Personal Stories

At War — Northern Italy

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"At War — Northern Italy" pictures.


Rumors swept through the camp area like brushfire – the Group would return to the States, ship to England, go to the Far East, move back to Italy, or remain in Corsica. A short time later the Group knew it was escaping the confines of Corsica to return to Italy, and at noon on September 9, “A” Party had left the area, bound for a loading berth near Calvi. A surprise awaited them there, when, for the first time, they boarded a ship manned by the United States Navy. Loading the organization’s equipment took all evening and at 0230 hours in the morning the craft left Corsica, feeling its way carefully through the heavily mined waters off the Cape. After an hour or two of rough sailing, the ship set a smooth pace through the “millpond” Mediterranean, and daybreak was a peaceful and inspiring event. An unusual treat was afforded the men. The three meals served aboard were delicious and nourishing, a far cry from the usual cans of cold C rations eaten during every move.

Late in the afternoon the landing craft reached Piombino, Italy, and after unloading their trunks and equipment, the convoy was soon driving south over exceptionally good highways to Grosseto. It was dark when the city was reached and the convoy stopped in a field and everyone had a refreshing sleep under the beautiful star-studded sky. In the morning the convoy drove a short distance and set up camp in a grove of jack pines, about nine miles southwest of Grosseto. The airfield, called Ombrone Landing Ground, was nothing more than a rutted stretch of farmland one mile from the camp area.

Operations from Corsica (where the planes were still based) consisted of several daily armed recces of the Po Valley, but targets were scarce and the flights were soon called “milk runs.” Personnel and light equipment from “B” Party were flown across to Ombrone by the shuttling B-25’s in the Group and a few days later the rest of “B” Party boarded an LST in Bastia harbor and sailed to Italy to join the Group.

The landing field at Ombrone, flooded after every rain, soon became a sea of mud, definitely grounding the aircraft. Army engineers attempted to construct a drainage system around the field but it was evident that the strip would never be satisfactory for operational flying. Finally on September 25, the aircraft were flown to the main landing field at Grosseto. This field, still showing signs of being pummeled by the Allied aerial assault in Northern Italy, boasted a concrete runway, which facilitated flying despite the nightly rains.

The Thunderbolts became a more formidable weapon than ever with the installation of rocket tubes. Each aircraft carried six rockets, three under each wing, and the tubes could be jettisoned in an emergency. In subsequent operations the rockets took a heavy toll of enemy installations and supplies.

Now the work of the organization was clearly defined: unable to drive the German armies from their heavily fortified Gothic Line positions, the Allies called upon the Tactical Air Force to isolate the enemy battlefield by systematically cutting every rail line and motor truck artery north of his front lines. This was a repeat of the Operation Strangle tactics. The Thunderbolts were perfectly suited for this work, with their heavy armament and long range of flight. To begin the task, the Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force launched an operation called “Bingo” on November 6 to knock out electrified Brenner rail line transformer stations at several key points, putting the enemy to the inconvenience of converting to steam power. The Group participated in the attack, sending aircraft to Trento where the flak was the most intense ever encountered.


A hot spot in the spring of 1945 was the Brenner Pass where the flak was intense and accurate. A news story by Sgt. Tom McRae tells it well:
With the 12th Air Force, April 5 – A short time ago a group of writers touring the war theatres stopped at a fighter base in northern Italy. Several pilots listened silently as one of the writers fought the west front battle in the bar. The writer finally got around to the air war. He remarked that they were lucky to be where “you are not bothered by flak.”

The pilots said nothing: the man was their guest. But they might have presented the visiting writer with a few figures. Since last October the 17th, the Air Force’s main effort has been thrown into the Battle of the Brenner. Last fall there were fewer than 400 guns along the Brenner line, with most of them concentrated at Verona, Trento, and Bolzano. Now the Germans have more than 900 guns guarding the 160-mile stretch from Verona to Innsbruck. More than half of the guns are heavy – 88’s and 105’s.

There are a number of things that make the Brenner unpleasant for B-25 Mitchell crews and P-47 Thunderbolt pilots. Their No. 1 worry is flak.

A barroom ballad has been composed about it, goes like this:

I don’t mind a dive in a 25
Till the bombs that I’m carrying smack
But those little black flowers
That grow in the sky-
Oh! My achin back.

Skimmin’ a ridge to plaster a bridge
Makes you feel as goofy as wine,
And your heart takes a jolt when your Thunderbolt
Tangles with an Me-109

It’s like shootin’ ducks
When you come across trucks
And I don’t mind the rifles that crack
But those little black flowers
That grow in the sky-
Oh! My achin; back.

