Here is an account of
my time with the 450TH Bomb Group while based in Manduria, Italy.
Written by James P.
We arrived at Manduria Air Base shortly after noon on
November 20, 1943. The airfield was a former Italian Air Force fighter base
that had been abandoned by Italy and turned over to the German Forces. They, in
turn, left as Allied Forces moved from Africa and Sicily.
Manduria was a fighter strip with no paved runway. Its
runway was compacted dirt and gravel surface. We operated our bombers from this
base with no real improvements to the runway. The army engineer battalions
constructed taxi-ways and "hard stands" with Marsden mat (PSP – pierced steel
We spent the time till January 9th, our first
mission; upgrading remaining buildings, building tents, working on our aircraft
and flying training missions. Our first mission was to Mostar, Yugoslavia. We
encountered no fighters but experienced our first flak over the target. Many
ships returned with flak holes but no losses of aircraft and personnel.
The 450th continued flying missions. On our 3rd
mission we encountered heavy fighter opposition from Messerschmitt ME-109's and
heavy flak over the target. On the bomb run our rudder cables were severed
leaving us with no rudder control. Our tail gunner, Jimmy Gallagher and ball
turret gunner claimed and were credited with downing two ME-109's. Jim Vaughn,
top turret gunner shared credit with tail gunner for another ME-109. After
coming off the target, enemy fighters swarmed in for the kill. Jimmy Gallagher
took a 20mm hit to his leg, Stan Montgomery had a 20mm shell split his right
leg from knee to hip, John Deingardt, waist gunner, had injury to his right hand,
Sgt. Wenzel, radio operator gunner also suffered a body flesh wound.
Hydraulic system lines were punctured rendering hydraulic
systems inoperative. Pilot and co-pilot Henderson and "Jeff" Thomas nursed the
aircraft back to Manduria. With no braking action we landed short on the runway
and all crew except Pilot and Co-Pilot rushed to rear so the tail end could
drag the runway. We stopped just short of olive tree orchard at the end of the
Wounded were given first aid and ambulanced to nearest army
field hospital. Crews were debriefed and battle damaged B-24's were worked on to
bring up to operational status. Our "Judy Lee" was so badly damaged it was out
of commission for quite some time. In the interim we were supplied with
replacements for our wounded crew members.
Missions continued. On February 22nd, 1944, I was
awakened early and advised that I was a volunteer (?) replacement on Lt.
Nillson's crew. Hurriedly dressing and collecting my flying gear, I headed for
the mess tent, had a breakfast of powdered eggs, fried spam and bread (not a
bad breakfast). From there I went to the intelligence (?) briefing for the up
coming mission. As the crews settled in, lit up their cigarettes and made small
talk, the Group Commander walked in. We all leaped to attention and he soon
called "at ease". We all resumed our seats and waited for the OPS and
intelligence "weenies" to begin the briefing.
The Group Intelligence officer pulled aside the curtain on
the map of Europe. We all looked at the route programmed by pins and colored
twine. It went from Manduria to Regensburg, Germany. Suddenly the room was
quiet. The Group CO addressed us telling us that it would be the deepest
penetration into the heart of Europe we would encounter to date.
Intelligence officers advised us that we would encounter
fighters as soon as our fighter cover of P-38's and P-47's had to turn back.
He was so right. When our fighter cover turned back the Messerschmitt
ME-109's appeared. We would have them with us off and on all the way to the
target. They would make passes through our formations, sometimes continuing the
fight and some of the time making one pass and then would disappear.
As we continued on course to our target, the sides of
mountains would open up and black barrages of flak would pepper us (when the
fighters weren't harassing us).
Soon after we were on course on our bombing run. When on the
bombing run the bombardier flies the airplane, holding a steady course so the
bombs can be dropped accurately and on target. When we weren't in flak
barrages, the 109's would swarm in on us. It soon became evident that our group
and the other group were taking hits as planes fell out of formation and chutes
came spilling out of the stricken planes.
