This entry was posted on February 18, 2012 by jetpilotoverseas. It was filed under 1950's, F-51 Mustang, Korean War, North American, RF-51 Mustang, USAF .
My Dad, Verl “Pete” Taylor flew in the 45TRS.
February 22, 2012 at 11:59 pm
Memories of a Mustang Driver,
Lieutenant Colonel Dell Toedt, born in Laurel, Iowa, in 1930, is a veteran of the Korean War where he flew P-51s with the 45th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron out of Kimpo Air Base, managing to complete a hundred combat missions before heading back to the United States. Between 1953 and 1957, Lt. Col. Toedt had the good fortune to do some flying in Latin America, ferrying P-47s, P-51s and T-33s from the U.S. to Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Guatemala and Costa Rica, while assigned to several USAF Ferrying Squadrons. What follows is the third of a series of articles depicting his adventures “down south” where he flew complicated missions, got involved in more than one risky situation and had the time of his life.
Memories of a Mustang Driver, Part I By Lt. Col. (USAF, Retired) Dell Toedt Dec 12, 2005, 13:00
Edited by Mario E. Overall
.:: Adventures in the Caribbean
My first trip to Latin American occurred in the summer of 1953. Our mission on that occasion was to ferry several P-47s to their respective recipients, those being the air forces of Ecuador, Peru and Chile. As I recall it, twenty four young pilots, a C-54 for maintenance, and a B-26 for navigation, converged on the TEMCO plant located at the Hensley Naval Air Station in Dallas, Texas, where everything was being readied for our departure. Initially we would go to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio and from there to Panama, via Miami and Jamaica. Once in Panama, we would deliver our fighters to their respective countries. Some of us had a lot of flying time in the Jug or the Mustang but others were multi-engine pilots who had been pressed into service in the very last minute and their experience was nil to say the least. Many of them were a bit anxious as they performed the walk-arounds. Even so, things were going fine up to that point and everyone’s airplane checked out well… Except mine! Minutes later all the jugs and the supporting planes departed for Kelly AFB, leaving me behind to have my plane fixed. It was until later that day that I managed to take off. It was one of those murky, hazy afternoons with poor visibility, and as I was heading for San Antonio, the Cherry Hill radio tower south of Dallas suddenly appeared in front of my propeller. I rolled up on the right wing, somehow missing the guy wires supporting the tower and slid past with just a few feet to spare. It was piece
of cake for a fighter pilot, right? Didn’t bother me then, but 49 years later, I know I was lucky… Again!
The mood at Kelly AFB was happy and light-hearted. Our P-47s had been reconditioned by TEMCO. They had drop tanks, so we had plenty of fuel. Additionally, we had a C-54 packed full of spare parts and mechanics, and a B-26 with a navigator to keep us on course. The C-54 even had several cases of C-Rations in case of emergency. What else could we ask for? However, none of us had the slightest idea of the problems that would develop before we could deliver the last of the P-47s to their new owners. The next day we departed for Miami. It was a very long but uneventful flight. Those of us who were ordinary line pilots had a room at a low rent beachfront hotel on Miami Beach, but some of the wheels seemed to be elsewhere. We didn’t care. We were getting $9.00 a day to pay for our room and food. The weather was good, and life seemed to be kind to us. However, after two weeks in Miami, we began to wonder why we didn’t head south. A newspaper reporter published a story about us, showing some of the pilots standing in the swimming pool having a tray of drinks delivered. Someone sent a copy back to our headquarters and the group leader was summarily fired. He apparently was having a great social whirl while the rest of us were sitting around. A senior Captain, named Bill Redeen, was assigned as the new group leader; he formed us up and headed us for Jamaica in no time. However, he apparently hadn’t checked the weather well, because a hurricane was also headed for Jamaica at the same time as we were. About the time we started to cross over Cuba we met these towering black clouds that formed the front edge of the hurricane. Things did not look good for proceeding to Kingston, so the flight plan was changed immediately, and we turned back west and headed for Campo Columbia airport at Havana.
