On December 23, 1944, a year after I left my home in Long Island City, N.Y., I landed overseas for active duty as a radio operator in the Air Force. It was my 20th birthday.
After arriving in Naples, I continued my journey by train to Grottaglie, an air base a few miles from the port city of Taranto in Calabria. I arrived at the base apprehensive but also relieved the long voyage and months of training were over. I was assigned to the 716th Bomb Squadron, 449th Bomb Group, of the 15th Air Force. The others in my crew included Richard Gramsey, navigator; Max Thackston, engineer; Mitchell Gnaegy, our co-pilot; Al Richard, bombardier; Alvin Thornton; Orlie Baker; Ed Porter; and Peter Max. Captain Ed Rossi, a tough Brooklyn-born pilot who became a father figure to us, was our crew’s leader and old man. He was 22 years old.
On January 15, 1945, I got my orders for my first mission (Mission 193). Our initial point (or main target): Floridorf Oil Refinery in Vienna, Austria. I had butterflies in my stomach when I found out where we’d be flying. We all knew Vienna was heavily defended by Nazi artillery. At exactly 1 PM, on a crisp, cloudless day, we arrived over the target. As we were about to release our bombs, deafening bursts of flak punctuated the sky in angry black puffs. The explosions surrounded our plane and seemed to get closer and louder. As I was leaning on my 50-caliber machine gun in the left waist anxiously watching this scary scene, a chunk of flak flew up from beneath my seat and right between my legs, whizzing past my head. I jumped away from my position and looked around the plane, which had been riddled with holes. Amazingly, none of us suffered even a scratch.
My second mission, and then my third, passed relatively uneventfully. I remember thinking that we just ran into a little bad luck over Vienna and maybe that was the worst of what I’d see. Other crews flew dozens of times without suffering any serious damage, I thought. So why should it happen to us?
On the morning of February 16, the day of our fourth mission (Mission 205), my luck changed. Our target was in Leipheim, Bavaria. I was nervous about having to fly over Germany and said a few Hail Marys in the waist for good luck as we flew. But we hit some bad weather and headed for our alternate target in Innsbruck, Austria, instead. It seemed like the entire 15th Air Force joined us—there were hundreds of planes all flying in a loose formation.
And there was plenty of flak everywhere, worse than the first mission. It struck all over the fuselage, peppering it with holes. Then, as soon as we released our bombs, our No. 1 engine started to act up. Rossi decided to feather it (shut it down). It was late also in the afternoon, and the weather was closing in. We were also using a lot of fuel as we flew back over the Alps. It was obvious to Rossi that we didn’t have enough fuel to make it back to our home base.
Rossi ordered me to get on the radio to find a landing field nearby. But my signals kept getting cut off. We were losing time. So I decided to send out an S.O.S. I was trying not to panic and was desperate to reach someone at Air Sea Rescue. Finally, I received one answer to my radio call, but it was too late. We were close to Pescara, a town on the Adriatic coast, when Rossi opened the bomb bay doors. “Everybody, bail out!” he shouted.
Terrified, I quickly jumped out of the plane, right after Gramsey. As I tumbled awkwardly from the plane, the icy wind took my breath away. With the ground fast approaching, I collected my wits, opened my chute, and I floated down through the clouds over the Abruzzo countryside. The drone of our plane disappeared, and all was still and quiet.
As I readied myself to land, I tried to avoid a copse of trees in a field. Instead, I crashed directly on top of one, snagged my chute lines in the branches, and ended up dangling several feet off the ground. Fortunately, a farm worker came running across the field toward me, shouting over and over in Italian as he ran, “O dio mio!” I called down to him in my best Queens, N.Y., to help free me. As I stood on his shoulders, he handed me a pocketknife to cut the cords of my chute.
Thackston and Gramsey landed close by. But where were Rossi and Gnaegy and the rest of my crew? I felt sick and worried that they didn’t bail out in time. Soon, we attracted a small, curious crowd of local villagers. They were gesturing and talking excitedly as we handed out packs of Old Gold cigarettes to the men. An old woman brought us some homemade wine and bread, which we all devoured.
