Personal Stories

Arrival in the Middle East

GETTING ACCLIMATED: Immediately on arrival in Palestine, Squadrons, sections, individuals went many ways in the course of getting acclimated - living with the weather - living with available supplies - and learning about the enemy and realigning personnel as necessary. Orientation included drill, rifle practice, and routine duties, while the P-40 aircraft flew "training"" missions.

The American pilots in those early days of training flew on RAF operations and were assigned to various British and South African Air Force squadrons, and widely distributed. They were entirely dependent on the British for intelligence, briefing, air field facilities and ground servicing, and became integral parts of squadrons, flights and even sections.

Thus they were schooled in desert warfare by the "Ole swimmin' hole" method of throw 'em in and the result of that instruction formed the brighter side of thise close association in combat, the binding of closer Anglo-American relationships.

While in Muqueibila during their off-duty days many of the men made trips to some of the famous towns in the Holy Land: Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel-Aviv; and practically every afternoon a truck left camp to drive ten miles to the Mediterranean for surf-bathing enthusiasts.

After being scattered for 3 or more weeks, the Group was brought together on Sept. 16, 1942 for final acclimation and training on L.G. 174 near El Alamein, Egypt. The men learned everything about living in the field. No provision had been made for American rations or supplies and the British rations were hardly comparable to garrison rations back in the States. The cooks did their best to camouflage the few staple items into tasty dishes, and everyone regained the weight lost coming overseas as well as acquiring a healthful sun tan.

An R.A.F. Wing gave the Group countless valuable pointers on setting up camp and making the best of the primitive environment. The importance of motor transport was seen. Every gallon of gasoline, every round of ammunition, every case of food, and every drop of water had to be transported into camp from dumps miles away entirely by truck.

The procedure of building an airfield in this county was unique. One of the numerous level areas near a highway was simply marked off by gasoline drums at each of the four corners, a wind sock was erected, and the field was ready for business. The tent area covered a considerable amount of space due to the dispersal of the tents. To concentrate anything here - aircraft, gasoline, ammunition or personnel - was to invite disaster. Each tent had five occupants, two of whom maintained the aircraft parked close by it. At first a sentry mount of two score roving guards was tried but German reconnaissance aircraft over head tended to make light sleepers of all the men so the plan was abandoned in favor of a guard post in the ration tent throughout the hours of darkness.

There was time off. Every day many men left camp at noon to spend twenty-four hours in Alexandria, where diverse entertainment was readily found. The movie houses showed fairly recent films and there were countless restaurants and cafes. Each Squadron set up a tent as a bar and daily hauled a supply of canned beer and soft drinks from Alexandria. This was sold every evening to the men who gathered for a few hours of singing and joking. The disadvantage of spending too much time at the canteen tent was the probability of losing track of one's tent and spending most of the night wandering around in the dark.

Group trucks went to Cairo several times weekly and a few of the men rode along to combine the job of picking up an aircraft engine with the thrill of visiting the Sphinx and the Pyramids.

In Egypt, the men learned something about money and its value. Heretofore the American dollar could purchase anything from clothes to entertainment and those who had money in their wallets could perform miracles. Now money was of no practical value whatsoever. The little things which were readily taken for granted and obtainable for the sum of five cents such as Coca-Cola drink or a cigar, were not purchasable at any price. The men were paid in Egyptian pounds, each worth about four dollars, and was spent wildly on night-life in a twenty-four hour leave. It wasn't unusual to spend fifty pounds in a "big" night. Back in America the equivalent two hundred dollars would really have purchased something, but here the only tangible evidence was usually a red Egyptian fez and a throbbing headache. The ever-present card and dice rolling sessions also took their toll. When the bettor said "Bet one Pound" no one realized that it wasn't a dollar but rather four times that amount.

Fighters of the fledgling Fifty-Seventh within the period up to September 13 had made 158 sorties. The missions were mostly bomber escort with only two offensive sweeps. Operations were still in conjunction with British fighters. Mission: to eliminate the enemy Air Force and simultaneously support the British Eighth Army on the ground. A better proving ground for a Tactical Air Force than Africa could not have been found. Here were all the elements of the greater battles to be fought later, and the mistakes made here would not be too costly.