Cliff Wendell: The Raid on Vicenza, Italy, December 28, 1943:
In this letter I will try to tell you about my experiences of that day and hope this will assist you in your account of the raid in your book.
As you probably remember, the weather was rather bad on that day and most of southern Italy was covered by a heavy layer of clouds. There was some question at briefing whether or not we'd take-off because of the bad weather, so we waited at the planes for the final word that the mission was on. I was flying #65 "RED WING'', the ship we flew overseas. This was to be my 25th combat mission and the rest of the crew had about the same number except Jack O'hara, the right waist gunner, who was flying his 50th that day and expected to complete his tour of duty. He was not a regular member of my crew, but was substituting for one of my men who was sick.
As we stood around the plane waiting for the signal to start up, we all congratulated Jack and told him how lucky it was that his last mission was to be a milk run to Vicenza. We had bombed the same town 3 days before on Christmas Day and had seen no flak and no fighters, so we really expected it to be easy. We finally got the green flare signifying the mission was on, so we taxied out and took off. The leader circled the field at about 1,000 ft. and gradually every plane fell into its proper place in the formation. The 515th was leading that day with six ships, the 512th with six ships was low and to the left, and our squadron, the 514th, had five ships flying high and to the right of the leader. "Red Wing's" position in the formation was on the right wing of the high squadron leader. As one of the 514th ships was forced to turn back right after take-off, we had five ships in our squadron so there was no right wing plane in our second element, There-fore, our plane was farthest to the right and in an extremely vulnerable position.
At briefing we had been told that we would rendezvous with the 98th Bomb group and with a P.38 fighter group at an altitude of 3000 feet over a certain point on the Adriatic Coast. However, as there was a hole in the clouds just over our field, our leader decided to climb above the clouds and attempt to rendezvous with the other groups above the overcast. Consequently we continued circling the field and climbed to an altitude of about 14,000 feet before we were above the clouds and set our course for the rendezvous point, it took us about 35 minutes to climb to this altitude and as a result, we were 35 minutes late to the rendezvous point. Here we circled two or three times and Capt. Thompson attempted to contact the other groups by radio. By this time, they had apparently gone on ahead without us because there was no answer. At this point we probably should have turned back as we were instruct to do, ordinarily, if the rendezvous is missed.
The decision was up to Capt. Thompson and Col. Graff in the lead ship, and they decided to attempt to complete the mission unescorted. It is easy enough now to second guess their judgment in this case, but I believe they were influenced by the fact that this was Capt. Thompson's last mission, and he was naturally anxious to finish up so he could so home, if we had turned back then, we would not have been credited with a mission so he would have had to fly another one some other day, · Also the fact that Vicenza had been an easy target before probably affected the decision. At any rate, we turned north and started ftying up the Adriatic. At this point, a number of the pilots in the formation chose to break the rule of radio silence and started a conversation with the lead ship questioning the wisdom of continuing and suggesting that: we ought to turn back. Of course, this was pure folly, because if the Germans were listening, the fact was being advertised that we were unescorted. The mission continued uneventfully, and we crossed the coast line south of Venice at about 11:30. We were then at about 21,000 feet and slowly climbing to our bombing altitude of 22,500. We flew inland for about 40 miles and then turned North toward our target, the railroad roundhouse and engine repair shops at Vicenza less than 50 miles away. It was then that fighters were first reported, and we saw a whole swarm of them, like little dots in the sky, climbing up to meet us. It was later reported that there were over one hundred of them against our little handful of 17 bombers. They were all FW 190's and Mg 109's, single-engined German air craft armed with 20 mm cannon. The attack started almost immediately and our ship became the primary target because of our vulnerable position. The group was flying in very close formation for maximum protection, and it was comforting to see all the 50 cal. machineguns on the neighboring ships which would help drive off the attack. I was especially thankful for the nose turret on our squadron's lead ship, the first time we had had such protection as all our other ships were B-24 D's which didn't have nose turrets. Four fighters attacked from the rear and the tail gunner "Red" Sansone was just triumphantly announcing the destruction of the first one when six others turned toward us from the front and attacked at one o'clock in a string formation.
As they went flashing by a hail of bullets passed diagonally across in front of me, and I was afraid for the welfare of the boys in the nose. Charlie Borger, our bombardier, was firing the machine gun in the nose, but it wouldn't work properly and only discharged one bullet at a time and would not fire continuously. As the fighters went by they raked us from stem to stern and the noise of the bullets striking the ship was the most fearful sound I had heard in combat. Everything was happening very quickly now. The radioman, Arex Mikaitis, in the upper turret and Jack O'Hara at the right waist gun teamed up to shoot down two of the attackers and "Red" Sansone got another one at the tail for a score of four shot down. But the damage had already been done. I was intent on flying as close to the lead ship as possible and hoping we had weathered the attack with no casualties, when Don Jefferies, the engineer, clapped me on the shoulder. My first thought was that he had been hit, but as I turned to look I saw him pointing toward the bomb bay. His microphone had become disconnected in the excitement so he could not talk to me but the look in his eye told me what had happened. Through the small window in the bomb bay door I saw a blazing inferno. All our gasoline and oxygen was burning around 8000 lbs. of bombs we had there. As Jefferies pulled the red handle to salvo the bombs, I banked the plane to the right and left the formation, at the same time giving the order on interphone to the crew to bail out, and ringing the alarm bell. There was another fire under the co-pilot and one in the nose wheel cornpartnent and the cock pit was fast filling with smoke. The number three engine was smashed and there was another fire in the rear of the ship forward of the ball turret. During the attack Jack O'Hara had been hit and knocked down by shell fragments in the arm, but he had gotten back to his gun in time to help shoot down the fourth plane and then had been sprayed by burning hot oil when #3 engine was hit. Barely able to see, he was assisted to the escape hatch by Angleton and Young, the other two gunners who also had been burned about the face and neck. "Red" Sansone stuck by his guns in the tail turret until he had shot down his second ship, and then looking around he saw the others had bailed out so he grabbed his parachute and quickly left the ship.
Bill Lovaas, the navigator, and Charlie Borger, the bombardier up in the nose had survived the attack unscathed. Upon hearing the order to bail out, Bill pulled the two handles to open the nose wheel doors, but nothing happened. Something had gone wrong with the mechanism, probably having been hit by a shell. Bill went back to get his oxygen mask on again and Charlie came out to the nose wheel compartment. When Bill returned he found that Charlie had succeeded in opening one of the doors and had apparently slipped into the opening and was stuck there, effectively locking the other door shut. He was hanging with his head, arms, and feet out in the slip stream and struggling to free himself. Bill tried to pull him back in, and tried to push him on through, but was unable to budge him. Charlie soon ceased his struggling as he became unconscious through lack of oxygen and Bill followed suit shortly after when the oxygen in his walk around bottle gave out. Later they were both thrown free as the ship broke up. Bill woke up hanging in his parachute, which had miraculously opened, and found himself about 2000 feet above the ground. Charlie never regained consciousness and fell to the ground.
To return to the flight deck, Mikaitis climbed down out of the top turret, and he and Jefferies proceeded to open the door into the bomb bay, however, the fire immediatey advanced onto the flight deck so they closed the door again. My good friend and co-pilot Jim Parsons was sitting in his seat calmly donning his parachute and waiting to help me in whatever way possible. I caught his eye and gave him the signal to leave as I was setting the ship up on the automatic pilot. He went back and helped Jeff and Mike put out the fire on the flight deck and then led the way out the upper escape hatch, a little door in the ceiling just behind the pilot's seat. About this time I had the plane flying by automatic pilot so I left my seat end grabbed my parachute thinking everybody must have already bailed out. However, Jimmy was just pulling his feet through the hatch and Jeff and Mike were standing below waiting to follow him out, It had taken them more time, of course, to put out the fire and to make the difficult climb through the upper hatch, than it would have taken if they could have bailed out through the bomb bay which was the normal escape procedure. So I returned to my seat, put on my parachute, and connected my oxygen mask again. The ship had started into a slow spiral to the left so I adjusted the auto-pilot controls to try to bring it back to a straight glide. Just as I was about to leave my seat again, for the legs of the last man were disappearing through the hatch, the right wing weakened by the intense fire gave way, and the plane fell off to the right into a violent spin. I was thrown out of my seat and was pinned back against the control pedestal and windshield by the force of the spin, I tried with all my might, but couldn't move a limb or a muscle. I prayed for deliverance, but I thought I was done for, and I thought what a blow it would be to my father and mother and sisters when they received the news. It seemed as though I had been in the burning ship for an awfully long time and now it must be approaching the ground, All of a sudden the ship must have broken apart because I was thrown away from the window and was standing between the pilot's and co-pilot's seats, I was completely disoriented and didn't know whether I was standing on the ceiling or the floor. There was so much smoke I couldn't get located and was unable to find the escape hatch which evidently slammed shut when the plane went into the spin, However, I spotted a small patch of daylight which seemed to revolve in front of me, As soon as it seemed below me I took a dive for it. This hole must have been back of the bomb bay somewhere and seemed about 20 feet away. The force of my dive carried me through all the broken and twisted wires until my arms and head were through the hole when the wires caught on my flying suit and held my legs inside the ship. Once again I thought I must be too close to the ground to escape now and I thought the force of the spin would tear me apart in the middle but after about one revolution my clothes ripped and I was thrown clear.
As soon as I was thrown clear of the ship, I was surrounded by an intense silence, such as I had never experienced before, and I was also filled with a great feeling of relief to be free of the burning ship at last. As soon as I could get my bearings I found I was falling head first toward the ground and I still had about six thousand feet of altitude. I knew then I'd be safe and wasn't even worried that the parachute might not open. When falling at such a height, one doesn't really feel like he's falling, but it's more like floating in the air and the silence is really remarkable. I could see and think very clearly. A couple of days before this mission I attended a lecture on parachute jumping, and the instructions I received there came back to me now. I tried to maneuver my body around so that I'd be falling feet first before I pulled the rip chord, but as soon as I got my feet straight down I'd do a flip and be falling head first again , so I compromised and got my feet lower than my head and pulled the rip chord. The chute opened much quicker than I thought it would, giving me a terrific jolt. I had my harness adjusted loosely for comfort in flying, and for that reason the chest buckle hit me in the chest and knocked the wind out of me and probably fractured my breast bone. At any rate, I couldn't draw a deep breath until two months later. While I was recovering my breath I started swinging like a pendulum. At first I disregarded this and just hung in my harness and panted, but when I started to swing so far the chute started to fold under I began to work against the swing and succeeded in slowing it down somewhat. At first it seemed as though I was just hanging in the air, but as the ground came closer the sense of falling increased, and the last three or four hundred feet the ground came up very fast. I was on the up swing when I landed which helped cushion my fall somewhat. I fell forward on my left side and immediately collapsed my chute. I knew that speed was now essential if I were to escape, but as I could see no one about, and I was still struggling for breath, I sat down on the lovely silk cloth of my parachute and gloried in the fact that I was still alive. I looked up and saw a group of parachutes high above me and drifting to the northeast. They were most likely my crew members and I noted their direction so that I could join up with them if possible. Just then a B-24 came into view diving down and being chased by a couple of fighters. As I watched, it burst into flames and about five parachutes trailed out behind it when it exploded and the pieces came fluttering down to earth to land only a mile or two away.
I had landed in a plowed field on the side of the hill. As I descended the hill a couple of farmers came up to meet me. We tried to converse but somehow I had forgotten even the few Italian words I had learned back at the base. We came to a secluded spot and I sat down to examine my knee which I had sprained slightly on landing, All of a sudden a whole crowd of curious people began to appear out of nowhere and I had to leave because any Germans around would be sure to investigate a crowd. One of the fellows in the crowd who seemed to be a leader and was friendly to me indicated I should follow him. I hoped he was a partisan and followed along. We walked three or four hundred yards along the path, turned a corner, and walked right into two armed Italian soldiers. They held their rifles on us and one of them searched me for any weapons, and that was it. I was a prisoner.
They escorted me back across the field where the wreckage of "Red Wing" was strewn, and they allowed me to look over the wreckage for any sign of my crew. It was then I saw the sad sight of a body lying in the middle of the field, and I knew it must be one of my crew. I hurried over wondering who it would be. There was a crowd of people gathered around him, and as I worked my way through I found that it was Charlie Borger, the bombardier, the one who had become stuck in the escape hatch. You can't imagine what a blow it was to see that my friend was dead. We had worked and played and shared danger together for a long time and such experiences bring crew members into a very close relationship. Somebody in the crowd had removed his parachute, and so we pulled the rip chord and spread the chute over Charlie's body.
Then the soldiers and the crowd escorted me to the small village of Lozzo, about a half mile away, and I was placed in a small dark cell in the village jail. The commandant was a fat and haughty fascist decked out in fancy uniform, but he wasn't too proud to steal my pen and pencil set, and my billfold giving a squeal of delight when he discovered it contained about $100 worth of invasion money.
All afternoon I was this commandant's prize exhibit as he brought in his influential friends and proudly displayed his American prisoner. They all tried to talk to me in Italian, German, or French, but none could speak English. I was hungry and tired and sore in body and spirit and trying to overcome the terrific shock of the day's experiences, so I did not much care about being such an exhibit.
Finally at about five o'clock in the afternoon the cell door opened again and there stood two German enlisted men in Luft waffe uniforms. It was a shock to see them because I believe this was the first time the thought entered my mind that I would probably be brought into Germany to one of their notorious camps where the chance of escape would be so slim. They took me outside where they had a motorcycle and side car. The square in front of the jail was crowded with curious onlookers, but whether they were friendly or unfriendly I could not tell. I got into the side car, and the two Germans got on the motor cycle, and we proceeded to the town of Abano-Terme near Padua. It was a long cold ride as somebody had stolen my leather flying jacket, and I had only my flying suit and a pair of khakis to protect me from the wintery winds.
At Abano I was taken before an officer who asked me a few questions, he did not press me, but merely took my name and then had the interpreter bring me over to the officer's mess to get something to eat. He brought me to a table where two boys from the 515th were sitting, both of them bandaged up from burns they had received. I didn't know the fellows, and they didn't know me so our conversation was rather guarded for a time until we were sure of each other's identity as we each feared the others might be Germans trying to obtain some information through such a subterfuge.
I was served a large platter of boiled potatoes covered with a very good meat gravy and coffee. I was famished by this time so it tasted very good to me.
The mess hall was filled with Germans, but our table was near the back of the room, and we were left pretty much alone. We sat there for an hour or two and then they brought in about eight more fellows from the group to eat. When they served them, the waiters also brought the three of us who were there originally, another big helping of the same potatoes and gravy which we accepted with pleasure.
After eating we were loaded on a bus and rode almost all night to Verona. We were each placed in a separate cell, and after being searched and examined by a doctor we were allowed to go to sleep. When I awoke I heard a lot of talking out in the hall. The place had been filled up with survivors of the massacre so they did not have enough cells for everybody, but had to leave a dozen or more men together in a large room at the end of the hall. When the guards left the room, one of the fellows unlocked my door, and I joined the larger group. Here I found three members of my crew, and we were able to piece together the story of what had happened. They knew of three other crew members who were in another part of the building, and were fairly certain that everybody had gotten out of the ship.
During that day I had a chance to talk to every surviving member of my crew. Jack O'Hara was most seriously injured, having been badly burned, and he was taken to the hospital where he was to remain for three months.
At this time none of us knew that Jimmy Parsons, our Co-pilot, had also been killed. When he didn't show up at Verona, we were all anxious for his welfare, but we hoped that he had been able to evade. Probably the full story of what happened to him will never be known. Shortly after the war was over, he was declared "Killed in Action" when his grave was found in a military cemetery near the place where we were shot down. About a year later Jimmy's folks had a letter from an Italian Priest who found Jimmy's body. From his description of the circumstances, it would seem that he had been shot by some German pilot as he was hanging helpless in his parachute. What a tragedy it is that such a fine fellow as Jimmy, who had so much to live for, should be the victim of such unfair play.
During the afternoon and evening, we were all interrogated by a German Sgt. who could speak excellent English. I don't'believe he obtained very much information from anybody. He talked to me for about 15 minutes asking me questions about the group such as, how many airplanes we had, where we were based, how I came overseas, etc. When I told him I wasn't required to tell him any more than my name, rank, and serial number, he said he would turn me over to the Gestapo, and they could make me talk. However, he wasn't very insistent, but seemed anxious to tell me how much they already knew.
They had obtained one of the information sheets we had been given at briefing, stating each pilot's name, squadron, airplane number, and position in the formation. Besides this, he had some other records which he showed me, which listed the names of all the important officers in the 514th Sqdn. giving their positions. The information was all essentially correct except it was about two months old and didn't list the changes that had taken place. To one of the men from the 512th, he showed some pictures of his Squadron Area at San Pan, and he knew who lived in each tent in the area. So the German Intelligence was very efficient and was able to gain a great deal of information about us, though through what source it is hard to tell.
The next morning, December 30th, a small group of us were assembled and taken to the depot. They had taken away our flying boots and flying coveralls, so some of us had khaki uniforms and others had only their baby blue bunting electrically heated suits and what a comical sight they were.
I and three other fellows were placed in one compartment with two German guards, who were evidently on their way home on leave. Each one of us was given a half a loaf of bread and a lb. of butter as our day's rations. It took us all day to go from Verona through the Brenner Pass and then to Munich. To amuse ourselves, we talked about our German guards who could not understand a word of English. You would be surprised at the horrible insults that passed complctely over their heads, and might sometimes even be acknowledged by a sort of a friendly smile.
At Munich we walked into the crowded station, but the people did not seem to notice us. By this time we didn't look anything like the pride of the American Army with our black beards and makeshift uniforms.
After a long wait, we got on another train and traveled all night to Frankfurt. We walked from the depot through the streets of the City and here the people were openly very antagonistic as they had already been bombed a few times. Some spat at us and others made as if they would throw stones at us, and they all looked like enemies indeed.
After a long walk through the cold, wet snow, we arrived at the infamous "Hotel" on the outskirts of Frankfurt, the German Interrogation Center. We were all placed in Solitary Confinement here.
A person who hasn't experienced it, probably can never realize what a terrible ordeal such imprisonment is. My cell was a small room about 5 feet wide and 12 feet long. Its only furnishings were a table, chair, and a hard bed. There were two small windows at the end covered with frosted glass. The room was heated by an electric radiator which was controlled by some diabolical fiend who kept the room either unbearably hot or freezing cold. Here I existed for 4 eternally long days.
My mind was full of thoughts of the terrific experience of the last few days and of doubts about my future fate, and it was impossible to drive these thoughts out of my mind. The first 24 hours I slept a good deal, but after that I was all slept out and couldn't sleep any more. The nights especially, were interminably long.
In the morning we got 2 slices of bread and a cup of ersatz coffee; at noon a bowl of cabbage soup; and at night, 2 slices of bread and a cup of ersatz tea. Truly a starvation diet. I was so hungry that when the meal came, I would wolf it down in a minute and still be ravenously hungry.
There was a church bell someplace in the neighborhood which tolled off every quarter of an hour. I'd listen for the time so I could count the minutes until the next meal.
Many of the prisoners were interrogated here, but for some reason they never got to me. One evening a German Officer came in and told me I was leaving. I followed him down the hall and there I met Bill Lovaas and Don Jefferies. One of them had managed to get a cigarette someplace and the three of us shared it, our first smoke for a week.
We spent the next three days in a small camp in Frankfurt and had our first taste of Red Cross food. What life savers those food parcels were to be, I doubt if many of us would have survived a year and a half of prison life if it hadn't been for the International Red Cross.
From this camp we journeyed to Stalag Luft I at Barth, Germany. My navigator and I were still together while the rest of our crew was sent to a camp near Vienna.
We travelled in one of the small European box cars. Fifty four of us crowded in together and a good share of the 54 were survivors of the 376th Group. When we got together and compared notes, we found that of the 100 men involved, about 50 were killed and about 50 became prisoners.
It took four days to make the journey. We were so crowded we had to take turns sleeping. One night we were stalled in the marshalling yards at Berlin, and this was at the time when the RAF was making almost nightly raids on that City. Fortunately, they visited some other target that night.
We stayed in Stalag Luft I for 16 1/2 months, but as that story has been told so many times before, I will not elaborate on it.
On May 1st, 1945, we were liberated by the Russians, and on May 14, the 8th Air Force flew in and brought us to France.
This story has become a lot longer than I thought it would, but I have written it as completely as I can for two reasons; first, I wanted to give you as much information as possible to make it easy for you to edit it however you wish, and second, I thought it would be a good time to put down in words my experiences while I still remember them.