Interview with a  fighter pilot

Capt. Darrell Welch

1st Pursuit Group

Colonel Darrell Welch

USAF (retired)

The following is an abbreviated transcript of a recorded interview

 

          I started college in 1935, a few years after the Great Depression wrecked the economy. By the summer of 1940, I was working hard to return to the University of Texas in Austin for a degree in petroleum engineering. My college career had been interrupted by a severe cash shortage. During the two years I attended, I worke two jobs.

          My National Youth Administration job paid twenty-five cents per hour. Good money for the time but it was limited to a maximum of $15 per month.

          My other job was waiting tables and washing dishes in a small family-style restaurant. Here, I received meals for pay but no wages and of course, poverty being the standard of the time, people seldom tipped. I ate lunch when I arrived and had dinner before I left. 

          My NYA job was in the Journalism Building, where I helped the janitor sweep and mop from 5:45 to 7:45 each morning, before I attended my 8:00 class. I worked hard to keep this job and so during my sophomore year, I was promoted to the Geology Building, where I duplicated oil-well logs.

          My older brother helped me with enough money to buy books and pay tuition each semester, but at the end of my second year, he got married and my 'student loan' program ended.

          About mid-October 1940, I had to register for the Selective Service draft. I heard that two years of college credits met the educational requirements for the Army Air Corp’s Flying Cadet program. I had the credits, and didn't like the idea of being infantry. Even though I had never been in an airplane, flying seemed like a good way to go, in many ways. For me, I would rather die in a blazing flash than bleed to death in the mud. The more I thought about flying, the more it looked good to me. 

          I went to the local airfield where you could buy a short hop for five dollars. An awful lot of money at the time, but I wanted to be sure this was something I could do since I had never been in an airplane.

          In July, my older sister was planning a trip to Austin [Texas] from Midland where I graduated high school and where I now lived and worked. I rode with her to Austin, then borrowed her car, and drove to Randolph Field outside San Antonio to get application forms for the Flying Cadet program. 

          I don't remember now, but I guess I didn't know how to get the forms by mail, or maybe I was in a hurry to get my application in. Hitler had Europe on its knees with his Blitzkriegs and his eyes on Britain. It didn't take a genius to guess he wasn't stopping there, so war for America was coming. 

          The air corps quickly sent me to Fort Bliss for a physical examination. I rode a Greyhound bus to El Paso, then early the next morning caught the city bus to Fort Bliss. All seemed to be going well until the end of the exams I was directed to one of the many stations for a re-examination. Again, they checked my blood pressure, heart rate, and rate of recovery after exercising and while at rest. During the examination I finally ask what the problem was. I was told that I had failed my "Snyder." Of course, I had never heard the term, and frankly never heard of one since. Apparently it was a combination of a number of readings.

          When I returned to my hotel, I wasted no time getting to a doctor’s office. Fortunately, a medical building was only a block away. After entering the building, I looked at the register, selected a name from several doctors, rode the elevator to the third floor and his receptionist immediately ushered me into the exam room

          After hearing my story, he checked my blood pressure, and assured me there was no problem. He told me I was just over-anxious to pass the exams. He said he could give me a pill to ensure that I would pass the exams, but it was not really necessary. He told me to eat a light evening meal and consume no coffee, alcohol, or meat. The next morning, I was to eat no breakfast and drink only one glass of water. I passed the tests with flying colors but was brought back a month later for a final check.

          On October 14, 1940, one day before the start of the draft, I took my oath in Lubbock, Texas, and boarded a train for Glendale, California, where I entered Primary Pilot Training at one of the Cal-Aero contract schools.

          We were housed in a building that was formerly a nightclub. We slept on cots  in the ballroom. The planes were hangared nearby, at Glendale Terminal, where I occasionally saw Wallace Beery and Jimmy Stewart when they came there to fly. Because the area was too congested for local cadet training, each morning the civilian instructors, with one cadet each in tow, would take the PT-17s across the San Fernando Valley, through Newhall Pass, to a wheat field from which we operated. The remaining cadets, along with box lunches, rode buses to the field. 

          Several times, I saw P-38 prototypes from the nearby Burbank Lockheed factory. I think they had only two YP-38s flying. It was such a good-lookin' plane that I really wanted to fly it.

          The next course was at Randolph Field in San Antonio. Upon graduation, I expected to go across town to Kelly Field for Advanced training, but I was ordered to Barksdale Field near Shreveport, Louisiana, to attend the second class of twin-engine training. We flew old bombers like the B-10, B-12, and B-18s, because twin-engine trainers like the AT-9 were not yet available.

          We studied bombsights, too, so I fully expected to be assigned to a bombardment group upon graduation. Bombsights back then were top secret so we did not even talk about them outside the classroom.

           May 29, 1941, on graduation day I was thrilled when five new second lieutenants, including me, were ordered to Selfridge Field, Michigan, and assigned to the 1st Pursuit Group. There I flew P-35s, P-36s, and P-43s for about two months before my squadron, the 27th, became the first in the Army Air Corps to be equipped with the new P-38 Lightning. In September the 27th went on maneuvers in Beaumont, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Savannah, Georgia; and Columbia, South Carolina. We lost one pilot in a mid-air collision during simulated combat with a P-40.

          I went back to Selfridge Field and went on leave to Midland, which I call my hometown, on December 7, 1941, to get my wife and drive back to Selfridge field. We were at Sunday dinner and had just finished eating when the news of Pearl Harbor came over the news. It took me two days to get back up to Selfridge Field and when I got there, the entire group had gone to the West Coast.

          They had a P-38 undergoing engine change. The regular mechanics had already gone to California. The guys still there, I guess, were transit mechanics - just part replacement artists - and pronounce it ready. So I’d go out and test-hop it and the engine would cut-out about the time I’d pull off the runway. I hauled it back in and they continued tinkering with it for the better part of a month, replacing parts until they finally hit on the right one. The P-38 was kinda complicated so I didn’t leave Selfridge until the early part of January of ‘42 in a snowstorm. Thinking back on that day I was in hurry to get gone finally, but in a plane that would fly.

          I went down to Wright-Patt field in Ohio and hooked up with Willie Long, another pilot, just returning from his honeymoon. Willie was actually getting married while the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor, and came out of the church when the news hit him.

          That morning Willie and I were to go but it had snowed the night before so we had to get the planes inside a hangar to melt all the snow off. After we got the ice melted we couldn't get anyone to help us pull the planes back out because the base was a mad-house of activity.

          So Willie said, ‘I’ll get this tug and we get ‘em out.’ He got the tug and hooked up his plane and pulled it outside. The angle coming out of the hangar was a bit catty-wampus ‘cause the operations building stuck out a bit. I thought he was going to clear it but it didn’t. The wing tip went into one of the windows and we could see the typewriter brigade hitting the deck in a panic! I always wondered what those guys thought when that wing smashed into the office. 

          I didn’t want to be held up any more so I told Willie, ‘See ya later.’ I flew to Shreveport and spent that night at Barksdale. 

          The next morning I headed to Midland Texas. I figured I’d be going to fight the Japs so when I got over Midland I thought I’d better let ‘em know I’m on my way. No one talked about it but I realized, and probably everyone else, that war is situation where a lot of people are going to get killed. So this was my good-bye.

         Anyway, my dad worked for Atlantic pipeline. When heading west, the first thing you see when you get to Midland is the Atlantic tank farm: great big white tanks. So I went down right in between a row of tanks and I had to look up to see the guys on top of the tanks. They had earth berms around each tank but I didn’t go that low. I had about one wingspan distance on each side of me. I climbed out into a chandelle and dropped back in between the tanks again. After that I went downtown, worked the town over. Then I went out to the edge of town where my folks lived and worked it over. Later, they said there was guy working on a windmill and he jumped off the windmill when I blew through.

          After that I ran out to a place where I had worked summers when I was in college. I had a cousin working there so I worked the plant over. After buzzing any family I could, I went over to El Paso and landed for fuel. I was anxious to get fuel and get out of Texas. A guy drove up and refueled me while I ran into base ops and filed a visual flight plan. I didn’t ask about the weather. Ran back out to the plane, jumped in, cranked up and went to San Diego. I love buzzing! You couldn’t do that today. They’d court-martial you. But no one said a word to me.

