November 1943 to January 1944

Catania, then Naples

      We took off and headed for Catania Sicily. We stayed overnight and were allowed to go into town. There wasn't much to do and as we wandered around we found a theater that was going to have a British USO show. It was early but they let us in anyway to wait. We were at least an hour early and were the only ones there. We sat in the front row to wait. And there was a piano, practically right in front of me. I hadn't seen one in quite some time so I went up and started fooling around. I lost track of time and the next time I looked around, the theater was over half full! I immediately slunk back to my seat. I wish I could report that I did it to the sound of wild applause. But not a peep that I remember.
      The next day we got on a C-47 and flew to Naples. I remember seeing Stromboli as we passed by. We were put up in a hotel. One of my compatriots was quite puzzled by the bidet and finally washed his feet in it! To be honest, I didn't know what it was either.
      The next day we went down to a truck. One of our guys actually stole a mattress from his hotel bed. His bedroll was about four feet in diameter as he struggled to carry it down to the truck.

Paestum        I November 1943 - 7 November

      We were taken to the 27th Fighter Bomber Group at Paestum Italy, a 5000 foot dirt strip on what had been the Salerno Beachhead!. I vaguely remember seeing a stone barn nearby which I found out years later was an ancient Greek city, ca 600 B.C.
      I became a member of A Flight, 522nd Squadron, 27th Fighter Bomber Group, 12th Tactical Air Force. Our Flight Leader was Robert Johnson, others were Ralph Giovianello, Steve Shiner, Charles Waddell, Ernie Weidenhammer and myself. I think we were all present at the 1998 reunion in San Francisco. Since then we have lost Bob, Ralph and Steve. This was the Group patch. ----->
      Steve had been shot down and had survived a time in a prison camp.
      I vaguely remember checking out in the A-36. This was that airplane we were allowed to sit in in Basic Flying School in Courtland AL, six months earlier. It seemed amazing now that I knew and needed every dial, lever and switch.

      I had a wonderful crew chief that took care of me through all 94 of my missions. I was in very bad physical shape toward the end and I'm not sure I ever said thanks. That was incredibly bad and I have felt guilty for 60 years. I've tried to locate him but with no success. This picture on the right is from Rowan Person's album and is labeled, Tiny Hunter, but it doesn't look right to me. But this was over sixty years ago!
      His name was "Tiny" Hunter from Albuquerque NM. I believe his first name was Leslie but I'm not sure. We never called him anything but "Tiny".

      The A-36 had a tailwheel that could be locked or unlocked. Unlocked it was in full swivel which we needed when taxiing on the ground. But when you lined up for takeoff you were supposed to lock it. It had about 5 degrees of swivel in this position.
      We heard various stories of things that happened before we arrived. I remember a story about Forbes. He was shot down going back to Gela Sicily from a bombing raid in Italy. He ditched in the water off Italy, just north of Sicily. He was said to be about 4 miles offshore and could actually see the montains at the coast. He got in his dinghy and paddled all day. It didn't look like he was getting closer so he jumped out of the dinghy and started swimming in his Mae West. After two days of this, his arms were getting chafed so he threw the Mae West away and continued swimming. After a half day of this he was picked up by an Italian fishing boat and eventually got back to the group.

      There was another story about someone taking off without locking his tail wheel. Maybe it hit a rock or something but it sent him at an angle to the runway. He got off the ground, limped out over the hills and no trace of him was ever found!! I suspect he got the plane turned around, went off the coast to come back and land but went down in the Mediterranean instead.

      We were given three ninety minutes flights to familiarize ourselves with this new airplane before we were scheduled for our first mission.
      One of the guys that came up with me was a Lt. Wellons. On his third and last familiarization flight his engine quit when he was probably 1500 to 2000 feet over the field. He set up his approach as if he was still flying a P-40. He tried to make two 360 degree turns, which would have been "proper" in a P-40. But the A-36, with its laminar flow wing sank faster than he realized. He did not make it around the last turn into the field, did not have enough altitude and in trying to stretch it, stalled, crashed and was killed. This was the usual result in a "tombstone turn" that I mentioned back in Africa. He was scheduled for his first mission the next day!
      We tended "not to notice" such occurrences.
      We moved to another airfield called Gaudo as it had a metal mat runway and we could fly, even in the wet weather of the Mediterranean rainy season.

