BAIL-OUT OVER NORWICH

                  by Freddie Becchetti       E-Mail Address

July 31, 1944, and the 445th Bomb Group was headed for Ludwigshaven. Our B-24 bomb bay was loaded with unarmed fragmentation bombs.

Pilot Keith Palmer lifts off from Tibenham at 9:00 a.m. and takes her above the 500-ft ceiling for the assembly of the Wash.

At 16,000 feet and climbing our No. 4 prop runs away. Palmer feathers it, calls in an aborted mission and reports an altitude loss of 300 feet per minute.

There's no returning to base with the unarmed frags, so I give Palmer a heading to a point over the Channel where we are to jettison the frags.

We dump the bombs, but the ship continues to lose altitude; then a second engine begins to act up, and our rate of altitude loss increases.

To lighten the ship, Palmer gives the order to toss out everything that is loose. We wrestle with guns, ammo, flak suits and even the generator and send them whistling and hissing out the various hatches, down through the 500-ft clouds to whatever lies below. At one point, I jokingly grab waist gunner McGovern by the leg as though to toss him out. Lots of laughs later about that!

At 2,000 ft and still losing altitude at a dangerous rate, Palmer polls the crew and they vote to bail out in the hopes of saving the ship by lightening the it even more.

Over the Norfolk region but unable to see the land because of the clouds, we lined up at the rear hatch and bailed out one at the time into the unknown beneath the cloud cover: Waist Gunner Gregory McGovern out first (He fractured his leg on landing); Tail Gunner Robert Sherrick; Waist Gunner Lawrence Sladovnik (He broke his leg); Ball Turret Gunner John M. Smith (Sprained an ankle landing in a British woman's air force base); Radio Gunner Garl McHenry (Sprained an ankle); Engineer Bernard Goldstein; and finally myself.

Bailing out at about 1,000 feet, I counted to three and yanked the ripcord, while the noisy B-24 flew off, leaving me in the dead silence of the sky as I drifted downward through the clouds into who knows what.

In the clouds I begin to hear sounds from below. People talking, vehicles. I burst through the cloud cover and I am coming down in a residential area. There is only the slightest wind, so I am coming straight down with little lateral movement.

To my right, a large tree and a house. To my left, a row of small trees and a house. And directly in front of me, there is a small newly-spaded garden, an 8-ft high hedge and beyond the hedge, a house.

Delicately, I manuever toward the center of the garden. I land without a roll, both feet together and falling forward comfortably, with my face slightly pushed in the soft soil of the garden.

Slightly dazed, I lie there and monitor my body, feeling a slight twinge in my left ankle, but otherwise feeling good and thankful, though somewhat reluctant to move.

I hear a rustle of branches in the hedge in front of me. The hedge parts and a ruddy-faced man peeks through, catches my eye and with a twinkle and a smile, asks, " 'Aving a bit of trouble, Yank?"

And I laughed, reviewing in my mind all that has happened since 9:00 in the morning.

Mr. Morris pushed through hedge while I unhooked my chute harness. He walked me into his home and served me a scotch and soda. The Bobbies pedalled up, expressed some suspicion about my Italian name; then the M.P.s showed up and took me back to base.

Pilot Palmer and Co-Pilot Cliff Bolton were able to land the ship after the bail-out.

As for my parachute, which had entangled itself in the large tree, it was never found, but they say that the little girls in the neighborhood had new dresses for school the next year.


                                          D-DAY FIASCO

              by Freddie Becchetti       E-Mail Address

On D-Day, the B-24's of the 445th should have stayed on the ground. We did nothing that day to advance the cause of democracy vs. totalitarianism or to soften up the coastal defenses.

Our pre-dawn night rendezvous that day became the most terrifying event of our crew's five-month, 35-mission tour.

The D-Day rendezvous was only slightly more hair-raising than the practice we had survived on a clear moonlit night a week before. The practice was marked by four or five near-collisions, frantic intercom calls of alarm and dozens of blinding flares arcing across the sky. Chaos!

The D-Day night rendezvous, on the other hand, was a full and complete fiasco.

Alone in the darkness of the pre-dawn sky, we searched for the B-24's of the 445th with which we were to rendezvous before flying south to bomb the coastal bunkers of France.

We saw flares of all colors in the black sky. We flew in and out of churning clouds. Giant shadows roared above, below and alongside our B-24. The whole crew strained to see past the blackness to avoid ending our war in a collision. The fear of the unseen was paralyzing! Deathly silence punctuated by sharp cries of alarm on the intercom!

Finally we completed a rendezvous in the cloudy night and flew south. As instructed in case the invasion beaches could not be seen from the air, we dropped our bombs fifty to a hundred miles beyond the coast.

Yes, we did a rendezvous and flew over the coast in a formation, but it was a motley formation that included our B-24, a B-24 from another group, one B-17 and, of all things, one B-26!

We returned to Tibenham happy not to have died in a midair collision and with great regret that we had not been able to give the invading troops more support.



                                    NEAR MISS AT THE 445TH
                            by Freddie Becchetti
       E-Mail Address

There was a jagged hole in the roof of a nissen hut at the Tibenham base of the 445th Bomb Group. Only one person knows how it got there. Me. And I'll tell you how it happened.

First, let's get something straight. I was not brilliant about technical equipment, but I was not totally ignorant, either.

For example, the top-secret Norden bombsight with all its complicated gyroscopes, knobs and levers was a snap for me. After bombardier training, I could operate it almost blindfolded in the dark and drop a bomb in the immediate vicinity of the target. The same for the heavier Sperry bombsight with its powerful gyro.

As for the .50 calibre machine guns in my nose turret, I always had them under control. If a gun jammed, I knew which buttons to push and which levers to pull to make it operational again.

The primitive radar instrument, the British G-Box with its eerie jagged line across the screen and the bright, pointy blip was unintelligible to me at first, but I soon mastered it and navigated my ship and crew home alone several times over cloud-shrouded England, using that wonderful machine.

The mechanism of 500-lb bombs was familiar to me. I knew how to arm them, disarm them, transport them, load them and release them manually when they got hung up in the B-24 bomb bay racks during a bomb run.

All of these tools of war were my specialization, but the .45 calibre pistol that they issued us in the Eighth just before D-Day was in another category. It remains a mystery to me even today.

Every time I held that D-Day forty-five, I remembered the frozen firing range back in Salt Lake City, where one dull grey morning six months earlier, fifteen of us officer pilots, navigators and bombardiers had been trucked to meet our .45 marksmanship requirements before going overseas.

Numbed by Utah's December cold, I had stood on the line, held the heavy blue-metalled instrument of death in one shivering hand, fired at the target and missed almost every shot.

But to my surprise, I passed. Apparently, the gunnery corporal considered it prudent and a matter of his own survival not to have me on the range any more. Besides, the Air Corps wasn't about to deprive me of the thrill of going into combat simply because I couldn't put a hole in a cardboard target with a .45 pistol.

But I was not the only one. On that same wintry day, I watched a fellow bombardier fire all his rounds in quick succession without one single hit. Then I reeled in astonishment as he reared back in frustration and threw the gun itself, hitting the target squarely in the head and undoubtedly killing the enemy that the target represented. He, too, passed.

For a 20-year old brought up out West on Buck Jones and Ken Maynard movies, I was thrilled to have a .45 holstered on my belt. But the fact of the matter is that I had no idea why they had issued me the gun.

It couldn't have been to defend the Tibenham base against forces sent to capture the 445th Bomb Group. After all, in 1944 just before D-Day, it was unlikely that the Germans had organized a commando-style raid to take the 445th, unless they planned to capture our squadron commander Jimmy Stewart and hold him hostage.

It may have been to protect ourselves in case we had to bail out over Germany and make our way back. Could be, but in retrospect I would say that the .45 would be the last thing I would have thought about when trying to squeeze myself and my parachute out the camera hatch or bomb bay of a B-24 as it went down in a smoking spiral.

And at my marksmanship level, if I had bailed out with a .45 on my hip, I would probably have done more damage to livestock, friendly allies and plant life than to the Nazis, not to mention doing harm to myself.

So I was in my nissen hut at the 445th on a quiet Sunday morning. No mission was scheduled that day, so I had slept in. My nissen hut buddy was out on the base some place, probably having a beer at the officer's club. I knew he was not off the base, because we were restricted to base because of the D-Day alert. And as I thought about D-Day, I thought about my own personal preparedness.

There was no problem with my preparation for air combat. My missions had already made me into a professional bombardier-navigator-gunner. I was already a master "bombinavitriggulator."

In my inventory of preparedness I realized that I had not cleaned and oiled my .45 pistol as instructed.

Somewhere at a training base on the Texas Panhandle many months before, a sergeant had demonstrated "the care and maintenance of the .45 calibre pistol," so I began taking apart my .45 systematically with that demonstration in mind.

First, I took out the clip of shiny cartridges. Then I laid out the springs, levers and bolts of the gun until the parts of the gun lay in a small cluster on my cot.

Remaining in my hands was the bare skeleton of the gun -- the barrel and the trigger.

Casually, I squeezed the trigger in some idle test while pointing the barrel haphazardly.

An explosion rang through the hut. A bullet whistled by my right ear. There was a sharp, clanging collision of metal on metal that rattled the nissen hut from one end to the other. A cloud of blue smoke descended over me.

My ears ringing, I looked up and saw a patch of the grey sky of England through a jagged hole in the ceiling and looked down to see that I had left a cartridge in the firing chamber, a cartridge that almost blew my head off.

In a cold sweat, I sat still and silent for a long time, my gaze frozen on the parts of the .45 in my hand and my mind focused on the irony of such an accidental death against the background of the German Luftwaffe's desperate effort to shoot me and my crew out of the sky.

Today, somewhere near Norwich, an English farmer has an outbuilding which he bought from the Yanks when they tore down the base at Tibenham. He had to patch the ceiling before he could use it.

My nissen hut buddy has passed away, so I am the only person in the world who can tell the farmer how that hole got there. I probably won't tell him, however. I wouldn't want to destroy the myth of the American airman as the "compleat warrior.".

The Norden bombsight and the Emerson turret were a cinch. The .45 pistol was something else, and I'm glad all of us survived it. Especially me.


                              THE DREAM OF A LIFETIME
                          by Freddie Becchetti
       E-Mail Address

The Palladium!

The Hollywood Palladium!

He was actually going to the Palladium with a beautiful girl on his arm, a tall, brunette, fun-loving American girl who liked to dance!

He would spend a full night of dancing and fun at the Hollywood Palladium with a beautiful girl. The dream of a lifetime!

October 1944. He was back in the U.S. after doing 35 missions with the 702nd Squadron of the 445th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force. They had sent him on leave to Albuquerque to be with his folks, who admired the Air Medal and DFC he had earned for not getting shot down. Then the Air Corps gave him his first ride by Pullman train, from Albuquerque out to Santa Monica, California, for something called "a few days of rest and rehabilitation" in a quiet cottage right on the Pacific Ocean.

The first night in the cottage, he listened to the boom of the waves and thought of only one thing: He was in Santa Monica! In Los Angeles! With Hollywood and the Palladium just a bus ride away! The center of the world for any boy or girl who liked movies and dancing in those days.

Tomorrow night, he would catch a bus to Hollywood and go to the Palladium. He would dance with the first girl he saw there.

The next day, he put a sharp shine on his shoes. He put on his best uniform, with the Eisenhower jacket. He cocked his hat at

just the right angle. He squared off the ribbons on his chest that gave him the right to be cocky in a world based on deeds of war.

The ribbons spoke of four months and 35 harrowing bombing missions out of Tibenham. They told of the chaotic D-Day mission; the terror of the low-level mission at the St. Lo breakout; the major league flak over Berlin; the two consecutive nine-hour nightmarish missions to Munich; an emergency bailout from 1,200 feet through the clouds over Norwich; and dozens of other missions through deadly, living bursts of flak that sent jagged steel rattling from one end of the ship to the other, leaving ugly gashes in machines and boys. The ribbons reminded him of the flight surgeon's sleeping pills and tranquilizers he took to make it through the last ten missions. He remembered the scotch, the warm beer and the dancing with English girls at the club to take his mind off the next mission. And the ribbons brought to mind his crew's two visits to London, with buzz-bombs roaring overhead, sputtering into silence and bringing down death.

Yes, he needed to go to Hollywood. He had to go to the Palladium, have some drinks and dance across that immense floor all night with pretty girls to all the good music of the time.

He boarded the bus and saw her in the bus sitting alone, upswept hair and beautiful, with an empty seat next to her. He sat next to her, noticing that she did not slide away from him against the side of the bus. He said, "Hi." She smiled. They talked.

She told him that he was on the right bus to Hollywood. Yes, he could find the Palladium very easily if he got off at a certain bus stop. She would show him where to get off the bus. Yes, she liked to dance. Yes, she had been to the Palladium a couple times. Yes, she was "positive" he would enjoy it. Yes, she would go dancing with him at the Palladium that night if he wanted her to, but she would have to call her mother.

They got off the bus, she called her mother, and they walked to the Palladium.

He had died and gone to heaven! He was in Hollywood! At the Palladium! With a beautiful girl who liked to dance!

They pushed their way through the crowd. No empty tables. He wanted a drink, so they edged up to the crowded bar.

With the practiced air of a man who had drunk the best they had to offer in the club at the 445th in Tibenham, in the pubs and taverns of England and in the clubs in London, he shouted over the heads of the drinkers at the bar, "A scotch on the rocks and a Tom Collins, please."

The bartender looked him over, looked at the girl and yelled back, "How old are you?"

Caught off-guard, the combat veteran blurted out, "Twenty. Why?"

The bartender looked at the uniform and the ribbons, shrugged his shoulders and said, "Sorry, but you have to be twenty-one to get a drink here."

The boy with the 35 combat bombing missions over Nazi Germany and the beautiful girl from Santa Monica ordered chocolate milkshakes and danced all night to the greatest music of the time on the huge floor of the Palladium, where a large ball of tiny mirrors created shooting stars across the ceiling.

The dream of a lifetime!


                                                They Also Served Who Only Danced
                              by Freddie Becchetti       E-Mail Address

The first English woman I ever danced with had pedaled her bicycle about six miles to the dance in Norwich.

When she told me this, I could scarcely believe her. But she had no reason to exaggerate. And, anyway, she was only about seventeen and probably didn't know how to tell anything but the truth. Seventeen-year olds didn't lie much back in 1944, when I was in England for an unforgettable summer as a bombardier with the Eighth Air Force in its campaign against Nazi Germany and military targets in Nazi-Occupied Europe.

When I learned how she had come to the dance, I knew how precious she was, and I held her a little closer.

But I didn't hold her too close. In 1944 the times were different. I held her the way Sister Marie Elise, my eighth-grade teacher at Holy Trinity Catholic School, had instructed me and fifteen other roughneck boys to hold a girl when dancing. Right hand in the very middle of her back, no higher, no lower. Left hand holding her right hand gently and extended with a slight bend at the elbow. Standing erect and above all with at least six inches of air and light between the boy and girl. Sister Marie Elise made it clear to us that any touching of the bodies during a dance had to be purely accidental.

Six miles on an English bicycle! And hardly any of it on level ground, much less on pavement. But she explained that many of her friends had come to the dance on their bicycles and that they would return to their homes by bicycle after the dance.

Our first dance ended, and the phonograph needle touched another spinning record. We began a slow, dreamy dance.

Her straw blonde hair touched my face. The warmth of her cheek reached mine. We danced close, but always with air and light between us, for there were eagle-eyed chaperones at tables along the fringe of the dance floor. The times they were different.

She danced and dreamed her dreams. Very little talk. I danced and put my nightmares behind me as we glided one-two-three across the floor under the dimmed lights.

In her arms I was again just twenty years old and immortal. I would live forever. What a treasure this young English woman was to me. She was new life.

We danced the whole night away, each of us happy with the other and never surrendering each other to anybody else; and after the dance, she said "ta-ta f'now" and cycled off into the darkness with her friends, honey blonde hair streaming behind her and drying in the cool air of early morning, her cheeks glowing warm against the fresh breeze. I never saw her again.

As she pedaled home I made my way back to the nightmare that awaited me in Tibenham, where the ground crews had spent the night patching the holes of battle on the B-24 Liberator bombers, repairing damaged equipment and tuning the roaring engines to perfection.

The next day and night, I was confined to base, scheduled for a bombing mission. The dance in Norwich would have go on without me.

And in the early darkness of the day for the mission, my crew of nine and I were rudely shaken out of our sleep into the misty English morning for breakfast. We collected our flying gear and gathered at the briefing room.

Sleepy-eyed, we listened to the drone of briefing specialists on the "target for today." The target was indicated on a wall-sized map by a large red dot at the end of a zig-zag line from Tibenham. The line leaped across the Channel, sneaked into Europe, skirted known anti-aircraft batteries and bee-lined its way into Nazi Germany. It would be an eight or nine-hour mission in the freezing cold five miles in the sky with the frigid air whistling over every rivet and through every crevice of the bomber's body. About four hours of stomach-gripping tension to the target and about the same time to get back, unless something were to happen such as a German fighter attack, unexpected flak or a malfunctioning engine.

The briefing over, some of us kneeled in front of the base priest, prayed to God for forgiveness and received holy communion; others joined in prayer with the Protestant chaplain; while still other gathered for support around their rabbi. Then we wrestled ourselves into the bulk of our high altitude clothing, checked our parachutes and oxygen masks and piled onto a Jeep for the ride out to the B-24 bomber assigned to our crew that day. The nine of us quiet and huddled together against the cold of morning and the dread of death. No clever repartee. Each of us in our own world. All of us just into our twenties and with thoughts of home. All of us afraid and trying not to show it. All of us wondering if this mission would end in death and disaster to halt our pursuit of the magical 35 missions required of all combat crews at Tibenham.

At the plane, each of us completed our pre-flight assignments and prepared our specific battle station for the mission. As bombardier and navigator, I had inspected the bombs the previous afternoon before they were loaded into the bomb bay. I now looked them over again in the bomb bay to see that fuses were in order and to make certain that the bombs were hanging securely. In the bombardier's compartment up front, I did the pre-flight check of my Norden bombsight and checked the operation of the nose gun turret. The mysterious Geebox radar equipment was operating satisfactorily, and my other navigational tools and instruments were in place. Each of us ran a finger carefully down a smudged checklist to guarantee the working order of equipment and weapons of war. King Henry's long-bowed archers had done the same before Agincourt.

We took off into the English dawn, assembled in our attack formation high over the green fields of England and crossed the grey stretch of the Channel into Nazi territory. From time to time along our route we saw a smoking bomber in a slow sickening spiral toward earth, the victim of a fighter attack.

Over the target, we dropped our bombs from five miles in the sky amid clusters of exploding antiaircraft shells whose deadly hail of metal fragments clattered over the surface of our airplane, making a sound that no combat airman ever forgets.

Then we turned for England, listening prayerfully to the hum of our engines, anxiously scanning the skies for enemy fighters and craning our necks to get our first sight of the white ribbon of England at Dover.

Back at Tibenham and after a debriefing, we marked off one more mission toward our quota of thirty-five and fell exhausted on a clammy bunk in a cold and damp nissen hut for a sleep of jerking limbs and soft screams in the night, only to be rousted out of bed the next morning for another mission, perhaps to bomb the same target.

The missions came in awful succession. Some were "milk runs" just across the Channel, with no flak or fighters; others took us deep into Germany where accurate antiaircraft guns and desperate fighter pilots took their toll, bringing down dozens of wieldy bombers in fiery chunks of metal trailing long streams of smoke to the green fields below and taking hundreds of young men just out of boyhood to their death, leaving empty spaces in the lives of their families and friends.

There was a time during our four months of air combat when sleep became impossible. We were the machinery of war, and sleep kept us running; so our base doctor, like a mechanic oiling an engine, furnished us with sleeping tablets.

Then a day would come with no mission scheduled. Like the boys that we were, we shook out our dress uniforms, polished our shoes, tilted our hats at a jaunty angle and went to Norwich to dance with pretty English women, some of whom had cycled for miles to be at the dance.

Sometimes, on Saturdays, dances would be held on the Tibenham base itself, and the English women would be there, too. They were transported from some Norwich point of rendezvous in canvas-covered military vehicles as though going into battle themselves.

At the base, they were helped off the trucks. Dressed in their very best, all of the women smiled. Some giggled and others blushed as they walked a gauntlet of admiration and even some applause as they entered the base dance hall to banish the nightmare of war all of us were living.

