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Serving Uncle Sam: A Military Life in WWll

Gerald Schwartz USAAC (USAAF) 1940 - 1945


Chapter 8: Surviving the Desert and the Luftwaffe. Eating Sand. The Daily Routine

Chapter 7 had ended when we arrived at LG-101 (El Daba, Egypt after the breakthrough at El Alamein) and set up camp area and the Airfield. After the breakthrough A' Flight had driven through 94 Miles of battlefield, strewn with destroyed tanks, armored cars, artillery pieces, and vehicles of all kinds.

During this trip we were required to keep our trucks 100 yards apart so that enemy strafing aircraft could not destroy a lot of vehicles on one bombing or strafing run. It was very dangerous to leave the road, or even drive on the shoulder, due to the many German "Teller" mines which were planted everywhere. When the convoy had to pull off the road, the lead truck took a chance that it would not hit a mine. Every other truck was extremely careful to drive exactly in the tracks of the truck they were following.

During this trip when we pulled off the road for the night, we slept on the back of the trucks. On occasion we could see air raids nearby, and we were treated to a pyrotechnical display of multi-colored tracers bullets and ack-ack tracers criss-crossing the sky.

Eventually we left the safety of the road, and moved inland. We soon discovered that when following another truck we were driving through a miniature sandstorm, in which the sand entered our mouths and our eyes, making it difficult to see. The solution was not to follow anybody, which required that we drive alongside each other.

Picture if you can, our 30 or so trucks, proceeding across the North African desert spread out over a wide area. Sometimes flying sand was so bad that we put on our gas masks just to be able to breathe some air without sand in it. If you have ever worn a gas mask you would know that after a while your face is covered with moisture and it is quite uncomfortable.

This move finally ended when the convoy stopped, and we were told that we had arrived at our designated operating area.

. We started operations immediately, because the airplanes were flown up to us the day after arrival, and we were located on an "Instant Airfield". That is, we were assigned one side of an area designated as the flying field, and we put up our tents 100 yards apart. The other three squadrons in our wing (the Australians, British and South Africans each had a different side of the field, which now had the appearance of a huge square.

This was made possible due to the flat terrain of the Western Desert. The ground was hard packed sand with pebbles, not like the soft sand of the Sahara, nevertheless, it was still sand, and it had all the characteristics of sand ! For example when we went to the mess-tent three times a day for our meals, we had to sit down on the sand, with our mess-kits on our laps, to eat.

Invariably at dinnertime as we were seated on the ground, the wind came up, blowing sand 2 or 3 feet high, making it impossible to remain seated, and we had to usually eat standing up. This turned out to be quite a feat, holding the mess-kit with food (canned corned beef usually), bread, and trying to balance the canteen-cup with Hot Tea at the same time.

Our airfield was situated about 10 kilometers from the front. Since we were the forward Airfield, the 8th Army Commanders wanted us that close to the action so that we could be available as soon as we were needed.

Since 'A' Flight consisted of only half of the squadron's ground crews, we had to do twice the work necessary to keep the airplanes flying. This begs the question 'How we were able to do the work when we only had half the ground crews'. The answer is, 'Not easily! Each airplane was the responsibility of a Crew Chief with respect to maintenance. The rest of that crew was made up with armament men, radio men, and others.

The crew chief worked on his plane, and also on one or two others, jumping around from one plane to the other as needed. The armament and radio men did the same. The key to a program such as this one, can be summed up in one word "cooperation". We all worked together ! The airplanes were OUR planes, not 'yours' or 'mine'!

Given this, you might ask, 'What actual tasks I was called upon to perform in the course of a normal day'? And, was there such a thing as a 'normal day'? The following will describe such a day.

After the last flight, I had serviced my airplane, #73. That is I filled the gas tank with aviation fuel, and checked the engine oil level. I checked the engine cover, where the sections came together to see if there was evidence of gasoline, oil or hydraulic fluid leaks. (After 25 hours flying time we had to remove the engine cover and make a careful check for leaks or loose connections, and do other required maintenance.

Our RAF friends performing P40 engine change

This photo gives a good impression of our work conditions out in the desert, when complex mechanical work had to be carried out in far-from-pristine working conditions. Despite all the difficulties we achieved very high reliability for our planes.

