Monday, July 19, 2010

The beach at Argentella

After the most beautiful and frightening three-hour drive I've ever been on, we finally reached the beach where B-24 42-78127 made its final landing July 5, 1944. We only found it because Dan used our Euro-standard cell phone to reach Dominique Taddei and Frank Allegrini, our Corsican guides (this one phone call making the London purchase of the phone and the expedition in Bern to get a France-to-U.K. Power adapter worthwhile).

We called Dominique from a crossroads gas station near Galeria, the village near the beach.

Frank drove there in his little Fiat and led us towards the beach. We stopped on the way from a spot along the country road with a commanding view of the beach.

Dominique and Frank.

We then drove for perhaps another 10 minutes down this narrow road to a parking lot near the beach. Our rental Renault scraped bottom seriously going down to the parking lot, making me glad I got the full damage coverage at the Hertz desk. As difficult as the beach was for us to find and reach - we never would have without our guides - I can only imagine how remote and inaccessable it was in July 1944.

We walked another five or ten minutes in the 90-degree heat to the beach. On the way Frank explained how he came across the wreck. Frank was preparing to go diving at Argentella, and the man who was filling his scuba tanks told him that he had witnessed the crash. He said the plane bounced two or three times on the rough waves and broke in two, with the front of the plane landing on the beach and the back remaining in the water.

Frank, it turns out, is a professional archaeologist. His day job is to oversee a Roman site at Ajaccio, where we are staying. He investigated the site with the care of a professional, and he eventually interviewed three witnesses. He learned the fate of the plane portion that landed on the beach. Around 1950, a man brought his donkey and some hand-operated cutting tools down to the beach and began to cut up the wreck for scrap, which be took up to the road one donkey-load at a time.

The propellers escaped the scrapyard. One had made it up to a local camping area somehow. A French Foreign Legion unit based in nearby Calvi hauled a second blade from the beach, and it too now rests in the camping area. Frank recovered a third propeller from the water, and I believe it is in his private collection. Frank sent me this correction July 30, 2010:
I did not recover the propeller from the bottom, the one I salvaged came from one other camping area near Calvi. That camping area was a military camp occupied by the foreign legion before being a camping area. They recovered that propeller in the 60s or 70s, probably during a training, and used the part as garden ornament. It was the camping owner who gave me that part in 1988.

Frank, thank you!

The fourth propeller remains in the bay somewhere. While Frank was able to photograph pieces of the wreck, he explained that a great storm in (if I recall correctly) 1999 covered or scattered the wreckage, so it is no longer visible to divers.

Frank and Dominique led us to the beach, where they took us to the spot where the front section was beached.

It was amazing to stand at the spot. A scene of terror, pain and death on July 5,1944, the beach today is a beautiful and quiet swimming beach used by campers at the nearby camping park and by locals and tourists savvy and hardy enough to find it. No sign that six men died on that mission, or that my Dad nearly did.

Frank then led us to the vegetation at the edge of the beach,where he said pieces of the plane had been washed up in storms. Sure enough. Absolutely amazing to find pieces of the plane after 66 years.

Then it was up to the camping park to see the propellers, First our guides chatted with the proprietor, who invited us into his little bar and offered us drinks. He seemed disappointed that all we asked for was Coke and water. I sure wanted something stronger, but after our terrifying drive up, I didn't dare. He refused to let me pay for the drinks, with characteristic Corsican hospitality. The Corsicans we met are unbelievably nice.

The camping park proprietor with Frank and Dominique.

Then it was a short walk to the propellers, mounted on a concrete wall along the park entrance:

The family poses with the propellers.

I should emphasize that Frank and Dominique did this on their own, traveling a long way on the crazy Corsican roads, to guide us with no pay. It's a debt I can never repay.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Where they rest

I had hoped to decorate the graves of those who died in B-24 42-78127 on July 5, 1944 -- the wreck my Dad survived. Dominique, the researcher who has provided the invaluable information on the wreck, told me that all U.S. personnel buried in Corsica were reburied elsewhere. The American Battlefields Memorial Commission provided the following information on the burial locations of Dad's fellow crewmembers:

SGT Harris P. Witham, 35753847 is interred at Plot F, Row 15, Grave 34 at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, Nettuno, Italy. At the time of his death, July 5, 1944, he was a member of the 829th Bomb Squadron, 485th Bomb Group/H/. He entered military service from Ohio.

