And so it starts
Now to most people, on this day, in April 1943, North Africa was magnificent. The sky was cloudless and bright blue, and the ground was vivid and colorful, well, the ground could be seen. If this were back home, on a day like this young man could just see himself on a hidden beach somewhere soaking up the atmosphere. However, he wasn't back in South Florida. Right now, Captain Lester Freeman of the 99 Pursuit Squadron, excuse me, the 99 Fighting Squadron, was flying towards the south of Italy.
The hot sun was baking him like a campfire potato and the surrounding cockpit felt tight and about as sturdy as the tin foil he would wrap that very same potato in. The glass of the cockpit worked like a magnifier, warming up the cabin and strongly emphasized the smell of leather and old oil.
All this made Captain Freeman feel like the luckiest man alive. Lucky, because he was flying. The open vent blew cool air directly on to his face, the growl of the engine made him feel powerful and at that very moment he was a hawk, an old Curtiss P-40 Warhawk not looking to start a fight, but you best better believe he and his squadron was ready to end one.
To the left and right of Freeman was the rest of his squadron, difficult to see and they were spread out behind him in an arrowhead formation. A second squadron of US Army Air Corps flyers flew a head closer to the B17 bombers they were escorting as a sort of decoy or bait. The plan was that if they came across enemy fighters, while they would engage the second squadron would attack from above causing as much damage as possible. The P-40 Warhawks looked menacing with its fat bright red nose and gaping savage looking teeth, but they were slow and difficult to manage, and the pilots needed to take whatever advantage they could get.
Captain Freeman tried to twist his head round to first look to his left and then to his right but couldn't quite see his brothers in arms. He knew they were there, they had that kind of trust with one another, but the only thing that confirm this was the faint sound that could be heard through the canopy and over the deep humming sound of his own engine.
Then, as if to confirm his curiosity, Lieutenant Sidney P. "Thousand Island (T.I.)" Williams' voice cracked over the radio. "Bang-Bang…. Bang, Bang…" Freeman could tell is was T.I., on account of his New Orleans gentlemanly intonation. It was like a raised in the company of Crescent city royalty, unless he had been drinking fine bourbon for a while, then he sounded like he came straight out of the Bayou.
Freeman did not answer T.I. because the words Bang-Bang were not some random gibberish, or a rally call for all to come to arms. It was a call sign and nick name for another brother of the 'The Five', a Lieutenant Danny "Bang-Bang" Morgan was Detroit. A true gear head who grew up always under the hood a car in his father's garage and he answered T.I. with a resounding, "What!?"
Freedom felt it was more to shut T.I. up rather than to ask a question in curiosity.
"How in the name of all that is holy did that woman you were talking and dancing with last night make it as a nurse?"
"Nurse Parker, how you mean?" asked Bang-Bang, now genuinely curious.
"Brother, she a mess, she could get locked overnight in a grocery store and still starve to death by morning."
Bang-Bang ignored the laughing coming from the other pilots. It didn't faze him, he was used to T.I.'s juvenal instigating and just said, "Well, she must be more intelligent than you give her credit for. After all, she was smart enough to choose me over you."
Once again through the radio laughter and carrying on could be heard, but this time it was on the side of Bang-Bang and his lovely comeback.
Over the radio other pilots could be heard laughing, even Captain Freeman chuckled to himself.
Lieutenant James Earl "Country" Woods chimed in, "Boys, I know I meet the love of my life last night."
Woods mainly grew up on a farm in County, Virginia. He was an odd build for a flyboy due to the fact that he looked like he had been bailing hay since he was five years old. This led to a few jokes about his size and how he fits inside the cockpit of a fighter. Lieutenant Louis "Sandwich" Turner first comment was to ask if the reason why Country was in love with this mystery woman had anything to do with if she had made him a gumbo. T.I. intervened as if to corrected him and said it was a crab boil, Bang-bang finally interjected and hailed "Jambalaya!"
Another pilot listening overheard and wanted to play, "Mash potatoes, gravy and meatloaf!"
Sandwich, T.I. and Bang-Bang turned on the pilot, each in turn telling him to 'shut up', 'stay out of it' and to 'mind his own business'. It is not that they had a disliking towards the guy, but Country was their brother and they were very protective over him. As big as Country was, he didn't have a mean bone in his body and they would see it that no one, not even the base commander would take advantage of him.
Country sounded almost bashful when he said, "Stop playing guys, I don't always think with my stomach. I really think she's the one!"
