The original cadre of Officers for the 316th were pulled from the 33rd Fighter Group, and I presume the Enlisted cadre came from the same outfit. The Squadron Commander was Fred Delaney, Jr., Bob Dempsey was Operations Officer, and the three Flight Leaders were Jack Rogers, Eddie Roberton, Jr. and Dave Carpenter.
Wing Commander was Gen. (then Col.) Pete Quesada. Wing and Group Headquarters were in Philadelphia, Pa.; the 3l5th squadron was organized at Philadelphia also, and the 314th Squadron was located at Baltimore. The 3l6th was organized at Norfolk, Va.
Those of us from Aviation Cadet class 42-F arrived in mid-July, 1942. The Norfolk, Va., base (now the Commercial Airport) was then essentially a triangularly shaped grass patch, with the longer leg used as a runway and the shorter leg for aircraft parking and maintenance. Our Operations building was a tar paper shack in the nearby woods, and the Officers and Airmen lived a few miles away in tar paper and roughed-in barracks. Fortunately it was summertime.
Our initial day and night checkouts in the P-40 were done at Langley Field (across the Bay) because their runway was longer and, therefore, allowed a greater margin for errors of green pilots. Those pilots with only military flying experience were lucky to have had more then 150 hours total -- PT-17, BT-13, AT-6. A few of us had had civilian pilot training prior to Cadets, and some light plane time.
Nothing had prepared us for the noise, torque, rudder pressures, and ground looping tendencies of the P-40. We must have done well in spite of all these hazards because I remember only one a/c being pranged. Troy Upton, on one landing, bounced up on his left wheel and wing tip. He made a great sweeping power-on arc across the field until a chain link fence caught him. They had to cut the fence to get him out, but he was not hurt -- became one of our finest pilots.
Everyone agreed that the first night take off was a frightening experience. Mine was on a dark moonless night, with not over 15 daylight P-40 flying hours to my name. When I advanced the throttle for take off the flames from six exhaust stacks on each side of the V-12 engine swirled back as far as the cockpit, as if to burn up me and the airplane. Relief came after a little acceleration when the exhaust flames settled down to a blue comforting flicker.
In rapid order we felt at home in the birds, mastered our regular formations, and began to experiment with probable combat formations and techniques. Dempsey was a tall lanky likeable hard-driving Ops 0fficer who thought we should train 24 hours and day not waste time sleeping. Delaney was a firm but fair type who quietly led everybody to understand that we were going to be the best and were going to earn that reputation. During this training period those two established the habit of informal analysis of each mission after formal debriefings were completed.
All of us felt we had a part in creating our initial combat formations, maneuvers, and tactics -- and continued to develop teamwork. The analysis tradition was kept throughout the war as a matter of necessity to account for changing combat conditions, different terrain, and enemy ground and air opposition. During this time there was practically no information feedback from units in combat, there was not yet that much experience to draw on.
We practiced four ship javelin formations for air to air attack purposes and a loose box formation which we heard one unit was flying for defensive purposes. For ourselves we devised a "modified box" as we called it, where the element leader of a 4 ship flight would fly roughly opposite the flight leader (loose enough to maneuver) with the wing men flying fairly close, but not tight, echelon to the outside. We developed right turns, left turns, and turnabouts in either direction so that every maneuver ended with each aircraft in proper position on the new heading and no "tail end charlie" hanging out exposed. We practiced using voice signals and control surface signals for radio silence purposes. For turns, the voice command was simply "Right Turn", "Left Turn", and the command of execution was, "Go!" In the turn the second element passed over or under the lead element, depending on which side of the lead element he was flying at the time; the length of the arc during the turn, then, turned out to be just about the same distance as the leader's if properly executed. A 180 degree turn or thereabout was also executed on the command "Go!"; for example, "Turnabout Left . . . . . Go!" In the turnabout, the object was for the flight leader and the element leader to turn more or less in place. The wing men did the same but normally had to drop down slightly and slide to the outside and back into proper spacing.
If under attack with no time to spare, the Command for turnabout was, "Duck Right!" Most of the time the Duck Right or Duck Left was repeated a second time, but we were spring-loaded to the "Duck" commands and were usually half way around and pulling a lot of G's by the time the second shout arrived in our earphones. Needless to say, the coordinated left hand movement was to immediately firewall the throttle and stand by for boost.
I have to recite a real story to illustrate the kind of gung-ho guy Bob Dempesy was. One day he heard by the grapevine that Gen. Quesada was planning to make a "surprise" visit. Bob decided to do something special. He had the eight-ship alert flight line up our birds and get them all ready for a fast scramble. He stationed two jeeps in front of the Ops shack, headed in the right direction. Then he "arranged" with Wing Ops to call a Defense Alert scramble on his signal, and briefed us thoroughly on what he intended to do; plus, "Get those blasted ships in the air as fast as you can!"
We knew when Gen. Q's plane landed and watched from the ready room as two staff cars, loaded with a gaggle of Officers drove toward us through the woods. As the General and his Staff unloaded,, Bob cranked a long and short crank on the field phone and leaned back in his chair with a shit-eatin' grin on his face. In about 30 seconds the Alert phone rang and Dempesy grabbed it. Capt Delany with foresight had steered Gen. Q to one side as they came up on the porch, but could not corral all of the General's Staff Officers. A Lt. Col. and a Maj. made the mistake of wandering toward our jeeps.