In our eyes, all of the young women were beautiful and almost angelic in the spirit with which they were visiting us. Lovely and aglow in their youth, they had come to dance the night away with the Yanks. They would dance the fast ones and the slow ones. They would turn no man away.

They were there to dance with the bold ones and the shy ones, with the daring jitterbugger and with the uncertain novice counting out his steps and shuffling about the floor with apologies to his dancing partner and to other couples around him.

They were there perhaps to wipe away for a few hours their own nightmare of loneliness, frustration and helplessness in a war which had thrown their world into confusion, taking away from them the men in their lives and eating away at their youth and beauty.

Was there an orchestra at the dances? Did somebody play records over a speaker system? Who remembers? All I know is that the music was wonderful and the English women were excellent dancers.

The rhythm was swing and the mood on the floor was sheer happiness. We taught each other our moves. We spun and twirled. We missed an occasional handoff and laughed as only a boy and girl can laugh in their joy at being young and together. Two innocents lost in the exciting rhythms of the times.

There were gentle songs, too, and nothing could be sweeter than the way we put aside the grimness of war and wrapped each other in a rhythmic embrace, gliding across the floor as if on a cloud. A time for dreams.

Twice during our summer in England we went to London on three-day passes. Our first London pass coinicided with the first day that the Nazi's first buzz-bombs roared eerily over the British capital advancing the world into the era of technological warfare that H.G. Wells had prepared us for in his novels. In London we walked across London Bridge, saw Buckingham Palace, witnessed the changing of the guard, wandered through the Tower of London and stood in open-mouthed fascination before the official foot measurement in solid silver in the Lord Mayor's House. We went to the movies and saw Danny Kaye in "Babes in Arms" while sipping tea and eating small cakes in our theater seats, having served ourselves from the tray that was passed down the rows. So very British!

That first evening in London, we visited legendary Picadilly Circus, where we walked through the thickets of temptation, turning away offers from attractive women and ancient crones to "give us the time of our young lives." We learned of the existence of exclusive clubs where we might go to drink and dance, but I went in search of the more popular dance hall in Covent Gardens.

The dance floor at Covent Gardens was enormous. The thunder of swing music and the kaleidoscope of hundreds of dancing couples was breathtaking, but I was again comfortable once I had stepped onto the dance floor with one of the young women standing along the edge. We moved joyfully into the rhythm of the dance, and soon I was again twenty years old and immortal. And in the great simplicity of a boy and a girl, we danced the night away in the grand city of London.

In London as in Norwich, when the music ended, you wanted to stand and hold each other, hold onto each other. Forever.



You were life and goodness!
You were beauty;
You were hope;
You were laughter and warmth;
Softness and light;
You were love;
You were rhythm and grace;
Kindness and heart;
You were real;
And wasn't it all fun? Wasn't it exciting?

What an adventure it was to meet on the dance floor and wonder if the other would be able to dance and then to discover that yes! she could dance and yes! he could dance, too; And the two of you would settle into the rhythm of the music and he would do his best steps and find that yes! she could follow him and he would wonder how do girls learn to follow the way they do and how did they learn to jitterbug the way they do out here thousands of miles from America in the middle of England.

You could feel the sweat trickling down your back and see a glisten across her forehead just above the sparkle of her young and beautiful eyes as the music got faster and your bodies moved together more smoothly until it was just as though the two of you were one in how you wanted to dance the song.

You felt the elbows and shoulders of others, but after a while you didn't feel anything as the two of you became the music and the music became the two of you and you drifted off dreaming in the happiness of being young -- while the world outdoors went to hell.

Then you danced a slow one. The dreams came quietly. You held to each other. Cheek to the warmth of the other's cheek. Arms in close. A brushing of her curls on your neck. A bold touching of body to body, but only for a fleeting moment, for they were different times. And the slow song ended even though you didn't want it to end. The two of you stood together in the middle of the floor as others drifted off. And held to each other. Cheek on cheek. Arms in close. Until the music left your body.

The young women of England who danced with us,
The young women of England who talked to us,
The young women of England who took us into their lives,
How much we loved you then!
And we will forever love you,
For you were life!