The Palm Sunday Massacre



65th FS Pilot Lt. Robert Blakeley

Lt. Robert Blakeley.
Lt. Robert Simpson Blakeley before going overseas.


An American Hero-Robert Simpson Blakeley
by Charles G. Summers and Marilyn S. Diamond (1)


The men and women who fought World War II have been called "America's greatest generation." They rallied to the cause without a moments thought of their own safety. Many of these brave souls now rest on foreign soil, or their remains, having never been recovered, are remembered by inscriptions on cemetery walls. For most, their personal story of heroic action in the face of almost certain death has never been told. Such is the case of 1st Lieutenant Robert Simpson Blakeley. Bob was born in Ogden, Utah on August 29, 1915 to Matthew and Artie Blakeley. Bob enjoyed hunting and fishing in the Wasatch mountains that formed the backdrop of their home. It was while exploring these mountains that he developed his love of forestry, a field that he had hoped to make his career. Bob graduated from Ogden High School and then from Weber College and the Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) with a degree in forestry. Following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Bob's sense of duty compelled him to enter the fray and he joined the United States Army on January 12, 1942 (2).

Following basic training, Bob was sent to Luke Field, Phoenix, Arizona as an Aviation Cadet-Pilot, and following student pilot training was approved for transfer to the Air Corps for fighter pilot training on May 29, 1942 (3). He completed his initial training in July of 1942 and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. While on furlough, he married Leah Geddes on July 31, 1942 in the Logan L.D.S. temple. Immediately following their wedding, Bob was transferred in August to Dale Mabry Field, Tallahassee, Florida and in September to Sarasota Army Air Base, Sarasota, Florida (4). At Dale Mabry, Bob received extensive training in aerial combat in a P-40 'Warhawk', the aircraft he would fly in battle. Leah was by his side until he was transferred overseas in early October. Bob was assigned to the 57th Fighter Group (FG), 65th Fighter Squadron (FS) as one of their first group of replacement pilots since their arrival in North Africa in July, 1942. Bob joined the 65th FS on November 12, 1942 in Gambut, Libya (Bill Hahn, personal communication), and was soon promoted to 1st Lieutenant.

Here we digress a moment to acquaint you with the Fighter Group and Squadron with which Bob would become comrades in arms. The 57th Fighter Group was constituted on November 20, 1940 as the 57th Pursuit Group and redesignated the 57th Fighter Group May 15, 1942 (5). On July 1, 1942, pilots and aircraft (P-40s) left Quonset Point, RI aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger. On board were three squadrons, the 64th, The Black Scorpions; the 65th, The Fighting Cocks; and the 66th, the Exterminators. When the Ranger was 100 miles off the African Coast, the pilots took off and flew to Accra, Gold Coast. This was the first fighter group to takeoff from a carrier in land based fighter planes, and the entire group took off successfully, the only such group to do so (5). They arrived in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations (MTO) on July 30, 1942, the first American fighter group in African and the MTO, and the first American Fighter Group to see action Europe (5). While space does not permit a more lengthy discussion, the reader is referred to two excellent histories (5, 6). For those interested in World War II history, both are a must read. Since Bob's military records were lost in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, little is known of his exploits until the fateful day of April 18, 1943 when he participated in one of the greatest aerial battles of World War II, the Palm Sunday Massacre, aka Cape Bon Massacre. We do know that Bob received the Air Medal, given to airman who flew at least 50 missions of one hour or more. The following excerpts are provided to give you some idea of what life was like while serving in the North African Desert.

The importance of the North African Campaign was summarized in the writings of M/SGT Bill Hahn, (6) ". . . if we were not to overcome the Nazi drive to the Suez Canal" and "should the canal have fallen, and the Germans captured the oil fields of the Middle East, we would never have recovered to defeat this enemy." Sgt. Hahn writes further, that life in the desert consisted of "fighting flies, heat, dust, disease, maggots, bloated bodies, and lack or water. Ed (Duke) Ellington (7), a member of the 65th Squadron, writes, "It is a really miracle that so many of us lived to come home . . . The uncounted episodes regarding the way we build heaters using 100 octane (fuel) in a number 10 can filled with sand to heat food or coffee. Washing clothes in 100 octane and hanging them out to air dry. We were young, daring and disparate. We did it all and lived to tell about it. The days we ate from our mess kits and sand blew so hard a crust formed over our food and we would tunnel under the crust to get to the food." These excerpts barely scratch the surface of what our men endured during that time (see reference 5).

