Pierced Steel Planking: the gates of the war
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Pierced Steel Planking: The Gates of the war

(by Pasquale Libutti)

Recycling ancient materials...
History has left many traces in the alleys of Venosa. This is where the house of Orazio can be seen, with its walls in opus reticulatum, the typical roman masonry in lozenge pattern; nearby are other houses still inhabited today that show similar structures, a testimony to uninterrupted use of these structures from millennia ago, or at least a reconstruction on the roman foundations. 
Scraping the plaster in the houses of the historical center, it's possible to discover what is left of frescoes, Latin epigraphs, medieval badges of knighthood; the grand, unfinished church near the Trinity Abbey was built with recycled parts of roman monuments, stones with Jewish inscriptions and artifacts of previous time periods. 
Even the road sign marking the town entrance, beyond the roman ruins and the Norman Trinity Abbey, has avoided periodical and pitiless restorations of the road signs, and welcomes the visitors in the same way of more than seventy years ago.
...and strange gates
Here everything is saved, or at least recycled: the objects of the past have the opportunity to exceed the condition of old, old fashioned, replaceable, and will conquer the valuable status of ancient, protected, monumental, saving itself thus from a systematic destruction. 
The continuous and accidental reuse of materials in the buildings enable us to meet, between roman columns and medieval portals, at strange metal gates. The gates are assembled with mass-produced metal sheets, anything but ancient: at first sight they seem to be odd elements needing to be removed, in order to restore the original look of the places. 
Few people know the origin of these sheets, clear industrial intrusions in the monumentality of the historical center. 
Paradoxically, however, even the modern pierced sheet gates are evidence of relief, entering into history before even having overstepped the delicate boundary between what is old and what is ancient
In order to fully grasp the unsuspected importance of these objects, from many points of view, it's necessary to proceed step by step.


The name of these sheets is PSP (PIERCED STEEL PLANKING). 
It seems the naming of an innocuous industrial product, on the contrary it is an actual real weapon of war. The PSP, easily transportable, are assembled at ground in order to have an immediate airfield runway in a matter of days. On a carpet of PSP, hinged one to another, an airplane can take off even if the rain has reduced the surrounding land into a marsh; these metallic plates allow the dominion of the skies even when atmospheric conditions don’t, and when the enemy cannot take off.  
Thus you can make out the PSP in old photographs of landings in Sicily or Normandy; in the Pacific islands the tourists photograph old PSP runways, now covered by vegetation. 
Historically this material shows up even in museums, and is still used today for military operations.  
Venosa airfield
So in these war leftovers, Venosa’s gates were found.  An insignificant, anonymous origin, at the most a mere curiosity… 
Anything but! Asking the elders, the reconstruction of precise historical facts emerge. World War 2: in 1943 the Allies arrived in Venosa and, in 1944, they created an airfield from which the B-24’s take off, 4-engined bombers.  
The area is flat, and with rain the ground becomes flooded: in order to enable the heavy B-24 to operate without getting stuck in mud, the ground was soon consolidated with a foundation of stones, covered with an enormous carpet of PSP, each hinged one to the other.  
In 1945, with the war over, the airfield was abandoned. 
To the curious people of Venosa who go to investigate it doesn't seem true: the Americans went home, abandoning there an enormous amount of metallic plates. It is an unexpected gift from heaven: those who can will recover and sell the metal, the smiths of the area worked for years to make gates and other objects. 
Then time passes: today there are no remaining traces of the Venosa air force base, except an anonymous shed in the cultivated plain, faded memories of the elders, and those gates of which nobody remembers the origin. Within a few years it could all be forgotten. 
Someone will tell stories as if a fairytale: from Venosa planes took off and landed, maybe there were military planes during the first or second world war… Who can remember? Maybe it was during the Gulf War... or during the crisis in Yugoslavia… Then, as the tracks and structures become unrecognizable, others will say: at the most it was a grass-strip for hang-gliders or ultralight planes. Only an old and vague story, soon degraded to be only local legend.
                 Venosa airfield: tent camp (Photo used with permission of the 485th Bomb Group Association)
Operations of the 485th BG 
The Venosa air force base existed, and how. During that time, all the plains of Apulia, from Lecce to the Gargano, were studded from the 15th USAAF airfields and 205 RAF Group. The airfield of Venosa, created April 15, 1944, was the only one in the Basilicata region, a mountainous countryside unfit to accommodate air force bases. Stationed in Venosa’s air force base was the 485th Bomb Group  of 15th USAAF, made up of four Squadrons ((828th, 829th, 830th, 831st)) equipped with B-24 bombers. Approximately 3.500 men served in the  485th Bomb Group (2,500 air crews, the others ground staff). 


