Wings Above Fear, Chapter 4
There are few words that describe the hamlet of Vo in Northern Italy, located in the province of Padua, better than “exquisite, serene, and beautiful.” Located just a few miles southeast of Vincenza, Vo is nestled in breathtaking, green mountainous scenery in what is known as the Euganean Hills and is the mirror of a peaceful village one sees in a storybook.
Vineyards in the peaceful village of Vo. Euganean Hills in the background.
On December 28, 1943, however, this peace would have been disturbed as the villagers would most likely have already heard the American aircraft fly over. The planes were on their way to bomb the Vincenza rail yards and had turned left from the Adriatic Sea just below Venice. They had then flown west and turned again north on a line to the target. The inhabitants also most likely heard the battle as the four planes of the 512th, still airborne, turned around, pursued by the German fighters.
Vo is 15 miles southeast of the bombing target in Vincenza.
On the ground they watched as one, two, three, four, five, and then six American parachutes appeared above their village, knowing that they would be forced to turn the airmen over to the Nazis. They also watched as one lone man fell from the sky simultaneously with the explosion of a plane whose sections traveled widely before they reached the earth. With this man, no parachute was seen to have opened and he fell somewhere within the Euganean Hills.
Vo was occupied by the Germans and had in fact been selected as a provincial holding camp or concentration camp for Italian Jews who were imprisoned in Vo’s most historic residence, the Venier Villa. They knew the Germans soldiers and guards who were essentially in residence there would be quick to search for the fliers.
With metal a valuable commodity, some who had seen the explosion rushed to find the various sites where the engines, still covered by some of the fuselage, the tail, and the wings, lay. Within hours there would be little or nothing left of the crashed air plane.
On the ground, the six crew members of Old Sarge — Butler, Stiles, Giagnoni, Troxel, Walker, and Matthai — were picked up by the Germans. A priest from the village who interacted with the men, Father Giuseppe Rasia, wrote in his diary that, “Among the parachutists of the Anglo Americans Bombers, there is also an Italian who lived since he was a child in America and became an American citizen.” Father Raisa noted that he (Giagnoni) spoke Italian.
By nightfall the Americans were most likely in the guard house at Vincenza, several miles away from German intelligence HQ in nearby Verona where, in the next several days, they would be interrogated and then transported to P.O.W. camps. There is a picture in the British archives which this author does not have permission to publish showing a number of captured fliers from that day, including Romeo Giagnoni with his bandaged burns on his hands and burns on his face.
Meanwhile, in southern Italy, the seven remaining planes were trying to make it back to the airbase at San Pancrazio. On the ground there, Reinke Milton, a newly arrived pilot who had just been assigned to the 513th, had seen the mission take off that morning, but not return. As night began to fall, the word was out that something had gone terribly wrong.
Suddenly the seven surviving planes began to appear in the sky. Major Raymond Fisher whose plane was very heavily damaged and could not lower his landing gear, circled the airfield and bailed out his crew at 800 feet. He and the co-pilot, as well as the engineer, stayed aboard and landed the aircraft in what first looked like a decent landing, but the plane was unable to stop. It was headed for an area with parked airplanes and appeared destined to crash. However, Major Fisher was able to spin his Liberator around on the ground and avoided this disaster. Milton felt shocked when he learned that the entire 512th, who were known for their flying prowess, were all lost.
On the ground there too, and also new to San Pancrazio, was Armament officer Ralph Sheer who was assigned to the 512th. Sheer had been tasked a few weeks earlier to brief incoming crews on what to expect on their first combat missions.
Taken aback by questions he could not answer because he himself had never been on any missions, Sheer asked to tag along on short runs so that he could cure himself of the inadequacy he felt in the briefings. He flew without officially signing on to the manifest and the air crews seemed to enjoy getting him acclimated.
The morning of the 28th, one of the pilots suggested he ride along, but at the last minute he was pulled from the flight because too many extras had been flying without official orders.
Sheer had by this time established a routine of waiting for the missions to return and in particular damaged aircraft, as he was in charge of battle assessments of turrets, guns, and anything armament related in the plane. On the day of the 28th, he positioned himself on the balcony of the farm building occupied by the 512th and waited all afternoon for their return. Toward evening a jeep came up and the occupant shouted up to Sheer that there was no use in waiting any longer. The 512th was not returning. Sheer was completely shattered.
That night Sheer was alone in the 24-room sleeping dormitory of the 512th, and the enormity of what had happened hit him. Much later that night, he had partaken so heavily of a bottle of whiskey that he ended up in the infirmary not remembering how he had arrived there. The flight surgeon who attended him told him he would have to handle the stress a different way, or he would send him back to the States as a Section 8.
Sheer, who became a professor of psychology at NDSU, wrote that he at that very moment blocked Vincenza and December 28, 1943, out of his mind for decades.
Richard Dahlstedt, part of the 376th Bomber Group ground crew who kept a diary of his time overseas in WWII, had also seen the men take off that morning and wrote about an uneasy feeling among the medics, mechanics and armorers who awaited their return.
