John Gaffney and Al Romero
photo from Al Romero
Quotation from Sortie Report of A/C 91 X
"A/C 80 seen to spiral to left and lose altitude. This A/C followed to offer protection and aid but were unable to follow damaged A/C. Last observed A/C 80 Q was still pouring out smoke and being fired upon by two E/A. Did not see results of battle."
Date of interrogation Nov. 11, 1943.
Completion of sortie report of April 30, 1943 on mission to Messina Ferry Slip, Sicily.
Made bombing run over target and dropped bombs. Did not see result of bombing. Just after dropping bombs received four hits from A/A, one of which hit No. 3 engine and set it afire. A/C 80Q was knocked out of the formation by these hits. Then two more hits were sustained, one of which knocked off the bomb bay door and the other hitting the bomb bay tank which did not catch on fire. Another burst hit the left wing flap. At this time A/C 80Q was 2,000' below and one half mile to the right of the balance of the formation.
Noting that this A/C was badly crippled, five enemy fighters came in most aggressively but due to the hot reception from the guns of this A/C only three E/A persisted in their attacks. Top Turret Gunner, T/Sgt Huska, fired all his ammunition at the enemy. The right hand tail gun went out and the solenoid on the left hand gun started to malfunction so that 20 to 30 pressures were necessary on the trigger to get one burst. During this air battle Lt. Deffner and Lt. Morgan were killed by gunfire from enemy fighters. While still at altitude about 20,000', S/Sgt Holiday was seen to be struggling with his oxygen mask and shouted that he could not get any oxygen. Owing to engagement with enemy fighters nothing could be done for him and he went down with the ship. A/C went into a steep dive and just before crashing into water Lt. Swarner pulled it up slightly causing it to hit the water tail first. The A/C broke into many pieces, the tail turret being broken off and sinking into the water with S/Sgt Gaffney who was trapped therein. After sinking for some distance he was able to disengage himself from the tail turret and swim to the surface.
In spite of a crushed right knee received in crash he swam around the left hand side of one of the wings that still remained afloat.
Here he encountered the floating body of Lt. Longstreth. Lt. Longstreth was badly cut up with many lacerations on his face! Sgt. Gaffney then swam to where Sgt. Romero had been thrown out of the A/C at the time of the crash. Sgt. Romero does not know how he escaped crash as he found himself swimming in the water. His nose was broken, his right wrist sprained and face bruised. In addition he had been wounded in the left thigh by A/A fire before crashing. Sgt. Romero found Sgt. Pauls' body. His head had been split open and he was dead. Sgt. Gaffney and Sgt. Romero then found themselves together and joined Lt. Swarner and Sgt. Huska who were swimming in the water with their Mae Wests inflated. Sgt. Huska had a hold of Lt. Longstreth's body and held it for about thirty minutes until he was sure the lieutenant was dead. Lt. Swarner seemed to have been internally injured although he did not complain. He told the other three survivors, "I'm sorry fellows, but the damn ship just quit working."
The survivors, Lt. Swarner and Sgt's Huska, Gaffney and Romero then watched the last articles of the A/C sink, nothing remaining afloat except the oxygen bottles. Lt. Swarner and Sgt. Huska were seemingly injured and suffering from shock and they became panic stricken.
Lt. Swarner requested Sgt. Romero to give Sgt. Huska first aid, which was impossible to do under the circumstances. It was also impossible to send out a call for help on the small hand radio, as no means were present to set it up in operation. Then violent struggling broke out between Lt. Swarner and Sqt. Huska, neither of them in their delirium realizing whom the other was. Sgts Romero and Gaffney pulled them apart and quieted them down. About two hours after the crash Lt. Swarner died quietly. His Mae West was taken off and put on Sgt. Huska whose vest was leaking. Some time before, however, Sgts. Gaffney and Romero had tried to make a raft of the floating oxygen bottles but had nothing at all to use to bind them together with but their trouser belts. These would not work and they were reduced to paddling and swimming around, as their Mae Wests would gradually lose air.
Sgt. Huska died about five minutes before an Italian Red Cross seaplane was guided to the scene of the crash by an enemy fighter. While in the seaplane Sgt Romero gave artificial respiration to Sgt. Huska but was unable to restore life. It is not known whether his death was due to drowning or to injuries sustained in the crash. The three, Sgts Romero, Gaffney and the body of Sgt. Huska were taken to a hospital at Syracuse where their wounds and injuries were treated.
Sgt. Huska was buried in a military cemetery at Syracuse on the second of May. They were then, shortly after, taken to an Italian Prisoner of war camp somewhere in Italy from which they subsequently escaped and rejoined their organization on November 12, 1943.
The report of their escape from the Italian POW forms another report not originating from this source.
The two survivors strongly emphasize the value of all combat crews wearing May Wests - at ALL times while flying. They also offer the following suggestion that appears to have considerable merit. That, in almost all crashes in water, the oxygen bottles seem to break loose and float around when nothing else is seen on the surface. If some way could be devised to install oxygen bottles in all aircraft, the oxygen bottles being equipped with small lugs, or loops, and a three to six foot length of strong light rope around the bottles, it would be a simple matter to tie them together and thus build a makeshift raft.
Summary of casualties: Two men of crew killed in air by enemy fighters. 1st Lt. T.P. Deffner and 1st Lt. D. F. Morgan. Three men killed in crash in sea; Gt. John P. Paul, S/Sgt. A. S. Holiday and 1st Lt. R. E. Longstreth. Two men surviving in sea but later dying form injuries or drowning 1st Lt. W. C. Swarner and T/Sgt. A. Huska. Two survivors T/Sgt. A. S. Romero and S/Sgt John H. Gaffney.
Interrogated by: John W. Preble, Jr. Captain, Air Corps, Squadron
The following are excerpts from the diary of T/Sgt. Albert S. Romero Waist gunner and Radio Operator. He and John H. Gaffney were the only two survivors of Aircraft #80.
On the day of April 29, 1943 Colonel Compton gathered all his men who were scheduled to go out and said "Boys, tomorrow morning you are going out again. I am expecting big things from you so don't fail me." This, each and every one of us vowed unto ourselves we would not do. Fail the Colonel! Why that would be unthinkable and unbearable.
He proceeded to tell us the importance of the target being destroyed and why. With these few words and wishing us the best of luck, he turned the work of briefing over to the intelligence and operations officers, who gave us all the required information we needed. Everything was discussed to a very fine point, until each and every man knew what was expected of him and what was to be done. A thorough briefing it was. We found our target was to be the Port of Messina, which is the closest point of land between Sicily, where Messina is, and the Italian Mainland. This port was a very busy enemy stronghold where the enemy had many facilities for transporting, not only reinforcements to the Tunisian war front, but also great amounts of war supplies. Here also was situated a large submarine base which permitted enemy subs to go out and do damage to our vital convoys in the Mediterranean. Quite a bit of shipping was on hand in the harbor of Messina, at all times. We had raided Messina many times before and had caused considerable damage. The port was well built though and needed quite a bit of pounding more before it was put out of commission. It seems like the Italians would build up the damage just as we would come over and destroy it. Though we had hit the Ferry slips time and again, they were still in operation.
Lt. James O. Britt was my original pilot with whose crew I had come from the states. Lt. Britt who was now our operations officer stopped me and said "Romero, I want you to do me a favor" "Yes Sir, what can I do for you Lt. Britt, I will be more than glad to help you if I can." "Well, there is a new crew that just came from the States about three days ago. Two of the boys in that crew are going to go on your plane tomorrow. The pilot will go as co-pilot (1st Lt. D. F. Morgan) and the assistant engineer (S/Sgt. A. S. Holliday) will go as photographer and tunnel gunner. Now its not these two boys I want you to help out, but I do want you to get the Radio Operator and give him all the low down on what to do in combat flying." S/Sgt. Holliday who was to fly with ~ on the next day did not join us for he was excited about his first mission and he was at the time getting prepared for it. We had a good time there in our tent with Sgts. Paul and Gaffney who were our Armorer and Tail Gunner respectively.
Its funny but on this night none of us could go to bed or I mean get asleep. There in the darkness we all talked for about another two hours. We talked about how they shouldn't brief a fellow before a mission. On the previous night, especially, for knowing that it is a hot spot, as we all knew Messina was. Naturally your mind and nerves would get the best of you. Maybe it was a premonition of the following day - never the less, we could not sleep that night.
Arising early on the next morning. Thus on this day of April 30. This day, which had arrived so peaceful and so beautiful, we arose early, for there was not much time to spare. We had already been briefed so all we had to do was get our equipment ready and get breakfast. At the mess tent we ate an uninterrupted breakfast. As all of us were together here. Both bunches, the men who flew and the men that seen that we flew. Here we had the usual time of joking and laughing As usual I would come in yelling and looking for Pop Baker, my old friend. He was a radio operator on another crew.
Thus on this particular raid I had two religious medals, a prayer book and a picture of my wife. I also carried with me, my wallet with forty Pounds of Egyptian currency. This is equivalent to about $167.00 in American money. I had never carried money with me before as I had one Buddy I used to leave it with when ever I would fly.
Being we did not have enough time I could not find my friend so I emptied all the identification cards I had from my wallet and put them underneath my blankets. The money I did take with me as I surely planned on returning. Therefore these were all my worldly possessions I carried on this raid, besides the equipment you receive to do your work with. As I was referring to charms of luck, I will tell you about some of the other boys. Sgt. Huska never flew without the pictures of his fiancé. They were a good dozen of them. Our pilot, Lt. Walter c. Swarner, had a hand made ring he prized as his lucky charm.
Sgt. Gaffney, our tail gunner, never flew without a Rosary and prayer book, given to him by some relative. While we were gathered here in the truck area waiting, the topic of our conversation changed quite a few times. Joking and laughing, it was now centered on how many more missions we had to go before we qualified for a trip back home to rest.
Lt. Robert Longstreth, our navigator and Lt. Theodore Deffner, our bombardier, were on their extreme last mission. They were certainly very happy about it for they knew that before another week went by they would probably be on their way home. Sgt. Andrew Huska and I were next in line with Huska being one raid ahead of me. We only had to fly a few more and we also would have qualified to go home. I often remember when Huska used to tell me "Romero, I have one more mission than you, but I'm still going to go out with you on your last one so we can go home together. I want to take you to Connecticut, so you can meet my folks and my girl. I'm going to be married as soon as I get back and if possible your going to be Best Man." Well as it is I never went to Connecticut.
Sgts Paul, Gaffney and our pilot, Lt. Swarner, were just about half way through, as they had about 150 to 180 hours of combat. The other two men that composed our crew that day were 1st Lt. D. F. Morgan our co-pilot and Sgt. A. S. Holiday our photographer and tunnel gunner. These two men we had met only this morning, as they were new arrivals to outfit (the 376th bomb group). They were on their very first mission. We gave them quite a few pointers on what was to be done and what was to be expected. We did not have too much time to get acquainted with these boys, but what little time we did have, we did enjoy their company. Sgt. Holliday was a married man, but I don't know if Lt. Morgan was or not. You don't get too personal with a man right away you know. Holliday did tell us himself that he was married thus I know that three of us on that crew were married. Sgts. Paul, Holliday and myself.
Not only were we going to drop bombs over Messina, but also leaflets for the population in the harbor city. Leaflets of warning, not only for the population of Messina, but for all the Italian population of port cities and industrial cities. The leaflets were printed thusly "Danger - people of Italy, evacuate your homes now. We the Anglo-American Air Forces are coming in force to destroy your ports factories, and your Submarine bases, as well as your airports. We are going to hit these places hard. We will be here every day between 12 noon and 2 PM. Up to date, in the United States alone we have built up to date 125,000 military aircraft. (a fact which my captors a few days later thought preposterous). People of Italy - evacuate immediately. You stay in these areas at your own risk of death.
You have been warned"
Soon we were flying out over the Mediterranean toward Messina, on our mission of destruction. It was a beautiful sight to see as we all flew in perfect formation. 'Twenty four large four engine bombers all flying in a beautiful pattern, is something you don't see very often. But today all the pilots had their planes in their respective places. Each one of us concentrated on his own individual job. Our guns were all test fired by each gunner to insure safety in case of an enemy attack. Which we all knew was sure to come. I stood by on the radio, listening, to see if there would be any change in orders by way of the ether. On a mission such as this there is really not much to say, as everyone is sort of tense. We carried a bit of food with us plus some candy from the party we had had the previous night. We ate quietly. Now and then a joke would be cracked, which we rather meekly laughed at. Our main thought in mind was "I hope everything goes good today. I hope we make it through safe".
We had a new co-pilot and tunnel gunner on this one. We sort of missed the ones we had on our last raid. They were Lt. Bley, who today was flying his own crew for the first time. Also there was Sgt Williams, who we had broken in and instructed for our last three missions. He was on Lt. Bley's crew thus also up in the air today but on a different ship. We also missed Capt. Nuttal our Flight Surgeon. He had flown with us on our last three raids to. Just to see what it was like, as well as to study the effect of a raid on the combat personnel. He didn't have to fly, but he did go anyway. That is why we used to respect him, not only as an officer but also as a man. Good old Doc Nuttal. Though we all missed him that day I'm happy today he didn't go with us for he would have surely gotten killed that day. We used to like to climb down on the cat walk and watch the bombs as they were released. He would then take some pictures of the bombs all the way down until they exploded.
Suddenly we all again heard Lt. Longstreth's voice. This time it came over anxiously. "Raise her up Swarner, we're going to collide Get her up, get her up quick". Then it seemed like as if I were going through the bottom of the plane, as the plane suddenly shot upward. I never knew what ship it was that came underneath us, though when Lt. Longstreth first hollered out, I thought it was an enemy fighter. No it wasn't an enemy pursuit for we had not as yet sighted one. We had been flying on the left wing of Lt. Britt’s element, and when we did suddenly shoot up it threw us out of formation. We were straggling dangerously now.
I don't exactly know how long all this actually took but it couldn't have been very long, for all the time we were on our run toward the target. I saw now three fighters corning up at three o’clock (to our right as we judge direction by the clock system using the nose of the plane as twelve o’clock and the tail as 6o’clock). Sgt. Paul reported two coming up at nine o’clock, flying toward our rear. All of us were now alert and ready. I could see our formation to our right and above us a bit. Bomb bay doors were now open on all planes. Lt. Deffner had also opened ours; Leaflets were now coming out of the other planes. I asked Lt. Swarner for permission to throw ours out too. "Go ahead" he said, so we began to throw them out by the handfuls. Bombs began to fall, as we were now in the heaviest concentration of ack, ack I had ever seen. I knew it would be heavy but it was even more than that. I had flown through the thickest Naples, Palermo, Benghazi, and Tobruk had to offer, but today, over Messina the enemy seemed to have thrown every thing they had at us. As I threw out the leaflets I gave Holliday the signal to operate the camera. Scrutinized the air for the on coming fighters and at the same time try to follow our bombs path, for now our bombardier Lt. Deffner, had yelled over the interphone: "Bombs away". The pursuits were on their attack now. God almighty they were daring, They were corning right in where the ack ack way intense. Right upon us.
S/Sgt. Paul said, "Here they come. Two from seven o’clock and below" Both he and Gaffney, our tail gunner opened up on them. I said, "There’s one coming in from 4 o’clock, above about two thousand".
Both Huska and I opened up on him and drove him away. Hell had tore loose! You could hear the ack sound of the anti aircraft fire as small puffs of smoke exploded with a flash, forming the smoke itself. You'd look out, there was nothing there. Then suddenly you'd hear a muffled crack, a flash and then you'd see the puff of black smoke. You wondered if the next one would hit you personally, or your plane. Lt. Deffner now reported another fighter coming in from above and eleven o’clock. Huska tore loose at him with the top turret guns as Lt. Deffner shot with his flexible 50 in the nose. The fighter got in his lick though. We could hear the crackle the bullets made as they hit our plane. We were hit now and we knew it - where?
We didn't know, at least, we in the back didn't.
A large explosion followed which rocked our whole ship. Ack ack had caught up with us. A direct hit on our No 3 engine. Oil, gasoline and smoke started to pour out of it. "Pilot from Romero, pilot from Romero'; “right waister go ahead." "Yeah what is it?"
"Well No 3 badly hit. No 3 pouring out gas, oil and black smoke". "OK keep a look out for it and let me know if it gets worse". "Roger" I ended. Though at my side, there were not any pursuits now in sight, I could hear the guns from the rear turret, top turret and nose guns going full blast. I now told Holliday "Get your camera out and man your gun in position". This he immediately proceeded to do. No sooner finished telling him this, when another explosion rocked our ship. Knocking completely away our bomb bay door, which one I don't know. I saw it as it sailed away, following it to see if it would strike one of our ships behind us. But there was no other B-24 behind us. We were alone. Another explosion came.
This time the ack ack had found our auxiliary gas tank for now gasoline started to pour allover us in the back. Now all we needed was for the darn gas to catch fire with the flash of our own guns. Another pass was made by a fighter from the front for both the front and top turret guns were firing. Again we were hit. Lts Deffner and Morgan were both killed in this pass the fighter made at us. I heard Lt. Longstreth say, "Swarner - Deffner got it this time" "Yeah, said Swarner "So did Morgan waist gunners from pilot - where is the formation?" I saw it and reported "Pilot from Romero - formation to 3 o’clock about half mile - two thousand above". "OK keep good look out - lets see if we can’t get out of this mess". "Bang"
Another explosion that rocked us. This one caught our left wing and tore our flap to shreds. Still farther away from the formation we were thrown. Then we all heard a loud yell "Yeow - I'm froze. I can't get any oxygen - I can't get any oxygen". It was Holliday; he was struggling with his oxygen system. I could do nothing for him though I wanted to, for I saw a fighter coming in from five o’clock.
I fired at him - a few shots and then my gun froze. I charged it as fast as I could - fired a few more rounds and it froze again.
I raised the cover and poured kerosene freely on it - closed it - charged again and fired at him. He had made good his attack - we were hit again. Holes all over our plane. I had seen holes appear in the fuselage directly above my head. Right above the waist window. How they kept from killing both Paul and I, I'll never (Page 9) understand but there we were still moving around. I bent over for more ammunition when I noticed that there was blood streaming down my left leg. I wondered what had hit me. There was no pain, I wondered if it was bad. I don't know what it was but I think it was shrapnel.
We were all damned mad by now and were waiting for the next attack.
Paul and Gaffney now were firing. Gaffney’s rear turret froze. Paul was firing from right waist. Then his guns also froze as Gaffney opened up again. The fighter hit the rear turret - showered glass al over Gaffney’s head and wounding him slightly about the head. We were attacked twice more from behind and from the front. Gaffney had one gun in the rear turret working the other was out. The fighter came in from five o’clock and both Gaffney’s gun and my own were pouring lead at it. We hit it, we both saw it lunge and sort of jump as if trying to stop in midair. Then black smoke started to come out of its center. We saw it go away but we didn't have time to watch it. We were too busy watching around for another. It might have hit the water or it might have reached its base again. Never the less we had got in one good punch and damaged one of the enemy. This made me feel good temporarily until I heard the next words that Huska had to say over the interphone while we were busy with the fighter at five o’clock. Lt. Longstreth who was now alone in the front guns and Huska at the top turret, were firing at another fighter corning in from one o’clock. Huska must have gone wild with rage, for he froze on his triggers and sent out a steady stream of lead. When he quit firing he yelled to Gaffney "Say Gaff - I've only got five more rounds left." Again we were hit for though Huska sent out a lot of lead it was all wasted, you see a steady burst like that will certi4rily vibrate your guns so much that when the bullets get out there at right range, they might be a hundred yards apart from each other. Maybe not that much, but enough to make you miss every time. You can just imagine how much those words of Huska hurt us all. "Gaff I've only got five founds left". Those words still ring in my ears today. I'll never forget them. We knew now we were wide open from the attack that would come from above. I guess it didn't make any difference anyway, for we all knew we were doomed. We knew we'd never make it home today.
