THE DANGEROUS PRISONERS
In the afternoon of April 5, 1944, our crew departed Newfoundland in our new B-29, and flew all night over the Atlantic to land the following morning at a French Air Base near Marrakech, Morocco. We remained one day, then made a night flight over the Sahara Desert to Cairo, Egypt. These long flights were flown at night so celestial navigation procedures could be used -- the ocean and desert did not provide good radar returns for position finding. The air base outside Cairo, was a dismal place. Wrecked planes scattered around the runway reminded us of an abandoned junk yard.
Our quarters were in keeping with the bad impression we gained after one look around the flight line. We were taken to a tent village built in an olive grove. Each person was provided with one blanket and a U.S. army cot. Fortunately, we had heavy flight clothing in our duffel bags having just arrived from the snow and ice at Gander Lake, Newfoundland. The NCO who assigned our tents pointed out a prisoner of war compound across the road from the tent area. It held what he called "Very dangerous prisoners," but they appeared to be scruffy, ill-dressed, Italians standing behind a fence.
French Legionnaires marched along the road to keep passing Arabs from getting close to the fence where the prisoners would beg for cigarettes and candy. At sundown, the guards ordered the prisoners to go into their tents. Once the compound was clear, the guards stopped patrolling and departed for the night.
Then my crew had a lesson about sleeping in the desert. The drop in temperature from a hot afternoon to a cold night was remarkable. We put on our heavy flight suits, and by morning, we had pulled our fur trimmed hoods over our heads. Later, we learned that night winds swept down from the neighboring, snow clad Atlas Mountains, to make Marrakech nights cold throughout the year.
Early the next morning, we were awakened by shouting in the prison. From our tents, we could see American MPs and French Legionnaires in the road with their pistols drawn. All the prison lights were on, and we noticed some tents were missing. The prisoners had gathered next to the fence, and were jabbering frantically to the Legionnaires. When the pow wow broke up, the MPs walked past our tents and told us that some Arab thieves sneaked under the fence in the dark, and stole three tents while the Eyties (Italians) were asleep. The Frogs (French) told us how dangerous the prisoners were, but it appeared to me that the Arabs were a lot more dangerous.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *