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Biographies

S/Sgt George E. Thomas

Dear friends:

Lest too much time pass by (it already has), I want to share the attached photos with you.

My father, George Edward Thomas, was a gunner on the Shirley Jean, B24.  While he didn’t open up about the war until I was much older, the stories he eventually shared of his missions (37 or 39?) made me realize how brave, selfless and patriotic his generation was – they are truly the greatest generation.

Thank you for all you do to honor these courageous men who fought for our freedom.  May their heroism not be forgotten nor glossed over in the historical annals of our future generations.

George E. Thomas, Jr.

Lt. John B Weaver

John attended the University of Iowa, earning his BA degree in Economics. As a Freshman he lettered in Basketball and was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity. War interrupted and John joined the 449th in November 1944. He flew 30 missions as Pilot in the 719th Squadron and left Italy in June 1945. He was assigned to a B-29 to go to the South Pacific, but that was cancelled before departure.

Upon return to the US, he earned his degree in Optometry from the University of Illinois. He practiced in Shenandoah, Iowa for 58 years. John married the girl next door, Carole and they had 54 wonderful years together. They have two sons, Jim and Joe who live in Omaha, Nebraska.

John was an excellent golfer and played in many tournaments. He was a member of the Shenandoah Country Club for 70 years! At 97 he still lives in his own home in Shenandoah, Iowa as of July 2020.

Denise Meek Riegel
Santa Maria, CA

Sgt Waldo Lee Cain

Cain served in the Kansas House of Representatives, then spent two decades as Independence postmaster. Even in his retirement years, he served a term as a Montgomery County Commissioner, and then was associated with Potts Funeral Chapel for many years. His church and Masonic affiliations were numerous.

Lee Cain was dedicated to others. He was always positive in his outlook and loyal to the Independence Community. Lee’s hallmark was his smile and his dashing appearance. Deeper than that, his heart was soft and his word was golden.

He came from the Greatest generation, and lived a life that will leave a sad void in our midst. God bless his wife, Ernie, and all the family as they grieve the loss of such a wonderful man. -Rudy Taylor 24 Dec 2015

Denise Meek Riegel for Ernestine Cain

Waldo “Lee” Cain, Havana, Kansas Veterans Day Parade
November 2014

2Lt. Cecil H. Harmon

Our father was a 2Lt. and co-pilot of the Wise Virgin and Wise Virgin II (Kendall crew) assigned to the 716th in Grottaglie, Italy, in the first group to be stationed at this airfield. He had enlisted on Thanksgiving Day in 1941 and was in boot camp when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Dad was shot down on the Regensburg mission on February 22, 1944. After being shot down, Kendall went home due to injuries and another pilot was appointed for a few missions to complete his tour. Afterwards, Dad, now a 1Lt., became the pilot. When he was shot down, he told very little to us about what happened. Our research has indicated that Kendall wanted to bail or crash land in the sea but Dad convinced him the odds of survival were minimal. They made land and bailed out at the minimum feet. Dad said that he jumped, pulled and hit. All of the men landed hard and there were some injuries. Dad landed on a destroyed brick building and hurt both ankles. People were coming towards them and they were unsure whether they were allies or not. Fortunately, they were allies. They were taken to town to the local hospital. While there for a short period, a fire broke out and his crew all assisted in helping the town, including getting minor burns.

After completing his missions, he returned to the States to his wife, Helen Harmon, whom he married in September 1942 and his daughter, Patricia “Pat” Harmon Sweeten. He went into the reserves and went back to work in construction. When the Korean War escalated, he was recalled into the USAF as an active pilot and trained pilots at Scott AFB. Major Harmon retired from the USAF on 31 October 1967 after 20 years of active duty and 6 years of reserves. He was stationed at 15 different bases during that time, including Alaska (prior to statehood) flying jets and 2 bases in England. He retired as a major and Chief of Supply at McCoy AFB. His family went with him on all but one TDY assignments. In the early 1950’s, base housing was not available and small towns had limited houses for sale or rent. Using his pre-war skills in construction, after training pilots during the day, he spent his evenings and weekends building his own house for his family.

Prior to WWII, Cecil Harmon was in construction, working as a supervisor at the age of 18. He had to drop out of school (8th grade) during the depression to support his family but continued learning through his life all the way through a Bachelor’s degree (University of Tampa) and a Master’s degree (University of South Florida), while utilizing the GI Bill. Cecil Harmon, a father of two children (Bruce Harmon was born in 1958), after retirement from the USAF, began a 10-year teaching career where he taught drafting, industrial arts and related topics at junior high schools in Tampa, FL and Independence, MO. In 1979, he retired from teaching and moved back to Florida where he lived in Tampa and Ocala until 2007. He spent his remaining years (passed away in February 2012 just short of 93) with his daughter and her family.