Gaudo        7 November - 19 January 1944

      I went on my first mission after my three flights. It was what they called a "milk run", one expected to be "easy".
      "Well, I went on my first mission, two days ago. I was up for an hour yesterday and had some practice dogfights with Dave Johnson."

      A fellow 522nd pilot, Doug Broderick, sent me two pictures of an A-36A that flew in the 1949 Cleveland Air Races, piloted by James Hannon, averaging 376.396 mph in the time trials. It didn't finish in the Tinnerman Trophy Race (oil problem) and the Thompson Trophy Race, finishing 8th at average speed of 300.396 mph. There were ten aircraft including P-51's, P-47's and P-38's.
      It had been slightly modified with the removal of the divebrakes.
      We have no information about the fate of the plane or pilot.

      Today 9 November 1943, there is a practice formation. I was late getting off the ground. Some kind of engine problem as I remember. The ceiling was around 4500'.
      I went out looking for them. There are a lot of mountains almost anywhere in Italy. They went right up into the clouds so one had to be careful. But I did it. I got into a canyon and the ground rose gently in front of me, up and up, into the clouds. And away we go. Up into the clouds I went, full throttle. I didn't know where the hell the rocks were. Up and up and I finally broke out on top at 11000 feet. Pretty. But I wasn't up to noticing pretty.
      I headed out over a bit south of west to get over the Mediterranean. Finally, when I figured it was safe, I put the nose down and went back into the clouds. For those of you that have never done it, it is an eery feeling. Learning to fly instruments is really learning to trust your instruments. Anybody can fly on instruments, but it takes training to believe your instruments when your instincts and your guts tell you they're dead wrong. Believe them, though, or you will wind up wrong, dead.
      After a bit, the artificial horizon started to wobble and then stood straight up. This tells me that I'm on my side. I didn't believe it with my heart, but my head kicked it around until it was back where it was supposed to be.
      A bit later, same thing, again. I kicked it back down.
      A bit later it happened again. This time, while I was cussing out the instruments, I broke out of the clouds. And there I was, going down sideways. Unbelievable. Yet believable because I trusted my training.

      I have been asked for more specifics about the location of these fields. I will try to indicate generally where they were, but they were usually dirt fields, scraped out by a bulldozer. Paestum (Capaccio) was a dirt field, unusable when the rains started in November. Gaudo was dirt covered by metal mat and was all-weather.

      I cannot emphasize too much how flimsy my memory is of locations. Everything we dealt with was temporary and I'm sure all traces were obliterated within a few years.
      The dirt field called Paestum was a generally E-W runway, probably a couple miles south of the site of the ancient Greek City of Paestum. I remember riding past it with very little interest at that time. I don't remember being able to see it from the airfield but as I remember, there were low trees to the north of the field.
      It was the emergency field for the Salerno beachhead and as such should be on some military maps of the campaign. I doubt that it was even a mile from the water. I remember it was within reasonable walking distance of the Mediterranean. There was a sunken landing barge just off shore. We used it for target practice with our brand new shiny 45's when we first got there. I don't remember doing it twice.
      It was on this beach that we collected trees , pinecones etc. for Christmas. The landing barge was a landmark on the mission where I got lost. I went south to the Mediterranean coast, followed the coast past Ischia and Capri till I found the sunken barge and then went in to land. As I remember, the approach to the runway was direct from this barge. I know this is precious little in the way of precision, but I hope it helps.

     The next day, we bombed guns north of Rocca. And the next day was the infamous mission number three, at Pontecorvo. A river ran through Pontecorvo and in the middle of town it made almost a right angle turn to the south. There were several bridges across it that were military objectives. The Germans used them to transport supplies, etc. We made a beautiful divebombing run but missed completely. Apparently there was a strong wind. About three months later we went back to do it again. The bridges were there but the town was flattened. In talking with other people I got the impression that every group in Italy had been there at least once.
      How slowly we learn.

      My locations on the map below are highly suspect. They indicate a large probable area only.
      Very soon after my arrival here we moved to a nearby, more all-weather field called Gaudo. We lost a great deal of flying time in November and December due to the Mediterranean winter rainy season! Paestum was just mud and couldn't be used. At Paestum, we lived in tents but at Gaudo we lived in a tobacco warehouse, our cots lined up on the second floor.
      We had some Italians working in the kitchen and they would come up a half hour before breakfast closed and holler the following: "Drop your (bleep) and grab your socks, breakfast fini at 8 o'clock". They didn't speak English and probably didn't even know what they were saying!