Dempesy cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled, "ALERT!" at the top of his voice, and, "Get'Em In The Air!" loud enough to be heard in the next county. Two lst Lts. and six 2nd Lts. busted out of the ready room and stampeded like a herd of buffaloes towards the jeeps. The L/C and the Maj. were knocked an their asses in the mud as the eight over-energized pilots piled into the jeeps and bounced away at full speed.
I don't remember who led the flights, probably Rogers and Carpenter, but I was tail end charlie. Everybody cranked up immediately (no mag checks). The leader taxied out at a dangerous clip almost to the take off end of the runways then turned and firewalled it without even slowing down. (Remember, the field was roughly a triangular grass patch. What happened next would have been a snap except the wooded area extended out beyond the line of the hypotenuse). To keep from being left behind, each succeeding ship had to cut the corner tighter. I can see the P-40's ahead of me now rounding the corner on one wheel trying to get up to take-off speed. I had no choice, I firewalled it out of the tie-down area and took it on a curving hypotenuse of the triangle just missing the intersecting tree line. I was airborne by the time I approached the runway, but had to negotiate a dog-leg left at grass clipping level and pull up to clear the trees at the far side of the runway near the end. It was the closest I ever came to doing a chandelle on take off. Fortunately the Flight Leader turned right to facilitate the join-up so I was able to slide right into the formation on time.
After that takeoff, the tree trimming buzz job over Ops and the streamers pulled on peel-off for landing were anticlimactic. We heard that Gen. Q wasn't too enthusiastic about our unorthodox take-off, but was elated about the Time-to-Take-off record. When we returned to Ops, Delany and Dempsey were looking pretty grim. Delaney said, "It looked to me like you apes were trying to kill yourselves. Don't ever let me see any of you pull that kind of a wild take-off again!" They left grinning from ear to ear. When we got to the bar, they had the drinks all set up for us.
At Norfolk we had very little gunnery practice, ground gunnery or air to air. On my one and only mission on a towed target, Jim Fenex, leading the flight, shot the tow cable in two in his first pass. All I could get was two passes at the target as it fluttered to the water. The rest of the guys laughed at my chasing the thing down as if it were the funniest thing they had ever seen.
We talked air to air maneuvers and went through the motions in the air with each other, but the most realistic air combat training we received was the extemporaneous forbidden and dangerous dogfights with the Navy Hellcats. That aircraft could out maneuver our long-nosed slower climbing P-40's. The Navy pilots were in training as we were, and they were mean bastards -- they would jump us every time they could and wouldn't give up. We had to fight like hell to stay even with them. The best description of those dogfights is "Hairy" -- It was a miracle that no air collisions occurred. I remember on one occasion being close enough to a Hellcat to distinguish the rivets on its belly as we passed heading in opposite directions at full throttle.
I doubt it is ever possible to be fully prepared for all the things that can happen in combat situations. We were far from it as individual pilots and as a squadron, but it was obvious to us that our air discipline and control was better at the outset than that of any other outfit we flew with in the theatres of operation. We decided to keep it that way, in the belief that it would help us hold our losses to a minimum -- that promise proved true, much to our gratification as the war progressed.
As a 2nd Lt. at the time I was kept too busy to appreciate what all the men on the ground were doing. If we ever had a maintenance or supply problem at Norfolk, the pilots never knew of it. I remember M/Sgt. Smokey Goldman (an old timer approaching thirty years of age) was worth his weight in gold every day of the duration. The only regular crew chiefs I had were McCormick from upstate New York and Brandt from Ft. Wayne, Ind. Mc and Paul would pull a 25-Hr engine inspection and valve adjustment anytime the Max RPM or the "sound" wasn't exactly right. If the brakes had let go during one of Mc's run-ups he would have been airborne before he could have chopped the throttle. During the whole war, I never had to reject my bird for excessive mag drop and never had an engine failure. There wasn't an Indy race car that ever got better care than my planes (all nine of them), a fact that I appreciated increasingly as the war dragged on.
I do not remember exact dates, but I recall that some of us did Air Defense alert duty for Washington, D. C., in late October and early November, 1942. We flew out of Gravelly Point Airport (literally gravel) -- Washington National Airport as it is now called. That was when we set some records for time off the ground from warning. We did it by adjusting seat belts and parachute straps in advance, and leaving the chutes in the cockpit. As a result of previous experience, we positioned our aircraft near the take-off end of the nearest runway and arranged with the tower to give us that runway regardless of wind direction.
Gen. Pete Quesada was so proud he brought the Chief of Staff, Gen. Hap Arnold, out to see us -- unannounced naturally. Maintenance had switched my plane, and when the VIP's arrived I was out changing my gear, checking out gas, ammo, and oxygen (anyone not knowing exactly how much of each he had was to be tarred and feathered).
So, I strolled back into the ready room unaware of the brass until I slammed the screen door carelessly; the whole troop spun ground and descended on me. Five minutes later I couldn't have remembered all they said but I'll always remember Gen. Quesada yelling, "There's the leader!" and pointing to me. I don't think he stopped talking. Gen Arnold said, "What do you think of the ME-109?" I blurted, "It can out climb and out turn us, Sir" and Gen. Quesada's look turned my blood to acid. Then, "How much gunnery have you had?" I said, "About 600 rounds, Sir," and Gen. Quesada looked as if his blood had turned to acid. Gen. Arnold didn't look too pleased either, but he said cheerfully, "We'll get you some more." Turning to leave, he gave me a ham-handed pat on the shoulder. If I hadn't seen it coming and braced myself, I'm sure I would have ended up on my can.
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