The B-24 was built like a 1930s Mack truck, except that it had an aluminum skin that could be cut with a knife. It could carry a heavy load far and fast but it had no refinements. Steering the four-engine airplane was difficult and exhausting, as there was no power except the pilot's muscles. It had no windshield wipers, so the pilot had to stick his head out the side window to see during a rain. Breathing was possible only by wearing an oxygen mask cold and clammy, smelling of rubber and sweat above 10,000 feet in altitude. There was no heat, despite temperatures that at 20,000 feet and higher got as low as 40 or even 50 degrees below zero. The wind blew through the airplane like fury, especially from the waist gunners' windows and whenever the bomb bay doors were open. The oxygen mask often froze to the wearer's face. If the men at the waist touched their machine guns with bare hands, the skin froze to the metal.
There were no bathrooms. To urinate there were two small relief tubes, one forward and one aft, which were almost impossible to use without spilling because of the heavy layers of clothing the men wore. Plus which the tubes were often clogged with frozen urine. Defecating could be done only in a receptacle lined with a wax paper bag. A man had to be desperate to use it because of the difficulty of removing enough clothing and exposing bare skin to the arctic cold. The bags were dropped out of the waist windows or through the open bomb bay doors. There were no kitchen facilities, no way to warm up food or coffee, but anyway there was no food unless a crew member had packed in a C ration or a sandwich. With no pressurization, pockets of gas in a man's intestinal tract could swell like balloons and cause him to double over in pain.
There was no aisle to walk down, only the eight-inch-wide catwalk running beside the bombs and over the bomb bay doors used to move forward and aft. It had to be done with care, as the aluminum doors, which rolled up into the fuselage instead of opening outward on a hinge, had only a 100-pound capacity, so if a man slipped he would break through. The seats were not padded, could not be reclined, and were cramped into so small a space that a man had almost no chance to stretch and none whatsoever to relax. Absolutely nothing was done to make it comfortable for the pilot, the co-pilot, or the other eight men in the crew, even though most flights lasted for eight hours, sometimes ten or more, seldom less than six. The plane existed and was flown for one purpose only, to carry 500 or 1,000 pound bombs and drop them accurately over enemy targets.
It was called a Liberator. That was a perhaps unusual name for a plane designed to drop high explosives on the enemy well behind the front lines, but it was nevertheless the perfect name. Consolidated Aircraft Corporation first made it, with the initial flight in 1939. When a few went over to England in 1940, the British Air Ministry wanted to know what it was called. Reuben Fleet of Consolidated answered, "Liberator." He added, "We chose the name Liberator because this airplane can carry destruction to the heart of the Hun, and thus help you and us to liberate those millions temporarily finding themselves under Hitler's yoke."
Consolidated, along with the Ford Motor Company, Douglas Aircraft Company, and North American Aviation together called the Liberator Production Pool made more than 18,300 Liberators, about 5,000 more than the total number of B-17s. The Liberator was not operational before World War II and was not operational after the war (nearly every B-24 was cut up into pieces of scrap in 1945 and 1946, or left to rot on Pacific islands). The number of people involved in making it, in servicing it, and in flying the B-24 outnumbered those involved with any other airplane, in any country, in any time. There were more B-24s than any other American airplane ever built.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the B-24 won the war for the Allies. But don't ask how they could have won the war without it.
The Army Air Forces needed thousands of pilots, and tens of thousands of crew members, to fly the B-24s. It needed to gather them and train them and supply them and service the planes from a country in which only a relatively small number of men knew anything at all about how to fly even a single-engine airplane, or fix it. From whence came such men?
Copyright © 2001 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.
Chapter Five: Cerignola, Italy
In 1492 Christopher Columbus became the first Italian-born man to set foot in the New World. Over the 450 years that followed, hundreds of thousands of Italians came to America in his wake. From 1943 to 1945, a million and more Americans, many from Italian-American families, others whose parents or grandparents or ancestors had been born elsewhere in Europe or in Asia or Africa, came to Italy. They were mainly young men, overwhelmingly in the armed services of the United States. They came not to settle and start a new life, not to conquer, but to undertake an air offensive against Germany and its satellites, to drive the German occupiers from Italy, to liberate the country and allow it to choose its own government.
They came to the mainland right after the Italians had overthrown Benito Mussolini, but evidence of his two-decade rule was all about them. Italy was in ruins. Mussolini was no Hitler or Stalin, but he was nevertheless a disaster for North Africa and a catastrophe for Italy. He had turned a country of skilled artisans and expert farmers, full of so much life and spirit and art and fine food and wine as to be an object of envy to much of the rest of the world, into a country virtually without young men, a country that made almost nothing, a country on the verge of widespread starvation. He had gathered up nearly all the young men and forced them into his army, which he hoped against all reason would make Italy into a major power. By 1943 it was a country of old men, women, and children, almost all of them hungry, ill-clad, suffering medically and in nearly every other way. The American servicemen had grown up believing that Italy was poor, a place to escape from, but they had no idea until they arrived that Mussolini had made the country destitute.
What Mussolini had not done, the Germans did. In their retreat north after the Allied invasion of the mainland in September 1943, the Germans had taken with them damn near everything virtually all food, wine, vehicles of every type whether horse-drawn or machine-powered or pushcart, artworks, whatever they could carry.
One afternoon in September 1944, George McGovern and his shipmates arrived in Naples harbor. From the deck they could see dozens of little boys lined up on the wharf, holding out their hands and yelling in broken English, "Babe Ruth," or "Hershey Bars," or "gum." Just as the Americans began to reach into their pockets, the ship's loudspeaker came alive and the captain said, "Now look, nobody throw anything to these children. These kids are starving and a couple of days ago an American ship came in here and the soldiers started throwing candy bars and the kids jumped into the water to get some and several of them drowned. We don't want to repeat that. We came to help these people, not to drown their kids. Don't throw anything. I mean anything." McGovern recalled them as "spindly-legged kids with pale faces," and he admitted, "This was my first exposure to people on the edge of starvation." Outside Naples that night, in an AAF base, he could hear "mothers scrounging around in the garbage cans looking for scraps of food that they could take home to their kids."
