Thursday, January 13, 2011

Chapter 31

The Arabs are generally a fearless people where death is concerns because they believe their religion. There is one thing they fear and that is the “Gumbs.” The Gumbs are French West Africans and they are generally very tall, powerful negroids. The French armed them with World War I rifles with old long triangular shaped bayonets. They were used exclusively as troops to ring the Arabs in line. In all, I had to admire the Arabs more than their French conquerors.

Probably the most interesting thing in the three weeks we stayed in Oujda was the Arabian horses. All the horses we saw about the area were stallions because the Arabs never work a mare. They are kept for breeding, but since they are very selective about their breeding stock, it must be more than just using the mares for breeding but never did I see a mare being worked. All the horses we saw were outstanding as to configuration if not for size. They were generally quite small but there were some that were very tall. I never saw any draft-type horses either. Even the beer wagons were pulled by Arabians.

Most of the Arabian stallions were very tranquil, showing no viciousness we would see in American stallions. Our friend, the cabbie, had 5 stallions he kept in a single room—in his house—incidentally—and they never fought. On the street, people would walk up and down the street walking within inches of the horses and pay no attention to the horses, as if they were completely harmless.

There was one outstanding example to the contrary. He was, without question, the most beautiful and dynamic horse I saw. He was a bright copper sorrel. He stood taller than most of the Arabians I saw, but was light of frame and very leggy. He was worked on the outside of a beer wagon with two nondescript but heavier horses. When he moved, you could see every muscle in his body moving in rhythm, like the muscle patterns you see in some tall, but very powerful athletes. He was very quick and would always have the load started before the other two horses could move. But he was mean. They had to work him with both kick straps to prevent him from kicking and a muzzle to prevent his biting. They say Arabs select their breeding stallions according to their docile nature and their obedience first and configuration second. I’m sure he would have been a brood stallion except for his meaness. He was a beautiful picture to behold.

Another outstanding horse was a tall dappled grey horse that was driven on a two-wheeled surrey by the wife of one of the French authorities. He must have been 17 hands high, with a beautiful dappled coat that almost became blue in the hind quarters. His head was the typical short Arabian head with a tiny muzzle. They say a brood stallion must have a muzzle small enough to drink from a tea cup. This particular horse was completely gentle and her owner would stop in front of a store and the horse would stand perfectly still without even being tied for as long as the woman was shopping. When he travelled, he had a long swing that really covered miles.

After 20 days of waiting, the Air Force finally shipped us a tire but no aircraft jacks to mount the tire. Since were bothered by our long absence, we were eager to get going. We borrowed 5 jacks from the British and a truck load of railroad ties from the French. With the ties, we built up a crib on which to place the jacks and with planks under the wing to distribute the load, slowly jacked up the plane enough to remove the old tire and wheel and replace it with the new one. It was a very risky procedure and if a jack had slipped and punched a hole through the wing, I could have paid for the whole aircraft. We succeeded without incident. We finished about noon and by one o’clock, we were in the sky on our way to our final destination.

We landed at Oudna [Airfield], I reported directly to the squadron headquarters were the commander told me he had reported us all missing in action. Seems the message had not reached the squadron in the three weeks we were waiting although I had personally talked to the group operations officer and told him where we were and why. The base at Oudna, Tunisia was very hot and dry. It was just inland from Tunis and the surrounding area was very harsh desert.

Since it was the French territory before the war, a provisional French government was established. They imposed all sorts of dumb rules, like, if an aircraft crashed, it belonged to the French government, even if it crashed on the airstrip. The base security guards were French and in general, they were milking Uncle Sam for all they could get. About this time, one of our aircraft had a wheels-up landing on the field near the runway. As soon as the plane had crashed, the French rushed out and posted a guard around the aircraft. It happened that the ball turret on my plane was inoperable because of a simple little airbase fitting that was not in stock and we were being briefed to fly a mission the next day. There was a fitting on the crashed aircraft. So I determined to get the part. We drove a jeep we had borrowed from Ops. out to this downed aircraft and were immediately challenged by the big colored guard. I tried to explain to him that I need a part in English and kept jabbering in French or Swahili, or whatever he spoke. I’d show him the wrench and part inside the aircraft and he finally got the idea that I wanted to do something with the plane so I got as far as the turret. When I’d start removing the part, he would start jabbering and start to lower the end of that long rifle. I’d drop the wrench and would drop my hand down to my pistol. This provided a pretty good bluff because he soon was watching my right hand more and jabbering less. After several minutes that seemed like hours of playing bluff between a few turns of the fitting, I finally succeeded in getting my part and backing out of the aircraft with him jabbering more than ever when he found I was going to take something. With my right hand free, he never threatened to point his rifle anymore. I got back in the jeep and we drove off. It was a foolish game to play, but I morally objected to flying a crippled aircraft in combat because of stupid political bungling.

