Wings Above Fear, Chapter 3
Map showing the 500-mile journey to Vincenza in the north. The American Airbase in San Pancrazio where the mission began was located in the heel of the boot of Italy.
As Mission Number 206 reached 14,000 feet, accounts vary on how long it took the 17 planes of the combat wing to form up directly over the airbase in the break in the clouds. By some accounts it was as long as 45 minutes, but the effort was rewarded as above the haze and clouds the visibility was somewhat better.
The 376th was led on December 28th by the Mission Commander, Captain “Red” Thompson of the 515th, who was flying a new model B-24 Liberator. This model featured a rotating gun turret in the nose. In the seat beside him was Lt. Col. Ted Graf, the Group Commander, who technically was the ultimate decision maker.
As the formation headed north and out above the Adriatic Sea, men immediately began to move from the flight deck and take their assigned positions in the plane. They had surely become close to one another as men do when faced with life and death situations and for the most part shared a common heritage.
The American Dream of making good and succeeding with hard work and perseverance was still in its heyday in the 1940s. A sense of optimism would have prevailed, that Americans from the land of opportunity can do and survive anything, even a brutal war. Besides, as it was later recalled, this was a “milk run” with minimal flak and there was no foreshadowing of things to come.
Inside, a B-24 offered little protection from the elements, and the atmosphere was loud and noisy as the four engines were not known for quiet operation.
It was December and some might have availed themselves of the heated suits, if those suits were working. Communication now from the cockpit would be accomplished via the plane’s telephone to the aircraft’s waist and tail gunners toward the back of the aircraft. The men would have two hours or more to converse before the turn to the target and the preparation to bomb. On Christmas Day, three days earlier on the bombing run to Vincenza, not a single defensive shot have been fired.
Box Formation of the planes of the 376th on December 28, 1943
Flying in what was known as the “Box Formation,” the six planes of the 515th were in the “Able Position” or Lead position in the middle of the group.
Captain Thompson was there in front and with his five remaining planes of the 515th formed up with one on each of his wings, and a second complement directly behind him consisting of a lead aircraft, and a plane each on either side.
To the right and slightly higher in flight was the 514th in the “Baker Box Position,” but with only five planes as one had just turned around due to mechanical problems, leaving the right formation side vulnerable.
The last six planes of the 376th were Lt. Tommy Haigh’s group, the 512th assembled to the left lower of the Mission Commander’s formation and called “Charlie Position.”
Lt. Paul Brown was leading the 512th that day with pilot Jim Collison of Bomb Boogie on his right in what was also a newer Liberator. Pilot Ralph Jackson was on Brown’s left wing in Ready Willing and Able.
Old Sarge with Lt. Haigh was at the head of the second complement, directly behind Brown in the middle with Lt. Harlen Wenzanger on his right in The Joker, and pilot Jim Fortenberry on his left in Superstitious Aloysius.
B-24 Liberator Old Sarge flown by Tommy Haigh on December 28, 1943
The journey north up the Adriatic Sea was nearly at the midway point when events began to transpire which were to be remembered by at least once participant as the “Massacre at Vincenza.”
The rule was to maintain radio silence, but this was to be a major point of contention when the mission was later investigated. There is no doubt that when the rendezvous point was reached some miles north just beyond the Italian town of Foggia, that the 98th Heavy Bomber Group, who were officially designated as the lead that day, were nowhere to be seen nor were the Lightening P38s, the fighter planes assigned as their escort.
The flight journey north had allowed the 376th to make up for lost time or at least some on the mission reached that conclusion, despite the nearly hour it took to assemble above the clouds. They were, according to some opinions, between eight and twenty minutes behind schedule.
The assumption was made by the Mission Commander and a number of others that the 98th and their escort had also taken time to fly up and assemble above the cloud cover and would be just a few minutes ahead, and the 376th proceeded on.
Some accounts have a lengthy radio conversation between the commander and each lead pilot on the merits of continuing unescorted, while others either do not remember, or say the silence was not broken. If radio silence was broken, this would have been an invitation to the Germans to get in the air. In any event, the 376th headed for Vincenza.
