Personal Stories

April 18, 1943 Goose Shoot – “The Palm Sunday Massacre”

The story has been told, and retold, beginning on that fantastic April 18, 1943. Papers all across the U.S., as well as elsewhere, trumpeted the story of how the 57th downed at least 74 Axis planes (while losing not more than 6) and causing an estimated equal number to crash land to avoid being shot down. Even though great happenings were expected from the 57th, which had become known as “America’s Flying Circus”, that Palm Sunday event was beyond expectations even for them. The story got the front-page headlines from “Stars and Stripes”, the “Tripoli Times”, the “Egyptian Mail” and “Yank”. “Yank,” insisted on giving the name Charles to Col. Arthur Salisbury in both is July and September issues relating the story. A book, “Mediterranean Sweep” devoted a chapter to the story. The story surfaced in later years such as in the men’s magazine “Stag.” The members of the Group called it a “goose shoot”; the writers glamorized it with the name “The Palm Sunday Massacre.” The official reports are usually very austere and brief such as the Groups operational control; RAF Group 211’s report a well as the War Department’s public relations release. The 9th Air Force in its publication at that time “Desert Campaign” tells it quite eloquently:

Through the April skies over Cape Bon that Palm Sunday afternoon droned a hundred enemy transports escorted by upwards of fifty fighters, all flying perfect formation. In a matter of moments that drone welled to thunder. The armada had met the Fifty-seventh on patrol out of its current base, El Djem, Tunisia. Forty-six Warhawks with RAF Spitfires flying top cover swept in with blazing guns and the air became a whirling, screaming mass of diving planes and gunfire. Junkers transports blew up in mid air; Junkers dived into the sea and on to the beaches, some crash-landing. Some dropped like spent rockets, streaming smoke; some fluttered down in crazy-control like falling leaves; some landed in the water and bounced like skipped stones. Then the Messerschmitt fighters began falling through from above and it became a problem of dodging falling enemies while shooting others down. So closely packed and disorganized was the mass that it became difficult to keep clear of friendly fire.

The beaches and the surf below became littered with wreckage. Troops jumped from some of the planes as they neared the water, others poured out of crash landings on the beach. Eighty per cent of the wrecked planes were flamers and at one spot the sea beneath became a sheet of fire.

Up above the Spits fanned the ME-109 and 110’s down to the Warhawks’ fighting level and for fifteen blazing minutes hell reigned above and debris rained below. The Black Scorpions, Fighting Cocks, Exterminators, squadrons of the 57th well earned their names and the less experienced Yellow Diamonds showed what they had learned with a little plus over their mentors.

When the Warhawks had exhausted their fuel margins and had to turn homeward, the score stood at 75 planes destroyed, including 58 of the three-engined troop carrying JU-52’s and 14 high flying ME-109’s and 110’s and one Bf 109 and two Italian fighters who blundered up to the level of the Spits. Of eight American pilots missing after the battle two were reported the next day to have landed safely in friendly territory.

The few terse phrases of the routine mission report with comment in the language peculiar to American fighter pilots lends graphic detail to the story. The mission report, a typical one, came from the Commanding Officer of the 57th, Colonel Arthur G. Salisbury. An added touch was this aside from the youthful commander. “I’ve been telling everyone that the 57th is the greatest bunch of fliers in the desert, but now I won’t have to make that speil - everyone knows they are the greatest. Boy, am I happy!” The report continues: Mission time 16.50-19.05, 47 Warhawks ordered up on fighter sweep over enemy lines. One a-c returned early.

…Formation flew to point X, picked up cover, then NW to point A and along coast to point B, where 100 plus tri-motored transports were encountered (some Savoias but mostly JU-52’s) flying on deck in NE direction escorted by 50 plus ME-109’s and ME-110’s flying from 4,000 down to deck. Enemy a-c were engaged…

“Look around and take it easy, boys” came the voice of Captain James G. ‘Big Jim’ Curl on the interplane radio. “It may be a booby.” Curl, who is from Columbus, Ohio, was leading the 47-plane formation. He briefly searched the sky overhead to be sure the Spitfire cover was there, then on the radio again, this time less cautious and with a note of glee: “Juicy, juicy, juicy. Let’s get ‘em boys.”

