Personal Stories

At War — Southern Italy

On the third day of September the British Eighth Army, still under “Monty,” crossed to the toe of the Italian boot and the battle on European soil had begun. The news of the Italian Government’s capitulation made everyone’s spirits rise, but the reports from the bloody beaches at Salerno proved that the Rome-Berlin Axis was still a strong war machine.

Soon afterward, half the Group was on the move again, crossing the Straits of Messina and driving through Calabria Province on the heels of the fast moving Eighth Army to Rocco Bernardo L.G. The huge Italian Naval Base at Taranto was soon taken and the Group was flying from a really modern airfield at Gioia del Colle. On the same field were a number of Italian aircraft, flown and maintained by Italian personnel, and the bombers were reputed to be the same aircraft that bombed the Fifty-Seventh’s field at El Djem in the spring, so disastrously.

Not far from the field was the comparatively unscathed city of Bari, and it soon became a Mecca for the men off duty. Wine shops were plentiful in town and five shillings (about one dollar) would buy a quart of sparkling champagne reminiscent of prewar days. Beautiful women were lonesome only until the wolves of the Group reached Bari. After that romances flourished under starlit skies in typical Italian fashion. That charming city with its well-stocked shops and “well-stacked” signorinas cast its spell on the men for only a short time however, and the Group was on the road once more.

Its destination had been anticipated for a long time and the move to the Foggia airfields surprised no one. From here the radius of aerial cover spread deep into enemy territory embracing western and eastern Italy and also Yugoslavia. The Group entered the city of Foggia three days after its capture and found that a thorough job of paralyzing the railroad network in the area. During the next two months the Group was based on three different fields on the Foggia plains, flying in close support of the Eighth Army. This period was an uncomfortable one in many respects. No American service units were in the area yet; British rations comprised the menu again; in addition, the weather was bleak, and chilly nights and rainy days found the men shivering with cold. After two hot summers, first in Egypt and second in Sicily, this autumn really affected the men. Everyone dug deep into his barracks bag and came out with an assortment of clothing which, although hardly regulation, kept him warm.

On one mission over Yugoslavia the “Exterminators” upped their total of victories by destroying six Stuka dive-bombers in a fast five minutes of action, these being the first enemy aircraft destroyed over Yugoslavia by an American fighter unit. The next day General Doolittle decorated several of the Groups pilots.

After a successful summer of operations with hardly an airman lost, the Group began to feel the brunt of German anti-aircraft fire and many pilots were lost in action over the heavily defended enemy territory. Operations were divided between dive-bombing of Jerry positions on the Sangro River and reconnaissance over Yugoslavia with exceptional results. The pilots became deadly marksmen with their bombs and messages of commendation from Army Headquarters were frequently received after the pilots had knocked out enemy strong points only a few yards from friendly troop positions.

December found everyone building plywood walls around his tent and making homemade stoves from old gasoline tins to keep warm during the rainy, cold nights. Movies were shown several nights weekly at an Italian theater in nearby Manfredonia and the Group movie projector worked overtime on those occasions. Early in December Christmas packages began to arrive in numbers, and after having received last year’s packages four months after Christmas, every mail call brought whoops of joy and midnight feasting. German aircraft visited the area nightly but no attacks were made. However, all were prepared for the worst and foxholes were dug near every tent. With the unit under American Air Force command, the clerks found their work doubled as many forms, which were non-existent under Desert Air Force regulations, now had to be kept, including flight reports and aircraft maintenance form booklets.

Thanksgiving Day found the cooks taking advantage of the American food (which was at last available) to make a turkey dinner fit for the proverbial king. A few days later the Group received 12 new Thunderbolt aircraft, each Squadron got four, and several of the best mechanics checked them over. This new airplane was huge compared to the Warhawk, weighing almost seven tons. The plane was powered by a Pratt & Whitney radial engine and mounted eight fifty-caliber machine guns. Although originally designed for high altitude escort flying, the ship was to be initiated as a low altitude fighter and dive-bomber. This Fifty-Seventh was given the task of pioneering this new technique, and many modifications were required.

