Not a good enough project for “History Detectives”, but is interesting to me, and perhaps others:
I was watching a documentary on the P-51, and it happened to mention an all black air group, the 332nd, AKA Tuskegee Airmen, AKA redtails. That transitioned from P-47s to P-51s and had great success.
This brought back a memory of one of the few war stories my dad ever told me:
He told me there was a squadron of black fellows who flew P-39s, and that one time they buzzed a convoy and took the head off a man standing in the bed of a truck. My Dad’s service was in North Africa and Italy. Near enough to Rome that he was able to do some sight seeing when he had passes.
According to the Wikipedia article, the Tuskegee Airmen DID fly P-39s for a couple of months in the spring of 1944. April-June. The Tuskegee airmen were were operating out of Italy for most of the war, so it all kind of fits.
How in the world would I go about trying to confirm that this happened? I know stuff might get brushed under the rug in the heat of winning a war, but it kind of seems like killing one of your own side while showboating might create at least an inquiry.
My father has been dead for more than 20 years so I can’t ask him for any details. I also don’t know how close he was to the story. Somewhere between “saw it happen” and “heard a rumor”. He rarely spoke about his service at all, and certainly never bragged. I never even heard him exaggerate when it came to a fishing story. He may have heard it from someone who exaggerated of course.
I was doing some searching online. It appears my dad was likely with the 1108th Combat Engineers, 235th Battalion. Based on the fact that they first stopped briefly in Africa before proceeding to Naples. My dad mentioned being in Africa, but all the stories were based in Italy. I’ll dig through what few records I have and see if I can confirm this.
If it’s true, could it have been the inspiration for Joseph Heller putting a similar event, in the same area (Mediterranean island west of Italy), in Catch-22?
I would bet money it’s the other way around - that scene in the movie triggered the “yes, boys, this really happened!” old soldier’s tale.
Wouldn’t be surprised if “nearly took someone’s head off” made the telephone game journey through various servicemen, coming out as “actually took someone’s head off”.
What? Only a negro would do something so stupid ?
The P39’s large propeller isn’t so big to allow it to do this.
The P39 has a 10 metre wing span and its 9 metres long, and the fuselage is hanging down in the middle, meaning the fuselage is lower than the prop… Its not going to have its nose down as it passes over the top of a truck, and yet not crash badly.
It would be recorded as “P39 crash, pilot and one on ground deceased”, or it didn’t happen.
I posted the OP because this has some UL character. I think it would be cool if it could be verified is all.
Googling images for “p-39 3view” shows that the prop extends a bit below the drop tank, so would give a couple feet below the belly in level flight.
I think my dad told the story when he saw a picture of a p-39 model on the cover of one of my magazines. I don’t recall his exact words, I used “black fellows” because that is a term my dad would have been likely to use. Pretty sure I never heard him use the N word, ever. It would have been up there with the F bomb in our house…just not done. The point of the story was “Here is something interesting I know about that airplane”. Rather than “black people can’t fly.”
I am not surprised that someone assumed racism. I could maybe find some mention of the 332nd that failed to mention that they were an all black unit, but it would take some digging. It would probably be almost as hard to find something that didn’t mention that they were damned fine pilots, and the only escort group of the war not to lose a single bomber under thier protection. In this case that one fact of skin tone remembered positively identifies the unit, and combined with the aircraft type narrows the time frame to a few months. Why would I not mention it?
I have witnessed plenty of buzz jobs flown by lilly white pilots…my caucasion ass has been at the controls for a few. It is not hard at all to fly a sailplane at 130kt with the belly a couple feet off the deck. To flair properly for landing you must develop the ability to judge height within a few inches, certainly within less than a foot. The p-39 is perhaps the only WW2 fighter with tricycle gear. The view taxiing would be almost exactly what the pilot would see for a low pass.
I have less than 10 hours of power time, yet I am pretty sure I could fly anything that handled well low enough to make an impression, as long as someone else could land it for me. One thing about low passes, though, you can only tie for lowest ever.
I found a possible hit here which cites a book by Tony Mireles
Fatal Army Air Forces Aviation Accidents in the United States
My dad was inducted 5/16/42 and went to Tennessee (?) for basic training. Possibly close enough that he would have heard about it. So it is possible I garbled this into a war theater incident when it actually happened stateside. I am not seeing any information about the pilot’s unit. The Tuskegee airmen were based at, not surprisingly, Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, but flew aircraft that made them pretty mobile, so it may have been easier to take the airplane to the photographer than the converse.
It is also quite possible, even likely, that Dad told me two P-39 stories (one of an all black squadron and another of a decapitation) and I mentally combined them.
The incident above seems to have been approved activity gone wrong rather than showboating.
I was just about to say the same thing. He read (or saw the movie) Catch-22 and Heller’s story became his personal story.
It happens all the time. “We have awoken a sleeping giant,” being a more famous example.
i would expect such an event would be covered up.
look in the daily logs for the unit. find a day with the entry
Question: Is it likely that a person on the ground can be able to tell the ethnicity of a pilot of a plane passing close over head, from below? While the plane is possibly doing 80 to 120 mph? (air speed completely made up number)
Probably not, especially considering helmet, headphones, etc.
It was the P-39 that caused dad to relate the story. If it were just MSU I would have heard it much sooner, as I was plane crazy as a kid.