14 July 1942 - 11 January 1945
After I graduated from mechanics school I was assigned on July 14, 1942 to the 16th Observation Squadron, an old army unit, that was at Daniel Field, Georgia. When I got there the squadron was already at the Greensboro-High Point Airport, Greensboro, North Carolina on maneuvers. We were bivouacked in the woods near a local road. My uncle Victor Weston, dad's brother, lived close by and someone would come by most every evening and I would go home with them and they would bring me back in time for reveille the next morning. On August 15, 1942 the Squadron left for Morris Field at Charlotte, North Carolina.
Mother had a close friend, Mrs. Allen, who lived in Charlotte and she had mother and Florene come for a weekend so I could see them. We met downtown on Friday afternoon at one of the department stores when I got off from the base and Mrs. Allen and mother left Florene and me for a little while. It was then that I asked Florene, "Wonder what your mother would say if we got married". She said, "Why don't you ask me". I did and she said yes. So when mother and Mrs. Allen returned, we told them what we wanted to do. This was around 5 pm and Mrs. Allen called the court house and told them not to close until we could get there for the license, then she called a doctor and told him that we were coming for our blood test right then. We did and got the license and had the wedding at 6 PM the next evening at her house. So that was how we started our married life. Florene went back home with mother on Monday, I think, and then returned about a week later. We had found a room at a house that was just about a couple of hundred feet from the gate where my barracks was located. Our Squadron was on alert to go overseas and no one was authorized to stay off post so one of my friends in the barracks was to come and wake me if we were given our orders.
About midnight on the night of the 25th he came and woke me up and said we were shipping out in a couple of hours. I went to the barracks and packed my barracks bag and went back to Florene for and hour or two before we left. By daylight we were on trucks headed for the train station. We rode the train all that day and arrived at Fort Dix that night. It took the rest of the night to get us processed and back on the train for New York where we boarded the luxury liner Queen Mary in the early hours of September 27th, 1942. They had removed all of the furniture from the staterooms and made three sets of bunks, each three deep, out of two by fours. I had not been to bed nor had any sleep since midnight of the 25th so I immediately hit the bunk and was asleep when we sailed.
When I woke up and went up on deck all that I could see was water, we were far out at sea. Since the Queen Mary was faster than most other ships we did not have an escort. They would change direction of the ship at random intervals of anywhere from about a half a minutes to maybe a minute. We were told that it would be pure chance if a submarine got a chance to fire a torpedo at us. Anyway, when they changed direction, the ship would lean so far that when walking in the passages below deck our feet would be at the edge of the walkway on one side and our head would touch the wall on the other side. One would have to wait until the ship was level in order to pass someone else in the passageway. We were assigned a time to eat and had to file in, get our food and eat in just a short time, then leave regardless if we were through eating or not so the next group could eat. On the morning of October 2, 1942, we saw numerous ships on the horizon. At first we were concerned that they might be enemy ships, but it soon became apparent that they were ours. They were to escort us into Liverpool. As we were watching these ships one Cruiser came over in front of our ship and made a minesweeping pass from right to left after which it turned back and passed across from the left to the right. Then it turned back again in order to pass back across in front of the ship. It was on this pass that someone had misjudged their speed and distance and as a result the Queen Mary cut the British cruiser Curacao in half. One half of the cruiser passed by on the side of the Queen that I was on and we could see the open half of the ship with sailors trapped below decks. As we watched, it was not more that five minutes before the ship sank. We were told that there were no survivors.
After the collision, the engines of the Queen were speeded up for about thirty minutes and then the engines stopped. The damage to the Queen had flooded the front of the ship and the water pressure from the shipšs speed caused the bulkhead between the first two compartments to fail and flood the second forward compartment. We lay dead in the water for several hours before again getting underway very slowly. It was decided to take the Queen Mary into Grenock, Scotland and anchor in the bay. We then unloaded onto a large ferryboat and as we passed the front of the Queen Mary, we could see the damage. The front of the ship was cut and folded back what looked like at least 50 or more feet that we could see above the water line and it was deep enough for the ferry that we were on to sail under the rest of the nose of the ship. We landed at Glasgow where we boarded a train for Watersham airbase near Ipswich, England.
Our first encounter with food there was a disaster. The train had stopped at a station along the way and we got off to see what was there. Well, they had a Naffi (sp) there with what looked like fried pies. We bought lots of them to eat on the way and when we got back on the train and opened one we found that they were mutton pies. Needless to say, we were not happy campers. Anyway, when we got off the train we were put on trucks the trucks to go to the local airdrome. When we pulled into the airdrome and disembarked we saw the barracks for the first time. They had visible bomb damage to the outside and had been walled off on the inside of the barracks, but the outside had been left unrepaired as if they were not being used. We were told that they, the British, had been fighting this war for long enough to know when the Jerry (German) aircraft were coming and we would get plenty of warning. That was fine until a few days later when a German aircraft passed over and dropped his bombs in our hangers. As he left, the rear gunner shot up the place with his machine guns. Wouldn't you know, the anti-aircraft guns at the base were all out of commission for maintenance. As you can tell, the bombs didnšt explode, or I might not be here. There were four 100 pound and one 500 pound bombs that all landed in the hangers. Almost every day and night we could hear bombs detonating somewhere nearby.
After this bombing raid, we had air raid warnings several times every day. We would get our rifles and go outside to the blast shelters and wait in hope of seeing a German plane to shoot at, but we never saw another one while we were there. It was cloudy almost all the time we were there.
We were flying P-39 aircraft from a grass field and one day one of our aircraft came in a little too high and landed long and as he applied the brakes the wheels slid instead of stopping and the airplane slid off the end of the field causing the landing gear to collapse. When we called for a crane to lift the airplane the British brought in a very large crane, but when we tried to lift the airplane, warning bells rang indicating that the crane was being overloaded. We finally got a U.S. truck mounted crane that lifted the airplane easily.
The British equipment was very primitive and the aircraft refueling truck was no exception. The fuel pump was run by a single cylinder engine that had two large flywheels that had to be spun fast enough to make the engine run. To start the flywheels, one person had to hold a decompression valve open while another person turned a large cast iron crank handle to start the flywheels. When the flywheels were turning fast enough to remove the handle, the first person would release the valve and the engine hopefully would start. Well, I was trying to start the engine when the other person let the valve close before I had removed the crank handle. The engine was turning too slowly and it kicked back and the crank handle flew off and hit me in the mouth. I wound up with a mouth full of teeth and had to go to the hospital to have the cuts in my mouth sewed up. I was still in the hospital when our Squadron was ordered to ship out to Africa for the invasion. My front teeth were knocked loose and I couldn't close my jaw, but I didn't want to be left behind so I was released from the hospital and we went by train to Liverpool where we boarded a cattle boat that had been converted into a troop ship. This was Thanksgiving day 1942.
They had tables made like picnic tables with the bench made onto the table and we were assigned a seat at one of the tables and that was our place for the voyage. At night we would get a hammock from a large pile of hammocks and hang it wherever we could find rings in the overhead. The hammocks were hung so thickly that the only way out of the area was to stoop over and walk under them. The first meal we had on the ship was fish and it was rotten. After we went to our officer in charge he saw to it that we were not served any more fish. They had a bakery down several decks in the ship and one person from each table was assigned to go to the bakery every day to pick up the ration of bread and preserves for the table. Both the bread and the preserves were very good and that was about all we ate because the other food wasn't fit to eat.
We found out the hard way that taking a shower was out of the question. I had lathered up including my hair and tried to rinse the soap off when I found out that the shower was salt water. All the rinsing would do was make a gray film that wouldn't come off. That was the last time we tried to shower for the next two weeks.
The trip was not very pleasant and filled with anxiety. There were a large number of ships in the convoy and our ship was on the outer perimeter. We heard depth charges going off at night and wondered just what they were doing. It was interesting to notice all the ships on the horizon when it would get dark at night and then when it would get daylight the next morning the ships were still all in the same formation. Of course they would not show any lights. The water was real pretty at night where the ship would make its wake and the phosphorus would glow.
We passed through the Straights of Gibraltar and anchored in the harbor at Gibraltar over night and then continued on up the Mediterranean to Oran. The lights at the city of Tangiers were beautiful. That was a free city across the Straights of Gibraltar and they were not engaged in the war. The lights every where else were blacked out to keep the enemy from having a target to bomb.
Only the engineering section of our Squadron went to England. We were to send our planes down on the invasion and be there to service them after they landed. The Germans had occupied North Africa and the local French were cooperating with them. The rest of our Squadron had arrived by ship on November 9, 1942, and members of the Squadron were disembarking at Fedala, French Morocco by landing craft while being bombed and strafed by enemy planes. One of the landing craft overturned about 150 yards from the shore in a rough sea and, resulting in the death of two officers and sixteen enlisted men. Arrangements had been made with the French for us to come in and land at the local airfields and then support our invasion, but the French instead fired on our forces and didn't stop until it became obvious that we were coming on in anyway, then they welcomed us. The result was that our airplanes all ditched in the ocean because of the French opposition.
