A B-24 Liberator, 719th Squadron,
449th Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force
Combat #5, Serial# 42-52106
by Mark Melchiorre
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.
The crew arrived in Grottaglie, Italy on 6 Jan 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 22 Jan 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 28 March 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.
On Wednesday 29 March 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.
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.
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)
(Click the play button)
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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. (Author’s note: We got to see Dominic a lot when we were young. He is my brother’s Godfather) 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 4 May 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 8 Jan 1944 to 16 Apr 1945. 453 men lost their lives. 363 men became POWs.
Dedicated to my father, Angelo P. Melchiorre.
To O. Malcom Harper,
and the rest of the crew of Sunshine.
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
- 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
Links of interest: