Catch-22 tells the story of Yossarian, a bombardier with the US Army Air Corps during WWII. Yossarian becomes convinced that the military will never let him go home as they keep raising the required number of missions – so he seeks another way out. In 2011, we finally found my grandfather’s war diary; this was the diary my father always said I should compare to Catch-22. What followed was years of research and a realization that Papa Julie’s World War II story was known by millions, but somehow eluded those of us closest to him.
Papa Julie only kept a couple of items from his wartime experience visible in his house. One was his Distinguished Flying Cross, which he had framed in his office, and the other was a photo montage showing him lining up the bombsight above a ship he was targeting, which he kept in a scrolling plastic picture frame on a nearby shelf.
I don’t recall any conversations I had with him regarding the picture, but this precision strike from 11,000 feet was clearly something to be proud of, as reflected in the glowing words of the group’s unit citation:
“…in sinking the enemy light cruiser Taranto on 23 September 1944, (the 340th Bombardment Group) distinguished itself by such extraordinary heroism and professional competence in the face of vigorous enemy opposition as to set itself above and apart from the other units participating in similar operations.”
“Highly trained bombardiers, undeterred by the hostile fire, expertly synchronized their instruments and released their thousand-pound bombs with unerring precision, scoring numerous direct hits on the target.”
“This outstanding achievement, made possible by unsurpassed teamwork which combined exceptional planning with indomitable courage, flying skill and precision bombing, completely frustrated the enemy in his attempt to block the entrance of this strategic harbor and naval base. The heroism and extraordinary professional skill displayed by the 340th Bombardment Group in this action reflect highest credit upon themselves and the Military Service of the United States.”
(Unit Citation, December 27, 1944, Charles T. Myers – Brigadier General)
Joseph Heller described this mission very accurately in Catch-22:
“Intelligence had reported that a disabled Italian cruiser in drydock at La Spezia would be towed by the Germans that same morning to a channel at the entrance of the harbor and scuttled there to deprive the Allied armies of deepwater port facilities when they captured the city. For once, a military intelligence report proved accurate. The long vessel was halfway across the harbor when they flew in from the west, and they broke it apart with direct hits from every flight that filled them all with waves of enormously satisfying group pride…” (Catch-22; pages 375-376)
The actual mission was Heller’s 51st mission and Lt. Fish’s 56th. Heller further describes his role that day in his autobiography, Now and Then:
“I was relieved to discover myself assigned to one of the planes in a chaff element. The chaff element was a flight of three planes that led all the others in over the target, with their rear gunners jettisoning open bales of aluminized “chaff” from the two side gun ports to confound the radar below that was directing the enemy’s antiaircraft fire. We carried no bombs. Because we carried no bombs, we could go zigzagging in at top speed and vary our altitudes. Because we carried no bombs, I shrewdly deducted that there was no need for a bombardier. Therefore, after priming and test-firing the machine gun in the bombardier’s compartment in the nose of the plane, I resolved to sit that mission out – literally.” (Now and Then; page 184)
Lt. Fish’s official ‘Awards and Decorations’ list notes his battle honors received for sinking the cruiser Taranto: