Friday, August 15, 2014

WWII: The Fate of "The Buzzer"

[Preface - I have translated for a dear friend's web site in Naples, Italy for many years. NUg or is an internationally popular speleological site in Italian and the English version with which I help out. The NUg group came back with two photos of an impressive WWII memorial with Italian and American flags flying side by side in a tiny village way up in the mountains literally in the middle of nowhere. There also was a photo of a cast bronze plaque with a tribute to 16 American airmen who lost their lives in 1944 . . . my curiosity was aroused and for the next five days and nights I researched this story . . . and wrote the piece below. I hope you find it interesting.   Larry Ray]

  It was a Saturday outing way back up into the Picentine mountain range about 50 miles East of Napoli. The Napoliunderground gang were going in search of some vaguely reported cavern entrances up on a mountain near the small village of Senerchia. Fifty miles as the crow flies from Naples. But the actual distance was much longer over winding switch-backs and narrow roads as their small Suzuki off road jeep made the arduous climb up to the isolated village of 1,036 residents.

   Senerchia sits 2,000 feet above sea level in the high Sele valley at the foot of the steep slopes of Mount Boschetiello. The Sele river skirts the village as it courses through lush forests and rolling hills in the very valley where Romans attacked from the rear, surprising and killing Spartacus in 71 BC, capturing his slave army.

   When the NUg Group arrived, a few villagers were out and about but they had little to say to these strangers from Naples. Nothing about cavern entrances or much else, it seems. The NUg visit to this remote area nonetheless brought surprise after surprise. Their haunting discovery of a mountain top ghost town is beautifully detailed in Fulvio Salvi's account of the trip in the fine translation by NUg friend, Prof. Jeff Matthews at: The Ghost Town on the NUg web site. Their video of exploring the lush valley floor and cascading waterfalls and river rapids must be seen: Trekking Monti Picentini

   The original medieval mountain top village of Senerchia was heavily damaged and abandoned following the powerful Irpinia 1980 earthquake that caused grave destruction across the whole mountainous area. As the NUg visitors from Naples walked around the newly built modern village of Senerchia, located just below the original town which is abandoned, they found a recently built memorial park with both Italian and American flags flying and a cast bronze plaque honoring the sixteen U.S. WWII airmen who perished when their B-24 bomber slammed into a nearby mountain peak on a flight through stormy weather from Grottaglie to Naples on December 9, 1944.

  Why would an elaborate memorial park exist on a hillside in the remote village
of Senerchia? Who would have paid for such an impressive little park and why? It was this tantalizing story that sent me on an amazing search to learn more about that B-24 Liberator fondly named "The Buzzer," and the 16 men who perished in it. The story I have pieced together includes WWII records of “The Buzzer” and its amazing role, surviving seventy-seven harrowing bombing missions all over Europe and accounts of the efforts of locals who aided American officials in the search of the crash site.

   Allied forces took control of the badly damaged Former German and Italian controlled airfield in Grottaglie near Taranto in Southern Italy where they established a strategic base of operations for heavy bombers capable of reaching targets in Germany. A new B-24 Liberator flown from Chatham Army Air Force Base in Savannah, Georgia, arrived at the heavily damaged field at Grottaglie on January 4, 1944. After arrival, the new Liberator bomber underwent flight tests before being put into service.  

   One of those tests included the bomber making a screaming low pass “buzz job”just feet above the runway which the plane’s crew chief, Sgt. Bart Paluso saw and he immediately named the new replacement bomber “The Buzzer.” The name was fondly embraced with artwork and name painted on the front sides of the huge plane which bristled with armament including 50 Caliber machine guns which could shoot 800 rounds a minute.

   And “The Buzzer” also had a ball turret which was lowered behind the bomb bay doors and operated by a gunner of short stature able to fold up inside the cramped rotating ball. The gunner could turn the ball a full 360 degrees, from front to back of the plane with a hand operated joy stick. The ball turret gunner could position the two Browning AN/M2 .50 caliber machine guns using a special aiming sight sending out a wall of hot steel against incoming attacking aircraft.

   Important details are taken from a book I have been able to locate, "Brother men who fly," written by a ball turret gunner, Benedict Yedlin, who flew most of his 50 missions in "The Buzzer" with the 449th Bomb Group out over heavily defended targets like Hitler’s oil refineries in Polesti, Romania and Moosbierbaum, Austria.

   Mr. Yedlin safely completed his fifty missions and returned to the USA for discharge. His old plane, “The Buzzer” would soon also be retired from duty as a bomber. The plane was credited with seventy-seven sorties and had flown 41 consecutive missions without one turn-back because of mechanical problems. The war-weary plane was finally retired from combat duty and its guns were removed. Open areas from gun removal were covered over with sheet metal and the gutted interior had a floor installed with seating for “The Buzzer’s” new duty as a personnel and supply transport airplane.


   Her passenger manifest for that December 9, 1944 flight from Grottaglie to Naples, Italy included the five man flight crew, and eleven passengers, seven of them were on their way to Naples having survived their fifty-mission tours, eager to board a ship back to the States, hoping to spend the Christmas holidays with their families. Of the sixteen crew and passengers on board, fifteen were combat veterans.