The American soldiers had come out of the Depression. Many of them had been deprived. But none of them had ever known anything like this. To the Italians, they were incredibly rich. Their uniforms were far better than those of the Italian army and much superior to those of the German army. They had what seemed to be unbelievable quantities of food, gasoline, weapons, trucks, jeeps, airplanes, tents, medical supplies, cameras, money, movies and projectors, and more.
The newly arrived Americans were discovering the vast difference between their country and others, even their closest ally, Great Britain. Lt. Roland Pepin, assigned as navigator to the same 741st Squadron, 455th Bomb Group as McGovern had been, also came to Italy by ship, but Pepin's "rusty old tub" had deposited his crew in Tunis, where they transferred to a British luxury liner for the journey across the Mediterranean to Naples. That sounded nice, and it was for the officers, not for the enlisted men. Pepin found that "the British have an entirely different approach than us to the separation of officers and enlisted men." As an officer, he was in a stateroom with one other man "with all the luxury usually granted first-class passengers." The enlisted men were in the bowels of the ship packed like sardines, sleeping in hammocks. Sanitary facilities for the enlisted "were a disgrace, causing a stench that was inhumane."
McGovern, Pepin, and the hundreds of other AAF reinforcements and replacements boarded trucks for the drive across Italy, almost straight east to the airfield some five miles outside Cerignola, about twenty miles southwest of Foggia. Cerignola was reputed to have been a center for Mussolini's Fascist party and had become a place of refuge for Italians fleeing the frequent Allied bombing of Foggia. Before the war it had been a town of 25,000 but by 1944 it contained about twice that, none of them young men. The name Cerignola meant land of cereals, and it was thus the origin of the word "Cheerios." It grew hard wheat, the best in Italy and possibly the best in the world for making pasta. The Romans stored the wheat in the ground, silos in reverse. They covered the holes with wood that kept the water out when it rained. There are still 600 such storage places in and around Cerignola today, all with Roman numbers on them. According to local people, this is the only place in the world where hard grain was preserved in this way. Mussolini, however, had sapped Cerignola's resources for his army and in 1944 one could not tell that it once had been a major agriculture center for the Romans. Although it was generally flat and fertile, with plenty of rain, by 1944 almost nothing was cultivated there. The olive trees were neglected. The people were even worse off.
An AAF medical officer wrote a description: "The town was a reservoir of malaria, venereal disease and dysentery with flies and mosquitoes to insure spread. The streets were filled with pot-bellied bambinos openly defecating in emulation of their elders because there was no sewer system or toilets. They ate food when they could get it on the black market obtained from fly-infested fruit stands and vermin-filled butcher shops where rotten meat was the rule. There were no medicines, the death rate among children was appalling, the splenic index was 40 per cent and malaria was a children's disease all the adults had it long since. Avitaminosis, tuberculosis, and frank starvation were everywhere. The only music to be heard was the sound of a passing funeral, and that band had a full-time job."
Cerignola was an ancient city. On June 29, 1863, its modern cathedral had its first stone placed as the American Civil War was being fought, even as Robert E. Lee's army was marching into Pennsylvania for what would be the battle of Gettysburg. The cathedral's dome stood out. Pilots could see it from ten miles away. "Many times I was reassured that I was on course when that dome loomed up ahead of us," McGovern recalled. It is still there in the twenty-first century, upgraded and active.
Nearby were the ancient ruins of Cannae, site of one of the most famous battles ever fought. In 216 B.C. Hannibal of Carthage set up his base at Cerignola, because of the grain stored there. Eleven miles away, at Cannae, Hannibal's force encircled Roman troops that outnumbered his army by two to one and, in a single afternoon, destroyed them. Most of the Americans had never seen a building as much as a hundred years old nor a battlefield that went back as far as the mid-eighteenth century, much less two millennia. One AAF pilot of the 456th Bomb Group, Lt. Robert S. Capps, was so intrigued by Cannae that he visited the site and later wrote a biography of Hannibal.
When the Germans retreated and the British Eighth Army swept past, the people of Cerignola hoped they were out of the war. They were not. In January 1944, when the AAF arrived to transform the area around Cerignola into a major airfield, an incredible storm of activity began. Massive numbers of ground support vehicles and huge amounts of matériel arrived. There were more than 2,000 young men at the base from the 455th and the 456th Bomb Groups. Army olive-drab tent cities sprang up among the olive groves, along with massive amounts of ground support equipment, fuel, bombs, ammunition, food, medicines, and other supplies, which continued to arrive daily. The people of Cerignola began to learn about the way Americans made war. They had never seen anything to match it.
Lt. Colonel Horace W. Lanford, twenty-five years old, was the first commander of the 741st Bomb Squadron. He arrived in Cerignola early in 1944. At that time the town was only sixty miles south of the front lines. The airfield, bombed by the Fifteenth Air Force in 1943 and then abandoned by the Germans, was in poor condition. The group had sixty-four B-24s; Lanford had flown in with them. There were no hard stands (parking ramps), so the group had to line up the bombers either wingtip to wingtip or nose to tail on what little runway there was. Still, the pilots managed to take off and land. On their early missions, to help morale on the stalemated beachhead at Anzio on the western coast of Italy, the Cerignola-based bombers formed up with other groups. The B-24s and B-17s flew directly over the beachhead to let the American infantry see their awesome power. Lanford remembered it as "an exciting, unforgettable sight." The bombers stretched "as far as you could see in front and as far as you could see in back."
To provide adequate space and runways for the B-24s and B-17s, the Americans brought in bulldozers. They leveled what had once been wheat fields. Engineers laid down steel matting for the 4,800- foot runway, and made taxiways and hard stands. They did not bother to make hangars all maintenance, repairs, and other work on the bombers was done in the open, from the first and until the end of the war.
The 456th Bomb Group had confiscated an old farm building to use as headquarters. There were two brick buildings used as air crew briefing rooms and navigators' and bombardiers' study rooms.
