This wonderful article, the memoirs of the American World War II fighter pilot Robert "Bob" Riddle, was originally dug up by the fine people of the virtual squadron "31st FG",
who fly alongside us in the online skies of WarBirds simulator.
Bob Riddle had written his memoirs but had never published them. It took the efforts of the virtual
31st Fighter Group, who do a wonderful job of keeping their old traditions and history
alive, to find the memoirs and getting permission from Bob Riddle's widow to publish this on their historical web site.
Steve, known also as "Daddy" in the virtual skies, also did a favor by asking permission
whether we can also publish the memoirs. The widow of Bob Riddle agreed. Enjoy this
rare and very interesting memoirs of a fine aviatior. And visit the
Virtual 31st Fighter Group and see what all kind of fine things they have done.
Steve also passed us the following word:
I wanted to let you know that Bob Riddle's memoirs are gonna be published in
the aviation magazine Flight Journal. The senior editor contacted me awhile
back, and I've been helping him get stories and photos of the 31st, esp
Riddle's memoirs. I'm sure that Bob Riddle would be honored by his memoirs
finally being published.
Ever since the first caveman brought home the remains of some prehistoric creature accidentally crushed by a falling rock, and proudly
presented it as a conquest to his mate and tribe, men have glorified their achievements to all who would listen. Generations of wives,
children, relatives and neighbors have been subjected to tales of conflict and triumph. It is the inherent nature of man to remember
moments or periods of high stress and adventure - to perhaps recapture the times of life that, above all, held a modicum of perceived
History is made by madmen and zealots - interpreted by analysts - documented by scholars -- and the written word changed at the whim
of other madmen, zealots, or dissenting scholars. So I feel perfectly free to write this memoir as I perceived or imagine that I perceived
certain events. It is neither scholarly nor necessarily accurate. I will not be insulted by the reader (if any) who cares to dispute either the
chronology or actuality of this "history".
A small boy stood barefoot in the dirt road, shielding his eyes as he peered into the hot blue sky of a September noon in Kansas. Behind
him, fronting a white two-story farmhouse, was a hedge of white and pink blossomed Spirea, the dust on the deep green foliage disturbed
only by the buzzing honey bees collecting nectar. The boy shouted aloud and was quickly joined by his sister, a little older and a little taller.
The boy pointed to the sky in the north and the children watched intently as a dark round object rose lazily into the blinding blue. Beneath
the round ball hung a wickerwork basket suspended by rope shrouds. Since the Topeka State Fair Grounds was only about a mile and a
half away and apparently a breeze from the north was blowing the object toward them, they could soon make out the man in the basket
hanging below the balloon.
Rising swiftly in the heated air, the balloon drifted closer and closer. Then the little ground observers gasped as the man suddenly
jumped out of his basket and fell away. The balloon began deflating and at the same time a white umbrella blossomed over the falling
body of the man. The balloon streamed down out of sight, but the white parachute drifted nearer and nearer as it descended, finally
collapsing in a field of yellow wheat. It was probably our parents who read in the next day's paper about the incident. It seems that the
balloon ascension was an annual part of the Kansas State Fair. In no-wind conditions the pilot would take off in his gas balloon, then bail
out pulling his balloon rip and chute cord at the same time, thus floating down on the fair grounds race track. This time an upper level
wind had caught him and drifted him out of sight of the cheering throngs before he was high enough to jump.
Thrilling stuff when you're young in the late 1920's.
Sometimes I would be aware of a buzzing in the sky from a flying object that looked much like a cross to my eyes. With my little
carpenter set, I would nail two boards together in a cross, then fasten a shorter piece to one end. But somehow this failed to look much
like the droning airplanes in the sky. Then one day, a relative looked at my poor carpentry. He sawed a triangular corner from a bit of
scrap and fastened it upright above the shorter crosspiece and -Voila!- I suddenly had a three dimensional airplane model.
I must have been about two years old when my parents gave up their rented house in Topeka near my Dad's office in the Santa Fe
building at 9th and Jackson in downtown Topeka. Dad purchased six acres of pasture and farmland on 29th Street south of Topeka. It
seemed a long way out in those days of 1925. The property had a two story house of traditional design, a garage and attached sheds,
and a marvelous old cottonwood tree in the back yard. Further back was a small vineyard of purple Concord grapes, and the fence along
the back pasture was a hedge of blackberry and raspberry bushes. I suppose the house was old when we moved in. Downstairs was the
front room, dining room, kitchen and a bedroom surrounding an enclosed staircase leading to the second floor with it's two bedrooms and
another which had been created by enclosing an upper screened porch. Just who slept where I can't remember. Although we had a
bathroom and interior running water from an electric pump-driven well-water supply, the water obtained from the handled pump in the
back yard always seemed to taste the best, cold and sweet in the hottest weather.
Christmas was a special time. The attic which I don't remember ever being allowed into, had numerous trinkets left by the previous
owners. Most notable was a supply of Christmas tree ornaments. Fragile frosted glass angels and shaped bulbous decorations with delicate
wires attached. There were some strings of electric lights, obviously purchased after the house was wired for electricity. The most
fascinating objects came from a box that held miniature clip-on candle holders. Designed to clip to Christmas tree branches and big enough
to hold a birthday candle, it is difficult to imagine these fire hazards actually having been used on a very flammable pine tree. At a very
early age, Santa had brought me an American Flyer train set, complete with a transformer. Appliances in those days had plugs which
screwed into wall sockets which normally were covered by hinged brass plates to prevent casual exploration by small fingers. This did not
prevent me from exploring on my own. It led to my discovery of 100 volt electric current the hard way, but did not curb my fascination
with electricity. I quickly learned the intricacies of third rail voltage which supplied power to the roller contacts of my locomotive. I also
learned that leaving the transformer plugged into the electric outlet overnight resulted in a gooey mass of tar burning a hole in the living
room carpet, requiring carpet and floor repair. But Santa brought me a new and better transformer the next Christmas.
One of the hazards involved with setting up my American Flyer rail tracks around the Christmas tree each Yuletide holiday was the
family visitors. Aunts, a couple of Uncles, and my mother's aging parents made quite a crowd for little kids to wade through. Inevitably,
some adult would tread on my railroad track bending it out of shape. Usually I could bend it back into a usable configuration, but not
always. Equipment attrition was rather high. Then my 4-6-2 locomotive went on the blink and I could not repair it. I remember it as
being a faithful reproduction of a steam locomotive. Some time later I was given a new locomotive, but it was an orange, blunt ended
copy of a Pennsylvania electric locomotive, complete with a fake overhead centenary. And each Christmas when my mother's brother was
visiting, my mother would say, "Show your old locomotive to your Uncle Joe. He can fix anything!" Obediently I would drag out my old
steam model and wistfully ask Uncle Joe to fix it. And of course Uncle Joe, with a glass of bootleg booze in his hand, would indicate that
he didn't have time and would say in essence, "Don't bother me, kid!"
Finally I took that old steam model out and beat it to death with my little hammer. When asked why I had destroyed the thing, I was
just too young to be able to explain that I was tired of being told to "Ask Uncle Joe," and always being refused. Frustration is as much a
part of a child's life as of any adult's.
I celebrated my 21st birthday in March of 1944 drinking rot-gut wine in a sandy bar in Algeria. I was checking out in Spitfire V-B's of the
12th Tactical Air Command. It seemed a long time since I had stood barefooted in a dusty road on 29th Street in Topeka, Kansas, some
six- teen or seventeen years before. As a small boy I and my sister had watched a free air balloon rise from the Topeka State Fair grounds
a few miles north of our parents' farm. It looked like a round black dot with a basket hung beneath and as it rose into the hot blue of a
September sky appearing to my young eyes like some alien craft. The contraption drifted closer to us rising rapidly in the heated air until
suddenly a human shape jumped from the dangling basket and plummeted toward the earth trailing a dark cord. Then as the line
straightened, the round balloon began collapsing and a white umbrella blossomed over the falling body. The collapsed balloon and basket
fell faster than the man swaying beneath his white canopy and we watched fascinated until he disappeared from sight into the wheat field
adjacent to the Shawnee Country Club across the road from our house.
My father was born and raised in Atherton, Missouri, the eldest to two sons born to the second wife of a divorced man, Joseph R. Riddle.
Martha Anne O'Dell had several sons and a daughter by a previous marriage to a Riley Roach. My parents named their first born Martha
Anne and I was named Robert Edgar for some reason. Perhaps Joseph's middle name was Robert. I never knew my paternal
grandparents, both having died before I was born. Dad's older half-siblings stayed with farm work in Missouri but I guess Dad was
fascinated with railroading.
By the time he was fifteen when his mother died of pneumonia, he had learned the art of Telegraphy from the station agent at Atherton. I
believe the railroad was Union Pacific but could have been Santa Fe. As a boy he worked for Western Union, Santa Fe, and in Wyoming or
Montana for the Union Pacific. Then he returned to Topeka for Santa Fe.
First Solo 11-29-41
Cautiously I lined up the little plane on the bare grass field headed into the wind sock. Charley Bishop unlatched the side panel and
climbed out of the rear seat, turning his back to the prop wash and moving out of the way. When he was clear I advanced the throttle and
as advertised that little Piper J-5 hauled me off the ground and up to 500 feet. I rolled left onto my cross-wind leg and suddenly realized
how relaxed I was, how much time I had to think ahead of the airplane rather than attempting to obey instantly the orders coming from
the back seat instructor. It all seemed so simple. Then I was downwind turning onto my base leg and final and was making a better
landing than I'd ever done with Charley aboard. Old number 30658 with it's patched wings and nicked wooden prop seemed like an old
friend. Charley pretended great indifference to my efforts but waved me on for a couple more circuits before pulling me to a halt. I had a
total of eight hours and thirty minutes in the plane. The date was November 29, 1941.
One week later, December 6, Charley let me have a full twenty minutes by myself, about half of it roaming around the area. And the
very next day all private aircraft were grounded as the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor. That Sunday night I listened to H. V. Kaltenborn wail
about the cowardly Japs. He confidently predicted that with their limited resources and inferior technology the sneaky Japanese Empire
would be crushed by the almighty United States within three months. His broadcast ended with the playing of our national anthem and I
actually stood at attention in my bedroom. Monday morning I begged off work and attempted to enlist in the Army Air Corps as an
Aviation Cadet destined to become a Flight Sergeant. A harried enlisted recruiter flatly informed me that nobody with "fallen arches" could
fly an Army plane. Next I went to the local FBI office and my student certificate was confiscated, my picture taken, my complete life story
recorded and my fingerprints put on file. In January 1942 I received a new student flying permit complete with photo and on January 11
took my last ride in a J-5, number 26945.
Almost a year later at a practice field near a civilian flying school at Stamford in the Texas panhandle, my patient instructor climbed out
of the rear cockpit of a PT-19. He buckled the seat belt in the vacant rear seat and walked away. Harold Davis was a small muscular man
who seemed to adapt his teaching techniques to fit the personalities of his students. It was certainly effective in my case. The plane I
taxied to the downwind side of the field was powered by an inverted inline six cylinder Ranger engine of 175 horsepower, exactly 100
more horses than the little 4-banger I had soloed in Chicago. I had nine hours and 20 minutes of dual instruction in the PT-19 when I fed
the power to it and roared off the ground. The date was November 2, 1942.
In those days there seemed to be sort of a magic number of hours of dual instruction required before solo flight was allowed. I had
about nine hours in 400 HP BT-9's in Basic at Randolph Field, one and a half hours dual before soloing the 450 HP BT-13 and just a couple
of hours at Moore Field before taking off in the 650 HP AT-6 advanced trainer. In December of 1943 I returned to Harlem Airport on a ten
day Delay- on-Route from my return from the Galapagos and Panama. It was a dreary damp day and I found that both Bishop brothers
were serving in the Air Transport Command. What little activity there was at the field was the responsibility of the chubby young man who
had given me my first ride in J-3 Cub. He had become a qualified instructor but with little to do. In my wings, tarnished gold bars and
"hundred-mission-crush" cap, I regaled him and a mechanic with my adventures in P-40's and P-39's.
