EDWARD ‘DUKE’ ELLINGTON FLEW WITH THE 57th FIGHTER GROUP IN NORTH AFRICA AND ITALY
I always blamed Clark for his methods in Italy.
He was a dreadful commander but a terrific administrator.
I didn’t get to Italy until ? was in the Appenine mountains, so all that had taken place, but reading about it, the way Clark handled it..
There were an awful lot of egos involved. I’m not a great fan of Patten’s..
I have always been a real admirer of Montgomery’s ..
I’m not particularlyhe had good points but his ego got in the way
I didn’t have that appreciation at the timeit wasn’t until afterwards that I read things about the campaign..took Alexander apart didn’t he?
Alexander did really well in Africa, sorted things out very well and when he was brought in to deputise for Eisenhower after Alamein, he sorted things out very quickly. Amazing diplomat and consummate professional..anyway, may I ask you about your background?
Oh yeah.I was born on South Dakota, the Plains, and at about 6th grade we moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota. My father was a labourer, in fact, he was a big handsome guy and when they were married he was a rancher/farmer, raised cattle and the feed for the cattle. I was born on that ranch, out in the country, close to a couple of little towns close by the railroad. The nearest one was Aberdeen. But it was all too much, everything was against him, the weather, the droughtsthen we moved to a little town where my grandparents lived. My grandfather was the school teacher and my grandmother ran the post office. My dad did contract work but then the crash came and vast unemployment, so he had no work so we moved to the Black Hills and then the depression came. I was 6th grade, about 11 or 12. It was welfare time for us, things were so bad. Then I went to High school in Spearfish and at 14 I went into the CCC – Civilian Conservation Corps. You were meant to be 18 but I was big and they were happy to have me. About 30 of us stayed at this camp. We spent the summer but it was so good for my parents that I stayed there until the next summer, well about 15 months in fact. We did a lot of good things, built a dam and cleaned up the forests. It was great. It was all labour, we were just kids but we worked hard. I learnt a lot. We had to dig with picks and shovels. We had been living in tents but they built barracks for us.
Did you have brothers and sisters?
Oh yeah, I was the eldest of 7. After high school, I just assumed I’d go to work to help out the family but the coach came down and said he wanted me to go up to the college in Spearfish. Back then we called them normal schools, anyway this coach came up and asked if I would go there and play football and I stayed there for 3 years, til war broke out and during that time when things got hot in Britain, they started a flying ground school programme at the college which I got into. Then they had a contract to teach flying at the little air field that was close by Spearfish. So I went to that and got my private licence.
Did you have to have a medical?
Oh yeah. I should have said, during my time in high school there was another military thing we did for one month in the summer up in North Dakota, it was called Civilian Military Training Camp. It was to get a reserve force there and if you spent 4 summers you could go on to do a correspondence course for a commission. You also got 5 cents a mile from Spearfish to North Dakota and I sat on a rumble seat with the sun in my eyes and when I got there I couldn’t pass the eye test. When I got back to college I had a chance to memorise the eye chart and that’s how I managed to get into the civilian part but when I went into the service they were ok again.
So your eye sight was never that good?
It was ok by the time I went into the service. It was just the sun during this journey!
So this was a civilian programme?
Yeah. They started that when they saw the war clouds gathering.
And this was all for free?
Oh yeah, I didn’t have to pay a nickel.
Did someone just come round to the school and say does anyone want to learn to fly?
The government contacted schools all over the country
If you were interested you just applied?
Yeah, probably more than a dozen in the class I went through.
Do you know why you were chosen and others weren’t?
It was just a physical thing and passing the ground school test.
Was aviation something that had always interested you?
No, well, I was sort of interested because we had the airport there, but a friend of mine, we were at college together and played football together and we said how are we going to manage to afford to keep on flying? And he spoke to his dad who said â€œOh hell, I’ll get you in the army air corps! And he went to the post office and got 2 blank forms and we both got accepted and both stayed in and both retired.
When you were first doing the civilian training, what were you flying in?
A high winged monoplane called a Luscombe, had about a 60 horse power engine, and wow I’ll tell you I had this great young woman a 19 year old instructor, Evelyn Sharp. She started very young in Nebraska, she must have been early teens and got her instructor’s licence. I loved her, a great gal.
How old were you then?
21. That started in 1940, because I got into the service in 41.
So you got your private licence?
Was it a rigorous test that you had to do to get your civilian licence?
No, I don’t remember any of the guys who took the programme washing out.
So, your friend’s dad got you the application and you got accepted.this was before Pearl Harbor?
Oh yes. This was the summer of 1940. Then the school became a 4 year college, it had been a 2 year beforethen in 41 I got this call to go into air corps. I had to go to Snelling in Minnesota and go through all these tests. There were 5 of us 2 from South Dakota and from Minnesota and we stayed together the whole time.
What about your friend who you joined up with?
He was a lot smarter than I was and he stayed an instructor through the war.
So what about the training? How was that? I expect it helped that you could already fly?
Oh yeah, it was helpful. We went down to Pinebluff, Arkansas to a brand new flying school. We had the Fairchild, a PT 13 I think it was, an in line engine low wing job and did 60 hours of flying. That phase we didn’t get into cross country or navigation it was all spins and rolls and that sort of thing. Then our group went to Randolph Field, San Antonio Texas. That was basic training, another 3 months. I started in April 41, 3 months in Pinebluff, 3 months in San Antonio, then we went to advanced, to Victoria Texas to a new place again. We graduated on 12 December. Flying Texans.
Good little aircraft.
It was so intense before, disciplinarian then we got to Foster Field, Victoria and they wanted to make us fighter pilots.
Was there ever a chance of you becoming a bomber pilot?
No. They split us up and when I reflected on it I realised it was basically intelligence. This other friend of mine from South Dakota, we roomed together through Randolph, he went to Kelly Field the advanced school.we were split up at that point.we went to the Texans and my friend went to Kelly and wound up on the multi-engines. They put the bright ones on the multi-engines.
Because they figured you needed more intelligence to be a bomber pilot? I thought everyone wanted to be a fighter pilot!
Well, you read that embarrassing report.high jinks! We had a lot of time for high jinks! At Foster Field an RAF lieutenant came in to teach. He’d done the Battle of Britain. He was very impressive, something else. First time I saw him he came over the barracks upside down in a T6.
What did you think of the Texan?
Oh I loved it. They’d never really let us loosewe’d done aerobatics and rat racing, but this was freedom. It was marvellous.
So you enjoyed the war at that time?
I basically did all the time. Maybe that was a weakness, I don’t know. When I graduated in December 41, we had a big ceremony and got our wings. Full fledged lieutenants. They were going to make us instructors and we spent about 2 weeks with an incoming class and then they shipped us all out, the whole graduating class.
Can you remember much discussion about fighter tactics with this Battle of Britain chap?
I am sure we did, but I honestly don’t remember the specifics.
But you did practise dog fights?
Oh yeah. With 2 people we did it like this.go towards each otherthen split and who could get on the other’s tail was the winner. Nearly all my class mates and I were sent to 56 group in South Carolina. It was chaos. The weather was awful. Cold and damp, I really suffered. We were there for less than a month and then they shipped us to Bridgeport Connecticut. We trained there from January til we went to 57 group.
Were you on P40’s at this point?
We went through all sorts. First we had P40’s in South Carolina, then P 36’s, P 39’s, sometimes a mix of 39 and 40’s. P 38’s, we had those for a few weeks. Lightnings.
What were they like?
I didn’t take to them at all then, although after the war I flew them and got to like them. But maintenance was poor. This was all from January to June, but training suffered because there was so much chaos, changing of airplanes and there was a lack of parts.
Do you think that was because they were trying to create an air force so quickly?
Yeah. It was improving all the time. At the end we got the P47 and we lost a couple of pilots. We were on the same field as the Corsa’s (?) at Bridgeport..anyway about June I think, we went over to Mitchell Field on Long Island, and the 57th was not well-manned, I was still in the 56th at this point, so they brought in people from the 56th and elsewhere to fill it up. At Mitchell Field we had 72 brand new P40F’s, with the British Merlin engine. We were happy to have that instead of the Allot (?).
Have you heard of Kermit Weeks? He has god knows how many planes and all these crated Merlin engines, which have never been used.
Hell, I didn’t even have a log book. The P47 got shot down with all our stuff on it.
So suddenly you were assigned to the 57th. Had you been assigned to a squadron?
Yeah, during the tour at Bridgeport, we needed to get 3 P40’s from the 57th. So off we go with our flight leader and my other class mate Gerry Brandon and we meet which became my squadron commander and group commander Art Salisbury and Gordon Thomas who were running the 65th. They were out on the strip and there was a big burn out there, a flood control burn, and the message was, that could get in your way. Gerry Brandon crashed on the burn, so we were down to 2 P40’s. Then when we got to Bridgeport and the flight leader ? his P40, so we were down to one and then they needed people for the 65th and 66th and I went to the 65th because I was the only one who got back intact. There’s a story, I’m embarrassed to tell. We had a briefing saying we were going overseas. We had these brand new P40’s and we had to practise short take off and landings.
About 1200 feet.I am not sure, I have forgotten. But it gave us the technique and by then we know we’re going on a carrier. Then they rush us up to Quonsett Point, a navy base, we were going on the carrier and what do I know, a kid from South Dakota and we came down to taxi off and I’m sitting there filling out a form one, airplane record, and the next thing I know they’re putting ropes and stuff round the plane and I’m going up!