The instructions from the tower at Campo Columbia were explicit: DO NOT LAND. We orbited for quite some time, hopelessly waiting for the tower’s authorization. Finally Lt. Bill Morris informed the group leader that he was dangerously low on fuel and that he was going to land. Somebody in the frequency said “You are going to start a war” and Lt. Morris replied “I don’t have any bullets!” As Lt. Morris rolled in for landing, we all went behind him. Minutes later everybody was on the ground safely. It turned out that the Cuban government was on high alert because they had been advised that the island was about to be invaded on that particular day. After some talk, we were all parked and tied down because the hurricane was coming toward Havana. Somebody arranged hotel rooms at the Hotel Nacional, a very nice hotel, and a bus was brought up to take us to downtown. My buddy, Rusty Wilson and I picked up our clothes bags from the C-54, and with some foresight, also one of the cases of C-Rations that were being carried for emergencies, the emergency being that Rusty and I only had a few dollars after our long stay in Miami Beach, so we knew we would be eating in.
I had a chess board in my bag, so before the hurricane hit we very judiciously used our few dollars and bought a large bottle of that good Cuban rum, a dozen fresh limes, and a few bottles of Coca Cola, and for a week, while the hurricane pelted Havana, Rusty and I sat in our room drinking rum and coke, eating C-Rations heated in the sink and played chess. As the hurricane subsided we began to venture out during the evenings. One night we were strolling around, and wound up in front of the National Theater. Several long, black limousines pulled up and several men in white dinner jackets jumped out with sub-machine guns, and spread out in front of the building. After they had deployed all around the entrance, Generalissimo Fulgencio Batista got out of one of the limousines, and started into the theater. Rusty, with his droll sense of humor, said in a loud stage whisper “Tiene usted la bomba?” to what I replied “Rusty, you dumb shit, are you trying to get us killed?” He thought that it was funny. It might have been the rum and cokes, I guess. For the next 4 or 5 hours Rusty and I walked around Havana, going in bars, talking to people, singing with them, and having a good time. I had studied Spanish in college, and it was coming back pretty quickly. Rusty on his part was fluent in Spanish, taking up the role of translator. The next day, when we told the Air Attaché people what a good time we had, they turned white and said that we had gone through the most dangerous part of the Havana’s malecon, and that we were lucky we didn’t get killed.
After about 2 weeks the weather cleared and we managed to crank up our Jugs for the flight to Kingston, Jamaica, where we were headed before being diverted by the hurricane. In no time all twenty four of us were taxiing, trying to get lined up with our flight leaders. I was near the takeoff runway, and was forced off the taxiway by another aircraft, and my left wheel went deep into an ant hill that had been softened by the 2 weeks of rain. I shut down and stood on the wing, waiting for someone to come and pull me out. One of our P-47s lined up on the northwest takeoff runway about 50 yards from where I was stuck, and I watched him take off. About the time the pilot pulled the gear up I saw a puff of black smoke coming out of the cowling, then the engine quit, and the plane went down straight ahead. Several of us ran and commandeered a pickup truck in which we sped to the crash site as fast as we could. The plane, flown by Lt Bill Morris, had gone down inside a dog track on the northwest corner of the airfield, where he hit the ground and then went through a wall made of concrete block about 8 feet high, taking a section of it about the size of the Jug’s wings. The engine was ripped off, and the fuselage was lying in a drainage area with 145-octane gas pouring out of the main fuel tank and making a big puddle about 10 feet wide. Lt. Morris was no where to be found, however the cockpit was intact, and the canopy was open. Lt. Morris said later that the last thing he remembered was turning off the magnetos as he hit the ground. A couple of seconds later six Cubans pulled him out of the cockpit, threw him in a taxi, climbed in the aforementioned vehicle –all six of them- and took him to the hospital. Lt. Morris was rolled up in a ball in the corner of the taxi with his rescuers sitting right on top of him. It was a miracle that he wasn’t killed or paralyzed during that taxi ride. But the Cubans took action, and you have to hand it to them for
that. The Havana hospital had a great surgeon who specialized in back injuries and had trained at the Mayo Clinic in the US. He put Lt. Morris on a long, flat steel strip that was mounted between a large vise type machines. The doc would bend the machine, take an x-ray, and keep doing that until Lt. Morris’ back was aligned again. Then the doc put a heavy cast over his entire body, let it harden, and then pulled the steel rod out of the cast. Lt. Morris lived to fly again, but while he was in the hospital he became the darling of many of the Cuban ladies, including a couple of proposals of marriage. Being already married, he had to decline those most delightful proposals. He received wonderful care from the Cuban doctors, without which he surely would have died, or been crippled for life. But lets get back to our story: Having jammed the heavy P-47 landing gear into the mud changed something in the retraction mechanism, because a few days later, when I took off, the gear fairing doors closed first, and the gear retracted on top of them. I immediately learned that the P-47 does not climb in that configuration and I was staggering around under full throttle, trying to gain some decent altitude. For a while, I recycled the gear, but the fairing doors always closed first, and the gear retracted on top of them. In the end I decided to land and fortunately the gear did come down and locked