JIM REED WAS A PILOT WITH THE 33rd FIGHTER GROUP
Background.picked up from the book that your book your childhood seemed quite hard but happy.
Yes, no big problem. We were very poor but everyone else was too. So I really didn’t think much about it. We had very little money to spend and I worked pretty hard from about 12 years old, then on. I was a caddy at a municipal golf course from 12 to 16 years old.
I don’t suppose there was much time for getting bored.
No, nothing like that.
Were you close to your 2 brothers?
Yes we were very close.
Did they join the air force?
They were both in the service. One was in communications and the other took pilot training but he washed out in primary and became an aircraft mechanic.
They both survived the war ok?
I’d like to know about training. Were you given much advice about tactics, fighter tactics?
No, I’d say that wasn’t covered at all.
It’s surprising isn’t it? You’d think with the battle of Britain been and gone, there were lessons which could have been learnt.
When I got into tactical training right out of flying school it was mostly formation flying and that was in Pennsylvania and we’d have a little gunnery practise over the Atlantic ocean near Atlantic City.
Were you taught the principles of deflection shooting?
Yeah, we got into that some in advanced flying school, they had a shooting skeet and we’d go out over the Gulf of Mexico and shoot at a towed target. Each aircraft had a different coloured tip on the bullet and when we got on the ground we’d go the towed sock and see how many hits we’d got from the colour of the holes.
It wasn’t ideal training for the real thing was it?
No, our powers that be knew very little about what was going on in Britain as far as the necessity for a particular type of training that we needed.
I would have thought you’d be given lectures on the capabilities of the 109 and so on.
The 109 and that type of thing was not covered at all.
I get the distinct impression that when you were finally flying off the Shenango which sounds a hairy thing in itself, and got to Port Lahoudy (?) I got the impression you were really surprised by the state of the runway and all the wrecks everywhere, and that none of you had the faintest idea what to expect.
No, we were 77 green as a gourd pilots going up against Rommel’s desert air force who had about 2 years experience on us and were about 2 years older than most of us and they really shot the hell out of us the first month we were in Tunisia and we lost a lot of good men because of inadequate tactics and so forth. We learnt the hard way but we learnt fairly fast after we started losing a lot of people.
It was interesting that you were initially earmarked to go to the Western desert to join the British forces and a few other Americans in the West. The 57th fighter group was the one who got there and they were infiltrated into desert units, so were shown the ropes by veterans. RAF pilots who flew with Americans said you were great pilots, green but quick to learn. You must have been a pretty competent pilot by the time you got out there?
I felt I could hold my own even though the Messerschmitt was a superior aircraft in many respects. We could out turn it and that was our saving grace but not all pilots could out turn it. You had to really rack back on the stick to out turn it. There was one flight we had where we were escorting a group of B25’s or 26’s. We had 36 P40’s and we were attacked by about 36 109’s and FW 190’s and my flight leader wasn’t turning tight enough to get me out of trouble so I had to pull out of the formation. I was tail end Charlie and he got picked off on a regular basis. I pulled out in order to escape the fire of the Messerschmitt and had to drop a few degrees of flaps in order to out turn him. Slow down a little and have a tighter turning radius and I got back in another flight and the same thing happened to me and that German pilot was better than the previous one and I had to drop nearly full flaps and I dropped my landing gear half way down to out turn him and I got away from both of them and the fact that I was able to slow down enough to make a sharper turn saved me. I ended up in the same flight I started with and on the way back there was one Messerschmitt still trying to pick me off. He was underneath us and I had my eye on him and we turned the whole group of 36 around and ran him off and that didn’t satisfy him; he was still trying to pick me off and we had to make another 360 to run him off and he finally got the message and left us alone.
That must have been a very hairy sortie.
Do you remember feeling scared or was there just too much to think about?