New Year’s Day brought rain and a gale that tore most of the tents to shreds and thoroughly drenched everyone’s bedding and equipment. Cans of cold C-rations were passed out and comprised the holiday meals instead of the turkey and pie dinner, which had been planned. The aircraft fared the weather well, except for the “captured” German Fiesler Storch, which was badly damaged. The field was a huge mud puddle, which cancelled flying, but the time was needed for drying blankets and clothing and setting up more tents.

Many changes were taking place now, and with the passage of time the camp became more elaborate. The officers built brick buildings, which they used as a combination mess hall and club, and the enlisted men acquired Niesen huts for their mess and recreation room. A war weary B-25 was given to the group and was helpful in bringing in canteen supplies and liquor, for all motor transportation was curtailed to comply with regulations. Too, no longer were the men forced to perform the unpleasant detail of kitchen police as a number of Italian laborers were hired in exchange for their meals and a few liras per day, which the men cheerfully contributed.

Operations, though light, continued despite adverse weather conditions, which grounded other units. The Group flew anti-shipping missions along the Yugoslavian coast with great success. It was here that Benedict and Leaf pioneered skip bombing in the Mediterranean Theatre.

On January 22, the faithful Warhawk, 60 of them, took of for the last time under Group colors. As they formed up and passed low over the field for a final salute, everyone felt a choking sensation for their old departing friend. That same evening new P-47’s flew in and the next week was spent in making the required receiving inspections and necessary modifications.


The score as given by Col. Salisbury for the period from the entering of the action until December 31, 1943 is as below. This is essentially the record while equipped with P-40 aircraft. The last mission by the Group with the P-40 was on January 22, 1944. During the period between December 5, 1943, the date of the first mission with a P-47 Group, and January 22, both planes were used as the P-40 was phased out and the P-47 took over.

Total number of missions flown 1,219
Total number of sorties flown 13,476
Approximate number of combat hours flown 21,214
Approximate number of gallons of gasoline consumed 11,472,840
Total number of enemy aircraft destroyed 189
Total number of enemy aircraft probably destroyed 22
Total number of enemy aircraft damaged 34.5
Approximate number of vessels sunk or damaged 65
Approximate number of locomotives destroyed or damaged 30
Approximate number of railroad cars destroyed or damaged 389
Approximate number of motor transport vehicles destroyed or damaged 2,340
Number of 500 lb. bombs dropped 2,836
Number of 250 lb. bombs dropped 3,612
Number of 40 lb. bombs dropped 8,270
Number of 20 lb. bombs dropped 2,237
Total weight of bombs dropped in pounds 2,696,540
Total weight of bombs dropped in tons 1,348.27
Total number of rounds of ammunition expended 1,238,961
Month that greatest weight of bombs were dropped –August 1943 457,240
Month that most rounds of ammunition was expended – November 1943 172,948
Most combat hours on any plane 426.25
Most combat hours on any one engine 183.25
Total number of engines changed by Group 218
Group serviceability in Africa 72.1%
Group serviceability in Sicily 70.8%
Group serviceability in Italy 69.2%
Number of days operated in Sicily 82
Number of days operated in Africa 201
Number of days operated in Italy 105
In addition to the above, numerous gun positions, supply dumps, and personnel have been destroyed or damaged.

February was notable for its consistently poor flying weather, which kept the aircraft grounded for days in succession. The forced inactivity made everyone restless and proved that the men’s lives revolved about the aircraft. The food improved considerably, and eating real pork chops or steaks in the comfort of a Niesen hut was a distinct pleasure. On the night of the 26th, the enlisted men held a dance in Foggia and several girls of the WAC Detachment attended. This was the first social event attempted, not too successfully though.

After six months in the Foggia area, the Group moved westward across the Italian Peninsula to Cercola Landing Ground, four miles from Naples. The purpose of moving across the country was to support the American 5th Army in its drive toward Cassino and Rome. Several days of rain dampened everyone’s spirits, but early in March the outfit set up camp in the muddy flats, and the officers moved to a villa on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, the first time that any personnel had lived in a building overseas. Here at Cercola the men drank their first Coca Cola in two years.

