark after all the drinking so we all went into a local hotel, took over the easy chairs and couches and promptly fell asleep. The clerks woke us in the morning and we took taxis out to LaGuardia only to find it socked in — the fog was so thick you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. There was nothing we could do but sit and wait for the fog to lift, and pray that it happened fast. We finally got clearance to leave around 10:00 AM, took off and got back to Grenier just as the rest of the crowd were finishing lunch. Col. McGoldrick, our CO, came over to us and, with a big smile on his face, stated “You all realize that you’re restricted to your barracks until we leave!”.
Luckily, the next morning we came down for breakfast to find that McGoldrick and the operations officers of the 3 squadrons (including Duke) were gone. They had left during the night for points unknown. We were told to get everything ready for shipment, for we would leave at a moment’s notice. The next morning, after breakfast, we were told we were leaving. We got everything out — clothing, flying clothes, parachutes, etc., piled into trucks and were taken to the local railway station. Once there we saw the local populace with signs bidding us goodbye and good luck – and we hadn’t known anything!
We boarded a train which took us to Boston. There we got on more trucks and went to the NY Central Dept and got on a train heading south destined for Washington, D.C. The train stopped at every station and we got to Washington late that evening. After riding in coaches all day, we were worn out.
In Washington we all ate at a restaurant and milled around wondering what was going on. Finally, we got the word that our train was ready and, when we got there, discovered it was all coach cars. Major Earl Bates, the group executive officer, was with us and he raised all kinds of hell and told the station master that he and the officers with him would NOT travel overnight in coaches, and without a diner! Bates stood his ground and threatened to call the War Dept. The station master finally gave in and said he’d make up a special train of Pullman cars. We finally left town around 1:00 AM. Most of the cars were regular Pullman’s with berths but there was one car of drawing rooms. Bates immediately commandeered the central drawing room leaving 2 others for 2 people each. Bates was not well liked by most of the guys so no one wanted to be in the car with him. John Dzamba and I were standing there and I said, “What the hell, we don’t have to socialize with him – we’ll take one”, and did. I’m glad we did for it was a 30day trip from Washington D.C. to our final destination, Miami, and because it was a special train, it had to stop on sidings all the way to let scheduled trains through. We even spent half a day in Savannah, GA.
We finally got to Miami, were met by trucks and taken to a hotel in Hialeah, the Battle Creek Hotel, which had been taken over by the Army. It was really plush and we lived it up. We still had no idea of where or when we were going so we did a lot of sight-seeing. We even saw a football game in the Orange Bowl.
We spent a week in Miami but now we knew where we were going: Africa. Each morning 12 men were assigned to leave so we packed all our stuff and had it trucked to the local Pan Am Terminal where we were weighed and given our tickets — Miami to Takoradi, oneway! We had no idea of where Takoradi was but were told it was along the Gold Coast of Africa. The next morning the 12 of us left via a Pan Am C-54 for overseas. We were the only 12 passengers on board an aircraft that could hold 140 people. We stopped for refueling in Puerto Rico and flew on to Georgetown, British Guiana where we spent the night in open barracks. The next day we flew to Belem, Brazil and then on to Natal, Brazil which was our final destination on that flight. We overflew the mouth of the Amazon River and it was huge.
When we had been at Grenier Field, many of us took the train down to Boston a couple of times and spent the evening at a nightclub called the Coconut Grove. It was a real dive with a very busy bar in the basement with a female singing dirty songs. We spent a lot of time down at that bar, and had planned on going back there until we were shipped out so rudely. However, while we were in Natal, Brazil we read in the papers that the club had burned to the ground the previous weekend and over 200 people were burned alive, including Hoot Gibson, a cowboy movie star. If we hadn’t left for overseas, there’s no doubt in my mind that we would have been there that night!
It was a fire trap – there was one very narrow stairway leading down to the bar, which was not even wide enough for two people together, and there was no exit! When the fire started, those in the bar were trapped as the stairway became clogged immediately. As I recall, that Coconut Grove fire led to sweeping changes in rules for clubs like that.
Flying the Atlantic to Africa
We gathered in Natal and again had to wait, so we wandered around the area seeing the sights (which were few). We flew to Africa in a Pan American Clipper – a 4-engine flying boat which was the flagship of the Pan Am line, and had been used for flying across the Pacific. The army had taken them over and they shuttled back and forth across the lower Atlantic carrying passengers. After a week in Natal, it was our turn and 12 of us left late in the afternoon. The plane took off and never went over 500 ft. in the air – it just headed east. It didn’t fly very fast so it was an overnight flight, but the plane was something else. The cabins had over-stuffed chairs and tables so we were very comfortable. When it came time for dinner, a steward came out, moved the chairs and set up tables and chairs. They even had a cook on board and we had a sumptuous dinner. When dinner was over, the tables were removed and the other chairs placed so we could sleep. That was the life!
The next morning we landed at Fisherman’s Lake, Monrovia. After breakfast at the Pan Am building, we were loaded onto a C-47 for the next leg and flew to Accra, Gold Coast. Again, we stayed there at a British Army base as more pilots were flown across the Atlantic. After a few days in Accra (living in native huts, incidentally) we were flown to Lagos, Nigeria where our planes were to be picked up. The planes were shipped over in crates on a freighter and assembled in Lagos. As a plane was finished we each picked out one and that plane became ours! I picked out mine, wrote the name on the cowl in chalk, and test flew it, slow timed it (fly for 4 hours at minimum setting to break in the engine) and got ready to go. As we became ready, we flew off to Egypt in groups of 7.
Our planes at that point did not have radios or navigational equipment installed so we were led across Africa by a British A-20 – a light bomber. We set out each morning at dawn, gathered around the A-20 and followed him. The first day we landed at Kano for refueling and then on to Maidugurie for overnight (both are in Nigeria). Pan Am had set up all the stations across Africa so the accommodations and food were good. At Maidugurie they had pet leopards and I played with one and almost got bitten.
