[Previous Chapter]       [Table of Contents]       [Next Chapter]

CHAPTER THREE - First Combat in North Africa

Unusual things happen to the unwary. I really do not have a hang-up on crappers, but the British one at this base deserves a brief mention. From recent travelers to the Middle East I have learned that "necessary rooms" and out houses on military bases are no less important now than they were in January 1943. During the entire duration of the war, I never heard of a case of constipation. The situation with me was just the opposite at dawn of the first morning, after arrival, when I made a sleepy-eyed approach to this masterpiece of architectural engineering. My initial observation was that it was wood construction on a solid concrete slab with the interior partitioned for privacy. As I was just about to establish a position of some comfort, there came a squeaking noise followed immediately by a blast of frigid desert air of near hurricane force. I jumped up in alarm just in time to see a honey bucket disappear, another slide in, and the small door through which all this mysterious activity took place slammed shut with a loud noise. From half asleep to stark terror in five seconds! On the way back to my tent I couldn't resist pausing to watch this character work, amazed at the zest he seemed to have for his job. That was my last encounter with agricultural technology of the Middle East.

Those of us fortunate enough to fly from Ismalia to Tripoli missed the great dusty truck convoy from Egypt to Tripoli. Later we heard all the adventure stories and of some of the hardships. Timing was OK though, because we landed the day after our ground echelon arrived. After a few days we were moved to Causeway. Our flying strip was right on the beach, and the 79th Fighter Group strip was a couple of miles inland. The 316th was initially attached to that Group for operations, and the 314th Squadron was attached to the 57th Fighter Group.

If the record above shows our "baptism of fire" was 26 March, our earlier sorties must have been logged in with 79th. I can never forget my first sortie. It was on my 23rd birthday 20 March, 1943. I was tail end charlie in a 12-ship B-25 escort mission to bomb the Mareth Line. Capt. Delaney led, and the whole mission was made up of 316th pilots. No enemy aircraft were sighted, but it seemed to me that the B-25's blew up the whole desert.

My second flight was the next morning. I was #4 man of the first flight in a 79th 12-ship B-25 escort mission. That was the only time I flew with that outfit -- the reason may be that they thought I should have claimed a ME-109 kill instead of probable. As we neared the Mareth Line on that mission, we observed six Jerries high and in the Sun. Two by two they came at our third and second flights, then zoomed back up out of range when those flights turned into them. The third pair came at us the same way. We turned for a climbing head-on attack and they climbed out of range; but then, for some unknown reason one of them headed west and started descending.

I called on the radio but my voice was drowned out in the chatter, so I peeled off anyway and gave it full throttle to see if I could catch him. Speed in a dive, I had been told, was the only P-40 superiority to the lighter ME-109. So I popped the Boost for the first time ever. I was closing slowly but was getting lonesome -- with the knowledge that five other ME-109's were between me and home. I fired a couple of short bursts (inexperienced little voices said, "Don't overheat the gun barrels, they'll jam" and "Save a little ammo!") Still closing, coming into descent but long range, I fired a longer burst and got smoke and pieces flying off him. At next burst, more pieces and still smoking, but I realized that I was being led right over his home airport at Gabes -- passing through 4000 feet.

I was totally unprepared for the flak barrage. The proverbial all Hell broke loose. I didn't get hit, but was getting my experience faster than I wanted it -- all alone and too far from home. I broke right and headed for the coastline still diving. I crossed the shoreline under 1000 feet only to realize that speed, manifold pressure, temperatures -- everything exceeded red lines. The wings were buzzing and stick forces unbelievably stiff. I carefully retarded the throttle and the boost lever, but even then I had zoomed back almost to 10,000 feet before everything settled back to normal.

One learns fast at a time like that. My first thoughts were I (1) should have closed faster (2) should have burned up the gun barrels if necessary (3) should not have lost track of manifold pressure, RPM, and airspeed!

Heading home, I found the rest of the mission circling lufberry fashion at about the same spot I had left them, with the Jerries still circling above teasing them. After a while the Jerries broke it off and headed West and we returned to home base.

At debriefing I had to admit that I did not see my 109 explode or crash. My flight leader gave me hell for not finishing the job, and logged a probable. He should have given me hell for tearing off on my own without him. Nobody criticized me for clearing out of the airport's flak barrage. In discussion among ourselves in the 316th, we decided that what I did was a judgment call which turned out OK, but that the Jerries missed a good chance to terminate my career permanently. This event reinforced the general rule that a wingman does not leave his element leader unless it becomes absolutely necessary to protect another member of the mission or some such dire circumstances.

I was not on Maj. Delaney's last mission. His was one of several American and British missions that flew inland a considerable distance toward the mechanized ground troops that had done a forced march from the South Sahara Desert to flank the German forces and cut to the sea at Gabes, behind the Mareth Line. This was coordinated with a final attack on the Mareth Line. At a given point in front of the forces advancing from the South, all the aircraft, American P-40's, British Hurricances, etc., hit the dock and strafed everything they could find to shoot at from there to the sea. It was considered a very effective mission -- Rommel's forces did a hasty retreat back North, into Tunisia, saving a part of their forces from destruction. Maj. Delany received knee wounds, we heard, was hospitalized for a while and returned to the U.S. of A.

The Germans were still masters at pulling surprise retreats at night to new defensive positions, but after the Mareth Line and Gabes, the tight pressures of ground and air forces caused a steady if somewhat controlled withdrawal into Northern Tunisia and the Cape Bon peninsula. They must have had control enough to keep from losing any of their light or heavy flak guns - the Ack Ack became more intense as the days went by. By this time, the North African contingent of American troops and air forces were beginning to push the Germans east with greater effectiveness, bottling them up in northern Tunisia.