You were still in the plane?!
Yeah! So they put us on the USS Ranger, a beautiful little old carrier and there were 72 airplanes plus the navy planes which were already on there.
Do you remember what they were?
No.some sea planes and what they had was a hangar deck and a flight deck and they put us all down on the hangar deck, they suspended us
How amazing, how did you get out?
There was like a hatch and they just got fed through. 72 P40’s on that hangar deck. So we went down the east coast..
Were you writing home at this point?
Well yeah, they were very restrictive so there wasn’t much to say.
And any apprehensions or was it just a big adventure?
Oh a huge adventure, the whole thing. How, coming from where I did, could you get more of a high than that? When we were in Bridgeport we spent 2 weeks in New York. We had to do duty down there, but for me it was another adventure. We’d get free tickets to shows and everything and it was great.
What was the journey across like?
It was fraught with submarine threat. We had escorts, a general cruiser or maybe 2 and several destroyers.
And did you know where you were going at this point?
No. I don’t know when we learned that to tell you the truth.
Did you see much of Gerry Brandon?
He was on the carrier yeah and there were quite a few class mates, Tom Tilley, I met him at Pine Bluff and we went through the whole thing together. We e mail each other almost daily. Many of us from the 56th group. Bob Hoke, he was another friend from Bridgeport, we’d do dog fights together, do it til we were exhausted. There are quite a few of us left. Anyway, we went to South America, then Kraw (?) in South Africa. I guess it was a safer route. We were doing 30 knots and had about 300 feet, and some of them were pretty close to the water, but all 72 got off.
Oh a few tense moments yes.
So you’re throttling pretty hard with the brakes full on and then suddenly whoosh?
End of number one
So was that July 42?
Where did you fly to?
Krawl (?) in West Africa, just under the big bulgeGold Coast I think it’s called now.
Did you do what they call the Tacaradi Route?
Yes. We were escorted by the RAF. They had some Baltimores and some British..another twin. We’d just follow them. This part of the story I hate to relate because I was so poorwe were flying through clouds and I had terrible vertigo..
It must have been a heck of a long flight.
Yeah about 300 miles
Then you’d refuel and carry on?
Yeah. We were landing on a strip which didn’t have taxi ways, I guess it was fairly new. We were landing and you had to get off the strip quick because of the people coming in behind you. All there was, was a little road, a narrow dirt road and we taxied back up that. I was trying to be very careful, I got a couple of feet off the road and my right tyre sank and I got the prop. They had to go on the next leg and I am stuck. There was a crew coming through with mechanics and so on and they’ve got a prop. So I get a new prop and I am tail end Charlie with these guys and we land and a flight of B25’s are coming in after us. So the ? in front of me stops, slams the brakes on and I’m turning and wham, my prop! Well, the crew didn’t have another prop so they mended it..
Was there like a day in between these?
I think it was several days.
And presumably there wasn’t much there? In the middle of Africa.
It must have seemed bizarre, your first taste of war is travelling over the jungles and savannah of Africa.
The second stop when I was by myself waiting for an escort.oh what were they called? I don’t know but they were coming through and they refuelled.incidentally there were 100’s of native workers working on the airfield and there were all these oil drums at the side of the strip and there were Hudsons waiting to take off and they blew a horn when a plane was going to take off to get the natives off the runway and when the horn went they’d go and sit on the barrels, anyway I don’t know what happened but one of the Hudson’s took off and it just stalled, came down into these barrels. All the crew were killed and a load of these natives. The other thing about it was that we were paid in advance for 2 or 3 months. Some crew guy had it all in a bag and when the Hudson came down there was a shower of hundreds and hundreds of notes.
The barrels must have exploded did they?
I don’t know. There was a big fire. It was so devastating to me, I went away. Then this can’t have been the second field.anyway a guy comes through in a C47, a Pan American flight and he said he’d take me, so I flew wing to this guy to Khartoum which was where the rest of my guys were.
Did they give you a hard time?
I don’t remember them doing that, no. We partied in Khartoum for a couple of nights then we went to.oh it’s awful, I can’t remember these namesanyway we finally got to Palestine (sorry but the hoovering is making some of this a bit hard to hear!!!) then our squadron went over to the island of ..? can’t remember.did about 3 weeks training.British RAF crew..
Were you aware of what was going on in North Africa at the time?
No. We knew about the battle but.
Did you know you were going down to join in?
No worries about going with the RAF?
Oh no. We had the greatest respect for the RAF all the way through. The food was awful, it was mostly bread and bully beef. The bread was wormy, you had to just get those worms out and eat it anyway. The last debaclewe were training to land like they did in the 65th, when you down in a real tight turn around, I still love that landing. Anyway I got this P40 in a tight turn and got a gust of wind and clipped a wing tip. Here I am again! The rest of that story..the rest of the squadron was moving on and I’m there for several days and then they called up and said the airplane was ready for and so I got my little bird cranked up and I was just passing the coast of Cyprus and my engine quit.
