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A wild duck's war.

ONE THING ROLLAND ROOT LEARNED in school was that he had talent with a paintbrush. So after graduation in 1937, he put his artistic skill to work, starting Root Sign Service in his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois. In just a few years, he'd be painting warplanes halfway around the world.

Root, who went by the nickname Rol, was 21 years old when he decided to join the army and enlisted on November 25, 1941. Days later, Japanese warplanes and mini-submarines attacked Pearl Harbor, and he was on a fast track to war.

After fitness assessment at Keesler Field, Mississippi, Root completed aircraft armorers school at Lowry Field, Colorado. In April 1942 he learned he was "destined for foreign duty with the 309th Fighter Squadron," part of the US Army Air Forces' 31st Fighter Group. When the 309th received its planes in England that June, it became one of the few US squadrons flying British Supermarine Spitfire single-seat fighters. As an armorer, Root worked on the ground, loading those planes with ammunition and ordnance.

Root's two years with the 309th took him to Twelfth Air Force bases in England, France, North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Along the way, he painted planes, created a Spitfire mural for an officers club, and designed and painted the Donald Duck insignia of the Wild Ducks, his 309th Squadron. On the side, he taught himself trumpet and formed a group that practiced at the edge of camp.

In the following excerpts from Root's wartime journal, one name gets warm treatment: Madoline. A switchboard operator and dancer, Madoline Henry was Root's "Irish sweetheart." As you'll see, Root worries whether their relationship will survive his service overseas.

June 4, 1942: Left New York on world's largest steamer, "The Queen Elizabeth." [The 1938 Cunard ocean liner RMS Queen Elizabeth was a WWII troop transport. For 57 years she was the largest passenger ship ever built.]

June 10: Arrived at Glasgow, Scotland; and then, High Ercall, [west central] England, June 11. Our squadron given 30 Spitfires, each manning four [.303-caliber] Browning machine guns and two 20mm Hispano-Suiza cannons.

July 12: High Ercall to RAF [Royal Air Force] Kenley Field, 10 miles south of London. Saw London and other blitzed cities. We returned to High Ercall July 16, and visited by the King and Queen.

July 17: Flew to Warmwell Field [southwest England] on the Channel.

July 27 at 6 a.m.: Saw first bombing at Weymouth; pilots fired at aerial targets at Warmwell.

July 31: Westhampnett Field near Chichester [southeast England]. Our squadron became operational, and I made Corporal.

Aug. 17: First bombing of Germans by RAF in Great Britain. Used B-17s [Flying Fortress heavy bombers]. Our squadron with three other fighter squadrons escorted the bombers.

Aug. 19, 1942: [309th fighters] started into France [to support the Allied raid on German-held Dieppe, France]. Lost three aircraft, but no men. Pilot [Lieutenant] Sam Junkin wounded in shoulder by cannon fire [but scored his first confirmed victory before going down. He received the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross.] Bombs dropped near [Westhampnett] field and two Jerries finished off by anti-aircraft guns. Sixty Jerries downed in all, 23 possibles [unconfirmed shootdowns] and 85 damaged. Aircraft came back with machine-gun holes.

Oct. 21: Left Westhampnett by train, arriving at Glasgow, Scotland Oct. 22. Boarded a ship named Orbita [a 1914 Spanish liner], part of a great convoy. We are leaving the British Isles and have lost Lt. Curr [Lieutenant Harry R. Kerr crashed at High Ercall]; Lt. [Laverne] Collins, captured [actually, killed] in Dieppe Raid; Capt. [Winfred L. "Salty Dog"] Chambers, crashed at Westhampnett. Destination unknown, but guessing Africa. I'm spending tonight in a hammock with 115 men in a room 45 x 15 feet.

Sailed out of Port Glasgow after four days on board. One week at sea. All is calm. After three days sailing in a circle off Gibraltar, we are going thru the Strait [between Spain and Africa].

Root was about to participate in Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa.

Nov. 8: Landed at Oran [a Mediterranean seaport in Algeria] with small resistance [from Axis Vichy French forces that held Algeria]. Am listening to a broadcast from New York about our landing while waiting to go ashore. Seems like they know more than we--and they probably do. Landed in salt landing craft (SLC) [British support landing craft, converted from 40-foot assault landing craft] and waded in waist-high water to the beach. Camped there until 11 P.M. Went through enemy lines in trucks or half-tracks to Tafaraoui [Airfield, near Oran],

Nov. 9: At daylight, we're on the enemy's aerodrome [airport] and we're being bombed. Our pilots got three enemy ships and we lost Lt. [Joe C.] Byrd [Jr.]. At noon we almost lost the field to enemy tanks, but the planes beat them back. Good thing the French left 20mm ammo, as we ran out.