It’s hard to describe – every flight I took, I tried to say a short prayer before take off or immediately after take off. We had to eliminate tail end Charlie because he was getting picked off too often, so we got into a line abreast formation, wing tip to wing tip, 36 planes. You would think that would be a very cumbersome flight but it was not. Each plane turned at the same radius at the same time. The top squadron turned, the middle squadron would save the leader and each plane or each squadron or each flight would turn over or under his leader. Consequently, each of the 36 had the same radius of turn immediately and if a Messerschmitt dove on the middle squadron, the two outer squadrons turned into him and he immediately left. If one of the outside squadrons were attacked, the other 2 squadrons turned into him and ran him off. That way we didn’t lose any people.
You never adopted the finger 4?
We referred to that as the V formation. It was an identical formation but we called it a different name. There was one man at the back all the time, and that was tail end Charlie.
I guess you learn quickly
Yeah, but only after we lost a lot of men quickly.
What comes across in the diary just before you set sail on the Shenango, is how easy life seemed. Hitting North Africa must have been a hell of a wake up call. The difference between your life in America to that in North Africa must have been extraordinary.
Oh it was, no question about that.
Was it a huge shock?
No, I think we just took it in our stride.
Do you think that was because you were young?
We were hell bent for election (?) I don’t know how else to put it. The possibility of death or anything like that didn’t bother me. I thought I was indestructible.
The description of you taking off from the aircraft carrier makes the hairs on your neck stand up, nearly touching the water.
The P40 required a higher flying speed than the navy planes and the Shenango was a converted oil tanker, very slow and didn’t provide much wind lift on take off and the catapult apparently was that strong anyway and everyone nearly touched the water on take off and in volume 2 you’ll see that there was one man that we lost. He apparently hit his head on the gun sight and knocked himself out. He’d had trouble with that plane since he picked it up new in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I think he probably had a run away prop, but we’re not sure. Those planes were re-assembled in Harrisburg out of crates that were ready to go to Egypt and the decision was made (I found all this out later) that Eisenhower needed a fighter squadron on the west coast of Africa and we were selected so they sent the crates to Harrisburg and we rode the train up there to pick up our new airplanes. I’ve still got the hotel receipt, it cost $5.
It amazes me how much money seemed to change hands on things like card games. One where I think you won $80, then lost $75 the next night. That’s quite a lot of money in those days.
Yeah, it was but it kept us busy and kept our minds off the possibility of death. Games of chance took place on a regular basis.
Can you tell me how you met your wife?
I went to see a movie by myself one evening in Philadelphia and I struck up a conversation with a Marine. We were waiting for everyone to come out of the Movie house and he said â€œI’ve got a date and she’s got a girlfriend. Do you want to come along? I said â€œSure. Well, we had a great evening but it seemed like I like his date better than mine, so the next week I called her and started taking her out and he was no longer in the picture, he’d shipped out. I dated her from early spring til November when I went overseas. In fact we left on my birthday, October 20. We corresponded real heavily and I came back on the former Empress of Japan ocean liner with no escort and I got off the boat and got down literally on my knees and kissed the ground then ran to the nearest pay telephone and called her up and rode the train from North Port Virginia to Philadelphia that day, proposed that night, she accepted and I went to my folks in Memphis for 2 weeks and then came back and we got married. After she died in 1990, I was looking after my mother in law who was in a nursing home. One day she said â€œDid Irene ever tell you about Chad coming to see her after the war? I said â€œNo, and she said â€œWell, he came and was very mad because you stole his girlfriend and he wanted your address so he could come and beat the hell out of you. I thought that was kinda.the circumstances of meeting by chance.him accusing me of stealing his girlfriend.
So just on the whim of going to see that movie, had a long married life
Yeah, we were married 47 years.
Can you remember what the movie was?
Some war movie, I think a John Wayne movie, in the Pacific.
That’s a very romantic story.
It is and we thought a lot of each other and we had 2 daughters and I’ve got 6 grand children and 3 great grand children.
And you’ve always stayed in Memphis apart from your spell in Florida?