THE AIRCOBRA P-39 N & Q 1943
The P-39 pursuit aircraft was the second attempt by Larry Bell's fledgling aircraft company in Buffalo, New York, to design and produce a
fighter aircraft commensurate with U.S. Army and NACA specifications to fill the needs of woefully outdated Army Air Corps equipment in
the late 1930's. The first aircraft to come off the drawing board of his chief designer Bob Wood was a twin-engine pusher aircraft with a 37
millimeter cannon in the front nacelle of each pusher engine pod and each cannon was hand-loaded by a single isolated man. The XFM-1
was such a radical design that the Army placed only a token order and promptly replaced the supercharged Allison engines with derated
versions which dropped the speed to 270 miles per hour and limited operational altitude to 12,500 feet. The United States was rightfully
shocked by the German Bf-109 which had shown up in the Spanish Civil war in the late '30's and was vastly superior to any opposing
aircraft. But our Infantry Generals were still in charge and still fighting the first World War of 1917 and 1918. Bell's next attempt to meet
Army and NACA specifications for a Pursuit plane to compete with the high performance German airplanes was the P-39 which was as
radical as his Aircuda. It was a single seater with one supercharged Allison engine mounted behind the pilot. It had innovative tri-cycle
landing gear, and a 37mm cannon firing 15 or 30 rounds through the gear box and propeller boss. In addition, two .50 caliber machine
guns in the nose were synchronized to fire through the three bladed propeller arc. Actually it was designed as an interceptor with speed in
excess of 300 MPH at 20,000 feet, but the U.S. Army Generals still thought of pursuit planes as support for ground troops and had the
supercharger removed and added two .30 caliber machine guns in each stubby wing. This made it a real struggle to reach 15,000 feet in
the little ship. The production model finally came into service as the P-39-D Air Cobra and was sold to foreign countries as the P-400 with
a 20mm Hispano-Suiza cannon replacing the slow firing 37 mm in front. Cocking handles for the nose mounted .50 Cal. MG's protruded
from the instrument panel, while handles on the floor pulled long cables to charge or clear the wing-mounted .30s. The 37mm cannon
fired 1 1/2 inch explosive projectiles automatically fed from drums via a hydraulic system. It has been said that P-39 pilots were
identifiable by their suntan trousers colored pink by the leaking hydraulic fluid.
The cockpit was designed for a 5'8" pilot and a total of 200 pounds including parachute and other gear. Access to the tiny cockpit was
made easier by the use of doors with roll-down windows just like your family sedan. The cockpit sat directly on the mid-span of the wing
and the view from the cockpit made it appear as if each wing was only about seven feet long.
My first view of one of these deadly-looking little ships was on a cold misty Saturday morning when I arrived at Harlem airport in
Southwest Chicago. I had gone out to take my weekly flying lesson in J-5 Cubs. I thought flying that day was probably out of the
question because of the weather but had gone out anyway just to hang around the airplanes. The first thing I spotted was this weird little
machine mired to its hubs in our muddy grass field. I was told that an Army pilot was lost in the weather the evening before and had put
down. He was lucky the gear had stayed on. We rolled it up onto planks to keep it from sinking further into the soggy turf. Pretty soon a
forlorn Army private showed up in a World War One great coat, olive drab, and hanging almost to his ankles. His orders were to keep all
spectators away and a more miserable man I never saw. His wool overcoat merely absorbed the mist and must have weighed 30 pounds.
I took a picture of the P-39 with my little drugstore Agfa and I still have it.
In the spring of 1943, I was sent to Panama and trained in Curtis P-40 E's and RP-40 C's. The `R' designated a non-combat rated
aircraft and was equipped with .30 Caliber machine guns. In contrast, the E model and following versions had six .50 Cal. guns in the
wings and was a very stable gun platform. It was also considered a first-line fighter along with the newer P-39. After 40 or so hours in
P-40's, I was assigned to the 28th Fighter Squadron flying P-39N's out of a jungle base at Chame. Having heard numerous stories about
the tricky little plane, I had the usual first flight trepidations but found that the rear-engine ship allowed great forward visibility during
landing and takeoff and the tricycle landing gear allowed one to taxi and steer as easily as a child's tricycle - if you remembered to keep
your toes pumping the rudder pedals to keep pressure in the brake system. (As kids our bicycles were equipped with New Departure
brakes applied by merely reversing pressure on the pedals. The Spitfires we flew in Africa had hand brakes like all European bicycles which
led to some interesting ground maneuvers.) Actually, it was scarier to watch a P-39 landing as a spectator on the ground than it was
piloting one. From the ground it appeared that the extreme nose-high configuration on final flare-out was sure to induce a stall. In fact a
good landing resembled nothing so much as the attitude used to land many current high performance jet fighters. Even the torque
produced by the 12 cylinder engine and metal propeller was easily controllable. Our 28th Squadron C.O. had a favorite landing
procedure. He would roar down the runway at a high rate of speed, pull up into a loop, and activate his landing gear while inverted on
top. Then he would cut his mixture control and complete the loop, landing "dead-stick" and roll power-off to his parking revetment.
Being based in a jungle environment and with two oceans in easy reach, it was mandatory that we be prepared for emergencies. In
addition to our "Mae West" inflatable life jackets, we sat on a hard packed inflatable rubber raft and our parachute. We also carried a .45
Caliber Colt automatic pistol in a shoulder holster under our chute and seat harness. To the back of our parachute harness was attached a
survival pack. It zipped open to reveal nested articles needed for survival in a hostile jungle. The Darien Indians on the Atlantic side of the
Panama Canal were rumored to be headhunters and/or cannibals. In the pack was a medical kit containing Atabrine, Chlorine tablets,
bandages, morphine syrettes and the like. Also there was fishing line and hooks, a folding machete, and a combination Drilling type
weapon, but with just two barrels. The top barrel was a .22 caliber rifle and the bottom was a smooth bore 410 gauge shotgun. Both
barrels detached and nested in the hollow plastic stock. Two Zippo lighters with fluid, matches, ammunition for the 410 shotgun, .22 and
.45 caliber for rifle and pistol as well as a sheath knife, compass and map just about completed the ensemble. And a cumbersome load it
was. I think the reputation of the P-39 as a tricky aircraft had much to do with the dislike expressed by many of the pilots. One of our
Moore Field graduates, a rosy cheeked little Frenchman, actually quit after just two flights in the plane. Whatever its faults, I actually
enjoyed flying the machine. Besides having a center of gravity far back, little servo tabs on ailerons and elevators made the controls
extremely sensitive. An uncoordinated maneuver could cause the ship to snap roll and in some cases tumble end-over-end until dropping
into a flat spin. The snap roll was much more likely at slow speeds and took it's toll on pilots landing out of a tight circular approach. But
I found that at speed, the P-39 was as easy to hold in a three-G shuddering high speed stall as any other plane I ever flew. After many
complaints and some fatalities attributed to the stalled "tumbling" action, an experienced Army test pilot was assigned to investigate. His
report stated that he was unable to induce such a reaction from the ship in any attitude. But I have seen it happen and a friend of mine
twice experienced it while attempting to perfect a vertical circular loop.
In the waning months of 1943, I was assigned to the 51st Fighter Squadron, 32nd Ftr. Group of the 6th Army Air Corp, which was
headquartered in the Panama Canal Zone. The primary mission of our squadron was supplementing the bomber and infantry and naval
forces based on a small island of the Galapagos Archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 1000 miles southwest of the Canal Zone
itself. There was good reason to believe that the Panama Canal would be a prime and profitable target for Japanese attack, since
disruption of the Canal functions would have seriously hampered movement of ship traffic between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Air defenses on "The Rock", our not so flattering name for our Galapagos island base, consisted of one fighter squadron and one B-24
equipped squadron of heavy bombers. The Navy detachment provided a supply base for ships transiting from West Coast ports to
Australia and the South Pacific. The Navy also kept long range Martin Mariner patrol planes constantly searching the Pacific for submarine
or other hostile forces. Ground defense forces were comprised of a 4000 man engineer and infantry detachment, mostly Puerto Rican
personnel, and our own enlisted and commissioned support for our tiny air force.
The B-24 squadron flew six aircraft and was commanded by a husky, outgoing Major who was adept at borrowing a nice Chris Craft
cruiser maintained by the Navy. Our own little fighter squadron was equipped with twelve P-39-Q single seater aircraft which we usually
flew in flights of four, although two were always maintained on alert and were the first off the ground when Radar contact dictated a
"scramble". We were commanded by a wispy little blond Major whose flying consisted solely of getting the required four hours per month
to qualify for his flight pay. Most of that time was accrued in the back seat of our BT-13 Vultee Vibrator trainer, which we used for
instrument practice. I don't believe I ever saw him take a P-39 into the air.
Just once he called on me to be his front seat safety observer in the BT-13. I don't remember his ever taking the controls during our
hour or so in the air. We just sailed around sight-seeing until he said to go home. By that time in my flying career, I had practically
forgotten how to make a Stateside square landing pattern which called for entering the downwind leg at 500 feet, a squared base leg and
another 90 degree turn onto the landing approach. So on this particular day, I made my usual "fighter" approach straight down the
runway, peeled up high to kill airspeed, and landed out of a continuous curving pattern. It was a three-point "grease" job with my wings
coming level just before my wheels touched the runway.
Back on the ground, our little commander smoothed his thinning blond hair and said mildly, "That was a pretty tight landing pattern. A
I'm sure I said, "Sorry, Sir. Won't happen again." But I was absolutely astounded at such criticism from the commander of a fighter
The Major commanding the little squadron of four engine bombers was an entirely different personality. Big, bluff, and slightly
overweight, he flew often with his men and was always searching for a new adventure. So one day he borrowed the sleek Chris Craft for
an expedition to the next door island. It was a dormant volcano which in years past had poured a torrent of lava down the northern slope
of the mountain closest to our own little island. A clear water channel separated he two islands by not more than three hundred yards. He
then recruited a half-dozen of our more adventurous pilots, bomber and fighter. The little group equipped themselves with canteens of
water, heavy army high top shoes and machetes. One or two might also have carried pistols on their belts. They arranged to be dropped
off on the black basalt beach and picked up by the boat about 1700 hours after climbing to the top of the 2000 foot peak, where they could
have looked down on the lush jungle covering the other side of the island.
The Cris Craft cruiser kept it's scheduled appointment at the beach that afternoon. But instead of a troop of victorious explorers, the boat
captain found a bunch of dehydrated, half-dead and sunburned survivors. They were a miserable lot of people, clothing in rags, water
gone, and their tough Army issue boots cut to ribbons. They had never gotten more than a few hundred yards up the slope of the
mountain. The black lava was broken into razor sharp chunks that quickly chewed up leather and flesh. And although the cold Humboldt
current flowing up from the Antarctic across the Equator kept ambient temperatures on the islands from ever getting much over 80
degrees, the black lava rock absorbed the bright sunlight and radiated it up another 20 degrees. Our intrepid band of mountain climbers
spent several days recovering from their little adventure. It should be mentioned that the "portable" radio transceivers of that era required
two men to carry and operate the heavy equipment, so none had been taken along. Technology has progressed far since then.
Our little one mile by four mile island was named South Seymour, although current maps have reverted to the Ecuadorian name Baltra.
Approximately a mile to the north of us, a pinnacle of rock thrust its sharp spire from the crystal waters. That, we called Little Seymour. It
seemed totally barren from a distance but was a gathering place for quite a colony of breeding seals, some of which would occasionally
visit our own island to sport with us on our rare dips into the frigid waters of the Humboldt current surrounding us. Or perhaps they just
wanted to hunt for the brilliantly hued varieties of fish with which we swam.
Our questing bomber commander decided to investigate the neighboring rock. Again the Chris Craft was borrowed for the trip. But this
expedition was more successful. The intrepid bomber commander brought back a trophy, a sleek brown-furred seal about half grown.
After his initial fright, the little beast was quite adaptable to the limited quarters and bath of the C.O., but I think his normal diet of fish was
in short supply, since nobody wanted to spend hours and hours fishing from the rocky lava shores. All too often a fish caught on a line
was stolen by a shark before it could be landed.
Six of our P-39 fighter aircraft were stationed across the hard surfaced runway in lava rock enclosed revetments. We half dozen assigned
to those planes had our own little barracks built so that we could sleep near our planes. We were supplied with a refrigerator, a telephone
link, and a generous supply of beer. Our beds were metal framed folding cots and our personal effects were stored in our foot lockers.
Since all or most of us smoked cigarettes or cigars, it was common practice to keep a beer can half-filled with water beneath our beds to
douse cigarette butts. Once in a great while it happened that we all managed to settle down for the night at the same time and subside in
the darkness to finish that last can of beer before going to sleep. That habit led to a sickening climax one evening. A couple of our group
had been assigned to all night standby at the "alert" shack across the runway, so the problem of all settling for the night at one time was
much easier. I had done my reading, turned out the light and reached down for that last swallow of beer. I took a healthy slug - and
acquired a mouthful of tar, nicotine and soggy cigarette butts. Gurgling in nauseous dismay, I staggered to the door and gave up the
ghost of whatever we'd had for dinner for the past three days, it seemed. I finally managed to maneuver back to my bunk amid derisive
comments such as, "Riddle, if you can't hold your booze, please get sick quietly. We're trying to get some rest here!." Sadly, this did not
cure my smoking habit. Or my drinking, for that matter.
Except for the rare occasion of a Kentucky Bourbon trade with a passing Navy vessel, our hard liquor supply was totally Scotch whiskey.
But good American beer was in plentiful supply through regular Army channels. All the troops drank beer from cans and the mounting
supply of empties became rather awesome. However, we had some real artistic types among our permanent ground cadre and it wasn't
long before a space near the barracks and offices was transformed into a park. Barren except for cactus and lava outcroppings, this gentle
knoll became a wonderland of beer can archways and sculptures. A tremendous amount of soldering and welding held the varied shapes
together and even the bounding, muscular goats seemed to respect the work that had gone into the creations. Needless to say, the park
was in a state of continual development. Whether the troops used only empty beer cans that they drank for enjoyment or whether some
dedicated artists became alcoholics just to keep augmenting their supply of materials is a question.
Quite naturally, as in any group, we had our share of characters. One such was a tall, gangling ground officer attached to Headquarters
Squadron. Just what his administrative duties were, I can't remember. Certainly he was pleasant enough and of rather shy demeanor,
possibly because his stooped posture, huge nose and receding chin made his appearance resemble nothing so much as the popular
conception of Ichabod Crane. But his last name was Gump. And it turned out that he was the scion of the famous Gump's department
store family in San Francisco.
The supply of beer we kept in our quarters across the wide runway must have been substantial, since in a very few weeks the pile of
empties outside our door grew to imposing dimensions. We few officers must have had some sort of enlisted clean-up service, since we did
very little housekeeping of our own. And the pile of empty beer cans grew with each passing day.
In the very early hours of one particular morning, a tremendous racket awoke us all. The clash of metal and weird cries brought a yell
from someone. "Japs! Invasion!" Pistols and carbines appeared in the hands of a frightened bunch of skivie-clad pilots as we scrambled to
peer cautiously from our darkened doorway. The noise seemed to be abating when a flashlight was produced and daringly flashed
outside. Alas, it was only the Colonel's frightened little seal who had blundered into our pile of beer cans. He disappeared into the dark,
clambering on bloody little flippers toward the water several hundred yards away. He apparently made it to the ocean, but the poor little
thing wouldn't have lasted long in those shark infested waters.
Our little barracks on the east side of the runway actually had two rooms. At the south end was a partition that provided separate
quarters for a First Lieutenant as well as one of our pilots, a redhead named Egan. The First Lt. was a ground officer, ostensibly our
ground gunnery instructor. We had a rifle range but I don't remember a skeet range. This gunnery instructor drank constantly and how
he attained his rank of 1st Lt. I'll never know. His history was spotty at best. Rumor had it that while based in the Canal Zone, he had a
penchant for hitching rides in State-side bound C-47's and spending unauthorized vacations in Guatemala or Costa Rica. Perhaps that was
the reason for his assignment to the Galapagos where chances of stowing away on the infrequent mainland flights were minimal.
I'm sure we had many more memorable characters out on our Pacific hideaway, because we fighter pilots were a rather undisciplined
As a few of us were usually transferred out to European or Asiatic combat squadrons every month, we would get a few replacement pilots.
It was quite a surprise one month to have a familiar face show up. Captain Pilkington had been my first Flight Commander while
transitioning into P-40's at Agua Dulce in May of 1943. Pilkington had been shown on the orders that sent me out to the Rock in August.
His order read "30 Days TDY (Temporary Duty) stateside - with delay enroute " - meaning a small vacation. I assumed that he had gone
to a real combat zone after that, but he told me he had been assigned to Wright-Patterson during his TDY and flown many types of
fighters, including the Spitfire, P-51, P-47 and even a Messerschmidt Bf-109.
While temporarily listed as a Flight Commander out on our little island, I imagine that he was sent out to take over our P-39 Squadron.
He told me that he hoped and thought that eventually I'd get assigned to P-51's as he was quite enthusiastic about its performance. And it
came to pass - but only after I'd done a short stint in Spitfires.
Back in 1943, our little squadron of P-39-Q's was based 600 miles west of Ecuador on the Galapagos Islands as the outermost bastion
protecting the Pacific approaches to the Panama Canal. And of course we had a "jinx" ship. That one particular P-39 never seemed to
handle quite right. It always felt as if it were on the verge of a stall and snap roll, as if the rigging was wrong. Without fail, when one of
us would fly it, we'd come back complaining that the ship didn't handle right, although we couldn't explain exactly the feeling or fault. Our
flight commander was a bristly little 1st Lieutenant with a gorgeous blond moustache. He'd promptly take the ship up and bring it back
saying there was nothing wrong with it and that we were a bunch of lily-livered old ladies.
Though no one was hurt in that plane while I was there, I still think there was something wrong with it. Though we lacked engineering
test experience, we couldn't all be wrong about our instincts.
Between interceptions of the Navy's lumbering PBM's returning from their eighteen hour search missions, we honed our skills by shooting
anything that moved and by "rat racing". One day I was instructed to lead a flight of four for fun and games. I waggled my rudder to
spread them out in line astern, then wracked up into a 3 "G" chandelle, the idea of course being to lose everyone in violent maneuvers.
Imagine my surprise to suddenly find my mustached Flight CO sitting off my right wing making angry noises while proving that I certainly
couldn't shake him. He said my initial yawing signal was too brief before my pull-up, and that Dustrude had snapped and tumbled trying
to follow. Luckily he was able to pull out of his tumble before hitting the water. William Dustrude was a friendly redhead with freckles and
a husky build. Naturally, everyone called him "Dusty". I left him on the "Rock" in December.
During the summer of 1944, Dusty dropped in at our 31st Group base at San Severo near the Adriatic in Italy. He was ferrying a new
P-51 over to the 52nd Group. Several of us who knew him were still around and we had a pleasant chat. He seemed to be stuck in a
Service Command in Africa and resented it. Finally he decided he'd better get underway and wound up his aircraft for takeoff from our
metal Marsten Mat runway. I wasn't paying too much attention but certainly looked up when I heard a great crash. Looking down the field,
all I could see was a huge cloud of red dust. I jumped into my jeep and yelled at my Crew Chief. Sgt. LaSalle threw himself into the other
seat and off we charged down the runway. About half way down and to the left of the runway, we began to see bits and pieces of a P-51.
Everything was widely scattered along the plane's path. The engine sat all by itself, smoking but not burning. A bit further was the cockpit
- just the cockpit, upright but with nothing in front or behind. We looked in vain for Dusty, but there was nothing to be seen. Finally we
heard a shout, and from quite a distance here comes our intrepid pilot hiking back towards the wreck. A little blood trickled from one
eyebrow. Dusty had intended to show us combat types a rip-roaring takeoff. He'd activated his gear, banked to the left - and that was all
he remembered. He still wore his parachute and the Sutton harness in the cockpit was intact. But he had no memory of leaving the
cockpit and running from the scene. It was quite a feat to get so far away in such a hurry. So another expensive plane bit the dust - and
bit Dusty! By October, Dusty had managed to get assigned to combat duty with the 309th Squadron and presumably had nothing to
worry about except flak, ground fire, enemy fighters, and bull-headed flight commanders.
While some of the boys in our 307th Fighter Squadron were interested in photography, I was too cheap to spend 0 on a new Leica 35
mm down in Cairo or Alexandria where all good things were available. Since my little Agfa drugstore camera had been pilfered and I had
given my valuable 620 size film to a nurse in Russia, I had little to print in our makeshift darkroom.
One of our Squadron grifters, a ground-pounder, persuaded me to buy an old Zeiss Ikonoflex folding camera, similar to but larger than
the big folding Kodaks all our mothers had at one time. When open, it was almost as big as the baby 2 1/4 X 3 1/4 Speed Graphics.
Cumbersome at best, it did have a superb f-2.8 lens. After I found a supply of 120 film available from a South African Photo
Reconnaissance troop who would cut the thick twelve inch wide aerial photo film into 6mm strips and attach it to my empty 620 size paper
backing rolls - for a price - I had been shooting poor pictures all over, and making worse prints. But I was gradually improving.
During July and the early days of August 1944, the heavy bombers of the 15th Strategic Air force had been alternating their targets
between the oil refineries of the Balkans and strikes at transportation targets north of the Italian and French Riviera in preparation for
"Anvil" was the code name to designate an air and sea borne invasion of the "Soft Underbelly of Europe"; a strike designed to draw off
some of the defending forces facing our troops in France and Belgium.
These bombing raids into Southern France were aimed at rail lines, bridges, and a long causeway stretching North from the French
Riviera across the coastal plains. Opposition to these raids usually consisted of rather desultory flak, which opinion the bomber crews
might disagree with. It was rather rare that enemy fighters rose to give battle. So it was with full expectation of a long but boring ride one
morning that I tucked that big old Zeiss camera into the rather cramped cockpit of my P-51 and led my flight of four into formation with
other flights of our 307th Fighter Squadron. Possibly it was an unusual weather condition producing spectacular cloud formations as well
as my careless assumption of my own superiority as a fighter pilot that led to this foolish decision.
During the lengthy haul from our San Severo base across Italy and out over the Mediterranean, I trimmed my plane to fly hands off. And
since our squadron and group was spread out in extended formation, I fumbled my big Zeiss camera from under my seat, unfolded it, slid
the lens bellows forward to infinity focus and took several shots of our formations against the clouds. As we approached the French coast,
we caught up with our designated bomber groups. I decided that vigilance took precedent over photography and managed to place the
opened camera somewhere in my cockpit.
The haze of a summer noon made visibility less then perfect and it was difficult to make out the results of the bombs bursting 25,000
feet below us. I can't remember any radio chatter from our Playboy Squadron fighters, but apparently the Hun was up and about because
an Me-109 popped up out of the haze not 50 feet from my right wingtip. We stared at each other in complete astonishment as I fumbled
for my camera. Just as I raised it to snap his picture, he shoved the nose of his plane straight down and black smoke poured from his
engine being fire-walled into full emergency boost. I dropped the camera somewhere in the cockpit and started down after him. But he
was long gone and invisible in the haze. As quickly as possible I retrieved my camera, folded it up and stowed it back where I hoped it
wouldn't jam any of my controls. Never again did I attempt anything so foolish. Later I asked my three other flight members if they had
seen the enemy fighter. The reply was negative. I was lucky not to have become a casualty.