We'd fight them though until we wouldn't have another damned bullet left. During the whole battle we were heading out toward sea.
Trying desperately to go home. How long a time it was we will never know - maybe twenty minutes or so. Page 10
We had come down a considerable distance too for we were now pretty close to the level of the water. Maybe Lt. Swarner was trying to hit the deck or maybe the plane was in an uncontrollable descent.
We thought he was hitting the deck to keep the fighters from diving in on us. Never the less when we were rather low the plane took a tendency to level off with the sea. It jerked like as if Lt. Swarner was struggling very hard with the controls, for you must remember our co-pilot was now dead. What ever happened up there in front nobody will ever know. Just about this time I heard the last words during flight - They came from Lt. Longstreth "Give us 150 degrees Swarner" he said - possibly in his mind he still thought we could make Malta.
We were so low now, I could see the spray our propellers were making out of the seawater. Our No 3 engine was still pouring out smoke and oil. Gasoline was still pouring into the back of the fuselage.
We must have been going around three hundred miles an hour, with the descent and our eagerness to get away from the enemy. All I remember is that through some premonition that we were going to hit. I tore the glasses away from my eyes. It was a good thing I did for the next thing I remember, I was swimming in the water. The first thing I said was "God almighty - It’s a wonder that blow didn't knock me out". I was bleeding from the mouth, ears, and cuts about the face.
My eyes were swollen and in pain. Had I had my flying glasses on I would have probably been blinded permanently. Our plane hit the water tail first for it tore the tail turret away - gunner and all - an unknown premonition must have told Gaffney to open the turret doors too, for he says that just before we hit. He managed to get his doors open. The next he remembers is that he was underwater in his turret and was desperately kicking himself free. The impact crushed the turret against his knees, injuring his right one quite a bit. He finally freed himself and surfaced while his turret kept on going down. The plane was all broken to bits, four large pieces with the wings just shattered. From tail turret to tunnel window was one piece from there to bomb bay was another, all bomb bay was another and the cockpit section was the fourth having the nose section bashed in until it was near to the pilots controls. The stabilizers and wings were floating all shot and broken to shreds. Holes were seen over every section of the fuselage also. What a battering our "Widdle Wed Wabbit" had taken this day. She had died but she died gallantly and we were proud of it. The whole ship sank in about two minutes ( page 11) leaving only big spots of oil, and a gold colored film, oxygen bottles, and the emergency radio equipment. How we ever got out of such a crash I will never know. Though I was riding the right waist position, I found myself swimming in the left side of the plane, after we hit.
It is here I saw a body I recognized as Sgt. Paul, for he always wore a white scarf, made from parachute silk. He was floating with his face down and there was lots of blood about him. "Ill be back kid just wait a second until I take my parachute off" I told him. I then climbed on one of the stabilizers to try and unbuckle my chute.
As I climbed it, it sank. I finally managed to take my chute off, inflated my Mae West, and swam to Paul’s body. "OK kid" I said "Here I come to help you - just take it easy". I reached him and turned his body over, his head fell back. It was split straight across the center of the forehead. He was battered almost beyond recognition. I almost yelled out loud, for here was a man that had been no more than a foot away from me all this time, now he was dead.
I couldn't believe it; I took another look at him and knew there was nothing I could do for him. I had to leave my buddy and crewmate go. It hurts; honestly, it hurts to see a thing like that happen to one of your mates. I now noticed that though I had been wearing a pair of G.I. shoes, with a pair of army flying boots over them. I now had nothing but a pair of socks I was wearing. My G.I. shoes had been laced too. "What an impact it must have been" I thought to have knocked me completely out of my shoes. I heard voices ahead of me and I swam in that direction and noticed I had my helmet still on (flying helmet). I took it off and threw it away, swam a bit towards the voices, then I swam back for my helmet for I now wanted to keep it. After I had reached it again I took it with me for a ways.
Then I said to myself "What the hell I want this thing for -'it will only interfere with me" I then threw it away. Why I did all this I don’t know, except that I must have still been knocked halfway unconscious or maybe the sight of Paul drove me half way mad. I finally arrived to where the voices came from. They were Huska and Lt. Swarner.
Huska was tugging the body of Lt. Longstreth who was dead. He must have been killed instantly in the crash, for I remember his were the last words I heard before we hit the water. "Give us 150 degrees,” he had said. Huska had a cut over the right eye and a very bruised face and was wounded seriously about the legs. Lt. Swarner had a few cuts about the face. I don't know if he was hurt any other place for he never complained of any other injuries - I think though ( page 12 ) that he was hurt internally. It is now I saw Gaffney swimming there with us too. I had not seen him before. He might have been there before me, or not. I still don't know. Thus there were only four of us that had survived the crash. All the others were now dead. Only I had seen Sgt. Pauls body. All of us saw Lt. Longstreth’s body.