Cecil Harmon, a faithful Christian, was very active in his church throughout his life. No matter where he was stationed, he always sought out a congregation and served. He served as a deacon in all of the churches where his family lived for longer periods of time.

Cecil Harmon died on February 15, 2012, at the age of 92, in Raymore, MO, where he lived his last 5 years with his daughter, Pat. His wife, Helen, predeceased him in 1988. His children, grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren continue his legacy. His son, Bruce, and grandson, Matthew, both have experienced what Cecil Harmon did during WWII when they were passengers on the Consolidated B-24J, Witchcraft, in 2012. They also discovered why he had lost his hearing after their noisy ride! His children, USAF brats, were fortunate for his service as they grew up living in the far corners of the US and seeing the world. The USAF life taught his family that we were one, without regard to race, religion or politics. His children are proud of being children of “The Greatest Generation.” At the age of 12, he moved with his family in a covered wagon. At the age of 25 (the old man in the group), he was flying B-24’s in a war and jets in the 1950’s!

Bruce Harmon and Patricia Harmon Sweeten
Arlington, TX

2Lt. James M. Leonard

Dad was a B-24 bombardier who was shot down on his 10th mission. Target was Wiener Neustadt. he saved the life of fellow crewman “Vic” radio operator [Nose gunner Victor Lemle]. Prior to his bail out he was injured by flak in the back and broke his ankle on landing by parachute. “Ken” was the pilot. [Heinbuch Crew]
After landing a “Hungarian who had lived in Chicago” and spoke English to him put him on a wagon for an hour ride to a military hospital. “I felt every bump”. He had his ankle pinned, “without anesthesia” and it was kept in a “horseshoe clamp” to keep traction on it as it healed. He was there for a “couple months” and turned over to the Germans. He was then in a hospital in Budapest but eventually transferred to Stalag Luft III in Zagan, Poland. The was the site of the “Great Escape” in March of 1944.
Dad never told me more than a few words about his POW experience but I was able to verify by him “The Last Escape” which was his forced march in a blizzard out of Poland and into extremely overcrowded German Stalags. The urgency of this forced march in horrible conditions was due the Russian advance and Hitler’s wanting to keep the POW’s as a bargaining chip and in his possession.
This is only a thumbnail sketch of his experience and has had to be put together from research and the few clues he gave me before his death. Needless to say he was the epitome of the “Greatest Generation”. He returned home to my mother, who had received confirmation of his death after he was shot down, another powerful story never fully discussed. He started his civilian life and family including my brother born in 1948, myself in 1953 and sister in 1958.
Only a few years prior to his death did he get treatment for the PTSD that had plagued him, unbeknownst to me, throughout his post war life. He was a hero and as all who knew him a “Great Guy”.

Douglas Leonard
Haddonfield, NJ

Sgt Wyman R(Russell) Holm

My dad was the nose gunner on the B-24 Bomb Boogie(it had the two dancing bombs as the logo).
I am pretty sure Lt Streicher (sp- Striker or Stryker, etc) was the pilot.

I know he did missions over Ploesti.

J. Greg Holm
Wichita, KS

Sgt Floyd E Byfield

My father S/Sgt Floyd Byfield was a tail gunner on the Big Noise from Kentucky. On 4 May 1944 one hour after dropping ordinance on Ploesti Marshalling Yards over Bor Yugoslavia, his ship #26 was hit by German flak. After seeing his crew bailing out, he decided no one was flying the Big Noise. The flak destroyed commo from pilot to crew, he received no orders to bail, so he went out the escape door and parachuted to the ground. As he was gathering his chute, two fellows in German uniforms approached him and he slowly raised his hands in surrender, but the two men told him that he was not captured and that they were with the Chetnik underground forces. He and 8 others of his crew were collected and protected until operation Halyard rescued the downed airmen.
My dad was originally assigned to Lt. McFain’s crew on the ship (Peepy). But on his 5th mission he substituted for the tail gunner on the Big Noise. The pilot on the Big Noise was Lt. Harper. His MACR 4661 gives interesting details of the action. I could go on and on but this is a brief synopsis of his story. Thanks so much from all of you for maintaining the legacy of these brave airmen.
Thank you sincerely, Ted Byfield. If anyone has more info regarding my dad or his crew members, here is my email address: tebyfield@outlook.com

Teddy Byfield
Benson, AZ

T/Sgt Waldo Wineinger

I will have to get more information for my mother, but I have the picture of my grandpa and the rest of his unit standing next to “Hassan the Assassin” with their first names written out by each person.

Zimmerman Crew

Kristin Mills
Edmond, Oklahoma

Waldo “Wally” Wineinger

Sgt. Frank R. Ciavarella

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.

Note

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.

John Ciavarella
Florence, MA

Frank Ciavarella, radio operator

Maj. William Nosker

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.

Nosker House Display: OSU

 

Alan Davis

Chillicothe, OH

 

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