          We were stationed at Mines Field (now Los Angeles International Airport) where we flew patrols, stood alerts, and trained. Once, there was a false alarm when radar picked up a weather balloon and every anti-aircraft gun in LA started shooting at this thing. I’m sure there was flak shrapnel falling everywhere. 

        My wife and I had an apartment about a block up from the coast on Hermosa Beach. We had no idea that another block away from us was an anti-aircraft cannon, it was so well camouflaged. But after that night my wife knew it was there.

          During the night, a gas station had burned and they thought that it was connected to the ruckus somehow. The next morning we took off and went looking for them. But of course, there were no Japs. But we didn't know they had such limited capabilities. Besides, everyone knows that the best defense is a good offense, and the Japs had already shown us at Pearl Harbor that they had every intention in making the best offense.

          People need to understand that a war is where a people has decided to use all available means to subjugate another people to their will for their purpose. In hind sight, we now know 'God help us if the Germans and Japs had won.' The demographics of the world would be very different than what we see today. I doubt the Axis Forces would have provided anything like the Marshall Plan

          When I flew a dawn patrol up and down the coast, I finished by dropping down to the water and zipping by Santa Monica pier, pass it, and then turn in and pull up directly over our apartment to wake my wife up. That was her morning alarm.

          One morning, Willie Long ran out of gas. He forgot to switch tanks and ran out. With altitude, it’s no problem at all. But he was too slow and too low to the water. He parked his P-38 just off the beach. Willie seemed to be a very lucky chap. He’s the first to land a P-38 in the water and land one gear-up. That was back in Michigan when his landing gear was stuck and he had the option of bailing out or belly-landing. Wisely, he decided to belly-land.

          We had a couple of boys try to bail out of the P-38 and both got killed. One lost his legs and bled to death on the way down in his parachute. I never had to bail out but if I had to, I’d roll inverted and release the restraints. Makes good sense for a quick exit from a burning airplane too.

          I flew only one aerial gunnery mission against a towed target sleeve, and two ground-target missions while we were there. The ground targets were at Muroc Dry Lake—later Edwards Air Force Base—where we fired, landed on the lakebed, and scored our own targets. To me now, it didn't seem like enough training for combat against experienced German pilots.

          In May, we left California for Bangor, Maine, to begin preparations for the first group of fighter planes to cross the Atlantic. Since the P-38 had so little navigation equipment, the plan called for four P-38s to fly formation on one B-17. To ensure that we could keep in formation in case of bad weather, we practiced flying in heavy clouds. The first four ships of my flight were assigned to a B-17 from the 98th Heavy Bombardment Group. I flew the wing of a B-17 pilot named Lipsky. He took us through some very dark clouds, but we were able to keep in formation by flying below his wing, so that a larger profile was visible. We had no problems staying in formation. Lipsky was killed on his second or third mission in North Africa.

          Late June of [19]42, we completed the leg from Bangor to Goose Bay, Labrador. Then the first week of July, my flight made the first of three over-water legs. We flew to Bluie West-1 on the southwest coast of Greenland. The airfield bordered a fjord and lay between two mountains. The only runway was made of pierced steel planking, what we called PSP, and it sloped uphill from the fjord, which became the base leg of the landing approach. The final approach was very short. I followed a 90-degree turn at low altitude just off the end of the runway. After the right turn onto the runway, stopping was easy, because the runway sloped fairly steeply uphill. There was some question about being able to abort a landing and make a successful go-around. I think the P-38 could have done so, but larger planes might not. The pattern was reversed for takeoff: a downhill run from the upper end of the runaway followed by a left turn down the fjord was the only pattern available.

          A few days later, Baker Flight left Bluie West-1, climbed over the Greenland ice cap, and arrived safely at Reykjavik, Iceland. The next day, we moved to Patterson field near Keflavik, where the 27th remained on local air defense for about six weeks.

