The high point for any World War II fighter pilot was shooting down an enemy airplane.
But Dave Gatling went one better than that: He sank an enemy ship.
"Got a direct hit on it," Gatling, 91, recalled Friday during a visit to Lexington for a reunion with other veterans of the 324th Fighter Group.
Gatling was flying a P-40 off the coast of Tunisia on April 30, 1943, when he and 11 other pilots came upon an Italian destroyer. Gatling nosed into a dive, dropping a 500-pound bomb that hit the vessel amidships. It was the first victory by a U.S. fighter plane over an enemy ship in the Mediterranean during World War II, according to an online history of Gatling's squadron.
Never miss a local story.
Just about every member of the 324th has a memorable war story. But the men set aside war memories, at least for a while, as they relaxed Friday morning with a tour of the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort.
The reunion, the group's first in Lexington since 2001, continues with a cruise on the Kentucky River Saturday before wrapping up Sunday.
"We're having a great time, just like we always do," said Lexington's Jerry Wurmser, 90, who flew 66 combat missions with the 324th during the war.
Only four members of the unit — all 90 years old or older — were able to attend this year's reunion. In addition to Wurmser and Gatling, they are Stan Hart, 90, of Lincoln, Neb., and Francis "Bud" Jones, 92, of Jefferson City, Mo.
The fliers brought along an entourage of about 30 people, including spouses, children, grandchildren and some "unofficial" unit members. Bill Yowell of Chicago is one of them.
Yowell's older brother, Jack, was shot down and killed during the war while flying with the 324th. Bill Yowell, who was only 11 at the time, knew few details about his older brother's death until about 2007, when he came across an old letter with the name of his brother's outfit.
Yowell started searching online, and soon found Jerry Wurmser's name. As it turned out, Wurmser and Jack Yowell had been wartime buddies.
Bill Yowell has been attending 324th reunions ever since. He eventually found out that his brother had bailed out after his plane was hit, but died when his parachute malfunctioned. Jack Yowell's remains weren't found until 1948.
"His death devastated our mother and the whole family," Bill Yowell said Friday. "I'm the only one who lived to find out what really happened."
Doug Patteson of New Hampshire also is attending the reunion. His grandfather, Pat Patteson, a 324th flier, passed away in 2005.
Doug Patteson later read a memoir his grandfather had written about his wartime experiences. Wanting to know more, he started contacting other members of the 324th, and began attending reunions. Now he is the unit's "unofficial" historian.
"I make electronic copies of letters and old photographs, try to document everything I can, he said. "I just want to preserve these guys' legacy."
Jerri Jones' late husband, Johnnie Jones, flew with the 324th in the war. He passed away several years ago, but she continues to attend the group's reunions.
"They're a great group of guys," she said.
Dave Gatling, of Vero Beach, Fla., thinks so too. He flew 200 combat missions, including that date with the Italian destroyer off Cape Bon in the Mediterranean.
"It was my 4th combat mission," Gatling said. "I went into a dive ... saw 900 feet left on my altimeter, kicked hard left rudder and released the bomb. It hit exactly right in the middle of the deck. I was lucky."
Wurmser says reunions are becoming more difficult because it's hard for the aging fliers to travel. Fortunately, he said, they can keep in touch on the Internet.