The Saga of Sunshine

Sunshine at Venegano Airport, Venegono Inferiore, Italy

Growing up I knew only the basics of my father’s (Angelo P. Melchiorre) time in the service. He had been a tail gunner in a B-24 bomber. He had some photographs of B-24s and we would watch them fly on the television show “Twelve O’clock High”. Dad had been shot down and was a prisoner of war in a place called Stalag Luft I in Barth, Germany. We got the humorous version of this from television’s “Hogan’s Heroes”. He told me that a scar in his lower leg was a gun shot wound. And I knew that he did not like to talk about it much beyond that. He was proud to have served, but that fact would be left to speak for itself. Luckily, it did not take much to satisfy a young boy’s curiosity.

Dad’s silence on his wartime experience was typical of many WWII veterans. In fact it wasn’t until 1983 that the 449th Bomb Group Association was formed to preserve the memory of it’s legacy. Periodically since dad’s death in 1972 I would get curious about his war experience. How was he treated as a POW? It could not have been pleasant, but how bad was it? My imagination was fueled by movies like “The Deer Hunter” where POWs in Viet Nam were brutalized and forced to play Russian-roulette for the amusement of their captors. So I would try to dig up information. The Army was of little help as the depot that stored personnel records from that era was destroyed by fire sometime ago. Little came of my research.

1994 was different. It was the 50 year anniversary of the invasion of Normandy and the television, newspapers and magazines were full of stories about WWII. In May a notice on the online service, Compuserve, caught my eye, “Check the Military Forum for WWII anniversary events”. I posted a brief message on the Military Forum with some known facts about dad’s capture. Within hours I had several contacts. One of these led me to Jim Miller, the treasurer of the 449th Bomb Group Association. Jim sent me information about the 449th and a list of the crew members of dad’s plane. It turned out that the nose gunner, Malcom Harper lived just a few miles from me and we arranged to meet over dinner. Mal turned out to be a gold mine of information.

While most of my curiosity focused on dad’s POW experience I gave little thought to the actual capture. I thought the plane was shot down and the crew had bailed out into German hands. It turns out that the capture of the crew and their plane which I now know was named  Sunshine  is a story in itself.

Grottaglie, Italy

The crew arrived in Grottaglie, Italy on January 6, 1944. Grottaglie is located just inside the ‘heel’ of Italy’s boot. By then, Italy had already surrendered to the Allies but the Italian Fascists still controlled much of Italy. It was January 22, 1944 that the Allies established a beachhead at Anzio, on Italy’s Western coast, Southwest of Rome. Almost the whole Northern half of Italy was still enemy territory. Just months before, Grottaglie was an airbase for the Fascist Italian Air Force and was itself the target of Allied bombing attacks from squadrons based in Northern Africa. Between our bombings and the damage caused by retreating armies, Grottaglie was in shambles. Yet, the Allies made it their home. Grottaglie and the other bases in southern Italy including Manduria, San Pancrazio and Lecce were significant to the Allied war effort because for the first time strategic Axis held targets in central Europe were in bombing range. The Allies now had the ability to disrupt enemy troop deployment and supply lines.

Many of the missions Sunshine flew during January through March of that year were against railroad marshaling yards, airfields and troop concentrations in northern Italy.

On a March 28, 1944 mission to Mestre, Italy, Sunshine had to abort due to engine trouble. They were able to feather the engine and returned safely to Grottaglie. Because Mission Command had already issued a “Maximum Effort” command for the following morning, Sunshine was immediately turned over to a ground crew who worked all night making repairs. Parts were scavenged from B-24’s that were worse off than Sunshine. By morning Sunshine was once again running on 4 engines.

A “Maximum Effort” required any plane capable of taking off to fly the mission. This mission targeted the railroad marshaling yards at Bolzano, near the Swiss and Austrian borders in northern Italy. The purpose was to stop the flow of supply’s to the southern front.

To Bolzano

On Wednesday March 29, 1944, at 0821 hours, the 449th with the untested Sunshine as the last plane in formation, took off and began the 3 1/2 hour flight to Bolzano.

