The Tuskegee Airmen's trial by fire in 'Operation Corkscrew'

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Tuskegee Airmen | YouTube

Pantelleria and Lampedusa, two islands located about 50 miles off the Tunisian coast, were strategically located in the middle of the intended path of the Allied fleet for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. Pantelleria was garrisoned by an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Axis troops, mostly Italian, and was home to radar stations that tracked Allied ship and air traffic. Its defenses included 15 battalions of coastal guns, pillboxes, and other defensive works.

Allied Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhowerhad long been an advocate of seizing the two islands, stating that if “left in the enemy hands, they would be a serious menace; secure in our hands they would be a most valuable asset.” The “asset” was Pantelleria’s airfield, the only one close enough and large enough to accommodate the five squadrons of short-range Allied fighters needed for close air support for the invasion.

Eisenhower initially encountered resistance from his British senior subordinate commanders, who felt that defenses on Pantelleria were so strong that assaulting forces ran a serious risk of failure. But Eisenhower insisted, assigning Lt. Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, commander of Northwest African Air Forces, “with the mission to reduce the island’s defenses to such a point that a landing would be uncontested,” making Pantelleria “a sort of laboratory to determine the effect of concentrated heavy bombing on a defended coastline.”

Code named “Operation Corkscrew,” the air offensive kicked off on May 18, 1943. From then until the invasion date of June 11, the island came under constant air attack from heavy and medium bombers and fighter-bombers.

One of the squadrons flying missions to Pantelleria was the 99th Fighter Squadron, commanded by Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the son of the nation’s first African-American general, the first squadron of African-American pilots of the “Tuskegee Experiment” program to see action in the war. The squadron arrived in Morocco on May 1, 1943.

As this was a time of Jim Crow in the United States, the pilots and ground crew encountered the indignities and slights of segregation and racism they had experienced back home. But one pleasant surprise was Col. Philip “Flip” Cochran, the inspiration for cartoonist Milton Caniff’s hero Flip Corkin in the syndicated newspaper strip Terry and the Pirates and later co-commander of the 1st Air Commando Group, who enthusiastically went out of his way to give the pilots combat training.

Lt. Spann Watson remembered Cochran as “a great guy” and said, “Cochran helped the 99th learn how to fight.” Davis added his praise, noting, “We all caught [Cochran’s] remarkable fighting spirit and learned a great deal from him about the fine points of aerial combat.”

U.S. Air Force

Pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group, “Tuskegee Airmen” | U.S. Air Force photo

Pantelleria would be the 99th’s baptism of fire. The squadron averaged two missions a day. In addition to escorting bombers, the pilots also conducted dive-bombing and strafing missions. Though the pilots did not shoot down any enemy planes, they did damage several, and were successful in driving away air attacks on the bombers – which suffered minimal or no losses, a foretaste of defensive tactics that would define the Tuskegee Airmen’s reputation in the war.

In the three-week air campaign, 6,400 tons of bombs were dropped on targets on Pantelleria. On June 11, assault craft carrying troops from the British 1st Division headed toward Pantelleria’s beaches. But, contrary to British predictions of beaches bathed in blood, before the troops could land, the Italian governor capitulated. The garrison on Lampedusa surrendered the next day. The only casualty was a soldier bitten by a mule.

U.S. Air Force

Eight Tuskegee Airmen in front of a P-40 fighter aircraft | U.S. Air Force photo

The swift fall of the islands went straight to the heads of some senior strategic air commanders, who now believed airpower alone could change the course of the war. Spaatz went so far as to claim “the application of air [power] available to us can reduce to the point of surrender any first-class nation now in existence, within six months from the time that pressure is applied.”

For the 99th, Corkin’s training assistance had a payoff beyond the battlefield. Following the surrender of Pantelleria, Davis received a message from area commander Col. J. R. Watkins: “I wish to extend to you and the members of the squadron my heartiest congratulations for the splendid part you played in the Pantelleria show. You have met the challenge of the enemy and have come out of your initial christening into battle stronger qualified than ever. Your people have borne up well under battle conditions and there is every reason to believe that with more experience you will take your place in the battle line along with the best of them.”

Davis would have a long and distinguished career in the Air Force, retiring in 1970 with the rank of lieutenant general. In 1998, he was advanced to the rank of general (retired list). He died in 2002.

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