The 455th Bomb Group had its headquarters on the other side of the runway. It had been part of a nobleman's estate but was sadly neglected. Group headquarters was located in a farm animal stable, which was also used for briefing the crews for the combat missions. The building, made of stone with no windows, had sunk into the ground. The men had to clean out manure that had been accumulating for years, and fight off the fleas as they were working. The briefing room was later also used as a movie theater.
Lanford, commanding the 741st, won the right to a barn in a coin flip with the commander of the 743rd. It had two big bays and an aviary on top. Next to it was a small storage building, which went to the 743rd. For the 741st, Lanford made an officers club in one of the bays and an airmen's club out of the other, "after clearing out tons of junk." In the aviary, Lanford knocked off the bird perches and sealed the holes and cleaned up the interior, painted it, and built a ladder to climb up to it. The aviary thus became the quarters for Lanford and five other officers.
At first, the enlisted men in the 741st slept in the big plywood boxes that lined the bomb bays in which baggage was placed in the B-24s for the flight over to Italy. "You can't imagine those living conditions," Lanford said. The only tent was used as a mess tent. The men had to stand in line to have their mess kit filled, and when it rained, as it often did, they had to run for cover. Lanford hired local labor to put up a mess hall made of stone. In the process, he learned that one of the residents was reporting on what went on at the airfield to the Germans. One night during construction, the German propaganda broadcaster nicknamed Axis Sally by the Americans who liked to listen to her program because she played American music said, "We see you down there, 741st Squadron, building your mess hall. You'll never get to use it, we'll bomb it before it's complete." The Germans never did bomb it. (The base was defended by a British antiaircraft gun crew, as Cerignola was in the British Eighth Army area.)
Axis Sally seemed to know everything. Radio operator Sgt. Robert Hammer was in the 742nd Squadron. Once in the spring of 1944 his squadron, nicknamed the "Checkerboards" because of their tail insignia, was on a mission when two ME 109s went after a straggler that had lost an engine. The pilot of the bomber ordered the crew to lower the landing gear as a sign of surrender. The ME 109s came in close to escort the B-24 to a landing field, one off each wing. The pilot told the crew to open fire. They knocked both fighters down and the pilot returned to base safely. That night, Axis Sally declared that the Checkerboard B-24s would thereafter be the top priority of the German fighters. The squadron changed its insignia several times, but the Germans kept after it. Hammer said that the Germans had "fantastic intelligence reports. Berlin radio would tell us where we were going even before we got off the ground."
In early 1944, Lt. Robert Capps arrived to join the 744th Squadron. "We were deposited on bare, damp ground in olive groves. We were instructed to pitch tents on the hard, moist ground like Boy Scouts. The olive groves became muddy quagmires from rain mixed with human activity." The men anchored the pyramidal tents by ropes attached to the olive trees. There was one tent for the three or four officers and another for the six enlisted men, side by side. They slept on fold-up cots with either two wool blankets or a sleeping bag for cover. The men made mattresses by packing straw into cloth mattress covers, but the straw had insects in it, which led to bites.
If a man touched the inside of the tent while it was raining, the tent leaked. It was cold it snowed more than once in the winter
of 1944-1945 so the inhabitants applied a bit of Yankee ingenuity by rigging a stove from a fifty-five-gallon oil drum, cut in half. The fuel was gasoline, fed into the stove through a makeshift plumbing device from another, full drum outside. It was a drip-by-drip method. The men cut a little door at the bottom of the stove for ventilation. If the stove got too hot it burned too high and soot would build up in the smokestack and ignite, sending hot sparks out the chimney, then down onto the tent. The holes caused other leaks.
The floor was mud. To make it livable, the men would build a concrete floor, assisted by hired Italian labor. First they put down crushed rock, then topped it with a layer of concrete. Bill Rounds, who shared a tent with McGovern and Sam Adams, wrote in his diary, "We sleep in tents, no lights or running water." Soon there were lights a single bulb hanging in the center and by December 4, 1944, Rounds could write in his diary, "Our tent is now in good shape good stove clothes rack and front door."
McGovern, Rounds, and Adams's tent was located near two of the more elaborate tents that were occupied by veterans who were close to the end of the thirty-five missions required to go home. McGovern met one of the pilots for the first time when he and Rounds went for a joy ride in a "liberated" jeep. Rounds was driving, at high speed. He flew down the "street" between the tents, turned a corner on two wheels, caught one of the ropes from the veterans' tent, and the ensuing rip tore the tent in half. The stove, uniforms on hangers, shelves of books, magazines, and photographs, all flew into the olive grove. Climbing out of the jeep, McGovern saw an aging pilot "with heavy circles under his eyes who had to be at least twenty-five" walking over to the vehicle. His name, McGovern found out later, was Capt. Howard Surbeck. His voice quaking with rage, Surbeck said, "You two sons-of-bitches will never make it through combat. I should kill you right now." Rounds and McGovern spent the rest of the day putting up a new tent for him. "So," McGovern recalled with a laugh, "that's the way I broke into the 741st Squadron area."
Rounds was nonetheless unstoppable in his practical jokes. One night shortly after the incident with the jeep he rolled a fifty-five-gallon drum of fuel oil into the middle of the squadron area, set it on fire, and shouted, "Enemy raid!" There were cries of panic and anguish all around, except from Rounds, who was laughing.
Adams was different, a capable, highly conscientious technician. He wanted only to do his part in winning the war, then get back to Milwaukee as quickly as possible to begin his studies to become a minister. He and McGovern talked, almost always it seemed, about everything. Adams spent what idle hours he had writing long letters home, cleaning his equipment, reading, or simply lying on his cot, thinking. McGovern also did a lot of reading and writing letters to Eleanor. After he began flying in combat, he always put in a number, which seemed innocent enough to the censors, but each one was the number of missions he had flown. Eleanor knew that thirty-five was the magic number when George had completed thirty-five missions he could come home.
