|How we almost set the harbor at Tunis on Fire
by Joe Donato, 17th BG, 37th BS
March 12, 1943 was moving day for Ben Dodds and myself. We were vacating our half below, half above ground two-man but that had shelter halves for a cover.
Six-man pyramidal tents were being issued to the 37th combat crews, This was a much batter situation for us. A whole crew would be under one roof, above ground and dry, with more room for each man and the convenience of a homemade stove to cook our eggs on.
The 17th Bomb Group had been at muddy Telergma for some time. The field site was located on a smooth plain between a range of low mountains near the small town of Telergms, about 30 miles from the ancient city of Constantine. Our targets had been Axis bridges, airfields and shipping. And while the enemy had been hurt, it was not done without losses to us.
On Feb. 24 the 37th lost 3 of the 6 planes k sent out with group in a raid on Alouina airfield outside of Tunis.
The end of February saw Rommel pushed back from the Kasserine area where his armor was only a few hours away from our field. Our crews were becoming more professional under such pressure. And for relaxation we had found the city of Constantine and the hot mineral baths at Sidi Athmenia
Late in the afternoon of the 12th the call came out that the next day's mission schedules were being posted, something eagerly watched since that would tell which crews would be flying as the sun came up.
My name was posted, which wasn't unusual. But this time one crew, the one 1 was scheduled to go with, had been set aside, separate from the other crews, on the bottom of the page. The order stated this crew will fly aircraft 11970, 10:30 takeoff time, X mission.
"X mission," what the hell was that? And bringing a crew chief along too!
After chow and most of that evening we tried to figure out what an "X" mission would be. No one seemed to know. So after much speculation between ourselves we ate our snack of fried eggs and went to sleep.
March 13, morning was snappy and clear. We ate early breakfast, and went out to ship 6970, which showed a pygmy African warrior blowing & dart gun painted on its nose with the bettering "A Shade Raunchy" - just a shade.
We pulled the usual pre-flight checks with its ground crew, but our cargo caused even more speculation. We carried no bomb load. Instead, several large wooden boxes and half a dozen 20 foot lengths of 1-inch galvanized water pipe were loaded on board and fitted into the bomb bays.
Only Lt. Boone had been briefed. When he came out to the ship about 10 a.m., he only smiled when we inquired what was up? He kept tapping an envelope with his fingers and said we have sealed orders. We would all know as soon as we were airborne, he said. So we shrugged off the uncertainty, ran the props through, taxied out, and took off. In the air, we circled the field once, while Lt. Boone opened the orders ceremoniously. He announced we were to go to the French airfield a Biskra, about 150 miles south of Telergma There we were to "proceed as instructed."
The flight to Biskra took about an hour. We flew over the rough back of the Atlas mountains with peaks 6,000 feet high and rugged, rocky valleys below. We passed over then at 9,000 feet. As we started to descend for our approach, I could see a camel caravan plodding along a trail In the foothills. Then the desert came into view. We made an easy approach to Biskra. The airfield, about 2 miles from town was just flat hard ground without benefit of a tower. We landed on a well marked-up strip, taxied over to a small metal hangar that could have been a relic of World War 1. It had "Aerodrome dl Biskra" In weathered letters over the front entry.
As we exited the ship a squad of French soldiers stood at attention for us - a gesture of recognition we hadn't expected. And we were greeted by an ordnance detachment of about 12 men commanded by a Capt. Race. Also on hand were 2 full colonels to add Importance to our mission. They were observers. The first, Cal. Campbell was an Air Force officer, a personal representative of President Roosevelt, we later learned. The second, Col. Stuart was an Infantry officer and a West Point man. After Introductions we secure! the ship and French soldiers were parted to guard it. And it was only then 1 realized that routine and "raunchy" elf 970 now had a glamorous Norden eight on board.
We were taken into town - but not for easy living. We were set up in a rusty place, the ancient hotel Transatlantique In the center of town, a flea-bag with a fancy name. Each of us was issued a mattress cover, straw to fill it, and 2 blankets. The full crew was set up in one oversize room on the ground floor. This was to be home for our stay here, however long that would be. There was also a 6-man R.A.F. maintenance crew from a Beaufighter squadron stranded here. They had a couple of equally rusty smaller rooms. The Englishmen and ourselves filled the hotel up.
Our first job came that afternoon when we went back to the field to help Crew Chief Larsen put some plugs In the airscoops so that blowing sand would not get into the air intakes.
Biskra airfield had been used earlier by the Germans and by U.S. P-38's. But now all that remained were a few old French twin engine bombers that had escaped from the German occupation of France. There also was a large twin engine b4-plane that at one time had been at a Paris airfield. It must have been at least 20 years old and had some Rube Goldberg contraptions to keep It airborne. The whole flying picture seemed more linked to the past than the future.
The next morning we were picked up at the Transatlantique by a weapons carrier and brought to the airfield to start work on our mysterious mission.
And it was surprising. Our job, we learned, was to air drop homemade "gas and rubber bombs," something none of us had eve seen before.
Capt. Race and his men were working on a highly flammable device. This consisted of a 50 gallon gas drum that was half filled with chips of rubber hacked off of a large block of crude rubber with machetes. The balance of the drum was then dropped off with gasoline. This mixture would set overnight and become a jellylike mass in the drum.
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