The date was April 28, 1944, and was my seventh mission as a fighter pilot with the 31st Fighter Group of the 15th Army Air force.
The target was Piombino in the northwest of Italy and as usual I was flying as a wingman to my element leader, a boyish looking
ex-Spitfire pilot named Junior Rostrom. As usual, we were providing escort to heavy bombers and were on our way back to base after an
uneventful trip. As we neared the Adriatic on the East coast, the radio suddenly came to life announcing that enemy fighters were in the
air from the numerous bases around the German stronghold at Ancona. With his experienced eyes Junior picked out a diving Me-109 and
latched on behind although not yet in firing range. I was about 500 yards behind and slightly higher with my head on a constant swivel
since I saw no other members of our flight or our squadron although the radio was busy with chatter indicating other contacts.
Everything seemed clear around us as Rostrom closed on his target. It was then that I spotted two Me-109's slanting down on me from
my right. I was breaking into them as I punched my throttle radio button and told Junior I was leaving him. I'll never know whether he
heard me or not. I had a fair amount of speed from our dive and as I turned up and around into the two Me's aiming for me, they sheared
away into a climbing turn to port. With my speed and full throttle I rapidly closed on the inside wingman and fired from about 300 yards
and all four of my .50s seemed to register. The German ship slowed quickly as black smoke and white coolant poured out in a blinding
cloud. I kept firing until I couldn't wait any longer and broke sharply to starboard just in time to meet the other Me-109 who had been
closing on me.
I didn't fire because my four-G turn had grayed my vision but I kept turning, easing enough for my vision to come back and found myself
about 40 degrees angled off his right rear. He wasn't turning as sharply as I was and the angle decreased as I opened fire. Luckily I
scored hits almost immediately and he slowed pouring coolant smoke as I slid through the smoke trail to his left. I was probably not more
than fifty yards from him when his canopy came whizzing past me. I waited a few seconds getting the closest look I'd had at a 109 in my
short tour. Impatiently I squeezed the trigger again just as a black clad figure climbed out on the left wing. It appeared as if he'd stepped
right into my line of fire and I stopped firing. The figure slid off the wing of his ship trailing a long black tether. I watched fascinated as
the strap yanked his parachute open. I had not known that the enemy had "static" lines to open their chutes. In fact, that was the first and
only time that I actually saw one in action.
Realizing suddenly that I was alone in a hostile environment, a mild panic set in and I never looked to see if the German pilot was
hanging limp from his shroud lines so I never knew if he'd stepped into one of my bullets or not. I headed for the Adriatic coast at a good
rate of speed while I called on my radio for my element leader. The airwaves were as silent as the clear blue sky. Reaching the coast near
Ancona Point I headed south sliding downhill all the time as I looked at the pastel colored houses climbing the cliffs along the seashore.
Calling fruitlessly for my leader, I seemed to be the last or one of the last landing on our metal strip at San Severo, an occurrence that
happened not infrequently during the rest of my tour. While elated at scoring my first victories my happiness was tempered with a sense
of guilt that I had lost my leader. I drank a little more than usual that night with Prybilo, who had been Jr. Rostrom's best friend.
I was credited with one destroyed and one probably destroyed.
On 19 June, 1944, I climbed out of our Group's battered B-25 onto the airstrip of the 332 Fighter Group based near the Adriatic coast of
Southern Italy. The 332nd was the all-black Group built around the original 99th Fighter Squadron of Tuskegee University. They had only
recently traded in their P-47's for olive drab P-51 B's and C's. Among their dunn colored old '51's sat several bright and shiny new P-51-D's
with bubble canopies and natural unpainted aluminum skins. They were beautiful. A half-dozen of our 307th Squadron members
surveyed the assembled aircraft under the hostile stares of black pilots and crews. Lugging my parachute and helmet I picked out a likely
looking ship numbered 418510 attended by a sullen black mechanic who merely grunted when I asked if it was flyable. He offered no help
as I threw my gear into the cockpit and buckled up. Mixture Full Rich, throttle cracked, a couple of shots of primer and emergency fuel
pump ON; prop pitch full forward. The engine caught immediately and sounded sweet so I taxied out to the end of the metal Marsten mat
and took off. Once in the air I found numerous minor discrepancies: no operable compass; radio frequencies not set; oil and coolant
shutters required manual control; - little things. But since our 31st Group based near San Severo was only about fifteen minutes west, I
stayed in the air for a while testing, particularly the manual supercharger override.
As I shut down the new plane in my revetment, I reported to my Crew Chief, Staff Sgt. LaSalle, and he seemed pleased and should have
been. My old Angel II had required a lot of night work to keep it flying. A few days later after some test flights my new ship was ready to
go, complete with "Angel III" painted under the exhaust stacks, my name and my crews names in small block letters on the left side under
the cockpit along with two modest black crosses signifying my victories to date. Perhaps because of my implicit faith in my armorer, I
failed to take the ship out over the Adriatic for sight testing the six .50 caliber guns. Cleaning six guns was quite a chore and I thought I
would save him some work. It was almost a fatal omission!
23 June, 1944
The first mission in a new plane was supposed to be the one to sweat out; the same sort of superstition as having one's photo taken before
take-off. The only thing different about this take-off was a slight sense of disorientation as I formed my element of two into close
formation on Willie Shanning's flight, while dodging an unusual number of low level puff-ball cumulous clouds. As usual we headed East
climbing to about 25,000 feet where we picked up our assigned group of B-24's. As we caught up with the weather front it was socked in
solid below us with spires of towering cumulous thrusting white mountains through the overcast. It made for dandy concealment of
enemy aircraft and pretty soon we began hearing quite a bit of radio chatter calling out groups of bogies high above us as we approached
the target area. (Jimmy Brooks had to abort the only other D Model flying in our Squadron that day. Mechanical trouble.) The warnings
on the radio became more urgent as the E/A above us split into smaller bunches and when their contrails disappeared we knew they were
coming down on us.
Suddenly an FW-190 came screaming through in front of us headed for the heavy bomber stream. He was very close and Willie
Shanning tried to draw on him but couldn't hold the turn. I pulled through in a shuddering four "G" turn firing until I lost sight of the FW
under my nose. Apparently my wing man couldn't hold that high speed stall either because when I racked back to the left all I saw was
the 190 heading for a cloud. He vanished into the cumulous and because of my speed and attitude I had no choice but to follow into the
wall of white. Trying to straighten up on instruments I passed 15,000 feet when I popped into a clear pocket in the cloud - and there was
that FW so close our wingtips almost brushed. Neither of us had time to fire a shot and as I plunged on into the soup, I was hoping the
encounter had frightened the FW driver as much as it had me.
Concentrating on needle, ball, and airspeed I came out of the cloud in a rather steep dive and couldn't see any of my bunch, but I became
aware of radio chatter on our Playboy Squadron channel indicating that somebody was in a fight. Then I spotted two aircraft about fifteen
miles ahead and lower and went balls out to join what I assumed was my flight leader and his wingman. As I closed in the planes broke
into me and I gave them a call on the radio. Then I saw the black crosses! How I could possibly mistake FW-190's for Mustangs I'll never
know. Possibly it was wishful thinking. The two planes split up and I followed one down to about 5000 feet where he slid into formation
with two more FW's and an Me-109. I debated for a second while I called for help. No answer but lots of chatter on the radio, so I slid in
behind one FW and started firing. He chandelled up just as two more FW's came in behind and latched onto me. I fired again at my
original target without effect until I started tracking with my tracers. Bits and pieces flew off from the cockpit area and the FW started
down. With my excess speed I pulled on through to avoid the arrows flashing past me and came down on the three behind me. The
Me-109 had gone off somewhere - I hoped. I overran the second guy I was shooting at, but just as I did part of his tail assembly came off
and he splattered flaming all over the deck. We were quite near to the ground by then.
After a couple more turns I was able to get a deflection shot at another FW-190 and lowered the hammer following my tracers again and
knocking his engine out. Streaming glycol and smoke he tried to belly in and flipped onto his back at pretty high speed. My guns were
beginning to quit one by one. Because of the stoppages in the B & C model 51's, I assumed it was the result of tight turns and heavy "G"
forces and was thinking of trying to get out of there with a whole skin. In addition, about every ten seconds Willie Shannon would yell,
"Riddle! Break!" Unfortunately there were no friendlies down there on the deck and that last Focke Wulf was sore about something. He
then proceeded to out climb me and my one gun and would stall turn down into me. I had lowered a little flap to tighten my turns and we
made three near head-on passes. But he couldn't tighten enough to bring his cannons to bear. On the third pass I managed a strike in his
port wing root angled up toward the cockpit area. With that he straightened out and really got down on the deck headed home while I got
a couple more strikes on his wing while getting my flaps up. My last gun quit and I was happy to let him go.
I stayed down on the deck just long enough to photograph two FW-190's burning on the ground but couldn't find the first one I thought
had probably gone in. I didn't spend much time searching since it seemed a pretty unhealthy place for a lone gun-less P-51. I started back
upstairs trying to figure out where I was. When red marker flak began bursting around me about 24,000 feet, I found out I was right near
the target area. I looked at my clock and decided that everyone else had gone home since I'd been there an hour and the radio was very
silent. But I put out a call for Playboy Squadron and found that Red Flight was only about ten minutes ahead. They turned around, picked
me up and we came home - barely. My crew chief measured the gas in my tanks and just shook his head. But he smiled when he saw I
hadn't broken the wire on my throttle quadrant that would have put me in full emergency boost at 72 inches of manifold pressure.
(Strangely enough, I never broke that wire during my entire combat tour. I guess I was too much aware of that single engine up front that
usually had to get me another 600 miles before I could shut it down.) In briefing, I claimed two FW's destroyed and two damaged. I asked
Willie Shanning why he kept screaming for me to "BREAK" when I was busy all by myself on the deck. He said the other three in his flight
had tangled with a bunch of hostiles and he figured it was me being bounced. It turned out it was my wingman who had stayed with Willie
but Willie should have identified who he was calling as Yellow 3, my call sign, then he might have figured out why Yellow 4 wasn't
evading. It also turned out that my guns hadn't jammed, I'd just run out of ammo.
A day or so later after the squadron had seen my gun camera film, I walked into the bar and Sam Brown, our Squadron C.O., announced
"Well, here's our steely-eyed young fighter pilot!" Hell, my eyes were just as shit-brown as ever but I had sweated off a good five pounds
in the melee`. My film also showed that my shooting was atrociously under my targets. And while I was playing around on the deck with
my FW's, the rest of the Group was busy doing their job upstairs against some pretty aggressive Germans trying to get to the bombers.
The final tally for the day was: Destroyed- 4 FW-190's and 4 Me-109's; Probably destroyed 1 FW-190; Damaged- 2 Me-109's and 3
A few missions later, I was leading a flight of four returning from a non-eventful mission. We were pretty relaxed until I heard some other
flight becoming engaged, however we didn't see a thing until a single Me-109 popped up in front of me not over 500 yards away. He
seemed completely oblivious to the four Mustangs behind him and still had his belly tank attached. As I advanced my throttle I told my
flight to tighten up a bit and we steamed right up to about 250 yards behind him with my pipper centered on his rudder. Then I pulled the
trigger and was astonished as my tracers flashed a good four feet below him. The Me-109 immediately shoved his nose down - and ran
right into the slugs from my six .50's. His belly tank exploded engulfing his ship in flames and the four of us watched him go down. The
rest of the trip home was uneventful but the minute I hit the ground I insisted that my armorer check my gun sight. A while later I
watched as the target was set up and the guns were bore-sighted with our new light beam system. They did check out four feet low and
my armorer was one embarrassed young man. It also taught me a lesson. Never assume anything!
