Saturday, June 30, 2018

Connecticut Yanks and Unsung Heroes

Members of the Same Australian Flight Crew
(Pilot, Navigator, Radio Operator, Gunner)

Connecticut Yanks and Unsung Heroes
Memorial Day is already a month past, but I’m still thinking about it.  Memorial Day, once known as Decoration Day, is today a federal holiday in the United States.  On this day we pause to remember every man and woman who made the ultimate sacrifice and have given their lives in service to our country’s armed forces.  As such, it is much more than an annual passage into “white-glove” season heralding the unofficial beginning of summer, a day off from school, specials on car sales, or deep discounts on big screen 4K TVs. 
Many countries have similar solemn remembrances, rooted in their wartime history, where they take time to reflect on their fallen heroes:  In Australia/New Zealand “Anzac Day” occurs on the anniversary of the disaster following the ill-fated battle at Gallipoli during WW I, while the Turks, on the opposite side of the Gallipoli front, observe “Martyrs Day” in memory of their victory over the Allied Powers on that same battlespace.  The United Kingdom observes “Remembrance Sunday”; the French celebrate “Armistice Day”.  In the Netherlands, if you can pronounce it, it is called Dodenherdenking, which in Dutch means “remembrance of the dead” 1.  It commemorates those Dutch civilians and soldiers who died in conflicts since WW II began.  Much in the news, South Korea observes a minute of silence on 6 June when the Korean War began, for it still hasn’t ended … and there are many others across the globe.  While many a story of personal gallantry is known, the medals duly bestowed, I suspect far more heroic stories remain untold.  For this reason, all are remembered this day, from the unheralded soldier who fell on an invasion beach to the men of an overrun foxhole on some forgotten coral atoll.
At the Makawao Veterans Cemetery in the Philippines, a helicopter drops thousands upon thousands of rose petals on the tombstones of 17,000 deceased, the Americans among them marked by a small American flag.2  I have never been to the Philippines.  I mean, I’ve never been physically on the ground there, but I’ve been to its coordinates many times on missions inbound to Viet Nam.  Young and wide-eyed then, I vividly recall looking down through the windscreen at a smoking volcano on Mindanao as we flew on into the South China Sea.  Those missions began for me in 1971, coincidentally the year when Memorial Day became an official federal holiday, although it informally began following the American Civil War when the idea to “decorate” a soldier’s grave first became popular.  There was another American soldier, however, of the same name, my name, Paul Monico, who visited the Philippines earlier than I in another war.
My namesake was a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army (  In a coincidence of the unexpected, not only did we share the same name, but we came from the same state of Connecticut.  I was stunned to learn of him, about as surprised as when a waiter in San Antonio, Texas, gave me my bill with my name written on it.  When I asked if he was prescient   enough to know my name, he replied that it was in fact his name.  Can my name be that common?  Especially when spelled with an “i”.  I never thought so.  I discovered that Lt. Monico was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Regiment as a Philippine Scout.  Taken prisoner, he most likely took part in the infamous Bataan Death March during the Second World War.  Lt. Monico endured that horrific ordeal only to die on 7 Sept 1944 aboard the Japanese tramp steamer, the SS Shinyo Maru.  Paul was among the 663 American prisoners of war who perished either from a torrent of machine gun fire while fighting the ship’s guards or shortly thereafter, unable to evade the gunfire and escape, when the ship sank after being torpedoed off the island of Mindanao by an American submarine, USS Paddle.3  Tragedy seemed to have befriended him.  This colossal friendly-fire incident was due to faulty intelligence that had reported Japanese soldiers aboard the Shinyo Maru, not prisoners of war.  This same name and home-state coincidence was too bizarre for me to fathom.  Separated by a generation, little did I realize that the paths of two Monicos, oddly both from Connecticut, intersected each time I’d return and cross that fateful stretch of the Sulu Sea. 

