Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chapter 30

The next morning we were off to Marrakech, Morocco. This flight took us across the west edge of the Sahara Desert, through a pass in the Atlas Mountains before landing at Marrakech.

As we crossed the desert, we could see the sand flowing below us, actually obscuring the ground. As we went further north, the sand storm kept getting higher and higher until it was higher than our assigned altitude and we found ourselves flying in a cloud of red sand. We applied the air filters to keep the sand out of the engines but it was everywhere else. Using air filters always decrease the output power of the engines perceptible and we had to apply more power to hold our airspeed and altitude. After a couple of hours of flying in the red cloud, the crew chief noticed liquid coming out of the number 3 nacelle, which proved to be gasoline. Of course, raw gasoline you don’t want in the nacelle of an airplane so we shut off the fuel line and feathered the engine. No big deal—except we discovered that which our heavily loaded bird, the filters on, and one engine feathered, we couldn’t hold our altitude. We kept getting lower and lower and we knew the pass in the Atlas Mountains was 12,000 feet with 16,000 foot mountains on both sides of the pass. And we were blind all the way.

I picked up the microphone, turned to intercom and asked the navigator where we were. It had been my habit to recheck the navigator with the radio compass at all times, just to play it safe, but this evidently didn’t go well with Zeke and he answered, “What the h— you asking me for, you have a radio compass, don’t you?”

As we continued to descend, it became extremely doubtful if we could clear the pass, particularly if we were slightly off course. I considered all things, took a chance on the leaking gasoline and restarted the dead engine. We climbed up to a safe altitude and flew through the mountains. As soon as we were through the mountains, the sand storm disappeared and the green oasis that was Marrakech was right in front of us, as it should be. We re-feathered #3 [engine] and made an uneventful landing.

When we got on the ground we had an understanding with the navigator, repared the broken fuel line and prepared for an early morning take off on our last leg to our destination at Oudna, near Tunis. Next morning we were off on schedule and were cruising quietly when an engine started running rough. A quick check indicated that lost a magneto on number 2 engine. This can cause an overheat of an engine with extended use, and since we wanted those engines in the very best shape for things to come, we decided to land at an airfield at Oujda, French Morocco to get the engine repaired. Our briefing material indicated the field had an American repair facilities so we expected a quick repair and on to our base.

After we landed on the pierced-plank runway, we turned to taxi back to the parking area, but one corner of the plank had been broken loose and bent up. It cut a tire causing a blow out. We were instructed by the tower operator, a very British voice, to clear the runway and park the aircraft since they had no towing equipment big enough to tow an aircraft.

This particular base had recently been turned over to R.A.F. and they had only Spitfire aircraft there, from the African campaign and no maintenance facilities for American aircraft at all. The change had not been corrected in our briefing material.

For three weeks we waited for the Air Force to ship us a new tire. While I was calling the Air Corps to make arrangements for the tire and magneto, the crew found a wrecked C-47 with a good magneto on the engine. Since B-24s and C-47s have the same engine the engine was repaired within an hour. But not so the tire.

Here I had experiences with three groups of people at the same time. It was a French territory, the base was British and most of the population were Arabic. The English, the Royal Air Force controlled the field were we had landed and the BOQ where we were staying. The BOQ was an old hotel in downtown Oujda, in the French section but serviced by Arabs, mostly women. Each morning early, they would chant their prayers. It was a rather startling alarm the first time you heard it.