Addendum: Squadron records indicate that the above mentioned victory was another FW-190, but my fading memory tells me vividly that
it was an Me-109. The citation awarding me the Distinguished Flying Cross made it appear that I had saved the entire heavy bomber
formation that day. Of course the fact was that I had little to do with the fight going on around the bomber stream at least 20,000 feet
above me, but at least a couple of enemy pilots would not be up the next day in new airplanes! Stupidity makes for strange awards - if
"Smoking can be hazardous to your health."
Like many a teenager, I became addicted to cigarettes in the 1930's. Even then they were called `Coffin Nails'. During flight training it
was impossible to smoke in our open cockpit PT-19's, so it was quite a new thing in Basic and Advanced to be able to tool around the sky
in our BT-9's and AT-6's ,lighting up and imagining that the cigarette hanging from a lower lip created the ultimate image of the of a
dashing young aviator. Of course there were the inevitable miscalculations that had us spending some sweaty moments with our heads
between our legs searching the oily bowels of the plane for the live cigarette butt that had been dropped accidentally.
In April of 1944, our 31st Fighter Group in Italy was transferred from the 12th AAF to the 15th AAF, a strategic Air Force tasked with the
job of destroying as much of Romania's oil supply facilities as possible. So we lost our Spitfires and moved east across Italy to be near the
Adriatic and closer to the bombers' main targets. And each of us was supplied with a bright, shiny new P-51 B or C. It was a welcome
change until I found that my skinny little rear end didn't appreciate being strapped to a hard rubber raft for six hours at a stretch. However
my crew chief, Sgt. La Salle, did his best to make my cockpit a homey place, such as fastening a plastic cigarette case near the throttle
Supply was a bit of a problem. Our weekly ration consisted of razor blades, a couple of beers, two Cokes, a couple of cigars, and seven
packs of cigarettes, usually a brand called Viceroy. (The only thing worse was that British issue weed called Players.) So as a dedicated two
or three pack a day smoker, I had to trade my Cokes, beer and "Smoking" other goodies to keep myself supplied
One of the conveniences of a P-51 was a downward pointing flare chute on the left side of the cockpit, although God knows I would
never have attempted to fire a flare cartridge through it. I considered that procedure the equivalent of suicide. But left uncapped, that flare
chute provided a first class disposal vent for cigarette butts to be dropped into the suctioning slip-stream. The flare chute was directly
above a tubular bin designed to hold a flare but contained only a tightly rolled distress flag.
We must have had some sort scramble with enemy fighters over Ploesti one hazy summer afternoon, since I found myself approaching
the eastern shore of the Adriatic all alone. I was probably a little late since the radio had been silent ever since I started home. I began
letting down, relaxing and removing my oxygen mask about 18,000 feet. I loosened my straps and pulled out a cigarette. After several
tries, I was finally able to get a match or my trusty Zippo aflame to light that cigarette. Twisting restlessly to ease the ache in my rump -
and to make sure that the black spots in my vision were not enemy fighters- I finished my smoke and dropped the burning cigarette stub
down toward the flare chute.
Tooling along with only an occasional glance around, I began to notice an odd odor. It was definitely something burning. All gauges
were in the green and it wasn't 'till a curl of smoke whipped up and out my partially cracked canopy that I looked down. Sure enough,
down in that tightly rolled cloth distress flag was a glowing, smoking ember. Panicsville! I had nothing long enough to punch down there
to smother the glow. Even after undoing all my straps I couldn't reach it. I thought of Mother Nature's own water tube tucked neatly
under a couple of layers of clothing, but I soon realized that mine was much too short and by now I couldn't have possibly squeezed out a
single drop anyway. I closed the cockpit canopy and covered the open flare chute with my hand to cut down the draft. Then I sat there
wondering at what altitude I had best bail out. I also tried to think of a good mechanical failure description to explain leaving my ship to a
watery grave. I put on my oxygen mask as the smoke got worse and tightened my parachute straps. On I flew, becoming more
embarrassed and fearful. Then, after a while I noticed the smoke and the smell lessening. A little further and I knew I was going to make
it back to San Severo.
Finally I landed and Sgt. La Salle was waiting as usual to climb on my wing and ride back to our hardstand. I must have looked rather
odd as I climbed out. I said everything was alright, but I'd need a new signal flag. I managed to filch the original on leaving the cockpit
and then carefully hid the charred remains in the scrub bush behind which I was relieving my distended bladder. The incident should have
taught me a lesson ---but it didn't! AND years later I realized that in those unpressurized days, if I was unable to light a cigarette above
18,000, all I needed to have done was gain some altitude to quench my little fire!
Heavily leaded 100+ octane avgas made wonderful lighter fluid. So one morning when I noticed my Zippo was getting low on fuel, I
topped it off with gasoline. It was still dripping when I climbed into my cockpit, but quickly dried from vaporization and I tucked it
securely into a shirt pocket under my flying suit and all those straps. We were nearing the target at quite an altitude when I began to
notice a burning sensation on my chest. There was little time for investigation at the moment since we were pretty busy. After leaving the
target, the burning sensation became steadily worse but it was a good hour before I could relax enough to dig out that Zippo and slip it
into a leg pocket. But the burning continued and when I took off my oxygen mask, the distinctive smell of avgas was very noticeable. It
was sheer torture the rest of the way home.
Back on the ground, I quickly stripped down to the waist. Most of my chest and stomach were a fiery red and blistering. It was
apparent that the lack of pressure at altitude had forced the fuel from my overfull cigarette lighter and caused extreme discomfort. But I
hadn't realized that aviation gasoline was quite so toxic, even to exterior parts of the body. Lucky I hadn't put that lighter into a front
trouser pocket. Stupid again, Riddle!
Early in World War II, during the "Phony War" played out mostly in France after Britain and France had declared war on Germany
following the invasion of Poland, the Royal Air Force Hurricanes dispatched to France fought under rigid rules of engagement. Their
tactics had been devised by some chairborne strategists or were leftovers from the First World War. Although those early months consisted
of minimal bombing raids by twin engine German planes bent on destroying French depots and airbases, the French seemed very reluctant
to respond in their Curtis P-36's, Potez, and DeWoitine machines. The Armee D'lair was riddled with political dissidents and indecisive
On the other hand, the British were determined to hold France at any cost and rose to do battle whenever the chance arose. However,
hard intelligence was difficult to obtain and it was mostly by chance that the RAF was able to close with the Germans in the air. British
fighter formations were usually in V's of three or five. In the case of a full squadron of twelve ships, an order was give to assume "Attack
Procedure so-and-so." This usually meant that the RAF planes would assume a string formation, fly up-sun, and then peel off in pursuit
curves that presumably would allow them to attack with maximum efficiency.
Unfortunately, the enemy fighters and bombers did not seem to want to cooperate with these time consuming maneuvers. The German
fighters were using a four-ship "finger four" formation devised by Werner Molders during the Spanish revolution. In addition, they had
very experienced flight leaders trained in that theater. Eventually, all Allied fighter formations adopted the Molders strategy, with the
exception of the Russians. The Russian fighter formations were best described as resembling a flock of starlings, rising and falling,
wheeling and bobbing with little apparent cohesion.
SHUTTLE MISSION TO THE USSR July 1944 Page 1
Squadron orders were cut 22 July, 1944, designating Lt. R. E. Riddle as Commander "C" Flight, one of the four flights comprising the
307th Fighter Squadron of the 31st Fighter Group. The 31st was one of four P-51 fighter groups attached to the 306th Fighter Wing.
Three other Groups in the Wing were equipped with P-38 Lightnings. My erstwhile wingman, Maurice D. Surrat, was appointed as my
deputy. Surrat had transferred to fighters after completing 25 missions as a B-17 pilot.
After some aborted and delayed planning, 22 July was also the date of our much rumored shuttle mission to Russia. Despite our new
responsibilities, I was assigned as element leader to the mission commander's flight with Surrat on my wing. Lt. Col. Yancy Tarrant, our
Group C.O. had chosen our "Playboy" Squadron to lead the Group with the Mission Commander, our Wing C.O., Brigadier General Dean
Strother on his wing. We were routed from our sacks early for breakfast and briefing, which was brief indeed. We were told that our target
destination was Zilestia, Poland. Zilestia was about ten minutes flying time from the Ploesti refineries and was used as a forward base off
and on by JG-52 a German Me-109 Wing of III Gruppe often based at Roman, in N.E. Rumania about 175 miles North of Ploesti. This
Gruppe produced many of the highest scoring Luftwaffe aces from the Russian front. A number of them claimed more than two hundred
aerial victories, Erich Hartman being credited with more than 350. Also we were instructed to load a musette bag with toilet kit and
change of underclothes and that we would be landing in the Soviet Union. We were to escort a Group of P-38's, the 82nd, which would be
strafing airfields in Rumania and Poland. I guess I should have been complimented to be assigned to help protect Gnl. Strother, but I
would much rather have been leading my own flight of four aircraft. To further ruin my day, I arrived at my airplane to find my Crew
Chief, Sgt. La Salle, gazing disconsolately at the oil leaking from a .30 caliber bullet hole in my oil tank. Sometime during the night, a
guard had fired at a sneak thief but had holed my plane instead of the thief. To make matters worse, someone had decided that this was a
good day to repack my parachute. So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I tucked my musette bag with toothbrush and socks
under the seat of a strange airplane and buckled on a borrowed parachute. The minute I strapped in and felt the CO-2 bottle of the
inflatable raft nestling neatly against my sensitive coccyx, I knew it was to be a long flight.
To protect the P-38 "bombers", the 31st Group put up it's normal complement of three squadrons of 16 Mustangs each as well as an
extra "Outlaw" squadron of twelve led by my regular Squadron CO, Maj. Sam Brown, which made a total of 60 P-51's. As far as I know,
there were no aborts, although it was rumored that Col. Litton, CO of the 82nd P-38's, in test firing his guns had accidentally dropped his
external fuel tanks, but whether this was on 22 July or later I don't know. Takeoff and form-up was accomplished in good order and a
couple hours later we approached Ploesti, where the P-38's were working over the enemy airfields, always a risky business. How much
success they had is problematic, because I'm sure all flyable enemy aircraft were off the ground. Col. Tarrant had us holding a rather tight
formation in the low squadron at about 20,000 feet. He had warned me not to drop my now empty wing tanks or to leave the General
except under the most dire straits. So we watched hordes of enemy fighters stream past not 500 feet below us and I went almost crazy
with the itch to attack. I believe Surrat and I could have dropped our noses and done some damage even with our wing tanks attached.
After the P-38's were safely on their way, our group headed East and eventually landed on a grassy field at a place named in reports
as Piryatin, near Lvov in the Ukraine. An advance party of officers and mechanics had been there for a couple of weeks. We parked our
ships as directed by ground crewmen and headed for the de-briefing tent where most of us lamented having to watch all those enemy
fighters at Ploesti fly under us unscathed. While we were thus engaged, a roar of unsynchronized engines made us look up as an Me-110
twin-engine German fighter buzzed the field at about fifty feet. In spite of all the Russian troops around, I don't believe a single shot was
fired by anyone. It was debated whether this enemy snooper presaged an attack such as the one that had destroyed so many B-17's of the
8th Air Force which had landed at Poltava some weeks earlier. I believe an attempt was made to get permission from Moscow for us to
disperse some of our planes east to Kharkov, but Moscow was unavailable. Similarly, when I went back to my ship to dig out my shaving
kit, an armed Soviet soldier unsmilingly refused to let me near. Dusk was approaching before the orders were changed. This was
accomplished by replacing the original guard with one who had orders to allow one visit to my airplane. The Communist red tape and
strict internal discipline was unbelievable! One of our intelligence people said it was rumored that during the disastrous German raid on the
8th AAF B-17's at Poltava, a female Soviet guard had been persuaded to allow the crew of one bomber to attempt to save some of the
items in their aircraft during the raid. He said she had been summarily executed next morning in front of the entire contingent watching
the still smoking ruins of their planes. Truth or fiction, it served to enforce his instructions as he drove us through the darkness to our tent
in the woods.