Over the target our B-24 took direct hits in #1 and #2
engines disabling them. The pilot, Lt. Nillson, punched the bail out bell as we
fell out of control. Five crew members bailed out over the target. (We never
heard from them again). Somehow, Lt. Nillson, righted the plane, feathered the
two engines and called on intercom, "Vaughn, get your butt up here and help me
fly this thing!" We continued heading south with our crippled plane, fighting
off the 109's with our crew. (Crew members who had bailed out included the
co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, nose gunner, and the top turret engineer
As we flew, crew members threw out anything that could be
removed to lighten the load for our crippled bird. As we ran out of ammunition
for our 50 calibers, they were thrown overboard. We continued flying with the
two remaining engines roaring and struggling to keep us in the air.
As we flew south, it became evident that we were flying
between two mountain chains. We were nearly out of fuel, no ammo and couldn't
climb over either mountain. Dead ahead the two chains began to converge. I
looked over at Nillson and shouted, "Looks like this is where we get off!"
"Get the guys out
and give me the go ahead to follow you", shouted Lt. Nillson. By this time the
remaining crew members were on the bomb bay catwalk. Sgt. Waldrop, radio operator,
jumped on signal, followed by Sgt. Kyriakos, ball turret gunner. I shouted to
Bobby Hahn, "you're next". "I'm not going," he shouted. "Yes you are," I said
as I pushed him out of the bomb bay. As he dropped out, he grabbed the bomb bay
catwalk. I calmly stepped on his fingers and he fell away. I gave Nillson the
high sign and bailed out, with him quickly following. We were still in our
chutes when the plane crashed into the mountains.
Suddenly it was quiet, so quiet! All I could hear was the
wind moving through the small pilot chute, the pounding, roaring R-1830 engines
were no more. The snow covered slope rushed to greet me. Before I realized it I
was in snow up to my armpits. I slowly inched my way up to the surface. "Jimmy
boy, I think you are in a heap of trouble", I muttered to myself. February 22,
1944, in the dead of winter in the Alps! No food or water, clothing okay for
bombing missions but when you disconnect from the airplane the electrically
heated suit and boots are of little use. Shivering and scared, I took stock of
my situation, bundled up my parachute and started walking with the lowering sun
to my right. I walked, slipping and sliding till dark, then wrapped up in my
chute and prayed. Boy did I pray!
I spent the night shivering, getting up and walking around
to warm up. Then back into my chute till the morning sun came up. With the sun
to my left, I walked and walked, seeing no one, hearing no sounds, but the snow
crunching under by sheepskin lined boots. I continued my solitary walk till
darkness beckoned again. Then a repeat of the previous night, bundling up in my
chute, afraid to go to sleep for fear of freezing to death. This same routine
would continue till the sun rose on the fifth day.
As the fifth day sun rose, my spirits and optimism began to
fail. I seriously considered settling down, falling to sleep and freeze to
death. But a couple of prayers tended to rejuvenate me. Once again bundling up
in my chute I again headed south but now I had company. Unwanted company!
Three or four mountain wolves began trailing me, edging ever
closer. Throwing snow balls at them scared them off for a while but not for
long. Soon they were again trailing me, drawing ever closer.
As the sun reached its mid-day position, I squinted into the
distance. Did I see a person or was my mind going? By now I was nearly snow
blind. I hurried toward where I thought I had seen that person. I did not find
anyone but I did see and follow tracks in the snow. As I rounded a ridge I came
upon a farmer and his wife standing there. I looked into the barrel of one of
the biggest guns I had ever seen. And it was pointed at my chest! They could
speak no English nor could I speak their language. They finally decided I was
no great threat to them, gave me some goat cheese, black bread and water. The
most delicious meal I had ever eaten!
