Saturday, April 25, 2009

My Father’s First Trip to Italy

In 1943 my father got an all-expense paid trip to Italy courtesy of the United States Army Air Corps. My dad, Dwight, told me this story a number of times before he died in 1985. His story was very funny and tragic at the same time and I always thought it would have made a good novel or film along the lines of "Catch 22". I’ll try to relate the story as best as I can remember, knowing full well that my father may have stretched the truth a bit here and there.

My father had been in "Cadets" as he called it, and upon graduation as a lieutenant, was assigned to a crew and a B-24 bomber. Dwight was the co-pilot. They started at an Army air field in Nebraska and flew the bomber in stages to Italy. The flight path included Puerto Rico, Brazil, Africa and finally Italy.

While on the ground in Puerto Rico, Dwight and his crew drank more than a few "rum and cokes" and found cases of rum to be an incredible bargain. Since they were flying a long-range bomber designed to carry tons and tons of bombs and armament, and they were heading to a war zone with a shortage of alcohol, they decided it might be prudent to take some rum with them. They shrewdly felt that some alcohol starved American airmen might also appreciate owning their own bottle. The crew of ten each bought several cases of rum; as many cases as they could afford. So many, in fact, that they were overloaded upon takeoff and forced to re-arrange the placement of some of the rum, and jettison some of the remainder before taking off for South America. At this point in the story, my father, who was an excellent mathematician would go over the calculations of what a bottle of rum might weigh, how many there were on board, and where they would be placed so as not to imbalance the airplane. (I always found this part of the yarn to be a little unbelievable, but I have never been a 25 year old going off to war, so I won’t dis-avow it.)

They landed rather heavily in Brazil and I imagine while there re-fueling, they sold a few cases and drank a bottle or two. They acquired a trained monkey from some enterprising Brazilian and took off across the South Atlantic for Africa.

They landed and re-fueled in Timbouctou, Mali, a Muslim country. Why that particular place, I don’t know. They had to drink their rum in secret and for the first time, without Coca-Cola and/or ice. They found the rum to be harsh and almost undrinkable. The locals were friendly but had rather sticky fingers and the warplanes had to have guards posted inside and outside of each one.

Dwight told me of his visit to the Casbah, the old quarter of any North African city. I am unclear whether this was in Timbouctou, or some other town in Morocco or Algeria. They went armed with their sidearms in holsters, and in large groups to the nightclub where they saw a remarkable dance by a remarkable woman. Unfortunately, I can’t remark to any great extent here. But, imagine a beautiful Arab woman wearing a veil and nothing else on a stage that was darkened to the point of being pitch black. Nothing was visible except the red tips of the American’s cigarettes. The Arab woman came out with a single lit candle in her mouth. She had other candles in her hands, and a candle or two stashed elsewhere on her person. Slowly she danced, and one by one, lit the other four candles. The candles would slowly burn down while she whirled about provocatively. One by one the candles would burn out and the stage would be dark again. When the lights came on, the woman would have disappeared. Dwight would always express his appreciation for this highly artistic dance and he always told me the other airmen, some of them unsophisticated, bumbling southern backwoodsmen who knew little about Arab culture, also showed great appreciation for this art form.

Eventually they ended up in Bari, Italy at an airfield from where they flew missions to bomb strategic targets in Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia, Romania and Germany. Dwight participated in a raid over the Nazi oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania, in an attempt to cut off the oil supply to the Nazi war machine. It was the largest daylight raid of the war and the Germans had it heavily fortified with anti-aircraft guns. The allies suffered tremendous losses when they attacked this target, but somehow, Dwight managed to live through it. In fact he flew his required missions, 35 or perhaps 50, I cannot remember. But the odds were not on his side for surviving even ten of the missions, but he came though physically unscathed.

A significant number of his crew did not survive. Some died torn apart by flak, others from Nazi fighter’s 30 caliber bullets. Others died in horrific fires. The crew watched other planes in their squadron plummet to the ground on fire, with wings missing and often with conscious airmen trapped inside. When a member of his crew died in battle, it was my father’s duty to gather up the possession’s of the lost flyer and send them along to his parents or his wife. Dwight reluctantly took possession of the flyer’s rum stash and sent along some of his own money to the relatives. At this time the rum was almost worthless. They tried to sell it to the Officer’s Club or to other flyers or ground crew. But because there was no Coca-Cola or ice in that part of Italy, they had few takers. There was an abundance of Italian wine, some captured German beer, a little American and Scotch whiskey, but no one drank rum straight and neat.