Those who arrived in the summer or fall of 1944 were assigned to tents already in place. This had its good points, but one notable drawback as well. Frequently, the tent had belonged to a crew that had been shot down. When pilot Lt. Donald Kay of the 465th Bomb Group arrived in Cerignola, he heard those who were already there call out, "You'll be sorry!" He and his crew took over the tents that had been those of a Lieutenant Greenwood and his crew, who had been shot down two days before Kay's arrival.
The food may have been the envy of the people of Cerignola, but it was never close to the standards the Yanks were accustomed to eating. Powdered eggs were the breakfast staple, served in various forms, often scrambled. But no matter what was done with the eggs, most of them ended up in the garbage can. There were pancakes, made from flour and the powdered eggs. They looked like and had the consistency of a Frisbee. The Army-issued "tropical butter" was treated to prevent spoilage under any imaginable circumstance, so it was too hard to melt, no matter what was tried. The bread was fresh, baked on the site by the cooks, but it was coarse and suitable only for French toast again made with powdered eggs. Sometimes there was oatmeal, but it was on the rubbery side and Lieutenant Pepin of the 741st was convinced "that what wasn't consumed was used to repair the planes, as it was gooey and sticky enough to be useful."
At noon and in the evening, there was canned food stewed prunes, hash heated in garbage cans, and meat, which was mostly Spam, called "mystery meat." Like nearly every serviceman in the armed forces of the United States, the AAF men at Cerignola came to hate the sight of Spam. This was true even at the very top. After the war, General Eisenhower met the president of the Hormel company and thanked him for the Spam, then added, with a grin, "But did you have to send us so much of it?" One writer in the 455th calling himself "Anon" commented: "For breakfast the cooks will fry it. At dinner it is baked. For supper they have it paddy caked. Next morning it's with flapjacks. Where the hell do they get it all, they must order it by kegs!...SPAM in stew. SPAM in pies, and SPAM in boiling grease!"
At Cerignola, the alternative to Spam was canned Vienna sausages. After a month of eating them, one of the men tacked a proposal on the squadron ready-room door, offering to stop bombing Vienna if its people would stop sending their sausages.
Lieutenant Shostack had flown 2,500 cases of K rations in his B-24 to Cerignola, and had discovered that nobody wanted it. So he put the cases into his tent and whenever he could he would take ten boxes of them into town, go to what passed for a restaurant, "and trade them for an Italian spaghetti dinner." The spaghetti sauce had no meat in it "but the Italians had great tomato sauce and a bottle of cheap wine to go with the meal."
Whenever weather prevented a mission, which happened often, some of the men would try to break the monotony at the base by going into town. The AAF sent in a truck every half hour or so, which would then wait at an intersection so guys going back had a ride. There was a Red Cross club across the street from the cathedral, with a movie theater for the Americans, a pool table, books, and cards.
The men had ample money. They were paid in Allied military currency, which at one penny to the lira was the legal tender for occupied Italy. The exchange rate was more than favorable. Skilled Italian laborers, those who helped put in the concrete floors or worked on the runway or elsewhere, were paid 75 lira a day. Unskilled laborers received 50 lira a day. A haircut in town was 7 lira. A shave cost the same. To the initial surprise of the Yanks, there were barbers all along the streets, usually small boys with straight razors. Lt. Donald Currier noted that "as poor as the people were, many of the Italian old men went to the barber for their shave every day. It was a male ritual." For a hot bath unavailable at the base the men went to a public bath in Cerignola. They brought their own soap and towel. The cost was 25 lira.
Another surprise to the Yanks: the residents of Cerignola wore, mostly, only black clothes. The poverty of the people precluded bright, colorful clothes. Many of them were starving, or nearly so. "We watched the women standing in long lines with their pieces of cloth," Currier wrote, "waiting for their small allotment of flour." The flour came from the American supplies. Hard to imagine flour coming from the States to the Romans' land of cereal, where Hannibal had had his supply base. Currier also noted that on the roofs of ancient houses there were bundles of twigs and small branches. "This was the fuel they cooked with." The AAF men would bring their laundry into town, where for a few lira the local women would wash it and hang it out to dry, then fold it.
Lieutenant Pepin went into Cerignola frequently. There he had met a teenage girl named Maria, "cute and dark-eyed." He overcame his inability to speak Italian by using his high school French. Maria also had learned some French in school. He recalled that "the customary way of the Italians required the meeting of the family as a prerequisite to any form of social contact." Maria lived with her grandmother, mother, and two aunts. All the men of the family had died in the war. "The women accepted me, but I doubt if they ever trusted me. Maria and I were never alone for more than a few moments. A fleeting kiss now and then was permissible, but nothing else."
For Pepin, the friendship of the family and his visiting in their home "became very important to me. It offset the inhumane rigors of war and added gentleness to my life." He wrote his own mother about Maria. She sent him packages of women's clothing. Maria and her family "were overjoyed and honored me with great meals." But, Pepin added regretfully, "I won no free time with Maria."
Sgarro Ruggiero, a thirty-year-old who had been in and gotten out of the Italian army, worked at the airfield. One day he brought an American pilot to his home for a lunch made by his mother. She served pasta, with no meat, no cheese, no tomato sauce. Still the pasta was homemade and the wheat was homegrown, and the American ate it with gusto. Ruggiero's mother said, "If there were meat, it would be better. It would be ragu." The next day, an American truck pulled up outside her home. The driver unloaded 100 tins of meat chicken breast, beef, bacon, and the inevitable Spam. Ruggiero said the Americans "brought richness to us."
Sgt. Joseph Maloney, twenty years old, was a tail gunner on his B-24, in the 415th Squadron, 98th Bomb Group, based near Cerignola. A child of the Depression, Joe knew hard times. He found a nine-year-old Italian boy named Gino who would come every week to clean his tent, and he paid far above the going rate for it just to help out the boy's family. Gino's mother did his laundry in return for a cake of soap. Gino also supplied him with fresh eggs on occasion, for which Joe paid him two packs of American cigarettes.
Sgt. Anthony Picardi of the 742nd Squadron got to visit Volturara Irpina, the village where his mother, father, and oldest sister were born. "As we arrived in the village square, people were pointing and asking questions: 'Sono Americani?' ['Are you American?'] I answered back yes in Italian. They ran off to seek my relatives to tell them that I had arrived from America. I never knew I had so many relatives in Italy. I met my uncle, aunt, and cousins. Everyone was happy, hugging and kissing. I met my grandmother, who was ninety years old at the time. That was the first and last time I would ever see her. She embraced me and said, 'Figio mio.' ['My son.'] It was a very emotional moment. I could not for the love of me figure out how she recognized me. She said I had my father's face and she knew immediately who I was." Picardi handed out gifts candy, sugar, coffee, cigarettes, and more. He had saved the items from his purchases at the PX for the occasion.
Francesco Musto was born in Cerignola in 1928, the oldest of what became a family of nine children. His father was a skilled electrician, but his house had no running water his mother bought the water in containers brought to her from the town fountain by small boys. After 1939, there was no salt at all, no sugar for months, and often no milk. As a boy, Musto would ride his bike for ten kilometers to a farm to get a bit of milk for his one-year-old sister. In his memory, the townspeople had little or no contact with the German occupiers of Italy and nothing the Germans did impressed them. The Americans, however, "opened our minds in an incredible way." Musto recalls that when the AAF came, "I can remember that for three weeks three full weeks on the road outside our house for twenty-four hours a day we had a continuous flow of everything, trucks, jeeps, tanks, amphibious vehicles, everything." Then in just a few days the Americans built their airfield. They put up their tents, made the briefing room and headquarters building, and more. They threw away a lot. Musto managed to salvage a radio and other items. "So I discovered an entire world of new products, technologies, services." On the radio, his listened to "something I never had heard before," the music of Glenn Miller. Like everyone else, he loved it.
There were some romances between American servicemen and the local women, and at least a hundred marriages resulted. But there were many women selling themselves. In Musto's memory, "There were too many girls doing what they should never have been doing. There was a terrible degradation of morality." There were many Italian-Americans in the AAF, most of whom spoke Italian. But not well, at least according to Musto. He said "they spoke some horrible dialects that we couldn't understand. They were dialects used more than a century previous."
As for food, "The first thing that the Americans brought was the very white bread, white, incredibly white, white like milk." The second thing that impressed Musto was "the variety." The people of Cerignola were accustomed to dried fava beans with chicory and a little bit of olive oil, and sometimes fish from the sea. But the Americans brought in Spam, peanut butter, chocolate, and so much more. As far as Musto was concerned, "This was modernity. The new world was this one."
The local residents went to work for the Americans, another miracle. First, the Americans would hire women to clean, wash clothes, prepare food, and so on, and pay them for it. Second, the men could get almost any kind of work, on the airfields, in the barracks, everywhere. Best of all it wasn't day work, as they were accustomed to one day on, many days off but steady. Three months. Four months. More. Along with the work for women, this was "an incredible novelty."
According to Gionanna Pistachio Colucci, a twenty-five-year-old married woman and mother in 1944, everything about the Americans was "fantastic, marvelous. When the Americans arrived it was a joyous celebration. The Red Cross was here. The children got covers for their beds. They had clothes, jackets. The Americans also brought medicines." She recalled that the day before the Germans fled and the Americans moved in, a group of Italian soldiers, deserters, unarmed local boys, appeared in Cerignola. The Germans killed them all and put their bodies into one of the Roman granaries. Today, the Cerignola cemetery has a monument to these boys. Many local people can never forgive the Germans for the atrocity. But, Colucci said, "We have a beautiful memory of the Americans."
Michele Bancole, a sixteen-year-old boy who worked at the airfield, recalled that he had keys to the American warehouse. Unbelievable. "But they trusted us." He added that a "typical characteristic" of the Americans was that "they were handsome." He was especially impressed by their physical appearance and the way they played sports, such as softball, or engaged in boxing matches. He and other boys would watch. Bancole was impressed because "the Americans knew first to enjoy life and then after that to go to work."
Mario Carpocefala was a ten-year-old boy when the Americans came. He went to work for them, doing whatever needed doing, sometimes for money, other times for cigarettes. When the German soldiers had occupied Cerignola, Mario remembered seeing a loaf of black bread on a truck. The German driver had stopped to be shaved. Mario had to have that bread. He grabbed it. Just then some other German soldiers came down the street and one of them shouted. Mario tried to hide behind a Roman milestone. A soldier aimed his rifle at him. Mario threw the bread down the street and took off running. Decades later, he would show the spot to his children and comment, "Look, there for a loaf of bread I almost lost my life."
The Americans were different. Once Mario was scrounging around a garbage pit, gathering food. Nearby were some crushed cigarette butts, which Mario was also pocketing. An American sergeant grabbed him. "Kid, what are you doing? You're too young to smoke." With his broken English, Mario said he was taking the cigarettes for his father, the food for his mother.
"Throw that shit away," the sergeant said. "Come with me." He took Mario to the supply tent and gave him some rations and packs of cigarettes.
One of the bombardiers stationed in Cerignola, Major Riccardi, was the child of immigrant parents from Italy. He had four brothers in the service during the war. He took Mario under his wing. Each day he taught Mario English words and after missions would review them with him. Mario learned the language and later said that had it not been for Riccardi's influence and English lessons, "I would have been a bum."
As for politics, there was little discussion by the people of Cerignola. Many who had been Fascists in the 1930s changed their minds. The one topic everyone agreed upon was how crazy Mussolini must have been to get into the war. Look at Spain, people would say. It is a Fascist country. But General Franco keeps Spain out of the war. Why didn't Mussolini? According to Musto, "Italy made two mistakes. First, entering the war. Second, entering on the wrong side."
