WITH COLONEL DAVIS' FLYERS IN ITALY
BY ART CARTER

"We've Been Waiting for This"

Pandemonium reigned supreme at the 99th Fighter Squadron's operations tent, in February, 1944, as crack pilots returned from their history making air attacks against the Germans, running their scoreboard to twelve Nazi planes destroyed, two probably destroyed, and four damaged during two days of fighting--a record for the current invasion of Anzio and Nettuno Beaches, South of Rome.

Like football players bursting into a dining room after a triumph in the season's classic, war-weary pilots were jubilant in their description of victories over the Luftwaffe, giving vivid recollections of how they poured hot lead into enemy aircraft.

Capt. Rodney Custis, operations chief, declared, after the initial encounter on Thursday: "It was the roughest day of the campaign, but good hunting all the way." Major George S. Roberts, commanding officer, said:

"We've been looking forward to such happening, but this is the first time in five months that we have encountered enemy opposition. The whole show lasted little more than five minutes. It was a chasing battle, rather than a running battle, as the Germans were always on the move. We poured hell into them."

Captain Custis, A Ward University graduate, was one of ten pilots to gain victories, while Major Roberts scored a damage. He also wiped out a machine gun nest after being forced home when flak knocked out his ship's electrical system, disabling its guns.

Custis emphasized: "I let loose a burst of fire, chased an FW-190 seven miles toward Rome and saw tracers hit his fuselage and the plane crash."

Lieut. Erwin B. Lawrence of Cleveland and Alwayne Dunlap of Washington saw the plane hit by Custis crash. Lawrence gained a probable damage on another enemy plane which was observed diving for the ground, smoking excessively.

Lieutenant Eagleson, flying his fifth sortie, destroyed one. He said: "I was on tail of an FW-190 that was firing at Lawrence when I lined him up, gave him a burst and continued to follow him. I saw him smoking 100 feet from the ground." Lieut. Clarence W. Allen said: "I sighted twelve FW-190's pulling out of a dive-bombing run and I closed on one, poured fire into it at 500 feet and saw it crash," while Liueut. Edward L. Toppins declared: "Saw my tracers going into an FW-190 which finally disappeared behind some trees in a gully."

Lieut. John L. Hamilton saw the plane hit by Coppins burst into grayish white smoke, confirming the formers destruction of the aircraft.

Lieut. Robert W. Deiz, former Oregon University sprint star, who was recording his second victory in two days, said of his initial triumph: "An FW-190 was slightly below me. I closed at 200 yards, firing continuously. A portion of the ship's cowling flew off and it went into a steep dive at about 750 feet. Later, I saw a big sheet of flame and black smoke in a yard below."

Capt. Charles B. Hall, of Brazil, Ind., scored a twin triumph, shooting down an ME-109 and a FW-190 in a wild battle between a formation of German fighter planes and Hall's flight of twelve aircraft over Anzio Beach.

The fourth victory on the second big day went to second Lieut,. Lewis C. Smith of Los Angeles who downed a FW-190.

Upon their return from the second day's mission, the pilots were surprised with a visit by Major Gen. John K. Cannon, commanding general of the 12th Air Force, who personally congratulated them and their commanding officer. "I am tickled to death with the magnificent job you are doing. It was a grand show. Just don't overwork yourselves."

The big bag brought the 99th squadron's nine months' overseas record to thirteen destroyed, four probably destroyed and six damaged.

Hall, until Thursday, the lone member of the pioneer colored squadron to have a Nazi victory--having shot down a Focke-Wulf last July 2 over Sicily--now has three German planes to his credit.

Hall, a former Sunday school teacher, asserted: "Six enemy planes came down a string. We intercepted them at 3,000 feet and followed them on deck. I followed an ME-109 toward the sea and gave it two bursts of fire. It flamed and crashed to the ground. I then turned and chased an FW-190 toward Rome, giving it short bursts until it tumbled to the ground."

Hall said that they first saw the German planes trying to dive bomb Allied ships in the harbor.

Smith, who is 22, saw the Germans for the first time Friday. He asserted: "The sky was full of planes, but I picked out one FW-190 and chased him to the outskirts of Rome, firing all the way. The plane burned and smoked profusely and I knew I had got him. It's a good feeling."