          One August 14, I heard a large airplane thunder over my Nissen hut billet. I ran outside to see a German four-engine FW-200 Kondor reconnaissance plane flying directly over our base at only a coupla hundred feet of altitude. The flight on alert, led by the squadron commander, Major Bill Weltman, took off in hot pursuit of the FW-200. P-39s from the 33rd Fighter Squadron, which was permanently stationed in Iceland, joined in the chase. Major Weltman's guns jammed, so his wingman, 2nd Lt. Elza Shahan, made the next pass. The FW-200 had already been set on fire by a P-39 pilot, 2nd Lt. Joseph Shaffer. Shahan later said he planned to fire his guns at close range, then fly underneath the big plane, but instead he fired and flew through it. As he was firing, the plane exploded in a great blast that rained debris over Reykjavik Bay. So Shahan and Shaffer technically became the first U.S. pilots to shoot down a German plane in World War II, and both were awarded the Silver Star.

          Late August, we completed the final leg of our flight to England. We landed briefly at Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, then on to Ayr, Scotland. Four days later, we flew to the midlands to a Royal Air Force base, High Ercall, where we remained until September 15, when we moved to Colerne near Bath. The rest of the 1st Fighter Group was then in the southern part of England.

          Orders promoting me to captain caught up with me at High Ercall. While at Colerne, we trained with the RAF and escorted B-17s on daylight bombing missions over France. We saw German fighters, but had little contact.

          On November 6, the 27th left Colerne for southern England in preparation for the flight to North Africa. Not until I attended a briefing on November 8 did I learn that our destination was North Africa. The weather was bad. We made abortive attempts to leave on November 12 and 13. Finally, on the fourteenth, we were successful. We used Martin B-26 Marauders for navigation. Once again, it was four P-38s in formation with each B-26. I sat strapped in my P-38 for eight and a half-hours enroute to La Senia Airdrome outside Oran. The trip down the Atlantic south from England, through the Straits of Gibraltar, then across the Mediterranean. 

            At a point opposite Gibraltar, near Point Almina, Spanish Morocco, a burst of flak exploded between my plane and the B-26 on which I was flying formation. Fortunately, I was in loose formation, or I might have been an early casualty. I quickly took evasive action by changing speed, altitude, and direction; I dove away from the coast. I don’t know what Spanish Morocco was doing, shooting at us but they did.

          When we arrived at La Senia, we found the runways damaged by bombs, so we were immediately sent to Tafaraoui Airdrome, 20 miles to the south. A week later, the 27th moved to Nouvion, a stubble field next to an old French Foreign Legion post 50 miles east of Tafaraoui.

          After abortive missions to Sardinia on November 23 and 24, Tunis on the twenty-fifth and Biserte on the twenty-ninth, I finally completed my first bomber-escort mission in North Africa, to Biserte on November 30.          

          On December 2, we suffered our first losses with three pilots missing (all later confirmed killed) and one pilot hurt in a crash landing.

          It was about this time Willie Long was killed. His wife was pregnant and the telegram of the birth of his son went to England and then finally found its way to us in North Africa after he’d been killed.

          On December 14, the 1st Fighter Group moved to Bisqra Airdrome, on the northern edge of the Sahara Desert. I slept in my pup tent one night, then moved into the Transatlantic Hotel in town. From Bisqra, we escorted B-17s, B-26s, and B-25s, on bombing mission into Tunisia and Libya. Later, we did strafing sweeps against Rommel’s equipment as he retreated west into Tunisia, where he made his daring attack at Kasserine Pass. One day, I flew a B-17 escort mission in the morning over Kasserine Pass, and that afternoon I escorted P-38s on a strafing mission against German Army tanks in the pass.

          When I moved into the Transatlantic Hotel, I had two roommates, Ted Runyon and Bert Weil, but they were both shot down. Both survived and wound up in a German prisoner-of-war camp.

          On January 18, 1943, I scored my first kill (aerial victory). A Messerschmitt ME-109. 1st Lt. John Wolford also got a 109, and became the first ace in the squadron. He was later killed in action.

          The sandstorms at Bisqra got worse, until we finally lost a pilot and his plane in take-off position when another plane landed on top of him. On February 1, we left the sandstorms of Bisqra for the mud of Chateau Dun-du-Rumel, and gave up our hotel room for a tent.

          On March 23rd, we escorted B-26s to bomb supply ships in the Mediterranean. The bombers dropped their bombs and we left the target area when we encountered some ME-109s. I turned into them and made a head-on attack. As we closed, he turned to his left and made himself an ideal target at close range. I fired my guns and I was sure I was hitting him although it was a deflection shot. Someone in the squadron confirmed the kill.

