They were young men kneeling or standing in the sunshine in front of the fanciful logos on the noses of their bombers, their photos reminiscent of the school yearbook shots most had certainly posed for so recently.
B-24 crews were spending the last year of the war together at the obscure Pantanella Air Base, just north of Bari, Italy, not far from the Adriatic Sea.
Carefree smiles disguise precarious circumstances and the distracted viewer is shaken back to the understanding that for some in the photos they were posing for the last time.
Many of images were taken by Gloversville native Frank Ambrose, then a young sergeant and a photographer for the 781st Bomber Squadron. Ambrose, now 87, made photography a lifelong vocation, but for the past seven years he has been busy reliving the war.
He is the editor and publisher of the Pantanella News, a glossy, professional looking periodical mailed out four times a year around the world to a dwindling group of subscribers. Every issue, Ambrose said, four or five copies are sent back as undeliverable.
The 300 or so subscribers, which include a number of museums, carry on a running and enthusiastic correspondence with the man they call Frank. Stories from the war and subsequent life are recounted. Old warriors catch up on one another. Deaths are noted in the section called “Folded Wings.”
New photos surface. Members write in asking if anyone can identify crew members. One unidentified crew stands in front of a nose message: “come ‘n’ get me–you bastards.” Ambrose asks, “if any of you can still remember that far back and can identify these men, write me a letter.” Many such mysteries are solved and related in later issues.
In the April 2007 issue, Ambrose reminds his comrades about the importance they placed on getting their monthly beer ration cold. As the squad photographer and thus part of the government’s war publicity machine that fed the American media, Ambrose said he could often requisition a plane on the pretext that certain photos had to be taken. An “official photo mission,” it was called.
In addition to the occasional sightseeing that took him over the Vatican and other landmarks, Ambrose said it was often his responsibility on these official photo missions to get the squad’s beer ration loaded on a B-24 for a quick trip to high and cold altitudes. Cooling took about 20 minutes, he said.
In that April issue, he recounts an incident in which the beer trip appeared doomed because the only available plane was fully loaded with 500-pounders left over from a scratched mission the day before.
The resourceful officer accompanying Ambrose ordered the sergeant to unload. Ambrose and his group were not paying close attention when they heard “bombs away” and turned to see the “500-pounders come tumbling out of the bomb bay onto the airfield. A split second of terror came upon us as we watched the belly of that plane regurgitating its awesome cargo,” Ambrose wrote. One thing the officer knew that Ambrose did not: it took a bigger bump than just falling the few feet to the ground to set the bombs off
In the same issue, Ambrose published a letter from Loren W. Foote of Monrovia, Calif. Foote was the man who emptied that plane instantly after the pilot said he could not wait the 45 minutes it would take to unload the bombs properly. After a brief argument, “the pilot said again they wanted to take off now. I couldn’t argue with a pilot who had rank on me, now could I,” Foote wrote.
Other stories are somber. Lee Weinstein writes to Ambrose asking for information about his cousin, Sgt. Howard M. Fox, lost with the rest of the “Yellow H” crew on Feb. 5, 1945. Ambrose responds: “The target for 5 February was the Winterhafen Oil Storage Depot at Regensburg, Germany.” Lt. Robert C. Jones was the pilot. On the return leg off the coast of Yugoslavia, Ambrose informed Weinstein, Jones radioed he had only 270 gallons of fuel left and needed the most direct route to Italy. “Big Fence replied and gave Jones a heading of 165 degrees to Ancona.” Jones reported he was on that heading. “No further transmissions were heard from Jones and no one reported seeing that aircraft again,” Ambrose reported, telling Weinstein it was assumed Jones had to ditch in the sea.
Among the posed shots at the airfield are plenty of action photos, B-24s missing a wing and dropping from the sky and spewing smoke.
Though it appears no one could survive, Ambrose said both 10-man crews parachuted to safety. On one of the planes, he said, the commanding officer drew his .45 pistol and was killed fighting with German soldiers. The rest of his crew was taken prisoner, Ambrose said.
In many instances, he said, crews parachuting behind enemy lines managed to make it back to Italy. The underground in Yugoslavia gave help and protection to many airmen, he said.
In an amazing story retold in the Pantanella News, a German fighter sent up to shoot down the lost and crippled B-17, “Ye Old Pub,” bestowed mercy on his prey and escorted the pilot, Charlie Brown, to the North Sea.
More than 40 years later when Brown dedicated himself to finding the Luftwaffe pilot, he discovered that Franz Steigler was living in Vancouver, British Columbia, not far from his own home in Seattle. The two pilots were able to meet at a bomber group reunion.
There are lots and lots of stories but fewer and fewer members able to remember them, Ambrose said.
“We’re getting to the point now we’re so old I’m amazed how much I forgot since last week,” he offers, facetiously and ruefully at the same time.
A total of 3,000 or more airmen had assignments at Pantanella during that final year of the war, Ambrose said. At least 75 never returned, he said.
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette:
Categories: Schenectady County