Our Home in Italy – WW2 war story

By | February 14, 2017

The 455th Bomb Group (H) flew B-24 Liberators out of a large former private estate called San Giovanni a few miles outside Cerignola a medium sized town in the Foggia Valley of south/eastern Italy. The valley was dotted with similar airdromes created out of wheat fields each extending a mile or more in each direction. The runways were intended to have been constructed out of PSP (Pressed Steel Plate) sections of steel plate about 10 or 12 feet in length by about 3 or 4 feet in width, each plate looking like a very large piece of swiss cheese with holes in the steel about 6 inches in diameter throughout the plate (to allow water to drain out of the plate and into the ground below. (Those dimensions are guesses after 65 years of memory). Each plate had “male and female” hooks and eyes on all four sides so each plate could be solidly attached to its neighbor for as long and as wide as desired , probably 5000 feet long by about 25 feet wide (again these are guesses)..making a full sized steel runway, as needed by 4 engine bombers of 20 tons or more when fully loaded with bombs, fuel, guns and ammo. At least that was the plan.

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As the fortunes or misfortunes of war often dictate most of this desired planking was shipped to Italy on one cargo ship and while floating in the harbor of Bari, Italy, waiting to be unloaded, there was a surprise night raid by the Luftwaffe which sank that ship and many, many more all packed solid with supplies for the new 15th Air Force. One ship among the many sunk that night was packed solid with airplane tires and that ship’s loss forced many a plane to be temporarily grounded later on for lack of tires.

Because of this shortage of planking the runways for San Giovanni had only a square of plank at each end of the proposed runway , maybe 25 feet by 25 feet and the rest of the runway between the squares at each end was gravel and mud which became a morass after a heavy rain when these fully loaded B-24s, were taking off one after the other every 30 seconds until the whole formation of 36 or more planes were in the air. I said runways, plural, because we shared San Giovanni with the 454th Bomb Group which had a similar parallel runway, also short of required planking. I am not sure of this, but pilots of our group will no doubt correct me if I am wrong, but I assume the 455th planes would turn one direction on takeoff, while the 454th group would turn the opposite direction after takeoff., to avoid collisions. I just don’t remember.

The two bomb groups were part of the 304th Bomb Wing, as were two additional groups, the 456th Bomb Group and the 459th Bomb Group all four groups made up the 304th Bomb Wing. Those two Groups were located nearby on similar former wheat fields. I assume the 457th and 458th were supposed to follow in order to the 15th Air Force but I heard later that they had been sent to the 8th Air Force in England. I have no idea how that happened except maybe a clerk went to lunch between selecting the numbered groups and lost track of numbers when he came back after lunch… Who knows how that could have happened.

Each Bomb Group had four Squadrons of perhaps 17 planes each when first formed back in the States . but of couse after combat flying began that number constantly fluctuated, with planes being lost on missions, badly damaged and grounded for repairs after a mission, and the arrival of replacement aircraft. In the 455th Bomb Group. the four Squadrons were designated the 740th, the 741st, the 742nd and the 743rd Squadrons. The Group commanded by a Colonel was basically similar to an army regiment in size, perhaps 5000 men, in all, with probably 20 flying crews of 10 men each,. totaling 200 flying crew men in each of the four Squadrons and about 4000 men in various other duties throughout the Group and Squadrons.

As most people who know their World War II history of the 8th Air Force in England a “tour” required for a crewman’s rotation had been set at 25 missions As day light bombing commenced .the chances of a crewman completing 25 missions alive were SLIM if not NONE. When the plans for the “tour” requirements for the 15th Air Force were discussed I can imagine the desk jockeys agreeing that. Hitler did not have enough fighters and anti-aircraft guns to give the 15th Air Force the same hot welcome he gave the 8th Air Force so making a guess at a 50% resistance the “tour” for 15th Air Force airmen was set at 50 missions

What is a “mission”?. In the 8th Air Force every takeoff and later landing after a flight to a target (even if for reasons of weather, or whatever, no bombs got dropped on the target) the flight was deemed a “mission”.

In air force parlance a take off and landing for any reason is a “sortie” be it a combat sortie or a training sortie.. So in the 8th Air Force they were one and the same, combat sorties were missions and missions were combat sorties.