You must have started to feel jinxed.
I had a little bit of power left and I could see a place I could put down. It was a mountainous area but there was a flat area and I dropped the billy tank off and managed to set it down. It was hard ground. I got my stuff out of the baggage compartment and then I saw what seemed like 100’s of native Cypriots coming with pitch forks. They thought I was a bad guy. I didn’t know what to do so I just stood there and then a British weapons carrier came along and rescued me! Then I got back and got a new airplane and everything went ok from then on. We were at Haifa. The other 2 squadrons stayed at Haifa and we went to Cyprus. In October we went down to LG 174 and we were interspersed between..and we flew with the South Africans and that was where we learnt the 4 abreast thing. They showed us the ropes.
I’ve been in touch with this chap Billy Drake who was with 112 squadron and he said the American pilots from 57th were fantastic pilots. Yes they were inexperienced but so willing. He praised you highly.
They were so experienced those guys, they taught us how to survive. The RAF way was to get to the target area and get the hell out
Yeah and get the hell out. Maybe those guys in P47’s heading towards the Siegfried Line maybe they had to do it the way they did, but they lost an awful lot of men. One of my early missions, it was a dawn mission, we hit a German airstrip. I think all 3 squadrons were on that trip. It was a hit and run and we got hit by 3 109’s really quickly after that and we lost 2 pilots that day. One of them was about to take me out and the squadron commander of 64 said turn, turn and I looked round and I kept going and got a frantic turn, turn and a 109 was coming at me like this and I turned and saw the 20mm.then we sneaked down to the Qattara Depression and we hid until we could get back home.
They were good those German fighters weren’t they?
Did it give you a wake up call?
I should say it did.
You must have gone there fairly confident that you’d had loads of training?
You don’t get to be confident til you’ve done about 50 missions, least that the way it took. After about 30 missions and I was losing pals, I thought this isn’t the place to be. Then when I got up to 50 I was ok. I don’t know if everyone does this but I went through a gung ho period then I got scared as hell and overcame that.
Were you nervous on your first sortie?
Oh yeah sure. Everything is so strange
You don’t know what to expect presumably?
No, and strangeness makes you tense. You’ve got to get to a stage where you feel more comfortable.
Is there a point when you’re flying that you’ve got so much to think about, you don’t have time to feel scared?
That first encounter with the 109 was nerve wracking then the next time we were escorting B25’s I believe. We got into a really big fight and my 4 and the squadron commander Gordon Thomas, we were top cover for the B25’s and these 109’s were sitting up there and we turned and went back up and a third time and this lucky guy gets me with a 20mm in the wing and made it difficult to fly
Did you realise he was behind you?
Oh yeah. He’d come at us 3 times and we’d kept turning into him which was the RAF tactic. He got me big in the wingI get mixed up in these stories.I got back ok. The next time, we were strafing, we were far into Libya. We went right across a battery and got me on 2 sides of my airplane. I may have a picture of that one.
That must have been terrifying!
I turned out to sea and headed east and went far enough to know I was behind our lines and came across a British P40 base just out in the field and I was never so glad to see something and got down and I was leaking gas and a guy leaped on and said â€œHey Hank, you’ve got a real problem here. You want another airplane? I said â€œSure I do and it was configured for British flying with a different throttle and such like but I wasn’t going to let that worry me.
So you had RAF roundels and..
Yeahand the fellows couldn’t figure it. I’d taken off in an American P40 and got back in a British one! When I thought about it, there I was over the sea leaking fuel, I could have easily just run out of gas..
Luck was on your side. Do you remember Alamein itself?
What I remember is that we’d done a lot of preliminary flying before anything much happened, then we were about 30 or 40 miles behind the lines and we could see all this light, it just lit up the sky. That was the initial thing. It was amazing. I can remember the flashes and the noise and then the push began.
A Hurricane pilot I know was flying over the Alamein line as it started, he watched it from 6,000 feet or so. Presumably you were in tents were you?
Yeah. That was another thing that saved us, British tents heavy things with a double roof.
Did you dig a shallow hole to sleep in?
I don’t remember that.
Did you have sleeping bags?
It must have been pretty boring when you weren’t flying; what did you do?
What did we do? I remember we built a bar early on. This friend of mine Gil Wyman who eventually became the CO and I became the ops officer. In the middle of the desert we were getting shot up and holes in the airplanes but not too serious and Gil gets our limited amount of sheet metal and builds a bar and it’s got our names on and I said â€œGil, you yardbird, we got airplanes with holes in and you’re building a bar! and that bar became our rallying point and still is! It went everywhere. It belongs to the Smithsonian but it’s out on loan.