Getting a little rest after learning an armistice was signed in this section of Africa....

Moved to a nicer field nearer Oran. We are in large, stone barracks that are really pretty. Name of field is La Senia (Airfield). We've got desert Spits [Spitfires painted in desert colors]. I have one of two with belt-fed cannons.

Nov. 24: German communique today states that our field was severely bombed Sunday and we are looting the natives. It's a lot of bull. We get 75 francs for $1. Good champagne costs 75-125 francs. Tangerines are a franc apiece. Wine is from 10-100 francs (depending on how good you barter). Our squadron got a 150-gal. drum of wine for nothing. It was 14 percent and what a kick! Thursday is Thanksgiving and we have purchased a cow, five pigs, four turkeys, six ducks, and 32 chickens from our squadron fund. Should be a real feast.

Nov. 25, 1942: Allies begin offensive into Tunisia. Today marks one year in service [for me].

Dec. 1: Promoted to Sergeant.

Dec. 13: Five weeks in Africa and set to move. Things in Tunisia are still rugged. German pilots being shot down are 15 and 16 years old. We think we're headed that way.

Dec. 19: Picked up some gifts and tube water colors in Oran. Saw a swell water color exhibit by a French artist.

Dec. 27: Received 23 letters. Madoline talks as if I can get her back. Sure hope so.

Jan. 29 [1943]: [Actresses] Martha Raye, Carole Landis and Mitzie Mayfair were here.

Feb. 7: Was baptized this evening because I'm going up to the front. Will be within 10 minutes' flying time of Jerries. They claim it is hot; won't know till I get there.

Feb. 8: Am leaving La Senia Airfield [south of Oran] in a DC-47 [Skytrain transport plane] and headed for Thelepte Airfield in Tunisia [south of Kasserine, near Algeria].

Feb. 9: Were giving Jerries the "devil" from the air. One ship was over our field. Three of our ships are marked with flack. We are living in dugouts in the side of cliffs along a dry river bottom. Rugged.

Feb. 11: Cold as the dickens, raining and snowing; am wearing overcoat. Twenty-four Spits lost; and 12 A-20s [Havoc light bombers] took off this morning and raided the Jerries. We are surrounded by enemies and are trying to split their forces.

Feb. 12: There is a 60 mph gale blowing that started yesterday, and it carries lots of sand and cold.... And sand sure plays the dickens with our guns.

Feb. 14: Our squadron made five sweeps over enemy territory. Capt. Bisgard [Biggard] was shot down four minutes inside our lines. He returned okay in a jeep. Rommel [German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of Panzer Group Africa, making a fighting retreat across Tunisia] is 21 minutes from our field. If he comes closer tomorrow, we evacuate.... An A-20 was full of flack, and the crew nursed her home. As it came over the field, it exploded and flew to pieces.

Feb. 15: Was ordered to prepare for evacuation. Rommel is close. Seven of 12 Jerries were downed on a raid over our field. Our boys got two; the 39s [P-39 Airacobra fighters] got two, and the AA [anti-aircraft guns] got the rest. One Spit came down, and five were destroyed on the ground. Jerry is overhead tonight. The AA is going, and a few bombs aren't far off....

Feb. 17: We evacuated at 2:15 a.m. We backed up to Tebessa [Algeria] about 55 miles [northwest] from Thelepte. Things don't look so hot, but we are bound to win in the end. We lost the bulk of our equipment and personal things which were ruined to keep from Rommel's hands. We saved ourselves and our planes.

Feb. 18: At 8 P.M., we were alerted to prepare for 60-mile retreat. We were in pup tents and it rained cats and dogs. The mud was like gumbo. What a mess. Lots of Jerries overhead last night, but they couldn't find us.

Feb. 22: Everything is in turmoil again. Up at 5:30 A.M., went to "Youks" [Youksles-Bains Airfield, 13 miles northwest of Tebessa] from which our planes are operating, came back to Tebessa at 2 P.M. and evacuated. Came to Canrobert [Airfield, 59 miles northwest of Youks-les-Bains Airfield].... On the way, we saw 50 B-25s, 23 P-3 8s [Lockheed Lightning fighters] and scads of Spits and 39s on the way to give Rommel's boys the works.