We were in Florida a year and a half during the war. I was getting out on points. I was at Fort McPherson, Georgia when Japan surrendered and my wife wanted to settle down in Philadelphia to be near her folks and it took me 6 or 7 years to persuade her to go to Memphis. In August 51 we bought us a house. I couldn’t get a loan on it because I didn’t have a local job so my father put it in his name and we went back to Philadelphia and in December it was finished, so we moved in and with what I got on the house in Philadelphia I was able to pay my dad off, so we had a beautiful 3 bed roomed bungalow and I’ve been in Memphis ever since in the heating and air conditioning business. I ended up being an engineer at the local airport.
Did you still fly then?
No, due to the polio I had in my leg. I was worried they’d discover it and also the commercial airlines favoured bomber pilots.
Did you never fly again, even for fun?
I flew in the reserves for about a year but you had to pay.and I was raising a family, so I left. Then a friend of mine who was a crop duster took me and a friend up over the casinos on the Mississippi and he let me fly the plane awhile, which I enjoyed.
Didn’t you miss it?
Oh yes I did but it was very expensive and I had a family to raise who I was devoted to.
Going back to war time, were you excited to be going away or sad to be leaving Irene and your family?
I missed my girlfriend. I didn’t particularly miss my family because I’d been away from them for quite awhile, a year and a half.
But you felt it was a bit of an adventure?
Oh yeah, it was something to look forward to, but I didn’t think about it much.
Have you got the letters from Irene?
Oh yeah, every one of them. I’ve just archived them in dated order and I’ve got 3 ring binders full.
Did it remind you of anything?
Oh it brought back a lot of memories. I have been considering publishing them. What do you think about that?
Oh I would be very interested to read something like that..only trouble would be censorship.
Very few of mine were censored.
I think people would be very interested and I would like my descendants to have a copy.
They certainly brought back a lot of memories.
I am sorry I never got a chance to come and see you personally in Memphis.
I’d be very glad to see you..do you have my e mail address email@example.com
On the Shenango, you seemed to have the responsibility of looking after the planes yourself. Was that because you didn’t have any ground crew on board?
We didn’t have any ground crew members. I think we had one armaments man who showed the pilots how to take the guns out and I never have understood the necessity for that as I know the navy didn’t do that every day. We had to take 6 50 calibre machine guns out and they were heavy and take them in our room and wrap them up in a blanket and stow them under our cots. 2 or 3 days before the invasion, we had to lug them back to the planes and install them and we did it in pairs, 2 pilots working on one plane, then another and when we got off the deck we test fired our guns and I had 4 out of 6 that worked; some of them none worked. We were catapulted directly into combat. They had taken the airfield at Port Lahoudy and they had to secure that before we could take off because we couldn’t land back on the carrier.
A level of frustration comes through in the diary of not being able to go when you thought you were going to go and so on.
We heard that the catapult was broken but then I found out later that it was because of the condition of the runway and all the cracked up planes. So I am not really sure what the major cause for the delay was. Did you see the story about the Colonel getting onto me when I landed? I barely scraped the tip of my left wing when I ground looped round that 500lb bomb crater. He chewed me out good and I didn’t need it because I was very dejected about the possibility of having an airplane that might not be able to fly. I was still sitting in the cockpit and a friend of mine came over and said â€œDon’t pay any attention to that son of a bitch. He tore his all to pieces! That kinda made me feel a bit better.
Did you have any particular friends in the squadron?
Well, it was mostly divided by flights. Three flights of four made up a squadron.
Was that A, B and C flight?
You could call them that.
What did you call them?
We called them by colours, white flight. no, our squadron was a white stripe down the tail – that was the way we identified the squadron and the whole group, the 3 squadrons, had a red spinner on the prop. That identified a group plane then you’d go to the tail to see which squadron it was. I want to say I was in white flight, but I can’t really remember.
So the 4 of you who were in the flight would be pretty close?