They indicated I should follow them, the woman in the lead,
me following and the farmer following with his gun at the ready. We soon
arrived at a farm house and a barn for their animals, several sheep and a goat
or two. They gave me more water, bread and cheese and motioned for me to climb
into the loft. This I did gladly. Covering myself with hay (they had taken my
chute) and fell into a deep sleep. Five sleepless days and nights were coming
to an end. Thank you, God!
As the sun came up and the animals started making their
sounds, I looked out of the loft at three young armed men, each wearing a
military type cap with a red five pointed star on its front. They nodded to me;
spoke to each other in a tongue I had never heard, indicating I should come
down. Breakfast was you guessed it, more water, a hunk of black bread and some
cheese. Soon they were joined by an older man that tried to talk to me in
broken English. He would ask a broken English question and I would reply but
I'm sure he did not understand me. But they decided (or so I thought) that I
was an American airman and needed their help. They indicated that I should go
with them. One set out and a few minutes later a second started out motioning
for me to follow him. As I followed, I looked back for the third one. He was no
where to be seen. We walked and walked and finally came to a hamlet of three
houses, one larger than the other two. After checking the hamlet over, I was
led to the largest house.
To my surprise, the crew members I had bailed out with were
there. Lt. Nillson, pilot, Sgt. Waldrop, radio operator, Sgt. Kyriakos, ball
turret gunner and Bobby Hahn, waist gunner, rushed to greet me. Soon, we were
served some sort of coffee substitute, probably burnt tree twigs but hot and
nourishing. That was followed by a liqueur they called rakiyia (a delicious,
intoxicating plum brandy).
We were awakened early the next morning, fed some ersatz
coffee and black bread and on our way with three new leaders, each wearing the
cap with the five pointed red star. We would walk all during the day until
after dusk most of the time. This routine would be repeated over and over for
thirty-one days. Each day a new set of leaders and walk, walk, walk. We never
stopped in any town or even saw a town. We always stayed in a house or barn,
many times sleeping with the sheep. We must have been a smelly bunch.
On the thirty-eighth day, we crested a mountain and looked
down in the valley and saw a beautiful town of moderate size.
For the first time in weeks we could talk to someone that
spoke English. English English, that is! Five English army men were to be our
companions for the time being. They greeted us warmly (all but the senior
officer – he was a stand-offish typical senior English officer). The captain
and the enlisted men were great people.
They took us to a powered generating station where we could
take our first hot bath in over five weeks. Somehow or other, they outfitted us
in sturdy, comfortable wool uniforms and great English boots. Really living! We
lived with them and ate with them. Somehow they managed to get us good food
with the meat mostly mutton or an occasional baked fish (with eyes looking at
We soon found out that they were a clandestine radio unit with
their headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. With their radios they were in contact with
Cairo and with our 15th Air Force headquarters in Bari, Italy. In
Berane, the town we were staying in evidently was one of Marshal Tito's
headquarters for we saw him frequently in the town square speaking to the
townspeople. He was our hero for his people had literally saved out lives.
Our English hosts assured us that we would be getting back
to Italy and soon, either by boat, or aircraft. Captain Bob, a Jersey Islander,
told us that an aircraft would be coming in soon. On the morning of my
forty-third day after bailing out, a Messerschmitt ME-210 flew over, opened up
its bomb bay and dropped some canisters. The canisters burst in mid-air and
thousands of leaflets came fluttering down. The leaflets, in Slavic and German
language, warned the populace to not offer support or harbor allied forces.
After the ME-210 flew away, a slow three engine aircraft circled and cork
screwed its way into a landing. We
later learned that it was a Savoir-Marchetti three engine transport flying for
the Allies after the Italians capitulated. Its three man crew consisted of a
pilot, co-pilot and a radio operator-mechanic. As soon as it taxied to a stop,
Partisans swarmed over the aircraft, unloading the supplies that had been flown
in. The aircrew told the Partisans how much gasoline could be drained form the
tanks. This they did quickly, spilling nary a drop.
