FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. — In January 1944, the Army Air Forces handed then-21-year-old Charlie Shiff a pistol and a tin hat and loaded him onto a train to New York and then on a ship across the Atlantic Ocean.
He and about 13,000 troops were headed to England to fight in World War II.
By April, Shiff and the other 68 American P-51 Mustang fighter pilots were set up at a base called Staplehurst. Every day they ran dive bomb and strafing missions, scattering explosives across Belgium and Holland. Every day they took fire from German soldiers on the ground.
“We’d go up 14,000, 15,000 feet and roll over and turn down towards it and let our bombs loose,” Shiff said recently at his home in Fort Walton Beach. “We scattered bombs all over those two countries,” he added before joking: “We occasionally hit the target.”
His team was aiming at bridges, roads and railroad junctions along the coast as a diversion for the coming invasion of Normandy.
Between April and July, they lost 19 pilots.
“It’s not pleasant. You know what can happen, and even though you don’t know what’sgoing to happen, you see your comrades get killed and you don’t know if you’re next,” he said.
Shiff, now 82 years old and a retired colonel from the military, served with the 363rd Fighter Group for most of 1944.
The P-51 crews joined up with the group to fly escort and ground missions across Europe.
Since the new Mustangs could travel farther than earlier models, Shiff and the other pilots would meet up with bombers halfway to Berlin and escort them the rest of the way, he said.
Their mission was to shoot down any German aircraft that tried to interfere, but Shiff said he never saw any. Instead, they took heavy fire from the ground.
In February, when they moved to RAF Staplehurst, the pilots began to use the single-engine, single-seat planes to drop up to 500-pound bombs and to shoot at targets along the coast of northern Europe.
Getting shot at was a constant, he said.
Once, he was flying over a street and a German dispatch rider on a motorcycle was right ahead of him. Shiff shot at him and then as he flew over he heard an explosion in the back of the plane.
The plane started to rattle and shake.
“I thought, ‘boy, I’m going to have to walk home,’ ” he said.
He eased back on the throttle and the rattling stopped.
When he returned to the airfield, his crew found a 22 mm explosive resting on top of the radiator. It had broken in two pieces but did not detonate.
The P-51 pilots were a small group, and Shiff saw some of them die.
The first he saw was Pappy Watkins, who was 27. They had gone through flight school together.
Watkins was flying with somebody else and the other pilot’s plane came down on top of his, Shiff said.
“They both went down and I was standing there watching,” he said. “That was quite a blow because he and I were good friends.”
The fighting was all part of a plan, though, Shiff said.
“Hitler, he just knew we were going to invade Europe along the Belgium and Dutch coast,” Shiff said. “That’s where he positioned all this equipment. Of course we didn’t do it that way.”
Instead, allied forces stormed Normandy in northern France on June 6, 1944 — D-Day. It was a strong blow to German forces.
In the days before D-Day, command staff had come to brief Shiff and the other pilots on the plan.
“As he left he said, ‘on the end of the mission, you can expect as much as 100 percent fatalities,’ ” Shiff said. “That made everybody feel good.”
On June 6, Shiff and the crew spent most of the day waiting for orders. They were charged with taking off if German fighter planes showed up over Normandy. They didn’t.
“We spent the whole day sitting at the ready by the airplanes, walking in circles, and nothing happened,” Shiff said. “Which was good.”
Late in the day, they took off from Staplehurst to escort a long train of C-47 planes that were towing gliders and carrying paratroopers set to be let off over Normandy.
They were supposed to arrive at last light, but were late.
“It was dark, but they turned them loose anyhow,” he said.
The C-47s headed home, but Shiff and the other escort pilots were curious. They flew over Normandy briefly and marveled at all the battleships shooting onto the shore and all the commotion along the coast. There were so many planes in the air they had to turn on their navigation lights so not to collide with one another, he said.
By 2 a.m., the pilots had returned to Staplehurst. They were safe.
Last year, Shiff made another return to Staplehurst, perhaps his last. He’d been invited to participate in a celebration at a monument built to honor the 363rd Fighter Group and the P-51 pilots.
It was his second trip to the monument.
He and his two sons traveled to Staplehurst in 2011 to unveil a plaque listing the names of the 19 pilots who died during missions there. Shiff and his sons read the names of the fallen out loud while huddled under an umbrella in front of the monument.
“That was quite a thing for them, to read the names,” Shiff said.
A local aviation enthusiast had spearheaded the effort to get the monument built, and the community supported it, Shiff said.
“He went around while the wreckage was still in the ground and tried to get the history of every one of them (planes),” Shiff said. “He thought something ought to be marking what we did.”
What Shiff did during World War II was fly 203 hours, including 83 combat missions in the P-51. After all those perilous but ultimately safe returns to Staplehurst, he said he isn’t sure he’s ready for another leisure trip next year.
“He wants me to come back next June, but I just don’t know about that,” he said.