Yes. The whole flight was pretty close. Four of us slept in a hole in the ground the size of 2 double beds in Tunisia and I was the only one of the 4 who didn’t go down.
That must have hit you hard, losing friends?
Yeah, one of them got killed, one had to bail out.
One had to bail out?
Yes, Skippy White, James Howard White. He was the first one to go down behind enemy lines.
He was a pretty good friend?
He was. He lived in North Mississippi, fairly close to Memphis, but I didn’t know him before we went onto the service. I was very close to the 3 people I roomed with. The third guy had a forced landing in the middle of a tank battle and hid in some brush but a dog sniffed him out and he thought it was a German dog, but it was a French dog. I said â€œWell, did he talk French? But he walked in 2 or 3 days later, so only 2 of them left us; one was killed and the other was a POW. They thought I was going to go nuts so they sent a CO over from one of the other squadrons to spend a few nights with me.
Presumably there were a few nights when you were on your own in this hole?
Yeah, I didn’t someone to come and sleep with me. I wasn’t going to go off the deep end. I guess I was pretty stable.
How did you deal with losing friends?
You had to put it out of your mind. There was nothing you could do about it. I want to tell you how this friend died. We had a replacement pilot come in and he was real gung ho – wanted to win the war all by himself, he was one of those types. We only had 4 airplanes in commission, 5 in total, built from wrecks. We kept one in the shop all the time so we could make up a flight of 4. And they went out to get some Stuka dive bombers off our troops, I wasn’t on this mission, and they were after the dive bombers and a bunch of Messerschmitts jumped on them and the Major said â€œCome on, let’s get the hell out of here quick. So they left and this one joker stayed. He was going to get all these Messerschmitts and Stukas, but then he started calling for help, so the Major said â€œCome on, let’s go see if we can rescue him. And they were in a dog fight right at ground level, and there were little hills all around and when you’re flying tight formation, you don’t look out the windshield you look at the plane you’re flying off of and the Major carried him right through a house at the top of the hill and killed him, all due to this joker.
Did he make it back?
Yeah – we tried to court martial him for several weeks. He was in my tent up in Northern Tunisia and he got so nervous, he was whittling the centre pole of the tent with a knife and he had it nearly whittled in two. He was on a flight up near Tunis and heavy ack ack got him and he had to bail out
I dread to think what the atmosphere was like in the tent. You must have been furious.
We disliked him highly. When he got on the ground a bunch of Arabs stripped his clothes off, because they would even dig up the graves to get clothes off the dead soldiers. He was critically injured and a truck load of Germans drove up and machine gunned the Arabs. They took him to hospital but this was right near the end and before they could get him out of North Africa, we beat them, and so we rescued him from the Germans. The last I heard of him he was between the Miami VA hospital and the New York VA hospital, still with flack in his body.
Have you forgiven him?
No, absolutely not because the man he caused to get killed was my very best friend.
I am amazed he stayed in the tent with youcould you even speak to him? Everyone in the squadron must have thought it was better to have split you up surely?
Well, being 83, my memory is not so good and I can’t recall the details of how I was feeling right then.
You and the Major had been good friends from the time you joined the squadron?
No, not the Major.
What was the name of your friend who was killed?
Smith. The Major didn’t communicate with the lower echelon. He tended to talk to the flight leaders but not the wing man and the element leaders.
How much radio chat was there during a sortie?
None whatsoever and that always puzzled me because radio silence was the watch word, right from the word go. When we landed at Fort Lahoudy – no radio communication, radio silence, but hell the Germans knew we were there. Why not use the radio? Speak up because it benefits you. But radio silence persisted right the way through.
When you were doing a big manoeuvre – you were talking about 36 line abreast, was the CO giving the orders or did you just automatically know what to do?
We were essentially a line abreast, but technically the lead flight, the centre flight, was just slightly ahead of the other two.
Was there some difference in height too?
The lead elevation, the right flight was above and the left squadron was below and that persisted in each squadron. That allowed crossover at the same radius of turn.
But was that something you automatically did or did someone give the signal to do that?
In a turn you always changed sides. That way technically you wouldn’t have to move the throttle although you did have to touch it up a little.
But who would give you the order to do that?
There wasn’t any order, you’d just follow the leader.
And he’d do it automatically?
Yeah, he’d turn and you’d turn with him and during the turn you’d cross over, unless it was a very shallow turn.
So even during a dog fight you wouldn’t say something like â€œI’ve got one on my tail or something like that.
No, you kept your damned mouth shut. And that always aggravated me that we couldn’t talk and yet we had radios. I don’t know whether it was just our group.
I came across a New Zealander who said they kept coming into contact with a group of P38 pilots and having to tell them to keep quiet because they were so noisy! The RAF attitude was radio silence unless it was absolutely necessary.
We did not have that prerogative and it didn’t make sense to me at all.
Did you have any particularly bad moments that you can recall?
You mean when I got the hell scared out of me? Yeah there were about 3. We were sent to knock the Stukas off of our troops and we refused the mission all day because of low clouds. We had no nav aid facilities and late in the day, we were given direct orders to go. When we crossed the line all hell broke loose. The ceiling was about 500 feet and they threw everything but the kitchen sink at us and got me hemmed off from the rest of them. I was flying tail end Charlie position, and as I turned to tried to turn to join up with the group, I met a wall of flack and I continued to meet that wall until we got considerably over the front line and then I could see the group in the distance and I gave it full throttle to catch up. That was nerve wracking.
And when you’re getting flack, presumably the plane was jolting all over the place?
Oh yeah and I could see the ground tracers coming up; it was nearly dark and I could see every tracer and the whole sky was full of them. Another time in Italy we were to dive bomb a troop concentration on a shallow hill. It was right near the front and I was leading the flight. Incidentally, I was a first lieutenant at the time but I led the squadron which was a Major’s job; they didn’t hand out promotions in our outfit very readily. I approached the spot over to the left side, passed it and dove in the direction of our front lines and we plastered that hill but we got a hell of a lot of flack and by the time I got out of that dive, we were over friendly territory. Another time, we were dive bombing a crooked road in Italy, north of Naples and I was looking at a map trying to pick the right road by a certain town and all of a sudden flack was everywhere. I went up, flack was there; went down, flack was there; to the right flack, to the left flack. It literally tore up our formation, the first time that had happened. I finally spotted the target and I said â€œCome on, let’s group up and then we can get the hell out of here. So we dove and out of 12 bomb drops, we always dropped in a pattern at the same time, we had 3 direct hits on that crooked road which I thought was excellent, but it was totally luck. On the morning of the invasion of southern Sicily, that was very scary. I thought I was hit but I wasn’t. The throttle linkage had come loose and I had no control over the carburettor and I got back to the field – the British radar was set up on the mountain we were living under the week before we went up and looked at it and this was my first time to use radar and I called in for a heading about half way back and they gave me a considerable correction due to heavy cross winds I didn’t realise I was in and had I not got that correction, I would have ended up in the middle of the Mediterranean. But it was embarrassing to pull back on the throttle and the engine kept running, so I finally thought to cut the magneto switch and leave it off for a predetermined amount of time, usually a few seconds then 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds and it would always catch by up by the prop windmilling. That was the way I brought it in by cutting the magneto switch and leaving it off for a longer and longer time.
You must have been a very competent pilot. I’ve never heard of anyone else thinking about putting half the undercarriage down to slow you down and so on.
I think I was the only person to do that!
You seemed to have had a cool head and the ability to think under pressure.
