Low and Slow
The First Casualties of the 60th Fighter Squadron
by Gary W. Metz

After the initial landings at Port Lyautey on November 10th and 11th of 1943, the 33rd FG had been based at Casablanca. While other air units moved into Algeria and Tunisia the 33rd was being held in Morocco against the possible entry into the war by Spain on the Axis side. Living conditions for the pilots and crews in Casablanca were dismal. Enlisted men were obliged to sleep on the floor in the open hangers where the nightly chill made them shiver even under two or three blankets. Pilots had what seemed to the crews as luxury accommodations in a local hotel. In fact, other than individual rooms, they lived an equally sparse existence. Baths were non-existent and the pilots wore the uniforms they arrived in till their baggage caught up with them on December 1st. The first casualty of the enlisted men occurred on Nov. 12th when Sgt. Roy Bowman was cooking his supper, heated C rations, on an open fire. Using accumulated rubbish for fuel an un-observed shell exploded in the flames. The Sgt. was not seriously wounded and returned to the squadron a few days later. On November 21st the enlisted men were blessed with cots to sleep on. Now at least they were up off of the cold concrete floors.

The threat of a Spanish invasion diminished as the month wore on and on November 27th the 60th began its move west. Sixty-nine men and six officers left that day for Oujda on the border of French Morocco and Algeria. Far to the south a glimpse could be caught of the Sahara Desert. Over the next few days other pilots and planes of the 33rd joined the newcomers. The provisions at the new base were meager and the arriving personnel found themselves unable to draw food rations at first. Sleeping conditions improved vastly for the enlisted men. They now had a barracks to stay in with beds. On December 3rd Lt. Frank Mautte was sent on to Thelepte, Tunisia, to scout out a field closer to the front. This was the first sign that Oujda would not be a permanent base. News reached the squadron that Thelepte was a 'hot spot' and the men readied themselves for a rough time ahead.

On December 4th Col. Momyer called for a twelve-ship flight from the 60th to be ready for departure at dawn the next day. That morning, accompanied by seven planes from the 58th, they left Oujda leaving Lt. McLeod, nicknamed Dog, in charge of the squadron. 2nd Lt. Dick Coulter expressed his disappointment at being one of the pilots left behind. He confided to his diary, "Biggest disappointment of my life when I found out the twelve-ship deal is going to the front." Coulter wanted to see action and his spirits were lifted about 10 A.M. on the 5th, when he found he was to be part of a four-man flight leaving for Tebessa, Algeria, the next morning. Tebessa was only seventy miles from the front and 2nd Lt. Coulter was anxious to get into the action. The flight would be lead by Lt. McLeod and would include, besides Coulter, 2nd Lts. Perry Bowser and Virgil Radcliffe.

Even with less than a month of service the P-40 Warhawks flown by the 60th were already showing wear. Using flashlights, the mechanics toiled through the night to get four planes serviceable for the trip. As the morning of December 6th dawned the four pilots left Oujda for their first stop at Oran. Thirty minuets later they were in the air again headed for Algiers where they arrived at noon. At 2:45 P.M. they departed escorting eight transport planes. The transports split into groups of four with one group headed for Tebessa and one to Constantine. Lt. McLeod followed the wrong four and arrived over Constantine. Deciding to land, Lt. McLeod banked sharply over the small field on his final approach. Flying slow at an altitude of 200 feet the P-40 of Lt. McLeod suddenly dropped from the sky and crashed onto the desert floor below. The pilot was instantly killed. He was the first loss from the 60th FS.

Though it was the personal ship of 2nd Lt. Roy Stech, Lt. McLeod was flying the 'Lady Bett' at the time of his crash. Stech had flown wing for McLeod on several occasions. According to Stech, McLeod had a habit of banking his approaches a little too tight. Constantine is located in the mountains and the thin air there would have provided even less lift for the plane. Perhaps this was the cause of his fatal wreck.

2nd Lt. Coulter noted in his diary that the wreck was "An awful thing - I am sick over it. (I am) Staying in Constantine tonight. Dog's body taken to military hospital there." Coulter's excitement at getting into combat was now tempered by the reality that people were going to die.

Back at Oujda the balance of the Squadron had arrived only to be loaded onto transports to be taken to Thelepte, Tunisia. At noon on the 7th, Coulter, Bowser and Radcliffe flew on to an airfield at Youks-Les-Baines, Algeria, on the Algeria Tunisian border. The next day five missions were flown by the 60th out of Youks. On the last one 2nd Lt Bowswer accompanied Lt. Rathbun on a reconnaissance mission of Chekira Airport and harbor. At the Gabes airport the pilots strafed three enemy transports on the ground. Bowser was apparently struck by ground fire and after flying on for a few minutes crash-landed in the desert. Lt. Rathbun reported seeing Bowser's body lying on the wing of the wrecked aircraft making him the first combat casualty.

This is a model of the P-40F flown from the USS Chenango by Lt. Virgil E. Radcliffe on November 10th, 1942. I made it by modifying a 1/32nd P-40 E. Lt. Radcliffe was in the 60th FS of the 33rd FG. This is correct down to the serial number.

© National Archives via Gary W. Metz 2012