Pierced Steel Planking: the gates of the war

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  • Life at the Venosa Airfield during World War II  
    Harold "Red" Kempffer  









    In 1944 I was eighteen years old and with other nine crew members had completed the U.S. Army Air Force’s flight training in B-24 four engine bombers. We picked up a new B-24 Liberator Bomber and named it  "Miss Conduct" (Target for Tonite).
    We flew the northern route from the United States via Newfoundland Canada, the Azores, Marrakech, Morocco, Tunis Tunisia, and finally Gioia Delle Colle Air Field in southern Italy. At Tunis there were many bomb craters and lots of wrecked German aircraft. We left the new aircraft at Gioia Delle Colle Air Field and were driven on  a very rough ride in a 6x6 army truck to the 830th Bomb Squadron, 485th Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force located about five miles from Venosa.
    The enlisted men were assigned to a six man canvas squad tent which was going to be our home for the rest of the war.
    The squadron tents were lined up in two neat rows with the orderly room and the mess hall at one end. There was one lone, dimly lit, light bulb at the center of each tent. The tent floor was good old mother earth.
    We expanded the tent by raising the canvas sides to use them as an extension of the tent roof  and using discarded wooden packing crates for the tent sides. This gave us a lot more room. After a while to make the floor more live-able, we pooled our money and had reed mats made by one of the Italian craftsmen, which was much better and cleaner if we all wiped our feet on entering.  We also made a wooden front door that kept the cold out. 
    There was no heat and those who didn’t use their own initiative suffered as fall and winter were on the way. The crew made a stove out of a fifty gallon drum cut in half, the face side being up.
    The stove pipe was made from 105 millimeter shell casing with the closed end cut off. The other end of the casing had a smaller diameter that allowed it to slide into the large opening of the next shell, thus letting it function as a stove pipe. There was a container made from an oxygen tank from a disabled aircraft to hold the fuel. The fuel was fed through the tent wall to the stove using a aluminum hydraulic tubing, also from a disabled aircraft.
    The fuel for the stove was 120 octane aviation gasoline, "very highly explosive". Many times while starting a fire in the stove, it was lifted off the ground with one big bang!!! This involved moving the stove and the 105 millimeter shell casing, stove pipe back in place. 
    Our bed consisted of a canvas folding cot which at least kept us off the cold ground. We were issued two wool blankets and one single mattress cover, but no mattress. The mattress cover was used as a sleeping bag with the two wool blankets on top. If it got too cold we just wore more clothes to bed. We each had a wooden foot locker to keep our clothes and other things from the field mice.
    In the winter there was plenty of rain that turned the fine soil into a sea of mud. Imagine wading through six inches of mud to get to the mess hall or the latrine. Our feet became so heavy we could hardly lift them. Each crew was issued two pair of overshoes to be shared by six men. If we didn’t buckle the overshoes, you’d walk right out of them. It became such a hassle after a while that no one would wear them.
    We washed and took sponge baths out of our helmets and brushed our teeth out in front of the tent.
    A strange thing happened just about two weeks before we left for home. A limestone block shower house was erected and I got to take one shower. The water was cold and wasn’t always available. 
    The officers had better living quarters, buildings made of limestone blocks with tin roofs and a front door.
    They also had folding canvas cots to sleep on.  The latrine faculties were slit trenches dug into the ground out back of the tents. There were times the trenches were filled and we had to go looking to find where they were moved. So one did not wait until the last minute to go.
    The meals were so-so, but by army standards we fared well, we never went hungry.
    The meals consisted of a lot of canned food. I remember a lot of things like pig-in-a-blanket, which was spam, dipped in pancake batter and oatmeal with condensed canned milk.
    There was always creamed chipped beef on toast, universally known as SOS (Shit On a Shingle)


