Veteran Recalls Desert Fighting in World War II

Willard Richard Irwin was 19 years old when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, 29 days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Irwin trained in aircraft maintenance on the P-40 Warhawk with the 57th Fighter Group. It was the first American fighter group to be used in full-scale battle in the European theater.

On July 16, 1942, Irwin sailed on the French ship, Louis Pasteur, from New York City Harbor bound for Egypt.

“We left at 8 in the morning and watched the Statue of Liberty until she faded away in the mist,” said the eighty-eight year old Irwin.

They crossed the Atlantic to their first stop at Freetown, Sierra Leone, Africa, but not before their ship encountered a German submarine. The destroyer escort sunk the sub. From Sierra Leone, they sailed around the tip of South Africa and up past the island of Madagascar and through the Red Sea. When they reached the Suez Canal, they rode by rail car to Tel Aviv in Palestine.

The 57th was detached to the service of the British 8th Army in Egypt, under the command of Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. Their main objective was to defeat Germany’s Field Marshal Erwin Rommel who was pushing eastward to capture Egypt. The job of the 57th was to provide 50-caliber gun ground fire for antiaircraft and prevent supplies and munitions from reaching Rommel’s army.

From Tel Aviv, the 57th began their pursuit of Rommel westward along the Mediterranean Sea.

Irwin took part in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein when the 57th recaptured it in October 1942. From there they trekked across desert sands to capture El Daba in Egypt.

“The bombing by Rommel’s planes on our base was almost a daily event,” said Irwin. “But the British were experienced in desert war tactics and taught us well enabling our survival.

“The British Spitfire planes had a limited range which meant that the base had to be moved frequently to stay within 10 miles of the fighting front. We had to tear the base down and move the equipment to the next place and set up again before the planes got there. We seldom had a chance to change clothes much less wash them.” The bases were moved more than 30 times while advancing westward across north Africa.

“Our own supplies were limited and our equipment was primitive. At times we had to use parts from abandoned German, Italian and British trucks along the battlefield. We often had to truck water in from 90 miles away. The food was mutton, bully beef (corned beef) and sweet tea,” said Irwin.

In November, 1942, the 57th moved into Libya and took Tobruk, then Benghazi. Then came the battle of El Agheila, then the taking of Tripoli in January, 1943. A few days later, Winston Churchill paid a visit to the group.

The most successful air battle of the African campaign was fought on Palm Sunday, April 18, 1943, and became known as the Palm Sunday Massacre at Cape Bon when Rommel withdrew from Africa to Sicily. The Germans lost 75 aircraft.

During his time in Africa, Irwin met the famous American war correspondent, Ernie Pyle. “He stayed with us for a while in Africa. He slept in our tents, ate with us and asked lots of questions.”

According to Irwin, Pyle sent a story back to Irwin’s home town of Cadillac, Michigan, that he was doing well. The newspaper headline read, “Cadillac Corporal Has Narrow Escape.” Willard R. Irwin In Truck That Was Target Of Nazis.”

“I was a little embarrassed about that,” said Irwin. “I found out about it when I got a V-Mail from my mother who was upset to hear that I had such a close brush with death.”

Irwin was with the 57th Fighter Group to the end of the African Campaign. He saw the capture of Sicily and the invasion of Italy in September, 1943. The 57th followed closely behind the front, always able to see enemy fire while moving up the coast of Italy. Naples was captured in October 1943.

Near Naples, the 57th was camped at the base of Mount Vesuvius when it erupted at 2 a.m. on March 19, 1944.

Irwin said, “The ground shook so hard that we thought we were getting bombed. Then we saw fireworks on the top of the mountain with chunks of rocks flying through the air. There were local citizens living further up on the mountain. We helped them get down the mountain and out of the flow of lava.”

In July 1944, Irwin went with the 57th to the island of Corsica. From there they bombed southern France.

Irwin spent almost three years overseas in combat before getting a 45-day leave to come home in March 1945. He claimed he did nothing special but maintain aircraft and drive trucks. Regardless, Willard Richard Irwin was a patriot. He saw the need to help his country and decided to volunteer his services to go to war. He was always vigorous in supporting worthy causes and was active in the American Legion, VFW, and Disabled American Veteran until his death.