The rest went down with the plane as it now sank with a swishing sound, as it created suction while it was going down. All four of us that survived were a battered bunch of boys. Lt. Swarner with cuts about the face and in my suspicions internal injuries. Sgt. Huska with a cut over the right eye cuts about the face. A battered body and serious wounds in the legs, Sgt. Gaffney had wounds about the head from the flying glass as the fighter shot his turret and his knee was painfully injured. I was bleeding from the mouth and ears and my eyes were almost swollen shut. Cuts about the face, a wounded thigh and I had broke my right side where I had had an operation for a hernia once before.
All these things were now painful to all of us. There was one of the enemy pursuits that stayed with us flying around in circles. After our plane sank, leaving only us four and debris. This pursuit dived down and circled us while we were there swimming. We thought for a while that he was corning in to strafe us. We thought for sure we would soon die anyway. Even though we had escaped death in the crash. But no. He just circled around us. We could see his face as he leaned to his side window to see what the results were.
Evidently he was gathering information for his report. He turned his Messerschmitt around and flew away. "Well at least he was kind enough not to shoot us while we were defenseless in the water. Maybe he'll go and get help for us". So we thought when the German fighter went out of sight. We didn't know in which direction the land closest to us was or how far it was. Later we found we were out there about sixty miles from the Sicilian coast. The first questions we all asked each other when we got together were "How are you? Are you hurt bad? God, how did you manage to get out of it?" 'I don't know was my answer. "I'm OK, though just battered a bit." I don't know how I got out except that it was turret and all. I'm OK fellers," was Gaffney’s answer. Huska replies, "Well I was shot out through the top of my turret. The glass was knocked away, and I went through the hole there. I'm wounded in the legs". Lt Swarner then said. "Fellows, I don't know how I ever got out, but gosh I'm sorry all this had to happen. The darn engines just failed they just completely quit on /3 me, is there anything wrong with any of you? Are you hurt bad?"
"I’m OK myself. Are you all OK?" There was something about the way Swarner said those words "I'm OK myself" which made me feel that it wasn't so. That’s why I say that I have my suspicions that he was hurt bad though he never let us know. Our next four hours were to be a four hours of living hell. A hellish nightmare that will live with us for the rest of our lives. For it has engraved in our minds and won't go away. There was nothing around us four survivors but water. Cold, salty, blue water for miles around. Lt. Longstreth’s body still floated there, with his parachute still on him. Most of the planes oxygen bottles, and the emergency radio kit, were around. There was also floating, the little plywood door that leads to the bomb bay from the back This had a first aid kit attached to it.
There was a large splotch of oil, gasoline, and a gold colored dust film, on the surface. I don't know what this gold colored film was but I remember that we flew this plane on its first mission, and upon its termination that day, we in the back, were all covered with a film of gold colored dust. From where it came I don't know. We gathered up this floating debris and tried to make a raft out of it. Both Lt. Swarner and myself lost our belts as we tried to tie the oxygen bottles together at the knobs in the ends of the bottles. Lt. Swarner and Gaffney, both swam out again for the radio kit and the floating door. Now we all stayed bunched u~ together for it would not be good now to drift away from each other. We could see that the water was getting rougher too. Though Gaffney and I kept calm and collected, Lt. Swarner and Huska went slowly toward the hysterical point. It all started soon, with the skipper swimming about in circles, trying to gather more oxygen bottles that would tear loose from our grips. This was unnecessary for we could just barely keep a grip to what we already had. He got hold of the radio kit and said "Here Romero, use this. Send out a signal or message so they can find us". "OK Skipper"
I said. "Just wait until we all catch a hold of ourselves a bit.
Right now we are all pretty well beat up take it easy for a bit, don't over exert yourself, for your going to need all your energy later on. Come let us all get a hold of each other and sort of relax lean your head backward and close your eyes for a while - pretend to sleep. I'll work the radio in a while, when we are rested up a bit". Gaffney very calmly said, "Yeah Swarner, get a good hold of me and Romeo will help Huska". Huska had now left go of Longstreth’s body and it drifted away. I still remember how Huska kept saying, as he kept (page 14) hold of Longstreth’s body "he was a good guy - he was a good man. Why did he have to get killed?" Though I knew it was impossible, I had told the skipper, I would work the radio set and send a signal. We could have never raised the antenna we could have never cranked the generator. We had not had any time to get a dinghy out. Also in the condition we were in. It was more than we could do to try and stay together. This I did not want the skipper to know, for I could see he was slowly going hysterical. We tried to get the oxygen bottles together, but they would only drift away again and again. Each of us had two bottles to start with, but soon our arms were so tired we had to give one up. Our Mae West life preservers were leaking slowly, so that now and then we had to blow them up with our lungs.