The Miraculous Jump

Falling 3,000 feet while suspended by one foot from a diving plane traveling 350 miles an hour, then parachuting the remaining 1,000 feet to safety, was the death-defying experience of Second Lieut. George McCrimby of Fort Worth, Texas, near Anzio Beach in Italy

McCrumby, 26, failed to return to the 99th Fighter Squadron's base on February 5--the day First Lieut. Elwood Driver knocked down a Nazi plane and Capt. Clarence Jamison was shot down over No Man's Land, 300 yards from German territory and scrambled to friendly soil.

Details of his harrowing aerial feat were infolded to me from a hospital cot where the Tuskegee-trained pilot is recuperating from minor bruises sustained in the grueling ordeal.

McCrumby was flying Captain Jamison's wing when the two became involved in a fight with six German FW-190's and trouble ensued, his ship being disabled by ack ack fire.

"Something hit underneath the ship," McCrumby recalled, "then another burst cracked the side of my cockpit, plunging the plane into a dive at 4,000 feet. I tried to pull out, but had no control. The elevators had been knocked out. I had no alternative but to jump.

"I tried the left side, but the slip stream knocked me back. Then I tried the right side and got half way out when again the slip stream threw me against the fuselage. I struggled until all but my right foot was free and dangled from the diving plane until the wind turned the ship at about 1000 feet and shook me loose.

:I reached for the rip cord six times before finding it, but my parachute opened immediately, landing me safely in a cow pasture."

British soldiers from a nearby anti-aircraft unit rushed McCrumby to the Anzio Beach Field Dispensary. Subsequently he spent four days in an evacuation hospital where the sound of shelllfire resounded daily and nightly.

Recently he was transferred to a general hospital, where he is nursing scratch wounds of the face and right leg, and a sprained ankle, the only injuries from his eerie episode.

The 155-pound pilot declared: "I couldn't believe it was my time to die but several times it looked like my finish, as the ship lost altitude fast before I was untangled. It was diving at 350 miles an hour. There I was hanging like a broken tree limb."

Three of us had driven thirty miles through a hail and windstorm to see the missing pilot.

Capt. Henry M. Ltcher suggested that McCrumby would get the Purple Heart. Capt. Bernards Proctor reminded him that he was now a member of the Caterpillar Club, mythical organization of pilots who bail out and live to tell the story. But McCrumby wasn't interested. He had but one thing to say: "All I want is to get back into the air. I must get a Jerry now."

He needs a new pair of GI shoes, as the heel and sole of his right shoe were ripped off in the fall. McCrumby joined the 99th last August in Sicily, and has thirty-five missions to his credit. He registered a damaged plane on January 27.

When Peace Comes, Joe Wants Conn

One of the things which stamps S/Sgt. Joe Louis world's heavyweight champion, as the biggest big brother to millions of GI Joes all over the world has his big heart.

As an entertainer with the special service troupe to which he is assigned, the champion has a set schedule for boxing three times a week and appearances at hospitals, camps and theatres on two other days, with one day off a week.

The Mustang fighter group's base was not listed on Joe's regular slate in August, and it would have been necessary for the soldiers to travel 50 miles to see the champion in action, so Joe took his day off to come to the flat, dusty airbase to mingle with the boys.

Accompanied by S/Sgt. Jimmy Edgar, Detroit, and Sergeant Jackie (California) Wilson, Los Angeles, the champion arrived just in time to see the pilots, led by their daily long-range missions deep into enemy territory.

"These fellows sure can fly," Joe opined as he sat beside First Lt. William C. Wyatt, group special service officer, in a jeep, watching the sleek, silver Mustangs zoom in one after the other for neat landings on the metal-stripped runway.

Joe met the colonel, sipped a cool lemonade with him, then strolled over to the group's briefing room, where Col. Davis happily pointed out all the places the group has flown on the giant wall map.

Joe glanced proudly at the white-washed wall of the group, on which is listed sixty-three victories. He enjoyed the rare privilege of sitting in on the mission's critique and addressed the fliers at it conclusion.

Revealing no sign of his much-discussed reticence, the champion declared, "I am glad to see you fellows. I've been keeping up with you in the papers. I have visited many airfields and have spoken to a lot of pilots; they all speak well of you and give you lots of credit."

Joe then beat it down to the line where the cry, "Here comes Joe," stopped all work as grease-stained mechanics, dusty truck drivers, perspiring radiomen, clerks and even the group's orphaned mascot, Junior Davis (an Arab), sauntered around to get a bird's-eye view of the champ.

