The Italian Connection
|Boyd Bunnell proudly displays the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Meal he won during his time as a navigator on a B-17 bomber that flew missions out of Italy. The Fifteenth Air Force got much less publicity than those flying out of England, but had just as big a job to accomplish.|
When the history books tell the story about the European theater of war in World War II, they generally spend a great deal of time describing the exploits of the Eighth Air Force and their legendary bombing runs in France, Belgium and particularly Germany. Massive flights of British and American aircraft bombarded that part of the continent, and for the American side the main bomber used was the B-17.
Most of those same books give little print, however, to the exploits of the 15th Air Force which flew out of Italy and devastated the German military's ability to fight the war in southern and eastern Europe.
The 15th Air Force, operating principally from Italy destroyed all gasoline production within its range in southern Europe; knocked out all the major aircraft factories within its operating area and destroyed 6,282 enemy aircraft in the air and on the ground.
In the middle of the 18 months that air wing existed came Boyd Bunnell a 19-year-old recruit from Helper.
Bunnell was born in Price, only a block from where he now lives on North Carbon Avenue. His father owned the Ford dealership in Helper and he attended Carbon High School and was in the middle of his higher education track at Carbon College when he realized it was time to join up in 1943.
"At the time I was the student body president of the college and I started looking around and saw the draft approaching me so I decided to join so I would have some choice in the matter," he said.
Bunnell was the youngest of five boys. He remembers that on Dec. 7, 1941 he walked into the family's front room to find his mother huddled over the radio, listening to the reports that might send her five boys off to war.
"She said all of her boys were of draft age and she was worried," he says.
Turns out however that only three of them went into the service. The two older brothers were deferred because they ran the garage at the dealership and it was felt they were important to maintain the cars of miners who produced coal for the industry that would build the war machine America needed. Brother Kay ended up in the infantry and brother Louis became a flight instructor, and later was to fly B-29 bombers over Japan but the war ended before he went.
After enlisting in the Army Air Corp, Bunnell reported to the Kearns Air Force Base in the west part of the Salt Lake Valley.
|A photo of the crashed B-17 Bunnell and his crew were trying to get back to base in Foggia, Italy.|
"It was an air base but there wasn't a plane to be found," he said. "It was just for basic training."
After three months he went to Logan to attend Utah State University where there was an officers candidate school. From there he went to various places: Santa Anna, Calif., for beginning navigation training, which he took over being a pilot or a bombardier because he thought it was a skill he could use after the war, then onto Hondo, Texas, where he learned to navigate from an airplane that flew over 200 miles per hour.
In the days before radio beacons and geographic satellite positioning systems, navigators had to send their planes in the right direction by using compasses, landmarks and at night by using triangulation with three stars of planets.
"There was a time when I knew 52 planets and stars by their Greek names," he said. "We had to learn to do that to be sure we could fly at night."
Bunnell and others learning to navigate actually took off in special planes in which they had their own desks to learn navigation while the plane flew around the countryside. After he was done there he got his commission as a second lieutenant.
From there he went to Tampa, Fla., where he met the air crew that he would ultimately spend the rest of the war with. They did a lot of practice from a B-17, bombing targets in swamps and shooting off their 50 caliber machine guns for target practice.
Then the crew got a brand new B-17 and was given orders to head for Wales in the south of England. The B-17 did not have the range to fly straight to Wales so the crew flew it to Boston, then on to Labrador, to Iceland and finally landed it in Wales.
"As soon as we arrived they took that new plane away from us and sent us to Stoke on Trent to be a replacement crew," he said.
|Bunnell in his aircraft in 1943.|
Fully expecting to be broken up as a team and thinking they would serve in the Eighth Air Force they were surprised three weeks later when they flew to Naples, Italy on a C-47 via Casablanca and Algiers. They were assigned to the 483 Bombardment Group in Foggia, Italy. Once again they were given a plane, but this one would see action.
Bunnell said on his first couple of missions he was really nervous, but then he realized he just needed to concentrate on his job and that would go away.
"You just do what you have to do and with the loss rates at the time, you had a good chance of going home," he states.
The missions Bunnell served on provided a life of memories, some not so good. One of the worst was when three of the original crew were killed, but they weren't even on his aircraft at the time.