safely. The Cuban Air Force’s mechanics had some experience with the P-47 and said they would re-time the gear retraction. As this was being done, the entire group returned to Campo Columbia, since they didn’t want to leave me behind. The second attempt to reach Kingston was successful; however, when we tried to take off for Panama the weather got on our way again and we were forced to return and stay in Jamaica for a week. I don’t remember the name of the hotel in which we were accommodated, but it was an old building with a lot of class and a very relaxed atmosphere. The automobiles that took us to the hotel were 12 cylinders Cadillacs and Lincolns; big, open cars that carried about 8 people, and the drivers raced all the way to the hotel. It was one of the most exciting things of the entire trip. I guess the drivers were trying to show a bunch of fighter pilots how fast they could go. I loved Kingston, and the couple of nights we went out, invariably we would go to the Glass Bucket where Lord Flea and Lord Fly were entertaining. I ran into Lord Flea years later in Miami, and he claimed he remembered the bunch of P-47s heading for South America. One night we were advised that a local organization had arranged a social meeting for us, and we were all bussed out to a very nice hotel. It turned out that in the social meeting were a lot of very nice young ladies also. There was music and dancing. I don’t dance, so I sat and talked to a nice young lady named Ursula. When I returned to California a couple of months later, there was a card from her, which my new fiancé has asked pointed questions about for the last 49 years. My conscience is clear, but I can’t vouch for any of the other guys. They were all very attractive, proper young ladies.
The day after the social meeting we were scheduled to fly to Panama. We briefed, took off, but the weather report came in after we were airborne. The tower guys said that the weather en route to Panama had gone bad, and that we should return to Jamaica as soon as possible. Taking that good advice, the group returned to the island, but several of us flew around, just enjoying the Jamaican scenery. In the process, we buzzed a couple of fishing boats, and may have been a little too low because the crews jumped overboard.
I was flying on Mac McCullough’s wing, as we went in to land. We were landing out of a loop, but Mac failed to inform that to me; I only found out when his landing gear came out in my face as we were upside down. I made a very smooth touchdown on the runway, but as I was slowing down, the right wing slowly dropped as the gear on my Jug collapsed. It was in that way that I found out that the retiming job that the Cubans had performed hadn’t gone that well. I thought about trying to jab the plane up with torque, like you could do with the P-51, but the speed was too slow so I just stood on the left brake trying to keep the jug straight. I slid for about 1,500 feet down the runway, spewing 145-octane fuel out of the right drop tank, and by a miracle it didn’t catch fire. Just before it stopped the gear and tank dug in, and the plane did a 90-degree spin onto the grass. I opened the canopy and threw my helmet up in the air. Across the tarmac came all of our pilots, running as hard as they could and seconds later they helped me out. The P-47’s propeller was bent and the bottom of the drop tank was worn. Aside from that there wasn’t much damage. My little mishap made it to the newspapers and I became a minor celebrity for a couple of days until I took another airplane and left for Panama. As I was taking off, I thought that this was going to be the last time that I would have to fly over the Caribbean, however, time would prove me wrong.
To be continued…
Lt. Col. Dell Toedt
Memories of a Mustang Driver, Part II By Lt. Col. (USAF, Retired) Dell Toedt Feb 4, 2006, 12:26
Edited By Mario E. Overall
.:: Jugs for South America
The flight from Jamaica to Panama was uneventful, except for my wingman, an old multi-engine pilot with almost zero fighter experience, who kept complaining about low oil pressure readings. Time and again along the flight I told him to forget about it
and to concentrate in flying the plane. Since I was a first lieutenant and he was a captain, when we got to Panama he complained that he shouldn’t be flying my wing, so I was relegated to fly number four in our formation. Fortunately, he wasn’t selected to ferry anything beyond Panama so the issue was moot. We stayed in Panama for two weeks and spent most of the time flying our Jugs in the local area while waiting for our orders. Some of our fighters were going to be delivered to Quito, Ecuador, some to Lima, Peru, and the rest to Santiago, Chile. I was fortunate to be on the list to fly to all three countries. As expected, some of the other pilots offered me $100 if I would let them fly my airplane to Quito, something that I refused summarily. By the end of the second week, diplomatic clearances began to be negotiated while some of our Jugs were serviced completely. We were told that if we were forced down in the jungle south of Panama we shouldn’t let anyone get close to us, since there were cannibals in that area. It was a great thought, considering that none of us were carrying a side-arm. Being only a year out of Korea, where we were always fully armed, it was an uneasy feeling; fortunately the Jugs hummed along without a miss. The flight to Ecuador was a piece of cake. Quito, the capitol, is pretty high in the mountains and the runway was a narrow, gravel strip, but very long. Our true air speed was pretty fast on the approach and it was made more exciting by having several hundred locals standing along both sides of the runway, watching us land. We taxied in, and in no time we were met with a very friendly welcoming party. The Ecuadorian pilots seemed very excited with their new Jugs, but their main question was: how much gas do they have? It turned out that the Ecuadorian Air Force had no money to buy fuel, and the pilots could only fly the Jugs with what was left in the tanks before being grounded.