Curl’s wingman reported; “After Curl gave the warning we went down, the two of us, full gun. The transports, meanwhile, must have seen us, for they went ahead wide open. This sudden spurt left twelve of fifteen stragglers behind the last V. Curl and I hit those. I fired on the first plane, which came into my sights. A short burst left his port engine burning. The flame trailed the whole length of the plane. The center or nose engine was also on fire. The Warhawks have three fifty-caliber guns in each wing and throw a lot of lead. I lost Curl during this pass. As I pulled up I saw the Junkers stall and hit the water with a big splash. I made a quick climbing turn and got on the tail of another transport - and then pulled away suddenly when I mistook antother Warhawk for a Jerry.

“All three Vs of the transports were turning toward land by now. I got my second Junkers near the beach – it crashed into the surf and exploded. Another crashed near it at the same time and I saw a Warhawk hit the water. There weren’t any chutes in the air. I don’t think the transports carried any. I had an inconclusive scrap with a Me-109 before I ran out of ammunition and found myself low on gas. That ended my part of the scrap.”

…Enemy a-c apparently not aware our presence until we struck… “They were flying the most beautiful formation I’ve ever seen,” was the comment of Lieut. William B. Campbell of Blissfield, Mich. “It seemed like the a shame to break it up. Reminded me of a beautiful propaganda film. They seemed to be without a leader after our first attack and just continued to fly straight ahead. That was suicide.”

…Some enemy a-c believed to have bellied in at point C, apparently a landing ground. Many a-c, 20 to 40 JU-52’s were seen to belly land on beach Cape Bon. Between 50 and 60 fires were observed in vicinity of beach…

“There were so many targets in the air and crashing into the deck, and so many of us after them, I was afraid I was going to be left out,” said Lieut. MacArthur Powers of Inwood, N.Y. “We almost fought among ourselves to get to the enemy.” Powers shot down four JU-52’s and an ME-109 within 20 minutes to cinch the title “ace”.
…A considerable number of personnel, many believed to be troops were reported by pilots to have leaped out of crashed e-a that bellied in…

Lieut. Harry Stanford of Munising, Mich., who accounted for three JU-52’s corroborated that report. He had a look at the scurrying personnel from deck level, and this is how he got there: “I got two transports with my guns, then drove on a third. But when I pressed the tit nothing happened; my guns were jammed. It made me so damn mad when the guns didn’t bark I decided to get that third guy if I had to dive him into the drink. Sure enough, he saw me coming and dived to get away, and he couldn’t pull out. He went in with a tremendous splash. I skimmed along the deck and sailed for home. You should have seen those Jerries scram from the wrecks on the beach.”

…The pilots of the ME-109’s were considered to have flown their a-c in a confused and inferior fashion after the engagement began, probably due to the low altitude and disorganization caused by the Spitfire attacks above.

“The ME’s were all messed up,” said Lieut. R.J. Byrne of St. Louis, MO., who shot down three of them, from his position in top cover with the Spitfires. “I got three of them, but that isn’t anything. Wait until the rest of the gang gets back. I had a ringside seat for the whole show. All you could see were those big ships coming apart in the air, plunging into the sea and crashing in flames on the beach. Their fighters couldn’t get in to bother our ball carriers at all.”

…80 per cent of the JU-52’s destroyed are estimated to have been flamers and very few transports, if any, left the target area…

Captain Roy Whittaker was leading an element of the Fighting Cocks, the second squadron to go down into the melee: “I attacked the JU-52’s from astern at high speed and fired at two planes in the leading formation. The bursts were short and the only effect I saw was pieces flying off the cabin of the second ship. I pulled away and circled to the right and made my second attack. I fired two bursts into two more 52’s-again in the leading formation. They both burst into flames. The second flew a little distance and then crashed into the water. I lost sight of the first and didn’t see it hit. I then made a third pass and sent a good burst into the left of the formation, at another Junkers. As I pulled away it crashed into the water. By that time the Me-109’s were among us. As I pulled up to the left I saw a 109 dive through an element of the four Warhawks and I tagged on his underside and gave him a long burst in the belly. He crashed into the sea from a thousand feet.

“I then joined up with some Warhawks which were luffberrying with six Me-109’s. I met one of these fighters with a quartering attack and hit him with a short burst. Pieces flew from the plane and he started smoking, but he climbed out of the fight.” Captain Whittaker claimed three JU-52’s and one Me-109 destroyed: One Ju-52 and one Me-109 damaged to run his victory string to seven: “It was a pilot’s dream. I’ve never seen such a complete massacre of the enemy in my life. I was afraid someone would wake me up.”