So you took it everywhere?
Oh yeah, it was the first thing to be packed up.
And what did you drink, beer?
Another thing we learnt from the British..we were all Bourbon guys, but in Alex
there was unlimited Scotch and I didn’t like it at first but you get a taste for it. There were a lot of people who were good entertainers and we’d sing. We learnt a lot of songs from the RAF boys. And there were games of chequers, cards.
You must have got pretty close to people?
Oh yeah. Bob Hoke and I we did a lot together. We went to Cairo and Alex together. One time in Cairo, we’d been boozing and were a bit lost and this Egyptian says to us â€œI’ve got something for you! and he took us to this 2 storey building and he had all these girls and one was naked but they were so young, little teenagers and we weren’t interested in accommodating that. One place we liked very much was Shepherd’s Hotel. One time I was in Shepherds Hotel and I needed a leak and I was pretty bombed and when you’re in the desert you don’t go far to take a leak and I decided I’d just go outside.it’s embarrassing to tell.Alex also had a pretty active brothel. Different to the one I was describing in Cairo..entertainment and so on!
You could let your hair down?
Oh boy! This group would not qualify as a very military operation in that respect, except that the mission was sacred. You had to be on time you had to stay in formation and so on, but we looked like bums.
Yes, water was hard to come by.
Everything was hard to come by.
Did you have a problem with the flies?
Oh yes, the flies were horrible. In fact cleanliness, well, the desert is basically a clean environment, of course you sweat.
But everyone’s in the same boat.
Yeah. We learnt something else from the RAF. A makeshift shower from a barrel.
Did you all smoke a lot?
Oh yes, we all smoked a lot. Terrible! We had British cigarettes and they were very different. We had British rations for a while then gradually the American rations came in.
End of number 2
Start number 3
The stories we’d hear about those Maoris, going into the German camps, leaving one alive and slitting all the others throatsthey were something else, as hard as nails.
Presumably you didn’t have much to do with the land forces did you?
Nothing at all.
The 57th was on its own?
Yeah. We had great respect for 211 group. That was our control group.
So you were always being vectored by RAF control?
What do you think makes someone a good or bad controller?
I don’t know what a bad one would be like. They always knew where the bad guys were; they were unruffled. Late into the war, quite a way into the African campaign, I think it was coming from 9th air force in fact. They were always jealous of the British. They wanted to run you see and they weren’t competent enough to do it. And some guy, I can’t remember his name, a Colonel, he said â€œI want some American pilots to go down and do some training with 211. We drew straws and I lost; I went down there. I was there for several days and I knew this was nothing I could catch on to, and nor did I want to.
Was this post-Tripoli?
No, we were still in the Western Desert.
Were you still in tents?
There was this big sort of mobile van but tents as well.
Were there WAF’s there?
Oh yeah. There were some nice looking women and we were getting on ok and then this British guy came into the mess trailer, and a group captain or something moved right in; he didn’t want some goddamned Yankee getting too close! I hung around there for a few days and it wasn’t appealing to me at all so one morning I got my gear and hitched a ride on a British convoy of trucks and went back to my outfit; hardly said goodbye to anyone.
And no-one objected? No-one made you go back?
No, no. I didn’t want that mission.
I noticed on the bar board in your garage, you’re called Duke.
Yeah and my wife still calls me that. I met her in Italy and everyone referred to me as Duke, so that’s what she’s always called me. Since I retired, if I meet someone new it’s Ed.
Nicknames seem to be a big part of it.
Yeah and some of them were awful. There was a guy Jim Hare and everyone called him Rabbit.
Did you think your commanding officers were good? Art Salisbury was it?
He’s really ill. I got all the guys together the other day; ranger pilots. Some I hadn’t seen since the desert, so we had a great get together. I called Art to see if we could go and see him, but he’s hard to get hold of, so I wrote, and I wrote that I hadn’t met anyone who I respected more than him in the service. He called me as soon as he got the letter; said yeah let’s get together. Anyway.we’re going to get a group together in May and go see him; God I hope he lasts. After Art went to Group, Gordon Thomas became squadron commander. He wasn’t a strong commander but I liked him. The first part of 41 I think it was, they scrambled the 57th to the West coast. There were a lot of new pilots like me and leaders who weren’t good. They lost a lot of pilots. There was a guy Frank Meers, we didn’t have as much respect for him as maybe he deserved. He was at this get together at Colorado Springs with his son. Anyway Gordon Thomas told this story of the west coast escapade and how they all got separated and this group leader got him into trouble and how he got onto Frank Meer’s wing, and how he got him through the whole thing. It was a marvellous story, worth the whole trip.
