Charles Everard Dills

It just Wasn't My Time

      As I re-read this and other accounts of wbat was suppposed to be the same time in history and the same location, I begin to realize what an ingenuous little boy I was at the time. But I did a man's job when that job needed to be done. I have to say that I'm a bit proud of my actions at the time.

      You will find no foul language in this account. I don't know what it would add. You know all the words, put them in if you need to. Our language was absolutely foul. Your imagination can probably duplicate it.

      We had a Red Cross girl, Gretchen Allswede. that would serve coffee and donuts when we came in from a mission. I don't know how to explain our behavior when we returned from a mission. There was an adrenalin effect, I'm sure. We were subconciously relieved to find ourselves alive although we never admitted that there was a possibility we might not return from a mission. When we came in from our planes my memory is of a constant chatter, in a foul almost foreign language. When asked if it ever embarrassed her, Gretchen Allswede would reply, "The only thing that embarrasses me any more is the fact that I don't get embarrassed." I have a lot of respect for these girls that came over here and exposed themselves to the problems and the gossip, just to do their part. And it was always a touch of home that helped keep us sane. Thank you, every one!
      Most of the stories of this time and place are overly concerned with the sexual escapades. I wouldn't know. We had all been exposed to the venereal disease movies and frankly, they scared the whey out of me and I would have walked to the other side of the street to avoid the potential. There were the proverbial little boys in North Africa that would tug on your arm on the street saying, "Hey, Joe, want a chicken dinner?" When we said no, he would say, "Hey Joe, want my sister? First time!" I never knew anyone that accepted the offer. I'm sure there were those that did but never me.

Casablanca to Berteaux, Algeria on a 40 & 8
September-October 1943

      We were going on a trip across North Africa. We were put in a 40 & 8 boxcar for 5 1/2 days with boxes of C rations and some Jerry cans of water and that was it. The train started rolling and probably never exceeded about 8 miles an hour and almost never stopped.
      At noon, we would stop for a bit while they took on water and probably fuel. We took our canteen cups down to the cook car and got a cup of hot soup and then back to the car. A couple of the guys went down to the water tower, undressed and pulled the chain to get a bath, right in the station.
      A bit of description of the train is in order. They did not have the inter-car connectors that we have in the States. The cars were connected in the middle with a chain and had bumpers on each side. The wheels were a bit narrower than the track so the car zigzagged back and forth from bumper to bumper, bang, bang, bang, for 5 1/2 days.

      Here is a picture of a Stephenson "Long Boiler" engine at the National Railway Museum in Glasgow Scotland. It has this connection on the front. It is followed by a closeup.
      You can see the linking chain in the middle and the bumpers on each side. These bumpers had a very heavy spring inside to allow them to go around curves but also gave rise to the bump-bump-bump we experienced for five days.
      Of course there was no bathroom so we had to "make do"! One of the guys had bright idea. He climbed along the outside of the car, got between the cars with his back on one car and his feet on the other and proceeded to try to do his "business". When he got back in the car he told us to never try that again!!

      I remember stopping at a station and I saw a young boy, no more than twelve with a superating infected wound on his leg, untreated. I remember wondering if he would make it through the week!

This vineyard picture is from the photos apparently taken by Lt. Robert J. Workman and sent to me by his son, Scott Workman.

      We were told before we left not to shoot our 45's at the Arabs! The reason they gave us was that we could not tell the difference between an ordinary Arab and an influential Arab and if we shot an influential Arab it would cost the government $25 to bury him. I hope that was some idiot's idea of joke and not US policy! Ugly Americans, indeed!
      There were several tunnels that were about twenty minutes long. We got out our gas masks for that, the engine was burning coal! I remember seeing the track ahead of us going down a reasonably steep grade with what appeared to be a right angle turn to the right at the bottom. I was concerned but we made it!
      The stars were magnificent. I wish I had known more about them. I would have looked for the Southern Cross!! But they were beautiful. We would sit on the edge of the car for hours as the train poked along. As I remember there was a kind of running board across the door. The door was always open on the right side. I don't even know if there was a door on the other side.
      There were several tunnels that were about twenty minutes long. We got out our gas masks for that, the engine was burning coal! I remember seeing the track ahead of us going down a reasonably steep grade with what appeared to be a right angle turn to the right at the bottom. I was concerned but we made it!
      The stars were magnificent. I wish I had known more about them. I would have looked for the Southern Cross!! But they were beautiful. We would sit on the edge of the car for hours as the train poked along. As I remember there was a kind of running board across the door. The door was always open on the right side. I don't even know if there was a door on the other side.

