An Unforgettable Character
Written by Harold (Diz) Kronenberg
When our crew went overseas, we flew the southern route. We left the States from West Palm Beach, Florida; landed at Trinidad; flew to Natal; then to Belem in Brazil.
While there, we were outfitted with a bomb bay tank for the long and treacherous trip across the Atlantic. It was a twelve-hour trip, with nothing but water below us. We made the trip safely and landed at Dakar, Africa, located on the Gold Coast. From there, we flew to Casablanca, French Morocco.
When we landed, we taxied over to our revetment, where we were met by a young Arab boy. As we tumbled out of the plane and began to stretch, the boy, in pretty good English, said, "Welcome, Americanos. You got any bon bon?" His name was Shillelagh (or Shillalah). We gave him some chocolate, and you could see he relished it. We immediately became good friends.
He was an amazing young boy and obviously very intelligent. He was 12 years old and tended sheep inside the perimeter track of the airfield. His job was to keep the sheep off the runways. He spoke five different languages: English, German, Italian, French, and his own Arabic tongue. He had not yet perfected his English language, and his words were sprinkled with the words that soldiers use when things are not going well.
He started calling me "Rouge" and, when I would reprimand him for using bad words, he would say, "But, Rouge, I am just learning your American language."
My comment was always, "But, Shillelagh, you are learning all the wrong words."
For two weeks, we continued to become acquainted. I had a softball and a bat with me, so I taught him to play "500". He enjoyed it so much that he eventually brought along some of his friends so they, too, could learn to play "500". Occasionally, Bill Tucker, our waist gunner, and Jimmy Weaver, our radio gunner, would join us and get involved. Sometimes there were eight to ten boys playing softball with us. Overseas duty wasn't that bad at all.
It seemed that all the other youth were named either Abdul or Mohammed. All were of the Moslem religion and everyday, twice a day, they would kneel down in the desert and face the East and Mecca, their holy city. After they said a few prayers, we would resume with the ball playing. Their heads were devoid of any hair, except for a pigtail down the back. When asked, Shillelagh said that was for Allah, their God, to pull them up to heaven with after they died.
His ability to identify airplanes was uncanny. His eyesight was excellent, because he could identify a speck in the sky as a B-17E or B-17F, long before we could. He knew all of the foreign planes, and I never knew of him making a mistake.
Shillelagh hated the Germans, or so he said. He also hated the Italians, or so he said. I was never quite sure, but I think his dislike for them was genuine, but there was the chance that he also had told the Germans earlier that he hated the Americans. He had a little of the "con artist" in him. Today we might call him "street smart."
We were playing ball one day, when a British Spitfire, making a landing, sputtered and slammed into the ground and exploded. It came down short of the runway and started a fire that spread hundreds of feet in every direction. Flames were reaching 20 to 30 feet high when the fire trucks rushed in to put the fire out. They spread foamite over the area, so that it looked like a Wisconsin snowstorm out in the desert. The fire appeared to be out but, when the firemen walked toward the charred remains, another explosion occurred, and the fire spread all over again.
The Spitfire had ruptured a 100-octane fuel pipeline, and no one thought to shut it off. Eventually, it was shut off, and the foamite process was repeated. There was nothing left of the pilot or the Spitfire but a few charred remains. The holocaust was over, and everything had calmed down, when Shillelagh turned to me and said, "Rouge, that's too bad". I suspect he had seen many such accidents on the airfield. It was my baptism into a sort of combat status.
Shillelagh had on a long gunny sack-like robe, was always barefooted, and wore no undergarments. When he had to go to the bathroom, he simply rolled up his robe and "did his business." He lived with his young sister and mother in a small house near the airfield. His father had abandoned the family when Shillelagh was eight years old.
During our two-week stay in Casablanca, we were required to fly a few training missions. We would fly out over the Mediterranean, drop some red dye capsules into the water, and use the markings for target practice. We shot up a lot of the Mediterranean but, unlike combat, the dye didn't shoot back.
Casablanca was a pleasant experience, but the time came to move on. We were headed for combat. I said "goodbye" to Shillelagh and his friends and flew on to Oran, then Algiers, and eventually ended up in Manfredonia, Italy.
After flying 21 missions, our crew was transferred to the Eighth Air Force in England, where we would complete our tour of duty by flying 20 more missions. I flew my last mission on June 5, 1944, the day before D-Day.
Upon leaving Italy, we flew to Palermo, Sicily and landed on an airfield that was completely devastated from the fierce fighting and bombings. The bomb craters had been patched on the runways, making it possible for us to land. We stayed overnight there and then flew to Casablanca, where Shillelagh was still tending his sheep. We landed, taxied over to our revetment, got out of the plane, and were met by my little friend.
His first words to me were, "Rouge, how many Yermans you shoot down?" Still the "con artist."
We stayed in Casablanca for several days, during which, I got to know Shillelagh even better. On several occasions, I had him eat in the mess hall with us. Tucker, Weaver, and I noticed how filthy his robe was. I doubt that he ever took it off. It certainly had never been washed. We drained a bucket of 100-octane gas from our plane, stripped Shillelagh naked, and dipped the filthy robe into the gasoline, despite the protestations from Shillelagh. I believed he thought we were going to burn it. After it was cleansed, we dried it out on the wing of the airplane. In the hot desert sun, it took only a few minutes to dry. We gave it back to him, and again we became good friends.
Before we left for England, he asked me to adopt him and bring him to America with me. I informed him it would be impossible, since we were going to England, where we would continue to fly. Besides, he was 12 years old and I was only 19.