The Americans were not in Italy to sightsee or romance or drink or otherwise have fun. They were there to engage the Germans in combat. Not on the ground or at sea, but in the air. That gave them some privileges, such as cots to sleep on, hot if not very good food prepared by cooks, time off, faster promotions, and more. They were grateful that they were not in the infantry, sleeping in foxholes and being shot at, or in the Navy, cooped up on a ship for interminable voyages, going wherever the captain directed, almost never seeing the enemy except in the air yet still taking great risks that, when a ship got destroyed, led to the death by wounds or drowning of almost every one of their mates. (Except for a tiny number of volunteers no one wanted to be in a submarine.) But it was the case in World War II that the U.S. servicemen in the Navy were glad they were where they were, instead of in a foxhole or a bomber, while those in the infantry wanted no part of flying they liked keeping their feet on the ground. Virtually every sailor or soldier shuddered at the thought of being in an airplane when it got hit by enemy fighters or flak.
McGovern met two infantry officers after the war and said to them, "Whenever I'd fly over you guys I thought it must be terrible to be down there in the mud, hand-to-hand fighting, all that shelling." And the infantrymen told him, "Seeing you guys overhead and the Germans shooting away at you, we thought you didn't have a chance if you take a direct hit." To McGovern's surprise, "They were feeling sorry for us." For himself, McGovern said, "I always knew that it would take infantry to win the war, but I also thought that the bombers and the fighter planes were essential too, that without those planes the infantry could not prevail against the Germans."
For the men of the AAF flying the planes, death was a constant threat. Lieutenant Capps of the 456th Bomb Group arrived in Cerignola in January 1944. That month he celebrated his twenty-first birthday. There were three other young officers with him, Lts. Douglas S. Morgan, Gail J. Scritchfield, and Edward J. Heffner. Morgan and Scritchfield were fellow pilots, Heffner was a bombardier. They shared a camaraderie. "We were all very young, eager, patriotic, and anxious to begin the great adventure of flying combat missions."
At first they were fed by the 301st Bomb Group mess kitchens. Capps never forgot the faces of the 301st crew members when they arrived in the mess tent where he was eating, after returning from a mission into Germany. "They all looked stunned, strained, emotionally drained, and very fatigued. They talked amongst themselves about how their buddies had been shot down on the mission, the number of parachutes they had seen coming from the falling planes, and planes that had blown up without any chance of men bailing out."
The looks and talk of the returned crew brought a sense of reality to Capps, but still "I didn't believe that I was going to be one that was shot down and I couldn't wait to get into combat."
Within four months of his arrival at Cerignola, all three of Capps's friends Morgan, Scritchfield, and Heffner were gone. Each had a violent death in crashes in their B-24s. Later a tent mate of Capps's, Lt. Nicholas Colletti, a bombardier, was shot down and killed. When Capps completed his missions fifty-one of them! on July 7, 1944, his co-pilot, Lt. Sydney Brooks, became the B-24's pilot. Two weeks after he took command of the plane, Brooks had a wing knocked off by enemy fire and his plane collided with another B-24 in the formation. Brooks spun violently to the ground and was killed. The other plane exploded.
As with the other squadrons, the 741st was taking heavy casualties and losses. Commander Lanford was one of them. He had been awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for leading a mission over Vienna on March 17, 1944, but on July 21 his plane was shot down on a mission against Brux, Czechoslovakia. The flak bursts severed the control cables. Lanford attempted a hard right turn, but "the control wheel spun like a roulette wheel." The plane was losing altitude fast. He ordered everyone to bail out. Lanford landed safely, got in contact with Tito's partisans, and managed to return to base, where he went into the mess hall to be greeted by the operations officer, who exclaimed, "My God, I thought you were dead!" Lanford went back to flying in combat and completed his tour. But the squadron historical diary noted the destruction of his and other B-24s and declared, "Replacements are sorely needed as our status at the moment could aptly be called quasi-operational."
Beyond the many B-24s shot down there was sudden death from accidents. Shortly after arriving in Italy, Sgt. Kenneth Higgins, McGovern's radio operator, saw one. Right after taking off, the pilot was supposed to hit the brake pedals to keep the landing gear's wheels from spinning as they retracted. But on this occasion, the Liberator was not yet airborne when the pilot hit the brakes and the plane nosed over and plowed into the ground. All the men in the front of the aircraft were killed. Another time, a B-24 came in to land. It had a bomb hung up in the bomb bay but the pilot, who should have checked to make sure all the bombs had dropped, had not. The bomb fell out when he landed, went off, and blew the whole plane into pieces. "The whole crew burned," Higgins recalled. "I mean they were just charred ashes."
Pilot Lt. Guyon Phillips saw a similar accident. Just before liftoff, the pilot hit the brakes. "A B-24 with a full load of gas and bombs just won't get in the air without full power," Phillips commented. This time the plane was at the end of the runway. The nose gear sheared off and the nose of the plane ground into the earth with such force that it chewed off the front of the plane, right up to the engines. All the men in the front were instantly killed.
Once a bomber gained altitude, the crew had some chance of survival when things went wrong. Some managed to get out of a doomed Liberator, pull the rip cord on their parachute, and land safely. Some of them managed to bail out over neutral Switzerland or Yugoslavia, where if they were lucky enough to join with Tito's partisans they could return to Italy. But many, perhaps most, became prisoners of war. Until the Battle of the Bulge, in December 1944, the Germans held far more AAF men as prisoners than they did American infantry.
The AAF knew that the capture of men who had bailed out was always a possibility. To prevent this, it gave each member of a crew an escape kit, consisting of some candy bars, a shot of morphine, a silk map of Europe, and a compass. That wasn't much. The men were also instructed that the only information they had to give their captors was their name, rank, and serial number. Generally, they gave out more than that, not necessarily willingly but sometimes to avoid torture, more often in what they regarded as casual conversation. The German interrogators were young men, good in English, usually former fliers themselves, now without an arm or otherwise injured, and they would get the POWs to chatting, almost like shoptalk. Like most people their age, the prisoners were willing to brag about such matters as "How fast does your plane go?" or "Can you do a roll in it?" and so on. Further, the Germans already had excellent information, such as the base of the squadron or the name of its commander. A vast majority of POWs insisted, after the war, that they had never told the Germans anything of value. The Germans, however, said they got everything they wanted from the prisoners. The men on both sides were stretching the truth pretty considerably.
