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74 years ago this week…

Around 2200 hours on the night of May 13, Captain Thomas and three friends interrupted their bridge game when they heard explosions to the north. They quickly realized it was a “show,” an air raid, though none realized what they were hearing was just the opening act.

Ninety Junkers Ju-88 bombers of the first and second Gruppen of the famous Lehrgeschwader I, led by Oberst Joachim Helbig, a veteran of 460 missions since September 1939, had crossed out of northern Italy at sea level, thus avoiding Allied radar on Corsica. Their target was Borgo Poreta, home of the 1st, 52nd and 324th Fighter Groups; their goal was to destroy the fighters. The German bombers dropped fragmentation bombs and incendiaries from 6,000 feet. The resultant damage was extensive, with over 50 Spitfires of the 52nd Fighter Group destroyed as well as many P-38s from the 1st Fighter Group and more than half of the P-47s of the 324th.

With the excitement over, the bridge players returned to their game, slipping into their cots shortly after midnight. Alesani airdrome was roused at 0230 hours by the sounds of explosions on the field. The German bombers had returned to their base where they rearmed and refueled. Again led by Helbig, they had returned to Corsica accompanied by 60 additional Ju-88s of Kampfgeschwader 76. Surprise was complete and the Germans lost no bombers. 22 Americans were killed and another 219 wounded at both fields. As a pilot of the 488th squadron remembered, “We had all these nice new shiny silver ships, and they reflected the light from the fires so well that the Germans had no trouble spotting where to drop their bombs.” The two raids were the last major bombing attacks made by the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations.

The next morning, the survivors surveyed the damage. 65 B-25s had been destroyed, leaving only 20 Mitchells flyable. The 340th had taken a roundhouse punch for the third time in nineteen months. The 487th Bomb Squadron’s war diarist wrote, “Picks and shovels were at a premium throughout the area all during the daylight hours while those who didn’t have a slit trench dug one and others improved upon theirs.” In a gesture of defiance, the 340th group mounted an attack against the railroad tunnel at Itri with the surviving airplanes the next day, May 15.

Five days later, on May 20, the aircrews and ground crews of the 340th were busy with buckets and brushes, painting the upper surfaces of the surviving bombers and the new replacement aircraft flown in since the raid with green camouflage paint cadged from the French squadrons at Ghisonaccia Gare. No one noticed the C-47 that landed with supplies and replacement aircrew. The next day, three of the second lieutenants, a non-commissioned warrant officer, and three sergeants among the replacements were assigned to the 488th Bomb Squadron of the 340th Bomb Group. The warrant officer bombardier was Flight Officer Francis Yohannon. He was accompanied by another bombardier, a skinny Jewish kid from Brooklyn who dreamed of being a writer and had just celebrated his 21st birthday on May 1. Second Lieutenant Joseph Heller hadn’t graduated high enough in his navigation school at Santa Ana Army Airfield in southern California to qualify for further training with a specific crew.

A week before his arrival on Corsica, Heller had written in his diary that he was ready to see action. He wanted to see “skies full of flak, and fighters screaming past in life and death duels high in the clouds.” Four days later he flew his first bombing mission. He found all the action he could have wished for during his tour of duty on Corsica.

He also found something else. He found there was a catch to it all. Catch-22.

From: The Bridgebusters: The True Story of the Catch-22 Bomb Wing

1 additional image. Click to enlarge.


32 responses to 74 years ago this week…

  1. Hi, Tom. By the end of the war Heller flew more that’s 60 missions and famously said he thoroughly enjoyed the war. Surely making him insane. Or not…

    Great Mitchell, I really love this aircraft as it was a favourite when I was a kid (no idea why) and I think I must have built at least 5 of these in the 70’s. Happy days.

    Terrific background work as ever, Tom.

    • Actually, the 60 missions were less than what everyone else was flying at the time, and he said that all the missions he flew after the Taranto mission in September were “milk runs,” at a time when no one was flying what they described as “milk runs,” particularly after “the Battle of the Brenner Pass” began in early November 1944.

      All indications are that, unlike Yossarian, he said “yes” to the commanders when they asked him to “like us” after tyhe Settimo Bridge mission in August ’44 (in the novel, it’s the mission where Yossarian’s buddy drops his bombs on an empty field rather than bomb a town into rubble – an event that really happened). He got an assignment as part of the acting crew for Lieutenant Wilbur Blume who was making a documentary for Colonel Chapman, “Training in Combat.” For which he did get assigned “milk runs” such as they were. And he got to leave early.

      Almost all the major events in the novel are based on real events. I think in the end, after the war, full of “survivor’s guilt” for the choice he made, he did what writers can do and created a world where his alter ego didn’t do it.

      Anyway, it’s all in my book. Here’s a photo of Lt. Blume doing the documentary and Heller (2nd from right, rear row) as “Pete, a newly-arrived bombardier.”

      2 attached images. Click to enlarge.

  2. Interesting quote, “he did what writers can do and created a world where his alter ego didn’t do it”, especially from an author, Tom. It’s a really interesting thought; often when I work with PTSD sufferers, a key intervention is encouraging them to re-write their narrative in order to orientate their story (and experiences) to a more emotionally ‘neutral’ position.

    I’ll catch the book, which I haven’t gotten around to, but do have ‘Tidal Wave’ on pre-order (being a self-confessed carrier nut).

    Thanks for the thought provoking reply. Has definitely made me want to re-read ‘Catch’ but this time with a different perspective (last time must have been 30 years ago).

    • Just as an aside, the cover here in the U.K. (may be an international cover) for Catch 22.

  3. Bread and Circuses, indeed (and excellent episode of the original and best Star Trek). Or television (“opium for the masses”).

    Tom Cleaver is a subversive. You heard it here.

  4. Interesting story Tom, for those that may be interested Bombshell Decals has done a series on the B-25’s of the 321st, 445th, 340th and 489th Mitchell’s stationed on Corsica.They are excellent and I recommend them highly. http://www.bombshelldecals.com/ I used them on the Revell/Monogram B-25J and they worked superbly.

    1 attached image. Click to enlarge.

  5. Fascinating reading material and background story as always Tom. Awesome B 25!!!
    Thanks for sharing!!!

  6. All quite interesting reading (as always), TC….thanks for the post.

  7. Our family lost a member who flew with this Group. His name was Thomas Bricen and was my Dad’s cousin. He was in the 321st and he (along with his entire crew) was shot down and killed by an 88 MM flak gun over the target.

    He is still buried in Italy as his immediate family wanted him to remain with his crew.

    A memorial stone was placed on “Gardner Hill” where many of our ancestors are.

    Here’s a close up of his Cross in the US Military Cemetery in Florence Italy.

    I believe that this was his 58th mission. He was a top turret gunner and flew missions in various planes.

    He actually flew 7 missions in “Stuff” the plane you modeled Tom B.

    I have been doing a Ton of research on his planes and the missions he flew. He flew in “Babs”, “Spirit of St Louis”, “Stuff”, “Cuddle Bunny” and quite a few other planes. I compiled a mostly complete list of his services with the 321st.

    Later sometime this year I plan on building up the plane “Stuff” since I located the decals you mentioned.

    • Really nice memorial piece, Louis. It’d be terrific to see your work on this project.

      • Thanks David. I plan on building it up as a part of the “Nose Art” GB soon. First I have a few He-111’s to finish.

        I have been trying to locate a photo of the plane he was shot down in, but so far I have not had any luck.
        The plane was a B-25 J -10 named “Evora” and was serial number 43-27553

    • Yeah, nobody flew regularly with a particular crew or a particular plane, like in the 8th. Guys flew every mission they could to get to their 70. So the “crew” he was with would have been guys he probably knew in the squadron, but might have never flown together with before. One guy told me they went down over Switzerland and baled out, and the Swiss asked them to ID the pilot, whose parachute didn’t open (there was a lot of bad ‘chutes), and none of the others knew who he was because he was relatively new.

      The 57th BW Association has all the war diaries of all the groups and squadrons published online. The 321st records are pretty good. You might be able to find more about his missions there.

      • You’re correct Tom. From what I have read about his last mission, the crew was experienced but had a “new” tail gunner. They flew in what planes were available and not normally assigned any particular one. They did have their own favorites and tried to get a place as a crewman on these planes as they could. I think that it was Tom’s first mission in “Evora”.

    • That will be an article worth waiting for, Louis.

  8. really nice article, thanx for sharing a bit of great history.

  9. Well done, Tom. You are a wonderful historian-modeler.
    Thanks for your fine works shown on-line over many years.

  10. Hello Tom,
    As always very interesting WWII material. The model looks fabulous.
    Thanks for putting all this effort to feed us with history. There is interest in these facts. (See all interruptions.) Regards, Dirk / The Netherlands.

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