However, the Ecuadorian Air Force’s commandership put on a magnificent dinner for us, with one server for every two pilots, with the U.S. and Ecuadorian pilots mixed up at the tables. We were treated with a superb wine and fresh oysters. We would squeeze lime on them, and since they were still alive, they would shrivel up and then we would eat them. If they didn’t move, it meant they were dead, and we would shout oyster malo! Forcing everybody to down their glasses of wine. Fortunately there weren’t many malo oysters. That dinner was one of the highlights of the entire trip to Ecuador. The Ecuadorian pilots made themselves proud in the hospitality they showed to us, and we really appreciated it. The next day the people at the USAF Attaché took us around to some of the local tourist sites and one was a rug factory that was run by a woman who had fled communist Europe. They were making beautiful handmade rugs, and one of them was for the United Nations building in New York City. For a few hundred dollars we could have bought rugs worth tens of thousands, but we didn’t have any money! It was in Quito that I did something that I have always regretted: We were going into the rug factory that I have described, and a small girl, about 8 or 9 years old, was walking up the street with a huge load of firewood on her back. She was so small and so poor, and she stopped for a couple of seconds so I could take her picture. Then she
was gone. I have always regretted that I didn’t give her a couple of dollars for that small favor. Every time I look at that picture I feel bad. After a couple of days, it was time to fly back to Panama to pick up more Jugs for the next delivery to Lima, Peru. We were packed into a USAF’s C-47, and it lined up at the very end of that long, gravel runway in the outskirts of Quito. The pilots went through the pre-take off checklist and seconds later I heard the engines going to max power. I timed the take off roll and it was 43 seconds before we got in the air. The guys flying that overloaded Gooney seemed a lot more confident about getting off the ground than those of us in the back. Minutes later we were on our way to Albrook AFB in Panama. Albrook was a great place to be stuck. The commander, Colonel Wasche, was a good friend of our wing commander, Colonel Tarlton Watkins. “Teeter” Wasche, Colonel Wasche’s wife, organized some tours for us, and even drove us around in her little Morgan sport car. Since the weather was always nice early in the day, we would fly our P-47s for an hour or two during the morning. Then, after landing, we would have lunch and had the rest of the day off. Usually, during the afternoon we would take a short nap and then we would go to the Club for cocktails. The end of the day invariably was marked by dinner. It surely was a though life! But whether you believe it or not, we were a bit anxious to get the planes delivered so we could go home. For all the laughing and joking, this was a hard nosed bunch of professional fighter pilots who felt that we were being held up by a bunch of administrative barriers, and we wanted to get on the road. The powers that be did not seem to have our same sense of urgency.