The engineering echelon arrived at Oran, French Morocco around the 6th of December and we disembarked there and were taken to a airfield out from Oran where we pitched our pup tents in a plowed field. The weather in North Africa only had two seasons, wet and dry. Since this was winter it was wet. The ground would stick to your feet and when you tried to walk a large portion of the ground would stick to your shoe. Then where the ground was packed it would be as slick as ice. There had not been any arrangements made for us to eat and since one of the other Squadrons of our Group was also located there we asked to eat with them. They refused our request so the next meal time we lined up in their chow line and said unless we got to eat nobody would eat. We ate. In a day or two we left for Angad Airfield at Oujda, French Morocco where the rest of the Squadron was located.
The Squadron on December 15, 1942 , began work of Submarine Patrol and Sea Search in the Mediterranean in the Oran area, dawn to dusk missions being flown daily with A-20 aircraft.
On December 17, 1942, 1st lt. Frank J. Schaeffer, 1st Lt. Samuel J. Kelley, and S/Sgt, Phile Leonard were killed when their plane crashed in bad weather between Algiers and Oujda.
We lived in pup tents that were pitched over fox holes and slept on mattresses made from straw that we put in mattress covers. Each soldier had a shelter half and when you put two shelter halves together you had a pup tent. Since the end of the pup tent was open four of us got together and pitched our tents facing each other. By bridging between the two tents with the heavy waxed cardboard that two five gallon aircraft gasoline cans came in we were able to make our living area fairly comfortable. We took one of the empty five gallon cans and used an old aircraft exhaust pipe and some tubing taken from a wrecked airplane and made us a small stove. We ran the stove on aviation gasoline. We were able to buy eggs, potatoes and onions from the Arab natives and we would cook them on our stove at night. Since the three other occupants of our tents were privates, they were on KP regularly. They would return from the mess hall with lots of food so we were the center of attraction at night for other to come by for a snack.
Since I was still a Private at this time I had to pull guard duty and one such time was on December 31, 1942. My post was on the outer perimeter of the airfield from midnight to about 4 o'clock in the morning. Some of the troops were drinking and they started shooting their rifles and some of the ammunition was tracer bullets. The bullets would come out over my head and I couldn't help wondering where the ones that I couldn't see were going.
One morning before daylight, one of our A-20šs was taking off and it crashed on the field, catching fire. It burned for a long time before the depth charges on board exploded. When they exploded it raised the hair up on our head.
On February 12, 1943, at 1300 hours, and while this Squadron was on Submarine Patrol, one of our A-20B's was credited for the sinking of one Axis Submarine off the coast of Oran, in the Mediterranean Sea.
The weather was wet when we first moved to Oujda, but it soon quit raining and then the wind started blowing. Since the land was red and dry and the wind blew for several days it blew dust so thick that it was impossible to see much further than your hand in front of your face. The only way we could survive was to wear our gas mask. When the storm was over the red dust was about a foot thick in the hanger and our tents were just full of it.
The Squadron left Oujda on March 25, 1943, to go to Ber Reshid, French Morocco, and work with the newly organized Fighter Training Center. At this time we were using P-38 and P-39 aircraft and during the first month we had over 100 airplanes. We worked from daylight to dark maintaining the aircraft. At one time we had a pep talk trying to get more aircraft ready to fly where the officer said if necessary we would build a bonfire out of some of the aircraft to see at night how to work on the other aircraft. We also had P-40 and Spitfire aircraft.
We moved to Meknes, French Morocco, ?????? (all that I can remember about being here is the showers were ice cold and we had to bribe the Senegalese (sp?) guards with cigarettes to get back on base at night. There was an old walled city there and the Arabs stoned a small child to death there. We made some trips to Fez and it seems like to another city close by (Ephram?). I don't remember if it was here or before we moved here that we would get bread from a GI bakery. They would sweep out the back of a 2 1/2 ton truck and throw the loaves of bread in the back. It sure was good bread, with a thick crust.
August 1943 the Squadron received orders to change its name from the 16th Observation Squadron to the 16th Reconnaissance Squadron (Bomber). May 1944 the Squadron name was changed to 1st Fighter Training Squadron.
On September 1, 1944 the Squadron moved with the Fighter Training Center to the airfield at Berteaux, Algeria, close to Constantine, where operations were resumed on September 13, 1944. While we were here it snowed about 6 inches and many of the tents collapsed from the weight of the snow.
It must have been December 1944 that the squadron was dissolved and many of us were sent to Naples to a replacement center there. I left Naples around the first of January on a navy troop ship and arrived in New York about the 11th of January, 1945.