Sketch: ME109

It was a cold winter and the high altitude made it that much worse. Bombers at this time were essentially unheated. Gunners at the open bays were prone to frostbite. Flak was a constant companion and the planes were often riddled with holes. A squadron of German ME-109s was spotted to the east, but they kept their distance. Being the last plane in formation was a lonely task, and nobody realized that more than the tail gunner of the last plane.

Before reaching the target at Bolzano, Sunshine’s engine, repaired with scavenged parts, failed again and had to be feathered. Sunshine began to lose speed and altitude and was forced to drop out of formation. By this time the escort of P-38 fighters had turned back. Lone bombers were easy prey for enemy fighters. The gunners were alert.

Sunshine was flying with a replacement navigator, Samuel Guttenberg. It was his first mission with Sunshine. Guttenberg plotted a course to Switzerland, the nearest safe zone. To lighten their load they salvoed the bombs intended for Bolzano into a barren mountain. The crew held on. They continued to lose altitude. The mountains below became threatening.

Just before reaching safety in Switzerland, a burst of flak took out a second engine. The plane rapidly lost altitude. Over the intercom the crew weighed their options. It was time for a quick decision, to bail out or stay with the plane. The navigator estimated that they were just 2 minutes from Switzerland. The crew decided to hang on. Lt. Hemphill tried to make the best of their rapid descent. An air strip came into sight.

Sunshine came down hard but intact. You could hear a collective sigh of relief from the crew. However, relief quickly turned to concern.

As they came off the plane the crew saw that they were surrounded by hostile, armed soldiers, and they were not Swiss. They were Italian Fascists. Sunshine and crew had come down short of the Swiss border and into enemy hands.

Captured

The crew was stripped of their uniforms and boots. Each was given a 2 piece outfit fashioned from burlap to wear. Angelo hid his ability to speak Italian. For several days they were moved from town to town and housed in local jails. Soon they were turned over to the Germans who placed them in solitary confinement. They were fed meager rations. The interrogation began.

One day the crew boarded a German JU-52 for an unknown destination. After a short flight they approached an airfield for landing. Angelo recognized it, and a few of the crew confirmed that it was the airfield where Sunshine landed.

At the airfield, they saw their plane along with a motion picture crew from the German Propaganda Division. The Sunshine crew was forced to enact what they thought at the time was a voluntary surrender. In fact the finished newsreel referred to it as a forced landing. Over and over they were filmed disembarking from Sunshine. Each time, Mal Harper would flash the V for victory sign. Being from Hollywood, Mal knew full well what he was doing to the German script. A German actor was placed in with crew for scenes that required cooperation.  (see unidentified in the photo above)

Typical of most all day filming sessions, this was edited down to a 45 second clip for German newsreels. It was shown complete with aerial footage, flak guns firing, ominous music and a voice over. Harper’s persistent V for victory ended up on the cutting room floor, but from the brief footage of the crew, one can tell that they are not happy.  (This footage is from the Bundesarchiv)

Sunshine was repaired by the Germans and flown by the Luftwaffe in intruder missions against the RAF. Unfortunately the crew went from being actors to POWs. They were transferred to Dulag Luft in Frankfurt, Germany. Dulag Luft was where all POWs were photographed, fingerprinted, and placed in solitary confinement. Each POW filled out a Red Cross form, often called a “capture card”. The official purpose of the form was to collect the name, rank, and serial number of the POW, but the Germans often had other questions on the form in an effort to gain needed information.  (For You the War Is Over, pg. 54)

Dulag Luft was staffed by interrogation specialists. It was much more intense than what they had encountered in Italy. Most interrogation at Dulag Luft was brief, usually less than one week and seldom involved torture. Physical treatment ranged from neglect to withholding food, cigarettes, reading materials, the use of a sweat box treatment and the disruption of sleep.  (For You the War Is Over, pg. 58)

Information was extracted using a variety of psychological techniques and mental harassment to keep the POW off guard. A popular routine was the “good cop, bad cop” approach used by teams of interrogators. Angelo was unsettled by the fact that, just days after being captured, the Germans already knew so much about him including information about his family and previous jobs. When interrogation was complete the POW’s were taken to their permanent prison. A special Luft was set up for communications specialists. Sunshine’s radio operator, Dominic Lombardelli, was separated from the crew.  Angelo and the rest of the Sunshine crew, were sent to Stalag Luft #1 in Barth, Germany.

Stalag Luft #1 was their home for 13 months until May 4, 1945 when they were liberated by the Russian armies advancing on Germany from the west.

Back at Grottaglie

The 449th Bomb Group lost 2 planes that day. One crashed shortly after take off. Sunshine was MIA.

An entry from the diary of SSgt. John T. Johnson, 719 Squadron, 449 Bomb Group, Ball turret gunner, Geisels’ crew, “Wednesday X, March 29, Raid #39 Bolzano marshaling yards northern Italy. P-38 escorts – lost one of them. Flak galore but no fighters. Some of planes came back with flak holes. Sweating out number five ‘Sunshine’ – a new crew was flying her. 717th squadron lost one ship on takeoff. Two were killed in it. Number five never came back.” (pg. 446, “Grottaglie, and Home”)

And from the journal of the 449th Aircraft Inspector, Lt. Col. H. A. Wilkes, “Lost one plane ‘Holy Joe’ today. Plane crashed about three miles from end of runway. Two gunners were killed. Others seriously injured. Pilot Fowler was flying co-pilot. Weather seems to be breaking, one other plane missing in action, 42-52106. (pg. 456, “Grottaglie, and Home”). 42-52106 is the serial number for Sunshine.

In all, the 449th Bomb Group lost 101 B-24s in combat during the Allied war effort from January 8, 1944 to April 16, 1945. 453 men lost their lives. 363 men became POWs.

There’s a mission today

There’s a mission today – you’re scheduled to fly.
So you wait by the ship and look at the sky.
It’s cloudy up there and the wind starts to blow.
But the mission ain’t scrubbed – get in and go.

Your nerves are on edge, you cuss and you sweat,
if this damned ship flies you lose your bet.
But the ship takes off and you settle down
and cast a longing glance at that lovely ground.

The ship will fly while the engines run
so you take your post at your trusty gun
and check to see if it’s working right.
If the round ain’t short nor the head space tight.

You’ve joined your squadron and joined your group
the vapor trails are as thick as soup.
Your breath comes short and you check your hose
and cuss like hell cause the damn thing’s froze.

You clear the ice and you breathe again.
It’s the life for birds – but not for men.
Your face is cold and your masks too tight
so you pull it off and fix it right.

You’ve never seen it so damned cold.
It tightens you up with a square hold.
Your fingers freeze to the grips of your guns.
You wonder who said that flying was fun.

The stuff is still bursting thick and black
you cuss the guy that invented flak.
It pounds on the ship like an angry surf.
You’re scared to hell, but you keep you’re nerve.

You’re skipper is wise, he’s dodging the stuff
but there in the tail the riding is rough.
The ship is hit cause you feel the lurch.
Your guns swing free as you lose your perch.

You feel her lurch and start to drop
over the ‘phone comes “feather the prop!”
Smoke streams back from Number Two
but your pilot is quick and pulls her thru.

Soon you’re over the field and circling round
Then into the pattern and on the ground.
Then take her up to the parking place
You’ve made it again with the good Lord’s grace.
Clear your gun and raise up its cover
Then scramble out to look her over.
The ground crews there with a silly grin
They ask “Where in Hell have you been?”

She’s full of holes from nose to tail
But she went and came and didn’t fail.
Just above where your head has been
You could drive a truck thru the vertical fin.

Your job is done so down to the tent
Then head for chow like a man hell bent.
Those empty seats sort of spoil the meal
You’ve lost some pals, but it doesn’t seem real.

You wait a while and watch the door
But they don’t come back like they’ve done before.
So you try to forget it and think of tomorrow
You’ve paid for the flight but not the sorrow.

This story goes on, it has no end
You lose a ship and you lose a friend.
Maybe some day you won’t come back
And they’ll chalk you up to ‘fighters and flak’.

It’s a hell of a life and you feel the strain
But you’d do the whole thing over again.
Still you pray for the day when there’ll be no war
So you can see what in hell you’re fighting for.

You’re doing your job. You’re winning the fight
Doing your best to make things right.
Just hope you’ll live thru it and someday see
That “lasting peace in a world that’s free”

—from A Wartime Log, Angelo P. Melchiorre.

The crew members of Sunshine:

  • Gifford T. Hemphill – Pilot
  • Nelson D. Wood – Co Pilot
  • Samuel Guttenberg – Navigator (replaced Robert Feldman 3/29/1944)
  • John D. Puff- Bombardier
  • Francis J. (Frank) Talisano – Engineer
  • Dominic D. Lombardelli – Radio Operator
  • Orel Malcom Harper- Nose Gunner
  • Angelo P. Melchiorre – Tail Gunner
  • D.C. Powell – Waist Gunner
  • Eugene W. (Pat) Briggs – Ball Gunner
  • Robert Feldman – Navigator

References:

  • A Wartime Log, Angelo P. Melchiorre (Photographs, poems, sketches)
  • Bundesarchiv, Koblenz, Germany (motion picture and over 60 still photos)
  • For You the War Is Over, David A. Foy, Stein and Day, 1984, ISBN 0-8128-2925-5
  • Grottaglie, and Home, a History of the 449th Bomb Group
  • Malcom Harper conversations with the author
  • Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) 3715
  • Tucson to Grottaglie, a History of the 449th Bomb Group

Men known to be at Stalag #1 with my father (from A Wartime Log):

  • M.O. Signorelli, Bronx, NY
  • William P. Bailey, Sweetwater, TX
  • Gil Klaeser, Keil, Wisc.
  • J.J. Morris, Youngstown, OH
  • J.R. Byerly, Colonel

Sunshine, a B-24 Liberator, 719th Squadron,
449th Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force
Combat #5, Serial# 42-52106
by Mark Melchiorre

13 replies on “The Saga of Sunshine”

Hello, I can tell you further details about the landing and capture of the Sunshine at Venegono.
The story was told to me in detail by the two people who first showed up under the plane when the crew opened the hatch.
They were two dear friends, respectively an engineer and a radio operator aboard the Italian S79.
If you like to know the details, write me at my email address.
Greetings from Italy!

Hi There
I m a researcher from Italy, I’m looking for all 60 shots and the full reel taken by the Nazi propaganda’s crew. Mr:Melchiorre could you please help ?
thanks for your help
best regards
Vinz

Dear Sirs:
Thank You for the service of Angelo P. Melchiorre and all the other guys of the 449th.
My father was also part of the 449th – 719 squadron. Growing up Dad would talk some about Italy and his experiences. Us kids always thought he was part of a crew on a bomber but later found out he must have actually been part of the ground crews. Dad was a “Radar Tech” This was totally new technology at this point near the end of the war. They started putting radar on B-24’s – on a lead plane of formations – called the “mickey ship”. When the Mickey ship dropped it’s bombs so did all the others bombers. This allowed bombers to drop bombs on targets even if it was cloudy or obscured – when the traditional bomb sights were ineffective.
I wish there was more information available on Bomb Groups ground crews. There were just as many men working on planes at night than those that flew them.
Thank You to all these great men.

My father was in the 449th and in the Flying Horsemen (718th or 719th) . He was a ball turret gunner.

Thank you for your research and for sharing.

My Uncle Giff was the Pilot. Told many stories of his capture and POW. Always have been proud of him. Several Uncles in WWII. My mom lost her first love, Lawrence K. Bonk, in WWII. Just want to keep his memory alive too.

Please contact me for further information. This bomber was in Werneuchen for testing. I have some pictures and working on a book of chronic from airfield werneuchen. kind regards kamerad, salut. Martin Kuban, Muehlenstrasse 3, 16356 Werneuchen, Handy und whatsapp: ++49 (0) 157 56293862

Just wanted to say very well done site about your father and Sunshine. Bless him for what he he had to go through for our country.