      In early December (I think) the group held a party celebrating their year overseas. They trucked us up to a restaurant in Salerno. I don't remember a great deal about this party. Some kind of program was taking place after we ate. I remember sitting in back on a chair between Sergeant Kraft and Sergeant Joe Mastroianni. As I've probably said before I looked very young and I had not had any real experience with wine.
      They had a wonderful wine which I learned later had been dubbed "The Purple Death!" As I remember it was like a white wine that had had a little purple ink put in it, kind of like a Rose except it was purple!
      I would take a drink from my glass, say something to Mastroianni, take another drink and turn to Kraft. And while talking to him, Joe would refill my glass.This cycle repeated until I was absolutely sloshed. I was told later that I went back to the field in the back of an ambulance with fifteen others.! A grizzled old sergeant was holding me in his lap like I was his long lost son! They tried to put my fleece lined boots on my feet but my ankles were like they were on ball bearings and they gave it up. I remember waking up when the ambulance stopped by the warehouse, getting on my feet and making it to bed!
      The next morning they tried to wake me for a mission but could not! This is a big no-no!
      I finally woke later in the morning with a splitting hangover. I staggered over to the med tent and sat there popping aspirins most of the day!
      I think it was where I heard two doctors talking about the Naples stockade that had 15000 soldiers with VD! They were giving them the arsenical treatment (Ehrlich). They were unconcerned about the pain because they were saving the little penicillin that was available for the soldiers that were wounded.

      The first two missions were "milk runs", supposedly easy. The third wasn't supposed to be all that bad but we ran into rather intense flak. We approached the target as usual at 14-15000 feet. We rolled over on our back, flew to the target and pulled straight down. I plunged straight down, tried to get a good aim, dropped the bombs and pulled out in a gentle climbing arc to the right. There was quite a bit of flak but I just did what we had done in the training missions we had been doing.
      They were gone! Nowhere to be seen!
      Then I saw two of them, higher than me and traveling north. I said to myself, "Great, they've come back for me." So I turned toward them. Then one of them cocked up and I saw the four 20 mm cannons sticking out of the wing! They weren't A-36's, they were P-51-A's from the 111th recon squadron. But did they know who I was. I probably looked like an Me-109 to them. So I turned south and headed toward the deck at full throttle, all the way to the firewall! There was a notch between two hills and then it was a gentle slope down to a plain. In this full power glide to the deck the indicated air speed went up to 460 mph. When I got down to the deck the speed gradually sank to 405 mph. I was still in enemy territory and I was alone.
      I went over a town and if there had been any TV antennas I would have cleaned them off. A little while later I remember what I thought was a canal. There was a tree on each side but I wasn't going to raise up and go over them. I kept down and went between them. Yes, of course, I was scared. When I thought I was behind our lines, I throttled back to the red line and the speed sank to 350 mph.
      Italy lies at quite an angle and I was going due south knowing I was going to intercept the coast. Pretty soon I crossed the coast and turned left to follow the coast back to the base. I throttled back to a normal cruise and watched for landmarks I could recognize. First there was the Island of Ischia, and then Capri. Now I knew I was close. I was still flying very low. And then I saw the half sunken landing barge that was just offshore at our base. So I turned toward the base and my engine started to sputter. We were well trained and my hand immediately grabbed the fuel selector and switched tanks. The engine caught and I suddenly realized I had flown the whole mission on one tank and ran it dry! I went in and landed and as I was taxiing to my parking area, the rest of the mission arrived and landed! I don't remember anyone asking what happened but I was of course de-briefed by the Intelligence officer.
      I think I remember being concerned about punishment for the mission I missed. I had no idea what it would be so I didn't worry about it.

      On my eighth mission I was flying Major Kelly's wing. We were north of Rome and the country was hilly. If the truth be known we really had no business being there. We had about a 700' ceiling and we were flying below it, of course. The clouds were so low we had to break up into twos. The Major and I were going east and I was on his left. He took the middle of the valley so I was on the hill side of him. A hill, somewhat higher than the other hills appeared in front of me and I had to raise up slightly, into the clouds. I had to get back down so I turned a bit to the right and let down and broke out into the valley. The Major had already turned south and I was behind him so I added throttle to catch up. As I was catching up he turned east again and I went racing out in front of him due to my excess speed. So I throttled back so he could catch up. And then I noticed he was closing fast so I accelerated. But he went by me and I tried to catch him. Then I saw what he was after. There was a Heinkel 111 crossing from our right to the left. He did a pursuit curve to the left side of the plane and set it on fire between the cockpit and the left engine. I gave it a burst as I went by and then I just got off to one side and watched. The other six airplanes came out of their vallies and there was a feeding frenzy below the 700' ceiling. I don 't understand why there were no collisions. The plane was obviously on the way down so there really wasn't any point to it. The Heinkel started to drop its left wing more and more and finally hit the ground after probably about 110 degree turn to the left and hit the ground in a shallow 45 degree bank. The entire left wing broke off at the root and flew up into the air. I can still see the cross on it. It slid across the ground leaving a tall streak of flame behind it. It seemed to be about 50 feet high and several hundred feet long. We got back home with no further incident. Our intelligence officer visited the are later and was told by the people that there were fifteen pilots on board that they were obviously trying to ferry out of there.
      [It's the 16th of April 2002, I'll be 80 on the 20th. Believe it or not, it just occurred to me today that I had no thought at that time that there were people in that plane. When I shot at it I was shooting at a machine. I can't explain this. It is just a fact! Part of our survival mechanism I suspect!

      Christmas came. The home people sent us what they could and at least some of it actually got delivered. I had never seen so many fruitcakes. And I don't like fruitcake. But it would keep well while being shipped. And popcorn! Lots of popcorn. Of course we had no butter so almost no one ate it. But it was appreciated because the thought was there.
      But I was on a "committee" to get decorations. Several of us went down to the Salerno beach and found a nice large tree. We cut it and brought it back. We also cut two trees about two feet high and a bunch of branches for wreathes. We also collected a bunch of pine cones that hadn't opened yet and were probably one of those pines whose cones need fire to open, like knobcone pine. We could still see the communication wire draped from tree to tree, remnants of the hairy days when it was a beachhead.
      When we got back we went over to the paintshop. We tied parachute cord around the stubs and dipped the pine cones in various colors of paint and hung them up to dry. We had them spray the two little trees white. We took our loot up to the tobacco warehouse, to the rooms we used for the bar and the "rec room". We made wreaths and tied the pine cones to the bottom instead of a red bow. We put the two little white trees on either end of the bar. We set up the big tree, hung painted pinecones on it, draped strings of popcorn and put fluffed up cotton, like angel hair, from the medical tent all over it. It was really quite a respectable set of Christmas decorations. We popped popcorn and strung it on cord.
      About this time, and possibly because of Christmas, we had a party. They passed out the medals and purple hearts that had been "earned" since the last ceremony. One of the enlsited men got a bunch of laughs and friendly cheers when he went up to get his purple heart. It seems, in the beachhead days, he had dived for his foxhole and left an important part of his anatomy showing and it got decorated with a flying bullet!
      We had some tables in the bar. Dave Johnson, Charlie Waddell and I got to playing a kind of Las Vegas solitaire. We each had a deck, each played his own hand and we could play on anybody's aces. We went through the deck once, one card at a time. After counting the cards played on the aces, the winner won a nickel a card from the other two. The middle one lost to the winner and won from the third. We kept track of it on paper. This went on for quite some time and I had a most incredible run of luck. I was ahead of both of them by a pair of rather considerable amounts. This was entirely out of the range of reasonableness so we just called everything off. Friends are more important than money.
      In January we bombed the port of Civitavecchia twice. It was a port N of Rome. I vividly remember one of the two missions. We went straight down on a ship at a dock. I wanted to do a good job so I probably stayed in the dive a little longer than I should have. After I dropped my bombs, I looked out and got ready to pull out of the dive and there was a 500 lb bomb sitting there right in my way. I can still see the lettering on the bomb, 536 lbs GP (General Purpose). I had to continue straight down until it passed me before I dared pull out!

      Here is the British version of the A-36A. Note the open dive brakes above and below the wing.