However, in the 15th Air Force they were not the same. At some time, unknown to me, those same desk jockeys mentioned earlier decided that Hitler was giving the 15th Air Force the same heat which it was rendering to the 8th Air Force on almost every, if not every, sortie. So based on flight time in the combat area or maybe depending on the strength of the resistance or maybe both, they decided to give the airmen of the 15th Air Force similar credit for such missions as the 8th Air Force crewmen receive which would drop the “tour” requirements down to 25 such missions, but then they would have to admit their error in planning. So, as good PYA experts often do, they changed the rules to fit the situation. They would leave the “tour” requirements at 50 “missions” but differentiate between certain sorties as “missions” Some sorties, similar to 8th Air Force “humdingers” would receive “double credit” so 25 such “sorties” would equal the required 50 missions, but sorties which did not equal 8th Air Force “humdingers” would remain a “single mission” so sorties and missions are not the same thing in the 15th Air Force. A 15th Air Force crewmen could go home with as little as 25 “doubles” but remain for 50 sorties if his sorties were all “singles”, or with some combination of singles and doubles.a crewman could rotate before he flew 50 combat sorties

Your writer went home with 35 combat sorties, 15 of which were deemed “doubles” and 20 were deemed “singles” to reach the required 50 “missions”. Most airmen had a similar experience, flying less than 50 combat sorties but with flying a number of “doubles” thus reaching the required 50 “missions”.

Please don’t assume that the “singles” were all easy “milk runs” Although they might have been short in flying time they still received Hitler’s best, and were just shorter “humdingers”.in many cases..Your writer, on a relatively short mission to Turin, Italy, lost two engines to flak and had to make an emergency landing at another airport, a short grass field being used by fighters which mission earned a DFC for the pilot and could hardly be deemed a “milk run”

Another interesting difference between 8th Air Force and 15th Air Force crewmen was the award of medals and decorations. Because 8th Air Force airmen did have a slim chance to live through a tour of 25 missions, early on, the 8th Air Force awarded every airman who flew 25 a DFC in addition to the Air Medal with the proper amount of oak leaf clusters, pursuant to local regulations. Even toward the end of the war when lighter losses caused the 8th Air Force to raise mission requirements for a “tour” to 30 missions and even later raised a “tour” to 35 missions, every airman finishing a tour received a DFC. But a 15th Air force general decided that, in his opinion, such wholesale award of DFC’s cheapened the medal and refused to award the DFC to any 15th Air Force airman except for really extraordinary achievement and not just completing a “tour” Be aware that every 15th Air Force airman wearing a DFC really earned it and he should wear it proudly Of course every airman earning an Air Medal and the prescribed number of oak leaf clusters should wear those just as proudly—they are deserved. as well… ..

The original wheat field had been designed with a heavy tree concentration in long thick rows mostly olive trees running along the 4 sides of the fields to act as wind breaks to protect newly sown seed.. The 743rd Squadron used this row of trees along one edge of the field as living area for the crews,. Pyramidal tents were erected in two long rows under those trees, with a dirt road running between the two rows for the length of the rows. The .4 officers of a crew lived in a tent on one side of the road and the 6 enlisted men of that crew lived in the tent across the road the two tents being opposite and close to each other was intended to and did help accomplish crew comraderie

That road was solid mud when it rained and flying dust when it was dry and the jeeps didn’t help the situation tearing up and down the road between the tents on a regular basis, but it was “home”.Each crew dressed and doctored their tent in indifferent ways to their individual liking which could be the subject of a later detailed story but too detailed for this remembrance..

It was a half-mile or so from the tent area to the old estate buildings located near the center of the field., which consisted of the estate owners mansion, now taken over by Group senior officers for their living and eating quarters. There were also several smaller buildings including a chapel, former barns and silos and other farm buildings. One building looked like a silo lying on its side with an entrance at one end which had apparently been used as a barn and was tediously cleaned to make it usable as a group briefing room. It was like entering a dungeon and the men sat on old bomb crates for seats but it worked.

Each squadron fed its own men from a small tent with portable cooking stoves within the tent. The tent had room only for the stoves and the cook.. The men ate out of their mess kits properly washed in boiling water provided in a large clean galvanized garbage can alongside the cook’s tent . The difficult part was where to eat. A mess kit could be placed on the fender of a jeep or truck parked nearby, if one was available, but if none then on a large rock or boulder if one could be found, but in either case with the man standing up while he eats And, if it was raining the rain water soon ruined the meal no matter how he tried to protect the kit from the rain A better solution was required.