One fine day we finally got moving. During the flight to Lima I was number two of the group led by Captain Bob Monteverdi. My buddy Rusty Wilson was number three, and I can’t quite recall who number four was. Interesting to note was the fact that I had Montezuma’s Revenge and had put two large packs of paper towels in the cockpit with me, just in case. I didn’t tell this to anyone, for I didn’t want to stay behind and miss the opportunity to fly down south once again. Around the afternoon we landed at what I remember was Talara, Peru, where we refueled before continuing to Lima. During the take off from Talara, I was on the downwind side of Bob Monteverdi, and there was about a 40-knot crosswind from the left. I rolled a few seconds after Bob, and as the gear came up, I was caught in his prop wash and the crosswind. The nose of that big P-47 pitched up, the left wing came up and the right wing went down, in a word, the Jug rolled upside down in a matter of seconds. I jammed full forward stick into the left corner to get the wings level and the left wing down, and put in full right rudder to help the roll. The big Jug was turning right with the right wing coming up from the full uncoordinated controls I had in, but finally rolled over, nose high at 90 degrees to the runway. I had the old Air Force yellow flying gloves; those gloves jammed the stick full forward, and I pushed that 2000 HP engine through the throttle stop to try to get max
power and dove straight into the cut bank where the runway had been. Then I passed a small hill, diving, full throttle into that bank and repeating to myself now or never! The yellow gloves pulled back on the stick, the nose came up and the Jug just cleared that big bank and smashed down the far side of the runway, on the edge of a stall. It was a swamp-like area with a lot of tall grass. The Jug went through that grass, picking up speed and quickly staggered out of it. My friend, Rusty Wilson, who was rolling behind me, had clamped down on the mike and was going ah ha ha ha! The guys on the ground watched me go down behind that small mound of dirt, then into the tall grass on the far side. They said they were waiting for the big, black cloud of smoke from the crash (Remember that our P-47s had half full drop tanks installed) but to their surprise, my Jug came staggering up out of it in a matter of seconds. Minutes later we circled the field, joined up in formation, made a low pass across the airport and finally headed south, to Lima. There was overcast, about 2000 feet thick, and Monteverdi began a slow climb through it to get on top. At least now we were on our way. Upon arriving to Lima the weather was a mess: Thunderstorms, low ceilings and poor visibility. Monteverdi did a superb job finding the airport and lining us up to the runway, and we all four pitched over the field to land. As mentioned earlier, I was flying two in the formation, however as I pitched to land I ran into a rain cloud, so I pulled a little tighter, and when I broke clear at about 600 feet, I was leading the flight. Somehow I had passed everyone in the cloud! A couple of guys landed on cross-runways, and it was a barrel of laughs with Jugs criss-crossing on landing, but it was the best we could do. In the end, we all landed safely. The airport at Lima was nice. After dismounting we were taken to an excellent hotel. There we had a couple of pisco sours, and went to bed. It surely had been a tough day. Lima is a beautiful city and the ladies at the USAF Mission took us to some of the local sites and to some of the best shopping places. Unfortunately, none of us had any money. They showed us silver that was fit for an embassy and that was a thousand dollars, but would have been worth 10 times that in the US. We did buy some vicuña rugs that were probably on the black market. I was going to make one into a coat for my bride to be. During the trip back to Panama we were on a Peruvian airline that, as a matter of pride, served pisco sours. We all had several of them during the flight. Upon arriving to Panama the weather was sweltering and we were most uncomfortable thanks to the winter blue uniforms that we were ordered to wear during our time in Lima. I remember that as one of the most uncomfortable episodes of the entire trip. And to make things worse, the customs’ guys at the airport didn’t seem to be in any hurry. But at least we were back and ready to take another trip south to deliver more Jugs. After arriving back to Albrook we began to plan our next flight, this time to Chile. It was going to be the largest group to be delivered: 16 planes. The flight was going to be lead by Bill Redeen and I was going to be his wingman, flying as number two once again. But while the day of our departure arrived, we quickly resumed our old routine.
Eventually we would go to the Embassy and get a partial pay, but it was always a mere pittance, so we were always broke. It is hard to believe it now, but during this entire trip we hadn’t had a paycheck! At least the mail call was a highlight of the day, as I would get several letters from my wife-to be, Gloria. Our trip to Santiago was fairly uneventful, except at Antofagasta, Chile. We landed at a dusty, windy airport located in one of the driest spots on the planet. To make it more complicated, all of the electricity was off in the entire area, so as we checked in to the local hotel we had to fumble our way to our rooms without lights. Fortunately most of us carried flashlights! It was dark when we got there and dark when we left the hotel, so we didn’t see much of the city. It was good to get out to the airport and start south again.
