F/O Francis S. Rzatkowski
|The following four video clips were recorded in Westland, Michigan on 20 July 2014|
The “Chiquita Mia” was named after a fair Mexican maiden the Pilot, F/O Francis S. Rzatkowski , met while training in New Mexico.
Training in New Mexico
A total of 23 crews were transferred from the Clovis and Alamogordo Army Air Fields in New Mexico where they were assigned to the 450th. In late September 1943. They began their combat group training, required prior to being assigned to overseas duty.
Accelerated crew training in
Alamogordo, New Mexico was divided into four
phases, with flying and ground school
mixed in each phase.
The first phase was
designed to increase individual job
proficiency, develop team work and to
become familiar with equipment. Pilots
were getting their first experience with
the B-24. Only the essential crew flew,
while the remainder attended schools in
their specialty to hone skills.
In the second phase the complete crew
practiced bombing, extensive air to
ground gunnery and air to air gunnery
on towed targets. Some simulated bomb
runs covered long distances at altitudes
as high as 20,000 feet, while on oxygen.
The third phase consisted of
navigational skills at all altitudes, over
long distances. The final phase was
mainly close formation flying combined
with navigation, simulated bomb runs,
and flying at different altitudes, with
phases two through four being
conducted both day and night.
Special Orders No. 58 dated
21 September 1943, assigned Frank and
his crew to one of the four squadrons in
the 450th Bombardment Group - the
722nd Bombardment Squadron (H). This
group of squadrons contained 60 plus
planes and crews.
On 19 November 1943, Special Orders
No. 309 were issued to move the 450th to
Herington Army Airfield, a Kansas-based
staging area used for overseas
movement. The move would be in
phases - 10 crews per day for six days -
and would start on 20 November. This
was a movement by aircraft with only
The original orders stated that Crew No. 302-9-59 were
assigned for travel on B-24H Serial No.
41-28603, the "Chiquita Mia", to depart
on 23 November 1943. The destination of
Herington was not stated in the orders.
The group had previously been training
with older B-24D Liberator models, but
during the first part of November new
B-24H models started arriving. They
were issued to the crews in preparation
for movement overseas. The new planes
had to be serviced and checked out prior
to acceptance by the U.S. Government.
These new B-24s had been built in the
Ford factory at Willow Run, Michigan,
and then sent to a modification center in
After modification, the new B-24H's
arrived at Alamogordo in early
After the Chiquita Mia crew arrived in
Herington, the first order of the day was
to settle in and prepare paperwork for
allotments sent home, war bonds, wills,
and power of attorney.
Frank and his crew left Herington
around 6 December 1943, for Morrison
Field at West Palm Beach, Florida - their
port of embarkation.
Crew No. 302-9-59 then spent as much
time as possible outfitting their Liberator
for overseas duty. The plane was
checked and double checked for possible
problems. Some of the overseas legs
such as crossing the Atlantic were very
long and everything had to work perfect
prior to leaving.
Issuing flight clothing and equipment
was part of the next phase of processing
for movement. The crews were issued a
sheepskin coat and leg zippered pants,
fur lined helmet, steel helmet, boots, and
goggles. A .45 Caliber pistol with
shoulder holster was issued for personal
protection. Electrically heated under
suits were issued with gloves and felt
shoes to wear inside of fur lined boots.
Other miscellaneous gear was issued,
such as oxygen masks, flak vests, and
life vests. New parachutes were issued
as two types - chest and seat. Most pilots
were issued “seat packs” that were worn
all of the time. The remaining crew wore
the “chest packs,” which were only used
during emergency. A specially designed
harness was worn which allowed the
chute to be snapped on with two
buckles. This system permitted freedom
of movement during flight.
Frank and his crew left Herington
around 6 December 1943, for Morrison
Field at West Palm Beach, Florida - their
port of embarkation. Crews were now
assigned to the Caribbean wing of the
Air Transport Command (ATC). The
ATC operated bases along the route to
the war zone to transport men and
supplies, and to assist bomber crews.
The Caribbean wing operated bases on
the southern route down the Caribbean
coast. At this point, the air crews had no
knowledge of where they were going
and were only given a heading. The
sealed orders were given to the crews
just before take off for each leg of the
journey. The orders were marked
“Secret” and could not be opened until
they had been in the air for two hours,
at which time the navigator would be
passed the orders to plot a course to each
Crew No. 302-9-59 left on the first leg of
their long journey to the combat zone
around 7 December 1943, flying to
Borenquin Field, Puerto Rico. Here,
ground crews were alert and the planes
were serviced before the arrivals
boarded the trucks that would transport
them to the registering office. Two crew
members from each Liberator were
usually left behind for guard duty.
Minor repairs were made when
necessary. Restriction was enforced as
far as the transit crews were concerned.
Besides, fatigue weighed down any
desire of any one man to go visiting in
the nearby town. Special briefings were
held for pilots, navigators and radio
operators the evening before departing
for the next leg of the flight. The average
stay at Borenquin Field for each ship
was one day.
The next flight was approximately 1,700
miles to Waller Field on Trinidad.
Trinidad is a small island in the West
Indies, just off the coast of Venezuela.
This leg took ten and one-half hours.
Then, an additional 1,200 miles to Belem,
Brazil. This flight took seven and one
Instructions were to keep in contact the
departed station for half the trip, then
keep in contact with Belem. Two
auxiliary air fields were en route, to be
used in case of emergency. Some ships
made use of one of these fields at
Amapa, Brazil. The personnel at these
fields consisted of about 250, 50 U.S.
soldiers and two officers. Facilities at
this field were very crude and primitive.