Mar. 4: One week at this field Kalaa-Djerba [Kalaa Djerda, Tunisia, about 49 miles east-northeast from Youks-les-Bains] and 80 miles from a big FW field [a German Focke-Wulf FW 190 fighter base]. Got nine letters from Madoline night before last. She still loves me, I hope.

Mar. 7, 1943: Back to Thelepte. Enemy planes overhead, including Messerschmitt Bf 109 [with the FW 109, Germany's principal fighter planes]; bombed and strafed.... 309th bagged an Me 109 [Bf 109] that flew over nonchalantly. We set a record of 1,200 combat hours in a week in Thelepte.

Mar. 16: Got two swell letters from Madoline. I named my ship [the Spitfire he serviced] "Miss Madoline." Continued daily sweeps and missions. Seven victories over Stuka One bombers [Junkers Ju 87s--dive bombers, or Sturzkampfflugzeugen, Stuka for short], 308th and 309th two more victories each. Allies now have Gafsa [Tunisia, 50 miles south of Thelepte].

Mar. 28: Moved from Thelepte to Gafsa.

Mar. 29: Our boys got five victories today. Two destroyed, two damaged, and one possible.... All were FWs. In Gafsa tonight and had a bath in one of the old Roman places of bathing. The streets are like pictures of ancient cities. They are about 8 x 10 feet wide and zig-zag in all directions and have steps and grades. The buildings, many of which are homes, have small, eight-inch-square openings and solid, heavy wooden doors. Gafsa is an oasis town, not far from the Sahara. An old fort near the bath is about 1,000 years old. Oran was picturesque. I only wish I could have had the time to make some sketches.

Mar. 30: Moving 20 miles nearer the lines. News is good on all fronts. Lots of Jerrys overhead. We are going back to Thelepte, then 100 miles from Thelepte....

April 1: Today was a big day for us and Jerries. We scored five victories, three confirmed, two damaged. Three of our ships were shot up but came back. Lt. Jhunke [Jerome Juhnke] was shot down for the second time and I am afraid this time, he got it [he was indeed killed]. Lt. "Tiger" Wright was shot down, but got back okay. Lt. Scroll [Francis M. Strole] developed a glycol [engine coolant] leak (and, we learned later, spun in on the deck and hit a tank and was killed). Y, R, and E were the three returning shot-up ships. Y was the one I crewed, and the second of mine that was shot up this week. Gafsa suffered severe dive-bombing raids.

April 5: Twenty-three years old today. Jerry bombed us again. Two went up in smoke.... Today marks four weeks back at Thelepte and during that time, we have made 45 sweeps over enemy territory. Lost three pilots and a few ships....

April 8: Two months at the front lines. Jerry is finally on the run, for good, I hope.... Arrived at new field, Sidi-Bou-Zid [Tunisia, about 63 miles northeast of Gafsa] at noon. It's about two miles to the front lines. Plenty of sand and wind. Two MEs [Messerschmitts] over this p.m. Today marks five months in Africa.... Big tank battle raging in Kairouan [about 68 miles to the northeast],

April 24: No flying today. Tomorrow is Easter.

April 25: Our boys got one victory.... Went to mass, confession and received communion.

April 26: More victories today. Two confirmed, bringing our total destroyed to 19, also damaged five.

April 30: On mission over Bizerte [northernmost Tunisia] and the Mediterranean. The bombers blew an Italian destroyer to bits and we got one.

May 1: Today is the 6th day on my trumpet. I sure do like it. Got a song to play on my trumpet--"I Remember You."

May 6: The biggest push of all started today. Advances made on all fronts. Our boys downed six enemy fighters, MEs and FWs.... Sunday, it is supposed to be over in Africa.

May 11: Africa Campaign ended today. Unconditional surrender [officially May 13, with some 275,000 Axis troops captured]. Received our ribbons. May have some stars for battles given to us yet. My old pilot, Lt. [Harry] Strawn [Jr.], was found in a hospital in Tunis after it was captured. He told interesting stories about the Jerries. When he was shot down, [his plane] was hit in three places--all flack. One was square in the cockpit. He has a lot of shrapnel. He barely remembered bailing out and it was at 25,000 feet. He was lucky to live at that altitude without oxygen. He says the Jerry boys do not want to fight any more than we do.