      Note the chalked "Officers" on the side. Most of these transports were run by the Infantry and they were very assiduous in separating the officers from the enlisted men, a practice that was not followed in the Army Air Force due to the close bonds that developed between the various members of an air crew or pilots with their mechanics.
      Perhaps I should explain the meaning of "40 & 8". There is a branch of the American Legion for that. And apparently you are eligible for membership if you rode in one in France in WWI, It stands for "Quarante Hommes ou Huit Cheveaux", or "Forty Men or Eight Horses". There had been 25 years of horses in them when we got them!

      Two Workman photos.

      When we were approaching Maison Carre, the railroad area for Algiers, we slowed to probably 3 or 4 miles an hour. A road was roughly parallel to the track. It came pretty close to the track at one point and a small girl wearing a shift dress was walking along the road. I don't think she could have been more than five! She saw the train of "soldats" and knew that meant food etc. She got up onto the track and ran behind the train for probably four miles. We were in the end car so we watched and cheered her on. When we finally stopped we loaded her down with everything we had that she could carry.
      I believe it was in this station that we saw a train that was going to go back toward Casablanca and it had supplies going, I believe, to some Navy Unit. So we stole a big can of pork luncheon meat. I believe the bad rap Spam got in WWII was because of other similar concoctions such as this stuff. Actually it did taste pretty good, perhaps because of the contrast with C-rations.

      I believe it was somewhere in this area that we saw some women walking along the road carrying 5 large boxes on their head. The boxes were cubical, at least two feet per side. They were stacked up, two, then two then one. The seam between the bottom two was on their heads and their arms were outstretched, holding the outsides of the boxes. I can't imagine what was inside the boxes. It must have been almost twelve feet up to the top of the boxes.

      Another Workman photo, of a farm.

      I was ashamed of the behavior of some of the guys although I understand where it came from. The Arabs were excellent, shrewd bargainers. They could best us any day of the week. We had a thing called a mattress cover which was a kind of rectangular bag that we could stuff with straw and use as a mattress. We never had any straw so we really didn't have much use for them. We also had OD blankets which we didn't have a great need for. So when we came to a station, some of the guys would dicker while we were stopped and as we started to move they would take the last offer. Then some one discovered they could get the same price for each half if they cut them in half!

      They would dicker for the OD blankets the same way and then someone got the idea of tying the end of the blanket inside the car. They would dicker, take the last offer as the train started to move, hand the blanket to the Arab and then watch as he clung to the blanket and eventually had to let go. Then they would do it again at the next station.

      Another Workman photo, of a structure.

      I can understand why the Arabs don't like us. But they should realize that they were playing both ends against the middle and we didn't trust them at all. They spied for both sides. They would steal anything that wasn't nailed down. And I really don't blame them.

Berteaux Algeria
      We were trucked out to the First Fighter Training Center, an imposing name for a pilot warehouse. Our first job was to put up tents to live in. One of my compatriots offered me a drink from his canteen. I declined, he insisted. It was something that tasted like a Tom Collins!

      The map at the left shows the location of the city of Constantine where we got off the 40 & 8 boxcars. We then proeeded to the south to the First Fighter Training Center at Berteau, Algeria. This can be found on the map to the right. We spelled it with an x at the end because at that time the area was part of France. To the west of Berteau was the B-17 Training Center at Telerghma. Modern maps of Algeria have most of the names changed to Arabic names.

