June 18, 1943
GUMP—a mnemonic drilled into his head from flight school— came to him as he brought his P-38 around for a landing back at his base at Telergma. GUMP : Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Prop—the last four things to check on final approach. As crappy as this day had been for 2nd Lt. Allan Knepper, especially considering how hopefully it had started and how eager for action he had been at takeoff, he wanted to make sure that he didn’t make things worse with a lousy landing.
His excitement had been building since learning last night that he’d been assigned to today’s mission. He hadn’t slept much, reflecting that just a year earlier he had been flying Piper Cubs, teaching farm kids at a rural elementary school, and courting the coeds at Lewiston Normal in Idaho. Finally joining the squadron just nine days before, he’d spent fifty-nine days getting there—at each stage in his journey the conveyance got slower—transiting the United States by train, the Atlantic by convoy, and North Africa by narrow-gauge rail.
Lieutenant Knepper had been astonished by North Africa. The arid and stark landscape had an eerie familiarity to him, as he’d been raised in the dry hill country and canyonlands of Idaho. But the smells, the taste of the air, the rough villages, the odd mix of Moslem and French architecture, and the even stranger mix of nationalities—everything was alien to him. And the people, the local Arabs, both fascinated and repelled him. Nothing in his life could have prepared him for this, and he could not imagine ever becoming jaded by, let alone accustomed to, what was around him every day.
The 49th was hungry for replacement pilots: Since early May when it began its current posting in North Africa, the 49th had flown thirty-six combat missions and had already lost nine pilots—nearly a third of their cadre. And with the high number of sorties, its remaining pilots were steadily moving toward completion of their fifty-mission combat tours. More good pilots were needed. But the squadron was on a roll; in the ten days since Knepper had reported for duty, the squadron had not lost any pilots.
Lieutenant Knepper was up and dressed before the squadron clerk came around to his tent to wake him for the mission, with a curt “You’re up, Lieutenant.” Knepper made the short walk to the mess tent, greeting the other pilots with just a “Mornin’.” Never very much inclined to talk, and with tension building in his chest, he preferred to listen to the quiet exchanges between the other pilots, the experienced ones. He’d seen his good friend Herman Kocour at breakfast, and knew that today would be Herman’s first combat mission as well. Neither one having much of an appetite, they left ahead of the others and made their way to the equipment tent to collect parachutes, escape kits, and pistols. Catching a jeep ride to the flight line, they located their aircraft—Kocour to plane #43,Knepper, to #45.
With a wave and tight smile Knepper turned and began a quiet walk- around of his plane. The aircraft showed wear, and he knew that it had already seen a lot of combat. It was the favorite mount for Lieutenant Bob Riley, who had flown it on ten missions since early May. Four other 49th squadron pilots had also flown #45 into combat, and it had proven to be a very reliable and well-maintained aircraft.
Kocour had been assigned to aircraft #43—another well-used aircraft that had been flown by seven other pilots prior to this mission, including six sorties by the squadron commander, Captain Trollope. Th aircraft had experienced mechanical issues recently and had been forced to return early on its two previous missions. On top of every-thing else he had to think about, Lieutenant Kocour also looked at his mount with some misgivings.
While the crew chief attended to the aircraft, Knepper glanced around the hardstand to make sure no toolkits had been left, found a spot for a nervous nature break, and checked the direction of his nose wheel. Grabbing the retractable ladder on the rear of the gondola, he swung himself up to the left wing and eased into the cockpit. Wearing his bulky Mae West life jacket, his .45, and his parachute with its attached inflatable escape dinghy, he was grateful for his chief’s help in getting settled. His chief had been out earlier in the morning to make a more complete preflight check on his aircraft, and just before the lieutenant’s arrival he’d started the engines and run them up to ensure that they were operating to standards. He had knelt on the wing, helping Knepper to adjust his harness and crash belts, and scanned the instrument panel and engine switches. He was satisfied with what he saw, saying, “See you in a couple of hours, Lieutenant.” The chief knew two things: that this was his pilot’s first combat mission, and that he had delivered an aircraft that was ready for combat.
Pilots were greatly dependent on their crew chiefs for the maintenance of the aircraft, but the chiefs represented something else to the pilots. They were the last person the pilot would look in the eyes and speak to before each mission, and the first when he returned. The chief would know from the first glance at the aircraft and the first look into his pilot’s eyes what sort of mission it had been.
As the chief dropped the canopy, Knepper engaged the safety lock and cranked the right window up. With a final wave, Knepper connected his headset and adjusted the throat mic before turning to the cockpit instruments.
