In February 1945, I was part of a newly trained B-17 flight crew on our way to war along with the 15th Air Force in Italy. Along the way we stopped in Tunis overnight where, on that evening, it became my turn to stay with the ship until morning.
I had just fallen asleep when a crew member from a B-24 parked wing tip to wing tip next to us on the ramp came over and banged on the fuselage and shouted, “Fire!”
Apparently he had fallen asleep while smoking a cigarette and woke to see his immediate area in flames. He demanded a fire extinguisher, which I handed to him, although it was far too late for that. He ran off into the night and was gone.
My immediate concern was to get my ship out of there and away from that burning B-24. It required two people to run the engine start procedure but, soon men and Jeeps began appearing, as someone in the control tower had spotted the fire and raised the alarm.
Somehow, we managed to remove two of the heavy canvas engine covers that we had installed after refueling. I then procured the help of a major to assist me in getting the two outboard engines started so we could taxi away. He was part of the non-flying personnel but he took directions well.
We started to move out of danger. The blast of the propellers had sent the engine covers out into the great beyond but I was not about to stand charges for carelessly losing government property.
So, since everyone else was busy trying to contain the fire, I found it easy to swipe one of the MP’s Jeeps and go searching for them. After a lot of winding back and forth across the North African desert in the black of night, I did manage to corral those engine covers and return them to a now complete B-17.
Later, at our 463rd Bomb Group near Foggia, Italy, some “Limey” paratroopers, camped across the road from us, stole one of our Jeeps along with 400 pounds of sugar and sold it in town! Ah, the utility of a Jeep—I will never forget it.
—Ernest C. Pratt
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