The next morning we left at dawn again. We were in our planes and ready to go as soon as the sun rose. During that night we had gotten word that Col. McGoldrick had been killed in a strafing raid and Bates was now Group CO. Bates was in our group of 7 so he took over. We landed at Fort Lamy (French Equatorial Africa) for refueling and left as soon as we could to fly on to Khartoum (Sudan), cutting it close, landing just at dusk as night was closing in. We spent the night at Khartoum University sleeping in cots on the veranda. The next (third) day we took off for Wadi Halfa (Sudan) for refueling. Wadi Halfa is now UNDER Lake Nasser (due to the Aswan Dam). At Wadi Halfa they had to refuel our planes from 5 gallon cans and it took forever. Not only that, but it was hotter than hell. The British invited us for some tea, and, while drinking it, they pulled out a “chit” (bill) and asked us to sign for the tea, on a reverse lend-lease. Here we were, over there to help them and they charged us for a cup of tea!
Also, our planes were “red-lined” at 120° F. We weren’t supposed to start or run the engines if the temp. gauge was over 120°. Sitting in the desert at Wadi Halfa, the gauges read over 120° before we even started them. So we just lined up in a row, started the engines, and took off straight ahead. And prayed!!
That night we landed at the airport at Heliopolis in Cairo, Egypt. Again, we didn’t know where or when we’d be going anywhere, but the RAF put us up in a “pension” near the harbor and told us we’d be notified about future activities. So we explored Cairo, the pyramids and Sphinx, the Egyptian Museum and the native quarter. After all the pilots arrived in Cairo (arriving in groups of 7) and there were 80 pilots and planes in the group, we were told to be ready to fly out “into the blue”, as the British called the war zone. One morning we were summoned, went to Heliopolis, took off and followed another A-20 to our new home: LG (Landing Ground) 174. Our ground officers and enlisted men (whom we had left in Hartford many weeks before) had come over by ship with stops in Rio and South Africa, and had just arrived at LG 174 the day before. So someone really was keeping track of things!
LG 174 was just outside of Alexandria (near El Alamein) so we managed to get into Alex frequently. The RAF took over and wouldn’t let us fly combat until they had re-trained us, which was very fortunate. So we spent a lot of time flying around, practicing everything until the RAF said we were ready. While this was going on, groups of us would go up to the 57th Group which had come over earlier, and we’d fly combat with them, under their wing, so to speak.
When we got to Alexandria the first time, we were told by the British that the native girls were diseased and to stay away from them. They said that the British Army had set up whore houses for Officers and Enlisted men in Alexandria, which were controlled by the Army and always had a physician on duty, and that all the girls were inspected daily. The house in Alexandria was called “Mary’s” and included a bar, dance floor, small snack bar and orchestra so one could spend the evening there. Mary herself sat at the head of the stairs and collected the fee: One pound, 10 shillings (about $5) as you went up with a girl.
The British were much more advanced than the Americans in this respect and did everything they could to prevent infections. Whenever they took over a town, they established a house with proper precautions.
When I flew down to Asmara, Eritrea to pick up a plane, the British had taken over everything there including the Italian brothel called the “Casa Spiceo” (House of Mirrors). That house was really something – all mirrors no matter where you looked – floor, ceilings, walls, doors. They also had an MD on duty during open hours so we were not afraid of any diseases.
I heard that they had opened a house in Catania, Sicily, when we got there, but I never visited that house.
We remained at 174 until late January, 1943, as the British 8th Army fought its way back across the desert. During this time I made two trips away: Once, I flew to a town south of Cairo (Helwan) to get spare parts for our generator, which was our only source of electricity. I flew down and was met by a British officer who took me to their base. The warehouse was in a series of caves dug out in the limestone cliffs called the Gura Caves and they were in no hurry to help me. I had to spend the night and ran into the typical British Army. At dinner I was escorted to the Officers’ Club where most of the officers, in dress uniforms, sat and drank “Pink Gins”. At precisely 6:00 pm everyone had to stand at attention while the Colonel arrived. I was looked down on for I was wearing my desert clothes and most definitely not in uniform. The next morning I was awakened by a “batman” who shook me awake and gave me the proverbial cup of tea! After breakfast, they finally took me to the cases to get the parts and I could fly back.
The second trip was to get more planes. By this time, another source of places had been set up. The freighters would bring the crates of airplane parts to Port Sudan, Egypt on the Red Sea. The crates were then hauled up by truck to the town of Asmara, Eritrea (7000 ft. elev.), the planes re-assembled and then we pilots had to come get them. I got one, went through the testing and slow timing and then a group of us flew back to Heliopolis and LG 174. We flew up the Red Sea coastline and it never occurred to me that I was flying over very historic areas or that Mecca was just on the other side of the sea.
As the 8th Army got further and further away, the decision was made to move us up. We left 174 and flew to LG 150 (Gazala), then to Marble Arch (built by Mussolini out in the middle of the desert) to Miserata, Libya. From Miserata we flew to Bir Dufan and Darragh West and then to Castel Benito, Tripoli. We set up temporary residence at Castel Benito and finally went to Causeway LG — a large beach area near the town of Zarsis and not far from the Isle of Djerba. Not until 50 years later did I learn that the Isle of Djerba, which we visited many times, housed ancient Hebrew synagogues and temples, and that many Jews hid from the Nazis there.
We flew combat missions out of Causeway LG during March and April while the 8th Army was trying to get through the Mareth Line. Rommel had established a strong line at Mareth and the 8th Army couldn’t break through so they were stuck. I flew my first combat mission on Mar. 18, 1943 as part of a bomber escort. On my fourth combat mission we ran into 9 ME-109s and had one hell of a dog-fight. By the end of March I had twelve missions under my belt.
But Apr. 2, 1943 would prove to be THE DAY! We were on a bomber escort mission over the Gulf of Gabes and we tangled with some ME-109s and I shot one down! However, before that eventful day, we were involved in the break-through of the Mareth Line. The road through was very narrow. On one side was the Mediterranean Sea and on the other was a tremendous salt marsh extending hundreds of miles into the desert, and thought to be impenetrable. The Germans had fortified the narrow gap to the town of Mareth and Monty was stopped cold!