Once a man was captured he was out of the control of the AAF, but he was still in the military and subject to military discipline. The POWs hated the experience, but most of them managed to live through it without compromise. Pilot Lt. Walter Shostack of the 741st Squadron was one of them. He was on his fourth mission, over a refinery in Austria, when the plane he was flying took a direct hit from a flak shell that exploded on the B-24's nose, killing the bombardier and nose gunner instantly. The plane began to lose altitude so badly that it was about to crash into a mountain. Shostack ordered the crew to bail out. They were now over Yugoslavia and all of them, including Shostack, parachuted down safely, but three of them were shot on the ground by SS troops who claimed they were terrorists. "They didn't give them a chance."
Alone, Shostack managed to hide for a week. He hooked up with some of Tito's partisans and they were helping him to escape, but unfortunately they stopped at a farmhouse and a boy ran to tell partisans fighting for the Germans. They found Shostack in the attic. When they discovered that he was an American, they gave him an apple. Shostack had grown up speaking Russian, which is similar to Serbian. The Serbians said they were not fighting the Americans, they were fighting the communists. That was a bit ironic to Shostack, whose family had left Russia to get away from the communists. As he noted, "You really couldn't tell who was who in that war without a program."
Eventually Shostack was taken to Frankfurt, where he underwent interrogation. The German asking the questions was, of all things, a former used car salesman from Detroit. It was mid-1944 and, as Shostack put it, "He knew by then that the war was lost so he gave me some tea and cookies." The German really was hoping to loosen Shostack's tongue, "but unfortunately for him having been shot down on our fourth mission I didn't know anything." Shostack was sent to Stalag Luft 3. It was a large camp. Prisoners in it before Shostack arrived had dug a tunnel and some sixty of them managed to wiggle through it and escape, but unfortunately for them, the Germans rounded up most of them, brought them back, and shot them in front of the other POWs. So they stopped digging tunnels, and for Shostack there was nothing to do except play cards, wonder when the next meal was coming, and wait for the end of the war.
Because of the German respect for rank, Lieutenant Shostack and the other officers had "a little easier time of it" as compared to the enlisted men. Officers were not made to work. The prison barracks were divided into twelve tiers, each tier had twelve beds, four beds three layers high. There were 144 men in Shostack's barracks, one stove at one end and one faucet with cold water at the other. That faucet was the sanitary facility. There was a latrine outside, but the POWs had to get permission from a guard to use it.
Rations were miserable. The bread was made, apparently, from sawdust and there was only one piece of it per man. The guards would set the ration down outside the door. The Germans did hand out coffee, but as far as Shostack could tell it was made from ground-up acorns. Once a week, if he was lucky, he got a piece of horse meat. Occasionally the American POWs received Red Cross parcels with food, but there was a contingent of Russian prisoners next to Stalag Luft 3 and if the Americans thought they had it bad, all they had to do was look at the Russians to know what true misery was. So they would divide their Red Cross parcels and throw half of the food over the fence to the Russians.
The Red Cross also sent cigarettes, which "did a world of good when it came to trading for food." The Germans would barter anything they had for American cigarettes. The POWs had a radio hidden in a tin can, which allowed them to keep aware of what was going on. The main thing they wanted to know was, How close are the Allies to our camp? On April 29, 1945, just as they were being liberated, they got the American Armed Forces Network on the radio. The first thing they heard was a popular song, "Don't Fence Me In." Given where he had been for almost a year, Shostack thought the words were "kind of comical."
Shostack's final judgment was, "War is a terrible thing and anybody that tells you otherwise was probably a supply sergeant somewhere in the middle of Kansas who had no idea what combat is about." As far as he was concerned, "It was just something we had to go do." In the end, "I loved my crew and that's about all I loved. War is not a joyful experience." Decades later, he enjoyed watching war movies. His wife asked him how come he did, as he hated war so much. "I explained that while watching a war movie there is no danger of getting shot and you can concentrate on the story line and not worry about a piece of flak coming through the windshield."
In the 741st Squadron there were twelve B-24s and twenty-three crews. That meant forty-six pilots and co-pilots, plus more than fifty other officers. When McGovern arrived, many had been in combat, while others like himself were waiting to go. Whatever their status, every one of them knew the dangers of getting shot down or being forced to bail out or how likely it was that they would have a fatal accident. Death or the possibility of captivity was all around these young men.
Whether in the officers club or the airmen's club for enlisted men, the newcomers would sit quietly and listen to the talk of the veterans who had just returned from a mission. McGovern listened hard and thereby picked up tips on flying a B-24 in combat. The talk was about what had happened, how the plane performed, what the German flak was like, and other details. Always they discussed how many parachutes they had counted coming from a plane going down, but not about who had made it out of the doomed craft and who had not. They assumed that a parachute meant the man had landed safely, but they had no idea whether he had escaped and was on his way back to Italy or had been made a POW or had been killed on the ground. Shostack's name never came up.
Sgt. Mel TenHaken, a radio operator in the 455th Bomb Group, remembered the talk as both enlightening and frightening. It was unlike the talk one usually heard from young men after an examination or a football or basketball game. "There was no pride of individual accomplishment here, or boasting about comparative achievements." Further, "There was no jesting about those [like TenHaken, McGovern, and the other recent arrivals] who hadn't been up yet because everyone knew that would happen tomorrow or a day after." TenHaken also noted that "there was no overt elation by those who had completed thirty-four missions," because everyone remembered "the one who got his on his thirty-fifth." No one talked to impress. Experiences were shared only because better understanding of techniques and tactics would improve the odds for survival.
Sergeant TenHaken had arrived at Cerignola with two other crews. One of those crews was the first to go on a mission. It was a long one. Their plane returned safely, but with holes caused by flak in its wings and fuselage. That evening, after they had finished their postmission interrogation, they were withdrawn and did not want to talk. "They felt it might be better if we discussed feelings later, maybe after we had all completed some combat missions." As for TenHaken and his crew, "We wondered if they'd ever again have the optimistic, cheerful, normal personalities we had known."