If I may ramble just a little … “Sulu” happened to be the name of the helmsman of the starship USS Enterprise, a name chosen by the creator of the Star Trek series, Gene Roddenberry, for none other than this same Sulu Sea.  He actually selected the character’s name while looking at a map.  Yes, I was once a “trekkie”.  I, along with the rest of the cadet wing (it seemed in fact the entire nation), once upon a time, used to watch a weekly dose of Star Trek at the Air Force Academy.  Another interesting factoid, if I may continue just a bit longer, is that it was while at the fictitious Starfleet Academy that the future captain of the Starship Enterprise, James Tiberius Kirk (yes, that “T” was for Tiberius), outdid a test designed to be unbeatable.  Here a space freighter fabrication, verses a real one afloat, this Maru the Kobayashi Maru, was part of the curriculum to gage a command-track cadet’s character.  No matter the strategy taken, no matter what actions he/she took, the scenario was rigged to ensure that the candidate would lose in this no-win situation.  Its intent was to observe how participants reacted to the loss of life and the death of those they commanded.  Only by stepping outside the rules of the game did Cadet Kirk beat the simulation by reprogrammed the rules of the game.  The general reaction was that he had cheated but surprisingly Kirk was commended for original thinking or what we might refer to as “thinking outside the box.”  Likewise, for the prisoners aboard the Shinyo Maru, each faced a similar no-win situation - die trying to escape the ship or drown as the Maru went under.  They had no ability to reprogram their situation and cheat death.  It was the real world at war.  In the end, only 82 of 750 POWs managed to beat an unethical set of rules and survive.  The actions of other POWs and their deaths in overcoming the guards had undoubtedly helped clear the way, their unrecognized heroic deeds making it possible that others might escape.  How each survivor would carry this burden the remainder of their lives, their thoughts “why me”, is certainly worthy of a case study analysis, if any are still with us.  Philippine Scout, 2nd Lt. Paul Monico, Officer #890210, US Army, unfortunately having suffered and endured so much, was not among the handful who survived.  If he had, he would have returned to Connecticut about the time I was born.

But I see I’ve drifted some, entirely off the planet in fact “… to a galaxy far, far away”.  In Italy, about the time the Shinyo Maru sank and Lieutenant Monico’s premature demise, the war in Italy was at a stalemate.  In February ’44, Winston Churchill had written a critical letter to the supreme commander-in-chief of allied operations in Italy.  In it he said he expected to see, in his words, “a wild cat roaring”, but by that point he’d seen nothing but a “whale wallowing on the beaches.” 4  Winston was referring to the status of “Operation Shingle”, the amphibious landing at Anzio the month earlier which had hoped to break the stalemate in Southern Italy.  Facing brutal resistance, the Allies were unable to break out of their beachhead.  As Winston had put it, they were essentially whales stuck on the beaches, a situation that held until late in May of that year (following the deaths of over 7000 Allied soldiers), along with the capture of Monte Casino, as German troops retreated farther north to new defensive lines.

It had been a tough slog on the beaches at Salerno.  That assault stretched south along the coast as far as the archeological ruins and temples at Paestum (Poseidonia), a major city of Magna Graecia (Greater Greece).  There had been no tactical surprise.  On D-Day of the Salerno landings, 9 Sept 1943, as the first wave of the US 36th Infantry Division approached the beach at Paestum at 03:30, a loudspeaker from shore announced in English: “Come on in and give up.  We have you covered.” 5  The element of surprise, that had been anticipated by not conducting a preliminary shore bombardment, was naught.  On the initial landing alone, a high cost was incurred as eighteen LST landing craft were hit.

To the north of the Americans, closer to Salerno, in the vicinity of Pontecagnano, when the British 56th Infantry Division went ashore, they were met by stiff enemy resistance in the form of withering fire and intense shelling.  They were pinned down on the beaches.  On “Beach Brick” the British “had great difficulty in organizing its beachhead. Although the shingle and sand beach was good, and the exits satisfactory, the routes inland were narrow and flanked by ditches. Moreover enclosures, patches of wood, swampy ground, and irrigation channels abounded.  The build-up on the beaches went briskly, but to clear them was another matter, and the congestion became acute.” 6  Winston’s vivid illusion to whales floundering on the beach easily comes alive in this context. 
Salerno War Cemetery