You know this little runway we had on the island of Pantelaria had a mountain at one end and a cliff and the Mediterranean at the other and we landed down the slope of the mountain all the time and when I was coming in with that wild engine I was coming in pretty high and I slipped it, you turn the plane sideways and tilt it to rapidly lose altitude and I had to get into a vicious slip and if you over slip you can auger (??) in and I slipped it and just I got to ground level I straightened it out and made the most beautiful landing you’d ever seen. Incidentally, they already had me posted missing in action because I was about 30 minutes behind the flight coming in and do you know they sent my folks a telegram that fast and they didn’t know until they got my next letter a couple of weeks later, they thought I was dead or missing. The crew chief, I had a wonderful crew chief jumped up on the wing and said â€œWhat’s the matter? I said â€œLift off the cowling and let’s see. And there was the throttle linkage in 2 parts swinging in the breeze. The throttle linkage was connected with a braid and that braid over time had worn in two and the linkage had just dropped apart.
You had some close calls?
You were talking about being competent in an aircraft and I was. I figured I could make that plane do anything I wanted it to and I always felt I was the best damned pilot in the air force and I understand that’s a pre-requisite of being a good fighter pilot!
I am sure it is but you need a cool head and the ability to think rationally under pressure.
I enjoyed that war to some extent if you can figure that out. I don’t know how else to say it. I enjoyed my time overseas but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to go through it again.
Did you have much to do with the British over there?
Very little but I what I did have to do with them, I really, really respected them. The British fighting Rommel were really on the ball and I think they taught our ground forces a lot and I really respected the Australians considerably.
Why was that?
I don’t know. They were just there, they took care of themselves when need be..
How did you make that assessment?
I met a very few of them. They might come into the field in an emergency to refuel or something. I wasn’t really acquainted with them, but their reputation generally, from other people also.
So you didn’t have much to do with the RAF guys?
No, just occasionally when they came to the field to refuel. I should add that we were always the front line fighter field. When the ground troops would move up, we would move up behind them. We were strictly tactical support, medium bomber escort.
I went to Tunisia last summer and had a good look round.
Did you go to Thilepte?
Yes. There’s no airfield there now, just a little town.
There was nothing when we were there, just a flat valley with hills surrounding it. That little hill to the east, a Messerschmitt hopped over one morning and chewed up one of our chow lines. Killed 3 or 4 men including the major who the intelligence officer. He got an explosive shell right in the chest and it killed him.
That must have been messy.
I didn’t see it – I was on the other side of the field. We didn’t have chow lines after that.
How did you find the food?
We had British rations for a couple of weeks at Tileps and I didn’t like them.
It was British Ox tail soup, canned plum pudding and dehydrated tea twice a day. Those 3 items was all we had and that was when the fighting was the roughest. But I got tired of our own grub too.
Did you ever get any beer or anything like that?
When we were on British rations, they furnished the pilots with Scotch Whiskey and I didn’t drink so I always gave mine to someone else.
You didn’t drink at all?
No, well Whiskey was too strong for me and I just didn’t like it. And beer, well, back home on the farm I’d see an old cow taking a piss and it would foam up and that beer reminded me of that.
You mentioned about saying a prayer when you were taking off. Were you from a religious family?
I went to church when I was real young more than as a teenager. As a teenager I was living in the country and we played ball on Sundays and guess what we used as bases! Dried Cow dung! So my church going faltered during that period of time.
But you always believed in God?
Oh yes, at College I’d go to church and in the military we’d have services to some extent. No, I always believed in the power above and my prayers prior to or immediately after take off were short, but I did say them. I don’t know whether they helped me or not but.
Well, you’re still here.
When do you hope to publish?
I haven’t got an American date but in the UK, May 2005.
I was wondering if you could send me a copy?
Of course. I’ll send you a draft this October to make sure I’ve got my facts right then if there’s anything I’ve wrong, perhaps you’ll be able to let me know. And if you have any photographs.
..I took about 600 photographs over there and when I find them I’ll send you some by e mail. I am going to make a thorough search..
Many thanks for all your help. Sorry I couldn’t actually get to see you.
JIM REED WAS A PILOT WITH THE 33rd FIGHTER GROUP