          March 24, 1943, I took command of the 27th Fighter Squadron. Like a bunch of pilots during the war, I had gone from a second lieutenant to a squadron commander in less than two years. In fact, I would be promoted to major on May 5.

          My most memorable mission occurred on April 5, 1943. I was nearing the end of my tour and expected to return to the States quite soon. I had been overseas almost a year and in combat most of that time, but I had shot down only two enemy. Escort duty doesn't give you the chance to shoot down, because our job was to protect the bombers by staying with them. Had we been free to run-off, I’m sure we could have racked up a bunch more kills.  This was ego and stupid but there was no way I was going home without being an ace so I extended my tour. I wanted five kills so I could hold my head up.

          We knew that Rommel was receiving aerial resupply from Sicily in three-engine JU-52 transports. On April 1, I had led the squadron on a mission to intercept them, but we were turned back by bad weather. The weather started to improve, and by the fifth was just about perfect. On that day, I was assigned to lead the 27th to attack the transports. First Lieutenant Sammy Sears was to lead the 71st Fighter Squadron and provide top cover against the fighters that always accompanied the transports. We were thoroughly briefed on the route they flew, their altitude, and their fighter escort. We were to accompany a B-26 group, which was to be escorted by another P-38 fighter group, the 82nd Fighter Group as they conducted a raid against the fleet of ships that was also resupplying Rommel. At a certain point, I was to leave the B-26s and the 82nd Group P-38s and try to intercept the JU-52s.

          I got up very early on the fifth, because I had to fly to the B-26 base for a combined briefing. The weather was continuing to improve, my P-38 seemed to run especially well. My crewchief, Sergeant Kischner, always kept my plane in good running order and I felt that this day would be a successful intercept of the transports. Of course, we had no radar or electronic means to find the enemy, just dead reckoning.

          The combined briefing was pretty optimistic because we were definitely winning the North Africa campaign. The 1st Fighter Group P-38s were to stay with the B-26s at a low altitude as we flew north to the Mediterranean, then we were to turn northeast and stay far enough out from Tunisia to avoid interception by German fighters.

          After the briefing, the pilots from the 27th and 71st squadrons went to our planes and waited for the bombers to take off. After they were all airborne, and the 82nd had started to take off, we cranked our engines and taxied to the runway just in time to start our takeoff in pairs. We quickly joined up behind the bombers and their escort. The first part of the flight across Algeria and the Mediterranean was uneventful. Best of all, the weather continued to improve. My anticipation continued to build.

          About thirty minutes after we passed north of Tunis on an easterly heading, directly ahead of the B-26s, was a large convoy of ships steaming south. At that time, and in accordance with my orders, I turned southeast so as to intercept the direct air route from Sicily to Tunis. I had not flown more than fifteen minutes when directly ahead of me was a huge formation of oncoming transports, with a fighter escort above them. They were about fifty feet above the water in V formation and looked like a huge swarm of locusts in the distance when I first saw them. Later estimates placed the numbers at seventy JU-52s and thirty-one fighters.

          I was happy about that, after all the months in combat, I was finally able to tangle with the enemy without worrying about protecting bombers.

          I called Sammy Sears, the 71st leader, who was to provide top cover, and told him we had found our target. I flew directly toward the lead aircraft and in a head-on attack, knocked it out of the sky. As the JU-52s droned on toward Tunis, we made beam attacks against them. A short burst of machine-gun and cannon fire would set the transports ablaze, and they would go into the water. Each time I came around for another pass, I could see the trail of crashed planes in the water behind us.

          On my third or fourth pass, I saw tracer bullets coming from beneath my plane, toward the JU-52 I was preparing to shoot down. At that moment, a P-38 flew into view below me, so close that I don’t see how we missed colliding. I don’t know how he missed seeing me, either, as I was just above him. He was obviously concentrating on his target so I aborted that pass and circled for another attack.

          The air was filled with planes in a wild encounter. In addition to the fighters firing at us, the JU-52s each had a rearward mounted machine gun. My plane took several hits from them. Somewhere in there, I lost my wingman. Nobody saw him go down, but he never returned and was presumed killed.