This part of the journey took them over
jungle and across the mouth of the
Amazon River. Several B-24s went down
in the Amazon jungle due to bad
weather or mistakes in navigation. As
late as 1995, a Liberator was found in the
Brazilian jungle and the remains
The next station - Natal, Brazil - was
over 1,000 miles away. This took
approximately six hours and was also
over the jungle, where there was no
place to land if trouble developed.
Natal was one of two jumping off places
for the long over-water flight to Africa.
All equipment had to be in perfect
working order. Crews were involved in
special meetings for pilots, navigators,
and radio operators. All fuel tanks were
topped off to the maximum capacity
while on the runway. Natal was a better
base than others, with adequate facilities
The final leg from South America was
approximately 2,200 miles, all over
water. It took over eleven and one-half
hours to arrive at Dakar, Senegal, Africa.
If there were problems with the planes
on this leg, the crew would have to ditch
their plane in the Atlantic Ocean, with
little hope of survival. The B-24 was
known to break in half upon ditching
and would sink within seconds. Crew
members could be severely injured or
trapped in the tangle of the wreckage.
The bomber was equipped with survival
gear such as life rafts, first-aid kits,
flares, emergency rations, life preservers,
The navigator did the initial navigation,
with the radio operator locating a radio
beam to follow approximately 200 miles
from Dakar. Most crews landed with less
than a half hour of fuel remaining,
leaving a very little margin of safety.
Some planes ran out of fuel on the
runway just as they touched down.
Dakar, being the western most point of
Africa and just north of the equator, was
very hot and humid. The sleeping
quarters and mess facilities were all in
tents. Men had to sleep under mosquito
nets for peace from the insects. The local
natives were notorious for stealing, and
everything had to be guarded, including
Here crews were shown the importance
of malaria prevention. Before they were
allowed off the ships, the planes were
sprayed with insecticide internally. Crew
members had to stay on their Liberator
for at least an extra ten minutes.
Frank Rzatkowski shared an amusing
story about this incident. This pilot was
not generally a drinker of alcohol.
However, as a celebration for surviving
the harrowing journey to Dakar, the
leader of the “Chiquita Mia” broke open
a case of whiskey he had stored on the
ship for such a special occasion. As the
crew were all sharing a glass, military
personnel came on board and started
spraying them with insecticide mid-drink,
without any thought of their
The next journey, across the Sahara
Desert was a seven hour flight of
approximately 1,400 miles to Marrakech,
Morocco. This flight required a difficult
crossing of the Atlas Mountains. The
mountains were 14,000 feet high and the
crew could not fly over 12,000 feet
without oxygen, which was not supplied
for the flight overseas. The only way
through the mountains was a narrow
pass at 8,000 feet. A sigh of relief would
have been heaved by all when this was
successfully passed, because Marrakech
was just beyond.
During this period, several planes
crashed into the mountains. Fortunately,
only one plane from the 450th was lost
in the mountains.
Like all other stations before, the pilots,
navigators and radio operators were
briefed on that particular leg. This leg
was comparable to the trip over the
ocean due to the endless sea of sand.
Nothing could be seen for miles and
Before their off-duty visit to town,
Rzatkowski gave his crew a stern
warning: Marrakech was dangerous; he
told them not to stare at or touch the
women, and not to smoke anything
offered, especially out of a pipe. His
concern was reinforced by a recent story
of another AAF pilot accepting a shoe
shine from a local, followed by having a
hand grenade shoved up the officer's
pant leg, killing him instantly.
The briefing for the final leg informed
them that the actual destination for the
unit would be Italy, not England.
The journey from Marrakech to Tunis,
Tunisia, was approximately 1,000 miles
and six hours flying time. Tunis was the
crew's real introduction to the war. The
ground was littered with burned out and
shot-up trucks and all other types of
military equipment, which was
primarily German. The final battle in
Africa that led to the defeat of Field
Marshall Rommel in Africa was in the
area of Tunis. The field was covered with
bomb craters, and most of the hangars
no longer had roofs. Crashed and
burned out aircraft littered the airfield.
The flight from Tunis to Manduria, Italy
was 500 miles and approximately four
hours flying time over the colorful
Their home was an old Italian fighter base with a 7,000 foot
dirt strip constructed in an olive grove.
The field initially had one runway made
of oiled clay and dirt with revetments on
the sides for parking aircraft. Some areas
had perforated steel planking (PSP),
which is an ingenuous set of light weight
interlocking panels that were put
together on the ground, providing a
hard surface for air strips or parking.
During the rainy season there were very
few high areas free from mud. The only
living quarters available were old Italian
barracks with no beds or cots. The crews
only had what personal gear they
brought in their duffle bags. The dirty
barracks leaked when it rained, and had
no heat or lights. Those who came in
first found space in the barracks, and
those following had to pitch tents in the
The first plane of the 450th touched
down at the Manduria Airfield in the
rain on 20 December 1943. Frank's crew
arrived on 3 January 1944. The ground
crew, equipment and supplies came by
ship, arriving the first part of January
1944. The first ship arrived at the Port of
Bari on New Years Eve. Another ship arrived
at Naples and the final ship
docked in Sicily on 15 January.
Link To Crew Information