Montgomery’s plan to break through involved sending the ANZACs out into the desert, working their way around the salt marsh, which was something everyone but Monty thought impossible. When the Aussies and New Zealanders were almost in position near a town called El Hamma, the plan was to launch a massive frontal attack with air support consisting of fighter planes strafing the German positions to keep them down. The attack was so important that an RAF Air Vice Marshal (= Lt. General) came to our group to brief us. Our job was to send 16 planes in (each squadron would send 16 planes) and fly back and forth on El Hamma strafing everything in sight. At that point in the war, the CARDINAL rule in strafing was to make one pass at a target and get out, for you’ve stirred up a hornets’ nest. (Col. McGoldrick was killed because he strafed the same position). This job meant we had to stay there for 20 minutes flying back and forth right over the ground – it was suicide. Our squadron lost 4 of the 16 planes – and the pilots – and the planes that came back were really shot up! The attack, however, succeeded. The Mareth Line broke and the 8th Army continued its march through Tunisia.
On May 6, 1943 we were on a dive-bombing mission over the Bay of Tunis when we spotted an Italian destroyer trying to escape. We proceeded to dive-bomb it with 500 lb. bombs, and my 500 pounder went down the smokestack and the destroyer blew up and sank. I got credit for the destroyer which helped me get the Distinguished Flying Cross.
We continued to fly combat missions: strafing, bomber escort and fighter sweeps and, as the Germans retreated, we moved forward to new bases. We moved to LG North Fauconnerrie, Tunisia, and then to Kairoan LG (Hani West) — just so we wouldn’t have too far to fly! The Germans finally capitulated in North Africa after losing about 120 planes in a vain attempt to save a lot of them from Cape Bon. One day we were all called together and told that there was a massive air effort to take place. Somehow (years later we learned of the Enigma decoder) the British had learned that the Germans were going to send a tremendous number of JU-88s and ME-323s across the Mediterranean to pick up the retreating Germans. We were told that each group would send out 48 planes (16 per squadron) and patrol across the opening to the Bay of Tunis for one hour. They would be relieved by another group, return, refuel, and go back again.
We had just finished our one hour of flying back and forth across the Bay of Tunis and were relieved by the 57th Group. We started back to our base when we heard the damndest chattering on the radio. The 57th had intercepted all those unarmed planes and had a field day. There was one pilot on his first mission who shot down 5 unarmed JU-88s and became an ace before he knew anything about the war! We, of course, could do nothing – we were low on fuel and had to fly home listening to all this over the radio. This became known as the “Palm Sunday Massacre”.
On June 5, 1943, we moved up to the tip of Cape Bon, Haouria LG so we could fly against Pantelleria Island. On June 10, 16 of us went out on a fighter sweep and had what became known as the “Turkey Shoot”. We ran into 18 or so ME-1092 and Macchi 200s escorting a hospital plane low on the water. Within 10 minutes we had shot down 15 of the enemy aircraft without a loss. Paul McArthur was shot down but was rescued and received the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts that day – just below the Medal of Honor!! An account of that firefight is covered in The Falcon and The Hostile Sky. Both books carry a vivid description of the Turkey Shoot.
The war finally ended in Africa around June 14, 1943 and our group was sent back to Causeway LG for R&R and to await the invasion of Sicily which everyone knew was coming soon.
By that time, most of us in the squadron had 48 or 49 missions and the number required to go home was 50. Duke, our CO, decided that, somehow, we’d get that 50th mission in so we could go home. He set up a mission to fly back to Malta, refuel and come home to Causeway. We flew the mission but when we returned to the Causeway we were told that the mission requirement had been changed to 80. We felt as if we’d been shafted to the hilt but there was nothing we could do. This was July 6, 1943 and it took me until November, 1943 to get the rest of the 30 missions in. It took me longer than most because I had my appendix removed in Sicily and was out of action for 30 days.
After the 50-mission fiasco we sat at Causeway and tried to enjoy the beach. During that time, Duke arranged for us to go back to Alexandria on leave in shifts. One day while there I ran into Red Crossley on the street. Red had gone to flying school with me and had been in our squadron in the states. When we were alerted for overseas, a few guys from each squadron were held back to help form the new group, the 325th, and Red was one of them. He had come overseas with the 325th on the invasion of North Africa at Casablanca and was also on leave in Alexandria.
On returning to the Causeway, Smokey Morrison and I were delegated to fly to Oran via C-47 to pick up 2 new planes for the squadron. Off we went but, on arrival, were told that the planes wouldn’t be read for a couple of days and to visit Oran. We went into town and wandered around and finally found the Red Cross Club — we hadn’t seen one before. Much to my surprise and shock, the man sitting at the desk and in charge of the club turned out to be Edgar Gilbert, the man who had been the manager of the Grandview Hotel in Lake Placid when I worked there a few summers earlier. I introduced myself and he was shocked to see me. I asked if we could clean up somewhere — we’d just come in from the desert and were pretty dirty. He gave us shaving supplies, toothbrushes and paste, and let us use the shower room. After we cleaned up we continued our tour of Oran and ran smack into a guy I knew from Michigan who was now an ensign in the Navy and in charge of the gun crew on a Liberty ship in port getting ready for the invasion of Sicily. He invited us on board his ship for a decent meal and we accepted. We were treated royally by the Captain who invited us to stay on board for a couple of days until our planes were ready. Smokey thought he should go back so he did, but I stayed on board for 2 days living well. When I returned to the Oran Air Base, my plane was ready so I flew back to Causeway.
Invasion of Sicily
Several months earlier I had obtained a Volkswagen of my own and learned to drive it. While at Causeway I tried to tune it up with the help of my crew chief and my right forefinger got caught in the fly-wheel and was really torn open. Our flight surgeon put sulfanilamide on it and bandaged it and, inasmuch as it was my trigger finger, took me off flying status until the finger healed. So, off I went to Alexandria again, with my bandaged finger. When I returned a week later I learned that the Sicilian invasion had occurred and my squadron was already in Syracuse, Sicily. I rejoined the squadron and we were transferred to a place called Palagonia, on a plain not far from Catania.