      At Berteaux Algeria it was my understanding that the camp guards were told to shoot any Arab within five feet of the fence without warning. I was told that one Arab had gotten into the camp and was buying stuff from the guys. One of the things he bought was a barracks bag. All our stuff had our names stencilled on it. He put the stuff in the barracks bag, hoisted it over his shoulder and walked out of the main gate. This startled the guard who was not paying attention to what was behind him. He saw an Arab walking away from the camp with a barracks bag full of stuff and he shot him. The barracks bag was returned to the guy whose name was stencilled on it. I did not witness any of this. But I did hear a weird kind of funeral music, wailing and singing that night coming from outside the camp.
      One night we had a "showdown inspection" of the entire camp. It seems some guns were missing. We didn't find them and we "assumed" the Arabs had gotten them. This shows the uneasy and distrustful nature of our relationship with the Arabs. I'm not sure there was any disproportionate blame involved.
      I might add, these kinds of things would never appear in "histories" by such luminaries as Winston Churchill. Lots of wonderful (?) little tidbits happened but were never reported. What report writer, sending a report to a "higher-up" is ever going to admit a mistake?

      Someone stole my brand new issue A-2 jacket! I went to supply to get another and all he had was a well worn one about two sizes too big. Everybody envies me now when I wear it to meetings or luncheons. They wonder how I manage to still fit into it. I never inquired about the person's name that was stencilled in it!
      They had four war-weary P-40's. It was rare that they got two in the air on the same day. We hadn't flown for almost two months and we were very rusty! We had some instructors. Mine was named Harry Taylor. I think he was from Canada but had some background with England as well. We used to kid him asking if he had been up to Chumley to visit the Fanshaws. This isn't funny unless you know the English spelling of these names, Cholmondoley and Featherstoneaugh. I hope I have the spelling right!
      I might mention that there was a B-17 equivalent to our field at a nearby place called Tulergma.
      I checked out in the P-40's here and Taylor gave me a rather dubious compliment. He said I was the only one he'd seen that could gain altitude in the last turn into the field. There is a reason why this is called a "tombstone turn". One day they got two planes in the air. One of the others was looking for me since I had taken off a little before him. He said he had trouble finding me until he noticed a large plume of salt coming from one of the salt flats. He followed the plume down to the front end and there was a small speck, flying just off the deck and blowing up salt! This was not to be thought of as silly antics of a very young pilot. It was practice in low level flight, preparing for straffing missions in combat! Of course!!
      I was told a sad story about one of the cooks that apparently knew how to fly. He apparently talked about it and the others would kid him about it, probably not believing him. One day when he was drunk he was going to prove it. He got into the AT-6, got it started and took off. He never throttled back or pulled up the gear. He did a number of things but didn't complete a loop. The ground interrupted him.
      One day we heard that a USO troupe was going to perform. Wow! We really looked forward to it. So we went over to see it and were told we couldn't go in because we were officers and the show was for enlisted men. I have never given a dime to the USO and never will. They may have done a lot of good for a lot of people, but we were just a bunch of green homesick kids, a long way from home and we deserved the entertainment as much as anyone.
      I wrote a little poem describing this event.

September 1943 in Algeria

We were on the northern edge of the Sahara,
not too far from high school.

Fresh new fighter pilots
clean, fresh, naive.
Too naive to realize that two out of three would be dead in a year.

A USO show came
to our little deserted corner of the world.
Something welcome from the world.
Small Potatoes
Not Hope.
But it was something.

Innocents abroad.
We looked forward to it.

We came into the little crowded "theater".
We were asked to leave.
The show was for "enlisted men".