T.I., "Why? Really. Is she a good cook?"
Bang-Bang, "Cause you know Country, if you were to get any bigger we're going to have to use shoe horn to get you into your plane."
Captain Freeman spoke up for the first time, "Hold down chatter! We're entering the hot zone so keep your trap shut and your eyes and ears open!"
After the war, the 99 Fighting Squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen, would go on to be recognized as some of the best pilots to have ever serve with in the US Army Air Corp. They, perhaps, rank as some of the best pilots to have flown anywhere, ever. However, within the squadron five guys stood together, like brothers, in the service of their country, much like that story by Alexander Dumas. The difference was that there were five of them, like five fingers of a powerful fist.
You had Lt. Louis "Sandwich" Turner from Harlem in New York City and Lt. Danny "Bang-Bang" Morgan from Detroit, Michigan, the Motor City.
Then there was Lt. James Earl "Country" Woods from a farm somewhere around County, Virginia and Lt. Sidney P. "Thousand Island (T.I.)" Williams from deep in the Bayou of New Orleans.
Then finally, the elder brother or lead protagonist, born to a Native American father and Afro-American in the Everglades in South Florida, Captain Lester "Seminole" Freeman.
Now leaving the coast of Tunisia and proceeding over the Mediterranean towards Sicily, the atmosphere took a serious turn. The pilots remained quiet and vigilant observing the clear cloudless sky and the inviting crystal deep blue sea, but unable to savor and appreciate its beauty. The main problem was that the P-40 Warhawks were slower and less maneuverable than their German luftwaffe counterparts. Any lapse of concentration could end up as a loss of life, for yourself or for the guy next to you.
The plan was simple, in theory, as the first squadron were to stay close to the bombers they were escorting. They formed a barrier of protection, but these planes were also as bait as the second squadron held back. It was Seminole and his squadron, including his four friends, turn to hold back flying higher and slightly further back to be kept from immediate sight. It took a little more patience to maintain that position, but when they encountered the enemy it would easier to surprise them.
Attacking pilots would see the B17 and the surrounding fighters, put all their attention on them, unaware that more planes would come down behind them in a pincer movement squashing the Luftwaffe or the Regia Aeronautica (the Italian air force) between themselves and the rest of the fighters protecting the flying fortresses.
It was Thousand Island, T.I., that was the first to see the enemy planes. At first it was nothing more than one, two, three, four, until twelve black dots appeared against a cerulean sky. It wasn't until the planes got must closer that it became clear they were facing the Italians. The Caproni Vizzola F4's were considered to be inferior planes, not as daunting as facing the Germans, but, as every pilot knew, this was not by any means an excuse to take things easy.
The Italian squadron were patrolling their south westerly coastline when they received a call over the radio over about the sighting. They were the closest and Tenente, which means Lieutenant, Sergio Rossi remembered the Captain making a joke about going hunting.
It was not long before they saw the opposing squadron and felt that it would be a Carnival shooting gallery. They would fly in and take shots then withdraw, the escorts unable to follow as that would leave the bombers unprotected. This would be Sergio's first fire fight, his stomach tight and twisted with nerves, but also excited. The way he heard his fellow pilots speak about such situations a part of himself imagined he too would be boasting about his kills as he downed beers and impressing the local young ladies at the bar.
The pilots of the Italian Airforce received the command to swoop down on the bombers and their escorts. They had the high ground and what looked like the element of surprise. Tenente Sergio Rossi pushed forward on the throttle and even though he was secured behind the glass of the plane's cockpit, he felt like he was pushed back into his seat.
Without warning the lead fighter was torn to shreds in a hail of bullets and then burst into a ball of fire. The Warhawk that attacked the captain's plane from above flew through the dissipating flames proving there was nothing left. Sergio screamed, he had never seen anything like that before in his life, nor did he ever expect to see such terrible sight. By the time Regia Aeronautica realized what was going on they had already witnessed the second plane of the squadron being practically sawn in half by another Warhawk's gunfire.
Tenente Sergio began to sweat profusely and was failing to catch his breath bringing in the early stages of hyperventilation. He managed squeeze off a few rounds, while simultaneously pulling back in the hope to get away from the fighters and bombers of the US Army Air corps. Two more Caproni Vizzola F4's immediately suffered the same fate as the second plane being shot through in a way that made it look like they were having tails or wings being sawn off on the approach. Unfortunately, Sergio could only see two the pilots of the three of those destroyed aircrafts managing to bail out and get clear.