We now return to Lt. Blakeley and a fateful day in April, 1943. The morning of April 18, 1943 (Palm Sunday) dawned uneventfully over the desert. By this time, the 57th had moved its operations westward from Gambut, Libya to El Djem, Tunisia. Early in the morning of April 18, the 57th flew a reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean and saw nothing (8). Later, the English and South Africans took their turn and again reported no contact (8). At 5:00 p. m., a final patrol by the 57th FG, consisting of the 64th, 65th, and 66th, squadrons left El Diem (6, 8). Bob was one of 12 members of the 65th to fly the mission that afternoon. Their orders were, "Pick up Spitfire cover to be provided by the *244 Wing RAF. Proceed to the Gulf of Tunis and patrol easterly and westerly off Cape Bon. Come back when gas supplies dictates (8)." They climbed out and leveled off at 16,000 feet. They flew west along the coast line of Tunisia and then turned out over the Mediterranean. They received orders from Captain Jim Curl, Group Commander, and executed a formation that now spaced them into the sky like a flight of stairs (8). They continued patrolling, flying first to the east and then back to the west. No enemy was sighted.

As daylight turned to dusk and gas ran low, they executed their final turn to return to base when someone spotted a large armada of aircraft below, barely 1,000 feet off the surface of the water. It was composed of JU-52s, a large tri-motored German transport, Me 109s and Me 110s, both German fighter aircraft (Messerschmitts) flying cover. The Germans were flying supplies and reinforcements into North Africa. After sizing up the situation, Curl gave the order to attack. "A squadron leader somewhere in the formation said, 'stay in pairs, boys,' somebody gave a yelp and there was a high-pitched howl as the first line of four Warhawks split into pairs and went down in a long sweeping turn to the right. The second element followed. The German fighters, turning into the attack from all directions, came at the Warhawks. The Palm Sunday Massacre was on (8)." What happened next was a fierce, wild battle, too confusing, too lengthy and too complex for this treatise to describe. You are referred to the excellent discussion presented by Dodds (5) and Thruelsen and Arnold (8). "Ten minutes after the first shot was fired, the air over the Gulf of Tunis was clear (8)." The Palm Sunday Massacre was over as quickly as it had begun. During that ten minute battle, the 57th, and their top cover of spitfires, destroyed 59 JU-52s, 14 Me-109s, 2 Me 110s. In addition, one JU-53 and one Me-109 were listed as probably destroyed, and 17 JU-53s nine Me109s and two Me 110s were damaged. The pilots who participated in the battle referred to it as "the Goose Shoot (5)."

At some time during that ten minute period, Bob's P-40 was hit by enemy fire and plunged toward the Mediterranean. The following is the only known account of what happened next. "One Warhawk pilot, believed to be Lt. Blakeley of 65th squadron, bailed out at K-6885 (map coordinate) and his a/c (aircraft) hit the water at K-6284 (map coordinate)." "A pilot (possibly Lt. Blakeley) was seen swimming in the water. Sky conditions overcast, visibility poor (9)." In addition, five other pilots from the 57th were listed as missing in action (9). "Air and ground searches were conducted during the months of June, July and October, but no evidence was found which would aid in the locating and recovering of the remains of the subject deceased (Lt. Blakeley) (10)." "The coastal area has been searched for isolated burial and sites of crashed planes with negative results and QMG Form 371 for the subject deceased (Lt. Blakeley) has been compared with the Reports of Findings of Identification Processing Teams on all unknowns washed ashore in that area, with negative results (10)." "Examination of captured German documents failed to reveal any information relative to the subject deceased (Lt. Blakeley) (10)." Little did Bob realize that he had participated in what would become know as one of the greatest aerial battles of World War II (5). The destruction of the supply planes that day broke the back of the Germans in North Africa and they surrendered 25 days later (8).