Eventually Dwight ended up with more than half of the Puerto Rican rum in Bari, Italy. The cases of rum were in his tent, under his bed and made to serve as tables and chairs. As time passed and the Allies began pushing the Germans up the Italian peninsula, two things happened. One, an old ice plant was resurrected in Bari. And two, a Coca-cola plant was shipped to Naples from Atlanta and was put into business for the pleasure of the American soldiers. The result was that Puerto Rican rum shot up in value from, shall we say, 10 cents a bottle to two dollars a bottle. Dwight was suddenly, literally, sitting on a fortune.

His allotted missions flown, Dwight boarded a troop ship back home to the U.S. It was something like a two or three week trip and Dwight spent his time playing poker and other games of chance with his winnings. Dwight always said he wasn’t a gambler, and playing poker with his shipmates didn’t signify as gambling. It was more like a sure thing.

He arrived back in Denver, Colorado and he and my mom were able to buy their first house with cash. It must be said that a house in Denver in 1946 could be purchased for around $3000, but still, it was a lot of money then.

He and my mom made a trip to France, Austria, England and Italy in 1964 and it was his only return visit. He lost many friends there. He swore that motorcycle and jeep accidents claimed the lives of at least as many airmen as the Nazis. The young soldiers, often with a fatalistic feeling that their number was soon to be up, generally drove dangerously drunk, and recklessly even while sober.

As I said, my father was never one to let truth get in the way of a good story and I doubt all of this is true. But I think most of it is. Understandably, I don’t think I ever saw him drink a rum and coke. He told me the story many times and it never changed in the major details. He, and anyone who could verify the truth are long gone. I could kick myself now for waiting so long to write it down. I wish I had tried to get it on paper when he was alive because I think it’s a marvelous story, factual, partly factual or pure fiction.


Harley said...

Your account of your dad's B-24 experiences inspired me to send it to a 91 year old friend who also flew B-24's in Europe. He said that it all sounded very true and he added some tales of his own. It is inspiring to listen to these members of the "Greatest Generation" and to hear their accounts of courage despite great fear, their loyalty to their buddies, and their sense of purpose, as well as to their funny stories, including big screw-ups by the military.

Harley said...

Your account of your dad's B-24 experiences inspired me to send it to a 91 year old friend who also flew B-24's in Europe. He said that it all sounded very true and he added some tales of his own. It is inspiring to listen to these members of the "Greatest Generation" and to hear their accounts of courage despite great fear, their loyalty to their buddies, and their sense of purpose, as well as to their funny stories, including big screw-ups by the military.

Bill Minckler said...

Sitting in your living room at cocktail time and hearing Dwight tell basically the same story over and over again is my foldest memory of your ol' man!

Anonymous said...

What happened to the trained monkey?

Anonymous said...

Great story! My father was in the Pacific and saw the flag(s) raised on Iwo Jima...but he really never wanted to talk about his war service very much...I just know he drove those navy landing crafts that dropped the marines onto the beaches.

It's hard to believe long long ago those events occured.


Peggy said...

Thanks, Doug, for putting this in writing. I know I didn't listen enough to these stories. We heard the funny ones but, as Luke mentioned, they don't talk about a lot of it. I didn't realize the impact on our dad until he was in the hospital dying with leukemia and his bad dreams and drug induced hallucinations were about that airplane. Looking back, there were probably many dark days related to those memories. It makes you think about the young men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan now and how they will be affected.

Anonymous said...

I had the good fortune to go as Dad's date to the 40th reunion of his bomb squadron in about 1982. it was incredibly emotional for the men. Many of the men said it was the first time they had talked about the war since they had returned home. They all laughed, cried and drank too much but it was an amazing event to witness. On the last day they had a memorial service for all their fellow troop mates who had made the greatest sacrifice. It was at the Air Force Academy at the chapel. Outside they laid wreaths down and called the names of the dead along with a 21 gun salute and then the Blue Angels flew overhead. I can tell you that you have never seen so many tough old dudes weep, it must have been very cathartic for all of them.
I know that the war haunted Dad his whole life, I know he had nightmares his whole life about the war. Thanks for putting this into writing for us all Doug. You'd make Dad proud.
Love, Amy