The Thunderbolts flew several missions, carrying a 500-pound bomb under each wing and wreaked havoc on enemy gun emplacements and military installations in the Cassino area. The P-47’s were proving their worth as dive-bombers and low altitude fighters. Soon several American staff officers from England came down to fly with the organization. Their job was to learn about tactical support of ground forces, dive-bombing techniques, and mobility of an air unit during an offensive. The lessons learned by the Fifty-Seventh Fighter Group were to point the way for successful tactical air operations in the proposed invasion of Europe from the west. Now the situation was somewhat reversed: The boys in the Group were in a position to Impart their knowledge to other Air Force units less than two years after they had been “green” themselves.

The map “The War in Italy up to January 23, 1944" shows the battle lines of the ground forces.

With the Squadron based so close to Naples, the men took advantage of their free time to visit this famous city and many trips were also taken to nearby Pompeii for some interesting sightseeing. History was in the process of repeating itself as Mount Vesuvius began erupting in the middle of the month. Molten lava flowing down the slopes of the volcano engulfed several villages in its path.


Sand, very fine sand (gritty dust), blinding dust storms, rain, wind, mud, camp destroying high wind storms, and then came lava flowing towards their quarters as Mt. Vesuvius erupted. That’s what the Group faced on March 19th. Some who had set up camp in a picturesque spot on the side of the quiet mountain found it wasn’t so. At least one encampment hurriedly evacuated at two in the morning – wisely so – as their quarters were ashes a few hours later. With all of their own personal needs, many found time to help the local citizens.

Several of the organization’s trucks assisted in the evacuating of civilians from the threatened hamlets in the area. Camera bugs went wild over the splendid shots of Vesuvius in action and the men trudged up to the active crater to take pictures. German bombers took advantage of the illuminated landmark made by Vesuvius and the massed shipping in Naples harbor to make nightly raids, and the fireworks made beautiful night displays for those who admired that type of spectacle. The ashes from the volcano threatened the aircraft and they were flown to another field north of Cercola for safety.


Nazi transport was going full swing before the Allied drive north. Then Operation Strangle went to work. In less than a month, German supply lines had been severely cut.

One of the most bitter complaints you’ll get from Jerry prisoners taken during the drive on Rome and the push north is the Nazi failure to get desperately needed supplies.

“For every 200 shells the Allies fired at us,” said one Nazi prisoner, “we were only able to reply with two or three.”

Another prisoner was completely exhausted when captured, even though he had seen little fighting. He explained that his unit had to walk more than 100 miles from the Adriatic Coast. There was no German transportation of any kind on the move.

These statements give you a fair idea of the deadly effectiveness of the new air technique, the officially termed “Operations Strangle.” Before this technique was put in use the Germans in Italy had no trouble getting all the supplies they wanted. They had seven rail systems bringing in more than 43,000 tons of supplies daily.

But on February 28, MAAF began to apply the Strangle. In two weeks every large and medium-sized railroad yard in northern Italy had been immobilized, and by March 24 not a single railroad car could enter Rome. The railroad centers of Florence, Rimini, Ancona, Pisa, Arezzo, Foligno, and Viterbo had been smashed.

That was the first phase of the “Operations Strangle.” The second and final phase was applied by Maj. Gen. John K. Cannon’s Tactical Air Force, a significant member of which was the 57th FG.

The TAF first knocked out the German marshalling yards in central Italy. Then they cut the bridges to force Jerry to lean on motor transport. Next they smashed enemy ports to force him to depend almost entirely on motor transport. Finally, TAF went after the roads and motor transport.

When Jerry tried to bring in supplies by sea, the TAF smashed his ships and ports. When he switched to transshipping from rail to road, the TAF blasted his yards and rail lines, and every enemy road became a graveyard for hundreds of motor vehicles.

Then the TAF wound up the operation with direct support of Allied ground troops, hitting roads and vehicles and strafing troop concentrations with deadly efficiency. The Nazis forced Italian laborers to dig slit trenches all along the roads so that Jerry drivers could hop for ready shelter from the steady rain of hot lead.

The Nazis themselves concede the complete success of the Operations Strangle. The Munich newspaper Neuste Nachrichten reported, “Allied airmen not only dominate the battlefield, but are complete masters of the skies behind our lines. German transports are cut off far behind the German lines.