There’s more to it, but that gives you an idea of what airmen think about those “little black flowers that grow in the sky.”

In fighting the Battle of the Brenner, the men in the Mitchells and Thunderbolts are also forced to fight nature. Turbulent winds sweeping down from the Alps, which sometimes reach a speed of 50 to 60 miles an hour, prevent tight formations and make accurate bombing more difficult. The mountains on either side of the Brenner Pass line may be 7,000 to 8,000 feet high, sometimes 10,000 feet. These peaks may give great protection to the target by allowing only two approaches, which makes it easy for the Germans to place their guns. Sometimes the target is not visible until the aircraft are almost directly over it. Again, the target may be hidden by shadows. The Germans are using numerous smoke pots to conceal some positions in the Pass.

Another bad thing about the Brenner, as far as fighters are concerned, is that the Germans have placed guns on the high ground on either side of the Pass in order to shoot at the P-47’s on a horizontal plane or to shoot down at the fighters as they make low sweeps. This enables the Germans to fire with much greater accuracy than under ordinary conditions.

Most targets are rail bridges, which, airmen say, are the toughest of all objectives to hit. When the bridges are smashed or the double tracks of the Brenner line cut, the Germans are able to repair some of the damaged objectives within a few hours.

Considering the amount of flak, Thunderbolt losses have been low. Most return with holes, some like sieves, some with near misses on the pilots, but they come back or at least to friendly territory,

Despite the “little black flowers” and the difficult terrain, 12th Air Force airmen are fighting the Brenner battle with great success. The Brenner was blocked much of the time in December and January even though there were streaks of very bad weather. From Jan. 30 through March 26 the line was cut every single day. The fact that the line was out does not mean that no traffic was going through. When there is a cut the Germans unload the supplies from the train and haul them by truck to another train.
With the 12th Air Force having what amounts to a stranglehold, at least for the time being, it would seem that possibility of a German attempt to withdraw 20-odd divisions from Italy is small.

It is apparent that the Germans could use 20 divisions on the eastern or western front. Why don’t they move them back into the Reich? That’s a good question but a better one is: can they?

The dive-bombers were subsequently used to attack pinpoint targets unidentifiable from high altitudes. The deadly strafing and rocket attacks, carried out in conjunction with practically every bombing raid, added to the total of destroyed locomotives and rolling stock. In addition it achieved a major degree of traffic interdiction by wrecking moving trains at numerous points on the main lines. Thus the plan unfolded, the over-all objective being to prevent Axis men, weapons and supplies from reaching the front. Winter weather was a big problem but the Exterminators flew through weather, which grounded medium and heavy bombers, and kept the assigned rail arteries cut. December was a busy month flying through rain and hail to keep the enemy rail lines cut, and Captain Richard L. Johnson, earned the nickname “Train-buster” after destroying scores of railroad locomotives and cars.


In December all three squadrons became the first and only fighter squadrons of the war to each fly 1000 missions, the 66th achieving theirs on December 13, the 64th on December 22nd, and the 65th a few days later. The Group was credited with its 3000th mission on December 31, 1944, a record and first obviously for a fighter group, considering the records of the 3 squadrons. However, the Group credits were about 150 below the sum of the three-squadron totals, due probably to not counting the missions flown by the 66th when attached to the 239th RAF Wing in Africa. Neither did the Group take credit for the missions flown under its control by RAF Sqd. 112 or U.S. 314th Sqd. in Africa, or by the French Squadrons on Corsica. The 66th Squadron got the honor of making the 3000th mission with Col. Knight and Col. Leaf participating and being led by Col. Leaf.


There was a slight hiatus for Christmas of 1944 and Christmas spirit really permeated the Group. Nightly strolls were taken to some of the poorer homes in town to distribute sweets and toys to the destitute “bambini.” January found the Group still hammering at railroad targets in the Po Valley, and with the addition of K-25 aerial cameras on several of the aircraft, claims of destruction were substantiated by developing the films a few hours after the aircraft landed. These pictures helped the Intelligence Section considerably in determining and assessing the flight’s damage results. While the 57th was taking its toll on the enemy and keeping supplies and reinforcements from reaching the front, the large amount of flak (20mm., 40mm., 88mm., and 50 calibers) indicated that the Axis was not going to yield easily. The result of that heavy flak was indicated by the experience of one group of 16 replacement pilots as noted in the diary of Ken Lewis, excerpts of which follow:

4 Nov. 1944 – We were taken to the 192 Replacement Center between Naples and Caserta. This was simply a tent area – a short stop while we waited for our assignments. The orders came through before long – there were 16 of us going to the 57th Group. There were Koelling, Kranzush, Randy Lee, Lehman, Lyth, Leek, Lewis, Palovich, Pinkowski, Sherwood, A.V. Smith, Kruse, Orcutt, Paine, Place and E.F. Smith.

