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TALE OF A TIGER
From The Diary Of Robert T. Smith, Flying Tiger
INTRODUCTION to this book I told of my first impressions upon
sighting the enemy and going into action. I can only add that the
thought flashed through my mind that I would probably be killed on this
day, and yet despite being scared half to death there was never any
thought of turning tail and running. And so, although this wasn't quite
what I'd had in mind, I went to work at the profession I had so eagerly
chosen, simply determined to kill as many of the enemy as I could before
they killed me. I'd never had much use for the Japanese, particularly
after reading about the countless atrocities and ruthless slaughter they
had inflicted upon the Chinese people, and the AVG had offered a way to
come to the aid of the underdog and strike back at the bully. But now,
after their sneak attack at Pearl Harbor and their avowed plan to
conquer all of Asia, I hated them with a passion.
December 23rd was the 3rd squadrons first combat
I learned after only a few passes at the enemy bombers that deflection
shooting was for the experts; I was sure I was scoring some hits, but
the results were not at all satisfactory. And so I picked out this one
bomber, got directly behind him and just under his prop-wash, and opened
fire at about 200 yards. I could see my tracers converging on the
fuselage and wing roots as I rapidly overtook him but kept firing until
he blew up right in my face. His gas tanks exploded in a huge ball of
flame, the concussion tossing my plane upward like a leaf. I fought for
control, flying through the debris, felt a thud as something hit my left
wing, let out a shout of triumph into my oxygen mask and thought By
God, I got one of the bastards no matter what happens from now on! I was
thinking strictly in terms of "one" plane, not the six or seven members
of its crew; they were faceless individuals. seen only as
shadow-figures if at all. I was elated beyond words, but there was
little time for self-congratulation. With one victory in hand, I wanted
more, and God knows there were plenty left. And so I went back to work,
my attacks on the bombers now interrupted all too often by their
fighters which were every bit as maneuverable as Chennault had said.
Outnumbering us as they did, it was hard to get a shot at one before
another was on my tail and I was forced to do a half-roll and dive away.
From the left: Jernstedt, Haywood, Older and R.T. Smith
posing with R.T.'s #77
For those who have never flown a fighter plane in combat it may be
difficult to imagine just how incredibly busy the pilot is. Of course
the flying itself, the movement of stick and rudder pedals and the many
other things involved are done without conscious thought, but both hands
and feet are constantly busy making adjustments. In addition to
controlling the throttle, the left hand must be used for making changes
in rudder and elevator trim tabs required with changes in speed and
power settings. The right hand grasps the pistol-grip atop the control
stick, index finger poised on the trigger, a squeeze of which will fire
all six machine guns. Sometimes a gun jams and has to be cleared
manually by pulling one of the six charging handles located in the
cockpit and connected by cables to the individual guns. And all this
time, if the pilot is to live, his head is constantly turning in every
direction to locate the position of enemy planes, trying to make sure
that one or more of them haven't swung in behind him, ready for the
"Okay, Gibson, give me a few lazy-eights now.... and get your head out
of your ass! We're not alone up here, remember?" Well, there's no way of
knowing, but I'd bet that the majority of fighter pilots who were
killed by enemy fighters never saw the plane that shot them down, never
knew what hit them.
I finally ran out of ammunition after chasing the bombers about fifty
miles out over the gulf of Martaban, sending another Sally down in a
lazy spiral with his right engine and wing ablaze. During all this time -
no more than forty minutes - I'd seen very few other P-40s, but now as I
headed back toward Rangoon another one closed in on my wing: it was
Haywood, grinning and giving me the thumbs-up sign. I saw him press his
throat-mike and his mouth was moving, but could hear nothing on my
radio. It dawned on me then that I hadn't heard anything on the radio
since the fight first began; later a Jap bullet was found in the
Tom and I saw lots of smoke billowing above Rangoon, mostly from fires
in the dock area, and more smoke from burning aircraft and buildings at
Mingaladon. We buzzed the field, did victory rolls, and managed to dodge
the bomb craters on the runway, landing safely. As we taxied to our
dispersal area I saw that several of Our planes had already returned.
Bob Hedman on short final
Jesse Crookshanks, my crew-chief, jumped up on the wing the moment I cut
the engine and slid back the canopy. God, I was tired and thirsty, but
felt jubilant about the day's work. This feeling vanished immediately
when Jesse told me that three of our planes had been shot down. "Who
were they, Jesse. do you know?" I asked him.
"Yeah," he replied, "Martin and Gilbert and Greene."
"Oh God. no!" I groaned, and there was a fleeting thought of a kiss on
the cheek and whispered words, "You take good care of Paul over there,
R. T., hear?"
But Paul was lucky; he'd been shot out of control, bailed out, then was
strafed by enemy fighters while hanging from his 'chute but wasn't hit.
He showed up a few hours later with a sprained neck, but otherwise O.K.
Unfortunately, Neil Martin and Hank Gilbert were killed. They were
buried the following day in the RAF's Airmen's Cemetery.
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All text and images Copyright © Robert T. Smith 1986.
Reproduction for distribution, or posting to a public forum without express
written permission is a violation of applicable copyright law.
Published by permission.