Pierced Steel Planking: the gates of the war

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    2008: impressions

    Jerry Whiting

    It still seems more like a dream than reality.  It happened so quickly.  I had hoped and dreamed to visit Venosa, Italy one day, the temporary home of the 485th BG Bomb Group from April 1944-April 1945.  My dad, a tail gunner in the group, talked often of his stay there.  He arrived in Italy in October 1944 and flew home in late May of 1945, shortly after the war in Europe ended.

              I heard stories from my dad about Venosa and the surrounding area.  He was not a tourist in Italy.  He and the 2000+ men with him, stationed at the airfield near Venosa, were there to fight a war.  It was their main and only purpose for being there, flying bombing missions to the European countries under Hitlerís control.  Some of the men did go into town occasionally, a break from the combat, fear and flak-filled skies.  They went to Venosa and to the surrounding towns.  Those who survived and returned home safely after the war brought those memories with them.  My dad was one of those grateful survivors.



              Dad told stories about Venosa and the poverty there during the war.  He talked of his little friend Tony, an Italian boy who visited the base.  He talked of the wheat field that became an airfield and the mountain, "Old Sawtooth" as they called it, just a few miles away where more than one B-24 bomber from the group crashed.  He had a few photos, but just a few, and most of these were of his crew. 

              He had one photo that was particularly important to him, a photo of Tony, the Italian boy, standing alongside John Manfrida, the nose gunner on the crew.  Over the years Dad wondered what happened to Tony and the other children.  He hoped Tony did well after the war, that life had treated him well.  He said Tony had good survival skills, even at such a young age, but he still wondered how he fared in life.  At times he tried to remember Tonyís last name, but was never certain of it.  The poverty in and around Venosa really bothered Dad.  It presented itself everywhere at the time, in the rundown buildings, ragged clothing, and undernourished, friendly children and adults.  These were the memories he shared with me.  

              After I had written two books about the 485th  Bomb Group, Iím Off To War, Mother, But Iíll Be Back and Donít Let the Blue Star Turn Gold, the men in the 485th  Bomb Group Association asked me to be their historian.  I agreed, enthusiastically.  Although my dad died in October 2001, this was a good way to keep his memory alive and to be an active participant in preserving the groupís history.  Meanwhile, a researcher in Torino, Giancarlo Tagliatti, assisted me in identifying Tony and learned that Tony was still alive.  I learned that Tonyís last name was Preite. 

              I met Pasquale Libutti and Renato Mancino through the magic of the internet.  Both knew of the American airfield at Venosa and were interested in knowing more about the 485th Bomb Group and both offered their assistance in helping me learn more about the field.  About the same time I learned of a former Venosa native who now lived in Florida, Carlo Briscese.  I began exchanging emails with Carloís daughter, Emanuela and also spoke to him on the phone.  All of this was happening so quickly. 

              Just a few weeks later I learned that Commander Mary Ann Gworek, United States Naval Reserve, the niece of one of the 485th Bomb Group airmen, was stationed in Naples.  In email correspondence she told me she wanted to visit Venosa, where her uncle, Walt Gworek, was stationed before he was shot down and became a Prisoner of War.  When I offered to put her in touch with my new friends Pasquale and Renato, she invited me and my wife to visit her and Naples and then visit Venosa with her.  Mary Ann wanted us to use her frequent-flier miles to visit her, but the trip would have to be made quickly, because Mary Ann was returning to the U.S. in early March and it was already the end of January.  My wife couldnít make the trip, but less than three weeks later I was in Naples, with my head still spinning from the recent sequence of events.

              Pasquale and Renato graciously agreed to take time off work and show us Venosa.  During a phone conversation with Carlo Briscese, I learned he not only knew Tony Preite, but Tony was his good friend and Carlo visited the airfield with Tony as a little boy.  When I sent Carlo a photo of my dadís crew, Carlo remembered my dad and a couple of the other men.  It was like a dream to me.  Could this really be happening?  Carlo also contacted Tony and asked Tony to meet with me on my trip.

              As Mary Ann and I rode on the bus to Candela, where Pasquale and Renato were meeting us, I wondered what Venosa was like.  Was the poverty still there?  Is Venosa clean or dirty?  Would I really get to meet Tony Preite?  If so, would he have specific memories of my dad from so many years ago?  Were any of the buildings still standing from the airfield?  What does the castle look like?  Does the statue of Horace look the same as in the photo I have?  I wish my dad was still alive so he could share this experience with me.


               When the bus stopped at Candela, Pasquale and Renato were waiting for us.  Iím not sure who was most excited, but as soon as Mary Ann and I got off the bus, I knew this would be a wonderful experience.  Pasquale spoke more English than Renato, but words were not important right then.  I knew I had some new friends.

