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From The Diary Of Robert T. Smith, Flying Tiger

Part Two

In the 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 fine sunny 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 kill.

"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 - probably 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 receiver.

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.
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