Lt. Swarner had a tendency to break away from our group. Swimming around and using up all his energy. He wanted to give us all first aid treatment with the only first aid kit we had. This was impossible for the serious wounds were all below the surface of the water. Also we could not afford to struggle too much. Soon all we had to use as floats were one bottle the radio kit and the wooden door. We tried our best to keep these as well as ourselves together. The water was getting colder and colder all the time, and much rougher, we would get cramps in our legs steady now. Now and then one of us would ask "how you fellows getting along?" The skipper, asked us a few times "Do you fellows think we\l be picked up?" to which Gaffney or I would answer 'Sure skipper, it won't be long the fighter circles us and then went for help" Of course this was wishful thinking on our parts too, for we didn't know either. Huska did not have much to say for he was badly wounded. He just moaned continuously and asked once in a while if we were OK. With our legs all locked together underneath and holding on to the board. At one time when we were silent and thinking, I got the bright idea I would cheer up the boys. Does anyone of you know any new jokes? Would you like to hear one?"
No one answered, I knew it was no use. "I'm sorry fellows, I thought it would ease the predicament". A little later on the Skipper said "Romeo - Gaffney - Do you know how to pray? Pray! Why doesn't one of you pray"? He was beginning to mumble quite a bit. Gaffney and I looked at each other and silently shook our heads. We knew it would not be long and we'd lose our Skipper. "Sure Swarner" I said "I know how to pray. Here I'll pray for all of us". Gaffney you follow me and we'll both pray. Huska can’t for he’s moaning badly". I started to pray aloud - Gaffney followed me in prayer. Swarner started and (page 15) soon couldn't go on. We prayed aloud, a few prayers for our salvation and for our dead comrades. Huska listened. Our Father who art in heaven - etc. Hail Mary Full of Grace etc - I believe in God the Father Almighty etc. It was but a few minutes later that Lt. Swarner lost consciousness mumbling repeatedly "I wonder if we'll ever be picked up? Why don't they hurry why don't they come? Poor Dad and Mom.
I wonder what they will say"? Gaffney and I would only look at each other, shake our heads and pity our pilot. His eyes started to roll up in a blank stare then he lay still and motionless, with just the up and down sway of the waves, foam was still corning out of his mouth as it had been for a while and forcing itself out. Then even that quit. Gaffney was holding on to Swarner, trying to keep him up by the hair. I had one arm around him. It was a pitiful sight for both of us. And to be so helpless made it all the worse. We tried our worse but we could do nothing for our Skipper. "The Skipper is gone, Al - the Skipper is gone Al" said Gaffney "Yeah Kid, Its tough, but we couldn't do anymore than we did." We shall never forget the sight of our pilot’s death. The sight he imprinted in our mind.
He looked like a small child there, with Gaffney doing all he could to hold him by the hair. "Well kid" I began again "There is nothing we can do, but take his Mae West off of him. Huska needs it bad. We’ve got to give it to him. We've felt his pulse and heart - we've waited long enough - we're sure he is dead now so take the Mae West off him while I hold on to both him and Huska -be sure you don't drift away". Gaffney proceeded to remove the Mae West. The safety buckle is on the right side and Gaffney was looking for it on the left side. Finally he said, "Al, I can't find the buckle. You try it" "OK kid, you hold on to both of them, I'll try it". In a few moments I had the life vest off from Swarner and said "Well kid, there is nothing to do but leave him go. We've got to try our best now to save Huska and ourselves". "Gee Al" Gaffney said, as he left Swarner go "I will never forget the way he looked - how his eyes just rolled up when he died. How he looked like a helpless child and how he went straight down when I let go of his hair". We never saw Swarner's body again. He went with what ever he might have had as personals or identification. We let him go as he was. We put his Mae West on Huska who was in a bad way, moaning, mumbling meaningless words.
We looked at each other and shook our heads. We knew that help did not come soon, we would have to see Huska die on us the same way.
There followed, after our pilot died, a long period of suffering. ( page 16)
Swarner had died about 4 P.M. at our estimate. Or about two hours after we hit the water. Our radio kit had by now drifted away only the wood door and our Mae Wests kept us floating. Two on Huska we had one each. We had to pump these now and then with our lungs. We didn't let Huska drift away, holding him tight.
For the next two hours we spoke to each other while we listened to Huska mumble as he went from bad to worse. What hurt us was that we could do nothing for him. Nothing, but keep him from drifting away or drowning sooner. "We're in a hell of a fix out here Kid.
Do you think we'll ever be found? I asked Gaffney. "Hell of a fix is right. I hope we are found! They sure as hell better hurry if they are coming at all". He answered. We managed to get a few laughs even though we were in a hell of a predicament. "Gaffney- were you ever a bad fellow when you were a kid?" I asked and laughed.
"Bad? Say Al, I was so damn ornery, I knew I would end up in a desolate place like this." "Come to think of it kid, I guess I must have been a whopper of a louse myself then, for I'm here too." "Al, do you think there’s any sharks out here?" "Well, I don't know Gaff, but I did read a book on RAF flyers falling in these waters, and they sure as hell seen them - big bad and ferocious. "Well, we'll sure know when they start coming. Can you imagine yourself with a stump of a leg Al?" "The hell with the stump part of it, you joik - what I want to do is to get out of this cold water".