The memories of this last leg of the flight are hazy for me. However, I do remember that someone told us that we were supposed to wear Class A uniforms because there was going to be a formal reception for us upon arriving to Santiago. In contrast, we were dirty, had no clean clothes, and were lucky to have something to fly in. As expected, we looked like the raggle taggle gypsies as we climbed out of our P-47s in Santiago, but the Chileans didn’t bat an eye. They welcomed us like long lost friends and had a most impressive ceremony where they presented us with the red wings that denote a War Pilot (ordinary pilots get blue wings.) The ceremony was plenty of speeches and some exceptional Chilean champagne. At some point we were all lined up to have our War Pilot wings presented by the Chilean Air Force Commander. He was small and appeared to be about 80 years old. The Chilean wings are very distinguished looking wings with a large pin, about 2 inches long, that fastened it to the shirt of the pilot. One of our guys, named Bruce (I can’t remember his last name), who was about 6 feet 2 inches tall, was being presented his wings by the commander, who sort of stumbled and drove the long needle into Bruce’s chest. Bruce stood at attention, and didn’t flinch, while we kind of snickered. In the end, the long needle was pulled out and the ceremony proceeded. We spent a few days in one of the finest hotels in Santiago, and were privileged to attend the changing of the guard at the Palace. It was very impressive. On the other hand, the food in the hotel was excellent, and the wine was magnificent. The Chileans were very friendly and we had a really pleasant time while we were waiting for an aircraft to pick us up.
When our C-54 finally arrived, I was the first aboard. That old plane had a bunk behind the radio compartment and I dove right into it. I took a long nap while we were on our way to Lima, which was the first leg of our flight back to Panama. We spent the night in Lima, where some of the pilots –who had a bit of money- went down town to a local hotel. The rest of us, being broke as usual, stayed in the airport overnight. Rusty and I only had a few cents, so for supper we had a bowl of onion soup, with an egg in it. Cost was 89 cents. Later, we sat in the airport until late in the evening, watching the crowd thinning out. The terminal had beautiful long drapes that hung along the wall. We slipped in behind them and slept on the floor until morning.
When we got to Panama, we were able to get a partial pay from the US Embassy, so we had some money again. Several of us invested it in several cases of good South American wine, and marked them as aircraft parts to get through customs back in the US. Days later we landed at San Antonio International Airport, cleared a perfunctory customs check, and flew over to Kelly AFB to wind up the trip where it had started two and a half months before. I flew back to Long Beach, expecting to have at least a week off but once there I was told I had to get two hours of weather time in an F-86 because I was leaving for Europe in 3 days. Operation High Flight had a high priority and we were delivering the F-86s necessary to counter the Russian threat. The next morning I climbed out of Long Beach in cruddy weather, and as I was over Phoenix the tail pipe temp gauge went out. I had my two hours of weather, but went in to Williams AFB to get my F-86 fixed so I could get back to Long Beach. In the end, Williams’ maintenance said they couldn’t fix it, so I gave Base Ops an RON message to keep sending until someone came to get the airplane, and I went out on the highway and hitch hiked back to Long Beach. (Earlier, our squadron commander had said that the weather was too bad to come and pick me up.) I had two days with my bride to be, so we got married on Saturday, and I left for Europe on Monday to take an F-86F over the northern route of Dover, Maine, Goose Bay, Greenland, Iceland and into Scotland. The ferrying outfit wasn’t all fun and games and some of the guys who ran it were a bunch of jerks. It was in that way that I concluded my first trips to Latin America in 1953. However, ahead of me there were two more trips that proved to be exceptionally interesting and far different from the previous ones.
To be continued…
Lt. Col. Dell Toedt LAAHS USA
Memories of a Mustang Driver, Part III By Lt. Col. (USAF, Retired) Dell Toedt Apr 13, 2006, 14:08
Edited by Mario E. Overall
.:: Stangs for Guatemala In April 1954 I was transferred to Kelly AFB, at San Antonio, Texas. I was still flying a lot of P-47s and P-51s as well as F-94s, F-86s, T-6s and an occasional L-19 Bird Dog. Then, in late July 1954 I got a call at home one Sunday morning to get to the base to go south immediately. It was a classified mission so they said, don’t tell your wife. Fat chance of not telling my wife!!! The mission was to deliver three P-51s to Guatemala in time to help hold the country
down after Col. Carlos Castillo Armas and his Liberation Army had invaded it, ousting President Jacobo Arbenz from power. Captain Rusty Wilson, Captain Don Red Ryder and I were flown to Brooks AFB, about 15 miles from Kelly AFB, to pick up the three fighters from the 182nd National Guard Squadron. Previously, I had flown several airplanes in for them from Luke AFB, and I knew that they had top-notch maintenance. When we arrived to Brooks, we found out that the three Stangs had their machine guns fully loaded and that their internal tanks were filled to the top. The drop tanks were empty though. A couple of hours later we flew them to Kelly, which was a port of demarcation. Our orders were to make Mexico City that same night and go into Guatemala City the next morning. During our pre-flight briefing, the wheels of the Ferrying Wing ordered full tanks on our planes. As expected, we complained because it would mean landing late at night and very heavy at high altitude (Mexico’s altitude is 7850 ft MSL.) To make things worse the wheels, in their infinite wisdom, made us fly an hour locally to get familiar with the airplanes, even when the three of us were high time P-51 pilots, with at least 100 combat missions in one war or another. It was until late in the afternoon that we took off for Mexico City. Rusty was leading, Red was on one wing and I was on the other. Mexico seemed the Milky Way on that dark night. We arrived around 2200 and put the planes on the ground at a pretty high airspeed considering the altitude and the gross weight we had with a lot of extra fuel and ammunition. A C-54 with 50,000 rounds for our machine guns was there ahead of us. As soon as we tied our mounts down the fuel truck arrived and began to refill them. In the mean time, Rusty sat down to figure out our flight plan to arrive in Guatemala City at 0800.
