A Somber Thursday, 20 April 1944

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing History Office
Thursday, April 20, 1944, was a day of sacrifice for four Airmen with a connection to the Oregon Air National Guard. The day began as any other for Airmen serving their country in a time of war, but ended somberly.

During the day of  April 20, Capt. Elkin L. Franklin, Jr., the Operations Officer of the 404th Fighter Squadron, was on detached service with the 57th Fighter Group's 64th Fighter Squadron at Alto Airfield on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. He had been sent there over two weeks before, along with Capt. Goolsbee, Operations Officer of the 406th Fighter Squadron, in order to gain some fighter bomber combat experience to bring back to his squadron and to the 371st Fighter Group in England.

Some miles to the southwest, aboard the Liberty ship SS Paul Hamilton, three of the original members of the Oregon National Guard's first aviation unit, the 123rd Observation Squadron, sailed eastward in convoy UGS-38. M/Sgt Bruce C. Green, T/Sgt Albert R. Miller, and S/Sgt Leonard W. Mayer, were transferred from the 123rd earlier in the war to help form a new unit, the 32d Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, and were headed for duty in Italy with this unit.

Capt. Franklin took off from Corsica in Republic P-47D-16-RE Thunderbolt serial number 42-76011 on a dive-bombing mission against railroad cars and facilities near Arezzo, Italy, which is north of Rome and southeast of Florence. The distance was such that external fuel tanks were required on the Thunderbolts. This mission occurred during the time of Operation Strangle, when Allied air forces in the Mediterranean theater of operations conducted a series of sustained interdiction attacks to impede the flow of German forces and logistics in central Italy.

Meanwhile, a German reconnaissance aircraft based in southern France spotted convoy UGS-38, and the German Luftwaffe prepared to make an air attack against it. Such an attack was not unexpected, as other convoys in the region experienced air attacks from German bombers based in France. The Paul Hamilton sailed on the inner side of the convoy, which one might believe would be safer than being aboard a vessel on the outer edge of the group.

The 64th Fighter Squadron reached the Sinalunga area south of Arezzo and bombed the railroad target. After bombing, the Thunderbolts looked for a target of opportunity to strafe and found one to the south at the railroad marshaling yard at Abbadia (just west of Lago Trasimeno). When Capt. Franklin's plane neared the end of its strafing run, enemy fire hit his belly tank which exploded. Franklin's plane rolled over and crashed into the ground in flames at 0945 local time, which was witnessed by three other squadron members, who believed he was killed in the crash. His was the first combat loss of a member of the 371st Fighter Group in World War II. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

As dusk came over the eastern Mediterranean Sea, German torpedo-bombers made their approach against the convoy. They skillfully made their way to North Africa, then turned and approached the convoy at low level from land, and Allied radar operators on land and at sea had trouble detecting and/or tracking the aircraft. Visual lookout was impaired as dusk turned to dark.

Suddenly, three waves of enemy aircraft hit the convoy off the coast of Cape Bengut, Algeria. A Junkers Ju-88 torpedo-bomber in the first wave aimed and dropped an aerial torpedo at the Paul Hamilton and hit it at 2105 hours local time. The ship erupted in a series of violent explosions as its cargo of explosives detonated, and all aboard, 580 men, including the three men originally from the 123rd Observation Squadron, perished in the catastrophic blasts, which briefly turned night into day.

The bulk of the 32rd Photo Recon Squadron (a handful were on another ship in the convoy), 317 men, was wiped out, as well as 154 men of the 831st Bomb Squadron (Heavy). Also lost were 29 Naval Armed Guards manning the ship's guns and 47 Merchant Mariners. It was one of the worst U.S. losses at sea during WWII. Only one body was recovered from the sinking. The three NCOs named were the first combat loss of 123rd Observation Squadron members in the war. They are remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at the North Africa American Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia.

So on this Easter Sunday, 2014, 70 years after the loss of these four brave Airmen in the Mediterranean theater of operations, let us remember their service and sacrifice for our freedom. They were the first Airmen with a connection to the Oregon Air National Guard to be killed in action, but sadly, they weren't to be the last. The upcoming Memorial Day will be a great opportunity for us to remember and honor them all.