What was it that made Art Salisbury such a good leader?
He was smart, he was a good pilot, he was a people person but he was also very firm about things. He made what we always felt what were the right decisions. He was just good. It’s difficult to define, but I think it’s a combination of all those things. I’ll give you an example – I got back to the squadron from all those problems and the first thing he said to me was â€œDuke, I hope you get the first 109; you’ve had tough luck. It’s a lne I’ll never forget.
Who did get the first 109?
I think it was Bill Mountain.
Was there much celebration about that?
I don’t know; he went to 64 squadron. We were together at Bridgeport.
Did the group stick to the same landing ground?
Yeah. The RAF boys would go out into the desert and take a one mile square and level it out. One squadron would be put on this side, one on that and when we scrambled, one would take off in this direction and one in that.
Was there quite a lot of socialising in the evenings?
Oh we were always visiting, bar to bar.
So you were drinking every night?
Yeah, every chance.
Did you ever have the situation of having a bit too much and then having to fly a mission the next morning?
Oh yeah. If there was a mission you flew; sometimes you’d be bombed almost.
Do you remember being strafed by enemy fighters?
The only time we ever really got into trouble was after the so called Cape Horn (?) massacre.
The Turkey shoot when all the Germans were fleeing? And all those Junkers 52’s.
That was so devastating to the Germans and afterwards they came and bombed with JU88’s 2 nights in a row, bombing our strip; this was at Al Jim (?). On one of the nights, I panicked and leapt out of my tent; I think it’s the one that’s riddled in the picture; and I leapt in a trench, but it was the wrong kind of trench! But I was saved.
I wonder if you were close enough to the sea to wash off?!
That was the only time we had a significant attack. They were mad about that.
Did you hit anything in that massacre?
I missed that one. I was flight commander then and intelligence said something’s happening and I put myself on first patrol. You got so used to getting mixed messages. I think I went on another mission that day, but the real big one happened at about 5pm.
One of your guys got 5 didn’t he?
Yeah. I had 2 guys which I’d just put through the training programme and had been with the squadron only a few weeks and got victories. Dick Huntziger got one and Jacky Mander (?). They were on the mission! Damn! That was my first battle. I went back to the States from Sicily for a year and saw guys coming back and talking about shooting down airplanes and I thought I’ve got to go back. Frank Meers was down at HQ in Colorado Springs and he OK you can escort these 2 squadrons back. I didn’t know where they were going, but they were going to Italy. While I’m home, my group’s in Corsica and they had all these missions, great targets, 20 minutes behind the bomb line or whatever it was, and I missed that! You see I am famous for missing things!
Where were you based in Italy?
When I got back to Italy they’d left Corsica. I got there November 44, and I forget when they came out of Corsica but it was that fall. I was stationed at Caserro (?) and that’s where I met Dottie. She was a nurse at the station hospital there. Gil Wyman was CO and I came in as a replacement pilot.
Were you still with the 57th?
Yeah. I escorted these 2 squadrons of graduates from advanced school, about a hundred and something pilots. We get to Italy I went into Personnel of 12th air force and there was this sergeant there and I said â€œI’d like to go back to 57th and he â€œNo Captain, you can’t do that so I decided to bluff and said â€œWho’s the commanding general of this air force? And he said so and so and I said â€œCan we get him on the phone? He said â€œCaptain, would you like to ? assignments for all those going to the 57th? I got pick out about 30 guys, most of whom I knew! There’s a good book written by one of these guys which I’ve got.
I’d like to see that.
Yeah sure. He kept a diary which I hadn’t had the sense to.
Did you stay in Caserro?
Yeah from November 44 til the end of the war. Then I was a squadron commander after that. We were on a boat going to the Philippines when the Atom bomb was dropped. We were just outside the Panama Canal. We went back and disembarked in Boston. Don’t know why. Then the squadron was sent to Tampa, Florida.
Was there much air opposition in Italy?
None. My ambition came to nothing. I still wanted to make ace.
Was it 5 for an ace?
Joachim Marseilles was the hotshot in Africa, the top scorer.152 in Africa.
I don’t recognise that name.
He was killed at the end of September 42. In a way that was what lost them the war in North Africa because they were all going after the fighters. Yes, he massed this huge score but meantime the bombers were getting through. I think Johnnie Johnson was the top scoring allied pilot and he had 38.
He had just come in to the squadron when we left, in the 61st I think. I met him at a reunion after the war.
What were you flying in Italy?
Were you aware that the P40’s were inferior to the 109’s?
Oh yes absolutely. They always had altitude on us, always had the superior position. It was just luck if you shot them down. I got a probable – this guy was coming down through the formation and I got on him but it was only a probable.
You saw you’d hit him?
