Pierced Steel Planking: the gates of the war

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    Mount Vulture, Old Sawtooth 

    Pasquale Libutti
  • Old Sawtooth
    Jerry Whiting asked me a series of questions: 
    "Some of the men of the 485th have told me about seeing a mountain or hill near Venosa with a large cross on top of it. The cross could be seen from the air when the planes were circling to land or take off.  Have you heard of this before? It was very close to base, because a couple of the men walked there one day, but it took the entire day. There are also a few places nearby where planes crashed. Do you know any of these places? I know that one of the mountains where a B-24 crashed was named by the Americans  Old Sawtooth".
    The answer is easy. Old Sawtooth is Mount Vulture (4,350 feet on the top), with its cross accessible by foot in the mentioned time. Cut off by the mountains of Basilicata, Mt. Vulture is an optimal landmark, used once by shepherds leading droves in transit to Puglia and Molise, and it is still used today by pilots of light planes during the flight over the zone.
    Crashed airplanes on Mt. Vulture
    "One of the mountains where a B-24 crashed was named by the Americans Old Sawthooth": this is what Jerry Whiting wrote to me, and the 485th BG website mentions a plane (Larkin crew) crashed "near Mt. Vulture".
    All searches for documentation at the local authorities have been unsuccessful.
    Now I have to remember. My grandmother, Raffaela Gallucci, often spoke of a plane that crashed in a field of her family's ownership, called Serro del Palo.
    I remember quite well: she knew the art of storytelling, always using the same words to engrave them deeply into my memory. When I was child, this story captured me; often I thought of the enormous bomber emerging from the fog and crashing on me. Whenever I went on our field on Mt. Vulture (around 2.650 feet of altitude), I looked for a little bolt, a fragment left on the ground, to mark the point of the tragedy. I never found anything.
    I asked for information around Rionero, but nobody could remember the exact date: 1943, 1944, 1945? Some say the plane had two engines, others say four. The plane fell from the fog... No, clear sky: there was an aerial duel and another plane crashed toward Pierno... Impossible: the weather was foggy... 
    I consult a technician seeking cartography. He is unaware of this story, but he shows me a forgotten object, found on Mt. Vulture two year before and found again shortly before my visit wile tidying up his desk: not knowing what to do, he was about to throw it away...
    It's a machine-gun bullet, maybe of a plane, deformed and cracked, but still in its casing. However, the site of the finding doesn't match: Mt. Vulture/Solagna dei Piloni, in the fir-wood (about 3,900 feet of altitude and more of 1,5  miles from the plane's crash site. 

    I soon discover: the bullet indicates the crash of another plane. By chance, the same evening I meet my friend Francesco Valenza: he telephones a couple of people. The first, who worked in the Vulture cableway, had collected in a box some plane's fragments found in the fir-wood. However, he left the box in the cableway station, today a ruin. The second person tells about a plane crash close to the Atella Convent, maybe a fighter. And a German plane crashed between Venosa and Lavello... As far as Mt. Vulture, another plane crashed near Mt. Vulture/Scalone during the war, and another plane, an Italian jet, crashed in 1962...

    In summary: during the war, in the woods of Mt. Vulture crashed: 

    1) an airplane at Mt.Vulture/Serro del Palo: no survivors; 
    2) a second plane, in higher altitude, in the fir-wood at Mt.Vulture/Solagna dei Piloni;
    3) a third plane, at Mt.Vulture/Scalone
    The rounded tops of  Mt. Vulture, Old Sawtooth
    Raffaella Gallucci told:
    "A big plane crashed on Mount Vulture, in our fields at Serro. We knew it because the people shouted in the roads of Rionero: How horrible! How horrible! A plane crashed on the mountain! Poor young men!  And someone, cynically, said: Now Michele Gallucci, owner of the field, will become rich selling the aluminium and parachutes of the plane...  But Michele Gallucci, my father, wasn't in Rionero in those days. When people got to the scene of the crash, a young shepherdess was found, grand-daughter of Michele Gallucci, shocked. She was tending to the animals grazing when, unexpectedly, a great airplane emerged from the fog, brushed her and crashed a little further ahead, on the edge of the chestnut tree. The fright left her mute for some time. The bodies of airmen, poor young men, were found in the valley below (called Fontana di Lupo) one here, one there, almost at a regular distance from eachother, almost eight or ten men.* Someone had taken their pistols, watches, rings...  In the following months the wreckage was carried away by people, in order to reutilize the parts."
    *Elisa Gallucci, niece of Raffaela, remember 13 men or more.
    My father Angelo Domenico Libutti (born 1931, married to the daughter of Raffaella Gallucci), told me about the plane and how the boys just a little older than him would go to take apart the machine-guns in order to play their war.  A lot of people went to see the wreckage in the following months, and my father too got into the half-destroyed fuselage.

