Sturkie Family History

Mediterranean Mission

By 1st Lt. Howard N. Sturkie,
United States Army Air Forces

A B-24 pilot tells you how it feels to sweep the Mediterranean, stalking Nazi convoys out of Crete, helping to break the back of Rommel’s Supply Line

as told to 1st Lt. C. H. Dykeman

1st Lt. C. H. Dykeman, author of short stories which have appeared in Liberty Crowell Publications and other magazines, here presents the first of a series of accounts of men who make AAFSAT.

Howard N. Sturkie

We could see Tobruk down there, 23,000 feet below. It looked like a big pile of rubble. It hardly seemed worth bombing.

But our twelve B-24’s went into the run just the same. Somehow, we’d missed the German convoy we’d been sent out to get. Maybe it had turned back into the shelter of Crete. Anyway, we had six 1,000 pound bombs in the bomb racks of each B-24, and we weren’t going to carry them all the way back to our base in Palestine. Tobruk was good place to dump them. Remember, this was August, 1942, and Rommel was talking about occupying that suite at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. There were plenty of Jerrys in Tobruk.

Suddenly the lead plane let go with a salvo. That was the signal for the rest of us to release. I could feel our ship lighten as our bombs let go. Then we were swinging in a circle for the long trip home. It was every plane for itself from here on in.

Way down below; you could see the puffs of smoke that were our bombs landing in Tobruk. A few of them hit the harbor where the funnels and decks of sunken ships looked like tombstones. JoeTrumble, back in the tail gunner’s coop, began to yell over the intercom that we’d hit something. Joe was always getting excited. We were out of danger, even though we were a good many hours out of our base. If we didn’t run into any Focke-Wulf’s or Messerschmitts, we’d be okay. I began to relax.

I looked at my co-pilot, Glen Swope. He grinned back at me. ‘Maybe we’ll get another crack at that convoy tomorrow,” he said. “Maybe we can commute back and forth.”
“Okay by me.” I said. All of a sudden it dawned on us that we really had come halfway around the world and that we really were in the war, at last. It wasn’t just headlines any more to us. This was the real McCoy.

It was only the day before that we’d flown old No. 11916 into Palestine after a week’s delay at Khartoum waiting for orders. We never did get around to calling our B-24 any affectionate name like “Hellzapoppin,” or “Suzy Q,” maybe because the number seemed to fit her square, businesslike fuselage just as well. Then today at noon we’d been called in a briefing by British Intelligence Officer Bailey.

“We’ve had word that a German cargo ship is heading for Tobruk,” he said, indicating a course on the map. “you’d better go out and have a look.”

Well, we’d had our look and we’d either missed that ship or the convoy had ducked back into the shelter of Crete again. Somehow, it was the first time I’d had a chance to let down and relax. It felt good.

It didn’t seem like 12 months ago that I’d walked onto the field back at Oklahoma Air College, in Oklahoma City, U. S. A., to learn how to be a pilot. They had a swell crowd of civilian pilots there, training kids like myself to fly. There was V.R. Cline and Dusty Rhoades—it wasn’t until later that I learned who Dusty was: one of the last of the famous barnstorming pilots left over from the last war.

Dusty was tall, slim and sandy-haired, and he was doing his bit and not talking about it. He was one swell instructor, too. Probably Dusty could have gotten a commission, I don’t know. The Army Air Force was lucky enough to have a lot of guys like him who went to work with positively no glory, teaching thousands of American kids to fly. A few months ago I heard Dusty was killed at a primary training school when a student plane accidentally taxied into him. He was a great guy and a good pilot.

Well, I learned to fly Pt 19A’s at Oklahoma City, and after that I went on to basic training at Randolph Field, Texas. That’s the spit-and-polish school of the AAF, in case you didn’t know it.Brother, you learn fast about such things as military precision in drill, and how to keep that brass buckle shined. Maybe it was harder for me, because I was just a farm boy from down in Gustine, Texas. I’d graduated from Texas A & M in ’39 and at the time I didn’t figure I’d ever use the military training I took there. I was glad I had it.

