Second lieutenant Dick Curtis arrived in Italy in May 1944-twenty years old and part of a shipment of P-51 Mustang fighter pilots so desperately needed that they were rushed into combat with less than thirty hours of flight time in their new high-performance aircraft.
Six of the twelve pilots assigned to the 52nd Fighter Group were shot down in the first two weeks. By his ninth mission, Curtis was the only one still flying. A maverick, he barely escaped court-martial with his high-flying antics. Escorting bombers sent to pound heavily defended oil fields was risky enough, but strafing the enemy supply lines, ports, and airfields was even more dangerous. Curtis may chalk up his success to dumb luck, but these missions took exceptional skill and courage. This hair-raising account captures the air war in all its split-second terror and adrenaline-pumping action.
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June 27, 2005
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Excerpt from Dumb but Lucky! by Richard K. Curtis
BY THE NUMBERS
"This man is not pilot material!"
--Joe Webb, Flight Instructor, 52nd College Training Detachment
It was the last week in October 1942 when I heard on the radio that the president was to end enlistments and rely on the draft, where the military could dictate the branch I'd serve. So I decided, as my older brother Bob had done, to take a shot at becoming a pilot in the Marines. I got Dad's permission to enlist, but not in the Marines. It stuck in his craw that the Navy had rejected Bob for something Dad scornfully dismissed as a "heart murmur." It would be the Army Air Corps. After all, it was the Army Dad had served in during World War I. And even though he'd been grievously wounded in a mustard gas attack, affecting his lungs so he couldn't speak for three and a half months, he remained a true-blue patriot and still committed to the Army.
Like Dad, I was putting in sixty-hour workweeks at Norton's, the big grinding wheel company in Worcester, Massachusetts. It proudly floated the triangular blue flag emblazoned with a big E for excellence in the war effort. But now, with others in my high school class already enlisting since June, it was time to call a halt to civilian life. So the next day I picked up application forms at the Army Air Corps recruiting office and was filling them out even as I listened to the latest news of Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, missing in the South Pacific. The following Monday I submitted the application, together with two recommendations, and was told, after a check of the papers, to report with them the next morning at 0800 hours at Fort Devens.
It was only thirty-five miles to Ayer, but it took eighty minutes for the train to get there, long enough to introduce myself to five others from Worcester headed there. The six of us chipped in fifteen cents apiece for a taxi ride to the fort where, after producing our credentials at the gate, we were issued passes. I soon realized that it was a lot easier to get that pass than to pass the several exams that made up the Air Corps mental test. There were 150 questions on such subjects as English, geometry, algebra, physics, and current events. Of the seventeen of us in the room, only eight passed, getting at least 76 right. When I learned that I got 112 right, or 19 more than the next highest grade, I had good reason to thank the teachers I had at North High for thorough preparation despite, at best, my lackluster performance.
I may have been top man on the totem pole in the exam, but in the eyes of Charlie Rich, my boss and my ride to Norton's since I got a job there after graduation, I was still a dumb cluck. So dumb, in fact, that he offered ten dollars to my five that I'd never be chosen for pilot training. So confident was I that he was wrong that I refused the bet, even at two-to-one odds.
On Monday the 9th of November I was back at Devens for a thorough physical, riding the train with Al Barrios and George Arnberg, both in their twenties and Al with a year or more of college under his belt. The only reason the Air Corps was accepting the likes of George and me was that they'd run out of men with at least a couple years of college. The physical turned out to be just as comprehensive as the mental. Nine months earlier my brother Bob had taken his, where the Army also detected something wrong with his heart. Determined to fly, and with two years at Clark University sitting under such professors as Robert Goddard, the rocket pioneer, and with a private pilot's license as well as membership in the Civil Air Patrol, Bob was not about to take no for an answer. So he'd returned no less than six times to convince them he was fit enough to fly. At last he wore them down, and now he was training as a navigator.