Oh yeah but I couldn’t claim it. George Mobbs (?) he got 4. I guess it was in a classical dog fight situation. 109’s always had the advantage unless they made a mistake.
Did you find that demoralising?
Yes. Now, this is a long winded story, but I had the greatest respect for 109’s. I had to have a 109 to fly. In North Africa there was a strip where the Germans had left some 109’s and I had a crew fix one up and I was competing with this guy a sergeant pilot in the RAF, American transfer. He did the work himself on a 102 (?) and he meets me at the airplane and gives me what for and I slunk out of there, scared as anything. Then my friend, so called friend, witnessed this escapade and he was transferred and he was able to talk to this RAF transfer guy and he asked if he could sit in it, then he asked if he could start it up, and he ended up flying it out of there! I can’t remember whether it was then or the next time, he bellied that one in. That was a frustration. We were in Sicily and we found out a bunch of 109’s were down the road. I get my crew down there, magicians, but Bill Benedict, that’s the name I was trying to remember, said it hasn’t got a .generator but not, I can’t remember the word but it has got a wing generator so when you get airborne I think you’ll have power. These things are hard to fly, and everything in German and you can’t see out of it, that’s why they pranged so many. I get the thing airborne, the ailerons won’t come up, flaps won’t come up, can’t do anything with the prop, it’s all electric, so I’ve got to land it, I muscled it down.
So you didn’t have a chance to put it through its paces?
Hell no. There was a Polish Spit squadron there and a Polish guy who wanted to fly one just as badly as I did. He jumped up on the wing and said Can I fly it? And said yeah, but the engine’s overheating. I’ve got to take off now. I take off and take it to my place and I got 5 more of those things out to my place. Then we moved to Ascoria (?) and Bill Benedict, he and Charlie Leaf were big buddies, and used to tell some very tall stories. Anyway, Bill was in the hospital with Malaria. I was having a party and some guy from 66 came in and said they need you to fly some 109’s. I went down and there were 4 of them. I checked 3 and rejected them and said I’d fly the 4th. Charlie said That’s the one I am going to fly! Anyway I flew it and the gear wouldn’t come down. It wasn’t far from Paschino to Ascoria. I had to belly land it! Charlie was beside himself! He said Didn’t you turn it upside down?
Did you have a chance to put it through its paces before you belly landed?
Well, I’d flown 6 by then and checked out several more.
What did you think of it?
Oh I loved flying it but it was a stinking flying airplane compared to ours compared to smoothness of controls and the torque was terrible, but it was goddamned great performer.
Presumably the guys in the Luftwaffe just got used to their idiosyncrasies.
After a few hours, we mastered them.
What did you think of the 190?
I never had a chance to get in one of those.
But did you ever get in a dog fight with one?
After I left, one of my guys got killed in a 109. The powers that be then became very opposed to this activity. In northern Italy there was a 190 and I thought we’d get it, but the CO told me to stay away from it.
So what were you doing in the P47’s?
Dive bomb and strafe, dive bomb and strafe, time after time. We were always looking for opportunities, trucks, trainstrains were good.
Was it difficult to strafe and hit?
There were lots of incidents of people not pulling up quickly enough and hitting something.
Was there a knack to it?
We did a lot of practising at Victoria, Texas, coming in and shooting at a ground target. No I don’t associate any particular technique with it. There’s tracer everywhere of course.
What were the conditions like in Northern Italy? Pretty cold and wet wasn’t it?
I got there in November, so it was winter and there was snow in the Apennines, snow in the Po valley, then spring, summer and so on, the seasons we enjoy..
Was there much opposition to these strafing runs in Northern Italy?
No, you could just sit there. I f you found yourself over an army division over the Apennines, you could find yourself in a hot spot in a hurry because they’d concentrate everything they had on you. I had a rudder pedal shot off in that situation. You could stumble into a place where there was a concentration of small arms and you just see the damn thing come apart on you and you can’t see what the hell’s shooting at you because they look so small on the ground. All you can do is get out of there. One time I had a big hole in the canopy right behind my head.
You were never personally wounded at all?
No, not a scratch.
Most of the work you were doing was bomber escorts?
Yeah, for the first few months we were escorting B25’s and A20’s and the Blenheims initially, starting with Alamein. Then it was dive bomb and strafe missions.
So a single bomb under the undercarriage?
Did you have to practise that much?
We did shadow practise gunnery on the desert floor. I don’t remember that we did any practise with bombs. I guess it was just gunnery practise.
Can you remember getting up the coast into Tunisia?
Oh yeah. The gunnery was moving so fast. Then he would have to re-equip and re-train. Monty was so conservative, we’d be stuck for weeks sometimes, doing nothing.
Do you recall the battle of the Mareth Line and such like?
I remember it by name but not particular missions.
I was going to ask you about casualties
The first ones were those 2 we lost on that early morning mission, at least that’s my memory of the first
Was that hard to take?