      Perhaps it will not surprise you that I will never donate to the USO.
      Several times we went into Constantine. We felt unwelcome. It was built on top of a hill and there was a deep chasm on the east side. It looked like a large hill that had been hit with a cleaver on one side creating a chasm that was said to be 700 feet deep.
      There was a vehicle bridge which had an upward slant to it to connect the two top sides of the chasm. There was a pedestrian bridge which went straight across and connected to the uphill side a number of feet below the rim. The side of the canyon had hollowed out galleries that housed a number of small businesses. One of these businesses was a barbershop that had hot water, supposedly piped up from the bottom of the chasm.
      We would sometimes stop in for a shave and maybe have a hot bath, a luxury I don't remember having back at camp.
      One time I wanted a shave but none of the others did. So I went over to the chasm edge and walked down the stairs to the gallery with the barber. I entered and sat in his chair. The radio was playing music that was very unfamiliar to me, not at all the Arabic music of the movies. He lathered me up and proceeded to strop the straight razor. About then a man came in with a chicken. They had words in Arabic and then the two of them, the chicken and the razor went to an adjoining room. A bit later the barber came back alone with a bloody razor and proceeded to wash it off and then strop it again.
      I got to thinking of the stories we had heard about GI's found at the bottom of the canyon with liquor splashed on them. I got to thinking that there was a 700 foot drop about ten or fifteen feet behind me. I don't know whether it was courage or cowardice that made me sit there and let him shave me. I paid him and left hurriedly. I'm sure he told his friends later about the young lieutenant he scared the whey out of one day with his razor!! But then again, maybe he never guessed what I was thinking!
      It was probably in Constantine that I encountered a rather interesting public toilet. No stools. There were several porcelain squares on the floor along the wall. They were dished down several inches and had two raised footprints. There was a hole appropriately placed in back of the footprints. You were to put your feet on the footprints and bare your butt and get rid of the excess baggage. When you were done, you wiped and then pulled a chain above you which sent water around your feet, flushing the apparatus. I thought it was great for several reasons. First, it had to be sanitary. Secondly, no one is going to crouch there and read a book so the turnaround time was excellent. And thirdly I think there is something to be said for the posture when accomplishing this feat. It resembles the primitive method and would probably avoid some of the anal problems we civilized people encounter because of our "comfortable" method.
      I almost checked out in a Spitfire here. My instructor, Harry Taylor, had access to it. I went through all the ground checkout procedures but when it came time to start the engine, everybody chickened out but me. They couldn't figure out how to explain it if something happened to me.
      We were there for what seemed an incredibly long time, probably over two months. They had rushed us through training to replace expected losses in Sicily which did not materialize. So we sat there, waiting for openings!
      We had classes in aircraft recognition five days a week. The instructor had a trunk full of slides. He would pick 75 of them, flash them on a screen at 1/100 of a second and we were to identify them. Anyone who got 70 or more didn't have to come back for the rest of the week. Well, this had been a hobby of mine for a long time so I went once a week. Except one week. I think he decided I was going to come twice at least once and he was right. He showed 75 front views. There's no way I could identify70 planes by front views only. I used to wait after class while he graded the papers to see if I had to come back the next day. One time he asked me to look at one of the papers. It was a biblical quotation. I didn't know it and neither did he so we called the chaplain. He said, "Oh yes, that's 'Jesus Christ is the same, today, tomorrow and always!'" We got a good laugh out of that!
      This was early fall and we were on the north side of the Sahara Desert. The day/night temperature fluctuation was incredible. We were in the ubiquitous pyramidal four-man tents. We slept on cots in our bedrolls. This was a heavy canvas outer cover with GI blankets inside. I don't remember sheets! It was so cold at night that I wore my fleece lined flying suit to bed and to breakfast the next morning. By mid morning the suit was off and I was in my khakis (OD's). By early afternoon we were so hot we were down to our skivvies. By late afternoon we were back in khakis (OD's) and after supper I was back in the fleece-lined flying suit.