I started to fly combat again on Aug. 6, 1943 and Sicily was a very hot campaign for us. We lost several aircraft and pilots. Frank Huff and Jim Pittard were both shot down and taken prisoner on the same mission and Bud Hennin was shot down but recovered by a British ship and returned to us. The day Frank and Jim were shot down and we returned to Palagonia, Leo Berinati and I decided we’d go looking for them or their planes. We thought that maybe they were wandering around in the mountains – it was close to Mt. Etna. Anyhow, we took off in a jeep dressed in our usual desert uniform which meant anything we had on as long as it had the 1st Lt. insignia attached. They were shot down on Patton’s “American” side of the campaign and we drove toward that side but were stopped by American MPs who refused to let us go on because we weren’t “in uniform”. Patton insisted that everyone always wore complete uniforms! It was so bad that the Sicilian campaign actually became a 3-sided war: Patton and Montgomery hated each other so they wouldn’t let the troops mix even though both were fighting the Germans at the same time. We had to return without looking for Frank or Jim!
Celebration and Surgery
I flew my 65th combat mission on Aug. 25 and then things quieted down because the Germans left Sicily. On Sep. 1, 1943 we had a victory party at our villa in Sicily and everyone got skunk drunk. At about midnight I, through my drunken stupor, got a tremendous belly-ache and went up to my room. A little later, Smokey Morrison came up and I was in agony and told him to get our squadron MD. Doc. Magness came up to examine me but was drunker than I was, and told me to sleep it off. I convinced Smokey to get the enlisted medics and the Sgt. in charge examined me and said he thought I had appendicitis. So, at 2:00 AM, I was taken to the 4th Field Hospital (comparable to present day MASH units). When I got there, the medic on duty examined me, did some blood tests, and said I sure had appendicitis and woke up the surgical crew.
By 3 AM I was on the operating table. The chief surgeon gave me a spinal block so I was awake through the surgery. The surgeon operated in his T-shirt, with a white cap and rubber gloves. However, he was a nicotine addict and all through the operation he had a cigarette in his mouth. One of the nurses had the duty of removing the cigarette when the ash grew long, flicking it off, and returning it to his mouth. Lying there, I was mesmerized by it! Suffice it to say, no ash fell into me. When he removed the appendix the surgeon told me that it was just about to burst and I was a lucky guy!
I was in the hospital for 10 days and released but, by that time, the 8th Army had invaded the toe of Italy and the 79th Group had moved into Italy also – to Crotone. I got a ride to the 57th Group and stayed with Art Salisbury who was now a Colonel and Group Commander. Gil Wymond was the 65th Commanding Officer and he flew me back to the 79th in a Fiesler-Storch (German observation plane) they had captured and I got back home.
The hospital commander had put me on DNIF (Duty Not Involving Flying) for 3 weeks so I just sat around while everyone else was flying missions. While we were at Crotone we saw our first and only USO show. It was Jack Benny and his troupe. Apparently, Benny was in charge of the troupe and was putting on a show in Tunis when he found out that there was an American outfit in Italy near the front lines so he insisted that the troupe be sent to our outfit for a show. The troupe included Winifred Shaw, a singer, and Larry Adler, a harmonica virtuoso, and they put on a terrific show.
Putting in 80 Missions
Right after they left, a C-47 arrived with supplies for us and Duke suggested that I take sick leave and go back to Africa on the plane. So he had orders typed up and I took off. When I returned to the outfit 2 weeks later they were at Foggia, Italy. Not only that, but most of my friends, guys I’d gone to flying school with and came overseas with, had finished their 80 missions and were gone! Only Smokey Morrison, George Lee, John Pinkham, Duke, and myself were left out of the bunch who had come overseas together. I was suddenly a flight leader and assistant operations officer. Smokey had his missions in but wouldn’t go home for, in all his missions (120), he had never seen an enemy aircraft in the sky and said he wouldn’t go home until he at least saw one! I kept flying my missions, waiting for #80.
My 80th mission was almost my last in more ways than one! On Oct. 29, 1943 I few a dive-bombing mission over Pescara, Italy for mission no. 79. We returned to Foggia, refueled and re-armed and took off again for Pescara – mission no. 80. I was assigned to lead the squadron to dive-bomb Ancona on the Adriatic Coast. We took off in the late afternoon with a flight of RAF Spitfire IXs as our top-cover (to protect us during the bombing attack). We bombed the port and city and started back home only to find that a tremendous thunderhead had started while we were out. We tried to climb over it but couldn’t – the Spits could and left us. I took the squadron down on the deck – just over the water of the Adriatic. We headed down the coast of Italy about 100 ft. over the water toward Foggia. The weather above us was jet black and it was raining hard. When I thought we were opposite Foggia by the landmarks, I turned the squadron inland only to run into driving rain and blackness. I was immediately on instruments and called the others to turn on their lights. I knew there were mountains ahead and around us and made the decision to fly back over the water. I called the squadron and they followed me back. Luckily we didn’t run into each other. We were milling around over the “beach” area and I had just told them to belly in on the beach because we were running low on fuel, when I spied what looked like a new runway on the beach at a place called Termoli. I called the others and told them I would try to land wheels down and, if I made it, they could follow me. If I didn’t, they should belly in!
I landed with my wheels locked (brakes on and locked) onto a muddy runway and slid all the way to the end – but upright! As soon as I reached the end, I gunned the engine to get off the runway. Some British troops were there to construct the runway and helped push me off the end. The rest of the guys landed as I did and we saved all 12 planes! After we were all down, a British truck came out to get us. We called back to headquarters to let them know we were down safely, and were driven back to Foggia in trucks. When we got back, I told Duke “That’s it. Eighty missions. I’m through!” He, in typical Duke fashion, stated that I wasn’t through until I had my plane back at Foggia. I was petrified. Other guys I knew who had finished their missions and flew while awaiting their orders to go home had been killed, and I didn’t want to add to that statistic.
The next day the weather cleared and we were all driven back to Termoli in a truck with our flying equipment. We had to scrape the mud off the wheels and undercarriage of the plane before we could do anything. After refueling, we took off again and flew back to Foggia. That landing had to be the worst landing I ever made – I bounced down the runway, but when I got out of the plane, Duke told me he had already put in the request for my orders home.
One guy, Dave Vandivort, was on his first mission as my wing-man on my 80th mission. To this day, he still thinks he owes his life to me for saving him on that mission – he was convinced we were goners!