We checked that all the exterior moveable parts moved freely, and we also checked the cockpit for evidence of any leaks or loose connections. If an airplane part or an engine part (or accessory) became defective, we had to replace it. When working in the back of the engine, replacing an accessory such as a starter or generator, etc, our arms became torn by the cotter pins which locked the hold-down nuts in place. When a mission was scheduled, the flight chief would ride around from one plane to the other alerting the Crew Chiefs of the designated planes, to taxi them to our side of the flying field preparatory to takeoff.

We did so, lining our planes up wingtip to wingtip by spinning them around by depressing the brake pedal opposite to the side we were turning the plane around. We were able to align then about 5 inches apart, so expert had we become at maneuvering the planes on the ground. To taxi a single engine plane without a nose wheel, requires you to ziz-zag the plane as you taxi, so you can see where you are going while simultaneously controlling the vehicle’s speed by means of the hand throttle! You see, while on the ground the cockpit is situated lower than the engine, which blocks out the area immediately in front of the airplane .

When the pilots arrived we had to help them connect to all the equipment, such as the oxygen line, seat belt, etc. We stayed at their side as they started the engine, to assist when needed. Once the engine was running satisfactorily, we jumped to the ground, and got out of the way. We stayed there as the flight (often 12 planes ) all took off at the same time, wingtip to wingtip.

When they were halfway down the field, another flight of 12 from our right would start taking off in the same manner; when they were halfway down the field the flight opposite our area would start to take off, and then the squadron on our left. Thus in a matter of minutes the 239 wing was able to have 48 planes airborne, en route to their mission!

Unless my flight chief asked me to perform any other tasks, until my airplane returned from its mission, I was free to rest or find some recreation such as ping-pong, etc.

If I wanted to, I could go to the "Operations tent" and hang around, so I could hear any radio transmissions that our pilots might send back to the squadron.

When the planes returned, the pilots stopped them at our end of the field, and we Crew Chiefs then taxied the planes back to our own tents, and parked them with a wingtip touching the tent. We then spread a camouflage net over both the plane and the tent, so as to change the plane's appearance from the air.

Once again, I had to arrange to service the airplane as I did after the last flight. We crew chiefs did not have any mechanics in our crews and therefore we had to do everything for ourselves.

Sometimes I was required to "chip in "and help our engine change crew, whose job it was to change engines. Other times I was required to stand "guard duty", or anything else my flight chief or the First Sergeant deemed necessary. On those occasions I was reminded that I was after all a soldier, and not just an airplane mechanic!

One point of interest is the manner in which we obtained our meals.

Since all tents were 100 yards apart, we had to walk to the mess-tent, which frequently was a mile away from my own tent. For example, upon arising at around 5 AM, I donned short pants, suede desert boots, an army campaign hat, and a fur-lined leather flying jacket, and trudged about a mile to the mess-hall, carrying my mess-kit.

At that point it was cold and I needed the jacket. About two thirds of a mile later, the sun suddenly popped up over the horizon, and it immediately became so hot that I had to remove the jacket! En route to the mess-hall I did not chart a direct course however.

Instead I walked from one tent to the next until eventually I arrived there. That way if there were an enemy attack, I could avail myself of one of those tent's slit trenches! After obtaining the breakfast food, I retraced my steps to return to my tent to consume it. This was the manner in which we obtained our meals.

Now, you may think that is an overkill! Be advised however, that it was a necessary procedure if one was to preserve his life in a combat zone. I had just such an experience in the desert, when I found myself between two tents, when suddenly 6 German fighter planes (Me109s) appeared without warning, out of the sun, and were strafing our camp area with machine guns and 20 mm cannons.

Sometimes the humble hole in the ground was a lifesaver

I had no place to hide, however I was near ruts in the ground made by the continual passing of trucks. I insinuated myself into such a rut as best as I could, realizing that lying on my back I was partially protected from the strafing/bombing, but I had no protection from the shrapnel that was falling from our own ack-ack shells.

Instinctively I inverted the mess-kit containing the Corned beef and gravy and pineapple with juice, and placed it upon my head. I lay there with this food and its liquids running down my face, and I felt awfully stupid. Yes, I had a steel helmet, but it was under my cot. Just try wearing a heavy steel helmet, with a plastic liner in 135 degrees heat!

Such were the conditions when we started our operations after the breakthrough at El Alamein.

So ends Chapter 8 of my wartime memoirs.

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