The remaining Italian squadron attempted to bank away to the right. By this time there were only eight remaining planes, but in that moment, while trying to get away, a further two more F4 planes were lost to the fighting 99. The eight was now six, one descending gradually to the sea, the engine giving off thick dark grey smoke and the other plane failing out of the sky with no sign of any damage. Perhaps this may have been due to the pilot taking a shot directly, but nobody could know for sure. It just gradually descends out of sight, no smoke, no attempt to right itself, just falling.
Lieutenant Danny "Bang-Bang" Morgan shot down a seventh F4 fighter. The Italian pilot managed to eject, but it was directly into his path Bang-Bang. This action caught the Detroit native off guard and he had to bank a hard left as fast as he could so that he would not tear into him with his propeller. It was a pilot's job to shoot down planes all day long, but take out a man parachuting to safety, especially in such a horrific way, that was never Bang-Bang at all.
Bang-Bang did manage to roll and avoid pilot in his parachute, but in the process, he clipped the wing of another Caproni Vizzola F4 belonging to Tenente Sergio Rossi coming from the opposite direction. Sergio seem to continue unharmed, but it took Lieutenant Morgan all his will power to keep control while at the same time make it out of the action in one piece.
Not long after this confrontation the B17s had passed Sicily and were entering Italy's airspace. There they would leave their Tuskegee escorts behind and join 79th Squadron having the 99 return to their base in North Africa to refuel and await the bombers return. Bang-Bang had already left the dogfighting and was trying to make it home after his near deadly collision. It was getting increasingly more and more difficult to control his machine, using both hands to keep level and steady.
He looked out to his right and could see that it was just the very tip of the wing that was severely damaged. The plane, at first, would try to veer to the right as if it were heavier on than side and the weight was trying to pull the craft down. At first it was not so bad, the pulling sensation was light Bang-Bang's main concern was to just avoid flying around in continuous circles. The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk would then start to struggle further, rocking side to side in a seesaw motion. When Bang-Bang looked towards his wing again he noticed the aileron on that side was not working like it should. It was stiff and eventually stop moving altogether. He figured that as soon as he was over land, he would look at it and try to rig something up to enable him to at least get home in one peace.
A long squeak followed by a clang preceded the spray on liquid on the glass of the right side off the cockpit. The controls began to shake violently and even with both his hands he did know how much longer he could control it. So aggressively was the shaking that Bang-Bang's wrists would ache, but he could not afford to let go through of fear of spiraling out of control and into the Mediterranean Sea. He was beginning to consider jumping before this very same airplane became his coffin. The Curtiss P-40 could quite possibly either crumble upon impact like a house made of match sticks or sink to the bottom dragging him down with it like a siren of the deep.
Bang-Bang first looked around to make sure he was the right way up. It was important to keep calm, and nothing would ruin an emergency exit of a plane more than simply releasing yourself upside down directly into the ground. After he made sure he was right side up, he checked the altitude on his dashboard and finally checked his surroundings to establish how far he was from the shore.
It was not too much longer before Lt. Danny "Bang-Bang" Morgan could finally see the coast of Tunisia on the horizon. In the confusion it could have been entirely possible that he missed Tunisia completely and he was approaching Libya, but the fuel was still good, and he did not feel he had been flying long enough. The instability of the plane still made bailing out the better option and his plan was to get high enough to jump, but then came sound of metal screeching followed by the second loud bang.
"When will it end?" Bang-Bang whined at loud to himself, a little scared but mainly frustrated with all the things going against his chances of survival.
A not very sturdy, battle worn P-40 Warhawk, it was becoming more and more difficult to keep level. At the rate is was now losing altitude it was very probable that he would crash upon landing. He looked out towards the wing again, a futile gesture, and saw not the brown liquid he had seen before, now a thicker cover over the glass on the right side of his cock pit. Now if he jumped over land, it would be dangerous as he would not have enough height to pull his parachute cord and land safely. Besides, if he were to let go of his controls, even for a minute, the plane would spiral out of control making it impossible to get clear of the plane safely. Continuing to fight with the stick to keep his nose up and the wings level Bang-Bang had to cut the engine in the hope that he could slow the descent. The problem was momentum had already taken over and if he were not careful it would be a violent and painful death. He wondered if he hit the ground too steep and tumble head over tail or if would hit the terrain like a flat pebble skimming over the surface of a pond. He began to recite the lords pray through gritted teeth using all his strength to rein in the Warhawk.
"Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done; on Earth as it is in heaven…"