‘Vacationing’ and ‘Appropriating’ Jeeps
While waiting for my orders to go home, I put in for leave to visit Naples, Amalfi, and Sorrento. Our group had taken over a hotel in Amalfi as a rest home. Eustace Bane, our intelligence officer, had been my tent-mate across the desert and he decided to come along with me to Amalfi. Then Col. Grogan (who had been our Squadron CO) decided to come along also, so the three of us took a squadron jeep for a vacation from the war. We visited Naples first but it was in bad shape from all the bombing and the American 5th Army had it under control. We were used to wearing whatever we wanted to anywhere but the 5th Army MPs insisted that everyone in Naples had to be in full uniform. So we took off for Amalfi. We checked into our hotel which overlooked the Adriatic and started our vacation. The second night there we decided to visit a local restaurant for dinner instead of eating at the hotel so off we went. A common practice overseas was to steal cars, and another common practice was to remove the rotor from the distributor whenever you parked your car to prevent its loss. So we took the rotor out and asked a “local” to watch our jeep. As we were finishing dinner, the local came running in screaming in Italian – we finally understood that someone was stealing our jeep. We ran out but the jeep was long gone. I suspect the thieves paid the local to look the other way!
We got a ride back to the hotel and I was all for stealing an American jeep wherever we could find one. I had the rotor in my pocket! Grogan vetoed that and insisted that we should report it to the MPs in Salerno. We reported it to the MP HQ and were told it was impossible to find “our” jeep, and the best thing was to just steal one back!
We returned to Amalfi and Grogan headed back to Foggia while Bane and I continued our ‘vacation’. Bane insisted that we had to visit Capri and Sorrento because his wife had made the “Grand Tour” as a graduation present years before and had told him all about them. So we spent a day in Sorrento. The next day we hired a small fishing boat and went to Capri where we spent three days just taking life easy. However, we did get to visit the “Blue Grotto” which is a grotto you enter via a small flat boat from the sea. If the seas are running you can’t get in. The effect was gorgeous and it was really an experience.
We returned to Foggia and by that time Duke knew about the jeep. Our group CO, Col. Bates (who disliked Grogan) stated that we’d have to pay for the jeep (around $700). That bothered me but Duke told me to go home (my orders were in) and forget it. Several months later, after I had been home for quite a while, I received a letter from George Lee, who had stayed overseas and become the 87th Squadron CO, in which he said “Forget the jeep, we replaced it!”
I finally left Foggia for the U.S. on Nov. 11, 1943, accompanied by Smokey Morrison who finally gave up. We left Casablanca, Morocco on the Empress of Scotland on Nov. 30 after waiting for two weeks in Marrakech for a flight home, eventually arriving in Newport News, VA on Dec. 6, 1943.
Strafing Mission – April 12, 1943
In our early missions during the war, we did a lot of strafing. For the uninitiated, strafing involved flying our aircraft very low to the ground and sneaking up on enemy encampments, gun emplacements, convoys or what-have-you to try to destroy them. The whole idea was to surprise the enemy while they were eating or sleeping because strafing was very dangerous. The cardinal rule in strafing was to make one pass at the target and get the hell out of there once you’d stirred up a hornets’ nest. (Our group commander, Pete McGoldrick, had come overseas before us to get experience to pass on to us, and had violated that rule. He was killed on his first strafing mission by going back over the same target).
Anyhow, on the afternoon of my birthday, Apr. 12, we were given the mission to strafe a German camp at Wadi Akarit, across the bay from our field. Twelve of us took off late enough in the day so we’d get to Wadi Akarit in the dusk. We flew just over the water in line abreast formation until we hit the coastline figuring we’d really surprise them.
However, what no one had told us was that the 86th Squadron had gone in there on the same mission just before us, and the hornets were really aroused! We flew in and started to shoot up everything in sight, but we were being shot at also. It was a mess and I could see tracers all around my plane. We flew about 5 miles into the desert beyond the camp to turn around and come home, still flying just above the ground. Suddenly, Duke, our squadron CO who was on the same mission, came on the radio and said “Look up”. So I did and there, about 2000 ft. above us, was a complete German aircraft show: German bombers in tight formation with Stukas and ME-109s flying alongside them for protection. There had to be between 40-50 planes up there. Duke called for us to turn back and we left as fast as we could going way south of the German camp to avoid any more action from them.
When we returned and were being debriefed and telling this story, the British Wing Commander (who was our liaison officer) asked us “Why didn’t you attack?” We all looked at him as if he had an extra hole in his head, but he was serious. When we said we were 12 planes against over 40 Germans and they had the advantage of being above us, he poo-pooed the idea and said the British would have taken them on.
As far as I’m concerned, we made the correct decision and I’ve never regretted not attacking. We could have become another statistic of the war – 12 planes who went out and never returned.
Obtaining Transportation Overseas
While we were overseas in Africa, there was a severe shortage of everything, including personal transportation. The squadron had many jeeps but each one of us wanted his own personal automobile. We were just far enough back of the 8th Army to prevent us from getting captured German vehicles before the British appropriated them. So it became a serious past-time of “stealing” any and all cars, of any vintage, manufacture, or ownership.
I vividly remember at least three incidents in which I was involved. There are not, by any means, the only incidents of stealing cars. By the time we left Africa for Sicily, just about every pilot and mechanic had his own car!
One day when we were wandering around the Tunisian area in a squadron jeep we came across a British encampment and saw, to our amazement, a perfectly good jeep sitting unattended. Inasmuch as we always carried spare distributor rotors with us and with some of us acting as lookouts, one of us (I don’t remember who) lifted the hood, put in the rotor and drove off. The rest of us jumped into our jeep and followed as fast as the jeep could go. After many diversions, we ended up in a grove of trees way off the road and were sitting there congratulating ourselves at our coup.
Suddenly, up drove another British jeep, complete with an officer, a 50-caliber mounted machine gun, and 2 Gurkhas pointing the gun at us. To put it mildly, we were scared to death because Gurkhas were noted for their ruthlessness. The British officer, (I don’t remember his rank), was rather brusque but managed to convey the message that we had had a good try, but he wanted the jeep back NOW! We surrendered it gladly and they took off with their jeep, and we thanked our lucky stars we were unharmed.