      There was an Officer's Club with a bar and a couple slot machines. They were set up to pay out the maximum. We had five franc coins, worth about ten cents. So for two dollars we would get twenty. One could play quite awhile for $2 but eventually it would wear you down to nothing! But it was something to do.
      The only liquor I remember at the bar was what we referred to as rotgut cognac. I had a friend named Dave Johnson from, as I remember, north Georgia. It turned out that he knew the enlisted man behind the bar, from Georgia. Somehow the bartender had figured how to make an imitation Tom and Jerry using powdered eggs! I have forgotten whether or not there was an occasion to be celebrated but one night, after the bar was supposedly closed, the bartender, David and I sat on the floor behind the bar and drank this concoction till we had trouble finding our way back to the tent!
      One night one of my tent-mates came back late and very sloshed! He was joking around, took his 45 out of its holster, pulled back the slide to arm it, pointed it at each of us in turn, then pointed it up and shot a hole in the top of the tent!
      We desperately wanted a better diet, something other than C-rations.There was a large emergency bar of chocolate in our emergency kit. I wanted some hot chocolate. This stuff was hard as a brick and rather tasteless (on purpose so one would save it for an emergency!)
      I scraped some into my canteen cup with a little water. But how was I to heat it? Aha, we had a tin that looked like a floor wax can that had something called "shoe impregnite" that we were to put on our boots to make them gas-repellant. Perhaps it would burn! So I opened the can and proceeded to light it. It made a low blue flickering flame which after ten or fifteen minutes had not even made the water warm! I gave up.
      Some of the guys managed to buy eggs from the Arabs for $2 apiece. But since we sold them cigarettes for $2 a pack (they cost us 5 cents!), they could get one egg for a pack of cigarettes. This seems like the only "fair" trade I ever observed.
      Eventually openings started to appear and a number of us were sent to a Repple-Depple, our "fond" name for a Replacement Depot. Ours was run by the infantry and the name I remember was an Army Lieutenant named Van Dellen.
      We were quite a disappointment for the infantry officers running the place. One of the rules was that the enlisted men were not to go to the officer's tents. But these enlisted men were the major portion of the aircrews that were going into combat. These crews had trained together and become fighting units whose lives depended on each other. Rank was really quite unimportant to Air Corps people. At least the flying ones. I think the "gravel crunchers", as we called the non-flying personnel, probably had a better feel for the separation and for rank than we did. So the crews were always together, playing cards etc. It was important to keep reinforcing the "team" aspect of an aircrew. Even the single engine pilots had this feeling because our lives were totally dependent on our crew chiefs. A crew chief could get rid of one of us easily if he wanted to. But every crew chief I encountered had a strong and heavy feeling of responsibility to do everything in his power to see that maintenance would never be the cause of a missing plane and pilot. How they kept us alive under these field conditions, I'll never know. But I will always be grateful for their magnificent efforts. I understand that when a mission was out they would be "biting their nails" waiting for the return. When the mission returned there was a huge release of breath. When there was a plane missing, they would watch and then when they found out which one didn't return, that mechanic would go through hell till he found out why. I must say I don't know a single case where someone did not come back because of a maintenance error. There must have been some. And then there were ones where we never knew why an aircraft did not return. I was told one crew chief that couldn't stand it any longer transferred to the 15th AF. The responsibility in B-17's and B-24's was shared by a larger group of mechanics.
      Lt. Van Dellen asked us what we would like to do while we were there. Some of us suggested that we would like to shoot our brand new 45's. He said. "Good idea, we'll start the dry runs on Monday!" So we started with rifles, on our belly with no ammunition.
      This went on all week while we went through the "ROTC" introduction to firing! Sometime during the week I told Van Dellen that this was a replacement depot and there wouldn't be anybody there for the last meeting that was there at the first. I thought I was going to be wrong when Friday came and he announced that there would be live firing the following Monday!
      On Sunday the last four of us that had been at the first meeting the week before got our orders and we left. As I passed Van Dellen on the way to the B-17 (C-47) I said, "Hey, thanks for letting us shoot our 45's!"

Next Page


Home page

Please send your note to Charles Dills in California, USA.