By the book, there were twenty-five items to check. Although he had made a couple dozen flights in the P-38, he still took his time. He knew that more experienced pilots could complete these checks in just a few minutes, but for today, everything had to be just right. Most importantly, he checked the two things he’d had trouble remembering earlier in his training: setting the fuel selectors to reserve, and the cross-feed switch to off. He primed and energized first the left engine, then the right.
With both engines running smoothly, Knepper made sure the radio was on and tuned to the proper frequency. He glanced at the coolant settings, tested the gun sight light, and checked the fuel gauges. While keeping the engines at 1,400 rpm, he made a last check on fuel and hydraulic pressure.
Glancing back, he moved the yoke forward and back to check elevator movement, then checked the aileron and flap travel. One last check of the gauges.
With his plane fully prepared in its hardstand, Lieutenant Knepper waited for the telltale aileron waggle from the flight leader, knowing that he and his plane were equipped for this, his first combat mission. His engines were “galloping” at idle, the sound each P-38 pilot instantly recognized and would never forget. He was ready.
In checking the mission board the evening before, he had learned that he’d been assigned to Red flight, in number-two position as wing-man to Capt. Henry Trollope, the squadron commander—a normal assignment for a new pilot’s first combat flight. He knew that all of his fellow replacement pilots would undergo the same close scrutiny in their first few combat assignments, always being assigned as wingman to one of the squadron’s more experienced pilots.
As Trollope’s wingman, Knepper knew that his job would be to stay on his leader’s wing no matter what. Head on a swivel, always knowing where the captain’s wingtip was, covering Trollope’s blind spot—his tail. He had done quite a lot of formation flying and was comfortable flying 4 feet away from another P-38 at 300 mph.
At 9:24 Captain Trollope flexed his ailerons and began moving from his hardstand to the flight line. Knepper, second in line for takeoff, eased his brakes and gave a bit of throttle to move from his own hard- stand and take up formation behind Trollope. With a final sweep of the instruments, a last tug on his safety belt and harness, he ran the engines up to 2,300 rpm and, with the rest of the flight forming up behind him, Knepper pointed the plane for takeoff.
As Trollope’s plane started rollout, Knepper brought his engines to 3,000 rpm, braked to keep the plane motionless, then released to start rolling. With a surge of power, it thundered down the runway. Airborne in fourteen seconds, he soon reached airspeed of 130 mph. At this speed, he knew that if one engine failed, he could maintain control on just the remaining engine. He retracted his landing gear, switched fuel feed to a belly tank, and settled into position off Trollope’s left wing.
Trollope eased his airspeed slightly to allow the others to catch up. As the squadron advanced to flight speed, assuming the standard “four-finger” configuration, Lieutenant Knepper had this thought: Please don’t let me screw this up . . .
After a year of flight training, including a few weeks in North Africa doing combat training and a few days with the squadron learning its own unique set of procedures, Knepper’s head told him he was ready for the mission. They’d been ordered to escort P-38s from their sister squadron, the 37th, on a dive-bombing mission to the Axis aerodrome at Milo, near Trapani, on the northwestern corner of Sicily. As escort, Knepper and his fellow 49th pilots would counter any attack by German or Italian fighters, giving the bomb-carrying aircraft of the 37th an unimpeded bomb run.
Milo was an important airfield for both the Italian and the German air forces in the summer of 1943 and had been used extensively in sup- port of the failed Axis campaign in North Africa in the preceding year. The airfield was high on the list of priority targets for the Army Air Forces. Achieving air superiority over the Mediterranean Theater was the number-one priority for military planners, and knocking out German Air Force (GAF) assets, like aerodromes, was a critical part of the battle plan. Even before the Axis surrender in Tripoli in mid-May, the air force had sent bombing missions to Trapani/Milo. The airfield had been given a respite during the intensive Allied bombing campaign against the island of Pantelleria—Operation Corkscrew. But with Pantelleria’s surrender on June 11, the Allied air forces had turned to Sicilian and Sardinian targets with fresh energy.
In mid-June, Milo was base of operations for Jagdgeschwader 77 ( JG 77)—the German Herz As (“Ace of Hearts”) command. For JG 77—one of the most storied, and perhaps the most experienced, of the German fighter commands—Trapani was their latest posting after having seen years of combat in Western Europe, Russia, and North Africa. Within JG 77 were some of the most experienced combat pilots the world would ever see. With two groups plus a headquarters flight operating out of Milo, and with extensive flak batteries, there was every reason to expect a strong German defense on this mission.