"Yeah, your right. God but this water is cold. I'm just getting cramp after cramp - how about you Al?" "My legs are damn near numb now kid. Stretch your legs out. That helps my cramps. Boy my whole body is frozen. I got shivers allover." "Gee its sure tough about Huska. Listen to him. I wonder how long he will last" "I don't know kid, but if help comes soon he might have a chance. All we can do is pray and hope for the best.
As long as we don't lose our heads it will help to save our strength, and God only knows Gaff, we need all the strength and energy we can save." I followed by saying "Gaff the water is getting pretty rough now. Sort of stretch your neck and see if you can spot any land around. I don't know where we're at but from Longstreth’s last words, we must have been out towards the direction of Malta. We both raised our heads as high as we could - Gaffney said, "Al, I can't see a damn thing. The waves are too high." Time after time we tried, but could not see anything at all. We still clung to the little door, and can safely say now that this door is the only thing that saved us by keeping ( page 17) us together. We both clung on to it with one hand and with the other clung to Huska. Keeping him from swallowing more water than he was already swallowing. Twice we heard the roar of an airplane close by, but we could not see it at all. Each time our hopes were raised, we’re THINKING THAT A RESCUE PARTY WAS APPROACHING. The first time, it was Gaffney that heard it before any of us. "Listen! Listen!
He said "I hear an airplane somewheres. God, I hope he is coming for us - if not I surely hope he spots us." "Yeah, I hear him now" I said. "Say Huska" I continued, "cheer up kid, there’s a plane around. It might only be a little while longer" But Huska did not answer - he would only mumble unintelligible words. That plane did not see us; I never even came close to us. Its roar soon faded away. Leaving us very disappointed. I had read of cases, where a person or persons would miss being rescued by a very little bit. Now I knew how they felt. It’s unexplainable. We continued suffering for another half hour when again we heard an approaching plane. Our spirits rose again. Again we were disappointed as this roar soon faded away too. Twice we had heard planes. Many times we had stretched our necks, to see if land was in sight. Many times we had struggled to help the Skipper and Huska. Keeping them from drifting. Keeping them from drowning, keeping them quiet, as they went slowly into the state of unconsciousness. It was getting late. Our Skipper was dead and Huska near death. The water was rough and extremely cold.
We were losing our strength by degrees. It was about 5:45 PM by my judgment from rescue time. "Gosh kid" I said "If they don't come and find us soon, we're in for a tough time. I don't know if we'll be able to make it all night long." "Yeah Al, I'm getting awful weak now - what about Huska Al?" "He's about gone. Look at the foam in his mouth." "Yeah Gaff, I hate like hell to do it but we can't hold on to him any longer. He's unconscious now. I do think he's just about dead. We might have to leave him go. We can't hold on to him much longer". We did hold on to him for another five minutes at which time the foam ceased to come out of his mouth. We did not have the heart to take the Mae Wests from him. He drifted away and we clung on to the door we still had. "Well, Gaff, that leaves only us two. All we can do is to keep on trying and praying". "Yeah, Al, it’s getting dark, but lets hope we make it out OK - Al! Listen! Do you hear a plane? Listen! "Yeah, kid, I hear it! God I hope our ears are not playing jokes on us. I hope it’s a rescue party - maybe we ( page 18 ) can still save Huska. He's only out a ways. I can get him."
"Look Al, its a pursuit and a sea plane, its coming for us. God but its good to see that. "Gaff, it’s hard to believe but it sure looks good. It’s an Italian Red Cross plane. God is with us kid. We've made it. The plane landed in the water while the pursuit escorting it circled around. I waved my hand toward our direction. Motioning the seaplane to come and pick Gaffney up first. Whether they understood me or not I don't know. I found out later that at this very instant Gaffney lost his mind. He doesn't remember from there on.
As I waved for the plane I said to Gaffney "Take it easy kid, it won't be long now - the plane is corning. Just wait for it here, I'm going to get Huska. Maybe we can still save him, I'll be back with him". I swam out to get Huska who was drifting about 25 yards away from us. How I ever got the strength I don't know. But I think I was insanely strong at the time. God gave me that strength. I reached him struggled back to where Gaffney was floating. As I reached him, the men in the seaplane were coming out into the pontoons. I asked them to help me first with Huska. I pushed him up and they took him aboard. I swam to Gaffney and tugged him to the other pontoon and also pushed him up. They lifted him up.
Then I climbed up the ladder with the assistance of the Italian crew. I told them in my very poor Italian speech, for I could understand a little and speak less - to see what we could do for the boys, especially Huska. While the crew carried Huska into a bed inside, the pilot came up to me and saying Bravo, kissed me on each cheek.
I escorted Gaff to another bed and laid him down in it. I went directly to Huska’s bedside, took his clothes off and started to give him artificial respiration. I pumped a lot of water from his lungs. I worked on him for a good half hour but in vain, for he was already dead. The Italians gave us water and a drink of brandy then told us to take our clothes off. As I left, I saw Huska's face. It was white and his lips were purple. I covered his face up and went to the aid of Gaffney.