Valor: Interlude Over Italy

Oct. 1, 1997

Eighth Air Force’s 44th Bomb Group deployed its B-24s to North Africa in June 1943 to participate in the low-level Ploesti mission of Aug. 1. More has been written about that mission, including several stories in this magazine, than about any other single mission of World War II, with the possible exception of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

The 44th distinguished itself that day. Col. Leon W. Johnson, its commander, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his brilliant leadership under extremely difficult conditions.

Wars are not over until the last shot is fired. After Ploesti the 44th remained at its temporary base in North Africa to support ground forces during the closing days of the Sicily campaign. On Aug. 16 the group was sent against an enemy airfield at Foggia, about 30 miles inland from the east coast of Italy and about 600 miles from its temporary home at Benina, Libya. Based on recent missions to southern Italy, opposition–at least from fighters–was expected to be light. The mission was planned accordingly.

Winston Churchill once observed that in war nothing ever goes according to plan except occasionally and then by accident. Aug. 16 was not a day of fortuitous “accidents” for those assigned to the Foggia mission. Among them was 1st Lt. Charles A. Whitlock Jr., pilot of the 506th Bomb Squadron’s B-24 #42-40606. Four of his regular crew were suffering severe dysentery and had to be replaced for the mission.

The squadron flew through heavy flak from the Italian coast to the target, bombing successfully at 1:15 p.m. No fighter opposition was expected, but unknown to the Americans the Luftwaffe had moved in many Bf-109s. A few minutes after “bombs away” 20 to 30 Bf-109s hit the group on the 506th’s left. Almost immediately the 506th came under attack. Whitlock’s airplane, flying in the tail-end-Charlie element, took the brunt of this and subsequent attacks.

On their first pass, the fighters did only minor damage, but the second strike downed a B-24 on Whitlock’s left wing and wounded two of his crew, both of whom were able to stay at their posts. From the number of enemy fighters and the ferocity of their attacks, it was certain the battle would continue until the bombers were beyond the range of the -109s.

The third attack was disastrous, killing two gunners and seriously wounding well-gunner SSgt. Ralph Knox, who took many shell fragments in both legs. The intercom and alarm systems were out, the controls inoperative, the left wing ablaze, both engines on that side dead, and there was a fire in the bomb bay.

Whitlock sent copilot Flight Officer Edward Wilson and engineer SSgt. Edwin Stewart back to attempt putting out the fire in the bomb bay. Its doors would not open, so Wilson jumped on them, opening one door, but in doing so he was caught below and burned to death.

Stewart went back to his turret and continued shooting at the attacking fighters. His now were the only guns firing. Whitlock remembers that smoke was so thick he could barely see across the flight deck. As the smoke cleared a bit, he could see that flames were coming through the radio compartment and up into the top turret. Stewart, who was not wounded, probably could have climbed down from his turret and bailed out. Instead he continued to fire at the enemy fighters until he was consumed by flames in a death most dreaded by airmen. Greater devotion than this hath no man.

The uncontrollable bomber was going down rapidly. It was time to get out. One of the waist gunners who appeared to not be wounded was too dazed to find his way out of the burning wreck. Though his legs were virtually paralyzed by shell wounds, Knox managed to drag the gunner to a waist window and punch him out. The man’s chute did not open. Knox could see the tail gunner slumped over his guns, his turret swung completely around to one side. There was no way to get to the man through the flames.

The five men of that 10-man crew who were able to do so bailed out at about 18,000 feet. All landed safely, though Knox was unable to walk. He attempted to crawl to a secure place, but all five men soon were rounded up by Italian soldiers. Knox was taken to a hospital, where the fragments were removed from his legs without benefit of an anesthetic. Later, he and radio operator TSgt. Robert Mundell escaped from their captors and were returned to Allied hands.

When Italy surrendered, the other three POWs–Lieutenants Whitlock, navigator Robert Ricks, and bombardier John Waite–were turned over to the Germans and remained prisoners of the Reich until the war ended.

Whitlock’s crew, especially Edwin Stewart, demonstrated once again the heights of valor to which good men will rise when confronted by overwhelming odds. On Aug. 16, 1943, they earned a place in the Air Force Hall of Valor.

Thanks to Will Lundy, author of “44th Bomb Group Roll of Honor,” and a wartime member of the group.

Published October 1997. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.