4 Feb. 1945 – Flew my 36th mission this afternoon against Castle Franco, east of Citadella. Quite a hot spot. Pop Heying was leading the show, and was hit on his dive-bombing run. We completed our runs through heavy flak and joined up with Pop, who was in trouble. His plane was on fire in the fuselage just forward of the tail. The control cables burned through, leaving him only aileron and trim tab control – we headed for home wide open. There was a slight explosion, and the fire then burned itself out, so Pop flew that crippled plane all the way home. It was impossible to land it, so he bailed out just off the field. Major Leaf flew out and picked him up in the L-5 and he was back in time to be interrogated with the rest of us.

9 Feb. 1945 – Another one of those bad days – Lyth and Matula both got it today and bailed out just behind the lines, and Paine had his canopy shot off, was wounded in the head, neck and shoulders, and is in the hospital here now. Matula – hit in a strafing run, his plane was a mass of flames. He bailed out from low altitude and was either hit himself or hurt on landing, according to Blackburn who circled over him. Several Italians were seen to come from a nearby house and carry him over to the house. Lyth was on a two-ship show with Mosites. They bombed a train and Lyth got a direct hit. It was an ammunition train, and the whole thing blew up right in front of him. The huge sheet of flame thrown up covered his plane, and set it on fire. He pulled up and bailed out, just short of the bomb line. Some son of a bitch was shooting at him with 20 mm as he came down in his chute, according to Moe.

6 Mar. 1945 – Just returned from rest leave in France this evening. Bad news waiting me. While I was gone, we lost three more men. Jeep Norris killed, Phil Lehman the same, and Kruse bailed out over the Brenner Pass. – Phil was in France just before I was. We spent the first day of my leave and the last day of his together. Since I was in France, they just locked up our room, so everything is just as he left it. Tomorrow they’ll take his things away. I sure feel funny tonight – sitting here alone in the room, looking at Phil’s bed, his clothes and things, knowing he won’t be back.

While things were tough across the bomb line, it was not all work and no play. The social life around town began to enter the limelight and several dances held by the organization brought a number of pretty local signorinas out of hiding and soon many of the personnel were spending the winter evenings at civilian homes, being wined and dined in rare style.

The Intelligence Section set up a War Room and Briefing Room comparable to any in the theater. Covering the walls were huge situation maps showing the disposition of all armies in Europe and the Allied situation in the Pacific. These maps were changed daily and many Group personnel dropped in every day for a look at the “big picture” and a few minutes of explanation on the phases of current strategy. Aircraft recognition contests were held to uncover the champion among the pilots and the ceiling of the room was covered with miniature aircraft in flight. Here was the meeting place where each day’s efforts were recorded and tabulated for higher headquarters and for posterity.

The Army began to stress “Information and Education” programs, to insure that every man knew what he was fighting for and what his post-war problems would be. Weekly talks on current events and War Department films became compulsory and the men soon admitted there was a lot more to the war than just maintaining an aircraft. During the last weeks of the winter, the 15 daily missions had become somewhat frustrating because there weren’t as many juicy targets left to shoot up, but the flak was still intense. Everyone was thinking that the way had been cleared so when does the offensive start? On a few occasions, the Group escorted bombers into Austria without losing a single bomber under its control.

The Fifth Army offensive began early in April, and the Group flew 30 missions daily, striking enemy command posts and heavy artillery positions preparatory to the ground troops push. The fight line became a beehive of activity from dawn to dusk every day, and the ground crews, as well as the pilots, worked with renewed vigor, stimulated by the fact that their work was showing tangible results. All other activities were shelved while the men proved that they could keep the aircraft operational despite the enemy’s tenacious flak defenses.

On April 21, proof was shown that the terrific costs in airmen and aircraft during the continuous winter rail interdiction had not been in vain. The Germans in Italy began their withdrawal toward the Austrian border, and during the next week the Group participated in the slaughter of enemy motor columns that hastened the catastrophe, which was to befall him shortly. As the enemy retreated towards the Alps, the base in Grosseto soon was left far behind the bomb line, and on April 27 they moved northward to Villafranca di Verona Airdrome. Enroute to the new location the ground crews drove through the battlefields of the Apennines and saw evidence of the effective dive-bombing. The Po Valley was a revelation to the men who enjoyed the picturesque fertile country, comparatively untouched by war. Everyone had heard so much about the beautiful country and now had an opportunity to see the industrial and agricultural center of Italy for himself.

