One Man's Account of the North African Campaign

During World War II


On January 11, 1942, only weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, post office clerk James Goolsby literally "delivered" his own fate. On this date, he received a letter ordering him to report to the Army/Airforce training base in San-Antonio, Texas. There he would train to fight in the second world war the United States had seen in less than fifty years.  After basic training, Goolsby was sent to Cadet Training School at Semaron Field in Oklahoma, hoping to graduate as a pilot. He "washed-out." From there, he was sent to Midland, Texas where he completed Bombardier training. At this time, Air-Cadet James Goolsby was commissioned to Second Lieutenant James Goolsby. Almost one year after vol­unteering to fight in the war, he was flown out of Langley Field, Virginia to join in the real fighting in North Africa. *1*

      The campaign in North Africa began when Mussolini invaded the Mediterranean in 1940. *2* At this time, the territory in the Mediterranean, including North Africa, was occu­pied by the British. In this ill-advised feat, Mussolini hoped to gain spoils in Italy's name, taking advantage of the on-going tension in Europe. When Mussolini could see that his ­troops were getting nowhere, and that the British were not going to budge their foothold in North Africa, Hitler sent in German troops in order to hold onto the Axis' gain of the ground. *3* The British were going to need the additional troops, also. Not only did the British need more man power, they needed planes. *4* The United States had those planes and the men to fly them.

When Goolsby arrived in North Africa, he and eleven other men were assigned to the 480th Antisubmarine group, first squadron. Their squadron was, in turn, assigned to a plane. The plane that Second Lieutenant Goolsby was to fly for the rest of his tour in

[Page 2]

World War II was the B-24D, a heavily-armed bomber plane. *5* It was a custom of the squadrons to name "their" plane, particularly after women. However, Goolsby's plane was dubbed the "Sad Sac," after a cartoon character found in a military newspaper, the Stars and Stripes. *6* The B-24 "Liberator," also given a name by the Royal Air Force, was produced in mass quantities. America manufactured 19,203 of these planes. This total "is greater than any other single type of American aircraft." *7* Its usage was widespread and many of the B­24's were in use with the Allied Services as late as 1952 due to the quality of the design.

The B-24 had a top speed of 290 mph. Its cruising altitude was 28,000 feet. A major disadvantage of the B-24's low cruising altitude was that it was difficult to send up different types of bombers at the same time. The other widely-used bomber plane at this time, the B­17, had a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet. For this reason, these two planes could never be flown in mixed formation. Had it been possible, a mixed formation would have allowed an already strong American Airforce to become even more productive.

The B-24 also had a comprehensive defensive armament. It was produced with ten 50-inch machine guns located at nose, dorsal, ventral, waist, and tail positions. The opera­tional range was 2,100 miles, meaning the plane could be flown for that many miles before having to refuel. In addition to the armament included on the plane, the United States also, equipped their crews with a deadly secret weapon-- the Norden bombsight. *8*

      Two major types of bombing strategies used by bomber planes in World War II were "precision" bombing and "area" bombing. Thanks to the Norden bombsight, America became famous for the "precision" bomb strategy. *9* This piece of equipment allowed a bombardier to drop a depth charge, a bomb, from about 100 feet in the air into something literally the size of "a garbage can." *10* Unlike the Americans, the British utilized the "area" bombing strategy.  *11* "Area” bombing was also successful in hitting a target, but caused major "collateral damage." That is to say, not only was a target hit, so was everything else around it. *12*

[Page 3]

The Norden bombsight was connected to a gyroscope in the bombardier's plexi-glass compartment located under the nose in the front of the plane. Parts of the bombsight were removable by the bombardier. This was designed so that if the plane was ever captured by an enemy, the highly secretive, American-made bombsight could be removed and destroyed before being discovered. In fact, bombardiers in World War II, including Lieutenant Goolsby, were instructed to destroy the bombsight if ever captured, even if it "meant their life." *13* Life in the air was hard. It wasn't much better on the ground.

