Kairouan, Tunisia, was the next operational base I remember after Causeway. There the 316th and 314th Squadrons were joined by the newly arrived 315th and our whole 324th Group was together for the first time.
Our missions in support of ground troops continued as pressure from the south and west proved too much for the Germans. In a last desperate effort the Germans were trying to bring in replacements by sea at night. We were given dawn to dark reconnaissance (recce) missions just off the north coast from Tunis to Cape Bon, which were scheduled in 8 or 12 ship relays.
A surprising and momentous thing happened Easter morning. I led the first flight at daybreak that morning taking off before dawn in order to be there at first light. We saw absolutely nothing. We had been relieved and were crossing the south coast of the peninsula heading for home when the "Massacre" started. We heard the chatter but were too low on fuel to return. It seemed that acres and acres of towed gliders were spotted flying very low over the water escorted by ME-109's at high altitude. While some Spitfires and P-40's tangled with ME-109's the rest of the 40's ripped into the defenseless gliders and tow aircraft (JU-52's) and shot them all down. The 314th and 315th got all that action -- we were glad for them, but envious.
On 10 April, 1943, shortly after the Easter Massacre, we sank the destroyer. We were vectored to it about 50 miles east of Cape Bon. Some high cover Spitfires engaged escorting ME-109's while we drove in at about 8000 or 9000 feet to dive bomb. The destroyer run was apparently another desperation attempt to bring in German reinforcements to Tunisia. That effort turned out to be suicidal.
As I started down and opened fire, I could see that the deck was jammed with German soldiers in life jackets -- white faces upturned. By that time all of us considered ourselves to be battle hardened, but that sight was more than a shock -- it was a jolt -- to realize I was firing six fifty caliber machine guns, not just into the destroyer, but into the mass of humanity packed together on the deck. It must have been because of the surprise and shock; I held in the dive too long and it almost cost me my life. After releasing my bombs I hauled back on the control stick with all my strength, but mushed so low that the destroyer's wake on both sides of the airplane's nose was within my range of vision. My bombs landed so close it looked as if they had been dumped overboard from the aft deck.
The destroyer was making zig-zag 90 degree turns, evasive maneuvers. All the flight's bombs were close water bursts, enough we were told, to buckle plates of the destroyer's hull. In the second flight, the #2 man was Capt. Wm D. Gatling, a 315th pilot from North Carolina flying with us that day. He placed his bombs smack amidship. The destroyer, already smoking, exploded as if loaded with ammo as well as people! Black and white smoke billowed up after the flash of the explosion and the fire was fierce. Before we were out sight it had settled in the water and disappeared. If anyone was rescued, we never heard of it.
That did it. The Germans surrendered shortly thereafter. Enemy soldiers clogged all roads looking for someone to surrender to. Some of us drove a few miles into the hills to look around. Germans, some speaking English, gave us their lugers, motorcycles, jeeps, etc., begging to be prisoners of Americans instead of British or French. All we could do was direct them to a town where the prisoner processing center had been set up. Most of the Germans looked pretty haggard and beat, but seemed relieved to have their part of the war over for them.
Following liberation of Tunisia our missions were to escort B-25's on bombing runs to the Island of Pantelleria (a big rock east of Tunisia with a small air strip). On the first mission the flak was so thick the smoke made a solid overcast over the island. No one had ever seen an 88MM barrage like that one. The bombers plowed right through and we followed right through, behind and a little higher. On subsequent missions we managed to provide very good cover for the bombers from a position a little higher still, and to the sides -- thankful that we were not bomber pilots. After a week or so of steady and accurate bombing by the B-25's, the Germans ran up a white flag of surrender without waiting to be invaded. That was another first for Air Warfare. As far as I know the only other time such a thing happened was the Japanese surrender, later and on a greatly different scale.
After that campaign we moved to El Haouaria, a dry lake bed on the eastern tip of Cape Bon. The official history can't be exactly right on the timing of the momentous dog-fight; it could not have been the day before the Sicilian invasion. It must have been a week or more before D-Day. And, there were several momentous dogfights about that time.