At some point a group of planes over the sea was spotted to the left and just ahead but turned out to be B-17s on the way to another bombing mission. Conflicting accounts also say the 98th was spotted just ahead and indeed their log book shows they were three minutes ahead at the original rendezvous point. However, for some unaccountable reason, never later explained, they aborted their mission to Vincenza, bombed a town on the way back to the airfield, and returned safely accompanied by the escort planes.
A survivor later wrote that they actually saw planes from the 98th escort who pulled alongside and motioned for the 376th to turn back, but no official orders were ever found to do so.
Another account buried deep in the investigative report relates that orders were given by an unknown source on the radio to salvo the bombs and return to base before arrival at Vincenza, but the witness to this added that it was assumed it was the Germans.
The mission crossed the southern coastline of Venice at 11:30, began the climb to a bombing altitude of 22,500 feet, and made a left to fly inland for 40 miles. Their next move was to turn north toward Vincenza which was 50 miles away.
All accounts agree that up until this point, there was little to describe the run other than routine.
Within just a few minutes of this turn, however, as they were actually approaching the target, aircraft described by pilot Clift Wendell, who was with the 514th in the high box on the right flying Red Wing, discerned aircraft which were far away and looked like little dots in the sky.
At first, Mission Commander Red Thompson thought they were catching up to their own 98th heavy bomber group. However, it was soon realized as they got closer and those planes began to form up higher in the sky that these were enemy fighters.
Under orders to bomb the machine repair shops at Vincenza, the mission route called for a left turn as they approached the city but, for some reason just before the enemy initiated the attack, the 515th under the lead of Thompson turned to the right, and the 514th who were in the box above was better able to anticipate the turn.
The 512th in the lower box formation made the correct turn in the opposite direction and were completely exposed.
Well grouped and formed above the 376th, the German pilots in their Folke Wolf 190s and Messerschmitt Bf 109s were members of “III Gruppe” of Jagdgeschwader 53. They were a crack Luftwaffe fighter wing who had the personal attention of Goring, who followed their exploits. They were part of one of the oldest units in the German Air Force with their origins in the Condor Legion in 1937 in the Spanish Civil War. They had boasted such famous German aces as “Pik As” Geschwder, translated as the Ace of Spades.
With bases at the foot of the Alps less than a hundred miles from Vincenza, their single engine aircraft had been converted into a specialized anti-bomber unit and sported under wing gondolas equipped with cannons. They were also fitted with rocket launchers which could be fired as far away as 1000 yards. Their mission was to protect the industrial sites of Northern Italy which supplied the German army.
Gaudily painted, with grinning faces and teeth, “III Gruppe” rolled down from 1000 feet above the 376th, bent on revenge for the insult of the Christmas day attack on the rail yard.
For reasons unexplained, they seemed to know there was no American fighter escort because they carried belly tanks which were normally not done when expecting conflict, fighter-to-fighter. Belly tanks more than doubled the fuel capacity taking a 15- or 20-minute battle to sometimes as long as 45 minutes. The 512th who were out in the open bore the brunt of the attack.
As the 20 mm shells and rockets reigned down, Lt. Brown’s plane in the lead with the newly equipped turret was able to effectively damage some enemy planes. It was later reported that there were between 65-85 German planes taking part in the attack and his aircraft was soon incapacitated.
Waist gunners were blazing away, as well as the tail and nose gunners, but on the first attack a number of these men were already wounded. In a B-24, the entire plane vibrated so loudly that communication was impossible when the 50 caliber guns went into action, so battle casualties and damage can be difficult to quickly assess.
Positions of enemy planes were reported on the clock system with the nose marking the 12 o’clock point. Survivors remembered the gunners shouting out the incoming positions of the fighters who rolled in four, six, eight, and sometimes as many as 20 abreast together on the clock, as they did their best to make every shot count.
The scream of the enemy aircraft engines that were coming within feet of the American planes and could be heard over the roar of the B-24’s four engines. Rocket shells which had not directly hit their mark were bursting everywhere just outside the aircraft.