As soon as the supplies were off-loaded, the five English
soldiers and seven American airmen climbed aboard. (Two more airmen had shown
up just days before). The Italian crew started the engines and taxied to the
end of the short dirt strip. Throttles were pushed forward and the plane soon
lifted off the ground and started its corkscrew climb out of the little valley.
As we settled down for the short flight, the middle engine
sprang an oil leak obscuring the pilot's vision. Now we were really flying on
instruments! Captain Bob nudged me and said, "There are only five parachutes on
board. I don't know about you, but no Eyties are going to jump out of this
airplane and leave me stranded. Here's a pistol, pick out a chute and that will
be yours to use if troubles get any worse."
As we approached the coastline of Italy, the pilots set up a
straight in final approach flying with their heads out the side windows as the
center windshields were coated with black, slimy oil. The landing was a good
one. We taxied up to group operations and were welcomed to Lecce Air Base, the
new home of the 98th Bomb Group flying B-24's.
Telling them we were 450th people, they fed us
and had a truck drive us to our base at Manduria. We climbed out of the truck
and went into the OPS tent. We were greeted warmly and told the Cottontails had
suffered horrendous losses. Many of our original crews and aircraft had been
lost. New shiny aluminum B-24's were in place instead of our OD airplanes.
Aircrew wise, we saw very few of our original crewmen.
The next morning we were transported to Bari, Italy, 15th
Air Force Headquarters. Once there, we were given new uniforms, new A-2
jackets, and then the intensive debriefing began. We told our stories over and
over and questioned individually and then our individual stories compared to
the other crew members stories. Any discrepancies had to be resolved.
Why all the questioning? Well, the Allies had initially
backed Danzah Mihailovich and his Chetniks and ignored Marshal Tito and his
Partisans. But through debriefings such as ours they found out that the
Chetniks were playing both sides, turning over some Allied airmen to the
Germans and delivering others into Allied hands. Tito, on the other hand was
pro-Allies and actively fighting the Germans (and Chetniks) and actively
rescuing American aircrews
We left 15th Air Force headquarters on a brand
new shiny Lockheed Constellation (I had never seen one before or knew such a
plane existed). We were flown to Casablanca, refueled and then to Bolling
Field, Washington D.C. We were immediately whisked by command staff car to the
Pentagon for more questioning. After they grilled us over and over and over we
were driven to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) "funny farm" for more
intensive grilling and questioning. After days spent with them we were finally
released, given railway tickets and 30 day furloughs to our homes.
I returned to Carey, Ohio, a home town hero that couldn't
tell my story because it had been classified top secret and it is still so
today. I've been told that escape and evasion involving Yugoslavia is still
After my furlough, I rode the trains to Atlantic City and stayed
in one of the posh board walk hotels for two weeks savoring freedom, drinking
too much, chasing the girls, strolling the beaches and swimming occasionally.
After rest camp came to a close for me, I was sent to Fort
Myers, Florida, to be a gunnery instructor. I didn't want that and told them
so. They then shipped me to Laredo Army Air Base to be, guess what, a gunnery
instructor! They gave me some tests which I (and several other airmen) failed
on purpose. The 2nd Lieutenant threatened us with court martial
(which we ignored). Giving up on us, they gave us choices of three assignments,
Salt Lake City Air Base, Lincoln, Nebraska or Westover Field, Massachusetts.
Since I had never been to Massachusetts, I selected Westover Field (as did my
nose turret gunner, Bobby Hahn).
I was quickly assigned as an instructor flight engineer/top
turret gunner. I loved that job and flew as much as I could. Of course, I did
manage to get to town quite frequently tasting the delights of Holyoke,
Chicopee and Springfield.
In Chicopee Falls I was shot down for the second time. This
time it was a pretty brunette, Jeanette, from Chicopee. I met her in the local
USO (I really thought it was a night club or bar) and things were never the
We married on February 6, 1946, and spent the rest of our
lives together and have celebrated our 50th anniversary on February
6, 1996. We will observe our 61st wedding anniversary February 6,