Pierced Steel Planking: the gates of the war

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First contact

Pasquale Libutti
From the gates to Internet
All began from seeing some old iron gates in Venosa, made by recycling the material used by the Allies in the building of military airfields during the war.
It's possible to find similar gates everywhere in the Vulture area, but in Venosa these gates are plentiful: why? Alberto Leggieri, native of Venosa, answers the question. Simply: there had been an American air force base near the town.
Towards the end of 2007, more than sixty years after the war, a quick search on the Internet yields the first results: the website of the 485th Bomb Group Association, formed by the Veterans and relatives of Venosa airmen.
On the screen appear photos and names of crew members, combat missions accomplished by this Unit. The first step was taken, it takes nothing more than calling people over to the computer to arouse their curiosity. 
So begins information being passed by word of mouth, and the search for information.   The idea, immediately shared with Renato Mancino, is to create a webpage that summarizes the history of the airfield: and so this experience is born.  But let us take this step by step.
An airman
Beyond the 485th Bomb Group Association website we found more: only two pages and a photo dedicated to the Sgt. Donald Boettcher. It's the story of a single man: a twenty-year old boy who made 52 missions on the planes of the 485th BG. In June of 1944 he was wounded during a landing, but continued to fly another 17 missions. At the end of the war, his life was a Calvary from one military hospital to another.
He met a girl, he married her, he had a son. On January 4, 1948, when his wife was 21 years-old and his son 6 months, he died due to the consequences of his wounds; he was 23 years-old.
 We know the 485th BG had hundreds of killed in action, but that we read about Donald Boettcher moved us, distressed us.
The pages about Sgt. Boettcher contain also a brief poem, written by David Childers: a person unidentified by the text, maybe one of Venosa airmen.
We look carefully: the pages of Sgt. Boettcher are in the website of the AWON, an Association made up of war orphans that dedicates pages and pages to the fallen:  a just memorial. If are able to build our website, we will contact the AWON in order to write a thought for Terry Boettcher, the son of the airman Donald and member of AWON.
(Photo 485th BG)
  (by David Childers)
There is a wheat field in Venosa
Where the Bombers fly no more
The tin can houses torn down
Fifty years work done
There's a farmer in Venosa
Working in Italy's sun
In the place where as a young man 
My Father stood
And there is a calmness in Venosa
That the flyers never knew
A breeze from the peaceful sea
In a foreign afternoon

The photos of Vincenzo
Alberto Leggieri introduces us to Vincenzo Miranda. Enthusiast about anything that is has to do with his town, Vincenzo found and bought on E-bay two aerial photographs of  the Venosa airfield, taken in1944.
That's incredible! It' s possible to see the runway, the aircraft pits, the shapes of about sixty airplanes.
With the aerial photos I get down to work with Franco Di Lucchio. He is a technician, accustomed to managing maps and blueprints, and moreover he has a pilot license and is used to seeing things from above. The idea is to locate the site of the photos on the satellite images by Google Earth.
The search takes two minutes, less than expected; the result leave us speechless with amazement.
We find the area not because of the roads or other reference points: the satellite image shows the pale trace of the runway, a ghost with a lighter colour than the nearby fields, perfectly superimposed onto the aerial photo of 1944.
Over sixty years of plowings, more than a couple asphalted roads in the area, but the runway and the pits of the bombers are still there, as if waiting for the return of the airplanes. It was only a dirt strip covered by metal sheets, used for a single year by the airplanes: it is still visible. The words of the poem by David Childers, the wheat field and all the rest come to mind.
PSP FAB base tutta.jpg (81574 byte)
PPS base gh 60.jpg (50833 byte)
The man of the poetry
Now, by chance, comes up the man of the poem. For job reasons I have contacts with Giovanni Battista Bochicchio, doctor of the Venosa Hospital; I tell him about the old Venosa airfield. Dr. Bochicchio came from the town of Filiano, but his wife is a native of Venosa; and by sheer coincidence, his father-in-law, Antonio Di Grisolo, is one of the owners of the area where the runway once was.  And thus, I have found the farmer who plows the wheat field in the poetry of David Childers. It’s him, and his father before him; and he also remembers meeting the people of the airfield as a young boy.
It’s the moment to write to Mr. Terry Boettcher and to Mr. Jerry Whiting, historian of 485th Bomb Group Association; to Jerry we send the aerial photos of 1944 and the satellite image in which still today the field is visible. The answer is immediate. Mr. Boettcher sends an email containing the same images sent to Mr. Whiting. Evidently, our interlocutors are just as interested in the photos, exchanging both. Power of the technology: these images were closed in a drawer for 60 years, later in America someone placed them on sale with E-bay, then Vincenzo bought them. In a couple of days, the same images bounced back and forth from Italy to America and vice versa, thanks to e-mails. And we are happy because we are useful to the 485th BG Association. A dense exchange of emails begins, leading us to other information.