Graphic from: "World War II Story" by Robert F. Gallagher
   Because of the predicted bad weather “The Buzzer” was to have not taken the direct route over mountains, in red,  to the allied Pomigliano airfield near Naples. The flight plan for a safer route, in blue, had a dog-leg from Grottaglie out south-southwest to the western Italian coastline then a right turn up to the north-northwest direct to Naples, a distance of 194 miles (312km) about 64 miles longer than the direct route.

   Weather that morning in Grottaglie was rainy and stormy and getting worse. Several flights canceled their flight plans including 1st. Lt. Ray Aldrich who had taken off on a scheduled mission but it was scratched and he returned to base where he reportedly urged “The Buzzer’s” pilot 2nd Lt. Julian Caldwell not to go because of the worsening weather. Caldwell’s co-pilot who was a weather aficionado also urged Caldwell to cancel, but “The Buzzer’s” crew and passengers loaded up and took off at 11:12 AM, with all on board looking forward to the relatively short flight to Naples and a bit of Christmas cheer.

   At 6:22 PM the tower at Pomigliano air base near Naples asked Grottaglie for the plane’s whereabouts. Just after midnight Grottaglie asked Pomigliano if there was any news about “The Buzzer.” There was none. No one knows for sure just what happened, and there is still much speculation. Weather most certainly was a major factor perhaps causing the flight to drift off course. There is mention that the impact happened just yards from the top of the mountain peak. That model of B-24 also lacked a de-icing system, and heavy ice build up on the wings was a known problem.

   But eventually it would become clear that “The Buzzer” upon impact, fully fueled for the flight flew directly into a mountain peak becoming a hellish inferno of bodies and twisted metal which plunged down the steep mountainside some 1,500 feet into a narrow and barely accessible ravine. The scattered debris, most of which was in the deep, steep walled abyss would soon be covered by thick layers of winter snow.
   Search planes from Grottaglie were hampered the following day by the still stormy overcast skies. A search by planes from the Pomigliano air base checked the coastal areas and water off Naples but found nothing. The following day six B-24s from Grottaglie made a wide area search of the scheduled route with two of them searching the direct route. One airman thought he saw the wreckage in a deep crevasse but he could not find it again because of the deep snowfall.

   Finally the names of the 16 aboard had worked their way up through the various military commands to Headquarters of the Army Air Force and on December 30th, telegrams went out to the to the next of kin telling them that their loved one was “missing.”

   The crash site and bodies remained deep within the crevasse completely covered with deep snow making any location almost impossible using aerial searches. A strong rumor that the plane had crashed into the bay of Naples proved false. It was five months later when the snow has started to melt that locals located the crash. In the valley near the crash site in the village of Oliveto Citra, the wife of a town doctor, Mrs. Amelia Clemente, who was born in the USA and had a fair grasp of English, took it upon herself to go to Allied headquarters near Naples and report the crash location. She had been to the site with a group of local alpine climbers who had been able to descend over the slippery rocks down to the bottom of the incredible debris and carnage. They positively identified that there were human remains down there and obtained some personal effects and identification of some of the victims.

   When there was no response to her first visit she returned and finally found someone who admired her persistence and scheduled the Graves Registration Service to come to the site. Her efforts eventually resulted in all sixteen victims being identified and their remains removed and examined for further analysis and identification for eventual burial in both Italy and the USA. Mrs. Clemente received a letter of extreme thanks and commendation, dated 30 August 1945 from the Adjutant General of Allied Force Headquarters, Colonel C.W. Christenberry.

   That ball turret gunner who flew most of his 50 bombing missions in “The Buzzer” attacking essential petroleum storage and refineries to cripple the German air force and limit Hitler's fuel supplies finally returned to the USA for discharge. He joined his father in a major construction firm that built whole subdivisions for single family housing throughout New Jersey. Ben Yedlin, in his 2002 book, “Brother Men Who Fly” recalled his real fear that since was a Jew, if he had to parachute from the plane he would be captured by Germans. But Ben made his 50 missions laying down a deadly screen of 50 caliber shells from his rotating nacelle right behind the bomb bay doors without serious incident.

   He remained active as a member of the 449th Bomb Group Association which honored him with a Humanitarian Service Award in 1998. He became a respected philanthropist for many causes and his goal of creating a true memorial to “The Buzzer” and the 16 men who perished in the crash never wavered. After many trips to Senerchia, Yedlin made many friends in the village and ultimately was able to get the plaque memorial to his comrades constructed and officially recognized by both America and Italy. After ten years of search and travel his plaque memorial was dedicated on a bright morning in Senerchia Village, June 29, 2003.

   Mr. Yedlin had contacted members of Congress and the U.S. Consulate in Naples regarding the planned dedication ceremony and the response was overwhelming. High ranking officers from the U.S.A as well as Italy, dignitaries including the Mayor of Senerchia and the U.S. Navy Band from Naples in summer white uniforms delighted the crowd with both American and Neapolitan favorites.

   And Ben Yedlin, already in failing health nonetheless got to see his Plaque Memorial and the peaceful park which surrounds at that memorial dedication ceremony. He died about a year later, September 10, 2004.

   Below is a link to a PDF from his 449th Bomber Group semi annual newsletter, “Late Pass” which was the radio call sign for the Grottaglie control tower. Go to pages six, seven and eight to see photos and commentary at the Senerchia Plaque Memorial dedicaion and the attendance of Americans and Italians in mutual respect for these fallen airmen.

Click Photos Below to Enlarge and Read Plaque