          As I started what turned out to be my final pass, Sammy Sears called to say it was getting too hot as more fighter planes were coming out from Tunis. He said he was exiting to the north, to our right. Despite this, I was a bit ace-hungry and pressed my attack, shooting down my third JU-52, giving me five kills - I'm now an ACE! I had actually shot down four, but I could only claim the three planes that could be confirmed.

          As the JU-52 went down, I made a bad mistake. I had been attacking the left side of the JU-52 formation, and was making left turns to position myself for the next pass. However, I automatically turned left again, away from the direction I needed to go to exit the area. My last attack had carried me over land at Cape Bon, and I was alone in the middle of German planes. All the P-38s were now ahead of me and moving away. I knew I was in serious trouble. I was at full throttle, and heading for the safety of the other P-38s, when I felt and saw the effects of the bullets. I looked back and saw two ME-109s firing at me from fairly close range. I knew I couldn't evade by turning, so I dived, zoomed, and skidded. I avoided most of their fire, but a lot of damage had already been done. The initial burst of fire had broken my cockpit canopy behind me, and a piece of Plexiglas had hit my right shoulder with great force. I assumed I had been hit by a bullet because I had heard that in the heat of battle you could be shot and not know it right away. Also, the supercharger on my left engine was knocked out, so I could get only partial power on that engine.

          In those few moments, a bunch of thoughts raced through my mind. I looked at the Mediterranean, lying so peacefully below me, and had an instant mental picture of me floating in my dinghy, waiting to be picked up and sent to a German prison camp to join many of my friends who were already there. I was mad, because I had just become an ace and would not get back to base to claim my victories. I knew that with partial power, despite my evasive maneuvers, it was only a matter of time before the two 109s would hit me with a good shot that would knock my plane out of the sky, set it afire, or force me to bail out. I knew that all my group’s planes were out of range to help me. I had not called for them for help, nor was I going to do so; it was simply too late. I could not imagine anything that could save me now. 

          At that instant, above me, at the 11 o’clock position and heading directly toward me, were two P-38s. Because their propeller spinners were painted a distinctive pattern, I knew they were from the 82nd Group, which had escorted the B-26s on the shipping sweep. After their shipping sweep, the 82nd joined the JU-52 "shoot" and chalked up fifteen airplanes destroyed. They barely missed me as they dove head-on into the two 109s that had me in their sights. To this day, I do not know if they shot down the 109s or caused them to break off their attack on me, but I do know that I received no more fire and was able to make it back to base. To this day, I do not know the names of the pilots who saved me from being shot down, or even killed. I have held a warm spot in my heart for pilots from the 82nd Fighter Group ever since.

          Our mission received wide press coverage, since we destroyed thirty-one German and Italian airplanes. My hometown paper told of my victories in banner headlines. Many people around the country sent clippings to my wife and my parents. On April 11, I flew to Algiers to make a radio broadcast about the mission on NBC’s "Army Hour." And for leading the mission, I was awarded the Silver Star.

          I led the group on another JU-52 sweep on April 19, but we were unable to find any. However, our mission of the fifth was followed by other successful sweeps. On April 10, P-38s from the 71st Fighter Squadron shot down twenty JU-52s and eight fighters. And, next day, P-38s got twenty-six JU-52s and five fighters. We had put a serious obstacle in Germany’s efforts to resupply Rommel’s troops in North Africa.

          I completed my combat tour April 5th 1944, exactly one month after my most memorable mission and was promoted to major the same day. On May 10, me and three other pilots said good-bye to Chateau Dun-du-Rumel and the 1st Pursuit group as we departed for the good old U.S. of A. 

          Going home with me were 1st Lieutenant George Ross, the best wingman I ever had; Sammy Sears; and 1st Lieutenant Bob Sauer. We were transported to Algiers to receive orders sending us to the Fourth Air Force in San Francisco. After waiting in Algiers for several days, fully expecting to be sent home by boat, they announced we would travel by air. We rode C-46s and C-47s across Africa to Dakar, French West Africa, and crossed the Atlantic in an LB-30, the transport version of the B-24. We arrived in Florida and I was home.

 

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