The  485th BG totaled 187 combat missions during the period of May 10, 1944 to April 25, 1945, dropping 10,550 tons of bombs on targets in Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia and other Balkan countries. 
The  485th BG was credited with destroying 61 enemy aircraft (probably destroying 41 more and damaging 37 others; 15 additional aircraft were destroyed on the ground). The  485th BG was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for a difficult mission in which 36 bombers inflicted massive damage to the Florisdorf Oil Refinery, near Vienna, despite heavy flak and enemy fighter reaction. 
This intense activity, however, had a cost.
The  485th BG lost 59 planes in aerial combat and 62 others in accidents or as a result of combat damage. The human losses were huge. Of these, the missions of the 4 commanders are indicative as they participated personally in these missions with their men. The first commander, Col. Walter E. Arnold Jr, was shot down on August 27, 1944 (over Blechammer, Germany) on his 19th combat mission; he survived the war. The airplane of the new commander, Col. John P. Tomhave, was shot down by flak on February 16, 1945, near Villach, Austria. Launching himself from the plane with a parachute, he was captured and died on February 22, 1945 when Allied fighters attacked the train he was on which was carrying prisoners. The third commander, Col. John Cornett, was shot down over Vienna on March 22, 1945; he was captured by the Germans, but survived the war. Three commanders shot down in less than a year: the fourth commander, Col. Douglas Cairns, was in charge from March 23, 1945, but Germany surrendered about a month after that.  The  485th BG’s last mission was on April 25, 1945.
During its operating period, from April 1944 to the end of the war, the  485th BG paid a heavy price. 475 men were killed in combat or died from combat-related injuries. 250 men were captured; 13 of them escaped and returned safely to Italy. 140 men, launching themselves from planes that were shot down, were able to escape capture and return to base. During May of 1945, the  485th BG returned to the United States. The mighty B-24 took off  for the last time from Venosa, all the crews returned home. What had been an airfield on which dozens of four-engined aircrafts came and went, turned back into a peaceful countryside at the border of Apulia and Basilicata, useful to plant wheat.  


The B-24's returns to airfield  (Photo used with permission of the 485th Bomb Group Association)
Above: B-24 Tail Heavy
              Below: Tail Heavy crew                 
(Photos used with permission of the 485th B.G.)
 Above: B-24 in mission.
Below: on the target  
(Photos 485th B.G., in