Arrangements for placement of a floral decoration at the grave site can be made through this Commission using the Floral Decoration Order form on the website under Services Available. Checks or money orders for floral decorations should be made payable to the ABMC Flower Fund. As a guide, the cost of a suitable bouquet and spray in the area of the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery is $15.00 and $20.00, respectively. Weather permitting, a color photograph of the decoration in place will be taken and sent to you.

The Register of WW II Dead compiled by the Dept of the Army shows that, by decision of next of kin, the remains of the following decedent’s were returned to the U.S. for permanent interment at national or private cemeteries in various states as shown below:

2LT William R. Sipes, Camp Butler National Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois
SSGT George E. Wittenbrink, private cemetery in Illinois
2LT Richard N. Duer, private cemetery in Wisconsin
SGT Jack W. McGregor, private cemetery in Ohio.
The remains of William Vaessen were returned to the US for interment at a private cemetery in Illinois.

The location of interment of these decedents may be available from the Dept of the Army; the email address is; telephone 703 325 4053

Monday, July 5, 2010

July 5, 1944

Today is the anniversary of the final flight of Dad's B-24. Here are the pictures that Dominique sent to me:

The beach at Argentella

A wider view of the beach, with added B-24.

Propellers in a picnic area near the beach, presumably from 42-78127.

Dominique sent me the e-mail address of Judi, the daughter of Korkuc, the tail gunner on 42-78127. She had this to say:

I'm so happy to hear from someone who's father survived that day. No need for thanks, I'm sure your father would have done the same, they were brothers at arms. My father didn't give a lot of detail about that day, except that the mission was to bomb the torpedo pens in Toulon France. They did make, and they did deploy their bombs and from what I understand they took some flack which started their decent. They threw as much stuff out the plane as possible it order to lighten it up so that perhaps they could make it back or at the every least get out over the water. My father said that he wanted to shoot the at the bases of the other guns on board the plane so that they could push those out too but the rest of the crew didn't like that idea. My father mostly suffered head and facial injuries, along with a few other bumps, bruises and lacerations. I don't know if you've been in touch with Frank Allegrini, he's a historian on Corsica, who found the wreckage of our fathers plane his email is I'll attache the pictures he sent to me of the wreckage along with the story about my father that was in the local paper at the time and the pictures that were taken of the bomb drop that day.

My father's post war life was a good one. He married and had four daughters (I'm the youngest of the four). When he died on August 11, 2005 he was survived by wife Jean who died only three months later on November 1, 2005, his daughters and 8 grandchildren. 3 grandsons and 5 granddaughters. Since his death three great granddaughters have joined the family.

It's wonderful that you're going to Corsica. It's a dream of mine to be able to make that trip one day.

Do you have any pictures of our fathers? I've looked everywhere for a crew picture but so far I've had no success.

Safe travels and I'll look forward to hear from you.

She attached this clipping:

Click to enlarge

I guess I owe a lot to David Korkuc. His heroics explain how Dad survived with his severe injuries when the plane was in the water.

Judi also forwarded the following photos of the wreckage sent to her by Frank Allegrini:

Dominique says that storms have moved or hidden the wreckage, so I feel less bad about not knowing how to dive.

Not everyone made it off the plane. It's worth remembering the crew members who died in that wreck 66 years ago today:

• Vaessen H William 1st Lt 0-536855 829th BS 485th BG Pilot
• Sipes R William 2nd Lt 0-705827 829th 485th BG Copilot
• Wittenbrink E George S/Sgt 36446168 829th BS 485th BG Radio Operater
• Duer N Richard 2nd Lt 0-703456 829th BS 485th BG Bombardier
• Witham L Harris Sgt 35753847 829th BS 485th BG Nose Gunner
• McGregor W Jack Sgt 35613832 829th BS 485th BG Ball gunner