A veteran returns for one last flight

| 21 Feb 2012 | 11:00

    Editor's note: Earlier this year, Harvey Horn of Monroe told the story of his bomber group's action during World War II, including his capture and eventual release from a Nazi prison camp at the end of the war in Europe. In the following piece, Horn explains what is was like to return to his old air base in Italy nearly 60 years to the day of the navigator's last combat flight. By Harvey Horn I returned to the Celone Air Base in Foggia, Italy, 59 years and 332 days after my last flight as navigator on a B17 Flying Fortress, 15th Air Force, Fifth Wing, 463rd Bomb Group, 772nd Bomb Squadron. Our mission on March 20, 1945, was to bomb the marshaling yards at Amstettin in Austria near Vienna. As they say, "A funny thing happened on the way ...." We had to ditch our B17 - Pretty Baby Boys - into the Adriatic Sea outside of Fuime, Italy (now Rijeks, Croatia). Unlike the weather on March 20, 1945, my wife Minerva and I left Rome on a very cold, rainy blustery day in an Avis rental car. We drove south on the A1 Autostrada to Naples, then east on A14 to Foggia. The rain turned to snow as we approached the Apennines Mountains. The mountainside was already covered from previous snowfalls. There were stone houses in small towns dotting the hillsides. We arrived in Foggia in mid-afternoon. The city now has a population of 155,000. The houses and government buildings were all restored. Foggia is the birthplace of Fiorella LaGuardia, who became mayor of New York from 1933 through 1945. Back in 1944, when the Germans occupied Italy, Foggia was the most heavily bombed city. Today, there are still some signs of the bombings that have not been repaired. In preparation for our visit to Foggia, I had been in contact with Luigi (Gigi) Iacomino. He has written books about Foggia during World War II and, in particular, the 463rd Bomb Group. He also is the curator of the new museum and historian of the 32nd Fighter Wing of the Italian Air Force based in Amendola Field just northwest of Foggia. Gigi picked us up at the Atleti Hotel for a home-cooked dinner at his house. We were greeted by 3-1/2 year old Guiseppe wearing a military cap and a waving an American flag, Gigi's mother Elena (Nona) and beautiful wife Maria-Grazia. His home was in a gated compound, protected by Max, a lovable German Shepherd. There were three other dogs but Max was the guardian of the roost. Like most Italians, they opened up their home and hearts to us. Maria Grazia and Nona are excellent cooks. The risotto was superb. Maria Grazia gave Minerva the recipe and an Italian cookbook. We gave the family T-shirts from New York City and West Point as well as a Teddy Bear for Guiseppe. It is very difficult to bring presents to a family in a foreign country who you haven't met. I gave Gigi the 463rd Group Insignia, leather patches with my name and wings that was on my flight jacket for the museum. I also presented him with a copy of "My Story" about my experiences in the service. After dinner, Gigi showed me artifacts, like a P38 Lightning Fighter Plane propeller that was designated for the Museum. He gave me a model of the first B17 Flying Fortress that he made. I was very touched. We returned to the hotel about 10 p.m. It had been a very long day. Promptly at 9 a.m. we were driven to the Celone Airfield. Along the way, Gigi stopped for his friend Paolo to follow us to the site. Paolo brought along a video camera to record the day. As we drove, I tried to remember the streets of Foggia, the dirt roads, anything. But to no avail. All I could remember was being driven back to the base in the dark along with other airmen along a narrow dirt road. After what appeared to be about five miles, we drove onto a dirt road that cut the pasture in half. I had been told that nothing remained from 1945. There was no Quonset type building that marked the end of the runway that distinguished Celone from the other airfields. All I could see this day was grass, some shrubbery. I remembered the movie "Twelve O'clock High." It was about an adjutant that returned to the airfield of an Eighth Air Force B17 Bomber Group in England and his memories of the events that happened many years ago. Gigi, Paulo and I got out the car. I told Minerva to remain in the car because it was very cold. The winds were blowing with such force that I wrapped my jacket hood around my face as best I could and just looked. And looked. And looked. I couldn't believe I was really back at the air base after 60 years. Gigi asked me what my thoughts were. I could not express them. I just stood there trying to remember 1945. I said something like how overwhelmed I was. I may have said something like I understand the feelings of others who returned to their airfields. I walked to the side of the road and knelt down to reach for a small white rock. It is customary when you visit a Jewish cemetery to place a rock or stone on the headstone. Gigi immediately suggested that I scoop up some dirt to carry back to the states. I nodded. He found a flat piece of wood and a plastic bag and threw in three shovelfuls. I dropped the stone in my hand and decided that the dirt would be more meaningful. This was not a grave site but a memorial of what the 463rd Bomber Group did to win the war. I also wanted to share this with my copilot, Lorin Millard. As I started to get into the car, I looked around again at the field once more. Where had 60 years gone? I had invited Gigi and Maria Grazia to dinner but Guiseppe was under the weather so we again were invited to dinner at their house. We told them not to prepare so much food. Gigi said "just pasta and pizza." If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell. Maria Grazia cut the number of dishes to five. We said tearful good-byes. We will always remember Gigi and his family for taking us into their lives. All day long, I kept thinking about why I was at a loss for words about my feelings when I looked around at the old site of the Celone field. I was sorry I didn't ask where the metal runways are, the tents, the administration building, the latrines. Yes, I was told that all of those buildings were gone. But it didn't register until I saw for myself. It was like coming home to see the house where you grew up in was an empty lot. Even though the wind was howling, I felt a stillness, a quietness about the field. It took 60 years to return. I hope to return again much sooner. Harvey Horn has been appointed commander of the Hudson Valley AM-EX POW Chapter for 2005. The other officers are: Senior Vice Commander - Arthur Cozewith; Junior Vice Commander - Mike Ottoman; Adjutant - Lorriane Cohen; and Treasurer - Martin Belfant. The group's motto is: "We exist to help those who cannot help themselves." All former POW's are invited to join. For additional information, call Horn at (845) 783-4322.