However, on 20 January 1943 we cleared that up once and for all. The planes in our formation took off individually from Tobruk about 4:00 AM. (0400), and we were supposed to get into formation at the coast near Tocra, Libya at 5:30 AM. (0530). There were three layers of clouds over the rendezvous site that morning, and we missed the rendezvous by being between the wrong two layers of clouds. Thinking the rest of the formation was ahead of us, we started for Tripoli, Libya, which was the target for the day. We flew and flew, but could not find any sign of the rest of the formation. However, our plane was functioning perfectly, and we had turned back so many times that month, we just could not turn back this time.
Soon it was evident that we were not going to find the rest of the formation, so we started to climb that plane just as high as she would go. One supercharger burned out during the climb, so 25,160 feet was the highest we could get her. We bombed from there at 9:45 AM. (0945 ). The weather was intensely cold that day, and about an hour from Tripoli we began to leave a huge vapor trail behind us. It seemed to us that "Jerry" should be able to see us a hundred miles away. I never felt so conspicuous before in my life. However, before we reached the target, the vapor trail vanished and we began to breathe easier.
The temperature was a real problem that day. It dropped to 80 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit ). Both of us at the waist guns had our oxygen masks freeze ( we took the hoses off our masks and put the hoses in our mouths). Ice kept breaking off our fleece-lined flying clothes and falling to the floor. Add a 180 mile per hour wind blowing in the open waist windows and the wind-chill factor must have been close to minus 100 degrees. Even though we were wearing the heaviest flying cloths available at the time, I could not feel my hands or feet.
About the time we were able to see Tripoli in the distance, Pat called the pilot and told him the tail guns had frozen so they would not operate. The target was so close we could not see any use turning back now, so on we went. Apparently we took the Germans completely by surprise, because they did not fire a shot at us until our bombs hit the docks (they might have thought we were a reconnaissance plane). Then all Hell broke loose up there. The sky seemed to turn black from the smoke of the exploding antiaircraft shells, but we were headed for home by the time they started shooting, so they did not do any real damage to us. We could see dust trails on the airfields around Tripoli, indicating that fighters were taking off in an attempt to get us. None of them were able to get to our altitude in time, though.
We reached our airbase safely that afternoon about an hour before the rest of the formation returned. They reported some outfit had set huge fires along the docks before they arrived. They also had a couple of planes shot up by the fighters we had stirred up. (We learned later that another bomb group hit the same target a short time later, losing one bomber to those fighters. ) From then on our crew was known as the "Lone Strangers" and our reputation was cleared. Any time we would meet any of the other crews, they would just shake their heads and laugh, so we figured the few risks we had taken had been worth it.