Wartime Memories Of A P-40 Pilot
by Charles Dills

Brad told you were a MASTER builder. He spoke very highly of you.

We used to build models in the 30's. We had free flight gas models. I built a "Buccaneer" and a "Zenith".

In 1942 I went into Aviation Cadets and the modeling days were over. I was a "pedestrian" builder. I was never anywhere near a Master Builder as you apparently are.

I wish I had had a plane more worthy of your talents. I was there a bit earlier than the ones you hear about. We were pretty sure how it was going to turn out eventually but it was not an exultation time yet.

I have the impression that after the Southern French invasion, things became a lot more upbeat and confident. They knew they were on top, way on top and while it was just as dangerous doing the ground game, they did it with more panache.

They decorated their planes, had new planes more worthy of the attention. We had a very poor supply line in Italy and everything was old and beaten up.

I started out in an A-36A. I wish I had a "good" photo of it but the only two pictures I have are of the wreck after I tore it up.

Then I got a war weary P-40F. It had been put out to pasture once but we had to fly what was there. The mechanics did a masterful job but these planes were just worn out when we got them.

The mechanics earned our undying gratitude for the masterful way they maintained their planes under the most formidable conditions.

To complicate things, the P-40F had a metric Merlin engine and they had NO metric tools. Apparently they maintained them out in the field, always in the open. I say apparently because everybody concentrated on their job with minimal thought about what others were doing. We assumed that if we did our part and they did their part that it would all come together.

I hope you will know what I mean when I say, "There were no long flowing white silk scarves, anywhere!" We had neither the time nor the inclination to "decorate" our planes. So they are not very "model-worthy".

My P-40F had been flown by the 66th Squadron (?) of the 57th Fighter Group, probably in Africa and Sicily. When I got, it it was a rather unattractive gray brown. I did have my name and the crew chief's names painted on it in small yellow letters. And I had in large yellow letters, the name "Patty B II" named for the girl I was "stuck" on in high school. I was an orphan and as far as I remember she was the only one that ever wrote me a letter! I lost track of her for years afterward and finally relocated her a couple years ago. She lives alone, was married three times, is content, and we correspond once a week.

To illustrate the condition of the plane, when I got it it had no left brake. Taxiing was pretty tough with only one brake. They changed everything in it and it still didn't work. Finally about three weeks later it suddenly started working!

It was un-aerodynamic. When one goes into a vertical dive in a P-40F (or any propellor driven aircraft) the torque-correction built into the wing and fin overpowers the engine torque and the plane tends to roll to the right! Mine rolled to the left. There is no aerodynamic reason for this but if you didn't trim for it correctly it would almost go out of control on pullout as you will read in my page.

I thought mine was a bit slow and I was afraid I would run out of gas since I had to use more throttle than the others, so I asked if I could replace the rounded wingtips with squared up ones (like the P-51, or A-36A) using shaped pieces of wood. We were in the process of doing it when the Squadron Commander drove up and told us not to do it because "We would not know how to explain it if something went wrong!" I thought at the time that it was a specious argument since nobody had to explain anything over there. Yes, they wrote reports but I think there was a lot of paper that was just that, paper!

We had a job to do and we did it. I don't remember ever having a feeling of "fun". So this explains why our planes were not scenic-worthy.

The only other "decoration" I remember on my P-40F was a big letter "Q" on the side of the fuselage, aft of the wing. I didn't know whether it stood for queer or quaint, because it was both!

I tore it all to pieces at Castel Volturno. I can still see it on the deck of a flatbed truck as they towed it away. The wings barely stuck out on each side and the fuselage, broken just aft of the cockpit was dragging on the ground. I went to Rest Camp on Capri and when I returned I had a brand new P-47D waiting for me. I could look down the runway and see where I had crashed the week before. I remember the feeling when I had to shove the throttle forward and takeoff. It was a terrible airplane as I explain in two places on my page. Many P-47D pilots disagree with me and that is understandable. "Any airplane that took a pilot through all his missions and brought him back alive is the greatest airplane ever made!" But as in Shakespeare, "Aye, there's the rub!" ALL their missions. If that was the only plane they flew, how can they judge. I flew three different airplanes, in combat, doing the same work and the A-36A was way out ahead of any other dive bombing plane. The war-weary P-40F was adequate and the P-47D should never have been built!

The A-36A paint job was the dull dark gray of the early worry years. The only "decoration" I remember was the two block letters on the rudder, one above the other. The top letter was either A, B or C depending on the squadron. They stood for 524th, 522nd and 523rd, respectively. The lower letter was characteristic of the individual plane, mine was either a B or a D, I don't remember.

I'm probably being very unfair to the later pilots in France and Germany but they seemed to us like "dilettantes". The outcome at that point was quite obvious, there was no "effective" opposition and there was a grand feeling of being low on the downslope at the end of the war. We had no such feeling, when we were there we were pretty sure of the probable outcome but there was a lot of dirty work still to do.

Well, I've run on a bit and let out a lot of my "prejudices". And I have painted a dismal picture about the planes I flew. I'm sorry they were not more flamboyant but they were "plowhorses". They were for dirty work. And they did it well.

I don't remember mentioning Malta on my page. If I did (send me the URL) it had to be in passing because I don't remember ever being anywhere near it. Sorry!

Thanks for the kind words about the site. I have tried very hard to be simple, succinct and accurate. Some opinions creep in I'm sure, that is quite unavoidable.

I didn't win the war without any help as some others seem to have done. I was an orphan at 14 and knew very little about my family. I was not going to let that happen to my children, a boy and a girl. SO I wrote up the military as accurately as I could. When our son presented us with a grandson that will be six this month I had to accept the idea that he will never know me. So I have been adding the "before combat" and "after combat" parts to the site.

Well, I have run on quite a bit. I appreciate your interest. WE ALL appreciate it when your generation shows you have not "forgotten".

© Charles Dills 2007