After my research on the case of the city of Urbania related to the bombing of 23 January 1944 which had as its primary objective Perugia read the mission report (mission.n.14) of the 449th BG A/C 30 operated by Wheeler:
Bombs Dropped On Target: 10 (bombs) on the city of Urbinio ( Urbania or Urbino?) Where you hit a crossroads at a height of 12.37 20.300ft (6,200 m) with route west-east (90 ° North).
On 23 January 1944, the city of Urbino has not undergone any air attack while Urbania at 12.40 has been a terrific heavy bombardment with 250 deaths civili.L ‘hours of the report of the A / C 30 in addition to other (A / C 24-8-13)corresponds with the time of the tragedy in Urbania).
The city of Urbino is located relatively close to Urbania.dato that the documentation of reports of the mission clear none is possible to find and analyze the pictures taken on that mission from the 449th B24? Thus we can write with greater certainty this page in the history of the War World.
Federico Uncini

Can anyone help me? I have a very large (4’x3′) framed print of a B-24 Liberator (in flight) with the following handwritten on the bottom right – “Joe Martin October 1944 15th AF 449th Bomb Group; 717th Bomb Sqd; Brenner Pass, Italy; Nosegunner B-24 Liberator” It belonged to my father… Any thoughts?? Are there people or organizations that might be interested in this?

Hello,

I am a researcher of World War II, Allied air campaign in Italy. They are being studied on the operation “shingle” January 1944. In the following report of January 23, 1944 is the 449th bombed the city of Umbertide.

January 1944

Summary of 449th Bomb Group Missions

Narrative Report No. 14 Date: 23 January 1944
Target: Perugia, Italy, Marshalling Yard.
Thirty-six B-24-H’s took off to attack the M/Y at Perugia, Italy today. 32 A/C reached the target area. Because of a complete undercast no bombs were dropped on the assigned target. The following targets of opportunity were hit: (1) Porto Civitonova, 4318N – 1344E. Photos show one burst on the choke point at the south end of the M/Y. Approximately 30 bursts scattered throughout the town. 10 bursts 2,500 feet West of the town. 10 – 15 bursts scattered South of the town. This is the only target of opportunity having photo coverage. (2) Road and bridge near Cagli, 4334N – 1240E. Visual observation reports approximately 10 bombs in road and bridge. (3) M/Y north of Perugia. (4) Some hits on railroad warehouses at 4320N – 1343E. (5) Some hits on Umbertide, town directly North of Perugia. Smoke observed. (6) Visual observation of some hits on airstrip 2 miles south of Iesi. A total of 75 tons of 500 pound GP .1 and .025 bombs were dropped on the above targets at 1200 to 1315 hours from 20,000 feet. 2 A/C jettisoned their bombs at 1245, NE of target area from an altitude of 20,500 feet, through a solid overcast.

None of our aircraft is missing.There were no attacks by enemy A/C.

Flak. a. 4237N – 1404E: Heavy, slight to moderate, not accurate. b. 4240N – 1350E: Heavy, moderate, very accurate. c. At Giulianova, 4245N – 1358E: Heavy, intense, very accurate. d. Mobile at 4240N – 1400E: Heavy, moderate, accurate.

Four A/C returned early, one because of runaway prop on #1 engine; one because of a leak in the hydraulic system in tail turret causing the fluid to obscure the vision of the gunner; one because of a bad oil leak in #3 engine; and the fourth because of flak damage sustained at 4240N – 1351E at 1155 hours. Flak hit on conduit and cut out autosyn instruments.Weather over target 9/10 to 10/10 undercast.

From my investigation Umbertide on that date has not suffered ay bombing.

Do you have documents where you can verify that it was attacked Umbertide or another target with a similar name. On January 23, 1944 was bombed the nearby town of Urbania, similar name.
thanks

Fred Uncini

Italy

Email: hooks79@aliceposta.it

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