Our 743rd Squadron commander Major (later Lt. Col.) David Thayer decided to do something about this problem He was tired of eating picnic style, especially in the rain.. He gathered some money, maybe his own, and found and hired some masons or bricklayers and had a Squadron mess hall built to his specifications. .It was built in three sections, under one roof. The center portion was the kitchen with ample room for cooking stoves, and other equipment and manpower to do the cooking and for the storage of food, with an eating space on each of the two sides, with open doorways from kitchen to each side. He designated one side the officers mess and the other side was designated the enlisted mess. He then found carpenters to build picnic style benches for each side, rustic but practical., and out of the rain.

The men still ate out of mess kits but they were dry. However, some of the officers of the 743rd Squadron began to think of a more pleasant way to eat. meaning real dishes and cups and saucers and bowls, etc. A committee was sent into Cerignola to find a restaurant willing to sell sufficient dishes and stuff for the Squadron. That was easy since because of the shortage of food not yet recovered from German occupation days the restaurants were all closed…The officers took up a collection and soon had a complete restaurant’s supply of dishes, cups, saucers, bowls, etc. for the Squadron. But Major Thayer, although not denying the officers this “luxury” style of eating advised the officers that he would not allow any enlisted man to act as a waiter or dishwasher to the officers and they would have to make other arrangements. The committee returned to Cerignola and found two former restaurant employees who needed work and were willing to act as waiters and dishwashers for the officers at US Army authorized civilian pay rates, to be paid by the officers directly. It wasn’t much.

The dishes and bowls, etc were duly washed and dried by the new “help” and a couple of meals were served “in style” by the two civilians over the next couple of days. On about the third day of eating in style the crews were on a mission to somewhere deep in southern Europe. It was a long mission.

As the Navigator for my crew I proudly gathered a complete supply of maps and charts to cover any mission from Italy to the Russian lines and from Germany south to Greece, Albania and any other place we might go in case we would have to come back alone out of formation….

As most people know bombers were Spartan as to comforts. For urination the crew could use a funnel like affair on one wall leading to a tube running out of the bottom of the plane which was the cause of complaint by the ball turret gunner who said the wind below the plane hit the urine which splattered on his turret window, and froze and he couldn’t see out the window-so everyone disdained from using the funnel if at all possible. For more serious bodily functions there were no facilities at all.

But this day, on this long mission, the co-pilot came to me and asked if I could spare a map—knowing I wouldn’t need a map that was nowhere near our flight path I gave him a map. He delicately laid out the map on the floor of the rear portion of the plane, called the waist and commenced to relieve himself of a horrible mess of a bowel movement. He was obviously not well. The gunners in the rear were sorry for him. Soon, however, the bombardier was asking for a map. I gave him one. And he was obviously as sick as the co-pilot. The pilot was asking for a map a little while later. Yes, he too was obviously sick. And, as much as I reluctantly admit I soon needed a map, myself. This went on for some time and I was soon down to only one map, the map to get us home from our present position, and all 4 officers were really suffering, terrible cramps, horrible gas, soiling ourselves , the whole works. I finally suggested to the pilot that we leave the formation and head for home. In his agony he agreed and we peeled off from the formation and noticed we were not alone, other planes were peeling off from the formation, but they were all 743rd planes, none from other squadrons. But home we flew,

The enlisted men on our crew had no such symptoms and were beginning to giggle.at the discomfort of the officers, it couldn’t be helped, I’m sure.

On arrival at home base Major Thayer, who had not flown that day was livid. His whole squadron left the formation and returned early.. I’m sure he had a lot of explaining to do at Wing and Group, but he also understood our problem, he was sick, too, .along with every officer in the Squadron, flyers and non-flyers, alike. And not one enlisted man had any such problem. Our Squadron Dr., sick himself, soon diagnosed food poisoning of some sort, but only in the officer’s mess. Since officers and enlisted men ate the same food it had to be something other than the food. The culprit was our fancy dishes, cups, saucers, bowls, etc. The cooks had given the civilians some “G.I”.soap with a high lye content, which they cut into little pieces to wash our dishes, but apparently not properly rinsing the soap off the dishes or not properly washing the food off of the dishes, or both, and we all suffered. The enlisted men who properly washed their own mess kits in the boiling water were not affected.

.. The two civilians were soon fired and they were lucky Major Thayer didn’t have them shot………..You know I’m not sure but I do believe we returned to mess kits for all personnel. Does anyone remember??