He told us that if we heard to word "Stoi!", we were to stop or a bullet whine close, immediately and reply "Amerikanski Pilotski!"
It was just as well, for as we drove through thick dark forest using the jeep's black-out lamps, we heard rifle shots ring out a number of
times. We were informed that Soviet troops were still rooting out bypassed German soldiers and dissident Ukrainians, of which there were
quite a number. Some had even formed regiments to aid the Germans.
(Only in more recent years has it been revealed that during the famines and purges of the 1930's, Stalin ringed the the province of
Ukraine with steel to prevent food from entering the area and starving an estimated 20 to 100 million civilians to death.)
I don't remember much about the tent we bunked in that night except that the stillness was punctured by an occasional rifle shot.
Breakfast next morning was good old Army chow, served up by very well-fed Soviet women surrounded by fat laughing blond children.
Apparently dispersal of our planes was still on the agenda, although there had been no further visit from German aircraft since the
daredevil buzz job right after we arrived. Along about here is where my Form 5 entries get confusing and memory isn't all that accurate.
Form 5 entries by Group clerks show the following:
July 22 6:20 hours Landing 1
Unlike records kept during our flight training, our Form 5's recorded only flight time recorded on operational combat missions. Aircraft
engine and airframe time records were maintained by the individual crew chiefs assigned to a each airplane.
July 23 1:00 hours Landing 1
July 24 No Entry
July 25 2:00 hours Landing 2
July 26 5:30 hours Landing 1
I believe the following events happened. On 23 July, Moscow finally gave permission to disperse one or two squadrons of P-51's to
Kharkov in the east. It could have been Col. Tarrant who led us to Kharkov, but my memory seems to tell me it was Sam Brown. Though
I have asked several people involved, no one, including Col. Tarrant, has answered my question. In any event, 16 or 30 P-51's headed for
Kharkov the morning of 23 July. Weather to the east was not good and eventually we were squeezed between lowering clouds and rising
terrain. Not knowing the weather at Kharkov, Sam Brown decided almost too late to return to Piryatin. Somehow all of us got our ships
turned 180 degrees without colliding with each other or the ground. Thirty minutes later we were landing back on the grass and dust at
Finally, with the weather front moving further east, we took off again and an hour or so later landed on another grassy field near
Kharkov. The group of uniformed Soviets that met us included a Russian General. We were quite proud of Brownie as he climbed out of
his cockpit and saluted. On being offered a long Russian cigarette which was half hollow cardboard, Sam accepted and pulled out his own
sweat-stained pack of Camels or Viceroys. I think the whole pack disappeared in seconds. As senior officer Major Sam Brown was invited
to a welcoming dinner party. The rest of us peons were taken in tow by a Soviet Air Force Captain who spoke some English. Strangely,
there were no Soviet aircraft on the field and it soon became obvious that arrangements for our arrival had been a hasty affair.
Our "keeper" led us to our barracks. The building was a one-room affair with a long wooden ledge running the entire length of one side
of the interior. About 30 inches off the floor and approximately six feet wide, this platform had rows of pallets about every 30 inches. The
pallets consisted of a heavy cloth material tacked over mounds of straw that served as mattresses. Bedding was a single thin gray blanket.
On testing, we quickly discovered that it was impossible to sleep atop those straw mounds. One inevitably rolled down one side or the
other to bare boards, and more often than not finding a neighbor already occupying the space. Our Soviet host explained to that his
noticeable limp was acquired during a bad parachute landing on one of the obligatory semi-annual practice jumps. Not being an airborne
trooper myself, I had always figured that my very first jump, should I be so unfortunate as to have to abandon a plane, would give me all
the practice I wanted or needed.
A long, deep and wide trench had been hastily dug for our latrine necessities. It was crossed at intervals by rather narrow unanchored
planks and was surrounded by a wooden fence about five feet high. It was a dicey thing to waddle unsteadily out over the canyon with
lowered trousers, and just as one was about to accomplish the needed, to hear giggles - feminine giggles! No one dropped into the trench,
but there were uncertain moments as we whipped our heads around to see grinning female faces peering over the top of the screening
fence. Dignity was minimal to say the least!
That evening we were entertained by an attractive young couple. The man played a trumpet and the blond girl accompanied her singing
on an accordion. We didn't understand the language but the song, or one of them, was probably what was known as "Meadowland" in the
west. That patriotic Russian melody had crossed national barriers as had the German lament "Lily Marlene". As it grew dark Sam Brown
went off to his banquet and the rest of us were fed something we could neither identify nor wanted to. Then our hosts proudly set up a
generator and a movie projector. We guests were provided with seats while the local populace stood or sat on the ground. Every ten
minutes or so the projector stopped while the operator threaded a new reel of film. The peasants seemed fascinated with the turgid drama
unfolding on the wrinkled sheet, but after an hour or so of watching the stack of film cans diminish not a whit, we Americans began to
drift away. I later wondered if the locals had stayed for what promised to be a five or six hour ordeal. Our watchdog Captain made sure
we stayed close to our barrack and eventually we tried to settle down on those convex sleeping pallets. The following day, 24 July, bad
weather seemed to persist in the west toward the front lines and we were doomed to spend another day where we were with nothing to
do. Fighter pilots are normally pretty restless creatures and eventually some of us persuaded our Captain/Translator/OGPU escort to
arrange a sightseeing tour of Kharkov. He must have had some influence because we eventually boarded an American made stake-bed
truck and stood jolting through the country side. We had understood that Kharkov had been the scene of some heavy fighting as Germans
were pushed back. However we saw little evidence of it as we approached the city. It might have been that we were deliberately routed
through undamaged sections. In the outskirts of town the truck had to slow for gathering citizens whose expressions, both facial and
verbal, were extremely hostile. Our truck stopped when it appeared that there might be violence. Our escort harangued the townspeople,
explaining that we were not German prisoners, but valiant Allies under the command of President Roosevelt. When that had little effect, he
changed the leadership designation to Winston Churchill. That name seemed to ring a bell and we were allowed to proceed into the city.
Debarking from the truck bed, we were admonished to follow our guide walking two abreast and not to deviate or explore on our own.
It was about noon as we strolled up clean and undamaged sidewalks. At one large brick building, the windows were open and lined with
bright smiling faces. All seemed to be attractive and very healthy teenaged girls who were more than willing to exchange pleasantries. It
was explained to us that this was a secondary school similar to our high schools. After a short walk we reached the town square which
seemed to be inhabited by bearded elders reading or playing chess. Understanding can be reached regardless of language barriers and the
oldsters, after some initial hesitation, were curious and eager to talk. However, even the eldest seemed unfamiliar with the name
Roosevelt. Our budding friendships were cut short when several hardfaced men in ill-fitting civilian suits circulated through the square.
The park quickly became silent as the regulars resumed their habits and refused further overtures. It was odd that the only uniforms we
had seen had been worn by elderly men armed with assorted and often antique-looking firearms. Our official guide seemed nervous
throughout until we were headed back for our transportation. A headcount as we boarded revealed that two of our group were missing
and our Soviet Captain turned white as the proverbial sheet.
A mild panic prevailed as our escort directed the truck driver back through city streets over the route we had walked. Outside the girls
school we had noted, Bob Goebel and another member of the 308th Squadron were discussing world affairs or something with two pretty
girls. Quickly our wayward ones were loaded on the truck and and we were driven back to our airfield. Goebel's story was that the food
we had been eating had induced an urgent call of nature. A citizen had directed the pair to a toilet but they were unable to find it and had
to perform their function between two buildings. After that they had been approached by an English teacher from a University who
persuaded them to visit her class. After a ten minute session of answering student questions, they had returned to the street and had
persuaded a couple of girls to come out and talk. Things were going swimmingly in two languages when our truck roared up and
interrupted the budding friendships. It made a very good story but did little for the nerves of our Russian escort.
Back at the airfield we were greeted by a rather chastened Sam Brown, who explained the drinking procedures at Russian dinners. It
seems that at the "banquet" Sam's only moral support was the potent vodka which was plentiful and supplied in tumbler sized glasses.
Every few minutes one of the Russian hosts would propose a toast, at which time everyone was supposed to empty his glass - which was
immediately refilled. Sam wasn't sure that the unending toasting wasn't meant to test his American drinking prowess. In any event the
procedure quickly had it's effect on everyone. Not being stupid, Sam tried to limit his intake as best he could. The Russian solution was
for each in turn, as needed, to rise from the table go outside and upchuck the excess booze. No excuses were offered and the missing one
quickly returned to his seat to resume the incessant drinking.
This practice was common in German Officers Mess as well. When Allied troops in Europe occupied a plushy appointed Luftwaffe base they
discovered rows of chest-high urinal shaped basins, complete with handles at the sides. It was finally deduced that these were
vomitoriums for officers to use so they could return to their celebrations. The Russians needed no such capitalistic luxury. Mother
Russia's good earth was sufficient for their needs.
It is probable that we lesser ranks were entertained that evening after our tour of Kharkov. I do remember the meal. In a letter home I
described the genuine Borscht as being cold greasy dishwater into which the remains of a beet salad had been scraped, the whole being
topped by hot sour cream. After a queasy night, we took off early the morning of 25 July for the relatively short flight to Piryatin. We had
a quick briefing for a ground support mission to the front lines near Mielic in Poland. In the air once more, we had barely formed up when
stomach cramps doubled me forward in my cockpit. I wobbled in the air as the memory of dead flies sprinkled in last night's borscht
returned with nauseating clarity. I waggled my wings at Surrat and waved him on. Landing was a very ropey effort. Back with the idle
cut-off, I quickly unstrapped and stumbled off the wing before giving up the ghost of the borscht. I had never been sick in an airplane and
had no intention of fouling my cockpit. Dizzy, with flashes of extreme pain in my stomach, I climbed back in my plane and taxied back to
the dispersal area. At first I thought of taking off and catching up with the mission, but quickly gave up the idea and was soon flat on my
back in the medical tent; flat except when I was leaning over to heave.
The ministrations of a rather attractive American nurse left me feeling much improved but weak and with a raw throat when some hours
later the roar of Merlins announced the return of our group. Soon I was visited by several people all too eager to tell me of the party I'd
missed. Sam Brown sat on the end of my cot while the nurse picked splinters of canopy Plexiglas from his neck and back and daubed the
cuts with alcohol. He told me that after strafing German troop and supply convoys, he was returning with his little Outlaw squadron of
twelve ships when they spotted a gaggle of unescorted JU-87's - Stuka dive bombers. This airplane had seldom been seen in the west
since being slaughtered by RAF Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain. However the Germans had been using it almost with impunity on
the Russian front.
Most of our pilots had never attacked a plane with a rear firing defensive gunner, and some amazing stories and combat movie footage
came out of this scrap. Brownie said he had latched onto a Stuka and opened opened fire when the rear gunner put a bullet through his
canopy just over the top of his bullet-proof wind screen. The slug had slit the top of his helmet and spattered plexiglas liberally over his
neck and back, ruining a good flying suit and some of his hide. Ernie Shipman had had his ship punctured in several places and smoke
began streaming from one wing. Sticking with the ship the smoke finally disappeared and he came back to find he had no hydraulics. He
managed to shake his landing gear down but landed at high speed with no flaps in the face of red flares being shot off by the
jeep-mounted control officer.