    Venosa airfield: mud and snow (Photo 485th Bomb Group, in http://www.456thbombgroup.org/kempffer/kempffer1.html)
    There was coffee to drink. Loaves of bread were delivered in 6x6 army trucks. It was not wrapped, just neatly stacked, one on top another like cord wood in the back of the truck, only God knows how far it traveled over those dusty roads. On hot days, there was a real treat, ice cold tea made in a fifty gallon gas drum. It may not sound too appetizing coming out of a gas drum but it tasted very good. You would just dip your canteen cup in and drink as much as you wanted. 
    All meals were eaten in the mess hall that was built of limestone blocks. Each airman had the usual army issue mess kit which consisted of a knife, fork, spoon, a two piece aluminum dish and a canteen cup. There was a trick to carry all of this when loaded with food without spilling . There were picnic type tables to eat at. At the end of the meals, the mess kit was scoured in hot soapy water using a brush and then rinsed in hot clear water. It was air dried by the time we got back to the tent.
    About every two weeks we were allowed a ration of candy, cigarettes, cigars, beer and gum. Depending on the supply of rations available, we might be able to buy three candy bars, two packs of cigarettes, one cigar, two cans of beer and three packs of gum. I didn’t smoke or drink beer but I bought the whole ration for trading. We had to store the candy in our foot lockers to keep the ever present field mice from eating it. The gum was important as we chewed it while flying to keep the ears clear.
       An Italian barber came about twice a week, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Although he couldn’t speak English he gave very good hair cuts. If I can remember, a hair cut cost 50 lire or about 50 cents.
    We usually did our own laundry in a bucket and hung them up to dry in the tent. There were a few Italian men allowed on base to do small chores. They would also take our laundry home for the women to do. They were very poor people and at times there were things missing, we understood their situation so we just warned them and made out lists of items sent, we had no further problems.
    Pur crew got along well together, probably because the officers were very congenial and we were all in the same fix not knowing whether we’d come back from the next mission. The officers didn’t seem to look on themselves as being any better than us although they did have more training, it was a nice feeling all around. We called each other by our first names or nick names. The officers lived across the road from us but spent time in our tent. There was no dress code so we could wear any of our military clothing. We didn’t have to salute in the immediate area unless an officer’ car went by from headquarters.
    The runway was about 3,800 feet long and had a slope of about fifty feet, so we took off going down hill and landed going up hill. 
    The runway should have been 5,000 feet for a fully loaded bomber.
    At the end of the runway was a sort of a shallow valley. There were times with a heavy bomb load that it was very difficult to get airborne.
    When we reached the end of the runway the pilot quickly raised the landing gear and we dropped into the shallow valley to get airborne. 
    The code name for the control tower was "Light Weight Tower". It was a small hut in the center of the airfield, elevated on four long poles.
    The air controllers had to climb a ladder to get to their assigned tasks.   It was a small hut in the center of the airfield, elevated on four long poles.
    The air controllers had to climb a ladder to get to their assigned tasks. 
    The runway was steel matting, it was called Marston matting and each section was about ten feet long by fifteen inches wide, weighing sixty-six point two pounds.  The matting was very strong; it had a series of cupped holes to lighten it and also to strengthen it.
    It had a series of notches and tabs to inter lock with the next section allowing it to be used to construct any length of runway and to suit any type of aircraft.
    It was a quick way to construct a good solid runway on any type of soil.
    The ground crew chief and his assistants were responsible for the upkeep of the aircraft when it completed a mission. 
    They had to patch all the holes caused by the flak, change a tired and worn out engine, clean the ten, fifty caliber machine guns, check and change any damaged equipment. 
    Everything had to be in tip top condition for the next day’s mission.
    They worked most of the night to get the aircraft ready for the next day’s mission and would sleep most of the day and then start the whole procedure over again.
    The ground crew were a vital part of the airforce during World War II.
    Of course there were spare aircraft that could be used if a damaged aircraft was not flyable.
    Photo 485th BG in http://www.456thbombgroup.org/kempffer/kempffer2.html 
    (image from the book DON'T LET THE BLUE STAR TURN GOLD,
    by Jerry W. Whiting , Tarnaby Books, Walnut Creek, 2005).
    Typically we would fly two to three times a week if the weather was good but in the winter months the weather was very poor so we had more leisure time.  There was sports equipment available to keep us fit.
    Mostly in the summer and fall months we played basketball or baseball. Two of our officers loved sports and if there wasn‘t enough players, we just played catch or shot hoops. Then there were those airmen that played poker.  
    Once in a while in between missions a couple airmen would get a two day pass, hitch a ride on a army truck and go though the little towns and to Bari just to see how Italy was during war time and to get away from the stress of flying missions. It was not good times for the Italian people, they didn’t have enough to eat, their clothes were tattered, some with out shoes. The smaller towns were not clean.
    In Bari we visited the USO (United Service Organization) which was run by the army with the help of the Italian people, we were treated very well, they would do miner sewing on our uniforms and give us a snack and a drink. 