Fascist Italy and scrap-metal dealers 
Thus, lacking in signs, plaques, monuments or other visible evidence on the areas, the only trace of those events and those men remain in the gates, the gates of Venosa and nearby towns: the gates of war. Those humble pierced steel plates represent, more than anything, the key to reading about what indeed was Second World War for many Italians: an abrupt, painful and healthy awakening. At the end of the conflict, just as many other wonders brought by the Allies, the abandonment of all that material (an entire PSP runway near Venosa, many others altogether in Apulia) had to impress the people, accustomed to living in strained circumstances, during the war as well as before. The Americans, - cheers to them!- considered those tons of precious metallic material to be useless trash! However, they had manufactured 2 million tons of it, enough to circle the Earth’s equator with a belt of metal.
And to think that only a few years before, the fascist regime, imperial and “autarkic”, had influenced the people to deprive themselves of their wedding rings with the slogan “Gold to the Country”; and with the similar slogan “Iron to the Country”  metal garbage of every kind had been collected and carried to the foundries. With enthusiastic zeal of the public, ancient gates were eradicated, bells taken from churches, bronze statues carried to the foundry… The “Domenica del Corriere” magazine headlined the following on December 8, 1935:  “Gold and iron to the Country. While Italians of every rank offer gold to the Country, the children bring iron and other metals to their schools, relinquishing even their beloved bikes”
All this today appears pathetic; but at the time it was considered highly patriotic due to the hammering propaganda of the regime, the censorship of every opinion different than that imposed by the fascist view. After twenty years of lies and total control of the press, Mussolini was able to fool the people into believing that all you needed to do to make Italy a military superpower was to collect old skillets and broken bikes. 
The Second World War would come about some years later, but the Italians were already reduced to the collection of metal wreckage.
Photo  485th Bomb Group, in http://www.456thbombgroup.org/kempffer/kempffer2.html)
War surpluses
In the wretched fascist war, the truth emerged. The Italians, believing themselves an imperial superpower, discovered to their alarm that Mussolini had sent them to be massacred in a confrontation between true industrial and military superpowers. 
An entire Army wore uniforms like those in the First World War; same shoes in Africa, same shoes in Russia; to the soldiers no uniforms in wool, but uniforms made of “autarkic” lanital, a material substitute. 
Soldiers sent to the slaughter like beggars, besides being mocked by the other nations at war. 
Allies and Germans with forty ton tanks, Italians with mules and three ton tanks called sardines tins: and our soldiers had to fight one and then the other. 
The numbers of the war production are eloquent: as an example, Italy produced 12,130 fighter aircrafts, including obsolete models of wood and canvas; Germany produced 113,000, Japan 62,500, English 122,154, USA 298.844. 
Weapons were used that would open the road to the start of the space age, and the war ended with a nuclear mushroom, marking the beginning of a new era. 
After 1945 the Italians had nothing left but to count the victims of the Mussolini’s war, to wait for the missing that would never return, to find the courage to go on with what the war left behind (parachutes that became shirts and sheets, plane’s tires became shoe soles, old K rations, surpluses of every type). 
For all this and more, the PSP gates are humble evidence. 
In Venosa these pieces of recycled metal are now integrated, with a nonchalant naturalness, between Roman columns and Norman, Swabian and Renaissance dressed stones, another layer in the urban history. 
Something similar has happened in the countries of that vast area, relating to the immense airport that had become the Apulia, where it is still possible to find gates and other similar handicrafts. 
Thus it happens to see still today, in the countrysides of Matera or Brindisi, a farm tractor levelling the freshly plowed land, dragging behind itself an odd pierced bar, the tool for tragliare or tragghiare (in old local dialect: to level).
Normally, the driver won’t even think about strolling around with a piece of an American airfield, a piece of history.


Re-estabilished normality in Venosa: the winepress near Piazza Castello
(Photo Sy Weinstein -  485th Bomb Group Association)
        PSP cancello rio punte 20.jpg (32819 byte)
The site of Venosa airfield today: satellite view
Some aerial photos taken in 1944 show a long runway with two lateral taxi strips. Along the taxi strips it’s possible to make out the pits used to accommodate planes, some of which are empty; all together, at the moment in which the photos were taken, roughly 60 airplanes are distinguishable.  Still today it’s possible to locate the Venosa airfield, comparing the aerial photo of 1944 with satellite images from Google Earth.  It’s amazing to realize that even after seventy years of continuous plowings and the construction of two asphalted roads, the runway and the nearby B-24’s pits are still visible, showing up as areas just slightly lighter in colour than the piece of earth it once inhabited, almost like a ghost, after only a single year of intense air traffic from 1944 to 1945. 

PSP canc rio zaf.jpg (71177 byte)
PSP Cancello Rionero p 25.jpg (137651 byte)
  • The coordinates needed to locate the airfield on Google Earth are: 40°59' 46, 69'' N, 15°52' 31,15" And - el. 1.236 ft, optimal altitude 7-8000 ft. Landmark: the crossroads seen in a figure-8 formation, marked as 1, near one of the extremities of the old runway, as seen below. The runway extremities are marked as 2, and the taxi strips, with the pits of the B-24’s are marked as P
    Pierced Steel Planking: the gates of the war
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