We escorted medium bombers in the softening up operations for more than a month. We usually had P-38's or Spitfires flying fighter sweeps for high cover. The flak was bad enough, and then the ME-109's began to show in force. It was tough when we had no high cover or it was otherwise occupied. We lost Smitty and someone else one day. When the rest of them came back, Dempsey organized 12 ships of us hurriedly and he led the mission back to the northwest coast of Sicily in the area where he thought Smitty had ditched in. We ran the search patterns until dark and found no trace.
On another day we lost Dempsey and someone else, and Dave Carpenter had to ditch halfway home. Rescue from Pantelleria picked him up in his dinghy and brought him home. On the last day that I recall any of us seeing enemy aircraft, Fenex and I each got a 109. I'm not sure at the moment whether there were other kills, but I think Snyder also got one. I was flying Murph's wing and Snyder and Selig made up the 2nd element; ours was the sandwich flight of the 12 ship mission. Our Spits cover was engaged about the time we crossed the Sicilian coastline. As the B-25's turned left to set up the bomb run our top flight was attacked by two ME-109's, and immediately two more came at us from behind and to our right. Fenex called a "Duck Right!" These two had a more shallow angle of attack than usual. As we were in the turn it was obvious that Murph would be able to get his man with a head on attack before he could get out of range. Snyder seemed to be in position to tag #2.
At a time like that your head is on a swivel. It has to be. Over my left shoulder I saw them, and for the second time I realized I would have to leave my element leader. They were coming in steeper than usual, above the bombers, but with us as their targets. I said, "Gotta break left Murph!" and pulled a tight chandelle left. The first 109 had already started his pull up, but seemed to be firing. The second continued his steep dive. I was losing airspeed fast, but felt sure he'd be in range before I stalled. I hosed a long out-of-range burst for effect and he started to pull out of his dive, to try to avoid a head on pass I guess. But he was too steep and mushed into my range. I had to roll left nearly onto my back and pull G's so hard I almost blacked out. I relaxed the stick at the point where I thought he would be and guessed right. He was right in my gunsight. I started firing and pulled in a little more lead. The first burst cut his fuselage in two right where the cross was painted on.
I didn't have even one second to gloat. Before I could start to look around there was a terrific explosion, my canopy glass shattered and the frame and all disappeared. In retrospect, after I was home safe, I realized that my reflexive maneuver was one that had been taught me by a Cadet Instructor in a BT-13. I had practiced it many times and it probably saved my life. He had told and demonstrated that to change from a turn in one direction to a turn in another direction the quickest, roll underneath and hold top rudder. It's true, a fighter plane on its back is more maneuverable than one right side up.
So my immediate reaction was hard left forward stick and hard right rudder. If there is a word speedier than immediate, that would be a better word to describe my reaction. It was so fast that there was still the smell of gun powder in the cockpit when I leveled off, and that with no canopy. That maneuver had to be the nearest thing to an outside snap roll that a P-40 will do. I was alive but still in deep trouble.
On recovery from the evasive maneuver, I found myself headed north with no canopy, a red engine overheat warning light on, and all alone. I had not seen or suspected the SOB that shot me, and now I couldn't even find an enemy, much less a friend. I did a diving 180, came out of boost and eased the throttle back to cruise setting, I set a course to the nearest water South, expecting to be having ME-109 company at any time. It became necessary to level off and slow down a little bit because with no canopy at high speed the wind was about to beat me to death. I cleared Sicily, still feeling that ultimate lonesome feeling for the second time in my career. Continuing on down to 2000 feet I got some comfort from the fact that my red overheat light had gone out and I was back to a yellow light. That meant that the engine had cooled down somewhat and that I still had coolant in the system. It was still quite a way to Cape Bon, so I held 2000 feet trying to make myself decide whether it would be better to bail out or to ditch in the water if the engine should quit.
The mission debriefing was still going on and I was being reported missing when I dragged in on a straight-in approach. I didn't have any idea how bad things looked until I saw the ground crews' faces turn white. Someone helped me out of the cockpit and showed me the big hole and peeled back aluminum behind the cockpit armor plate where an explosive 20MM or two had hit. My face and hands were scratched from flying glass as the canopy shattered, but I must have looked like a walking around cadaver. I was mighty glad to be back, but it couldn't have created more stir if a real ghost had walked into Ops. It was still a grim time, Selig didn't make it back.
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