At Randolph Field we flew BT 9’s and Bt 14’s and we drilled when we weren’t flying. It was a tough routine. The day I got my wings was pretty exciting. Everybody was wondering where he’d be sent. I was held on for a couple weeks with an observation squadron. When word came for me to report to Sebring. I was to be co-pilot on a B-17.

Brooks Field was better fun, because we began flying formation and instrument flying. We began to do cross-country and night flying in AT 6's and BC 1's. Brooks field is where they begin to tighten up on you—to sift out the boys who’ll fly and those who won’t. A lot of the boys who washed out at Brooks Field went on the become part of a bomber crew.

Once, it was considered pretty tough to be washed out of pilot training. But now you find just as many guys who are tickled to be part of a bomber’s crew. It’s like being on a team, with everybody clicking together on the plays, and when you come in over the target and make a ----------------.

The day, I got my wings was pretty exciting. Everybody was wondering where he'd be sent. I was held on for a couple weeks with an observation squadron. Then word came for me to report to Sebring. I was to be a co-pilot on a B-17.

It was like crawling into the inside of a box car the first time I got into my ship. I’ll never forget the thrill of that first flight in a B-17 when Bill Kidd, the pilot, handed over the controls. It was like a dream, and I almost had to pinch myself to make sure it was me, Sturk, a guy from the wide-open spaces of Texas, and not some other guy.

We began to fly long cross country trips. Believe me, Uncle Sam, doesn’t spare anything to give his boys the best training he can give them. We’d fly over the New Orleans in the afternoon, just the way you used to hop into your car and run over to the next town for a movie. The next night we might make a trip across to Houston, Texas. It was good practice for navigation. It’s this kind of training that’s helping our Flying Fortress crews hit Goering’s “bombproof” cities with such accuracy these days.

It was good practice for navigation. It's this kind of training that's helping our Flying Fortress crews hit Goering's "bombproof" cities with such accuracy these days.

We were getting pretty good by then and we were getting itchy for foreign service. Then one day half of us were called in and told to report to Barksdale Field. We were to fly some new B-24’s.

Once again, I was co-pilot, and it took just one flight to convince me the B-24 was one sweet ship, too. With the B-17 and B-24, I’m convinced that we have two of the best long-range bombers in the world. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different.

Then one day a wire came in from Morrison Field, saying they needed ten pilots. We reported. I was handed a check sheet with the names of a crew. I was pilot—destination was Khartoum, Egypt! It was quite a moment.

I called my crew together. There was Glen Swope, co-pilot; Slim Moore, navigator; Matty Strait, bombardier; Jim Woods, engineer and top gunner; Hal Burdetter, aerial engineer and waist gunner; Dick Jenkins, radio operator; Tom Kearney, aerial radio operator and waist gunner; and last but not least, Joe Trumbel, our tail gunner.

I worried a little bit about my new navigator while we were (going through)our equipment--tin-hats, rubber lifeboat, emergency rations and so forth. After all, Slim Moore was just out of school and I didn’t know what he could do. But I needn’t have worried. Slim never talked very much, but he turned out to be tops as navigator. Your navigator is an awfully important guy when you’re flying a fully-loaded B-24 toward a distant pin-point on the opposite continent and you’ve got just enough gas for three hours extra flying.

We stowed everything away inside our B-24. When we got everything inside there wasn’t much room, what with the extra gas tanks. At noon word came we were to take off at 11 that night.

That afternoon was plenty exciting. We had to fly a two hour check to make sure everything was functioning okay. We had no way to check our overload, but No. 111916 could take it.

At 2300 we crawled in, got set, and taxied into position for the takeoff. I got the signal, swung around—and the power went off!

We had to be hauled back to the line. The ground crews went to work, and in a few hours we were all set again. But we didn’t start that day. Down in the Carribean it rains every afternoon and our first hp had to bring us in in the morning.

