Chapter 10: The Exterminators! Thanksgiving Meal. Eagle Sqd Veterans Join.
As Thanksgiving 1942 approached, the 66th Squadron found itself at Martuba, Libya. It was there that the other two squadrons of the 57th Group (the 64th and 65th) joined us. They had remained in Palestine, and had been used as Bomber escort on raids into Italy, Austria and Romania. The 57th Group was now re-united and it operated on its own airfield. We were still in the RAF, but no longer part of the 239 RAF Wing.
We were pleasantly surprised to see B-25s arrive with frozen turkeys and vegetables. After many months of eating just canned Argentine corned beef! Our cooks prepared a Thanksgiving meal we will always remember.
Leland Stowe visits the boys
Another interesting event occurred at Martuba. We were visited by a famous war correspondent and author, Leland Stowe. He was gathering material at this time and was surprised that the 66th squadron had no nickname. The 64th was called the 'Black Scorpions', the 65th the 'Fighting Cocks', but we were nameless. Our explanation was that we were too busy exterminating Jerries that it left no time for naming the unknown Squadron X!
Whereupon he named us the 'Exterminators' in his articles, and the name remained! Shortly after Christmas we again were rewarded with a real Christmas Dinner, a little late due to bad flying weather, but much appreciated anyway
On New Year’s day, 'A' Party (me included), broke camp to move up to a more forward Airdrome. While on the road one truck in the convoy hit a land mine and two men were injured. We passed the Marble Arch sector without further trouble and when we arrived at the area upon which our new airfield was being constructed by Royal Engineers, we found it uncompleted.
We arrived in the middle of a sandstorm and set up our tents and dug our slit trenches around it, and then waited. As the Engineers were carrying rocks off the proposed airfield, several times a day German fighter planes attacked the field, killing 50 of the engineers.
One of my friends, Lou Lederman, using a captured Spandau machine gun mounted on a home-made tripod, shot down one of the Messerschmitt 109s.
Although we were bombed and strafed several times daily for a while, the 66th fortunately did not suffer any casualties. Several days later the field was considered operable” and 'A' Flight sent the planes up to us, they broke camp and got on the road to join up with us. However, the front moved so fast that they were instructed to pass us and proceed to a more forward airfield. While on the road, “B” party, en route to Hamraiet lost a truck in German mine field, however fortunately no one was injured.
Desert conditions in which we had to keep out planes in working condition
Our next airfield was at Darragh, and our stay there was notable for driving sandstorms which often curtailed our operations, as they sometimes lasted for days on end. During one of those 3-day sandstorms many of our planes were damaged by the fine sand that sifted through the canvas tarps and empty tin cans which we used to cover the short exhaust stacks on our Allison inline engines.
After the storm, we ran up the engines and were shocked to find that many of them ran rough. The situation was very grave, because those engines were inoperable, and here we were in the middle of a war! Our Squadron commander offered to make any of the ground crew a first lieutenant if he could discover the problem. It was our line chief, Master Sergeant Casey Reilly who found the problem.
It seems the fine sand had sifted through the tarp and the tin cans, into the exhaust manifolds, and sat on the face of the exhaust valves. So, when we ran the engines up after the storm, the sand melted on the face of the valves and they would not close completely, leading to a loss of engine compression and power, and rough running!
His solution was to grind the face of the valves, which we did by means of leather belts and valve grinding compound, working through the exhaust ports of the engine because we could not remove the engine heads A special hydraulic press was required to remove the heads and the only ones available were back in Cairo at the repair shop and were too large to fly to us. We did the best we could, under the circumstances, however it just was not good enough.
Every time a flight test was made the plane could not develop enough power to take off, and we wrecked two planes trying! In the end, new engines were flown in to us via DC-3 transports and we assigned a group of mechanics to act as an engine change crew for that purpose. The crew chiefs of the affected planes also pitched in to help, and eventually all 25 damaged engines were replaced. During this interim period, those operative planes had to
take up the slack, and ground crews all worked together to supply the required planes for combat flights.
A short time later, we were amazed to find that our line chief, Master Sgt. Reilly, was commissioned as a First Lieutenant!
We of course, were not privy to many matters, among which was the fact that Sgt Reilly was originally named as our line chief, because he had been in Egypt before the war in 1941, as an American observer in the RAF! He had prior knowledge of what it takes to fight an air war in the North African desert! And, probably that is why our squadron (the 66th) was chosen to move forward with the 239 wing of the RAF, while the other two squadrons were left behind in Palestine to do bomber escort service!
The price we pay. New Zealand graves in Tripoli
Tripoli was captured by the British 8th Army on Jan 23, 1943, and shortly thereafter, I and my friends Ceferino Vigil and and Lou Lederman spent a day in Triploli sightseeing. It was a day I am not likely to forget, and I will deal with it in my next file.
Our operations near Tripoli were memorable because we were sent 3 seasoned American pilots from the RAF. They had been part of the Eagle squadron made up of Americans who had joined the RAF in Canada, prior to America’s entering the war. Several others were distributed to the other two squadrons of our fighter group. Our New Pilots were William P Benedict, Charles C Leaf, and William L Livesey. Lts. Benedict, and Leaf eventually became squadron leaders in our squadron (the 66th).
They had been operating in England during the Battle of Britain, and our pilots were happy to learn aerial combat from them. In future parts I will tell about many of Bill Benedict's exploits (He was called Benny), because he was a truly fabulous figure!.
There is no doubt that these 3 pilots were instrumental in keeping many of our pilots alive. For example, when we moved on to a new airfield and there was a damaged Me-109 left behind, Benny, with our mechanics would work on it trying to make it flyable. Several of them were so made, and he would fly them in mock dog fights with other pilots, in order to find the weak spots in the German plane. Our pilots could then exploit them in actual combat. One such example is that he discovered that the ME-109’s engine had a great deal of left hand torque, which meant that it could not turn well to the right. So our pilots always tried to attack the German planes from the right!
So ends Chapter 10 of my wartime memoirs