The civilian population was very friendly around Villafranca, and the men in the nearby villages, mostly Partisans, took many of the men out on nightly trips, hunting down German troops pocketed in the area. The men were the first Americans most of the populace had ever seen and wine drinking festivals were held nightly. Some of the more energetic men participated in the Hun-hunting parties and came into camp at dawn every morning loaded down with German souvenirs and trinkets. Handfuls of Partisans marched hundreds of Jerry prisoners past the camp area at all hours of the day, and one evening Major Johnson, while riding alone in a jeep, was approached by a German officer who wanted to surrender his twelve hundred men. The major accepted the offer and led the huge convoy of Jerry trucks and men to a P.O.W. camp near Villafranca.

With the main forces of the German Fourteenth Army slaughtered in the Po Valley, very little enemy activity was seen during long hours of reconnaissance, and operations slackened considerably.

The Squadron boasted that despite continuous operations during the past 34 months an effort was made to send someone on leave whenever the opportunity presented itself. Now, with the war in Italy winding up, the advantages of being in the center of the Po Valley were utilized, and men who could be spared from the flight line went out on sightseeing trips. The snow-capped Alps, visible from the camp, and nearby world-famed Lake Garda attracted many of the men but most of the tourists headed for the modern cities of Milan and Turin, to see the cultural wonders there. Several other trucks full of happy men, each carrying his camera, headed eastward toward the famous city of canals. Venice. This proved to be an unforgettable experience, riding a gondola in an atmosphere far removed from anything military.

Finally on May 2nd came the astounding news that the German High Command in Italy had surrendered unconditionally and all hostilities would cease immediately. The Group had aircraft out on reconnaissance missions, and control tower personnel got a thrill in calling to them over the radio, “Return to base, the war is over.”


The Group participated in 9 campaigns from 1942 to 1945, from Egypt to Tunisia to Sicily to Italy to Yugoslavia to Southern France. These campaigns were; Egypt-Libya, Tunisia, Sicily, Naples-Foggia, Rome-Arno, Southern France, North Appenines, Air Combat Balkans, and Po Valley.

The 57th flew a fabulous number of missions and sorties from August 1942 through May 5, 1945, (Each plane participating in a mission is called a sortie, 36 or more planes or as few as four, occasionally as few as two participating in a mission). It was the first and only fighter group to fly 3000 missions, which it accomplished on December 31, 1944. Shortly thereafter, it extended that record to 4000 missions and by war’s end on May 2 to 4651 missions (38,055 sorties), including 35 missions in May. The number of missions credited to the Group does not equal the total of the missions flown by the Squadrons which were 1615 missions (11,924 sorties) for the 64th, 1575 (11,687) for the 65th, and 1664 (12,45) for the 66th, because the Group did not take credit for the missions flown by the 66th when it was operating under the RAF 239 Wing. Neither did it take credit for the missions flown by the South African Air Force Sqd. 112, the U.S. Sqd. 314, and the French 2/3 and 2/5 Escadrilles when operating under the 57th Group. If two or more squadrons participated in a mission, each squadron would count it but the Group would only count it as one mission. As would be expected from the Group score, the three squadrons were the first fighter squadrons of WWII to fly 1000 missions, the 66th on December 13, 1944, the 64th on December 2, 1944 and the 65th a few days later in December.

An achievement, possibly even more astounding, was the flying of over 1650 missions in the 4 months of 1945 before the war ended in Italy. All of the action was ground action, no enemy aircraft being encountered or even seen during this period, and the ground fire was, as usual, heavy. Because of the durability of the P-47, all but 40 of those planes downed by ground fire made it back to friendly territory before crash landing or being forced to bail out.

Some of the Groups statistics against ground targets include:

* Not including the French, South Africans, and U.S. 314th when attached.

The air victories from the beginning of the end of the war were reported in May, 1945 Group report as follows:

112th (SAAF)*
*While attached to the 57th.

While engagements with the German Air Force in the last year and a half were few, and then only accidentally on their part, there were a few times when one or more e/a were destroyed – as many as 6 in one instance. There was an unexplainable loss in count since the count in May 22, 1943 culminating the winning of Africa had already exceeded those totals.

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"At War — Northern Italy" pictures.

The losses of the 57th planes and pilots to the heavy ground fire did not slacken as the war was being won. Even though the ratio of losses to sorties flown was considered excellent, in the last four months of the war, over 50 were MIA in enemy territory. This did not count those who made it to friendly territory before bailing out, surviving a forced landing or ditching in friendly waters and were quickly rescued. At least 9 of the MIA’s escaped to friendly hands, 6 were known to be KIA or POW, the fate of the remaining 35 – as KIA, POW, or still “escaping” – were not on the Group’s records as of war’s end.