    On-the-spot investigations on Mt. Vulture
    I sent images of the bullet to Jerry. A Veteran of the 485th BG confirms: it's a 0.50 caliber, the same as those on a B-24. The mystery remains. Another B-24 crashed in the Mt.Vulture/Solagna dei Piloni's fir-wood? Not as far as we know. Some witnesses in Rionero and Melfi remember only one plane having fallen and one, maybe two parachutes opened; others say "a small plane" or "a fighter".  Michele Recine tells: "three Allied planes fought with a German fighter. An Allied fighter was shooted down and crashed on Mt. Vulture: so my father told me.".
    I do on-the-spot-investigations of the crash point at Mt.Vulture/Serro del Palo, with Franco Di Lucchio and Silvio Carrieri. I think I see the likely impact point: a clearing with no trees in the chestnut-wood on the edge of the grassy plain, as my grandmother once told me. We check the possible course of the plane in comparison with altimetry and configuration of the land. The plane came from Atella (South, SouthWest): perhaps slipping into the valley while turning to avoid Mt. Vulture, the fog deceived the pilot, the plane crashed on the hill at a 2.650 feet of altitude. Someone says the plane took the roof off  a building on the opposite hill. (C. Lopes on maps), later crashing. Just a few meters higher up, the plane would only have grazed the hill, saving itself.  Both Franco and Silvio, however, didn't really take to this reconstruction of facts. 
    Two days later, in Gianvito Moretti's news-stand, we have a chat about the crashed plane. The people who enter listen freely and intervene, as was once the fashion in the days of Uncle Ciro Moretti, when in the news-stand the people debated as in a cultural society: so I find a witness. Pasquale Giordano, as a young man, saw the impact point. The plane scraped its belly against the hill, and later smashed into pieces. The route was coming from Melfi (North East). In the postwar period, close this site, a cross was built (now called Prima Croce to distinguish it from the other cross on the top of Mt. Vulture). Flying three feet higher, the plane would only graze the hill... Pasquale says the plane had two engines. However, the lawyer Giannino Vorrasi finds a precious witness, Luigi Maulà, who remembers perfectly: it was a ""Liberator", a B-24!  (a remarkable witness: he located the plane crashed at Mt.Vulture/Scalone and the victims, he report it was a British twin-engined reconnaissance aircraft).
    So I was wrong. During the on-the-spot investigations, with my maps and indifferent to Silvio and Franco's doubts, I speculated the plane came from South-SouthWest, not from the opposite route. The plane was a B-24: but we were missing useful data to affirm that it belonged to the 485th BG.
    Poor boys, may they rest in peace... In any case, I arrange a map regarding the crashed planes, maybe it will be helpful to Jerry.
    PSP OS MAP VULT WRECK 2.jpg (382121 byte)
    Impact point of B-24 at Vulture-Serro del Palo. The plane's course is  reconstructed by the testimony of Pasquale Giordano.
    Left side: map of Mt Vulture with the impact point of planes crashed during the war (click to enlarge). 
    Missing airplanes
    Despite the efforts, we still to this day can not identify the plane that crashed at Mt. Vulture/Serro del Palo
    The 485th BG Association website shows the photo of the Larkin crew, 830th Squadron: the crew of the plane that crashed ""near Mt. Vulture".
    Are they the men fallen on Mt. Vulture/Serro del Palo? 
    Searching on www.AviationArchaeology.com we find the serial number of their airplane (44-49024), the exact crash date (April 15, 1944) and the crash area: (15 miles West-South West from Venosa), compatible with the area of Mt. Vulture.
    By the serial number, we found interesting data on the book Mission by the Numbers, by Sammy Schneider (Tarnaby Books, Walnut Creek, CA 2000 - 2008).
    MISSION NO 180, 15 april 1944.
    Fourty B-24's took off from Venosa to bomb GUN INSTALLATIONS near Bologna, Italy, with the escort of thirty P-38's.
    One of the bombers didn't return to  base.
    It's the plane 44-49024.
    "Aircraft 49024 is missing. Very little information is available as to where this ship was last seen. One crew reported having a call from this aircraft, stating that it was going to a friendly airfield."
    Jerry sends us photographs taken at the crash site of this airplane, the B-24 serial number 44-49024 (Larkin crew).
    From the photos we understand: this site is not Mt. Vulture/Serro del Palo, where the crash site of a B-24 is proven to have taken place.
    Now there are two unanswered questions:
    Where is,"near Mt. Vulture", the precise crash site of the airplane 44-49024 (Larkin crew)?
    Who crashed (another B-24 bomber...) at Mt. Vulture/Serro del Palo? 
    Mr. Quirino Stabile, from the city of Melfi, answers the first question.
    In April 1945 he was 14 years-old; looking the photo of the crashed plane (Larkin plane) he remembers: "a four-engined bomber crashed on Mt. Vulture (Melfi versant). There were no survivors".
    This testimony is useful: cross-referencing it with Jerry's crash photos, we can see the framed landscape exactly compatible with the lower part of the Mt. Vulture fir-wood, on the Melfi versant.
    The crash occurred precisely on Valle della Poma: report confirmed by Tonino Gastone and Michele Moscaritolo (trekkers of the EPAV Association, Melfi)
    At last, we find the crash site of Larkin crew.
    The Mr. Stabile's memory answered a question, but opened another question because he remembered something else:
    "another bomber crashed on Mt. Vulture, near San Giorgio, in the Monticchio Bagni area" (Eastern versant of Mt. Vulture), it had no survivors...
    How many planes crashed on Mt. Vulture?
    Larkin crew (photo 485th BG).
    Front Row, Left to Right: Robert N. Larkin, pilot; Barryon F. Turner, copilot; Joseph Perry, bombardier, and John R. Sellers, navigator. Back Row, Left to Right: George C. Yelland, engineer; Joseph Bengivengo, gunner; Treat B. JR (Homer) Andrew, gunner; George H. McCall, gunner; Robert B. O’Malley, gunner, and W. H. Jackson, radio operator. The above photo was taken in November of 1944 at March Air Force Base. Lt. Larkin’s crew arrived at Venosa in December, 1944. Nine members of the crew were killed in late March or early April, 1945, when their plane crashed near Mt. Vulture shortly after take-off. One crew member, John Sellers, was switched to another crew during briefing that day and survived the war. Sellers also bailed out over Zara, Yugoslavia while flying with Lt. Clarence Adams’ crew on 2/23/45, was rescued by the Partisans, and returned to dut
    Crash site of the airplane 44 -49024 - Larkin crew (photos 485th BG).
    The woody versant of the mountain and the landscape lying behind coincide with a view of Mount Vulture (Melfi versant, Mt. Vulture/Valle della Poma).
    The war is cruel: many planes crashed close to the Venosa airfield. 
    Searching data, we discover approximately thirty airplanes of the 485th BG destroyed within a twenty-mile radius of the Venosa airfield, in take off or landing accidents, taxiing on taxi strip, in crash landing,  burned by fire on the ground during maintainance, collided in mid-air collision.  Sometimes the entire crew survived, sometimes the aircraft crashed killing airmen and pilots.
    Crash site: Mt. Vulture/Serro del Palo (Rionero)
    Crash site: B-24 serial number 42-51214 (photo 485th BG, from Mission by the Numbers ).
    This B-24 of the 485th Bomb Group crashed in November 1944, after take-off. The site (the edge of a grove with a grass) seems the impact point at Mt. Vulture/Serro del Palo, and the orientation of the fuselage is compatible with the last course of B-24, according the witnesses.
    But this is not the airplane that crashed on Mt. Vulture, but another airplane (Pilot Alfred E. Reiss) that crashed 5 miles North West from Venosa killing all personnel aboard.