"We had a colonel who needed to fly once a month to get his flight pay so he would choose one bomber to take out and lead a mission," states Bunnell. "So he brought his own co-pilot and engineer along and ours to fly another plane in the group. While we were on that mission their plane wasshot down and they were killed. It was very, very hard to take."
With replacements however, the missions went on. Bunnell remembers just before the Germans surrendered he saw his first jet planes, and it wasn't in a close up and friendly way.
"The tail gunner said he saw bogies moving toward us at a very fast speed," Bunnell recalled. "I could see the front of them with lights flashing as they approached us. That of course was machine gun fire. They flew so fast through our formation that we couldn't even get a shot at them. We didn't know what they were. When we got back the debriefing officer told us that they were jets."
Bunnell said he was just glad that the Nazis had not developed them sooner in the war because every time they came through a formation, a B-17 would go down."
Bunnell was also in a plane that crashed on its way back to base in Foggia.
"We went over the target and one of our motors was shot out by flak (anti aircraft fire)," he said. "We flew on three motors to within four or five miles of the base and then a second engine went out. The pilot had to put it down in a field."
|Bunnell, when he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1945. He also earned the Air Medal Award as well.|
The plane came to rest without exploding or burning, but many on board were injured including Bunnell who says he mostly got scratches and bruises, but that he also got a concussion from being hit in the head by the butt of his 50 caliber machine gun.
After his injuries his mother received a telegram about the incident and when the Western Union delivery man came to his mother's door, she said her heart went into her throat, because that was the way parents were notified of a death of a service man.
"He's okay," said the delivery man as soon as she opened the door. "He just got injured."
Bunnell was in the hospital for two to three weeks after that.
The 15th Air Force crippled the enemy's transportation system over half of once-occupied Europe with repeated fighter and bomber attacks. On occasion it helped disperse enemy counter attacks and spearheaded the advances of allied forces. Bunnell's air crew was instrumental in some important bombing runs. In one instance, his efforts as a navigator led to him being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The group had assembled over the Adriatic Ocean to do a bombing run on a refinery in Austria. As they approached the Alps the storms got heavy and strong. It was so bad that it dispersed the groups into squadrons, which all set out on their own. Unbeknownst to Bunnell and his pilot all the other squadrons turned back, while they determined that they could go on. They found some broken weather to fly through, and were able to take the six planes and bomb the assigned target.
"We made some direct hits on the refinery and I charted a course and we got all the planes safely back to base," he said.
The Army gave the award to both he and the pilot.
|The original crew that Bunnell served with. The three men on the top row to the left were the ones that were killed in another plane that was shot down over Austria.|
He also won the Air Medal on one of the missions as well when he saved the life of a waist gunner who lost his air hose and had passed out.
"I noticed he had fallen down and realized it wasn't that he had been shot," said Bunnell. "I went over to him and got him connected back up, gave him some artificial respiration and got him breathing again."
Bunnell says that the average person has no idea what airmen in those days went through, even to just dress for 30,000 feet in an unpressurized aircraft was a big deal. Rather than wearing bulky, furry clothes to stay warm all the airmen plugged their electrically heated bib overalls into the airplane.
"I got burns on my stomach where I would sometimes lean over the navigators table to chart our course," he said.
Communcations were also interesting because air masks kept regular microphones from being used. Instead they used throat mikes which were directly over the vocal cords.
Bunnell said as scared as bomber crews were of enemy fighters, they were all more scared of the flak that came up from the ground. It would shake and roll the plane and the thud sound it made scared everyone. For that reason crews often wore flak helmets which basically looked like big cooking pots to keep from being hit in the head by shrapnel.
During the way the 15th Air Force dropped 303,842 tons of bombs on enemy targets in 12 countries of Europe, including military installations in eight capital cities. Its combat personnel made 148,955 heavy bomber sorties and 87,732 fighter sorties against the enemy. It lost 3,364 aircraft and 21,671 personnel were killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner - 20,430 bomber crewmen and 1,187 fighter pilots.
The war ended before Bunnell had served on 35 missions (the point at which bomber personnel were rotated back to the states) so for the months between May 1945 when the war in Europe was over and November of that year Bunnell served on his B-17 which had been turned into a human cargo plane ferrying infantrymen returning from the war to the states from Italy to Casablanca.