Dahlstadt had outfitted Bomb Boogie with ten 500-pound bombs that morning and as it became apparent that she and the other planes would not be returning, tears filled his eyes. He wrote that he and the other ground crew survived by not letting themselves believe it was true, and went on to say it required some “warping of the minds.”
Dahlstadt had been a friend of tail gunner Joe Kerschner for nearly a year, sharing service in the Middle East where they had gotten into mischief playing pranks, as boys do. He says he was determined to forget the names of all the crew, but years later he writes than the ghost of Joe Kerschner haunted him.
Thousands of miles away in Lt Tommy Haigh’s hometown of Bowling Green, Virginia, the New Year would come before Tommy’s mother received her telegram that he was missing in action. The entire town rallied around her, and people on the street would stop and pray for his safe return.
The men who had served with Tommy in Old Sarge and who had survived were in German prison camps, and could not lend their accounts to the sketchy one the Army Air Force had shared with Florence Haigh and Tommy’s sister Mary. Old Sarge had essentially been alone when it disappeared, while the surviving planes were headed south toward southern Italy. Both women hung on to a strong hope that he was alive.
On the 20th of January 1944, the editor of the local newspaper wrote the following:
Wings Above Fear
Lt. Tommy Haigh is missing. The news came this week. Somewhere out there, the young flier failed to return from action against the enemy.
Somewhere out there is a part of our town.
We were proud of Tommy. Everybody knew him and liked him. He was as much of our Main Street, as the post office, the apple trees and the court green. As a youngster, Tommy was on Sunday School programs and in school plays. He played a fine clean game of basketball in High School. When he went to work at the grocery store everybody stopped to speak to him and most of the news of our town was exchanged over buying lamb chops.
Tommy had a quick mind, he entered service and soon was selected for flight training. He was sent from one school to another all over the country. In time he won his wings. In time he was assigned to fly a B-17.
As we stood watch at the aircraft warning tower, we used to look for the big planes. “Tommy Haigh is flying one of them we would say.”
Not long-ago Tommy came home for a few days. He was tall, trim and strong and the new wings glistened in the sunshine. When he dropped in to visit the stores and offices on Main street we were as proud as if a four-star general had returned. He was a credit to his lieutenant’s bars.
After Tommy went into action various ones of us had letters from him telling of the places he had been and seen. We read them to the neighbors and talked about how well he was doing. Just two weeks ago we heard he had received the air medal with two oak leaf clusters,. He was promoted to first lieutenant and made a flight commander.
We felt a share in these honors for Tommy was our town. He was the part of us up there in a B-17 fighting the enemy.
Fighting for all the villages and towns and countryside of America, fighting for things that are America….
schools plays and Sunday schools,
hotdogs and popcorn and
warm firesides and
children playing and
old men chatting and
the court green and
peace and happiness and laughter…
Somewhere out there, our town’s Tommy and the Tommy’s of other American towns have failed to return from action. They are listed as missing. We don’t believe it. We have hope. Surely the staunch courage that is American will bring them through somehow. Surely someone of the brave unconquerable people who too fight for victory will find them and shelter them and guide them to safety, Surely….
And while we humbly pray that God who is mindful of the sparrows will shield these fliers in the hollow of his hand.
Meanwhile in Italy, an investigation was underway by the Inspector General of the 15th Air Force on the Vincenza events, the most serious loss of the 376th to date. Even the raids on the oil fields in Polestri did not share the loss numbers of the mission on December 28th. The investigation did little to shed light on the affair other than to record conflicting accounts. Col. Graf, who was the ultimate decision maker, was cleared of any wrong doing; however, the mission commander, Red Thompson, was reprimanded and was forced to stand down.
The main bone of contention was the absence of the fighter escorts and whether or not the inability to rendezvous had been discussed, thus breaking radio silence. An account by Thompson insists they never on previous missions had fighter escorts and so he made the decision to continue. Most surprisingly there was never a plausible explanation on why the 98th Heavy Bomber Group with the escort never went to Vincenza since they were the lead on the mission. Their absence ensured the entire group’s survival.
Page from the journal of Lt. Worth Matthai while a P.O.W. in Stalag One.
The enlisted crew of Old Sarge were eventually taken to an American P.O.W. camp, Stalag Luft XVIIB, in Krems near Vienna, Austria. The officers — Troxell, Walker, and Matthai — were sent to Stalag One near Bath, Germany. They were lucky to be alive as a number of men had never made it out of the ten crashed planes, or died of their injuries in P.O.W. hospitals. Several were even killed as they hung in their parachutes in trees.
While in the camps a number of the officers of the 512th were allowed to keep diaries, and so their recollections of December 28th remained fairly fresh, as they were written just weeks after the actual events. They would be imprisoned for some 16 months until the allies liberated the camps.
Next: Part Five – “Tommy Haigh Is Found.”
Cover photo: Flight school picture with Lt Tommy Haigh (second from right) and his co-pilot Lt. Worth Matthai standing next to him on the right