Most of the English were very nice fellows but there was one in every crowd. In this case, a group captain equivalent to an American Major. When we were introduced, he invited me to have a drink with him, which I politely declined explaining that I didn’t drink alcoholic beverages. Soon he came back with a bottle of champagne and insisted I toast the Queen. He said it would be an insult to Great Britain if I refused. I accepted the glass of champagne he thrust into my hand and he toasted the Queen. As quietly as possible, I set it down on the table besides me. Suddenly I saw a hand reach out from behind me, grab the glass and quickly replace it empty. Lt. George had drunk it in one gulp and put it back on the table beside me without the Captain seeing it. The next morning I went back into the club for breakfast, quite early and as I entered, the Wing Commander called to me and asked him to join him at his table for breakfast. He apologized for the rudeness of the group captain the night before and as we talked, the captain came in for breakfast and immediately started telling how he had tricked me into taking a drink. After much bragging how he had outsmarted me, he asked how I liked it. I quietly, but plainly, explained I hadn’t tasted it—that I had put it down on the table and George had drunk it. This just panicked the whole group of officers to think I had out done the jerk. Everyone just roared with laughter, particularly the Wing Commander with whom I was eating. I thought they would laugh him clear off the base. They just kept laughing until he left the club. They have all kinds, too.

The French were the governing society in the country. The only thing I particularly noticed about them was the beautiful women. Not only were there a lot of lovely French women who lived there, but a lot of Spanish nobility had escaped to the French Morocco at the time of the Spanish Revolution and they lived there also. In the tow and the hotel where we lived, all the people were French. The Arabs came to town to work, but they lived in the cadina on one side of town. The cadina was walled as if to keep the French out, but it really served to separate the two races. Except for work, the Arabs stayed within the cadina and no Caucasian went into the cadina without an Arab escort.

The French were a very cruel people where the Arabs were concerned. A French man could kill an Arab and the standard fine was 26 Francs. If an Arab killed a Frenchman, he was shot on sight, without trial. There was a contingent of French legionaires stationed there to guard the railroad and they road as guards on the trains. It was reported they shot any Arab in sight of the railroad track. When an Arab saw a train coming he had to get a rifle distance from the track even though he may be working on his farm right beside the track.

The Arabs were characters. They were very philosophical about everything. Since the war in Africa [started], the natives had been without gasoline so no cars would be driven. The Arabs, being a very industrious people were a fast buck is concerned, removed the engines from the cars and put a driver’s seat in a place of the engine. They then put a tongue in front of the car and drove 2 to 4 horses to provide taxi service or their personal transportation.

We became good friends with a one old sheik who drove three horses on his machine. He had about 1932-35 Chevrolet, very well preserved inside and waxed to a mirror outside. His horses were on the small side, but many Arabian horses are, although I saw many that stood 15-16 hands. He had five stallions of which he worked 3 each day. We would generally go together, the four officers, and rent his rig all day so we could see the countryside. It got so he would wait for us outside the hotel and drive us to the base for breakfast and then wherever we wanted to go. One day we borrowed the carbines from our enlisted men and went wild boar hunting but with no luck. Wild pigs were about the only game in this part of Africa.

After he had gained confidence in us, he asked us if we would like to attend a slave auction. He laughingly said we could buy a wife. He then carefully warned us if we went, we must not get out of the car for anything while we were there. We all agreed, so he drove about 5 miles out into the country into some rather hilly country. Between a couple of ridges, in a secluded area, was a large assembly of Arabs. Sure enough, they were buying and selling human beings. The bidders were all men, mostly older sheiks or free men. The slaves were young girls eight to ten years old. When the parents raised a girl that age and she hadn’t been betrothed, they simply took her to market and sold her to the highest bidder. The bidder then took the child into his household and she became a servant until she was old enough to marry. Then he either added her to his harem or sold her as wages to another of his laborers.

The Arabs were mostly very sincere in keeping their religion. None of the people drank or would break any of the Ten Commandments in regard to another Muslim but the Koran states the commandments a little differently. Their Good Book reads, “Thou shalt not steal from a believer.” It was not a sin for them to steal from the French, the English or Americans. Since we were protected by our cab driver, we were fairly safe, although the selling of slaves was forbidden by French law. Had we been Frenchmen, we had not been invited or permitted to live to report them. As it was, we had to physically restrain Bob Catlin, who decided he was going to stop them. He could have got us all killed, including our host. We sat on Bob while the old sheik quietly drove away.

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