We took off from Mexico City at 0200 under a pitch black sky and circled until we were at 15,000 feet in order to clear the mountains that were there, all around us, but that we couldn’t see. We would dead recon southwest until daylight, hit the Pacific Ocean coast, and follow it down to Guatemala. We had on board four VHF four-channel radios but there weren’t any navigational aids. And as it turned out, we had no radio communications with anyone until we reached Guatemala City about 6 hours later. Arriving in Guatemala we were greeted by Lt. Col. Rodolfo Fito Mendoza, who introduced himself as the Minister of Air for Guatemala, but in reality he had been the chief of Col. Castillo Armas’ Liberation Air Force. As we found out later, he had two brothers who had been appointed head of the army and chief of the secret police, respectively.
For some reason, Fito kind of took me under his wing, and I rode around with him and his young son in his Cadillac. He had gone through USAF (Army) flying school in 1929, and his instructor was 2nd Lt. Nathan Twining, later Chief of Staff USAF. The Revolutionaries had put a price on the head of Fito’s son, who was about 9 years old, and Fito kept him with him all the time. He gave me insights to the revolution I never knew, but most of them were lost when my notes disappeared on one of my AF moves.
Fito had guns all over that Cadillac, and one, a small colt semi automatic, I admired very much. Fito said: Would you like it? take it! I didn’t, and have always regretted turning down such a memorable souvenir. A few days later I regretted not having a weapon even more… Another person I became very friendly with was a mercenary who had acted as the chief of pilots for the Liberation Air Force: Jerry Delarm. Jerry and I got along very well, and he told me about some of his escapades and took me out and showed the P-47 that he had used during the invasion. I could still see faint paint marks “PRANG” which showed its ancestry, the Puerto Rican Air National Guard. It also had several bullet holes patched with what looked like aluminum cans.
As we were walking around admiring his Jug, I noticed that Jerry carried a government Colt .45-semi automatic pistol in his belt at full cock. I asked him if he always did it that way, and he said he did, because there were lots of people who would kill him if they had the chance. At the time, the USAF Mission in Guatemala was headed by an astute Colonel named Earl Batten, who disliked Delarm very much, to the point of describing him as a psychopathic killer on one of his reports. However, my relationship with Delarm was friendly, at least up to that time. Days later, President Castillo Armas ordered a victory parade to celebrate the overthrow of Jacob Arbenz. The three of us, P-51 pilots were invited to be in the reviewing stand, right behind the president at the tribune in Campo de Marte. It was a big celebration. Jerry was in the air in his Jug, and made some extremely low, high speed passes over the crowd.
After the parade we went back to our hotel, and I went out in the streets. The Liberation Army, in their rubber-tire sandals, machetes, and machine pistols had taken over the city. On its part, the Guatemalan people had switched from supporting Arbenz to supporting Castillo Armas, and there was a fiesta mood everywhere. At some point, I went into a bar and ordered a beer. A man sitting next to me asked me if I was a pilot. He was about 6’ 4’’ wearing a brown suit and brown tie. I said I was, and he pulled himself up and said I too, am a pilot and I thought: Sure, everyone is a pilot now. So I asked him what he flew. FW190s and ME109s he said. I was a Lufftwaffe pilot in WWII. So I began to ask him about the planes characteristics to try to determine if he knew about them, and he seemed to. So I told him that a relative of mine, Fritz Todt, had been Hitler’s Chief Engineer, and had built the West Wall, the Autobahns, and the Sigfried Line. He ran the Todt Organization. When I told him that, I got the same treatment I have received all over the world from Germans: Comrade!!! He said and threw his arms around me. It turned out that his family, of German extraction, had gone back to Germany from Guatemala to visit just before the start of WWII and at the conflict’s outbreak he had gone in the German Army. He had been a machine gun commander on the Soviet Front. Now he was a beer salesman in Guatemala, so I bought him beer and listened to his story.