      There was a duty that no one really wanted, Airdrome Officer. It was rotated among the squadrons so our squadron got it every third day. One day it was my turn. We had to spend the day in a tent about midway and just off the runway. There was coffee and a trailer with a radio in it. The idea was to meet all the missions returning and try to exercise a little ground control in case of emergency. Of course when the missions came back the pilots would be keyed up and anxious to land. Sometimes they would forget to turn off the gun switches. When they made the last turn into the field in a left hand pattern, they might accidentally press the gun switch on the control column. It was a trigger, right under your right index finger. They would then squeeze off a short burst and everybody hoped it would not hit the tent. The Airdrome Officer would be quite concerned!
      I was sitting around waiting for something to happen when the Squadron Commander, Major Joseph Kelly, drove up. He got out and shot the breeze for a bit and then said, "How's it going here?"
      And I said, "It's all right.", or something noncommittal and probably inane.
      And he said, "Maybe you ought to do this for a week."
      I gulped a little and said, "Yes, sir."
     Well, this meant I would do it every third day for three weeks. I got very few missions in during this period because by the time my name came up I would get scrubbed because I was going to be AO! The ones that came in with me got ahead of me of course.
      Our security was very lax. It is said that someone dressed in a Nazi uniform stood all day in Times Square and nobody reported it. I can believe it. Our field was really pretty open. We little or nothing in the way of guards. Occasionally Italians would walk across it.
     We did set out a guard once when the privy was being moved. A new hole had been dug and the box had been moved and we didn't want any problems with old hole full of that stuff! There was a small barricade. An Italian was walking in that direction after dark. He spoke no English and the guard spoke almost no Italian. As the Italian approached the guard pointed at the hole and said, "Capiche?" meaning "Do you understand?" The Italian stepped over the barricade and into the hole!

      I had my picture taken, standing on the street on a spot marked on the sidewalk. The camera was a wooden box with a tube sticking out the front with a lens and a lens cap. He told me to hold still, lifted the lens cap for perhaps five seconds then put it back. He then reached into the box through two sleeves coming out the side. Then he took his hand out and one of them waved a wet negative print. He then swung an arm out in front of the lens, readjusted the tube, slapped the wet negative on a vertical block of wood at the end of the arm and then took a picture of it. Again the arms went into the box and out came a positive print of me. I still have that picture.
      Someone designed a patch and had an artist on the Isle of Capri paint it on canvas. I had one and it is the one on the jacket in the picture on the right. It was too fragile and rapidly got ruined. So someone had it reproduced on leather with burned outlines and a "paint-by-number" kind of coloring, also done on the Isle of Capri.
      In the 90's the other squadrons had stitched replica patches and we didn't so I had one made up along with a cloisonne pin. I sold a number of them and gave some away. I still have a number of them

      One time someone came running into the ready shack, saying, "Some Eyeties are stealing stuff on the field." I didn't know that we had that many guns. Pistols popped up everywhere and we all ran out on the field. An Italian woman and her brother, probably in their early forties, were walking across the field picking up stray bits of cloth lying on the ground. They didn't know they were pitot tube covers for the planes that were in the air. Then one of them took a jacket that was lying in a jeep.
.       Needless to say they were rounded up quite rapidly and taken back to the ready shack. The woman was terrified and spouted Italian a mile a minute at the top of her lungs. Her brother just stood there against the shack with a fatalistic look on his face. We finally got an Italian enlisted man to come and talk to her and calm her down. He did this and she became quiet.
      ***** was one of our pilots and his airplane is at the Wright-Patterson air museum. He had a weird sense of humor, if you can call it that. After she had calmed down he came around the end of the building with a rope, fashioning a hangman's knot. Her eyes bugged out and she started screeching again. The upshot of the affair was that they were picked up by AMGOT (American Military Government of the Theater). They got a good free meal and a place to sleep that night. She thought she was going to die. They didn't realize we didn't operate that way.

      This is the pin and patch of the 522nd Squadron.

      ***** was in downtown Naples once and saw a policeman, caribinieri (?), who had a rifle or carbine slung over his shoulder. He went up to him, took it off, looked it over, and with an approving nod he walked off with it. The Italian wasn't sure what to do so he did nothing. I seem to remember him walking onto the ship going home with several several guns wrapped in newspaper over his shoulder.

      One of the oddest sights I saw in downtown Naples was two musicians, standing on a corner in downtown Naples in their opera clothes playing "The Beer Barrel Polka" with a flute and a bassoon. I'm sure they were fugitives from the local opera house orchestra, trying to make some lire.
      And speaking of opera, some of us went to the San Carlo Opera House in Naples and saw "Tosca". I enjoyed it. But I enjoyed most the handout they gave to the servicemen. It was a large format with two columns. One was in Italian and the other in English. Someone had laboriously translated the Italian with the liberal use of a dictionary and some of the translations were quite hilarious!

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