I asked one of the men if he would direct us to the nearest town, which was a half-mile away. As we started on our way, a nervous-looking policeman intercepted us on the road and leveled his rifle at me. I told him we were Americans and showed him my dog tags. He seemed relieved and escorted us to the local police station, where he asked another policeman to bicycle to the British M.P. Station in the next town.
While we waited in the police station for the British M.Ps, the little old lady we met in the field brought us a basket of fruit. And then, thank God, Rossi and Gnaegy and the others showed up. We were so happy to see them. Except for some minor scratches and bruises, none of us suffered any serious injuries. When the British arrived, we said our goodbyes to the local people and tried to give them money in exchange for their kindness, but as poor as they were, they refused to accept it.
To get back to our air base, we had to hitch rides from the British and then a U.S. G.I. truck to the Air Force’s airbase in Foggia and wait for a plane. I knew that Foggia was close to San Marco in Lamis, a small town where my father was born. Shortly after leaving San Marco for Kansas City, M.O. with my mother, he died of pancreatitis, when I was just a few years old.
While waiting in Foggia, I met a local man at the transient hotel where we stayed. He happened to speak English and told me he worked for the Air Force in town. I told him about my family and where we originated from. His eyes widened. Incredibly, not only was he from San Marco and knew my parents, he lived in Long Island City—my own small Queens neighborhood!—before the war and was friendly with many of my neighbors back home. He urged me to go with him to San Marco to meet my many relatives there, including an aunt and cousins. But I was scheduled to leave the next morning, and told him I would come back to visit soon.
On my way back to base, I thought a lot about my father and my mother back home and the unbelievable chain of events that brought me so close to where they came from. I also thought how lucky I and my crew were to escape with our lives and the kindness of the people I met in Italy. In many ways because of my intense connection to the people there, I felt that I had found a new home.
Several days after Frank Ciavarella got back to Grottalgie field, he received permission to visit San Marco in Lamis to meet his aunt, cousins and other relatives, and many friends and neighbors of his father’s family. He stayed in touch with them after he returned home from the war.
In 1950, Frank married Mary Manta, and later had six children, eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Following his military service, Frank enjoyed a long career as a captain with the New York City Fire Department. He died at the age of 93 at his home in Long Island City, NY, in July 2018.
Frank Ciavarella, radio operator
Maj. William Nosker
718th Squadron Commander
47th Wing Assistant Operations Officer
Bill was born in 1919 in Columbus, Ohio. He attended Upper Arlington HS where he was an outstanding athlete earning a total of 14 varsity letters in four sports. He went on to play guard on the Ohio State University football team, helping them win the 1939 Big 10 championship. He was elected to the honorary society each of his four years and was sophomore class president.
Bill joined the Army Air Corps in March, 1941. He received his training at a variety of bases in Oklahoma and Texas. He was selected to represent the “Typical Air Cadet” in a nation-wide recruiting effort. While stationed at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas he married his longtime girlfriend, Jean Sanborn. After gaining his wings, he became a flight instructor for B-24s. In June of 1942 he began training as a squadron commander and later that year he joined the 449th BG(H)’s during its training and was named the commander of the unit’s 718th squadron.
Bill was credited with 27 missions while with the 449th BG, 35 missions in total. Many of his missions included flights on Harpers Ferry and Big Noise from Kentucky. He piloted Sinners Dream the day before it was lost on the January 30th, 1944 mission against the German Airfield at Udine. Italy.
In July of 1944 he was promoted to Assistant Wing Operations Officer with the 47th Wing of the 15th AF. He lost his life August 15th, 1944 when flying as an observer during Operation Anvil, the invasion of Southern France. The plane he was on crashed on takeoff. His remains were identified by 716th squadron Medic, St. Sgt. Allen because Nosker was wearing his Big 10 Championship ring.
Maj. Nosker was awarded the Air Medal and three Oak Clusters to it, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star and posthumously, the French Croix de Guerre.
Ohio State University honored the memory and service of William Nosker by naming one of their student dormitories Nosker House in 1966. A new version of Nosker House was opened for the fall semester in 2016 in the university’s North Campus complex.
S/Sgt. John Allen Jr. was a medic in the 716th Squadron and one of only 25 members of the 449th BG(H) to be awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the Army’s highest award for non-combat bravery.
S/Sgt. was one of only a few ground personnel to fly to Grottaglie. He arrived in mid December and was responsible for setting up and ordering supplies for the medic stations so they would be ready once the entire group was on base.
S/Sgt. and two of his fellow 716th Medics were awarded the Soldier’s Medal for responding to the crash of a British plane near the base. Despite the plane being consumed by fire and ammunition exploding, the three of them entered the plane six times, bringing out a crew member each time. They were credited with saving the lives of three of the crew members by putting their own lives in jeopardy.
John went on to be a veterinarian after the war and passed away in the fall of 2016. He loved his 449th BGA reunions!
Alan R. Davis (son-in-law)
Chillicothe, Ohio, USA
My Dad late in his life told me a lot about many of the missions he went on deep into Romania as well as Germany. He hated the italian Alps as he said they were menacing. On one mission they were way behind the squadron over the Alps with two engines shot out and they were easy prey for German fighters. He further stated that the upper gunner saw two planes breaking down on them and they immediately thought they were German so they all racked their .50 caliber machine guns ready to fight. The planes swooped in on each side of them flying alongside however as they were P-51s. (Note: He told me this way before the Tuskegee Airmen ever gained any fame). He stated that both P-51s has red tails and the black pilot was waving at him in the tail section and giving him a thumbs up as they escorted them safely back to Grottaglie Airbase. True story-every word.
John A Carter
Ralph was born in Georgia on October 22, 1922. He enlisted in the Army on June 5, 1942 at Fort McPherson, Georgia. His service number was 14119900. He married Opal Lee Moore in Louisiana in November 1942. He attended aerial gunnery training at Tyndall, Florida. As an aircrew member in 719th Squadron, 449th Bomb Group Heavy, 15th Air Force, he departed for Grotagilie, Italy on January 19, 1945 arriving in Italy on January 27, 1945. He was a member of Toiro J. Rosander Crew. He departed Italy on May 15, 1945 for the US arriving May 25, 1945. Ralph was discharged on October 16, 1945 at Sioux Falls AAF, SD. Ralph (my father) passed away in Houston, TX in 1989 and is buried in Chatham County, Georgia. Ralph never talked much about his experiences during the war, but the one story I remember is one in which he received a wound in his lip during a mission. He told me that it was so cold that it did not bleed much and that he sewed it up with a needle and thread. Ralph was a Sargent at his discharge. I would appreciate any contact from others who may have know Ralph and/or information about missions he flew and the aircraft in which he flew.
Ronald R Anderson
L.D. Sies, Jr. was the original pilot of the Peerless Clipper. The “Clipper” was a B-24H flown to Grottaglie on 2 January 1944. The Sies Crew reportedly flew 25 sorties over Eastern Europe and then volunteered for the OSS and flew an additional 25 sorties. The “Clipper” after being reassigned to the Kury crew was lost over Austria on 2 April 1944 due to a midair collision with two other aircraft. The Kury crew was lost along with the crews of the other two B-24’s. Captain Sies was promoted to Major. Shortly there after he flew a P-51 Mustang under a bridge in Chattanooga, TN and at discharge he was again a Captain.
David B. Pope
Moneta, VA, USA
Original 449th BG, 717th squadron right waist gunner on Samuelson’s crew Cinnsy’s Margie (42-7723). He was credited with 50 missions flying out of Grottaglie mostly on Cinnsy’s Margie.
This picture of Cinnsy’s Margie was purchased from someone in the UK.
Lewes, DE, USA
He was in the 719th. We have his mission summary, and several commendations. He was a navigator on what we believed to be Sleepy Time Gal. However I’m not sure that’s accurate as there were 2 Sleepy Time Gals. #1 went down before he got to Europe, and #2 went down when he was in a navigator school Dec 26 44 to early Feb 45.
He had 35 sorties and completed 51 missions.
A family tradition of Army Aviation: COL (Ret.) Ralph W. LeGrow, Army rotary wing [Chinook] aircraft pilot, was buried 29Aug2017 at Arlington National Cemetery near the grave of his uncle and namesake, PFC Ralph LeGrow of the 449th, who was KIA 13Apr1944. Another nephew of PFC LeGrow, Lt. Arthur Russell LeGrow Jr., Army rotary wing aircraft pilot, died in Vietnam 14Jan1967.
Willington, CT USA