 “It was planned to fly in not later than D+6 a total of 12 squadrons of American Mustangs, Spitfires and Kittyhawks, eight squadrons of R.A.F. Spitfires, half a squadron of R.A.F. Beaufighter night-fighters and elements of one American Mustang and one R.A.F. Spitfire Tac. R squadron. …” 7
Coincidentally, the day of the invasion was the same day the armistice between the Italians and the Allies was made public (signed six days earlier on 3 Sept). 8  It marked a turning point in Italian history as the Italians switched sides to re-enter the war on the side of the Allies, even though one newspaper went so far as to announce that the war was over!  The Germans immediately attacked the Italian forces.  In the confused melee, the Germans had the added burden of disarming 1,000,000 of their former allies.  The Italians, no doubt confused since for secrecy reasons no clear orders had been issued in advance as to how to conduct themselves, saw some units surrender, some go home, others remain loyal to their fascist allies or flip to assist the Allies. 
Our little town of Calitri, across the backbone of the Apennines, way inland from the main thoroughfare of battle along the coastal plain farther west, saw German forces retreat through the Ofanto Valley sometime after the earlier Allied amphibious landings in Salerno.  I’ve heard stories of a German tank in the narrow lanes at the bottom of the Calitri borgo.  At one point, I’m told it got so narrow, one of its tracks climbed the wall of the street as it attempted to push through.  Apparently important documents had been stolen and the Germans were on the hunt for them.  A monstrous panzer tank in the medieval Borgo, where everyone lived at the time, seemed a little much, but it got the necessary attention.  Eventually the thief got the message and through the intercession of the local priest, if not God, the leather briefcase and whatever it contained (plans?) were returned.  As the Germans moved on, war departed Calitri. 
Although not the scene of any major battles, Calitri is surrounded by a history of military strife spanning centuries.  A slight clarification may be in order here for during WW II Calitri was the site of the first ever Allied paratrooper drop of the war.  On 9 Feb 1941, months before American involvement in the war began, eight Whitley bombers from Malta carried commandos of X Troop of the No. 11 Special Air Service Battalion on a surprise assault on what was considered an important target.  All told, from among the various aircraft of “Operation Colossus”, 35 men jumped in the night to temporarily seize and destroy a strategic aqueduct on the outskirts of Calitri. 9  While no battles ensued and loss of life was limited to one paratrooper, the Italian interpreter, all were captured and held prisoner for the duration of the war. 
Not far from Calitri, to the west, along the ridge of the lovely Sele River valley that we occasionally drive through from Lioni to the sulphur springs of Contursi Terme, is the small municipality of Senerchia.  As a crow flies, it is about 25 miles inland from the coastal city of Salerno and overlooks the Sele River that unfortunately divided the British from American forces on 9 Sept 1944 on the beaches of “Operation Avalanche”.  Coincidentally, this same river feeds the Calitri aqueduct.  Its name, “Senerchia”, stems from "Sena Herclae”, Latin for "Bosom of Hercules” and may signify it was of Greek origin.  But Senerchia’s fame is derived from another source.  In military history, Senerchia is known as the site of the final defeat of the gladiator/slave army of Spartacus, thought to be a Thracian from the present region of Bulgaria.  In 73 BC, Spartacus along with about 78 others escaped from a ludus (gladiator school) in Capua operated by lanista Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Batiatus, located north of Naples and initially took refuge on Mount Vesuvius.10  We know little of Spartacus, especially of how he came to become a slave.  Such vagary is bread and butter to Hollywood filmmakers and license for many blood and guts dramatizations.  We do know that his exploits and early victories over multiple Roman legions soon attracted an army of 80,000 or more former slaves, the last of whom eventually fought to their death against a stronger Roman force there in Senerchia in 71 BC.  Thus, the Slave War or Third Servile War ended at Senerchia.11  While his motives may place him far more than a community organizer and far less than a freedom fighter for the oppressed with the goal to end slavery, he remains to this day an enigma.  In today’s Senerchia, a small town of just over 1000 inhabitants, rebuild in a modern style after the great earthquake of 1980 that saw the city crumble, as did Calitri, there is no plaque to mark the event.  However, there is a memorial park of sorts to “The Buzzer”, a WW II B-24 Liberator bomber, its crew of five, and eleven passengers (seven of whom had survived their 50-mission tour and were going home).12 
When it had arrived brand-new from Savannah Georgia in January 1944, putting it through its paces had seen it make a high speed, low pass only feet off the ground at the Grottaglie airfield, a base near Taranto on the heel of the Italian boot.  The maneuver earning it the nickname “Buzzer”.  The aircraft, thus christened, went on to survive seventy-seven harrowing bombing missions all over Europe with the 449th Bomb Group at Grottaglie.  War-weary, it had been “put out to pasture” as they say and converted to a troop carrier to ferry passengers and shuttle supplies.
The Buzzer slammed into a mountain peak near the town in dismal weather in December of 1944.  The cause remains unknown – could it have been off course, flying too low in a mountainous
The Buzzer Memorial, Senerchia, Italy
area?  Had her loss been due to weather, icing, or some malfunction?  In an instant, all sixteen airmen aboard perished during what was a routine ferry flight from Grottaglie to Naples.  The winter was five months past before the wreckage was discovered in a deep crevasse.  It was a former “Buzzer” ball turret gunner, who had thrown the dice 50 times and survived to go home, who campaigned for and funded the memorial. 
After ten years of search, related travel, and campaigning for support, that the memorial was formerly dedicated on June 29, 2003.  