Sam's Outlaw squadron and Col.Tarrant's 307th claimed 24 destroyed and a number of probables. One of the oddest claims was for a little
Feisler Storch observation craft which put an amazing display getting away from several P-51's traveling about 250 MPH faster than the
agile little ship. Finally the clever German put his little unarmed craft down in the corner of a field, jumped out and made it to cover in a
stand of trees. The ship was totally destroyed on the ground although Jimmy Brooks claimed it as an air victory. Ernie Shipman's was the
most severely damaged Mustang. Not only had his hydraulic system been punctured, but the outboard fuel line from his jettisoned wing
tank was set afire. Luckily the residual gas had burned up before it set the duraluminim wing skin alight. (Of all our 307th squadron Aces,
Brooks probably had the most diverse assortment of planes in his final credits of 13 victories by the end of his combat tour. In addition to
the Feisler Storch, he had to his credit a Rumanian IAR-80 fighter, a JU-52 transport, and a JU-87 Stuka. The rest consisted of Me-109's
Somehow it seemed that Moscow had to be consulted on every little plan of action. The medic in my tent infirmary informed me that I was
not to be allowed to return with my Group next morning. Since all other ships had been patched up by our wonderful mechanics, this
would have left the Russians with an almost new P-51 D and I would have spent months wending my way down through Turkey and the
mid-east by land transport. The morning of 26 July, I wasn't taking any chances. Before dawn, I slipped out of the infirmary and stayed out
of sight, cold and shivering with hunger until I saw people strapping into their planes. Col. Tarrant made no comment as I taxied out with
Surrat to take off. Not being briefed, I didn't know if we had a combat assignment on our way back to Italy or not. Before we crossed into
Rumania, we did see what we thought were P-39 Aircobras well above our 20,000 foot level.
They made no move to attack us. We wondered what the Russians could have done to so improve the performance of the Allison powered
P-39 . (In the spring of 1945, I flew a P-63 King Cobra and realized that we must have seen those much improved models.
Larry Bell's company had redesigned the P-39 into a larger ship with a supercharged engine. In fact it was joy to fly. Most of the King
Cobra production was sent to the Russians since they loved the 37 mm cannon firing through the propeller boss.)
Our trip back was otherwise uneventful until we approached the oil fields of Rumania from the east. Our 307th "Playboy" squadron was
low with the others being stacked higher as top cover. I could hear Sam Brown's Outlaw squadron tangling with aggressive enemy aircraft
and I was getting very impatient guarding our Wing Commander. Spotting a number of trains below us, I kept badgering Playboy Red
One until Col. Tarrant finally said, "Okay! Be careful!" I think Surrat and I had dropped our wing tanks and peeled off before he finished.
We roared downstairs at about 400 MPH and punctured several locomotives with satisfying results. It was a great relief to get in action
until we found that at anything over a hundred foot altitude we were getting a lot of flak, including some 88 mm stuff. Almost before I
could think, we were crossing the perimeter of a large aerodrome and were catching anti-aircraft fire of all calibers, some of it from flak
towers higher than we were flying. Too late! Snuggle down on the deck and fire at any available parked airplane. It was mostly
twin-engined stuff on the ground and after setting one JU-88 afire, I veered my sight toward a JU-52 sitting in the corner of the field. A
long burst accomplished nothing but to cause a near collision with the parked machine before pulling up as I left the field! Immediately
heavy flak began bursting around me. Back to the deck! This time I crossed the field from a different direction, busting an Me-110 near
the perimeter and then skidded to raise my sights to the control tower from which tracers were streaming. I saw one body plummet
from the platform but he could have jumped.
Meanwhile glowing tracers arced around and over my cockpit. I jumped a fence and stayed low almost hitting a grassy knoll which
shouldn't have been there. I racked back toward the field only to find myself flying down some multiple gun barrels spitting 20 or 40
millimeter stuff at me. For some reason the gun emplacement was more or less open on one side and three men were handling the guns.
I fired, seeing two men fall and the other just disappeared. Oddly, I remember the gun barrels tipped sharply down instead of up. Onto
the field I skidded sharply to get a JU-88 just in front of a small building. Fire exploded from one wing but it was just lucky shooting.
Away for the moment I turned back to get that very first JU-52. As I crossed the boundary onto the field, a sudden pounding started near
my tail working its way forward. "Oh-oh!" I thought. "Somebody's really got me lined up!" But I squeezed lower and as I started firing at
the JU-52, I heard someone say on the RT, "Riddle's augured in!" But I was pouring everything into that damn Junkers transport and
finally the gear collapsed and it just settled onto the ground like a tired old hen. But it never burned. Later I realized that it was unfueled
and may have been a Hanger Queen kept for spare parts. But right now the pounding on my fuselage had stopped and I just wanted to
get out of there alive.
Squirming over hill and dale, I gradually gained altitude and was sur- prised and relieved to find Surrat joining on my wing. At about
3000 feet, we found Col. Tarrant and a few others. Tarrant had lost his wing man, General Strother, and was calling for him on the radio.
"Playboy Red Two from Red One. Come in!" This was repeated but with no response. I asked Surrat to slide under me and inspect my
ship for damage, although all my gauges were in the green. He was just crossing under when all hell broke loose. Violent, terrifying
explosions blew our little formation apart.
During the summer of 1944, if I wasn't flying a mission, I was usually in our makeshift darkroom, converted from a non-functional
toilet in our stucco barracks; either that or down at the airfield scrounging time in an airplane. New planes needed to be test flown and
overhauled engines needed to be slow-timed at minimum power to set piston rings. The latter was a boring job, but better than staying on
the ground. Our 31st Group Engineer quite often called on me, since he knew I was a willing victim.
Somewhere he had heard of two instances in which 8th AAF P-51's which had had their cooling systems shot up but had been able to
make it back to England or at least to the Channel by pumping the primer. Raw gasoline squirting into the cylinders had kept them cool
enough to keep the overheated engine from seizing up or exploding. The priming pump on the Merlin engine was merely a manually
operated sleeve valve with a smallish T-shaped handle that required a bit of strength to give the engine two squirts of raw fuel when
starting the engine. In the two successful cases he'd heard about, the pilots had returned with wornout gloves and bloody palms as well
as almost useless right arms from over-exertion.
Our engineering officer began to wonder if it was possible to keep an engine running on the manual primer alone in the event that both
the engine-driven fuel pump as well as the electric driven emergency pump were out of action. He probably picked me to test his idea on
the theory that, as the least athletic of our pilots, if I could do it so could everyone else; sort of the law of diminishing returns applied in
reverse. Although my normal procedure on a long escort mission was to run my wing drop tanks dry before dropping them, the engine
would cough a couple of times and I became quite adept at quickly switching to internal fuel loads and being rewarded with a satisfying
resumption of power from the big Merlin up front. I did not recommend this procedure to my newer flight members because a few pilots
had been startled by the sudden cessation of the engine and had failed in their attempts to get an immediate restart. The result of course
was that they dropped out of formation, some losing thousands of feet, and in one case, the pilot failed to get a restart and finally bailed
out over enemy territory.
So one bright morning, when I had seen the rest of the squadron off on a mission, our Group Engineer cornered me and described the
testing he wanted done. I probably borrowed a spare plane to save my Crew Chief the trouble of cleaning up Angel III after a flight.
Pretty soon I was cruising around at about fifteen thousand feet over our air strip at San Severo. I wanted plenty of altitude in the event I
had to make a dead stick landing.
The procedure involved pulling back the mixture control to `idle-cutoff' which starved the engine of fuel. Then with the prop windmilling
in the slipstream, I would loosen the collar on the hand primer and start pumping raw gas into the cylinders. After losing five or six
thousand feet without getting so much as an encouraging sputter from the engine, I would advance the mixture control, the engine would
start, and I'd climb back up to 15,000 feet to repeat the process. After several fruitless repetitions of this little maneuver, my right arm felt
as if it was about to drop off and the palm of my right hand was getting sore even though I wore a glove. I tried one more time at about
5000 feet, and then took the plane home.
By the middle of 1944, the 306th Fighter Wing of the 15th Airforce in Italy was comprised of four groups flying P-51 Mustangs and three
groups equipped with P-38 twin-engined Lightnings, all long range fighter planes. If enough pilots were available, this meant that the
wing could put up a total of 336 planes to escort the heavy B-17 and B-24 Bombers on daylight raids to strategic targets. Theoretically, we
could put up an additional 54 if a "Maximum Effort" mission was laid on. This was seldom the case because of pilot shortage until we
began getting an infusion of replacement pilots from the States.
The "D" model of the P-51 Mustang had a bubble canopy for much improved vision as well as a total of six .50 caliber machine guns. The
previous B & C models had on four guns and an engine with about twenty horsepower less than the D. However the earlier models had
the two- stage, two speed superchargers set to kick in at about 16,000 feet and 24,000 feet so that top speed of approximately 435 miles
per hour was achieved about 30,000 feet. The newer models had the "blowers" set at 14,000 feet and 20,000 feet giving best speed at
25,000 feet. The reasoning behind this was that the enemy fighters we were meeting had superchargers set at about those altitudes.
Maximum ceiling for both types was still about 41,000 feet although the Mustang required some pretty delicate handling in that rarified air.
Soon after we had a sufficient supply of the P-51-D models, our engineers, with the help of North American Tech Reps, converted a
brand new plane to a two-seater. To make room for the tiny jump seat in the bubble behind the pilot, the 85 gallon fuselage gas tank was
removed as well as armor plating and all guns. This brought the weight of the plane down to near normal empty weight just over 7000
pounds as compared with fully loaded combat weight of over 10,000 lbs.
It also moved the center of gravity far forward so that in level flight it flew nose down. But it was a joy to fly, almost as agile as a
Spitfire. I questioned the Group Engineering officer as to the rationale in stripping a brand new fighter plane from inventory. He explained
that an enthusiastic pilot had overstressed the wings while testing the new ship. But he had an odd expression when he said it. I was
skeptical because there were no restrictions placed on the piggy-back conversion and soon discovered that every group equipped with the
D-model Mustang had done the same thing. The P-38 Groups had beaten us to the punch, since their pilot capsule was located between
the two engine bearing fuselage booms and therefore more adaptable to modification. I really enjoyed that lightweight plane but found
that not everyone really wanted to ride in the cramped back seat. I suggested that perhaps our PR/Intelligence officer might like to take a
trip in it at least part way on a mission. The two internal wing tanks holding 90 gallons of fuel each was good for at least four hours in the
air with careful management and I figured re-installing a couple of guns with a couple hundred rounds of ammo each (for my own piece of
mind) wouldn't detract that much from performance. At least I could provide him with some idea of what the group looked like in the air
and maybe tour a little over Yugoslavia or Northern Italy. Captain Adams politely declined.
Sometime later , either our Group Engineer Newt Hagins or our 307th Squadron Engineer, Jim Ivers, got promoted to Lt. Colonel with
rotation orders back to the States. Somehow he managed to slot a ride on one of the "White Cargo" planes flying out of Naples. These
clapped out B-24's were called "White Cargo" because they were used most often to fly badly wounded troops back to the States.
In any event, this engineering officer asked me to fly him over to Naples to pick up his ride home. It was quite a chore to squeeze
his rather hefty bulk into the minimal space of the back seat on our Piggy Back P-51. In fact the curvature of the canopy required him to
sit with bended neck and his head pressed against the plexiglass canopy. The weather report didn't sound promising west of the mountains
but he had to fly down or he would have missed his plane and had to wait for a ship. Finally we were set and off we went into the blue. I
can't remember plotting a course but I must have although I don't believe I carried a map. Sure enough over the Appenines the clouds
closed in below us but I kept flying "Time Plus Speed Equals Distance" pilotage. The cloud cover was now a solid layer under us as time
began to eat at me and I tried to contact Naples Tower on all five of our VHF frequencies. No joy at all. I tried our little "Coffey Grinder"
Motorola short wave with equal lack of success. Nothing but static anywhere on the dial and I'd let down to about 10,000 feet on top of
that solid blanket of cloud under us, but with no idea of how thick it was.