For a while we were kept busy; one or two sorties every day. Some of our missions were pure strafing of given areas North of Gabes -- fly inland, hit the deck as we always said, "Hard and fast and line abreast," and blast anything worth shooting all the way to the sea. Little buildings and haystacks usually went up in smoke because the Germans seemed to have fuel stored everywhere. Eight P-40's spread out loosely for maneuvering purposes going like a bunch of bats from hell each with six guns of 50 Cal. blazing away could cut pretty wide swath of destruction. It had not taken long for us to stop worrying about overheated guns or jamming. The German air defense dwindled away to practically nothing so it must have been pretty rugged for the German ground troops under these circumstances, but sympathy on our part for them wasn't part of the scheme. On one of these strafing missions we lost Gilpin from New Jersey. He was a tent mate; the war became a great deal more serious that night especially for the other three of us in that tent.

These were not low risk missions by any means. All of us had brought home holes varying in size from those which would be caused by small arms fire, to some the size of your head. Sheet metal people had an increase in business and requisitions for "Goodyear Patches" were doubled and tripled. If the enemy didn't shoot you down on those strafing missions, it was pretty easy to kill yourself. Flying that low at that speed one could see a lot of things but for only a split second of time. You had to work your target selection a good distance out in front. If you had no specific targets you would let go with short bursts here and there just to keep the enemy gunners with their heads down. The most dangerous thing was to spot something promising, but too close in front for you to hit it without exceeding sensible turning arc, or deviating too far from the general heading of the flight. So it was like you had to shoot a target using one eye and be selecting others further out in your range of vision simultaneously and let some go that were not spotted soon enough.

To illustrate, on one mission we had flown west to the foothills, picked a general heading to the coast and come barreling down out of the afternoon sun. Right away, at the first road junction I came to, there were two large trucks parked head to head with several people around them as if doing a jump start on a dead battery; both hoods were up and the men obviously did not know I was coming because they were looking into the engine area. The six 50 Cal. guns are boresighted to converge at 700 or 750 yards as I recall, and that must have been my exact range because the second I touched the trigger those trucks and people were pulverized in a cloud of dust. I had already picked a haystack about 10 degrees to the right. As I kicked in the rudder I could see out of the corner of my eye a complete human arm flying through the air. As if that wasn't enough to shake me up, I fired at the haystack with my right wing slightly low -- practically clipping the tops of the olive trees -- when a camel reared up on his hind legs with his head so close to my wing tip that I expected I would knock out his bulging eyes.

The haystack blew up in my face and I had to kick hard left rudder to keep from flying through the fire. I couldn't get lined up on a little building that popped in my view on my left, but I got a vehicle heading for it as I hosed my way on out over the shoreline. I had already seen trucks and haystacks blow up before this, but that flying human arm and the camel with his mouth wide open, his tongue hanging out, and his eyes bulging with terror were something I never saw again. I expected to have nightmares as I went to sleep that night, but I didn't.

As far as Ack-Ack was concerned working over flat terrain we felt fairly safe on the deck where heavy flak was not effective and where exposure (with an element of surprise) to light flak and small arms fire was limited time-wise, over any given point. We learned that this was not the whole story on our first dive bombing mission on an enemy strong point in rolling terrain. As I recall the target was about half way between Gabes and Tunis, a good ways inland. We did a good job on the target and then turned the strikes into a strafing mission on the way out as per usual. You guessed it, as we came over the first rise we found ourselves exposed at about 500 feet in the air between two ridges. Talk about crossfire! It came at us from all directions and with more tracers than I had ever seen before. Before we even crossed the next ridge it was painfully obvious that it was not smart to try on-the-deck strafing in rolling country where one could not stay low on the deck. We didn't lose anyone, but the ground crews again had to use a lot of "Goodyear Patches" that night.

There was no disagreement at our bull session that evening. Bombing missions and strafing missions were two separate things not to be combined in hilly terrain except under very special circumstances. On our dive bombing runs we agreed we would minimize the time spent below 6000 feet above the ground to limit our exposure to light flak. The outfits that did not recognize this as soon as we did paid for it with aircraft damage and losses.

Near the end of our stay at Causeway I lost "Habeas Corpus I" by accident. I named my aircraft that because I had a notion I might like to become a lawyer after the war; besides, it was supposed to mean something like, "produce the body." I figured if it would produce the body I would probably be in it bringing it home. Murph Fenex was to fly my plane that day, and Smitty was following him out the taxiway for take-off. Murph turned to get on the runway, but had to stop while the plane ahead of him cleared out. Smitty must have looked away for a split second because when he locked his brakes it was already too late. Smitty's prop cut long ribbons on the trailing edge of Habeas Corpus I's left wing all the way up to the wing root; and the nose cone was about to press on the cockpit at eye level with Fenex before forward progress ended. Smitty gave Murph his shot of "medicinal whisky" that night. I didn't get another plane until our next base. One the engineers had reclaimed it from the desert, but it had a new engine and it flew OK. McCormick, Brandt, and I decided that the six 50 cal. guns on Habeas Corpus II should have names. The three in the left wing were named Ream, Steam, and Dry Clean; the three in the right wing became Screw, Stew, and Tattoo. I bragged on the high quality of the lettering job. The next morning I found on each wheel cover a color-perfect painting of a large mug of beer, with a full head just about to spill over. Just looking at that art work made us thirsty.

P40 with Helles Belles Insignia

[Previous Chapter]       [Table of Contents]       [Next Chapter]

Copyright © 1979, 1983, 1985, 2002.   316th Fighter Squadron Association. All rights reserved.

© 2014 Design by ByteBabble, built with ZURB Foundation 5.