For some reason, or lack thereof, about that time the U. S. Congress, studying war progress, put out the word that P-40's were OK -- the air to air score was 2 to 1 in our favor. We had lost many of our friends and were pretty uptight. That press release, as far as we know not questioned by anyone, made us cussing mad. We thought everyone knew the P-40's were substandard. Our only hope in combat was to spot the Jerries as they came out of the Sun -- spot them in time to turn about for a climbing head on attack! I guess there just wasn't anyone in Washington at that time who could or would describe to the Congressmen that combined frustration, anger, helpless awshit feeling you would get when you made your turnabout in time, but stalled out trying to climb into range for a shot -- while the ME-109 easily climbed out of range and retained the capability to yo-yo at you any time he chose. Talk about a game of chicken; but that was no game, fighting under those conditions was our only chance for survival! Jerries rarely followed through if you could get around in time to make a head-on pass. They preferred, wisely, to climb back up out of your range and try to pull another surprise later; or split up flights and kill stragglers. What we desperately needed was some of the new P-47's or P-51's we had heard would come sooner or later.
It was still black as the ace of spades on the morning of the Sicilian Invasion as 12 of us taxied out for takeoff. Our only lighting was a single string of lights stretched across the ground of our dry lake bed -- probably the world's longest extension cord. We taxied out with running lights on and I lined up to the right side of the light string with eleven other ships lining up in echelon to the right. On signal we started rolling with the 12 ship take-off and it went smoothly. As we climbed on course for Sicily, we turned off our navigation lights and maintained radio silence.
The mission was to provide air cover for the beachhead and invasion fleet. We arrived exactly on time at first light, checked in with the Navy Control Ship, received acknowledgment, and started our first pattern parallel and close to the beach. There was just time to observe the intense activity of landing craft heading from ships to shore, and the immensity of the Naval Force -- I saw a single tracer round snake its way up and then all hell broke loose! The only thing worse than German 88MM Ack Ack is 90MM American Navy flak. A black cloud formed like the first day over Pantelleria, only bigger and blacker. I yelled at the Controller and we went full throttle to the beach -- outside the fleet area. The bloody Navy kept up that barrage for 15 minutes or more before things settled down.
To make matters worse, as we finally turned to come back (over land this time) a flight of high cover spitfires made a diving pass at us. Not trusting any one at this point we turned into them calling on the radio for them to bug off. They turned away, but as we resumed our courses one flight came at us again. I was so mad I gave the order, "If they come close enough, let 'em have it!" Fortunately they broke off the attack and went back to their stations. We patrolled over land and to the sides of the invasion forces until relieved. Contrary to what you may have heard or read, the ME-109 pilots stayed in the bed that morning. I was blistering mad at the trigger happy Navy until I learned of the tragedies that had occurred before day as the paratroopers were going in. By daylight everybody was uptight.
Next morning before daybreak the lead of our 12 ship mission unexpectedly lined up to the left side of the string of lights, and everyone also had to echelon left for take off. In the darkness no one realized that this arrangement would put the last four ships (I was leading that flight) on a track for one of our air base defense flak batteries. As we approached take-off speed my aircraft struck some obstacle (later determined to be a 50-gal. drum). Instinctively I hauled back on the stick to try and get airborne, but was not high enough to avoid striking the upright barrel of an Ack Ack gun. That killed my airspeed and the plane bellied in. One other plane struck something but as I recall was able to get airborne.
I couldn't figure out what the heck had happened. Some guys with flashlights ran over and helped me out of the cockpit; all I could think about was cutting switches because I had bellied in on top of a full centerline external gas tank. Fortunately, there was no fire. My left wing was cut almost in half by the gun barrel. I had a few cuts and a sprained wrist, but the personal tragedy crashed down on me that afternoon when I was told that my aircraft had struck and killed an enlisted man of the Ack Ack battery. In wartime a great deal of rationalizations take place in a man's mind, but some memories never go away.
After the Sicilian beachhead was established, we flew a few bomber escort and dive bombing missions in support of our ground forces. The forward base combat activity in Sicily was done mostly by other outfits. I recall that we flew escort for some C-47 resupply ships to support them. As things slowed down for us for awhile, some of us managed a trip to Tunis. Things were very crowded there, so most of us preferred to rest at Cape Bon where we could swim and catch fish for recreation.
I had been to Tunis about a week after it had surrendered and enjoyed the trip. So on this last trip I was disappointed to see that the town was more like a mob scene with what seemed to be millions -- at least thousands -- of troops of all the Allied nations. Half the British Desert Army must have been standing by to stage to Sicily along with the American and French troops from the North African side. I did see Gen. DeGaulle strutting like a peacock at the head of an impressive parade of French Troops, and listened to a brass band concert at a park put on by local citizens. But after one night and a couple of pretty good meals in the Hotel leased by the military, I was ready to go back to Cape Bon. Troy Upton and I had driven a jeep to town and parked it in a military parking lot. We figured it would be safe, but we removed the distributor rotor anyway; we didn't have a lock and chain for the steering wheel, but that had not yet become so necessary as it later did in Italy. The next afternoon when we went to get our jeep, it was nowhere in sight. There were a few minutes of crestfallen confusion as we walked around the parking lot with a jeep distributor rotor in hand but no jeep. Neither Upton nor I had ever lost a jeep before but realized our choices were limited -- there being no busses, trains or streetcars to Cape Bon. We spotted a brand new Command Car, which we decided would make a good flight line vehicle, being larger then a Jeep. The Command Car's driver must have been new also because he hadn't bothered to remove the distributor rotor. Upton demonstrated a little "technical expertise" I didn't know he possessed on the ignition switch and we cruised right out of town, having upgraded our wheels at what from then on we called the vehicle exchange. We felt that we had exercised resourcefulness when we turned it in to transportation people that afternoon. The next morning it was a fine looking vehicle with our white diamond and other Squadron markings neatly painted on. It gave good service too; we kept that car right through to the end of the war.
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