Liberator Bombers were produced in greater numbers and in more versions than any other US aircraft during WWII (18,188 built).13  Today, there are only four Liberators in the US, one of which, a B-24D the “STRAWBERRY BITCH”, is on display at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson 
Venosa Airfield, WW II
AF Base, Ohio.  As an aside, in this age of hyper sensitivity and delicate feelings, if you want to see it, you might want to hurry before, historic or not, someone complains about the name.  With so many produced, you can imagine that there were many more B-24 bases in Italy.  One of these bases once laid outside our window on the other side of Mount Vulture in Venosa, a mountain that bomber crewmembers nicknamed “Old Sawtooth” because of its distinctive shape.  The many times we’ve driven to the Venosa Co-op for a fill-up on bulk wine, we had no idea that there was once a B-24 base in the fields outside the town. 
Its runway was about 3,800 feet long and sloped about fifty feet, so they took off going down-hill and landed going up-hill.  This helped, for a fully loaded B-24 required about 5,000 feet of runway.  The runway was covered with a blanket of PSP (pierced steel plank) matting, each 10 feet long and 15 inches wide, hinged like modern day flooring, one to another, that prevented aircraft from floundering in the mud when the field flooded.  Today, no trace of that runway remains, a derelict quonset hut the sole relic of a forgotten
B-24 Bombers at Venosa, Italy
base.  Activity began there in September of 1943, following the Salerno landing, and operations began in March of 1944.  The Third Reich was within range, but it came at a heavy price to the 485th Bomb Group stationed there.  In its fifteen months of operation, the unit’s history notes that 475 men were killed in combat or died of combat-related injuries while 250 were captured after being shot down.
Like the US, Italy has its own Memorial Day.  On November 4th, Italy observes “National Unity and Armed Forces Day”.  The date recalls the day Austria-Hungary surrendered to the Italians in 1918.  The day is accompanied by ceremonies commemorating members of the armed forces killed in service to their country.  In Calitri, its
A Proud Calitri Veteran
fallen heroes are remembered this day at the local war monument adjacent to the Post Office.  The mayor and the town priest say a few words and a wreath is lain at the base of the monument to the accompaniment of the town band, while the town citizenry, many of whom are proud veterans of elite units, look on.
The Bersaglieri (Marksmen) are one of those elite units.  It remains today a highly mobile infantry unit of the Italian Army.  It was during WWI that a Bersaglieri trooper, destined to become a future Italian leader, one Benito Mussolini, was wounded.  Beyond their military abilities, they are known for their distinctive, wide-brimmed hats decorated with long, black capercaillie feathers (a type of grouse).14  They are further renowned for a particular style of pageantry, for instead of 
Giuseppe and Maria Elena
marching, the entire unit jogs at a brisk clip.  You can take a look here.  You have to wonder how long they can keep that up, especially for the guys blowing the trumpets!  Hopefully, the Bersaglieri are positioned at the beginning of a parade, or otherwise, as is the etiquette between groups of golfers, at least allowed to play through.  Our Calitri friend, Giuseppe DiMaio, who owns the vineyard where we look forward to pick grapes each October, was once a member of this select unit, when he was on active duty.  Even today, he remains a member of the retired National Bersaglieri Association.  I’ve never seen him move that fast in the vineyard, and thankfully, we’ve never had to work to that tempo.  Once upon a time, when they actually stomped grapes by foot, being in jogging shape may have helped.  Today, it’s more of a mechanized process at the flip of a switch, though I’d like to think that each time I raise my wineglass at the post grape-picking festa, that follows in Giuseppe’s cantina, and tears of laughter “run” down my face, I can log it off as exercise. 
In a galaxy, far, far away, ours to be exact, on a planet, again let it be ours, wars have raged to determine who rules since man could first communicate and organize.  Rule by divine right gradually gave way to human rights, and wars fought.  For Spartacus, since his motives remain unknown, I can take author’s license and assume he fought the status quo of slavery that oppressed individual freedom.  Many more wars followed for the right to rule and for whether your god was better than my god.  Lt Monico fought the “ism” of Imperialism, the B-24 crews in Italy, Fascism, while Denny and I fought on the side of Capitalism against Communism.
If there could ever be a memorial ceremony where the names of the fallen could be read aloud, it would take a lifetime or more to complete.  While one of the names would be Philippine Scout, 2nd Lt Paul Monico, another would be Ltc. Denny Whalen, my old B-52 navigator, coincidentally
My Former Navigator D. Whalen (rt)
another Connecticut Yankee.  In another war during “Operation Linebacker”, high above the mud and heat of Viet Nam, Denny had steered me safely through the night skies over Hanoi and Lang Dang in 1972.  Denny passed in January 2018 but not before his career vaulted him to the edge of space at Mach 3 as an RSO (Reconnaissance Systems Officer) aboard an SR-71 Blackbird.  He was one of the elite, one of 168 very special people to fly operational missions for the USAF aboard an SR-71, the most daring aircraft yet conceived.  The navigator in him once said, “You don't know what lost is until it’s happening at 35 miles a minute.”  I couldn’t even approach thinking that fast.  God forbid if you overshot a waypoint and had to turn around at that speed.  To pull it off, the ground track would likely cover a few states!  Although he never said much about this part of his career, in 1986 he and his pilot flashed over Libya to assess the damage following the raid on Colonel Gaddafi ordered by President Ronald Reagan in retaliation for the West Berlin discotheque bombing.  High, fast, and brave, I’ll miss him greatly.

