|A Ford-built B-24H explodes when its fuel tanks blow up over Germany. No pictures are available of the actual plane that was found.|
A Ford-built B-24H, unofficially known as the "Flying Coffin," has been found in Italy seventy years after it went down.
The heavy bomber Consolidated B-24 Liberator earned its nickname when crew members found it difficult to fly, thanks to its "stiff and heavy controls." Since Liberators had just one exit per plane, it was "almost impossible to reach the rear from the flight deck when wearing a parachute," hence the "Flying Coffin" designation.
B-24s are recorded as having dropped over 630,000 tons of bombs during World War II and were the most heavily produced American aircraft.
|B-24 on a mission|
The wreck was found in Selva del Lamone's forests outside of Farnese, Viterbo, in central Italy. Historian Mario Di Sorte told Discovery News that the plane was a B-24 "H" model, and the scientists were able to "fully reconstruct its last flight," from San Giovanni to the Canino airport. The plane was a member of an 18-bomber formation that dropped roughly 25 tons of bombs on the airport.
This particular "Flying Coffin" had two survivors when it was attacked by German fighters. The plane exploded before it crashed, leaving bodies "scattered around the wreckage" in the forest. It will be displayed in the Selva del Lamone natural reserve some time in 2014.
Details of the Mission
This B-24H took off (within the 15th Air Force, 454th Bomb Group, 736th Bomb Squadron from San Giovanni, near Foggia in southern Italy) on March 3, 1944 for a bombing mission to Canino airport, south west of Lake Bolsena. It was one of the 277 bombers — all B-17 “Flying Fortress” and B-24 Liberators — taking off from airfields in Puglia to bomb bridges, train stations and airports controlled by the Germans. The Germans had just been kicked out of their "Winter Position" at Monte Cassino and were on the run. The bombers were interdicting their means of retreat and/or reinforcement.
The B-24H was part of an 18-bomber formation that dropped some 25 tons of bombs on the Canino airport, where the Focke Wulf 190 fighters led by German Luftwaffe flying ace Erich Honagen operated.
|Luftwaffe ace Erich Hohagen|
“Weather conditions and clouds prevented accurate bombing. Only half of the bombers actually dropped their loads, in many cases missing the main target area,” historian Mario Di Sorte said.
As two German fighters attacked the B-24H and its 10-man crew led by lieutenant William J. Goodwin Jr., only two men managed to parachute: sergeant gunner Wallace H. Cleveland and sergeant tail gunner John M. Ashby.
|Focke Wulf 190 fighters, the best lower-altitude fighter in the Luftwaffe|
They were the only survivors of the “Flying Coffin.” The others went down with the ship, in accordance with the nickname, probably physically unable to get out of the plane in time as it fell out of the sky.
The B-24H exploded before crashing. It split in three parts, leaving the Italian civilians who came to the crash site with a horrifying scene of death.
“Carbonized bodies were scattered around the wreckage, a body was hanging from a tree with his parachute, while lieutenant William J. Goodwin was seen laying on the ground wearing the oxygen mask with bandages stuffed inside,” Di Sorte said.
Seriously injured, sergeant Cleveland parachuted away from the crash and was captured by the Germans, ending up in a prison camp in Germany.
Sergeant Ashby was helped by the local family Sabatini along with two South African soldiers. They had escaped from a prison camp in Italy and were hiding themselves in caves owned by the Sabatinis. The Italians had surrendered about six months earlier and opened the prisoner of war camps, setting the prisoners free, but the Germans quickly moved in. Released prisoners trying to escape the country would have risked almost certain capture. Better to hide out and await the German defeat.
While Asby was later captured by the Germans, also ending up in a prison camp, the South African soldiers - perhaps captured during the North African campaign two years earlier - met a terrible fate.
“Bobby” Robert Carter of the South African Engineer Corps and “Alfred” F.J.Crinall of the Rand Light Infantry South African Forces were arrested in the town of Farnese by the Germans on June 4, 1944. One can imagine that they went there to get food or other supplies, but stuck out like sore thumbs.
“They were tortured for two days, forced to dig their own pit and then shot dead,” Di Sorte said. Obviously, that was way outside the bounds of legal conduct. Sadly, the Allies occupied the region only weeks later, but the doomed soldiers could not have anticipated that.