The second incident happened when, again, we were driving up a Tunisian road and passed a Citroen two-seater sitting on the road near a house. We figured whoever owned it was in the house and we would give it a try. One of us, I believe it was Ace Adair, got under the dash, hot-wired the ignition, and took off. Again, we followed to protect him and, as I recall, Ace had that roadster until we left for Sicily.
The third incident concerns the Free French HQ. A group of us were driving around and ran into this town which had a large French HQ. Across the street they had established a parking lot and there were a lot of cars of all makes and models parked there! We planned this attack carefully. Two of us (including me) went over to the French Colonial who was on guard and started a conversation with him about the various cars, to keep him busy. A third (I don’t remember who) had picked out a Citroen sedan as the target and casually sauntered over to it, checked it out, “rotorized” it, jumped the ignition and took off like a shot. We jumped in our jeep and followed. At the outskirts of town we turned the jeep across the road to stop any pursuers – we could pretend to have motor trouble. In this manner, we obtained a beautiful Citroen sedan with the shift on the dashboard. It was a fine car and I had a chance to drive it.
I, personally, had a German “jeep”, the original Volkswagen, as my personal car and for the life of me I can’t remember how I got it. We painted my squadron number and plane number on it – 87-81 – and I had it until I left for Sicily. At the time I not only had no driver’s license but had actually learned to drive on these “appropriated” cars. My crew chief showed me how to maintain the engine of the VW and, for a while, I knew something about mechanics.
Once we got to Sicily and Italy, it wasn’t too easy to get cars and we had to make do with the squadron transportation, although I did have a jeep stolen from me at Amalfi, Italy.
Destroying a Destroyer
On May 6, 1943, while stationed at L.G. Hani West, at Kairouan, Tunisia, our squadron was sent out on a dive bombing mission over the Bay of Tunis. By this time, the Germans were pretty well bottled up in the Bizerte-Tunis area and were being closed in by the Americans on the west and the British 8th Army on the south. The Germans were starting to evacuate as many troops as they could by ship from Tunis and our job was to try to destroy any shipping we saw in the Bay of Tunis.
Sixteen of us took off and headed for the Tunis area at about 10,000 ft. We were divided into 4 sections of 4 planes each – I was in Yellow section (topmost) and flying on Frank Huff’s wing — he was the flight leader and I was his wingman.
When we arrived over the bay, there was quite a bit of shipping going on but there was also a destroyer in the middle of the bay to protect the cargo vessels. The decision was made to go for the destroyer first — if we could disable it, the troop ships would be ‘easy meat’ . We lined up in a ‘follow the leader’ formation — strung out in a line of 16 planes — and I was the last (what we used to call ‘Tail-end Charlie) — because he always caught the brunt of the opposition. By the time tail end charlie came down, the enemy anti-aircraft, etc., were fully alert and could take dead aim on his plane.
We had learned to dive bomb shipping along the length of the ship rather than across it for it gave us a bigger target. We had also learned to divebomb by diving directly at the target and release our 500 lb. bomb just before starting to pull out of the dive. We didn’t have any dive bombing aiming device — just our plane.
We started the bomb run and 2 of the bombs hit the destroyer but the rest exploded in the water. The anti-aircraft fire was fierce with ‘golf balls’ whizzing all around me (‘golf balls’ were the tracer bullets which looked like golf balls when flying thru the air). I was the last one down and the destroyer was still going at full speed despite the two hits, zig-zagging as it went. I dove down straight at the ship aiming my plane just ahead of the bow of the ship to allow for movement of the ship forward. I released my bomb and started to pull up and out of the dive and almost blacked-out. As I regained my senses and turned to join the rest of the squadron, Frank Huff called on the radio and said that my bomb had gone down the smoke stack and blown up the destroyer. I looked back and the ship was in two and going down fast. Naturally, I was quite elated and excited — and received credit for one destroyer destroyed! The destruction of that destroyer was one of the factors in getting me the Distinguished Flying Cross!!
Our Only Night Mission
After the Germans capitulated in North Africa, the Allies decided they could try to get a convoy of ships through the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Alexandria, but they wanted air cover, just in case. Our group was selected to provide the cover for part of the passage at night. We were stationed in the desert and had no night facilities – lights, beams, direction finders, etc…
Our squadron, the 87th, sent out twelve P-40s carrying 75 gallon belly tanks of fuel to extend our time in the air. We left just before dusk so we could form up in the air while we could still see – none of us had flown a night mission since leaving the states over 7 months before. We were led by our squadron commander, “Duke” Uhrich, who had more experience than any of the rest of us. We formed up in flights of 4 planes and headed out over the craggy hills surrounding our base. As soon as we achieved our heading, Duke called us to switch to belly tanks to use up the extra gas first just in case some enterprising Germans decided to come out from Sicily.
I switched over to the belly tank and my engine quit COLD. We were only at about 1500 ft. and over the rocky out-croppings. I immediately switched back to main and pushed the toggle switch to feed gas to the engine, but nothing happened!! While I tried to get the engine started, I was looking for a place to land, wheels up, and also called Duke to tell him of my troubles. I was going down fast and the rest of the squadron started to circle over me. There was no place I could land – it was all rocks and hills – but I started to level off to make a crash landing – and praying!!
Just as I leveled off to crash land, the engine caught again and I “goosed” it enough to gain flying speed and started to climb to rejoin the squadron. I was in a cold sweat! When I rejoined them, I called Duke and told him that somebody probably forgot to fill my belly tank and I didn’t have the extra 75 gallons everyone else had. He told me to watch my petrol and when I was down to the bare minimum to get back, we’d scratch the rest of the mission and all come home.
When I decided it was time to return, we all came home using dead reckoning and a few prayers for it was pitch black with not a star or moon in the sky. By this time Duke had told us to turn on our running lights so we wouldn’t run into each other and, once we got back, I was to land first because I was lowest on petrol. The ground crew put out smudge pots for us to land by, which provided barely enough light to see, actually. I landed and my crew chief climbed on my wing to guide me to a spot to park. The others landed safely also, but Scotty Rogers, in his hurry to get off the runway, ran into a 55 gallon drum of petrol which promptly blew up. Scott got out with some minor burns, but the plane was destroyed.