Time had run out on me and I figured I must have passed the coast by now. I was going to try an instrument letdown and had turned
back to the East since I had no desire to run into that Vesuvius volcano which was almost 4000 feet high. I'd just started my turn when I
spotted a darker blob in the solid white beneath us. I flew over it and thought I could see a very dark surface down below. In a tight
spiral, we dived into that hole and the sweat began to dry a little as we popped out in a pouring rain storm at about 2000 feet over the
water. I still wasn't sure where we were when my backseat passenger tapped me on the shoulder and pointed back to the southeast. Ah,
blessed luck! There was the smoke and crud of a large city rising into the clouds and I headed toward it. A few minutes later we were
getting a green light from the tower at Cappadechino? airdrome and I set down on the first surfaced runway in many many months.
I spotted a decrepit looking B-24 on a hardstand near the terminal building. A group of uniforms huddled under one wing out of the rain
and in the face of flashing red "no-no" lights from the control tower I taxied over to it as close as I could and killed the engine. It was
rather a chore to unstrap my passenger and pry him out of the back seat. But I finally was able to close the canopy and helped him lug his
gear over to the B-24. The group of officers included some pretty high ranks and seemed relieved to see him safe on the ground. I was
introduced and stood around for several minutes shooting the bull. Finally I wished them a safe journey home and went back to my plane.
The ceiling had lowered even more before I got a green light from the tower and took off into the soup. I had carefully set my attitude
indicator and had little trouble climbing a steady course through the rain and cloud cover, breaking out finally at about eight or ten
thousand feet into clear weather. Although it had been pretty dark on the ground at Naples, I was rather unpleasantly surprised at how
low the red sun was behind me to the west. It was later than I thought.
My original plan had been to head for 15th AAF Headquarters at the port of Bari because I'd heard of a possible job opening at either AAF
Headquarters or Wing Headquarters. While still eager to get back to the States, I thought working a flunkies job for a while might lead to
a Squadron Command. For that I would have extended my tour.
I was about halfway to Bari when the sun dropped out of sight behind me and I changed my mind. I was unfamiliar with the Bari airfield
and realized it wouldn't be wise to land at night at a strange town. I changed course for San Severo and realized that it was going to be
dark when I arrived.
About thirty minutes later I arrived over our pierced metal landing strip and saw nothing stirring. There was a dim light showing in the
control tower and a few work lights showing at the South African end of the field where someone was working on a Mosquito. I decided
I'd better turn on my running lights and my landing light. Only then did I become aware that I didn't know where the light switches were.
I'd made many night landings in training planes and in P-39's but despite having several hundred hours in Mustangs I'd never had occasion
to use the lights. I buzzed the tower and punched the tower radio frequency. "Playboy 38, landing instructions please." Finally a bored
voice gave me permission to land and the green lights outlining the sides of the runway were turned on. The only lights visible on my
plane were the blue flames from my engine exhaust stacks. Blessing the flat country where we were located, I lined up the runway lights
and eased in. When the lights were neatly lined up in a converging "V" I found myself on the ground in one of my better landings. I taxied
in the dark back to the Piggyback hardstand and lugged two parachutes over to the equipment tent.
Strangely enough there were no comments about my silly performance but I'd learned a lesson. Next day in my own "Angel III" I made
sure I learned where the light switches were located.
September 2, 1944 ITALY
I'd developed a bad cold which had prevented me from flying for almost a week because of ear blockages. However, on September 2,
our 307th Squadron - perhaps the entire 31st Group - was scheduled for a low level harrassing mission to the Balkan countries. I
scheduled myself despite warnings to avoid altitudes over 10,000 feet. Whether the weather was too bad for heavy bombers or politics had
dictated a cessation of raids which might further damage the oil refineries of Rumania as the rampaging Russians closed in from the east is
problematical. And just perhaps, pressure was being applied by American oil companies interested in preserving the remains of their
pre-war operations in the Balkans. In any event, our operation orders called for free ranging shooting over Yugoslavia to disrupt any
transport or supply that might re-enforce the defending Axis troops. It was rather a light hearted group that set out that morning with full
internal fuel loads and a 75 gallon drop tank under each wing. We carried no bombs. Although it was recommended that we take off
using at least twenty or thirty gallons from our fuselage capacity of 85 gallons for better center-of- gravity, as usual I switched to my wing
drop tanks as soon as we formed up in the air.
From our Italian base at San Severo, we headed across the Adriatic and crossed the Yugoslavian coast somewhere south of Split,
climbing high enough to clear the Dinaric Alps and dropped down looking for trouble. We had split the Squadron into sections of eight
P-51's each and started following a railroad in a North-Easterly direction. It was just our luck to run across a column of German Panzer
tanks on a parallel highway. About a dozen of them were being led by a motorcycle with attached sidecar. For a moment I thought we
were back in World War 1. I put my sights on the motorcycle as the two people aboard scrambled for safety. My six .50 caliber machine
guns took only one pass to melt the cycle down to smoking junk. The tank column had come to a complete halt and buttoned everyhing
up tight while eight planes formed a traffic pattern around the tanks and tried to blast the treads. We saw nothing but our own ricocheting
tracers glancing off the heavy armor plating and bogey wheels. Finally someone suggested that we try dropping our wing tanks on the
column and then try to set the gasoline on fire with tracers. I had emptied my tanks and dropped them, but a few of the boys had theirs
still attached. It was a good idea, but our aim was poor and probably there was little gasoline left in the dropped tanks. Outside of one
ruined motorcycle, we seemed to have accomplished nothing but a minor delay to the German tanks.
Back to the railroad tracks and headed toward Belgrad, we encountered several trains and had great fun watching the steam spout from
punctured locomotives. However, the box cars attached were either empty or at least none had explosive materials aboard that would burn.
However we expended considerable ammunition creating splinters out of the wooden boxcars. At the city of Kraljevo, we encountered
some small arms fire and I discovered a large three or four story factory building of some sort. The side from which I approached seemed
mostly comprised of rows of windows and I simply couldn't resist the temptation. Like a kid breaking bottles, I made two low level passes
almost hitting the building as I watched my bullets shatter dozens of windows. After a few passes at steam engines in the railroad
marshalling yard, we followed the railroad as far as Krajudevac and then headed up toward Belgrad. Maintaining about a thousand feet for
visibility, we soon spotted a truck convoy of what appeared to be military vehicles. We quickly stopped the first truck in line and left it
blazing. Then we went to work on the others. Soldiers or workers dived for the ditches as we hammered the column. But the last truck
driver had stopped his vehicle on a narrow stone bridge with sides that protected his passengers from broadside attack. As my turn came
in our little Indian circle formation, I set my sights on the near end of the bridge where I had seen people darting from the bridge and
diving into a gully. Sure enough, just as I got within about 300 yards of the bridge, a dozen or so men came out from the protective
bridge sides and headed for the gully. Most of them didn't make it. A few .50 caliber slugs do terrible things to human flesh.
I knew of a big airfield on the river bordering Belgrade and headed my section of eight north, hoping to catch some planes either on
the ground or in the air. Unfortunately or otherwise, we ran across more road traffic and shot that up, thereby expending the last of my
ammunition. So much for the foolishness of shooting out factory windows and trying to damage impregnable Panzers. We returned to
our San Savero base in Italy without ever encountering more than a little desultory anti-aircraft fire. We claimed, probably extravagantly,
destruction or damage to 30 trains and 100 trucks - and of course my little three-wheeled motorcycle. It was a fun day, but merely showed
that the USAAF was ever vigilant. Pity the poor peasants. Fighter pilots talked cynically before these missions, usually with an admonition
by the Squadron C.O. just before boarding our airplanes along the lines that we shouldn't claim too many pregnant women as troop kills,
and baby buggys should not be counted as tank or truck destructions. In actuallity, we tried not to mistake civilians for military objectives,
but some errors were inevitable. And of course the British nightly bomber forays were admittedly aimed at population centers
SEPTEMBER 4, 1944
About six of us were celebrating in Sam Brown's room. Our Squadron Commander had broken out the terrible Old Overholt Rye
whiskey kept in a footlocker under his bunk for safekeeping. The reason for the revelry was a visit by Major General Nathan Twining
during which we were to parade while the 15th AAF commander was to pin a Distinquished Sercice Cross on Sam Brown. The DSC was the
highest Army ranking medal for bravery in action next to the Medal of Honor. Sam had a lot of "help" on a mission to Ploesti on June 26.
The help consisted of the rest of his squadron, except for his wingman, deserting him as he was closing on a veritable cloud of
twin-engined enemy fighters set up to fire their rockets into our bomber formations. The rest of us had been chasing a lonely FW-190
downstairs. Sam and his wingman ,Eddy Jay, had bored into the rocket launching machines and promptly been bounced by the single
engine enemy fighters providing cover for the enemy Me-210s. Brownie shot down three of the twin-engines and one of the 109's while
getting a couple of probables. His wingman had faithfully protected him by shooting two Me-109's off Sam's tail. It was a magnificent bit
of work - and the Citation of Award made no mention of the miserable performance by the rest of Sam Brown's squadron.
So we few had been celebrating while waiting for the entire group, Officers and Enlisted personnel, to don their Sunday best and
assemble on our sandy little compound "Parade" ground. We all had more than our share of the Rye whiskey and were enjoying ourselves
immensely. Suddenly, our Squadron Adjutant burst in, surveyed our half-dressed and completely inebriated little group. "Jesus
H.Christ! Major Brown, the troops are assembled and the General is waiting!" "Holy Shit! Come on, boys." Brownie said.
"We're fucked!" With that he dragged on a pair of trousers and followed Major Strong out the door, dressing as he went. The rest of us
hurredly searched for ties, any tie, and our dress blouses. We followed as quickly as we could stagger and crept around the corner of a
wooden barracks. And we stopped dead in our tracks and pulled back out of sight. Too late, too late by far.
Out on the parade ground, all the good little soldiers stood at Parade Rest in neat rows - at least those that could remember the drill.
Group Commander Col. Tarrant stood up front with Squadron Commander Major Samuel Brown beside him. They faced the General and
his aide, while the aide droned on about some magnificent effort of our 31st Group in a previous engagement. For this the Group was
being awarded it's second Unit Citation which would allow each of us to pin a little bronze star on the blue ribbon on the right side of our
tunics. From our vantage point around the building corner, it appeared to us that Major Brown was doing all right. Then the General's aide
started reading another lengthy document of Brownie's heroic struggle. When he finished, General Twining called Sam forward. Brownie
staggered forward and leaned soggily against the General's rows of ribbons. General Twining, holding his breath, gently pushed him back
enough to pin the DSC medal to his chest and shook his hand while squadron and AAF photographers flashed their Speed Graphics. We
hidden half-dozen were practically in hysterics as the Group was called to attention and started marching - after a fashion - in Review.
While Brownie valiantly tried to stand at attention, we sneaked back to Brownie's room and opened another bottle.
When Sam came back to his room, he found his missing pilots still celebrating, but in poor condition. One of our people was passed
out on Sam's cot, while Lt. House was draped face down over the liquor supply. Sam not too gently picked up House by his belt, thereby
breaking a chunk off House's front incisor. "Time to get sober, boys," pronounced our Squadron Commander. "Dinner is served at 1700
hours!" So at least four of us managed to enter our Officer's Club around 5:00PM. A long table had been set up with our best flatware and
in the center seat on one side sat Gnl. Twining, doing his best not to express his disapproval of our obvious condition. The "banquet"
honoring the General and Sam Brown went apace until those of us of the 307th Squadron stood and sang with glasses high, "Here's to old
Sam Brown; May his name etc.; --We'll ship him back to Ploesti, on the Wabash Cannon Ball-l-l!" It was neither dignified nor musically
esthetic, and I'm afraid General Twining looked rather pained but took it with good grace. The entire 31st Fighter Group was stood down
the next day as being unable to properly perform our military duties. All in all, it was a very satisfactory day. General Nathan Twining
eventually became the first Air Force general to be appointed Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States Armed Forces.
This article is copyright
Virtual 31st Fighter Group 2001.
Written by Robert E. Riddle
Many thanks to "Daddy" for permission to co-publish the article at
Virtuaalilentäjät / Virtual Pilots Finland Association 2002
Last modified: 2002-06-12 17:24