We flew a couple of short practice missions their and I got to fly to Algiers one day to take the group commander on business. Other than that, it was a pretty dull place. Finally, the word leaked out that we were scheduled to move to Italy. At this time the invasion of Sicily had been completed and we had taken Southern Italy up to the north end of Foggia Valley. The beach-head at Anzio had been established, but had not been connected with the inland troops. In fact, they were completely stalled in the small beach-head.

About the next day, the Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. Griffin, a good “jack-mormon” from Utah, called me in and told me I was going to Italy the next day and would be in charge of establishing the squadron area. We loaded up our Big Bird again and flew onto a new field near Venosa, Italy. The field consisted of a pierced plank runway and part of the taxi ways and parking areas. Everything else was a wheat field until the war came to Italy. We landed in a beautiful clear day. The grass was up and green and everything looked beautiful. We set about getting a couple of tents and set up to live in and just about succeeded when it started to rain. We had no heat in the ten but had succeeded in keeping our gear dry. And it rained. Finally one of the group officers came by and dropped off a few cases of “C” rations. Later they parked a trailer of drinking water. From that, we lived for two weeks until they could get another aircraft into the field. As soon as the rain stopped, the rest of the squadron started to arrive and we began to prepare to fight a war.

After the flight crews arrived, the ground personnel arrived en mass. Well, most of them did. While the flight crews flew across the ground support, troops had come across by boat. They were traveling in a huge naval convoy protected by many warships but just after they entered the Mediterranean Sea, three JU SS, Jerry bombers, came in on the deck and concentrated their attack on just one ship out of the convoy. This happened to be the ship one of our squadron personnel was on and the entire ground force for one squadron was lost. The group reassigned personnel from within the group and filled in the vacancies with replacements.

Very quickly the assignment came for the first mission. It was an easy milk-run on a seaport on Yugoslavia. I was assigned a position in the lead box of our squadron. All the crews reported for briefing about 2 a.m. and by the first light of dawn, we were launching aircraft. The lead aircraft containing the group commander, took off first then by squadron, each aircraft took off at 20 second intervals. The leader started a slow turn to the left around the field and each pilot would take a route inside the circle so as to intercept the leader by the time he had made two complete circles. From there we flew to a rendezvous point with our arrival timed exactly so as not to interfere with other groups arriving over the point at time spaced intervals. Since this was our first combat mission, they sent us by ourselves so we wouldn’t foul up other groups. We went in at bombing altitude and we saw a couple of little white puffs in the sky below us. Everyone was too busy preparing to drop bombs and to stay in good tight formation to worry about them. As pilot, all I had to do was stay in formation with the squadron leader. The bombardier manually released the bombs when the lead ship released his. Everything went well and after about six hours flying time, we were back at the field. After landing and parking the birds, we all were picked up in the personnel trucks and taken directly to debriefing. There each crew member was given a shot glass of whiskey and we were criticized on the mission and results. Since not all of the crews could fly in every mission, it took three such flights to give each crew a milk-run to get over the jitters then things began in earnest.

On my second mission, our group was assigned to bomb some installations immediately in front of the narrow beachhead we held at Anzio. We were supposed to fly from the ocean in south of Anzio, bomb our targets, then rally left, over Rome and back to the Sea. As we approached our target, a few bursts of flak could be seen over Rome so our leader decided to rally over the Anzio beachhead instead of over the city. Only the ground troops didn’t like aircraft flying over them and the American anti-aircraft opened up on us.

My aircraft received 32 flak holes and my tail gunner was wounded to the point he couldn’t fly for several missions because a leader didn’t do as he was directed. Other crews didn’t fare as well as we did.

Soon after we started flying combat, the 731st squadron lost almost half its squadron in one mission. The squadron commander was hurt on the mission, also, and was hospitalized, so Capt. O’Brien, one of the senior pilots from our squadron was made commander of the 731st Squadron. He asked for and with my concurrence, had me transferred to his squadron. O’Brien was an old-timer and the one flight commander remaining in the squadron was an old-timer, but the squadron operations officer was an inexperienced fellow. So the squadron was organized with two flights instead of the usual four. Capt. F.X. Dalton was chief of one and I was the chief of the other. F.X. and I had complete responsibility for the planning and leading our flights and we would alternate days flying. Each mission required a squadron leader and only three of us, O’Brien, Dalton, and I were qualified to fly the lead and/or alternate the lead. Every fourth mission where our squadron became group lead squadron, two of us had to fly. The days I didn’t fly, I would select the crews and plan the flight for the next day. Then the next day I was responsible to get the crews up and to briefing and see that the mission was performed properly.

Missions ran into missions, one every day and sometimes two on consecutive days. On the days I flew, I had to be awake before the rest of the crews to be sure the O.D. awakened the right crews and to make assignments to replace men that were sick or wounded. This meant getting up at 1 or 2 a.m. and being briefed at 3 or 4 a.m. Most take-offs were around 5:30 or 6 a.m. We would return around 2 p.m., depending upon the distance we had to go to the target.

After we returned, we had to attend debriefing then our time was free until the next mission except for the required planning.

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