The soldiers had a photographer's picnic as Joe posed with Junior Capt. Joseph D. Elsberry, winner of the DFC, several other pilots and horde of hero-worshipping GIs.

The champion then saw some battle films showing air victories of the group and toured the camp, stopping for brief periods at all the squadrons enlisted men's clubs.

He was driven about the post by Sgt. Virgil M. Poole, Sr., Chicago, with Pfc. John Wilson, 639 Second Street, Northeast, Washington, and Lieutenant Wyatt accompanying him.

He chatted with Lt. Bernie Jefferson, famed Northwestern University football star, and admired the clubs which are tagged with such attractive names as Panther Room, Century Club, and Hellion Club.

Sgt. Joe Louis will soon have appeared before over two million GIs.

His troupe hit the million mark during his tour of the States, adding 30,000 in England. Some 50,000 soldiers turned out for the show in Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. In his first Italian exhibition, held in the beautiful garden of the old king's palace in August, 1944, the world champion had an overflow crown rolling in proverbial aisles with a 20-minute skit of wisecracks up by the troupe.

After watching Joe toy with mediocre opponents in GI exhibitions for six rounds within three days, here in San Severno, Italy, I must record for posterity's sake that the world heavyweight champion has developed into an expert showman.

Because opponents are always below par, the champion never uncorks any Sunday punches, but now and then he fakes terrific uppercuts and flicks a rapid fire of left jabs--reminders of the old days when he was slapping down foe after foe.

He still maintains that stony expression while in the ring, but whereas his face lacks humor, his actions do not. He wows the GI crowds merely by the manner in which he handles his usually half-scared, hopelessly inferior foes.

He has had to take on any soldier brave enough to try the three-round ordeal for most of the Italian shows, because M/Sgt. George Nicholson, who was his spar mate for seven years, is temporarily indisposed.

Nicholson remained in a Corsica hospital after the troupe's visit to the island, suffering with ear trouble, sustained during his numerous plane trips.

Sgt. Joe Miller, white, ex-Philadelphia pro, volunteered to be the lamb to be tossed to the champion Tuesday evening. Miller was in the ring, and that was about all in so far as boxing was concerned. Joe toyed a while, then turned the show into strict entertainment for the GI's by coyly spanking his foe on the rear with his right, after twisting Miller around with a series of lefts.

Joe would also pat the referee's posterior at the breaks, much to the delight of the crowd.

It is equally difficult to find foeman for the other members of the troupe--Sgt. Jackie (California) Wilson, Sgt. Jimmy Edgar and Sgt. Bob Smith--so their contribution is reduced to a pre-show mike interview in which they do a round of kidding about the "buzz bombs" they were forced to duck in England.

Smith, who was Joe's sparmate for nine months in civilian life, asserted: "Joe is tougher than the buzz bombs," and significantly all of them declared, "No other country compares with good old U.S."

Sgt. Robert Payne, Cleveland, Ohio, serves as Joe's trainer on the tour.

In a question-and-answer chat about his former foes, Joe emphasized that Billy Conn was "the toughest," King Levinsky, "the cleanest because he didn't last long enough to be otherwise," and Max Baer "the best punch-taker."

Then came the oft-repeated question, "Will you get too tired to defend your title?" and Joe replied without hesitation, "I won't get too tired, but I might get too old."

Later, Joe talked it over with me, and here's how he feels about his fistic future:

"On a tour like this you get irregular meals and not too much sleep, but give me three or four months on a regular diet, and I'll be in shape.

"A lot of heavyweights have been pretty good when they are a lot older than I am." (Joe was 30 last May 13)

The champion continued, "When I do fight again as a civilian, I want Billy Conn. He gave me plenty trouble and I still get a lot kidding about that one. If I handle Conn, then I will make other plans; but I really want Conn first."

Louis cites the record book as proof that he is not an ancient fighting man at the ripe old age of 30. Significantly, he points out:

John L. Sullivan won the title at 31 and lost it at 34. Jim Corbett blew the duke to Bob Fitzsimmons at 31, and Fitz was 35 at the time and 37 when he was knocked out by Jim Jeffries. Jeffries retired unbeaten, then came back at 35 to get kayoed by Jack Johnson.