May 17: Moved up coast after being here five weeks. We passed through Tunis [Tunisia's capital, in the northeast] and are not far from there. Fifteen German prisoners were picked up around the field by our boys. Ruined cars, half-tracks, tanks, guns, etc. are strewn over hundreds of square miles. The docks of Tunis are in ruin, but the city is okay. Saw scores of prisoners and wrecked German and Italian planes. This field is lousy, wind, sand, scorpions, spiders and a few snakes, but we are right on the sea and can swim at the beach.

May 28: Went to Tunis on a 48-hour pass. Saw thousands of German prisoners.

May 31: A B-25 [Mitchell medium bomber] was shot down off the coast yesterday. One crew member went down with it to Davey Jones' locker. Remainder was brought here for medical treatment.

June 4: Marks our first year overseas.

July 1 : Three days ago, we left Algiers and have been traveling by boat. We landed in Tunis Harbor and marched to an olive orchard. Rotten chow, and little of that.

July 6: Leaving the orchard and marching to docks. We boarded our LST-311 [a landing ship, tank]. She is one of a great convoy.

July 7 : Been aboard two days. Still in harbor and the chow is tops.

July 9: Yesterday at 3 o'clock, our destination was revealed to be Sicily. We are to land sometime between midnight and noon. I think it's gonna be tough.

July 11: Yesterday afternoon [in Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily], we tried to beach our LST-311 and had almost accomplished our task when we got a raid from the air. An LST-313 had pulled alongside of us and was struck mid-ship. Bombs were landing too close for any kind of comfort. The LST next to us was loaded with ammo and the ship was on fire from the bombing. The ammo exploded and pieces filled the air. We backed off and started rescuing men. The rough sea made things worse. Approximately 30-50 were seriously wounded and mostly burned. All these men were treated and, later that night, transferred to a hospital ship. We remained offshore for the remainder of the night and things were calm. LST-313 continued to burn all night and at frequent intervals would erupt in explosions.

We finally made shore, camping near the beach. We made quite a push inland, but today the Italians and Jerries pushed us back. Enemy aircraft was overhead all day. Our naval guns have been shelling ... inland. This evening, [the Germans are] laying 88s [88mm shells] around us and we are returning. Things aren't too hot. They finally captured the artillery and it was 155s not 88s. Tonight, we had an air raid on the [Allied] convoy in the harbor. Our AA fire never drops an enemy plane, but brings down our own okay. After the raid tonight, we had a regiment of paratroopers coming on DC-47s for our reinforcements, and the AA gunners on the boats shot down two or three of them. Sure turns a guy's stomach to see our own men brought down by our own guns.

July 12: A large flight of B-25s went over this A.M. to hit the front lines. The boats opened on them. At 5 P.M., our AA boys bagged two FW 190s. One was a beautiful shot directly overhead. He flew in slow, made a sharp right bank, and was directly in the AA's crossfire. He came down in flames. The pilot bailed, but his chute never opened....

July 13: We moved from the beach to our drome, five miles inland. Jerry is still in the hills surrounding us. There is constant artillery fire in the distance.

July 15: Was bombed this p.m. about 11:30. Suffered one or two slight injuries. Also, set a barracks area on fire. One of the raiders was shot down by a British Beau Fighter [Beaufighter long-range fighter]. The Jerry came down in flames and was, to us, a beautiful sight.

July 16: This A.M., it was revealed that Jerry dropped hundreds of small anti-personnel bombs. They were dropped in large containers that, upon exploding, spread the small ones over a large area. The small 6nes are all timed to go off separately. Last night, a barracks area close to the field was covered, as was the opposite side of the field. At noon, we learned that a score of men were injured. The worst being a fellow hit in the spine and paralyzed from the neck down. Another's legs are blown off....

July 17: The bombs from the raid night before last are still going off along with the ones dropped last night. Kinda gets a guy on edge. Two raids down the runway July 18.

July 19: Tonight, we moved 45 miles west to the western front.

July 24: [Italian dictator Benito] Mussolini overthrown in peaceful coup. Our 14th month at war and England's fourth year at war. We flew to a field 25 miles east of Palermo. This new field is a beauty, right on the coast. It's about 20 yards to the beach. Tonight, we had a constant batch of Jerries over. Campaign in Sicily ended. We are near Termini.

July 21: Bob Hope and [singer] Frances Langford landed here today in a B-17. Saw both of them.

Aug. 22: Seventy B-26s [Marauder medium bombers] came over this A.M. headed for Naples. A little after noon, a few landed on their return. They suffered a heavy loss, as our fighters lost them on escort. P-5 Is [Mustang fighters] were to do the job. Jerry now uses a cluster of bombs dropped by fighters above ours as a means to down them.