NoI sometimes wonder if there’s something wrong with me but guys lose out, your life is your life. You just accepted it. In Italy it got so we’d just divide up their property and move on. I lost some people I really liked but you don’t dwell on it. It’s all different now, all these parades and such when someone’s lost. I don’t know which is better, to grieve or just get on with it.
If you had all grieved, you’d have fallen apart. You had a job to do and you had to do it.
Yeah. I’m more dove-ish now, losing these people in Iraq. I hate that.
There’s all this counselling now.
I had a squadron in Japan in the 50’s and I lost a guy. I was squadron commander so I went to see the widow, saw her a couple of times. She was very vulnerable at the time, and if I’d been so inclined
I think that’s pretty standard – they’re vulnerable.
So you stayed in the service until you retired?
What rank did you get to?
Colonel. After the war I went to the test centre down at Eglands Field, testing for operational suitability, then I went to operational school, then I went to school, then I went to the Pentagon and I didn’t like it at all. Spent 3 years there. After that I went back to training navy 6D’s (?) and went to Japan with a night fighter squadron.
Did you go to Korea?
No, I was in the Pentagon. I tried to go, but they laughed at me.
Was Japan interesting?
We loved Japan. Yen to the dollar then was very advantageous. We had a lot of help – we had 5 kids. I had a squadron then I went to HQ for the last year. Then we came home and I went to Michigan as a director of ops in a manual radar division then they went over to the SAGE automatic ground environment system and I though it was hooey, so I got myself transferred to HQ in Colorado and I was there for 3 years. During that time the ballistic missile early warning system was coming in. There was a squadron in Alaska and I had done a study on how all these systems came together so I was made squadron leader in Alaska. Of course I couldn’t bring the family but I was there for a year. Then I came back to Colorado Springs and was in NORAD, then I was assigned to Hamilton and then I retired and lived in Renfrew for a few years til all the kids had left High School.
And you’ve been in California ever since? Playing golf!
Yeah. I feel guilt ridden about a lot of things. I feel I haven’t put in as much as I’ve got out.
You fought in the war, you’ve worked hard all your life, you’ve brought up 5 kids. I think you’ve done your bit. Did you have trust in the authorities during WW2?
I was a big FDR man. I didn’t trust Johnson or Nixon. I questioned Vietnam so much, I was at Colorado Springs
Were you brought up a Catholic?
But did you have faith in your military leaders? Presumably it was Cunningham when you were under the RAF.
I liked and respected all the British characters in command.
And was that the general feeling do you think?
Oh yeah, but it was the ones in Cairo, trying to get their hands in thereBrereton he had absolutely nothing to do with ithe just sat back.got in the way
You were just your own little unit weren’t you?
Yes, and not only that I was a lieutenant.
Did you always feel confident that you were going to win the war?
Absolutely, never doubted it.
How about feeling concerned for your own safety? Did you worry about death?
After we lost quite a few pilots in Africa, after 3 or 4 months, I went with Bob Boffer, don’t know where he got that nickname from, Hoke, we went into Cairo and I said â€œHey Bob, this is getting kinda scary. Shall we get our arses out of here? Of course it didn’t come to anything, but we were on the same wavelength. And this was around 30 missions. We’re losing a lot of associates. Yeah, we really were worried then.
And did he agree with you?
This was before the end of 42, but after Alamein?
Did you find it difficult to motivate yourself to get back in the plane?
I do recall going through a period, a very questionable time, thinking how I could get out of it.
Because you didn’t want to die?
Exactly. But you have to keep going because you had no alternative and then it was like a switch and I called it 50 missions.
You got to the level where you knew your aircraft, knew the pitfalls, with experience, the chances could be cut down do you think?
I never had that. I wasn’t lacking in confidence so much it was more that the scare I was getting was seeing pilots, friends being cut down.
But when you got to 50 missions is it a question of being resigned to if I’m going to die then I’m going to die or is it more a case of I don’t need to feel scared because I’m experienced and the chances are I’ll be ok.
I don’t know if I can describe it in those terms but after about 50 missions I felt confident and I would accept what happened and that carried all the way through after that. What happens I think is that it starts to become a high, and you want to be involved. You put down the risk side. You say, oh that happened, it won’t happen again. Silly things like that.
Did you have any superstitions or talismans?
Well, I was a Catholic, so I had some medals, like a St Christopher. Then I lost that religion thing, but when Dottie and I came to get married and my sister came down and there was the church service and everything, and I got back into it again and I practised it til I’d had our 5th child then I couldn’t be bothered any more. I sat down with the family and said I can’t be doing with this anymore. Give me a lovely little old town with a little church, that’s a nice picture.
That’s more sentimental than anything else isn’t it? I’m just the same.