Chapter 51: Strikes On Arezzo. A Valley On Fire. 4000 ft Explosions. German Fighters Destroyed. Benedict Ditches. The Ideal Commander. Bombing Ourselves Again!
April 14, 1944 Alto, Corsica. This morning I did a pre-flight inspection on my plane (No. 73). It went on a 16 ship 2 hour and 25 minute mission in Northern Italy, carrying 500 pound bombs. The target area was between the Florence and Arezzo area rail lines. They destroyed trains, railroad tunnels by skip-bombing, wrecked a truck-train on a siding and shot-up truck transports on the road.
In the afternoon I did a 25 hour inspection on my plane, with my assistant Evans helping out, and we finished by 4.30 PM. Afterwards the 57th fighter Group flew a 16 ship mission, consisting of planes from the 66th (ours), the 65, and the 64th squadrons. The 64th squadron reported that we left a valley filled with supply dumps on fire. The total sorties for the group today were 91 between 8 AM and 4 PM in 6 consecutive missions.
With more than 13 trains attacked, they destroyed 2 railroad tunnels, one railroad bridge, 6 locomotives and a large oil dump. 108 railroad cars destroyed or set afire, and tracks were cut at 9 different points. 5 motor transports were strafed and damaged or set afire. Near Pomerance, 16 other P-47s strafed 40 barracks-like buildings damaging 25, of which 19 sent flames 500 feet in the air. The explosions sent debris 4,000 feet in the air. This was no doubt a huge ammunition and fuel dump. One formation of 16 P-47s attacked more than 32 ME-109 and FW-190 (German fighters) destroying 3, probably a fourth, and dispersed the remainder.
The statistics listed in the paragraph immediately above, were taken from a Presidential Unit Citation awarded the 57th Fighter Group for its accomplishments on April 14, 1944. The Citation was General Order #45 dated June 5, 1944.
Incredibly, from the day's operations, only 3 planes were damaged, and one plane missing. (The 64th squadron’s losses). Other than the one engagement with the 32 planes mentioned above, our planes met no opposition in the air.
April 15, 1944: We had two dive-bombing missions today, but my plane was not in action. So I just hung around my tent for the most part. I had a sore throat, went on sick call and got some pills for it. On the first mission, Capt Benedict was strafing at low altitude and his plane was caught in the blast from an explosion of a building. He managed to keep the plane flying long enough to reach the sea off the coast of Italy, where he was forced to land in the sea and take to his raft.
The other planes in his flight patrolled over him until the Air-sea rescue Walrus, an amphibious aircraft came out and picked him up.
The above-mentioned phrase ;he was forced to land in the sea', begs an explanation because only aircraft-oriented people know how dangerous it is to ditch a plane! You cannot simply land a plane in the water with your wheels retracted without running the risk of digging the nose of the plane in the water and crashing. How to avoid this? You level off above the water at just above stalling speed, and then let the tail section strike the water first, cut the throttle and let the nose settle in the water last!
In short the front end sort of mushes-in to the water. Don’t let anybody kid you, the water is as hard to hit as is land! However, by avoiding a crash, you will have sufficient time to exit the aircraft and inflate your emergency rubber boat. Capt. Benedict was not injured from this experience.
He seems to accept these occurrences as part of the life of a combat pilot, and makes no bones about it! We the ground crews, have a tremendous affection for him. He represents our ideal of what a combat pilot should be, but we respect him even more for another reason. He does everything he can to make the life of the enlisted ground crews as easy as possible, and we would follow him without even asking 'why', or 'where'! If you are or were in the military, ask yourself this question. How many commissioned officers have you known who you would follow without asking 'why' or 'where'?
Today is also remarkable for another reason. This is the second time in the recent past that a 500 Pound bomb fell from one of the 64th squadron’s planes on the landing field and exploded. Our line chief, M/Sgt. Howard Beck who happened to be standing near our operations tent, was struck in the back by several pieces of shrapnel. He was taken to a field hospital where these fragments of steel were removed. He is not seriously injured and should return to duty in a couple of days.
Some of the tents near operations were perforated by shrapnel, however there were no other casualties. Incidentally, Sgt. Beck does not receive the Purple Heart medal for this injury. Why? Because it was received from friendly fire and not enemy fire !
So ends part 51 of My Wartime Memoirs.