Johnson was 30 when he slapped down Tommy Burns for the crown, and 37 when he bowed out of the picture to Jess Willard in Havana. Willard was 32 when he won the title and at 36 he was whipped by Jack Dempsdey. Dempsey was 28 when Gene Tunney trimmed him, and Max Schmeling 25 when he won over Jack Sharkey on a foul.

Joe has again refused a commission and remains a staff sergeant, because he feels that the informality with which enlisted men can greet him is greater when he is one of the boys than if he were an officer.

Inside Rome

The day after the Allies took control of the Eternal City, I was a visitor.

With Cpl. Richard Dunlap of New Haven, Conn., and Correspondent Lem Graves, I took a long jeep ride up the shell-marred highway, passing the bomb-battered towns of Formia, Itri, Fondi, Terracina, Littoria, Nettuno, Anzio and Velletri, up the hill to Albano and into the capital city.

Anzio, where rich Romans used to play, the rubble and debris of battle has left the seashore resort resembling a pastoral junk pile. Other towns showed unmistakable evidence of fierce fighting by the swiftly advancing Fifth Army.

By striking contrast, Rome is a city of beauty. The Eternal City of historic fame as the battle-ground for many ancient wars, still stands in all it\s glory, with only isolated earmarks of war apparent.

The damage to Rome, first capital city liberated by the Allies, has been slight. A railway station had been bombed near the outskirts, and a building here and there shattered, but otherwise there was little evidence of battle.

Modernity was in abundance, blending magnificently with the city's ancient ruins. Water mains, telephone and lighting systems had been sabotaged by the retreating Germans, but before our departure, the city was fast returning to normalcy, with the natives throwing welcome arms around the invading Allies of all races and creeds.

The city was jammed with sight-seeing soldiers., Pfc. Clifton Teacraft of Newark, Pvts. Arnett Newton of Gary, Okla., and Willie Jones of Springfield, Tenn., up from Anzio, where their engineering unit had done heroic work, were marveling at the sights.

Pvts. Samual Poole, 940 Westminster Street, Northwest, Washington; James Hanbough, St. Louis; William Sheridan, 537 Warner Street, Philadelphia, and PFC. William Berian, Chicago, taking time off from supplying troops with food, excitedly exclaimed: "This is wonderful!"

Soldiers were not as numerous as in Naples, because a pass was required to enter the city, and they were busy moving guns, food and fuel up to the front line, which was now fifty miles past Rome.

Wherever our jeep stopped, a crowd quickly gathered. People wanted to know where we were from, what we did, and did we like Rome. In concert, we invariably replied, "Bella Roma." Every urchin wanted to be our companion on a tour of the city.

Two odd incidents occurred. A girl who looked to be about 20 and said she was Jewish and had been hiding from the Germans, stopped her bicycle in front of our jeep and asked for cigarettes for her grandmother, who, she said, had not an American smoke in years; so we obliged.

At another stop, an elderly Italian about 65 ran over to the jeep, wiped his hands across the bronzed face of our driver; then looked amazed when he discovered his hands were not stained.

He smiled, "Welcome!" The incident indicated to us that few colored people had been seen in Rome, and at the same time, that we were greeted without discrimination.

His voice had that ring of sincerity. There was nothing theatrical or artificial about his actions as was the case with some of the handclasping by natives in Southern Italy, where want and poverty necessitated.

The people here appeared to be much better provided for, perhaps because the war has not hit them as hard as in other peninsula towns.

Our tour carried us to the ancient monumental Basilicas, the Colosseum, across the piazzo St. Pietro, and past Swiss guards in their sky-blue summer uniforms into the famed St. Peter's Cathedral.

The cathedral is the last word in beauty. Saintly images in color and stone line its spacious halls, priceless paintings cover the walls, and it windows are of stained glass.

Everybody marveled at its ancient beauty, the handiwork of the world's greatest artists. GI's who bypassed it in their hurried advance through the ancient city are sure to return for as visit, for seeing Italy without visiting Rome would never do.

In an interview with Maj. McDonald Adams of the Fifth Army, it was learned that the possibilities of going into action are very remote for the 366th Infantry unit commanded by Col. Howard P. Queen. The Fifth Army sought use of the group, but prior orders committed it to the present task of guarding airfields.

A report by high officials after an inspection of the group indicated that it was ready for action, but no change in assignment is apparent.

 

Copyright 2001-, Terry Muse
Revised: December 30, 2001
URL: http://black_and_hispanic.tripod.com/blackhistory/
Contact: Terry Muse