Adding to Knepper’s anxiety was the buzz that he’d picked up around camp regarding the German aircraft they were likely to encounter on this mission. The squadron referred to them as the “yellow-nosed squadron,” and had first encountered them during the mission on May 19 when two of the 49th’s pilots had been shot down. The “yellow-nosed squadron” was from JG 77—a German fighter wing based at Trapani that had been in combat since 1939, had thousands of sorties to its credit, with hundreds of air victories, and which never showed the slightest reluctance to engage American aircraft.
Pilot William Gregory would later recount: “Th yellow-nosed squadron—we knew about those; at least, some of us did. Neely, DeMoss, and myself always talked about them. It was an elite squadron. We could see those yellow noses on some of our early flights. We knew they were good. We called them ‘yellow-nosed kids,’ and they were really good with the 109. They were seasoned pilots, they had been flying for two years, and they had a lot of time in their airplane. They were the best of the best.”
Just three days earlier, the 49th squadron had escorted B-26s from the 320th Bomb Group on a bombing mission to Milo. On that mission, no enemy aircraft were engaged, but the Intelligence officer had cautioned them to be watchful for Axis flights. And even without enemy interceptors, they were advised that the 88mm flak could be intense. But with a bit of luck, the mission might catch a few GAF aircraft on the ground, and not encounter a swarm of enemy fighters already in flight.
Lieutenant Knepper’s flight included fourteen aircraft: twelve for the mission, and two “spares” that accompanied the formation to the vicinity of the target, but would only be used if one or more of the primary pilots reported aircraft problems and were forced to return to base.
Lieutenant Kocour was flying number-two position in White flight to Lieutenant Neely. He and Knepper had known each other since the beginning of their flight training, permanently pinned to each other by the army’s obsession with the alphabet. Kocour knew Lieutenant Neely was a good pilot and reckoned that he’d have to be at his best to stay with him.
Unknown to either Knepper or Kocour, three other North African fighter groups were also engaged in hard-hitting diversionary missions on this day, to targets on Sardinia. Th P-38s of the 1st Fighter Group escorted B-26s on two bombing missions to the seaplane base at Olbia Harbor, while the 82nd Fighter Group sent thirty-six P-38s on a single bomber-escort mission to Golfo Aranci. And the 325th Fighter Group, flying P-40s, sent forty-four aircraft on a mid-morning counter-air- force dive-bombing and strafing sweep to Villacidro aerodrome in southern Sicily.
The twelve P-38 aircraft of the 37th squadron, also based at Telergma, had taken off twenty minutes ahead of Knepper’s formation. They were each carrying a single 500-pound general-purpose bomb, a weapon used primarily for demolition missions, and capable of inflicting considerable damage from the blast effect.
Cruising at 200 mph, the combined formation headed for Tunis on a northeastern bearing. They planned to overfly Tunis about an hour later, then drop to “the deck” for the remaining thirty-minute flight to the Sicilian coast in order to avoid German listening or radar detection. Just before reaching the coast, with its array of coastal guns and antiaircraft batteries, the formation would jump to 5,000 feet for the bomb approach. Midway to Tunis, just thirty minutes into the flight, Captain Trollope signaled a problem with his aircraft. Evidently it was a mechanical problem, the sort of thing that occurred all too frequently with all the bomber and fighter squadrons. Peeling off from the formation, with Knepper still glued to his wingtip, Trollope retraced his route back to base at Telergma. The mission’s spares, Lieutenants Deru and Church, filled in to complete the squadron formation.
With a disappointment that included more than a touch of anger and knowing that his aircraft was in perfect condition, Knepper had no choice but to follow his element leader back to base. Glancing over his shoulder as Kocour flew on and wishing him good hunting, he knew all too well the first rule of aerial combat, drilled into him over the prior six months: Never allow a fellow pilot to fly unescorted. An hour after takeoff, Trollope and Knepper were back at Telergma.
“Early returns” were a problem for the squadron, and during the summer of 1943, roughly 6 percent of all aircraft who took off for a combat mission were forced to return due to mechanical issues. On some missions, the number of early returns exceeded the number of “spares” that were available for the mission, resulting in fewer aircraft executing the mission, and with possibly less-favorable results.
After landing and taxiing back to the hardstands, Knepper “sweated out” the return of the mission, along with Captain Trollope, the crew chiefs for the mission’s pilots, squadron Intelligence officer, Capt. Howard Wilson, and squadron operations officer, Capt. Richard Decker.