While the Germans concentrated on the vulnerable 512th, some also attacked the two groups of the 514th and 515th who had flown on and were managing to release their bombs over the original target of the rail yards. Four of those planes would eventually crash.
Ariel view of Vincenza Marshalling yards in 1943
The six planes of the 512th were alone and Lt. Wenzanger, who was in the back of the formation on the right, and his crew were already going down when the enemy pulled away to form up for a second attack.
Due to the sheer number of German aircraft, bullets raked the American planes from stem to stern. The experience described by one of the participants was “the most fearful sound I have ever heard.” In the back left also, Lt. Fortenberry was the second to go down and found himself headed for the ground.
The other four planes of the 512th had been heavily damaged but managed to turn around toward the south. Mission commander Red Thompson with the 515th, who was also now flying a damaged aircraft, got on the radio and ordered all planes to salvo their bombs whether they had reached the target or not, as did Lt. Brown who was still temporarily in the air.
Crews who had working bomb doors jettisoned the 6-10,000 pounds of bombs they were still carrying. The sky was filled with burning airplanes including the enemy as the 376th would, in the end, take out more than 30 Luftwaffe planes.
Aboard Old Sarge, which was engulfed in flames, tail gunner Sgt. Joe Kerschner was already lying dead in the tail turret. The most dangerous position in the plane, that of waist gunner, had at least one crew with only superficial wounds, Sgt. Leonard Hagar, but his partner on the other side of the plane, Sgt.Winston Ivey, was mortally wounded, having taken a 20 mm cannon round in the stomach.
Armorer Gunner Romeo Giagnoni had been caught in the fire which was roaring throughout the bomb bay and was burned on his hands, arms, and face, but he was mobile. With the electrical system dead, the men could only communicate with one another by shouting, but they understood to abandon ship.
Completely untouched, Lt. Tommy Haigh remained in his pilot’s seat with his hands fixed on the controls. Each of the other pilots in the 512th would live to tell what it was like when a Liberator came apart at the seams.
Paul Brown, the pilot and leader whose plane was hit in the tail section, describes the controls beginning to go sloppy. Others relate the extreme difficulty in keeping the plane in the air in order for the crew to have time to get out.
If there was any down or sideward spin at all, the pressure would pin bodies in a plane and it was impossible to move. There was a piercing, screaming, and whining of metal as an aircraft went down, and violent rolling while smoke and multiple fires hamper exiting from the plane.
A veteran of the 376th who was not on the mission later recalled one of the most horrific aspects which would haunt the future nightmares of survivors in planes which limped back to base and is not often told.
The enemy concentrates hard on the disabled aircraft, continuing to hammer the most vulnerable while you watch as your plane pulls away. They zero in on a burning, smoking, or distressed bomber and even waste time shooting it up. You watch your comrades die or abandon ship which gives you time to make it to safety.
This was happening to Old Sarge as the enemy returned in wave after wave during the 50-minute battle. Romeo Giagnoni had managed to pull on his parachute despite his burned hands and would later write that Hagar would not give up on his friend and fellow waist gunner Ivey, who was obviously mortally wounded. The last time he saw them behind the bomb bay, Hager was trying to get the prostrate Ivey into a parachute. Radio operator Sgt. William Butler, Flight Engineer Peter Stiles, and Romero Giagnoni would soon bail out the bomb bay.
Up front, Ward Walker the bombardier, and Norm Troxel the navigator, were readying themselves to bail out the nose hatch and still understood Haigh was at the controls. Co-Pilot Worth Matthai and Walker begged him to get up to bail out, but Haigh could not be convinced that all the men were ready to exit the airplane.
Amid the fire and lung-burning fuel-soaked smoke, when Walker and Matthai bailed out, he was still sitting at the controls flying the airplane. Within several minutes of the six crew members clearing the plane, they watched it explode, and no more parachutes were seen in the sky.
As the men drifted earthward, they had no way of knowing their position which was just over a village called Vo, 24 miles southeast of Vincenza.
Next: Chapter Four – The man who fell from the sky
Cover photo: German Folke Wolf 190