Lieutenant Goolsby's squadron was stationed in Tunis, located in the northeastern most part of Africa. *14* Base life was plagued with many adversities. Soldiers never knew where they would sleep or how they would stay warm. For some, depending on their location, stables were a nighttime berth. In one documented case, in order to heat their stable, one clever group of soldiers filled a tomato can with sand and poured a high octane gasoline into the

[Page 4]

center of it. When lit, this provided heat for around thirty minutes. *15* Wartime conditions seemed to transform ordinary men into ingenious survivors.

For others, stables would have been a welcome bed, but they had to sleep in pup tents on the ground where they were very susceptible to various diseases. Contracting malaria was a major fear, and men had to button their shirts to the top and tuck their pants into their socks when going out at night. *16*  At one time, the epidemic spread to more than fifty soldiers, including Lieutenant Goolsby. *17* However, only one casualty was documented. *18*

Food was another major source of conflict because storage, transport, and preparation was difficult when trying to serve thousands of men. Water was also scarce in certain areas.  In order to find a decent meal, unrationed water, or a fitting bed, soldiers usually had to wait for a reprieve. During this time off, men ventured into neighboring cities that had hotels which provided better food, more comfortable beds, and a break from the pending stress of war. *19*

    Another problem facing soldiers was how to spend their free time on base. Most men spent it writing home to their families. Men were given stationary called V-mail, which resembled folded postcards. They were also given strict instructions about what could and could not be included in their correspondences. Letters had to be short and contain noth­ing more than niceties and small talk. Any letters containing even tiny inferences about the war were censored. Letters received in the States would commonly have some parts blacked out, and would be copied onto smaller pieces of paper. *20* When not writing home, men usually played cards, read whatever printed materials they could find, or listened to the radio in order to pass the time and to avoid the lingering question of when they might return home.

Base living also included adapting to constant raids and terrible field and runway conditions. In Constantine, where some soldiers would have to wait to be transported back to their own base, sporadic bombing raids would occur continuously throughout the entire

[Page 5]

day. How "glad" the soldiers were when they returned to their own base where the raids happened only once a day. However, these once-a-day raids caused enough damage to clutter the fields and destroy equipment, hindering scheduled take-offs for planes. Muddy runways were not unusual, either. Tractors would have to come to the aid of bogged down planes which caused even further delays. *21*

Flight plans were not the only schedule Goolsby's squadron had to follow. Daily life was also regimented for the soldiers. For the 480th Antisubmarine group, morning began before daybreak. After breakfast, men were assigned their duty for the day. *22* The Antisubmarine squadrons not only patrolled the ocean for any signs of subs, they also, on occasion, would work on convoy duty. On convoy duty, B-24's would follow army trucks loaded with equip­ment, sometimes as far north as England. By the time the crews returned home, exhaustion would set in. The government's answer to the pending exhaustion problem was to send alternating crews out every other day, so that after one entire day of flying, those crews were given the next day off Needless to say, most everyone slept in. *23* For the most part, Goolsby's days in North Africa followed this tedious schedule. However, halfway through his tour, an event occurred that changed not only the way he thought about the war, but the rest of his life as well.

On July 7, 1943, Goolsby's squadron was on routine Antisubmarine control. After miles and miles of patrolling, an oil slick was spotted on the water, and the "Sad Sac" began fol­lowing it. About eight hours into the flight, with nothing but the Atlantic Ocean surround­ing them, an enemy sub, a German U-Boat, was detected.*24* The B-24's usually flew over the ocean at an altitude of only 200 feet so that when a target was spotted it took less time to descend to the bombing altitude of 100 feet.*25* Because the plane was flying so low, the German soldiers on the submarine spotted the American plane first. From the plane, Goolsby's squadron could see enemy soldiers scrambling to get inside the submarine. A lone


[Page 6]

soldier was given the mission of remaining on top of the submarine as it began to dive back into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean-a suicide mission.


In order to get optimal bombing results, the "Sad Sac" would have to approach the U-Boat vertically, from "stern to stern." *26* This was important because the ten. depth charges, that were controlled by a single button in the bombardier's hand, could be dropped the length of the sub about every 60 yards. (One depth charge had an effective range of about

[Page 7]

27 yards.) *27* However, since the plane was spotted initially by the Germans, the sub had time to maneuver so that a vertical attack was impossible. The bomber would have to come in horizontally. This meant that, out of the ten depth charges, only a small fraction would be effective. The chances that Goolsby would hit the submarine was severely reduced. *28*

As the "Sad Sac" began to descend in order to set the bombsight, the German soldier remaining on top of the U-Boat pointed a 20mm cannon toward the nose of the plane and fired. *29* It was a direct hit. The plane's flying and firing mechanisms had not been injured. However, the co-pilot, navigator, assistant radio operator, and bombardier had. *30* The small compartment surrounding Lieutenant Goolsby had been shattered on one side, and pieces of the glass and shrapnel had been embedded deeply into his face and body.

     After recovering from the hit, the plane still proceeded to descend to bombing altitude, and the controls were then handed over to a bloody and wounded bombardier. Horizontally flying over the diving submarine, the depth charges were released by Goolsby. One of them crashed into the exact center of the U-Boat. *31* It was blown in half. The enemy sub and its eighty crew members sunk deep into the Atlantic Ocean. *32* Leaving the sight of the bombing, the "Sad Sac" crew could see people jumping into the ocean. It was a sight that Lieutenant Goolsby would never get over.

The attack and victory over the German enemy that day was only half of the battle. With almost half of the crew injured, the eight hour flight home was to be unbearable. Goolsby was trapped in the mangled bombardier's compartment until they reached their base. During those eight hours, he administered three doses of morphine to himself, two of which had to be dropped down to him.

Also, when the German cannon had connected with the nose of the plane, the transmitting component of the navigating equipment was destroyed. On top of that, the frequency coming from the base was not being received. Usually, once radio contact was halted

[Page 8]

between the base and planes that were involved in skirmishes, radio operators at the base had to face the fact that the plane probably wasn't coming back, especially one that was so far out in the ocean. With the navigator badly injured, it was up to the pilot to find a good radio frequency and to use his skills to locate the coordinates of the Tunis base. Remarkably, he was dead on. *33* When the pilot finally returned to base with an injured crew and a dam­aged plane, the radio operator instructed him to circle the field. Captain "Honeybear" McDonald replied only, "Clear the field. I'm coming in." *34*

Once removed from the plane, Lieutenant Goolsby was unrecognizable, even to his own crew. He was taken to the base infirmary and admitted with serious flesh wounds, but no internal injuries. At the time of his admittance, there were a number of German war prisoners being cared for. The infirmary in North Africa had, up to this point, never seen injured flying crews. Crews involved in skirmishes where their plane was hit, were usually beyond medical attention. Needless to say, when the Americans were admitted, the German's medical attention was lacking. In fact, during his two month recovery in the hospital, Goolsby had noted that "they weren't treated very well at all." *35*

Ironically, after the battle that scarred him for life, Goolsby's schedule went back to normal. Every morning he ate his breakfast and then climbed into his compartment under the nose of a B-24. Every day he patrolled for the same enemy subs, returned to his same home away from home, and then slept late in the same bed the next day.

On November 20, 1943, Second Lieutenant James Goolsby landed at Langley Field, Virginia. This was the same field he flew out of en route to North Africa almost one year earlier. His tour there was over. Following Thanksgiving in 1943, he was married. He and his new bride left for an army base in Clovis, New Mexico about one month later. They remained there until he was discharged from the army on November 8, 1945. *36*

Among the decorations and citations awarded to Lieutenant Goolsby were: the

[Page 9]

Distinguished Flying Cross-Air Medal, the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Unit Citation Badge, the EAME Campaign Medal with five Bronze Service Stars, the American Campaign Medal, and the American Defense Service Medal with one Bronze Service Star. Following is the citation given along the Distinguished Flying Cross:


Second Lieutenant James R. Goolsby, Air Corps, United States Army. For extraordinary achievement as bombardier of a B-24 air­craft which attacked and probably sank an enemy submarine off the African Coast on July 7, 1943. Second Lieutenant Goolsby demon­strated expert skill, unusual vigilance, marked aggressiveness, and high courage in the face of anti-aircraft fire. The manner in which this submarine was detected, approached, attacked, and pho­tographed gave evidence of the high state of training and morale of the entire aircraft crew of which Second Lieutenant Goolsby was a member, reflecting great credit upon them and the army airforce. *37*


For years, James Goolsby would never talk about the war. He said people that did, "never really knew what the war was about." For him, knowing eighty people drown from the push of a button that he held in his hands, could never be put into words. He always felt responsible, and that somewhere down the road he would be held accountable for their deaths. *38* The war did not make Second Lieutenant James Goolsby a hero. The war made him humble. His love for his country and his courageous acts made him a hero. The Graceof God made him my grandfather.




1.       Goolsby, Ethel. Personal Interview. 15 November 1997.

2.         Jablonski, Edward. Airwar. New York: Doubleaay & Co. Inc., 1971. 3.

3.         Jablonski, 8.

4.         Jablonski, 9

5.         Goolsby, Ethel.

6.         Goolsby, Paul. Personal Interview. 1 November 1997.

7.         Gunston, Bill. Classic Aircraft Bombers: Profiles of Major Combatant Aircraft in Aviation History. New York: Grosset & Dunlap., Inc., 1978. 103.

8.         Young, Peter, ed. The World Almanac Book of World war 11. New York: World Almanac Pub., 1981. 493-494.

9.         Jablonski, 37

10.       Goolsby, Paul.

11.       Jablonski, 37.

12.       Goolsby, Paul.

13.       Goolsby, Paul.

14.       Goolsby, Ethel.

15.       McKeown, Harry. Personal Journal Entry. 15 Nov. 1943. 1.

16.       McKeown, Harry. Journal. 2-3.

17.       Goolsby, Ethel.

18.       McKeown, Harry. Journal. 2-3.

19.       McKeown, Harry. Journal. 1-5


20.       Goolsby, Ethel.

21.       McKeown, Harty. Journal. 1-5.

22.         Goolsby, Ethel.

23.       McKeown, Harry. Journal. 4.

24.       Goolsby, Paul.

25        . McKeown, Harry. Personal Letter to Paul Goolsby. 19 January 1990. 1.

26.       Goolsby, Paul.

27.       McKeown, Harry. Personal Letter.

28.       Goolsby, Paul.

29.       McKeown, Harry. Personal Letter.

30.       "Battle of the Atlantic: The Army's Gulls." Time Magazine. 6 September 1943: Vol. 62.36.

31.       Goolsby, Paul.

32.       Time Magazine. 36.

33.       Goolsby, Paul.

34.       Goolsby, Paul.

35.       Goolsby, Paul.

36.       Goolsby, Paul.

37.       United States Govt. Citations to Second Lieutenant James Goolsby. Washington: 1943.

38.       Goolsby, Ethel.




1.         Goolsby, Ethel. Personal Interview. 15 November 1997.

2.         Goolsby, Paul. Personal Interview. 1 November 1997.

3.         Gunston, Bill. Classic Aircraft Bombers: Profiles of Major Combatant Aircraft in Aviation History. New York: Grosset & Dunlap Inc., 1978.

4.         McKeown, Harry. Personal Journal Entry. 15 November 1943.

5.         McKeown, Harry. Personal Letter to Paul Goolsby. 19 January 1990.

6          .Jablonski, Edward. Airwar. New York: Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1971.

7.         "Battle of the Atlantic: The Army's Gulls." Time Magazine. 6 September 1943: Vol. 62.

8.         United States Govt. Citations to Second Lieutenant James Goolsby. Washington: 1943.

9.         Young, Peter, ed. The World Almanac Book of World "War II. New York: World Almanac Publications, 1981.




Figure 1:       Hart, RH. "North-West Africa. " History of the Second World "War. New York: Putnam & Sons. 1971. 280.

Figure 2:       Vogel, Jennifer. Based on interviews with Paul Goolsby. 1 November 1997.

Figure 3:       Vogel, Jennifer. Based on interviews with Paul Goolsby. 1 November 1997.