After I parked my plane, I got out and started to chew out my crew chief about not filling the belly tank. The line chief was there also and he unscrewed the gas cap of the belly tank – and it was FULL! Someone had forgotten to attach the line from the belly tank to the plane. THEN I REALLY BLEW UP! I ranted and raved all over the flight line because I realized that, if I had tried to belly land, the 75 gallons of petrol would have blown me to kingdom come. I was livid and couldn’t be calmed down. The fact that Scotty’s plane was burning 100 years away didn’t matter to me – I could just see me blowing up because of some stupid mistake.
After they finally calmed me down with a few belts of Scotch, Duke and the line chief came to me and asked what I wanted done to the enlisted man who had forgotten to fasten the line. I realized that taking away his stripes would not solve the problem. It was over. I told them that, as far as I was concerned, the matter was closed and I was sure that no one would ever forget to attach the gas line in the future, for me or anyone else. My crew chief and his subordinates all thanked me for not pressing any charges and it actually made for a happier family on my plane.
Suffice it to say, because of what happened to Scotty’s plane, we never flew another night mission while I was with the 87th Squadron overseas. And, of course, the convoy sailed along without a worry in the world.
On Leave in Cairo, 1943
In Aug. 1943 I had an emergency appendectomy and afterward had orders not to fly for at least 2 weeks. I had to hitch-hike back to my squadron via the 57th Group which was still in Sicily. The hospital drove me to the 57th and Gil Wymond of the 65th Squadron flew me to Crotone in a German Fiesler-Storch observation plane they had “liberated”.
After a couple of days our CO, Duke Uhrich, told me to go back to Cairo on sick-leave rather than sit around doing nothing. A supply plane came in and Duke had leave orders cut for me immediately and I took off via Catania, Sicily, Tunis, and Benghazi to Cairo. Once I got to Cairo, I took the train to Alexandria and spent 2 weeks enjoying myself while the fighting was going on in Italy.
When my time was nearly up, I had a well-connected Englishwoman whom I’d been dating try to get me on a Royal Navy ship of some sort across the Mediterranean to Sicily. We spent a lovely afternoon in the Royal Navy Mess drinking pink gins and talking to various Royal Navy types. However, there was nothing going that way at that time so I was out of luck. So I took the train down to Cairo and reported into the US Embassy which now had taken over military responsibilities for Egypt. The 9th Air Force, which we had been a part of, was now in England preparing for the invasion of France.
Carrying my leave orders, I went into the transportation office. The clerk on duty took one look at the orders and told me I couldn’t get any transportation by those orders. Duke had placed me on sick leave alright, but the orders didn’t contain any information about traveling anywhere. So theoretically, I wasn’t supposed to be anywhere but with the squadron. I was at a loss as to what to do but I left the office and started out of the embassy.
As I walked down the hall, I passed an open office which had many tables and typewriters but only one clerk on duty. I was a 1st Lt., so I nonchalantly walked in and asked if I could use one of the typewriters. The clerk, an enlisted man, said yes. I took a sheet of paper, copied the leave orders exactly but added “travel via military aircraft authorized” and fixed it for Duke’s signature. I sat there and calmly copied Uhrich’s signature and, about 15 mins. after I had first appeared in the office, I returned with “new” orders. The clerk looked at them and accepted them without batting an eyelash. He told me to check into Shepeard’s Hotel and await further word.
That afternoon I received a note to be on the veranda in front of the hotel at 1:00 AM the next morning, ready to go with my baggage. I was carrying almost all of my personal clothing and effects PLUS a case of Scotch that I had purchased to bring back to the squadron. I was asked how much baggage I had and, as I recall, said about 150 lbs.
The next morning at precisely 1:00 AM, a staff car pulled up for me, loaded my baggage and I got in the back seat only to discover that the windows were blacked out and I couldn’t see a thing. Off we went and I was deposited at a “secret” airfield, taken into an office, and weighed in for the flight. Suddenly it was discovered that I had under-estimated the weight of my baggage and I was almost 100 lbs. overweight. I was told very directly that I had to get rid of the excess weight.
Naturally, I wasn’t going to get rid of the Scotch, so I started to throw out various items of clothing, the wooden box that contained the Scotch, and I finally got down to my limit and figured I’d seen the last of all the stuff I left there in Cairo.
I was taken out to the plane, a C-47 (DC-3) and went on board only to discover that I was alone! A short time later an RAF pilot and co-pilot came out with an enlisted mechanic and started to pre-flight the plane – while I sat in the back. Then a staff car came out with the rest of the passengers: Field Marshal Sir Bernard Freyberg and his staff. He was commander-in-chief of all Australian-New Zealand troops in the Middle East, and had won the Victoria Cross during WW I. I was totally ignored and sat on the floor of the plane in the rear, and off we went – all before dawn. There was no one else on the aircraft and it could have held at least 20 more people so I was kind of ticked off that they had made such a fuss about my weight allowance.
We flew to Benghazi for refueling and then on to Tunis. This was not a short flight and I did not bring along any food, and there was nowhere to get any. When Freyberg became hungry, his orderly pulled out a tremendous hamper of food and they all had “lunch”. I still sat “at the back of the bus” salivating. Finally, the orderly took sympathy on me and brought me a sandwich and some coffee. Otherwise, as far as Freyberg was concerned, I could have starved.
Because Freyberg was such a very big VIP, every time we landed, all the local VIPs converged and I was treated to many shows. We landed at Malta and they had a band, the local governor, and local bigwigs to greet the Marshal. The air trip ended at Catania, Sicily, where Freyberg took off via staff car for god-knows-where. I was left to fend for myself and had no idea of where my group was.
I went into Operations and tried to get to Italy. No one was particularly interested in what happened to me so I sat in Catania for 2 days trying to get a ride to Italy. Finally, I pulled the old army trick and offered the operations clerk a bottle of Scotch – but only if and when I got on a plane to Italy! I was on the next flight out to the 57th Group again which was close to the 79th. They drove me home and I arrived back late but, as Duke said when I got there, as long as I had the Scotch, nothing else mattered.
Incidentally, during the summer of 1945 (a year and a half later!) I got a phone call from my sister while I was at Bradley Field, CT, wanting to know if I was alright. My mother had just received a package from the “Effects Depot” in St. Louis addressed me. I had no idea of what it was but told her to hold on to it and when I came down to N.Y. I’d see what it was. It was all the stuff I had unloaded in Cairo at the airport to get down to the weight limit!
Promotion to Captain
During WW II, when I was overseas in Italy, I completed my required combat missions (80) in late October, 1943. Another pilot, “Smokey” Morrison, also completed his missions, and he and I were ready to return to the US. We were both 1st Lieutenants and were eligible for promotion to captain.
When we received our orders to return home, our CO, Major Ben (Duke) Uhrich gave us the papers recommending us for promotion and told us to hand-carry them to 12th Air Force HQ in Tunis on our way home to save time and get our promotions before we returned stateside. So Smokey and I took off from Foggia, Italy via Naples for Tunis.
When we arrived in Tunis, after checking into the local Visiting Officers Quarters, we went to HQ and handed our papers in to a Major in Personnel. He took one look at them and told us they were made out incorrectly and were no good. It seems the orderly room clerk who typed them recommended our promotions in the “Air Corps Reserve” (which we were) but, because of the war, no promotions were being made in the reserve and it should have been the “Army of the U.S.” – AFR. We asked what we should do and were told to take them back to Italy and have Duke reissue the recommendations. Smokey was incensed (I wasn’t exactly happy either) and we stormed out of the office and went to the Officers’ Club to drown our sorrows and figure out what to do.
On walking into the Club we ran into Major Harmon Burns who had been in our squadron in the states (and gone to flying school with us). He’d been left behind to help form a new group (the 325th) and was now the CO of a squadron stationed just outside of Tunis. We told him our sad story and he said, “No problem!”
He took our recommendations back to his squadron and had his clerk make out new recommendations for Uhrich’s signature. In the meantime, Smokey and I sat there and practiced writing Duke’s signature. The next morning, Harm brought 25 copies for each one of us and we sat there and wrote Duke’s signature on all of them. Then we picked out the best one for each of us and off we went back to the 12th AF HQ. We went back to Personnel, saw the same Major, and handed him the new forms. Without a word, he accepted them and told us to have a seat. About ten minutes he later came out with promotion orders for both of us and we walked out as Captains!
We proceeded on our way home via Algiers, Oran and Marrakech where we were hung up because we couldn’t get on a flight home due to low priority. After a few days of loafing in Marrakech which to us was really boring, we heard about a ship leaving Casablanca for the States and that we could get on it. So, off we went to Casablanca. While awaiting the ship we spent our time sightseeing and one afternoon went to a movie. While waiting for the movie to start, who should walk in but Duke Uhrich, on his way home. We told him the story and were told it was a good thing we did what we did, for Duke had left Foggia right after us – he was the last one except for George Lee of the original outfit and was lonely.
A Close Encounter With FDR
A side note to this tale: While in Oran (we spent three days there) Smokey and I walked down to the harbor and saw floating there, to our amazement, the USS Iowa in all its glory. Smokey took one look at it and said, “That’s the way to go home – with those 16 inch guns protecting us!” So we took off for the US Navy HQ down the street. The office had a tremendous picture window overlooking the harbor (and the Iowa). We told the Naval officer on duty that we wanted to get on the battleship in the harbor. He calmly looked at us and said, “There’s no battleship in the harbor”. Smokey, who was no shrinking violet, told him to turn around and look at the ship. He retorted, “There’s no ship out there!” and we finally got the hint that we weren’t about to get on it, so we left.
While walking down the boulevard, we heard sirens and watched this parade of vehicles go whizzing by. As they went by, we suddenly realized that President F.D. Roosevelt was in one of the cars and we wondered what the hell was going on. It suddenly hit us that Roosevelt must have come in on the USS Iowa, but that’s all we realized. It wasn’t until we were in Casablanca many days later that we heard about the Cairo Conference which is where Roosevelt was heading when we saw him. He flew from Oran to Cairo and, incidentally, was escorted part of the way across the desert by Harmon Burns’ squadron.
Mistaken for the Enemy
As it happened, Duke, Smokey and I returned to the states on the same ship, the Empress of Scotland (which had been the Empress of Japan – and still had the metal plate signifying that in the pursers’ lounge). I don’t remember how long the voyage was because about three days out I became very ill – I believed from all the greasy British food we were fed. However, the ship’s MD said I was sea-sick and put me in the sick-bay. The more they fed me the greasy food, the more I threw up on them until finally they decided to stop feeding me. Just about the time we landed at Newport News, VA, I was released from the sick-bay.
We docked in the evening and disembarked the next morning. I was in pretty lousy shape not having eaten in several days, but I struggled off the ship with Duke helping me. While we were on the dock, Duke looked at me and told me I was turning yellow. He called over one of the medics who immediately called an ambulance and they took me off to the base hospital where I was diagnosed as having infectious hepatitis – jaundice. At that time, it was considered contagious so I was placed at the very end of a ward, in a sort of porch area, along with another officer who had jaundice. We were both the color of yellow writing tablets.
After a couple of days, we realized that there were grey lady volunteers coming around to the ward with books, candy, etc. but they never came down to see us. I asked the nurse why we were neglected so she checked. It seems the ladies, seeing our skin color, thought we were Japanese and didn’t want any part of us!
As our appetites returned and the color started to fade, we were told we’d be transferred to a general hospital because we needed extended care. We got our orders transferring us to Woodrow Wilson Gen. Hospital in Staunton, VA, but they also stated that when we were released from the hospital, we were assigned to the Overseas Replacement Depot at Seymour Johnson Field, NC. Hell, we’d just come home from overseas!! We went to the adjutant about that but, as was typical for the Army, he said he couldn’t do anything about it because their standing orders were to assign flying officers that way.
We followed his orders, went to WW Gen. Hospital where I spent thirty days, went home on sick leave for thirty days, came back to the hospital and, when released, went home for my original thirty days overseas leave. Then I went to Atlantic City for six weeks awaiting new orders. I finally received them, assigning me to Mitchell Field in Long Island for processing. That was great since I was able to live at home (in New York City) and go back and forth to the base via the Long Island Railroad.