Calitri War Memorial
For what economic, political, or religious cause will future men fight and die?  I sometimes wonder at the inanity of it all, if it is not all for naught.  But we are what we are today because of the heroic deeds of men from Spartacus, a B-24 ball turret gunner, and men like Denny in spacesuits hurtling through the edge space.  Assuredly, there will be other stalwart men at arms when needed, and with their passing, like all before them, a trace of their memory will endure in a shade of larger meaning in the ceremonies and memorials around the globe.  War is nasty business.  I pay tribute to all those who sacrificed in war to allow me the freedom to go where I want, when I want, to say and think what I want, and do as I want.  It is a fantastic privilege sought by countless souls starved for freedom throughout history yet which few have attained.  In Italy, their historic sediment runs far deeper than ours, far more wars fought or endured.  They don’t go out of their way to thank their veterans for their service as is so common here nowadays.  As a veteran, I don’t think to say it myself to other veterans, but here and now, let me say, thank you for your service and sacrifice, and to all, god-speed.

From that Rogue Tourist

1.      “Remembrance of the Dead”,
2.      “Memorial Day and Filipino Veterans”,
3.      “Shinyo Maru Incident”,
5.      “Operation Avalanche”,
6.      “Allied Invasion of Italy”,
7.  Molony, C. J. C. “The Mediterranean and Middle East Vol. 5, The Campaign in Sicily 1943 and the Campaign in Italy 3rd September 1943 to 31st March 1944”, 1973, p280
8.  “Armistice of Cassibile”,
9.  “Operation Colossu”,s
13. “WW II: Consolidated B-24 Liberator”,
14. “Bersaglieri”,