Today Italy’s Celone airfield has returned to nature and agriculture. One couldn’t know the activities, the machines and the hero’s who once occupied this Italian countryside. Only from the air can be seen the faint scarring of the landscape. Hidden are the fading remnants of taxiways and the 6,000 foot runway that gave pathway to the heavy B-17 bombers, their crews and payloads of America’s 15th Air Force.
One of those crew members came from Salt Lake City, via Canada, then England. His name is Howard Thayne. He is my children’s first cousin, two generations removed. Their maternal grandfather and Howard are first cousins. Born on March 23, 1919 in the coal mining camp of Kenilworth, Utah Howard’s family would move to Salt Lake where he was the typical American boy, sociable and popular among his peers. He graduated from West High School and at the age of 19 served a two-year mission for the LDS Church in Canada. Soon after his return home, with the outbreak of World War II, Howard enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
After training as a gunner Howard first served in the 8th Air Force in England. Here he was serving a different kind of mission. His first in service to his church and God, now, he was flying multiple missions as a crew member on a B-17 Flying Fortress in service to his country. Combat losses for the 8th in Europe were heavy. You had a higher percentage of being killed, wounded or captured while flying in the 8th than if you were a combat soldier on the front lines.
Howard’s mother Annie would keep track of each mission. When she’d hear on the radio the 8th had made another bombing run in Germany she’d note it on a calendar and count down the missions her son would have to fly before returning home. Annie wrote, As the war went on year after year, the days even seemed everlasting….
Months later in January 1945 Howard was reassigned with the 775th Bombardment Squadron. The B-17 squadron was part of the 463rd Bombardment Group of the 15th Air Force in Foggia Italy. It’s here where for a time, he called Celone Airfield his home. The same place mentioned earlier that today has returned to nature and agriculture. From that Celone runway Howard would continue flying bombing missions over Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia and elsewhere.
Many times his family would hear on the early morning news that the 463rd were flying again. His mother wrote, We knew Howard was with them. Oh, how sincerely did we pray and plead to the Lord to bless and protect our sons. Those were days of fear and anxiety.
On April 20th 1945, just ten days before Hitler would commit suicide ending the war, Howard was flying his 22nd mission with the 463rd. This time he was the “togglier”* or enlisted bombardier on the B-17 #46418, Mary Lou II. The mission took him to Fortezza an important railway hub in northern Italy. As they flew over the targeted railroad yards and oil tanks below the plane was struck by flak.
The engineer reported the bomber had 2 and a half foot wide holes between the fuselage and the number 2 and 3 engines. All controls to both right wing engines were destroyed. Losing altitude at 1,000 feet a minute, and just 1,700 feet above the ground, the pilot Lt. Warren Turner ordered the crew to bail-out.
All of the 10-member crew made it safely to the ground. Some were prisoners for a short time while others were protected and housed by Italian citizens. All of them that is, except for Howard. In his descent his chute caught on a cliff somewhere in the Alps and his body was thrown hard against a protrusion of rock. There he hung along the cliffs where he died. Local patriots would bury him.
It was a Saturday night when two men from the War Department knocked on the door of Howard’s boyhood home. One of them handed his mother a telegram informing the family Howard was missing in action. Annie wrote, Only those who had the same experience can know what a terrible thing that was. We had no way of knowing if he was a prisoner of war, if he was dead, or where he was.
Then, after a grueling five weeks a letter arrived from one of Howard’s close friends. A missionary companion in Canada, and later the two were reunited in Italy. Lloyd Sleight from Georgetown, Idaho had been with Howard just a few days before he was killed. Military rules required waiting 30 days before Lloyd could send a letter. Again, Howard’s mother wrote: as soon as those 30 days were up he wrote us the most wonderful letter. He told us Howard was dead. This was the first information we had received since we were informed that he was missing. Soon after, the family received confirmation from the War Department.
His mother continued: We received letters from members of the 15th Air Force to which he belonged. Letters of sympathy were received from his commanding officers, his crew members, also from those who were forced to bail out of the burning plane when he did, but would escape with their lives. There was the day when his personal effects came home, when the Purple Heart Award and other citations came, many things that pulled hard at heart strings. Those were the days we can never forget …
It would be more than four years before Howard would return home. When his younger brother Donald was called to serve his own church mission in June 1949, the war long over, Donald found himself sailing to Hawaii across the Pacific. At the same time Howard’s body was traveling across the Atlantic to return home to family and friends. Donald wrote of his brother, He was such a fine young man and loved by everyone he met.
As it turns out, 26-year-old S/SGT Howard Joseph Thayne was the last man killed from the 463rd Bomber Group. Just five missions and five days later the air war in Europe was over for the 463rd.
There’s a website dedicated to the men of this celebrated bomber group. What is written there, in the dedicatory message below, reminds me of how grateful I am to have grown up in a time and place to have been among and to have known some of the heroes of that era.
The image of the hero is important in any culture. Today young people tend to look up to comic book characters, pro wrestlers or action movie figures in search of heroes. The baby boom generation was fortunate enough to grow up living among real heroes. The men and women who, during the 1940’s, were sent to the far corners of the earth to fight, and in many cases give their lives, so that people everywhere could choose their own destiny free of tyranny and oppression.
Think about it: If it wasn’t for the efforts and sacrifices of these brave men and women, many of them still in their teens, the world would be a profoundly different place today. Therefore, this web site is dedicated to the true heroes of the twentieth century, all WW II veterans, but most importantly – the airmen and ground crews of the 463rd Bomb Group, 5th Wing, 15th Air Force, the greatest flyers of their time.†
The cost of the U.S. air war against Germany included 18,400 aircraft lost in combat. 51,000 men were killed. This is the story of just one of them.
*Toggliers never flew in the group or squadron lead aircraft. Simply put, they were not trained for that duty. Their duty was to drop the bombs when the lead bombardier dropped his from the lead aircraft.
†Home page of 463rd Bomb Group Historical Society