              As we drove to Venosa, I saw the countryside was picturesque, like a postcard.  Pasquale pointed out the general location of the airfield, close to the highway, which we would visit the next day.  As we approached the outskirts of Venosa, on a winding road,  I could barely contain my excitement.  I was so happy when we entered the town that Venosa was  beautiful, clean and charming, with no signs of the poverty my dad described.  Renato navigated the narrow, stone-surfaced streets that werenít much more than pathways, taking us past the statue of Horace, which looked just like the photo, to our destination, the Hotel Orazio. 

              The owners of the hotel were expecting us.  We learned that Tony had phoned to see if we arrived.  After Mary Ann and I took our luggage to our rooms, Pasquale and Renato took us on a walking tour of Venosa.  It was nice to see the locals, of all ages, strolling down the sidewalks or sitting on benches, enjoying the warm afternoon.  More of Pasqualeís and Renatoís friends joined us.  I learned, as we spent more time with them, that each seemed to have an area of expertise, such as local history, ancient history, photography, and global positioning to identify landmarks. 

              Early in the evening Tony Preite met us at the castle entrance.  I know there were tears in my eyes as we shook hands and hugged.  It was like a dream.  With the castle in the background, photos were taken as a group of locals watched.  We went to a sidewalk cafť, where we shared good conversation, some of the local spirits, food and friendship. 





              The next morning two carloads of our new friends took us to the location of the airfield, now a grain field.  Tony accompanied us and provided details from his memory of the Americans and their big bombers as GPS coordinates were plotted, photos taken, and details explained.  A farmer plowed his field on a tractor, where once the heavily-laden bombers struggled to take off.  Old Sawtooth loomed in the background, most definitely a reference point for the bomber crews as it looked down onto the plain.








    Venosa airfield (from: Sy Weinstein - Photo 485th BG).



              I video-taped and photographed the scene and my new friends.  Mary Ann looked as overwhelmed as I felt as we drove down a dirt road to our next stop, a tent area.  Tony was talking in Italian and we stopped as Tony pointed to the field.  He walked into the field about 70 yards and stopped.  Tony identified this spot as the location of my dadís tent in the 831st Bomb GroupSquadron tent area.  Mary Annís uncleís tent was in the same area.  I watched the grass blowing in the breezing, imagining how Tony must have felt as a young boy, thinking of my dad and his buddies.  Many of those who survived the war are gone now, but I didnít want to dwell on that.




              I knew the headquarters building, once a farmhouse, was about 200 yards from the tent area.  It was too much to hope for to think it might still be standing.  I looked down the dirt road and saw a building.  We went to the end of the dirt yard, where a locked gate blocked our path.  The abandoned farmhouse certainly resembled the headquarters building, and it was the correct distance from the tent area, but perhaps this was too much to hope for.  We opened one of my books to look at a 1944 photo of the headquarters building.  It sure looked like the same building, but could it be? 

              We honked the horn, trying to attract the attention of anyone on the farm.  A dog barked and geese cackled, but we saw no sign of human life.  Finally, we climbed the fence to get a closer look.  We saw no one as we approached the buildings. Now I was certain this was the old headquarters building.  I photographed and videotaped the front of the building.  One of my companions knocked on the door of the main building, but there was no answer.

              After we climbed the fence to the road we heard a horn honking.  Across the field we saw a vehicle driving toward us.  The man in the car stopped at the gate and wanted to know what we were doing on the property.  My friends explained the situation and Mr. Francesco Rienzi, invited us back to the property.  He told us he was the caretaker for the property.  He said people were not allowed inside the building due to a dispute, but he welcomed us onto the property to take more photos and to visit with him.






              After our visit, with lots of photos, video tape, new friends and wonderful memories, but tired and hungry, we returned to town where our new friends treated us to a wonderful meal at a restaurant across from the castle.  Pasqualeís wife, Agata, joined us.  She brought a family treasure to show us, a beautiful, embroidered tablecloth made from an American parachute.  It was nice to have another woman in our group and Iím certain that Mary Ann also appreciated having another woman with us.  After the meal we went for another walking tour of Venosa during the early evening hours, seeing more of the beautiful local sights, with history lessons provided by Pasquale and the group.  I slept well that night.





              The next morning I got to see the ancient church and we toured the castle, before stopping again at the sidewalk cafť for refreshments.  Several of our new friends were there to say goodbye, including Tony.  Later, Pasquale drove us back to Candela to catch our bus.  Thoughts filled my mind on the bus ride back to Naples.  It was an experience I will cherish.  More importantly, I now know the men in the 485th Bomb Group, like my dad, are not forgotten.





    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