A day later the second crew flew its initial mission. The plane was two hours late getting back to base. Suddenly, in the darkness along the row of tents, one of the gunners appeared, panting, with some of his parachute gathered over his arm and the rest of it dragging behind. He was frightened. He demanded to know where the rest of his crew was. Told that no one knew, he explained that his B-24 had been hit over the target. He could not assess the effect of the damage but related that his pilot had gotten the plane to the airfield, where he circled to test the controls and to burn the remaining fuel crash-landing a B-24 was always hazardous, but especially so when there was fuel in the wings. The pilot was unsure of whether or not the landing gear would operate, as his hydraulic power was gone. He told the crew to bail out. He would stay with the plane and try to bring it down.
A messenger came running in from the flight line. He said the pilot had made it safely but the plane had broken up on landing. Had the crew still been on board, many of the men would have been injured or killed. Over the next two hours the rest of the crew straggled in, dragging their parachutes. There was no celebration and precious little discussion, but the men sure were grateful for the pilot's action.
The AAF had a rule that enlisted men and officers were not allowed to fraternize, which was why the officers had their own club at Cerignola, the enlisted men another. But their tents were next to each other. They ate together. Most of the time, they went into each other's clubs. The clubs had beer, usually warm, and soft drinks. The vast majority of the men did not indulge in even the beer on the night they were listed for a mission in the morning. Most officers and the sergeants considered the nonfraternization rule absurd. "Our crew was one family," Lieutenant Shostack said, "and we fraternized all the time."
The crew went wherever the pilot took them, and he went wherever the bomb group commander told him to go. It was the same with an infantry platoon or a naval crew on a destroyer or other ship of war. They had the need for togetherness to bind them. On the ground as in the air, they shared. Whatever the pilot's age or number of missions, they all looked up to him, trusted him, would do whatever he told them to do. As with the pilot who had his crew bail out over Cerignola, then landed the plane himself. That was, after all, his first mission.
On the fiftieth anniversary of V-E Day, I was with Joe Heller, a bombardier with the Twelfth Air Force, and the author of Catch-22. Heller told me, "I never had a bad officer." Astonished, I said, "Joe, you created Major Major Major, Colonel Cathcart, General Dreedle, Lieutenant Minderbinder, and so many others. Everybody in the world knows about them. How can you tell me you never had a bad officer?"
"They are all invention," he replied. "Every single officer from when I went into the service to going over to Italy to flying the missions to when I got discharged, every one of them was good."
In the course of interviewing George McGovern for this book, I told him what Heller had told me. McGovern agreed. "That's my experience," he said. "I was impressed by the pilots, the bombardiers, the navigators, right across the board and with the operations officers and our group commander. I thought they were a superior bunch of men and I can honestly say I don't recall a bad officer. All through combat I had confidence that our officers were doing the very best they knew how if they made mistakes they weren't foolish mistakes. Our officers were superb."
Obviously there were some weak, some poor, some inefficient or ignorant, and some absolutely terrible officers in the U.S. armed services in World War II. But if such men ever got into combat positions, the AAF, the Army, the Navy, or the Marines got them out. At once. Men's lives depended on them, after all. The combat officers knew it and acted accordingly. Ask the Germans who opposed them how good they were. Or the Japanese.
The American officers were superb. And that is the way it was in the 741st Squadron, 455th Bomb Group, in Cerignola, Italy.
Copyright © 2001 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.
from Chapter One: Where They Came From
The pilots and crews of the B-24s came from every state and territory in America. They were young, fit, eager. They were sons of workers, doctors, lawyers, farmers, businessmen, educators. A few were married, most were not. Some had an excellent education, including college, where they majored in history, literature, physics, engineering, chemistry, and more. Others were barely, if at all, out of high school.
They were all volunteers. The U.S. Army Air Corps after 1942 the Army Air Forces did not force anyone to fly. They made the choice. Most of them were between the ages of two and ten in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis from Long Island to Paris. For many boys, this was the first outside-the-family event to influence them. It fired their imagination. Like Lindbergh, they too wanted to fly.
In their teenage years, they drove Model T Fords, or perhaps Model A's if they drove at all. Many of them were farm boys. They plowed behind mules or horses. They relieved themselves in outdoor privies. They walked to school, one, two, or sometimes more miles. Most of them, including the city kids, were poor. If they were lucky enough to have jobs they earned a dollar a day, sometimes less. If they were younger sons, they wore hand-me-down clothes. In the summertime, many of them went barefoot. They seldom traveled. Many had never been out of their home counties. Even most of the more fortunate had never been out of their home states or regions. Of those who were best off, only a handful had ever been out of the country. Almost none of them had ever been up in an airplane. A surprising number had never even seen a plane. But they all wanted to fly.
There were inducements beyond the adventure of the thing. Glamour. Extra pay. The right to wear wings. Quick promotions. You got to pick your service no sleeping in a Navy bunk in a heaving ship or in a foxhole with someone shooting at you. They knew they would have to serve, indeed most of them wanted to serve. Their patriotism was beyond question. They wanted to be a part of smashing Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, and their thugs. But they wanted to choose how they did it. Overwhelmingly they wanted to fly.
They wanted to get off the ground, be like a bird, see the country from up high, travel faster than anyone could do while attached to the earth. More than electric lights, more than steam engines, more than telephones, more than automobiles, more even than the printing press, the airplane separated past from future. It had freed mankind from the earth and opened the skies.
They were astonishingly young. Many joined the Army Air Forces as teens. Some never got to be twenty years old before the war ended. Anyone over twenty-five was considered to be, and was called, an "old man." In the twenty-first century, adults would hardly give such youngsters the key to the family car, but in the first half of the 1940s the adults sent them out to play a critical role in saving the world.
Most wanted to be fighter pilots, but only a relatively few attained that goal. Many became pilots or co-pilots on two- or four-engine bombers. The majority became crew members, serving as gunners or radiomen or bombardiers or flight engineers or navigators. Never mind. They wanted to fly and they did.
Copyright © 2001 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.