The Flight of the Bumblebee
World War II's black pilots had two war to fight.
- By Louis R. Purnell
- Air & Space magazine, November 1989
(Page 3 of 7)
Finally, on April 15, 1943, we left for North Africa, and by June we had settled down to the business of war and begun flying missions in our P-40s. Although we were resented by some of the white fliers, we found that a strong feeling of camaraderie usually prevailed among fighter pilots regardless of their race. I learned that the day I experienced my first close call.
The squadron was returning from a dogfight near the Italian island of Pantelleria, and we were still out over the Mediterranean when my engine began to act up and stream black smoke. Aware that a smoking engine could attract attention, low on fuel, and anxious to reach land, the squadron made a decision. It poured on the coal and left me dangling. The minutes that followed were some of the longest of my life.
I saw four planes in the distance approaching from my left. I flicked the gun switch to “on,” although the odds were against me, and prepared to go down fighting. I was one happy soul when I recognized that the four planes were not Hitler’s boys but the white squadron based near us. They stayed with me until I was over land.
On July 2, a group of Luftwaffe fighters came up to attack the bombers we were escorting. Our squadron broke formation and counter-attacked. A few minutes later Lieutenant Charles B. Hall of Brazil, Indiana, shot down a Focke-Wulf 190, becoming the first black Air Corps pilot to down an enemy aircraft.
That afternoon we celebrated, and “C.B.” was awarded the closely guarded squadron prize, which had been held in a safe since May for just this occasion. Eyes and mouths watered as C.B. took the chilled bottle of Coca-Cola and guzzled it down to the last drop.
Since the taking of the island of Pantelleria, which was the first battle in history in which air power alone completely destroyed all enemy resistance, the 99th had been taking on an increasing role of ground attack: dive-bombing and strafing. Although we thought of it as dirty work, we had become dive-bombing experts, and I considered dive-bombing and strafing my specialties.
July 14 found the 99th well established at Biscari airfield, which had just been captured by the ground forces. We continued to attack enemy strongholds and patrol the area, as well as perform armed reconnaissance. Yet we were criticized by the high Air Corps officials for not scoring more aerial victories. They began to question our courage. We wondered how we were supposed to win aerial battles when we had been ordered to perform ground attack.
Our job was to work on the infantry front lines. As the bomb line moved north, so did we. By the time we moved to Cefalù in northern Sicily, I had completed my tour of duty—50 missions.