Aug. 27: Went with Father Cusman to Palermo and saw Monreale Cathedral.

Sept. 2, 1943: ... We moved from airfield near Termini 90 miles east to Messina. We are bound for Italy soon. All Italian forces in Italy surrendered unconditionally. Initial reports were "our forces are doing okay over there," then "our boys who landed nine days ago had quite a time." Our move to Italy delayed.

Sept. 25: Yesterday, our entire outfit assembled here. We are just south of Salerno [south of Naples, Italy] on a grassy field. Yesterday, we had a dog fight over the field. Today, one was shot down over the field. Artillery fire has been near, up until last night.

Oct. 1: Allies capture Naples.

Oct. 4: Closing our 16 months overseas. We are moving near Naples in a few days. Our boys are doing okay. There is much to be done before the Italian campaign is over.

Oct. 13: Finally moved today, going to Naples. We passed through Pompeii. We saw Mt. Vesuvius from our field. It is active 24 hours. At night, we can see the fire. Naples is pretty much in ruins with no water, gas, or electricity. The entire area of the city is pock-marked with destruction. Here, the people, and especially the children, are near starvation. We have children filling tin cans out of our garbage cans. These cans of garbage will be taken home and eaten. Our field is comprised of a large concrete runway near [a former] underground FW factory. We are approximately eight miles out of Naples. The artillery up front is within hearing distance. We are living about a mile and a half from the field in huge, five-story, ultra-modern apartment buildings. They are beautiful. I have never seen more modernistic designing. Naturally, the building is without furniture, water, electricity. Still it beats our old pup tents.

We had three air raids on Naples last two weeks of October. Fourth air raid on Naples Nov. 5 lasted an hour, 15 minutes.

Nov. 7: The last of our old pilots went home today.... Now all our pilots are new, and they sure are green young punks.

Nov. 12: Since the raid on the 5th, we have had many alerts, one on our own field with 18 FW 190s. They dropped small frags [fragmentation bombs] and peeled a few planes on the opposite side of the field from us. One man was wounded. Col. Hankins [perhaps Brigadier General John R. Hawkins, former 31st Fighter Group commander], Col. [Fred ML] Dean [a former 31st Group commander], some three-star general, and many other big wigs were on the field. General [George C.] Marshall [US Army chief of staff] presented Lt. Weismuller [309th pilot First Lieutenant Robert Weismueller] with the DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross], [Some sources say General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, head of the US Army Air Forces, made the presentation with Lieutenant General Carl A. Spaatz, commander of US Army Air Forces in Europe, Africa, and the Mediterranean.] All the big papers and news reels were present and took pictures that should make front page news at home.

Dec. 13: We've had six confirmed victories, bringing our total to 45 destroyed. We lead the three squadrons. The group's total is 116 destroyed.

Jan. 1 [1944]: New Year's dance with First Armored Division "Black Hawks" playing. First trumpet man [from] T. [Tommy] Dorsey's Band gave me a lesson.... We have been 10 days now at Castel Volturno, north of Naples at the mouth of the Volturno. Artillery fire close. At night we see flashes of the big guns....

March 4: Twenty-one months overseas today....

Apr. 20: Received broken back. [Root was crouched down painting a plane when a military vehicle backed into him.]

Doctors didn't expect Root to survive. He was flown to 26 General Hospital in Bari, Italy, put in a cast, then flown to Naples on May 20. He left for the States by ship on June 1, reaching Newport News, Virginia, on the 13th. A week later, he was home in Galesburg, at Mayo General Hospital. In a pioneering surgery, a doctor fused Root's fibula (the smaller, non-weight-bearing bone in the lower leg) into his back.

None of this derailed Root's romance with Madoline. Engaged on June 27, they were married at the hospital on January 6, 1945. Root surprised everyone by standing up in a hip-to-chest cast.

After healing, Root returned to Root Sign Service, where he worked for the rest of his life. He enjoyed riding a motorcycle, as he had before the war, and continued to develop his trumpet-playing.

Rolland and Madoline had two daughters and were married 57 years when Root died in 2002. Madoline died in 2009.

GARNETTE HELVEY BANE of Greenville, South Carolina, worked with Rolland Root's eldest daughter, Judy Pease, to bring this journal excerpt to publication.

Edited by Garnette Helvey Banc
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Title Annotation:I WAS THERE
Author:Root, Rolland
Publication:America in WWII
Article Type:Diary entry
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Aug 1, 2015
Words:4119
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