We would set up our machine guns on the front, and the Russians would send in 500 men to take our position, and we would kill them. And they would send in 1000 men, and we would kill them. Stupid, bullshit Russians!!! Then they would send 1500 more and we would fall back… So he applied for flying school and after graduation, he was posted to an ME109 squadron. Trying to find out his background I asked him if he had ever heard of the Abbeville Kids, the best Luftwaffe squadron that did a lot of damage to our bomber streams. He said no. I asked him if he had ever heard of the Yellow Nose Messerschmitts, (I was referring to the same squadron; they had to have a certain number of kills to get the yellow nose on their airplane.) He said no again. However, he mentioned that he had been squadron commander at Abbeville, and his squadron had yellow noses. Then he pulled out a big, old leather wallet, and dug down in the bottom where he found a picture of him, young, with a long leather coat, a Sam Browne belt, and a Lager pistol in front of an ME109. He said: I don’t show this to everyone, but since you are a Todt…
At some point of our conversation the German pilot mentioned that he had gone to President Castillo Armas to offer his services for the new Guatemalan Air Force. The president replied that if he enlisted he could be a mechanic. That offended him immensely and he referred to the entire invasion as Stupid bullshit Liberationist. I was buying him beer, and he was going back to the men’s room periodically, and as he went he would knock the Liberation Army troops out of the way with a smashing forearm, saying Stupid bullshit Indians!!!. I stayed as long as I thought it was safe, and probably too long as I think back on it, and I left as he was going to the men’s room once again. I went back to my hotel, and went to bed. At about 0600 the next morning there was a frantic pounding on my door. It was Colonel Batten, saying: get up!!! We have to get to the airport fast!!! And as he drove us, he briefed us on the situation: Since 0300, the cadets of the Guatemalan Army Academy were attacking the Liberationists at the Roosevelt Hospital, where they were temporarily based. In a desperate attempt to route the Liberationist out of the country, the young cadets were beating the hell out of the Castillo Armas’ troops. Jerry Delarm somehow got word, and got in the air in his P-47 and started strafing them. Our mission, for incredible that it may seem, was to get in the air and shoot Jerry down. (The Guatemalan Air Force commandership, seeing the cadets’ courage had decided to support them, and tacitly, the USAF Mission obliged too.) As we pulled up to the flight line where our Mustangs were parked, several Army troops with sub machine guns ordered us to stop, and not move to our planes. They thought we were going up to help Jerry, so they lined us up against a stone wall, and were prepared to kill us. Colonel Batten, who was known and held in high regard by the troops that guarded La Aurora Air Base, did some palavering with the officer in charge of the armed group, who in turn told us that if we could get off the field in 20 minutes we could go, but if we couldn’t, then we weren’t going. Whatever that meant,
with a bunch of guys pointing at us with sub machine guns and the three of us standing in front of a stone wall, it didn’t look good.
By that time the crew of the C-54 had been brought to the field, and there was a scramble to get the plane ready for takeoff. No flight planning, no pre-flight check, just a rush to get it in the air and everyone was helping. We didn’t know what had happened to the 50,000 rounds of .50 cal ammunition we had for our Mustangs, but at that point we really didn’t care. In a matter of minutes we were off the ground, and as we left I looked back at what looked like a beautiful, peaceful valley, that in reality was a God damned battle ground where they were shooting the heck out of each other. One of our mechanics had bought a huge stalk of bananas, and that was what we had to eat on the long flight across Mexico, back to San Antonio.
At the time of our arrival to Guatemala, that country’s Air Force still had in service three Boeing P-26 fighters, and I must confess that they were in prime shape. The Guatemalan pilots had told us that when we had checked them out in the Mustangs they would do the same for us in those classic aircraft. Our abrupt departure killed that wonderful opportunity, and I have always regretted it.
Something I’ve been chastised for years was that I didn’t take a lot of pictures during this trip. But, that was almost 50 years ago, and I was a lot younger then. To be honest, it all seemed just a normal day’s work and nothing exceptional that I needed to save with pictures. (I hope Dan Hagedorn isn’t reading this!!!)
To be Continued…
Lt. Col. Dell Toedt
September 1, 2012 at 10:54 am
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