    Last update: May 25, 2008. 
    One of the airplanes that crashed on Mt.Vulture has been identified (www.AviationArchaeology.com). The plane is the B-24 of Lt. Lorenz O. Gross (Iowa), serial number 42-63346, belonging to 98th BG (343rd BS). Some details are in data concerning another pilot, Lt. Richard Lewis Elliot, killed in the same crash. It's the plane that crashed on Mt.Vulture/Serro del Palo.
    On December. 23, 1944 the plane took off from Lecce to Foggia airfield, ferrying crew members to bring back another plane (*). 
    The plane encontered snow, overcast weather, fog (**); probably lost the sense of direction, because the impact point is 40 miles off course (the route Lecce - Foggia, parallel to Adriatic Sea, have no mountains, but the plane deviated toward the mountainous inland of Italy). 
    The plane crashed into a hill belonging to massif of Mt.Vulture at about 12,00 in the morning, two miles northwest of the town of Rionero (***). 
    In the wreckage was found the altimeter, which indicated the crash occurred at 4,200 feet (****) 
    (*) According to the recollection of Elisa Gallucci, who remember 13 men.
    (**) According to the recollections of Raffaela Gallucci and other people.
    (***) Distance bethween Rionero and Mt.Vulture/Serro del Palo: 2 km (1,242 miles);
    (****) The altitude of 4,200 feet isn't comparable with the altitude of the crash site of Mt.Vulture/Serro del Palo (2,820 feet).  Malfunction? The altimeter, for some reason, caused the accident?
    Last update: November 6, 2008.
    Gross Crew (98th BG) on December 23, 1945:
    Lorenz O. Gross (pilot), Donald T. Freimann, Richard L. Elliott, William H. Doran, William O. Bunderson, William F. Lawrence, Jack F. Reagan, Joseph J. Murphy, Norman C. Marriner, J. J. Kielbasa, William B. Grymes, Alvie R. Jeans, Emil Bosse.


    Up to this point, we had found the impact point on Mt. Vulture where the Larkin B-24 bomber crashed; we also estabilished the identity of the airplane that crashed on Mt.Vulture/Serro del Palo (Lt. Gross, 98th BG).
    We have to search again in order to identify the third bomber that crashed near Mt.Vulture/San Giorgio, according Mr. Stabile's testimony.


    Pierced Steel Planking: the gates of the war
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    Search and texts: Pasquale Libutti   rapacidiurni@gmail.it       Page connected to www.storiedelsud.altervista.org