Epilog


Bob is listed in Wayne Dodds book (8) as belonging to the "Late Arrivals Club" (LAC). This applied to pilots who failed to return to base following a mission. Some returned days or even weeks later. Unfortunately, such was not the case for Bob. The names of all members of the 65th squadron are listed on the wing of a Me-109 in the 65th "bar" 8 which now resides in the New England Air Museum, Windsor Locks, Conn., where an entire section is devoted to the 57th Fighter Group. As was the custom, Bob was listed as Missing in Action for one year and one day then declared Killed in Action on April 19, 1944 (11). He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart which was presented to his wife, Leah. Bob is officially listed as Buried at Sea on the Tablets of the Missing in North Africa, at the American Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia. As a modest man, Bob would be embarrassed by this. He would say he was just doing his job, but to us, he is a Hero.


Acknowledgements


We greatly appreciate the assistance of members of the 65th Squadron for providing us with information and leads: Bill Hahn, Ed Ellington, Jim Hare, Ed Silks, and Lyle Custer. We also thank Robert Johnston, Leon Jansen, and Dick Hewitt, all WW II veterans.


References


(1) The authors are the nephew and niece of Robert S. Blakeley. Addresses: Department of Entomology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616 and Honors Program, Weber State University, Ogden, UT 84408, e-mail chasum@uckac.edu and MDiamond@Weber.edu, respectively.
(2) National Archives and Records Administration. United States Military Records Section.
(3) Form 79-US Army Medical Department.
(4) Form AGRAC I-130, Identification Section, Memorial Division, Army Air-Corps.
(5) Dodds, Wayne, S. [editor]. 1985. The Fabulous Fifty-Seventh Fighter Group of World Was II. Walsworth Publishing Co. Marceline, Missouri.
(6) Hahn, W. 1959. 57th Fighter Group, 65th Fighter Squadron. Published by the Author.
(6) op. cit.
(7) Ellington, E. 2001. Uncle Bud Newsletter. Vol. 4, No. 1.
(6) op. cit.
(8) Thruelsen, R., and E. Arnold. Mediterranean Sweep. Duell, Sloan & Pierce. New York.
(8) op.cit.
(5) op. cit.
(9) Operational & Intelligence Summary No. 96. Headquarters, Fifty Seventh Fighter Group (AAF). Operations for April 18, 1943. El Djem North L.G.
(10) Lawing, W. F. Statement of Investigation. 26 November 1948. US Army Air Corps.
(8) op. cit.
(11) Finding of Death of Missing Person. War Department. The Adjutant General's Office Form No. 0353.


*Webmaster's Note:
According to the USAAF Chronology, Spitfires from No. 92 Squadron of No. 244 Wing in No. 211 Group of the RAF Desert Air Force and the 57th's 64th Fighter Squadron flew top-cover that day for the 65th and 66th Squadrons of the 57th Fighter Group (also part of DAF's No. 211 Group) and the 314th Squadron of the 324th Fighter Group (assigned from the XII Air Support Command of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force:

"SUNDAY, 18 APRIL 1943, EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN (Ninth Air Force) Off Cap Bon, 46 P-40F's of the 57th Fighter Group's three squadrons (64th, 65th and 66th Fighter Squadrons) and the attached 314th Fighter Squadron, 324th Fighter Group, plus 11 Spitfires of the RAF 92 Squadron flying top cover, take off to patrol. At approximately 1800 hours, they spot 2 Bf 109's and an armada of 65 Ju 52/3m transports heading back to Sicily for more supplies. The transports are in three great vees, covered by 16 Bf 109's and Mc 202's and 5 Bf 110's. The 64th Fighter Squadron and the RAF Spitfires stay high; the remaining 3 squadrons of P-40's attack the Luftwaffe formation and down 24 Ju 53/3m's and 16 fighters; another 35 Ju 52/3m's crash along the coast."

At the time of the Palm Sunday Massacre, as part of Lieutenant General Lewis Brereton's 9th Air Force, the 57th Fighter Group was actually under the operational control of the RAF Desert Air Force (DAF) commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Harry Broadhurst. DAF itself, was a major sub-command of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham's Northwest African Tactical Air Force.

No. 92 Squadron had more victories (317) than any other RAF squadron in WWII and the 57th had a higher victory:loss ratio than any other USAAF fighter group in WWII.

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See also: The 57th Fighter Group Exhibit at the New England Air Museum

and: Roy Whittaker.

If you have any comments or suggestions please email me.

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