The crew of B-24 "Miss Conduct"
Mr. Terry Boettcher shows us the site of 456th Bomb Group, located at Stornara  airfield (http://www.456thbombgroup.org) where we found  the photos of a young airman of the 485th BG, Harold "Red" Kempffer (who, naturally, is a friend of Mr. Whiting, as we learn some days later) and in addition, photos taken in Venosa, with people of the town.
From one of these photos we notice something of detail. It is the image of B-24  Miss Conduct - Target for tonight; this airplane was delivered to Stornara by a crew of the 485th BG of Venosa (they used it in the flight from the USA to Italy).
The name of one of crewmen is Max L. Childers, and his name is also painted on the airplane fuselage. It is the same last name of the author of the poem (David Childers) and therefore he must be his son. Of the 3,500 men of 485th BG, it just so happened that we were able to identify him immediately; now we begin to associate names and faces of the people in the images.
The crew of  Lt. Arthur Rasco was shot down over Vienna. The men, launched themselves out of the plane with the parachutes, returning to Italy with the aid of Yugoslavian partisans.

Miss Conduct crew  (Photo 485th BG).

Back row, left to right: 1st Lt. Arthur W. Rasco, pilot; 2Lt. Robert W. Walcott, co-pilot; 2Lt. Joseph M. Stewart, bombardier, 2Lt. Max L. Childers, navigator.

Front row: S/Sgt.Bloyce F. Jordan, waist gunner; S/Sgt. Raymond J, Buster nose turret gunner; T/Sgt. Ernest Birch, flight engineer; S/Sgt. Edward J. Kelly, radioman/waist gunner; S/Sgt. Harold J. Kempffer, ball turret gunner, S/Sgt. Raymond S. Lonergan, tail turret gunner.

The interpreter


Mr. Donato Grano tells me of his adventures: it is another page of th site www.storiedelsud.altervista.org.
During the war he was in the Italian Navy, but he also tells that his cousin Antonio Motolese was an interpreter with the 485th BG. I telephone Mr. Antonio, who tells me his story.
His father had been in America, therefore Antonio understood English and offered to be a translator to the Americans.
After the 485th BG he was added to 1898th Aviation Engineer Battalion, he worked with this Unit for some time, later he went to the Forlanini airport of Milan. He worked as an interpreter for a lifetime, working in the import-export department.
Now, 84 years old, he lives in Florence and continues to translate for scientific publications and much more.
Antonio Motolese speaks about Myron Ritzi, a Sgt of the 485th BG, about a pair of Italian-Americans who had relatives in Maschito, of another American with relatives in Venosa: he must be Pat Salese, as I saw from the documents sent by Mr. Whiting.
He explains several other things to me, and I send him the address of Mr. Whiting: so he could contact him.
Visit to Venosa
Our relationship with Jerry Whiting, historian of 485th BG, deepens. For a long time he thought of coming to Italy; now, even if for only a few days, he decides to come to Venosa in February along with the niece of another airman, Mary Ann Gworek. I warn him: it is possible to find bad weather this time of year, perhaps snow or rain, but he is not worried. From his answer I understand what he thinks: it will not be worst than the winter of 1944, one of coldest within living memory, when his father lived in the icy tents of Venosa’s airfield.
He is not the first to return to Venosa. Mr. Whiting writes that in 1965 the photographer of 485th BG, Sy Weinstein, came to Italy to find the Morlino family. Other members of the 485th BG came to Italy around 1980, finding people that remembered the facts of the time: Mr. Whiting sends me a newspaper article in regards to this as well as some maps, from which we realize why Vincenzo’s second aerial photo contains a large area around the runway.
The map points out the runway and the tent camp, respectively, the areas assigned to the four Squadrons who composed the 485th BG: (828th, 829th, 830th, 831st). In the second photo the airmen therefore framed the tent camp, that  is not near the runway as we first thought.
It is the moment, now, for Vito L' Erario, expert of GPS, cartography, graphic elaborations.
He has the task of mapping references of the airfield, in order to supply the cartography that Mr. Whiting kindly asked us for. In the meantime, with Alberto Leggieri who knows the area, we decide to make an inspection on the air base.
Above: map supplied from Mr. Terry Boettcher (by Steve and
Laura Sharpe, according to information of Mr. Jerry Whiting).
Below: the second aerial photo of Vincenzo.  
On-the-spot investigations
Here lies a rusted quonset, known as the "hangar": It belongs to the base, even if it is much too small for a B-24. We identify the runway and the pits of the airplanes, and understand why it is all visible from the satellite. On the track of the runway, tons of river stones have been unloaded onto it in order to render it more compact; people tell stories that it took three months to build the runway. The grain grows with difficulty through the white stones, therefore from the satellite images the runway appears clear.
Nothing else has been conserved: many war surpluses were removed in order to cultivate the fields, including cartridge cases and other (Alberto’s father once found an airplane bomb in the nearby fields, and immediately informed the base personnel...).
Our inspection appears disappointing; perhaps the tent camp area is saving surprises for us. The tent camp can be double checked on the maps, so I decide not to jump ahead and wait for that inspection. Our friends Jerry Whiting and Mary Ann Gworek will arrive in a few days and we will go there together: from a certain point of view, it is a place that belongs more to them than us, it is right like this.


Italians workers on the airfield (Photo 485th BG) 
                    The "hangar" today                                                      (Photo 485th BG)


The guitar of Wayne B. Whiting
Jerry Whiting sends me a photo where you can see John Manfrida, a member of the same crew as his father, with a nine-year old boy. John offers the boy a cigarette (at this point in time, fathers taught their sons to smoke, thinking that smoking could fight against the malaria disease).
The name of the kid was Tony Preite.
And we found Antonio "Tony" Preite, the child of the photo!
He tells us that there was a brawl between Allied soldiers in the bar managed by his family; a British soldier took a guitar right from Tony’s hands and smashed it on the head of an American. Because the boy cried for the broken guitar, another American led him to the tent camp to play his guitar and later gave him twenty dollars in order to buy another guitar.
He was the father of Jerry, Wayne B. Whiting, and so Antonio began to wander in the airfield. Antonio Preite still has that guitar. We will have Antonio meet with Jerry, who in the meantime, has confirmed that he will come to Venosa from February 24 to 26 with Mary Ann.
John Manfrida and Tony Preite
(Photo Jerry Whiting, 485th BG)


Pierced Steel Planking: the gates of the war
HOME Pierced Steel Planking: the gates of the war 15th USAAF, Airfields  in Apulia
Thanks to the 485th BG Vets First contact Old ties
Mount Vulture, Old Sawtooth Life at the Venosa Airfield during World War II  The kids of Venosa and the airmen
Bombs Away, the magazine With the eyes of the children 2008: impressions
2008: return to the base Bibliography & Links INFO
Search and texts: Pasquale Libutti   rapacidiurni@gmail.it       Page connected to www.storiedelsud.altervista.org