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Pilots recall action over skies in World War II

 

Jason Browne

 

History spoke for itself at Columbus Air Force Base as the 49th Fighter Training Squadron hosted its annual reunion over the weekend. 

 

The squadron served several purposes at multiple military locations before settling at Columbus Air Force Base, but its members from every phase consider one another family, and the family elder was in attendance. 

 

Frank Mullinax, 92, of Watertown, Tenn., is the oldest living member of the 49th. He joined the unit in 1942, training in P-38s before going into service escorting bombers in North Africa in addition to reconnaissance and strafing (attacking ground targets).  

 

In November of 1942, Mullinax was flying a plane from the depleted 48th Squadron, which had dwindled to 12 planes after beginning with 65. 

 

All 12 planes, including Mullinax''s, flew a mission over Tunisia in search of German convoys to attack on Nov. 28. 

 

After attacking two separate convoys, the P-38s were engaged by German fighters. 

 

"We were leaving when we were jumped by German 109s," said Mullinax. 

 

Mullinax had just shot a 109 below him and was pulling up when his P-38 was hit in the left wing. To avoid a fire, Mullinax cut fuel to the wing, but smoke was filling the cockpit and he was forced to land his plane. 

 

After exiting his burning plane, Mullinax ran for cover, but stopped when he heard shots from German troops. 

 

"I slowed down to a walk thinking, ''Well, school''s out,''" Mullinax recalled. 

 

The Germans took Mullinax prisoner and took him to a small house commandeered in a local town. He was under the charge of a young German lieutenant who spoke broken English. The two chatted cordially and even exchanged sidearms to admire one another''s weapons. 

 

Later, the lieutenant drove Mullinax to a convoy pickup spot in the sidecar of a motorcycle. He was transported to Tunis, Tunisia, where he was interrogated. 

 

Mullinax refused to offer any information beyond his name, rank and serial number, but was never mistreated by the Germans. As an officer, he was given preferential treatment to enlisted POWs. 

 

After being moved from camp to camp, Mullinax was ferried across the Mediterranean to Italy to a camp populated by 700 British soldiers and 15 Americans. 

 

Before long, it was time to move again, and Mullinax and several Americans were loaded onto a boxcar to be moved by rail to Rome. 

 

The train made several stops along the way and the Americans, who were not bound or monitored in their car, removed a grill from the side of the boxcar and slipped away during one stop. 

 

They fled to a nearby mountain that night before venturing into a nearby town the next day. As luck would have it, they encountered an Italian priest whose brother had lived in Washington State and spoke English. The priest gave the Americans food and supplies, which they used to live on the mountain for months. 

 

Oddly enough, a small party of British refugees were also living on the same mountain. Mullinax''s group spotted them when the British group lit fires to cook food and approached them to ask that they stop lighting fires. The Brits gruffly refused, and Mullinax''s group watched days later as German soldiers recaptured the group after the fires caught their attention. 

 

The Americans were stuck on the mountain due to nearby German lines which they could not hope to sneak through. However, more than a year after his initial capture, British planes bombed and broke the German lines, allowing Mullinax''s crew to slip through. 

 

They were found by a British patrol and were escorted out of the mountains on mules before eventually being dropped off in Rome. 

 

Mullinax returned to the U.S. on July 4, 1944, when his plane touched down in New York City. He retired from the Air Force in 1946. He says he likely would have flown more missions in World War II, and later Korea, if not for his wife. 

 

"I could have stayed in, but Elizabeth was a nervous wreck," he said. 

 

Since his military days, Mullinax has always held fast to the 49th, staying in touch with old friends. But it wasn''t until years later he found his way to the reunion. 

 

"I saw a buddy in Indiana and he asked why I''m not attending the reunions. I didn''t know they had it," said Mullinax. 

 

Much of the pride he and other members feel for their squadron, he says, is due to the fact the 48th, 49th and 50th squadrons are always the first to deploy when problems arise overseas. 

 

1st Lt. James Schmidt, a pilot currently in training with the 49th at CAFB, says holding the reunion in Columbus and meeting former members is a tremendous opportunity. 

 

"No question, I think it''s phenomenal. To hear their stories reinvigorates us. It definitely brings it full circle," said Schmidt. 

 

Chatting with Mullinax, Schmidt pointed out the extra stress the old pilots had to deal with, flying in planes with no computer diagnostic equipment. 

 

"The machines we''re in today are much safer," said Schmidt. 

 

"We had to have good mechanics," agreed Mullinax. 

 

Mullinax''s story was recently recorded by the Library of Congress in a 90-minute video archived under his given name, Levi Mullinax. 

 

Through the Internet, Mullinax''s son, Don, was even able to locate information on the German pilot who shot Mullinax down on Nov. 28, 1942. 

 

The pilot, Anton Hafner, was a German ace credited with shooting down more than 140 allied aircraft. Hafner was killed during World War II. 

 

Losing pilots and aircraft is part of the job for a combat squadron. Bob Elliot of Blountville, Tenn., knows that well. 

 

Elliot''s uncle, also Bob Elliot, went down three times in 1942. The first time was a training accident; he was shot down the other two. The second time, he was shot down over the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. 

 

"The friendly natives of the area got him back to base on donkeys," said Elliot of his uncle. 

 

The third and final time, like Mullinax, was over Tunisia in 1942 while flying a P-38. Elliot''s squad of six P-38s encountered 15 German 109s. 

 

The Americans managed to shoot down seven or eight of the German planes, but only one P-38 returned from the mission. 

 

Elliot''s plane was actually found buried in the sand off the coast of Wales two years ago. The tail number confirmed the plane was his. The British hope to excavate the plane and add it to an aviation museum.

 

 

 

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