    The typical flying day started at 3:30 am with a flash lite shown in the face and a request to get up.
    We would tumble out of bed, get dressed with no one saying a word, go to the latrine, eat breakfast, assemble with our crew, catch a 6x6 truck for a ride to the briefing building. 
    All 280 airmen from the 485th  Bomb Group met here to find out what the doom and the gloom was for the day. Here we were briefed on the target, weather and all of the German flak areas we hoped to avoid. 
    When the target was announced, there was a moaning sound from most, as most of us had been there before and we knew how heavy fortified it was and the amount of flak we would encounter. 
    The Military Chaplin  ended the briefing with a blessing and wished us "God’s Speed With A Safe Return". 
    Again we rode the truck to the flight line, each crew getting out at their assigned aircraft.
    Everyone headed for the quonset hut to pick up our flying gear which consisted of sheep skin boots, heated suit and heavy flight pants, helmet, goggles and oxygen mask.
    Then we headed for the aircraft and suited up in our flying gear. The pilots did their preflight check and started the engines. While the engines were warming up all the instruments and radio were checked.
    Everyone had their little duties to do to ensure everything was in good working order. On a signal from the control tower all aircraft pulled out on to the taxiway in order that they were to fly in the formation. 
    As each aircraft pull out on to the end of the runway, each pilot set the parking brakes and ran up the engines to full power and again checked the aircraft instruments.
    If  everything was working properly, he released the brakes and we raced down the runway. The aircraft had to reach 150 miles per hour to reach flying speed. It required lot of pilot skills to get the aircraft into the air before the end of the runway.
    When we got airborn we hadn’t the faintest idea on whether we would make it back or not. The flak was heavy, accurate and so close at times that the aircraft bounced like a cork. When the shells burst there were hundreds of bits of metal flying in all directions. It made some of the aircraft look like a sieve. It reminds me of shooting clay pigeons with a shot gun., we being the clay pigeons. 
    On all of our missions the bombers had good air cover from our P-51 Mustangs and P-38 Lighting Fighters. Of course when we were in a flak areas there was no air cover.
    We lost a lot of our fellow airmen, some were shot down and taken prisoners, some wounded and sent back to the States and others were killed. 
    So it got to be the less airmen you knew the better for our mind.  If one aircraft was shot down, that also accounted for the loss of ten airmen.
    There was not one thing we could do to fight back when we were under attack from flak, but we prayed. There was always a question in our minds, why were they shot down and not us.
    Some missions were six hours and others about eight hours. 
    Typical targets were oil refineries, oil storage, railroad bridges, locomotive depots, motor works, aircraft factories,
    airdromes and ordnance depots. Our crew flew many  missions to northern Italy, deep into Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia and Hungary.
    Life wasn’t always bright and rosy for our crew. My diary states that out of our first nine missions we landed only five times at out home base. 
    The other times we ran low on gas and had to land at a emergency airfield, were shot up so bad that we also landed at other airfields with special emergency equipment, had to parachute from the aircraft over enemy territory because aircraft was shot up and would not get us back to our base.



    Harold  “Red” Kempffer,  ball turret gunner, was in the Lt. Rasco crew. The vicissitudes after the shooting down of his B-24, Fifthy Mission from Broadway, briefly reported at the end of this story, include the escape from hostile territory with the aid of the Yugoslavian partisans , and his return to Venosa Airfield where he resumed his duties in the 485th BG.

    "Rasco heard #1engine sputter, then struggle to start again. He hit the bailout bell button, yelling, "Go! Go! Go!" over the intercom. Kelly, in the back of the plane, would be the last to leave that section, alerting Rasco when all the others had left. One by one the crew quickly bailed out from the bomb bay or rear escape hatch. Finally, Rasco was alone.   He trimmed the plane for descent and turn, hastily made his way back to the bomb bay, stood on the catwalk for a moment and jumped. The parachutes of all ten men opened. The jolt of Kempffer’s chute opening yanked the the helmet from his head. Rasco opened his parachute as he fell through the under cast. The stillness of his descent was broken when Fifthy Mission from Broadway loomed out of the undercast, headed directly at him. For reasons he never fully understood, Rasco pulled his .45 from his shoulder holster and fired three shots at the bomber as it passed within 100 feet of him. The old bomber turned away, nosed down and crashed into the ground. The Boys were landing in the countryside, near the town of Bos Novi. Kempffer landed hard between two threes. He lay on the ground, stunned for a short while, then got up."

    Jerry W. Whiting, Don't let the star turn gold - Downed Airmen in Europe in WW II, Tarnaby, Walnut Creek, California, 2005.

    Pierced Steel Planking: the gates of the war
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