Chapter 13: Tunisia. Lost at Night. Death of Captain Mitchell
March 6, 1943, we of “A” Flight, are now at Ben Gardane, a new airfield , about 20 miles South East of Medenine. Tunisia. Due to the unsettled nature of the front, the airplanes have not been sent up to us, and “B” Flight back at our previous airfield is handling the operations without us.
Although we do not have the airplanes on our field yet, the normal operations of the squadron must be maintained, among which is Guard Duty. Yesterday It fell to Sgt. Albert Schoenfield and me to walk the 10 PM to Midnight Tour, as it was the RAF’s custom to have two men walk it together for greater protection.
We started the tour, and we were just circling the camp area, walking and talking. After about an hour or so, we decided to return to the camp area at which time we found that we could not see it. We were carrying our carbines with just one clip of ammunition (I think 8-45 caliber Colt automatic rounds).
Every now and then we fired a round, with no response. After a couple of hours we found we were climbing, and this disturbed us because we knew the front extended from the Mediterranean inland, with a range of mountains separating the 8th army from the Africa corps. It was very dark - the only way you can see anything at night with no moon is to lie prone on the ground and look at the horizon. And it was cold - very cold. Regardless of how hot it may be during the day (like 135 Degrees Fahrenheit), once the sun goes down it turns cold quickly, because the sand does not hold the heat well.
After about 3 hours, we grew tired and we laid down on the sand trying to get some sleep. We couldn’t fall asleep because the sand fleas were eating us up. So we got up and started walking again. Probably around 3 AM we tried to sleep again and we were only moderately successful.
At first light, we looked around and found that we were on a mountain range, which had at its base a level area, upon which a group of people were standing. They were positioned around a flag pole from which flew a flag, and someone was blowing a bugle. We were too far away to see the flag clearly enough to determine its origin, nor were we familiar with the bugle call.
We looked at each other and said, "Well, here we are, two Jews who are going down there because we have no other alternative, and if it is the German Army there, we are sure to be executed because that's what Germans do to Jews!"
However, we were tired and hungry and we decided to risk it. So we walked down to their camp area we saw that the flag was the Union Jack (British), and we breathed a collective sigh of relief! We were brought to the tent of the commander, a major who said they were the 8th army infantry front line position, and "What the bloody hell are you crazy air force Yanks doing here”?
Anyway after explaining who we were and where we came from, he brewed a pot of tea on his Primus stove and served us tea, and bread with marmalade. He explained that during our meanderings we luckily gravitated towards the 8th Army side of the front and not the other side of the mountain range. He deposited us in a "Bren Gun Carrier" which is an open-topped armored car, and he delivered us back to our outfit. He told us that we had walked almost 30 miles that night, in the form of a large arc.
Our outfit thought we had been killed by Arabs (they often worked for the German
Army). We, of course became the butt of many jokes (whoever heard of anybody getting lost on guard duty?). Nevertheless, we were so glad that we did not fall into the hands of the German Army that we did not mind it at all. Some good did come from this fiasco, in that we were pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome our comrades gave us and their obvious relief that we were not injured or killed by our experience!
Sgt. Schoenfield never knew that only he was in jeopardy of being shot by the Germans for being a Jew, whilst I was not. I never told him that prior to shipping overseas, I had arranged to have my “dogtags” (I.D. Necklace Discs) replaced with those showing my religion as "P"(for Protestant), instead of "J"(for Jewish).
During my lifetime I have on occasion been told that I was not too smart, but nobody EVER accused me of being a FOOL!
I am sure that if Schoenfield had known this he would have muttered some inane remark like "Schwartz has no moral fibers “ and, do you know that when it comes to staying alive, I DON'T!
Once returned to camp, our normal life-style resumed, which meant that among other things we were bombed and strafed several times a day but suffered no casualties due to our having dug slit trenches around our tents as soon as we arrived at this airfield. It takes almost a direct hit on a slit trench to cause casualties. During these raids, we fired up at the attackers with our carbines, not realizing that we are firing them alongside each others heads. After the raids we found that we could not hear anything for a while, due to the punishing our eardrums suffered.
While it may sound foolish to shoot at attacking airplanes with a rifle, at that time we felt that we had to shoot back at them, and all we had to do it with were our rifles. It was my habit during raids where there was an Ack-ack pit nearby, to help them by handing up the clip of 5- 40 millimeter shells into the arms of the man who loaded them, or by throwing the empty casings out of the gun pit.
You see, those empty casings constituted a hazard because the entire crew had to spin around with the Bofors Gun as it turned and shot at a point somewhat ahead of the attacking enemy airplanes. In helping serve the Ack-ack gun I felt I was contributing to our defense. In addition, I was avoiding the fear one feels while he is doing nothing but watch death approach him from the sky and he is helpless to prevent it.
We then spent several miserable days, being attacked as many as 6 times a day by flights of 4 to 6 Messerschmidts. They always swooped down upon us without warning, coming right out of the sun making it difficult to see them clearly. The first thing we knew was that “golf balls” (20 millimeter shells) were bouncing around the camp area and 250 pound bombs falling all around us. It got so bad, that our cooks would not stand up while serving us in the ‘mess line”.
What they did was set up a line of 30 Gallon Pots containing food, then they sat in a long slit trench behind the Food line, holding the 30 gallon pot lids over their heads for protection from the falling shrapnel As we walked down the line helping ourselves to the food, they exhorted us to serve ourselves and leave quickly, so as to present a less favorable target for the attacking airplanes.
We quickly took advantage of the situation, seeing an opportunity to make life miserable for those “Dog-robbers”. That is a common expression used by many GIs when referring to army cooks who take advantage of “dog-faces” (soldiers) When we took more than one scoop of any food they shouted that we could not do that, so we merely laughed at them and helped ourselves to seconds and thirds. You might think that this is quite “childish” on our part, but just remember that our life for months had been one of constant grimness where we could actually feel the imminence of death daily, leaving little room for humor. The scene was reminiscent of some “slapstick” Comedy routine, and we just couldn’t stop laughing about it !
Finally, on March 10th our airplanes arrived and also our “B” party. The 66th Squadron is once more back together.
We are told that the British 8th Army will attempt a break through shortly.
We lost an officer to a German landmine. Captain Mitchell was killed while driving a jeep nearby looking for abandoned German “goodies”, like Lugers, or Zeiss Field glasses.
On March 13th, our planes ran into large formations of ME-109s and MC-202s while on bombing and strafing runs. We were credited with three “kills”. , however we lost several pilots, so the victory was bitter-sweet. The RAF advises us that we now outnumber the Luftwaffe by approximately ten to one.
Aug 8, 2004 Addendum. Having Al Schoenfield’s book “The Saga Of The Exterminator’s Squadron” for reference now, I find that his recollection of our being lost on guard differs from mine somewhat. I found this curious because those events were indelibly etched in my mind at the time !
So ends Chapter 13 of my wartime memoirs.