Capt. Robert B. Tresville crashes after navigation error
Capt. Robert B. Tresville was appointed one of the first leaders of his squadron, and led several combat missions in Europe before his death.
While at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Tresville of Bay City, Texas, applied for pilot training. He graduated from flight training on Dec. 13, 1942, at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, then returned to West Point where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
The summer of 1943, Tresville was appointed commander of the 302nd Fighter Squadron for a short time, then was transferred to the 100th Fighter Squadron. He was appointed the 100th' Fighter Squadron's commander in December 1943, the same month the squadron deployed to Europe, and was promoted to captain. The 100th Fighter Squadron arrived in Italy on Jan. 29, 1944; Tresville led the first combat mission on Feb. 5.
On June 24, Tresville was assigned to lead a low-flying mission to strafe an enemy supply line near Airasca, Italy. To avoid detection by enemy radar, the pilots were instructed to fly very low over the Tyrrhenian Sea to Corsica, France. About 30 miles from the coast, the engine in 2nd Lt. Charles B. Johnson's plane stopped. His P-47 Thunderbolt hit the water almost immediately. His plane quickly sank; Johnson was trapped inside.
Soon after, Tresville, who apparently did not know Johnson had crashed, made a slight turn, forcing the rear flights to pull up to avoid collision.
Soon after Johnson crashed, the belly of Lt. Earl Sherrard's plane hit the water. He tried to pull up, but a wing hit the water. According to "The Tuskegee Airmen: The Men Who Changed a Nation" by Charles E. Francis and Adolph Caso, Sherrard was able to get out of his plane, walk out on the wing and inflate his dinghy before his plane sank.
Lt. Samuel Jefferson, who was flying to Sherrard's right, made a tight turn to try to circle the downed pilot, but got caught in a downward slip stream, which threw his plane into a flat spin. Jefferson's P-47 crashed and exploded.
Shortly after Jefferson crashed, the flight reached the coast of Europe between southern France and Italy — 60 to 80 miles away from its intended target. Tresville tried to correct his previous navigation error, and made a 90-degree turn to fly up the coast of Italy. Lt. Spurgeon Ellington, who flew opposite Tresville during the mission, said the captain was looking at his map when his plane slid off course and plunged into the water.
"Capt. Tresville dropped into the water, shearing his wing tanks and tank supports, bending his propeller and cutting his engine," 2nd Lt. Dempsey W. Morgan Jr. wrote in a military report. "He then pulled out of the water, cleared his flight, stalled out, mushed into the water and instantly went down."
Lt. Woodrow Crockett, the deputy flight commander, took over and the flight returned to Ramitelli Air Field in Italy. Sherrard was rescued by a British coastal ship and returned to the base later that day.
"Tresville was a fantastic guy," Lt. Samuel Curtis said in an interview that was published in "332nd Fighter Group — Tuskegee Airmen" by Chris Bucholtz. "He was smart, he was bright, he was strong, he was well-coordinated. He would have gone far."
Capt. Andrew "Jug" Turner took command of the 100th Fighter Squadron.