Lieutenant Richard Hunziker, another Fighting Cock pilot on his second combat mission spied what looked like “… a thousand black beetles crawling over the water.” I was flying wing ship on Major Thomas, who was leading our squadron. On our first pass I was so excited I started firing early. I could see the shorts kicking up the water. Then they hit the tail of a JU-52 and crawled up the fuselage. This ship was near the front of the first V. As I went after it I realized I was being shot at from transports on both sides. It looked as though they were blinking red flashlights at me from the windows. Tommy-guns, probably. The ship I was firing at hit the water in a great sheet of spray and then exploded. As I pulled away I could see figures struggling away from what was left of the plane.

“Id lost Major Thomas. There were so many Warhawks diving, climbing and attacking that it was difficult to keep out of the way of your own planes. I made a circle and then heard someone say, over the radio: “There’s M-109’s up here – come up and help us.” So I climbed to 5000 and flubbed around among the dogfights, not knowing just what to do. Finally I got on the tail of a 109. As I was closing I noticed golf balls streaming past me on both sides. That meant there was another enemy fighter behind me, firing at me with his 20-millimeter cannon.

“So I took evasive action. That brought me over the shoreline, where I hooked on to another enemy fighter. My first squirt hit near the nose of the ship. Pieces flew off and he went into a steep dive. I followed him closely, still firing, until he crashed in a green field with a big splash of smoke and flame. Then I heard them giving instructions to reform.”

…The final note on the mission report, except the full box score of participating pilots, was this: “This organization realizes the tremendously important part played by the Spitfire cover, which shot down three enemy fighters in the melee in our last mission of the day. For the splendid cover provided and the job of keeping enemy fighters, although greatly outnumbered, occupied throughout the battle, go our heartiest thanks.”

Describing the engagement, Captain Curl said, “When I first saw the Jerry planes they were right beneath us, about 4000 feet down. Camouflaged as they were with green coloring, it was rather difficult to distinguish the transports against the sea. When we got nearer they looked just like a huge gaggle of geese for they were traveling in perfect ‘V’ formation, tightly packed. The boys simply cut loose and shot the daylights out of them. What concerned our pilots most was the danger of hitting our own aircraft, for the concentration of fire was terrific and the air was filled with whistling and turning machines. There were cases of pilots missing the transport they aimed at and hitting the one behind. It was as fantastic as that, you just could not miss. There was no real fighter opposition because the British Spitfires that were flying our top cover did a grand job of keeping the Messerschmitts so busy that they could not interfere with our attack to any extent.”

Captain Curl said that the enemy ships were so tightly packed that he sometimes had three in his sights at the same time and that he saw one of his squadron mates get tow of them with a single burst from his machine gun. Capt. Curl, having been previously recommended, became Major Curl the day after be became Ace in this battle by bagging his third, fourth and fifth enemy planes: Two Junkers and a Messerschmitt.

Returning Warhawks brought back to base that Sunday evening three other newly made aces and a big and glorious job for the artistic crewman who paints victory trophies on fuselages. The aces were: Lieut. McArthur Robert Powers, Inwood, L.I., New York, who shot down four Ju-52’s, and one ME-109 to bring his total to seven enemy aircraft destroyed; Lieut. Richard E. Duffey, Walled Lake, Mich., who shot down five JU-52’s and damaged an ME-109 and Capt. Roy E. Whittaker, Knoxville, Tenn., who was credited with three JU-52’s destroyed and one damaged and one ME-109 destroyed to bring his total to seven.

Praise came from high places and so did enemy bombs. While General Brereton was receiving congratulations for the men of the 57th those men were dodging bombs back at their base near el Djem. For two sleepless nights, April 19 and 20, Jerry pounded their home field in angry retaliation. A much-decorated pilot, Lieut. Allen H. Smith, was killed by a bomb fragment and there were seven men injured. Three aircraft were hit; trucks and trailers damaged, tentage shredded and personal belongings scattered, buried and destroyed. Slit trenches on those nights more than earned the hard labor, which went into their digging. The next day the 57th moved even closer to Jerry, but he didn’t return. Praise came from many places-two such being from General Byerly of Rear Army Headquarters and General George Marshall, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army.

Short description of the battle which also tells us what is
going on in the painting below.

Painting of "Goose Shoot'' of April 18, 1943 by artist Keith Ferris.
Painting hangs in the 57th Fighter Group Museum/Memorial, New England
Air Museum, Bradley International Airport, Windsor Locks,
Connecticut. Pic Mark O'Boyle

From Wayne S. Dodds

From Wayne S. Dodds

From Wayne S. Dodds

From Wayne S. Dodds