Bridgebusters — WW2 Tales of My Hero, My Father
(Installment №6: Please start with the August 4, 2020 “Introduction” for orientation to the entire series.)
January 21, 1945, Joe was promoted to 1st Lieutenant, moving over to the left seat in the cockpit, becoming an aircraft commander for the remainder of the war. His last ten missions were in fact flown in “Heaven Can Wait”. I believe he made damn sure he stayed with this lady until the end!
Sitting in the left seat — that of aircraft commander — my father might have had flash backs to his pilot training manual, specifically these words from that manual:
“The commander of the B-25 must be more than a pilot. As his title implies, he must be a leader of men — a leader in a special sense.”
Daddy flew his first mission of 1945 on January 21, against the Lavis rail viaduct. Mission #689, a flight of about 200 miles “bee line.” This was one of those tough missions, and the 445th lofted about half of the total planes, dropping their payloads from around 13,000 feet. One crewman was killed in another squadron, and a total of 13 aircraft were “holed” by flak.
Over the months of January through to his last mission on April 20th, Joe would log at least 40 missions as aircraft commander. Records show his gunner on at two of these missions was Robert Duane Knapp, Jr., the General’s son. (I have to wonder if Daddy and any other pilot with “Jr.” aboard wasn’t a little bit more attentive to the particular mission at hand.)
On February 8th Daddy went from gold to silver, making 1st Lieutenant (the rank I also attained in the USAF before going inactive. I know personally what a great feeling that is, and in his case, was more than deserved.) I don’t know how long someone would have to stay in nor the circumstances for promotion to the rank of Captain and above during those times, but the records of the 321st tell us that many of the top-ranking officers of the squadrons were quite young by today’s standards. For instance, Colonel Smith, one of several commanders over the war period, was only 34 years of age. Field promotions were often made when men showed exceptional skill in getting their jobs done efficiently and displaying leadership.
The same day that he was promoted, First Lieutenant McFatter flew Mission #721, carrying anti-flak incendiary bombs in an attack on Calliano, flying “Miss Bobby.” That mission is recorded in the Group history as having P-47 fighter escorts. These missions to blind the flak batteries were highly coordinated in real time, with the Thunderbolts going in to first strafe and bomb the flak positions, followed by a flight of one or a few 25’s tasked to carry incendiary bombs and at times, aluminum chaff. The bombs were set to detonate about 1000 feet above ground level, with the brilliant blast intended to blind the gunners, whereas the purpose of the aluminum chaff was to confuse the targeting radar. Of course the incendiaries often did a lot more damage to the Germans that just temporary blindness. In the history log for this mission, is stated: “Flak ships got good coverage on gun positions.”
In a letter Joe wrote to his parents, dated February 8, 1945, he mentioned the Brenner Pass.
Over the next ten weeks or so, Joe would fly numerous missions, one crediting him with his 6th Oak Leaf Cluster to the Air Medal: the attack on the Ramano di Lombardia rail bridge, on February 21st. Two passes at the bridge were required to get it the job done. Most missions flown always had a primary target, and a secondary or even tertiary, in case the primary was weathered over, and when the 321st crews went out they had no intention of ever returning home without unloading their ordinance!
Joe flew various “dash 25’s” on his missions, which were coming sometimes on consecutive days, but usually with a few days in between. On Mission #748, February 24th, a Sunday, he was assigned aircraft #44–28928, “Heaven Can Wait.” Paul Young, who flew “Beauty” on that same mission in Daddy’s squadron, in an article of his remembrances decades later, said it was believed “Heaven Can Wait” was a lucky plane to get. Although Lt. Rung’s name is seen on the side by the nose art in the photo our father brought home, apparently Daddy had an angel on his wing that Doris sent him, as he kept getting the plane, again and again, including the last ten missions he flew! I have no doubt he seriously believed that name and that “girl” would get him home to his own girl, our mother!
The month of March was a one hell of a busy month for the 445th. Joe was flying every other day, and for much of the month, every day, day in and day out. The push was on to crush the Germans, and our troops and our allies needed the explosive power of the Group to make advancement possible with minimal casualties on our side.
On March 16th the Group first used SHORAN, “Short-range Navigation” as the means of targeting their bombs. SHORAN simply made use of two ground-based transmitters that worked in conjunction with an onboard transponder-type device. When a target was weathered in, invisible to the bombardier’s sight, SHORAN could be used to determine the exact point to release their loads. During March and April the 445th apparently was not one of the squadrons tapped to use the system, likely for the lack of trained bombardiers knowing how to use it correctly, plus the fact that two ground placements were required, which was not an easy thing to accomplish in Northern Italy, behind the real enemy lines.
Around the first of April, 1945, the 321st had moved back to Italy, to a base near Falconara, just north of Ancona, on the Adriatic coastline. This strategic location would halve the mission distances compared to those flown off the “USS Corsica.” Falconara would be the last base of the 321st until the war’s end.
The missions of the 445th continued to be primarily bridges through the months of January-April, but on April 11th the squadron was tapped to send a crushing blow to the German troops positioned in the Argenta area. Argenta on the map is about 30 miles east-northeast of Bologna and 60 southeast of Venice, near the eastern coast of Italy. The Germans were aggregated in at this area as they were being pushed “against the wall.” Their surrender to the Allies was soon to come, and this mission was one that strongly contributed to that surrender.
Up to this point I have several times mentioned the German anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), the Flugabwehrkanone,” commonly called “flak” by English-speaking Allies. The 12th Air Force had essentially beat the Luftwaffe out of the Italian skies by the time Joe arrived on Corsica. Hitler also had called much of his aerial firepower back to defend Germany by then also, after massive losses of his fighter planes and crews in the MTO. So the remaining threat, and indeed it was a massive threat to our aircrews was the German and Italian flak.
By late 1944, into 1945, the enemy flak batteries were using radar, coupled to gun director systems that would coordinate the firing of the multiple guns of a battery. The “eighty-eight” (8.8cm) could push its 20.34 pound cartridge to over 49,000 feet, at a rate of 20–25 rounds per minute, where the shells would explode sending shrapnel in all directions. Anyone who has watched WW2 documentary films of Allied bombers has likely seen the puffs of smoke appearing seemingly out of nowhere around the aircraft, and the occasional scene of a plane missing a major component — like half a wing or more — falling to earth, or scenes of bombers and fighters returning to base with various pieces missing and holes in the wings or fuselage. Flak presented a formidable screen that bombers had to often fly directly through to reach their intended targets, and once hitting the I.P. (initial point) they were committed to maintain course on the final bomb run, flak or no flak. They could only pray, or kiss their good luck charms. The bombardiers, especially the lead bombardiers, had to have steel stomachs and an immense power of concentration to stay focused on their target sighting tasks, in spite of the many black puffs appearing through the glazing of their nose compartments, and explosions buffeting the craft around on their course.
The Germans and Mussolini’s Italian forces knew how to use these weapons as effectively as possible, placing them strategically and protecting their batteries very well. Flak became the main defense against our airpower along the Gothic line, and during the extensive and intensive bombing the 57th conducted in the Po valley and Brenner Pass. The “Battle of Brenner Pass” was fought between Nazi flak crews and our brave men flying the Mitchell’s.
Flak emplacements defending the Brenner Pass were probably some of the most formidable ever employed in WW2. Guns were pulled high up the mountains by humans using ropes (Italian slave labor was readily available to the “Huns”) to get even more altitude to reach our “heavies” flying northward to hit targets deep in Europe. Since the B-25’s typically flew at a relatively low altitude to conduct their precision bombing missions, they could not possibly fly over the flak maximum reach, but had to drive right through these storms. The price the 57th had to pay to win this battle was terrible, and testifies to the bravery and heroism of the crews of the 321st during those months. From early January, 1945 to the end of the war in Italy, the 57th casualty count was 223, with ten men killed and 131 MIA. Needless to say, the suffering of the Germans on the ground was much greater. This little publicized battle that was lost in the news back home, where the press was focused on Western front, and on the battles raging in the Pacific, was one that indeed shortened the war in Europe.
The book “The Bridgebusters — The True Story of the 57th Bomb Wing” includes a detailed description of the Argenta mission. My father was flying “Heaven Can Wait” on that day, as he did for his last ten missions, and I recollect clearly him recounting a mission on which he said the flight leader yelled over the radio, “Follow me!,” and as Daddy said, they were soon “redlining” the engines. I am quite sure this was the very mission on which this happened, as the leader, Captain Bowling, had to execute a major change in direction and altitude, after releasing bombs, to get out of the field of flak that was about to decimate the formation. As described in Thomas Cleaver’s book, the newly promoted Capt. Bowling did redline the speed, getting the formation clear, all except for one Mitchell. No doubt this was one of the more harrowing missions for all who flew it, and for his service and valor on this mission Daddy would receive the Distinguished Flying Cross. Sadly, the one aircraft and most of the crew went missing, although the tail gunner miraculously survived after his gun position was literally blown away. As he fell toward a hard death, still strapped in his seat, suddenly he regained consciousness on the way down, and had the presence to unbuckle his seat belt and pull the rip cord. Sergeant Morisi was captured and spent the remaining few weeks as a POW. The Germans, however, paid in spades for their deeds as a result of this mission: several thousand were killed or wounded, and thousands more were taken prisoner.
Lieutenant Joe H. McFatter flew his last mission of the war, his 70th, on April 20, hitting a railroad bridge at Poggio Rosso. The 321st flew its last mission on April 25th, with one of the 446th Mitchells being hit by flak, yet managing to make a crash landing; sadly, one of three crewmen who had bailed out had a chute malfunction and was killed.
On May 8th, Victory Europe Day was declared, the day all the men had been praying for. That same day, the men were ordered to formation for an awards ceremony, and General Robert Knapp went down the lines pinning medals. That day, Lieutenant McFatter and Lieutenant Miron, who had come to the war together, received their DFC’s and a handshake from one of the most respected generals in the AAF.
As I closed out the writing of this book, it occurred to me, what if the Allies had not been able to defeat Rommel in North Africa. He would have been able to reach Egypt, and take control of the Suez Canal, thereby cutting off Great Britain’s oil supply. Perhaps we Americans could have made up part of that supply, but in any case such a loss of the Allies in North Africa would likely have caused the war to turn out very differently. Hitler had his engineers working feverishly on new weapons, such as the ME-262 jet fighter, the 229 bomber, the ME-163 rocket plane and many other inventions. Also the Nazi’s were advancing quickly in their rocket designs. My point here is that what the 12th AAF accomplished in North Africa, and in particular the 57th Bomb Wing and General Knapp’s 321st Bomb Group, quite likely saved the entire war — and civilization.
After Victory Europe was declared, of course everyone was anxious to get home to the States. However, given the number of men and equipment to be returned, it would take several weeks to accomplish this logistical feat. Remember these forces came to the war front over the span of many months, so returning them in a compressed time was a mammoth undertaking. The “equation” on who went home sooner than the next was based on several factors, none of which made all the men happy. A lot of the aircrews flew back, as these with fewer missions than Daddy were in the que to ship out to the Pacific front, and some did, but many averted going back into war when the atomic bombs were dropped. The trip by ship usually took 4–5 days, and for many of the men, the crossing was no doubt highly unpleasant in turbulent seas.
I am not sure what our father did over the few weeks he had waiting to come home, but my memory from boyhood is he telling of seeing the sights of Rome. I know he saw the Vatican, and I recall him telling of visiting the catacombs. The photo below shows him with a bunch of the guys probably out touring in Vatican City, posing for a group picture, for their scrapbooks of war memories.
Daddy came back on a ship that departed from Naples. I vaguely recall that he told me he had an ear infection, as the reason he did not fly back. Ear infections and other altitude problems were common, as the crews were flying high, at times to 14,000 feet to clear the mountains around the Brenner Pass, and in the unpressurized and poorly heated Mitchells. Regardless, the fact that he never flew again as a civilian, even on an airliner, attest that he sincerely felt he had done his time in the air. I don’t know where the ship docked on our east coast, but I do know that he reported to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on June 19th, and became officially inactive on July 14th. Somewhere during these weeks he reunited with my mother in Greenville, helped her pack their things, and kissed Irene, her mother goodbye. Irene would be in Texas in a year for the birth of their first child, Joe Jr. No doubt there were many other handshakes and hugging friends they never saw again — and the rest, as they say, “is history.”