It was an anxious wait. Th combat risks were well understood by all. The entire squadron had worked hard in the intense desert heat to prepare the aircraft for this moment—taking the war to the Germans. They’d all heard the roar of the engines at takeoff, and everyone—armorers, mechanics, cooks, clerks, carpenters, medical assistants—were aware of the losses as they mounted. They’d been there many times before and knew that there was a strong likelihood that some of the fliers they saw that morning might not return from this mission. Th chaplain hoped that it would not be his duty to write yet another letter to a family, or to clear a pilot’s effects from his tent under the troubled eyes of his tentmates.
The wait was maybe hardest for the crew chiefs. Some had come to know their pilots, and in some cases had forged a solid regard, possibly even friendship. They’d grown an “internal clock,” keeping time with the mission. With the combined formation formed up by 10:00 a.m., Neely would alert all pilots to prepare for combat. Pilots would turn drop-tank switches on, along with gun heaters and sight switches, and increase rpm and manifold pressure to maximum cruise. Still flying on-the-deck, by 10:30 the formation would be nearing the coast and forming up for the attack. A bit before 11:00 a.m. the P-38s would take less than a minute to make their jump to 5,000 feet; then, the bomb-laden P-38s from the 37th would, one by one, wing over to make the steep dive on the target. Flak would start to hit the formation, and the pilots would be working hard to maintain position. Over the target, flak now intense, bombs away. P-38s from the 49th would be holding position outside of flak range and reconnecting with the bombers as they emerged from the target. If the Germans were going to make a fight of it, their fighters would be hitting the bomber formation about now. By 11:30 a.m., the formation, or what might be left of it, would be headed to base, with the P-38s providing cover for any damaged bombers who were lagging behind.
Best expressed in the words of one North African crew chief, the anxious ritual repeated on every mission, on every base, and in every theater of the war:
I busied my hands on the desert sands,
In a heat that cracked my lips.
Then man alive, they began to arrive
In their battered and crippled ships.
Ninety minutes after his own landing, Knepper and the waiting squadron spotted a lone returning P-38. Too early for the mission to return, the approaching aircraft had to be another early return. Lieutenant Kocour, with another mechanical problem, was forced to turn around just minutes before reaching the target. Apparently the mechanical problem that had plagued #43 had not yet been diagnosed, or it had been diagnosed but not corrected, or else other problems had developed on the seemingly snake-bit aircraft.
Another thirty minutes passed, and groups of aircraft began to appear. Just nine; two pilots were missing.
The returning pilots reported that the mission had been a success. The 37th had dropped their bombs on target, including three direct hits on the aerodrome’s administration building, and seven more within the target area. The formation had received intense flack, the Germans having concealed heavy 88mm cannon and lighter 30- to 40mm guns in the woods near the edge of the aerodrome. As the flight turned for home, flack was everywhere.
Following standard procedures, the bomb-laden P-38s from the 37th squadron had left their escort just prior to reaching the target. No protection could be offered against flak, and there was no reason to increase the exposure of the escorts to the ground fire. The escorting P-38s—the 49th squadron—were still in the target area doing 90-degree cross-over turns, waiting for the dive-bombers to emerge from their dives. A maneuver requiring careful attention at any time, a cross-over made under flak attack, and while all pilots were also scanning the air for incoming enemy fighters, was especially challenging.
wo flak bursts were seen close to 2nd Lt. George B. Church’s plane. His aircraft was in a slight left turn just below 1st Lt. Bruce L. Campbell’s P-38, which was in a bank to the right. Neither saw the other until just moments before they collided. Church’s aircraft hit Campbell’s, clipping off Campbell’s rudder and part of his stabilizer, and lost one of its propellers. Church’s aircraft spun into the sea. Campbell was able to right his aircraft for three or four seconds, allowing him to bail out. His aircraft hit the water near Church’s, and he was taken captive, spending the duration of the war at a POW camp in Bavaria.
It was a tough day for the squadron and a tough lesson for Lieutenants Knepper and Kocour. The two missing men were experienced pilots who had arrived in North Africa in March and had begun combat flights in May. Two losses in one mission, particularly the loss of experienced pilots in a midair collision, were a blow. It must have also occurred to both Knepper and Kocour that Lieutenant Church was a “spare” on this mission, and that if either of them had been able to complete the mission, Lieutenant Church would surely not have been lost, and Lieutenant Campbell might very well also be safe. As these young replacement pilots soon learned, that was combat. A pilot was not responsible for mechanical problems that developed with his or any other aircraft.
This was not their day to fly. Not their day to fight. Not their day to die.
Copyright © 2021 RobertRichardsonBooks - All Rights Reserved.