We took off the next day and hit Puerto Rico on the nose. Slim Moore went on chewing gum and looking down at the field as if he’d expected to find it there all along. I began to feel better about the next hop to Trinidad.

We hit Belem and then Natal on schedule. We were ready for the hop across the South Atlantic to Liberia and Roberts Field. It was a funny feeling to realize that I hadn’t seen a B-24 until a little over a year ago, but now I was supposed to fly one with her crew of eight across the big pond. I went to bed and didn’t sleep very well that night.

But, I needn’t have worried. Slim Moore was okay. We hit Africa right where we’d planned. There was one thrill we got though when we turned on the radio compass two hours out of Roberts Field and found it wasn’t working. I turned over the controls to Glen and began hunting for what was wrong. We located it, finally --one of our bags had fallen off the heap and knocked a fuse loose. It put it back and the needle began to work.. It was the only close call we had.

Old No. 11916 kissed African soil just 12 hours after we’d left Natal. It was swell to crawl in for a good night’s sleep. When we woke up at dawn it was raining. It was coming down in buckets and the ceiling was about 50 feet off the ground. When it let up a little we took off, and at 7,000 feet we ran into clear sunshine.

From there on into Khartoum it was easy. I kept looking for elephants and giraffes but all we saw was one hippopotamus lumbering out of the Nile.

Khartoum was getting closer to the action. We wondered where it would be—Cairo? Or would we farther east, maybe to India?

One week at Khartoum was a good rest. We flew one search mission, looking for a P-40 pilot who’d been forced down in the desert with motor trouble. We found him—standing beside his plane and waving his undershirt. His “pink elephant” camouflage on his P-40 made him completely invisible against the desert sand.

One week, and orders came to report to Maj. Payne in PalestineWe flew in one afternoon and the C. O. Col. McGsuire, shook hands with us. I told him we hadn’t had any actual experience, and he just grinned.

“Don’t worry—you’ll get it.”

So here we were returning from our first mission, after dropping our eggs on Tobruk...

it was the next day that we got word to report for a mission. Col. Maguire was there again and so was British Intelligence officer Bailey. For the second time in two days we were to go after that Nazi convoy. The briefing was short.

Reconnaissance reports they’re trying it again,” he said. “Get them this time, lads. Good luck.”
We went out to the field and crawled into No. ----- with a lot of wisecracking. We were beginning to feel like verterans. We’d walloped Tobruk. This time we’d get that convoy for sure.

And we found her: a Nazi cargo ship with four destroyers!

My palms began to sweat. Even at 23,000 feet, in fur-lined gloves and flying suit. This was the first time we’d had flak coming up at us. Believe me, those four destroyers were pumping plenty at us, too.

We were going into our bomb run now, coming in on an evasive course. Matty Strait was calling the tricks now. We'd release on the leader again, bombing in a pattern--the four destroyers were racing around the zig-zagging cargo ship on an erratic course, trying to get away.

Ahead, the bomb bay doors were open in the lead plane. Ours were open, too. It was penty cold with that wind whistling up through those open bomb bays.

Suddenly we leveled off. Six yellow objects tumbled out of the lead plane. Matty let out a yip. Our bombs were tumbling out. A puff of flak came up under our tail but it didn’t seem to hit us.

I headed No. 11916 back toward home base. Over the interphone system Joe Trumbel was yelling that we’d hit the cargo ship with another near hit on one of the destroyers...

This is the end of Lt. Sturkie’s account. No. 11916 returned to her base in Palestine, circled the field and crashed. Lt. Sturkie was thrown clear. Although badly burned, he recovered, and is now on duty at AAFSAT as an instructor. In the words of Time’s correspondent in Cairo, Sturk’s account is “not exciting, not heroic, but the kind of dull, monotonous, hard, nerve-straining work American bomber pilots have been doing for the past six months in the Mid East."