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.
Three key missions are used in Catch-22 to plot Yossarian’s journey as he morphs from gung-ho soldier to realizing his officers may never let him leave and actively seeking another way out.
The La Spezia mission (see post “This is Pinpoint Bombing”) and the Ferrara missions come during the time when Yossarian fully dedicates himself to carrying out the military’s objectives, as put in Catch-22,
“[Yossarian] was brave then.”Catch-22, p. 141
With the bombers unable to hit the Ferrara bridge on their ninth attempt, Yossarian takes it upon himself to lead the group on an unauthorized second bomb run. While they are successful in hitting the target, the squadron suffers the loss of a comrade named Kraft.
Colonel Catchcart is conflicted in how to handle reporting the loss of Kraft, as reprimanding Yossarian for the second bomb run he decided to take on his own would indicate that Catchcart has lost control of his men.
“…“Twice?”…”A trained bombardier is supposed to drop his bombs the first time…the other five bombardiers dropped their bombs the first time.”
“And missed the target,” replied Yossarian. “We’d have had to go back there again”
To stifle any investigations into Krafts death and into Cathcart’s lack of control of his troops, Cathcart decides to award Yossarian with a medal to recognize the achievement of destroying the bridge.
“You know, that might be the answer – to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail.”…”we’ll give him a medal for being brave enough to go around over the target twice.”Catch-22, pp. 137-138
The medal awarded is the Distinguished Flying Cross, which recognizes someone who distinguishes themself in support of operations by “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”
As in the novel, the 340th Bombardment Group required multiple missions to destroy the heavily guarded Ferrara Highway Bridge, and these efforts took a toll on the troops. Lt. Fish participated on missions to Ferrara on July 12, 13 and twice on July 15, 1944. As discussed in the post ‘I Have a Confession’, the 2nd mission on July 15 ends tragically with the loss of S/Sgt. Arthur VanderMeulen.
As documented in the 340th Bombardment Group’s War Diary entry for July 15, 1944, “S/Sgt. Arthur VanderMeulen, Muskegon, Mich, critically wounded by this exploding bomb died in the hospital later that afternoon.”
Similar to Yossarian, Lt. Fish participated on two missions which targeted Ferrara that day, the squadron suffered the loss of a comrade, and Lt. Fish was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The write-up of his Distinguished Flying Cross award notes that “Second Lieutenant Julius Fish…has been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross “for extraordinary achievement in an attack upon a railroad bridge near Villafranca, Italy….On July 15, after releasing his bombs with precision accuracy…a direct hit from enemy ground fire exploded one 1,000 pound bomb just below Lieutenant Fish’s formation”.
This description is similar to the excerpt from Catch-22 describing Yossarian’s actions over Ferrara,
“…[Yossarian] buried his head in his bombsight until his bombs were away; when he looked up, everything inside the ship was suffused in a weird orange glow. At first he thought that his own plane was on fire. Then he spied the plane with the burning engine directly above him.”
The DFC award continues, noting that Lieutenant Fish “skillfully guided his pilot, avoiding known gun position, safely back to base after one engine, compass, and the radio were destroyed by the fragments. Lieutenant Fish displayed great skill and resourcefulness in navigating his course with the aid of a pocket compass.”
We may never know whether Lt. Fish was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in order to help cover for the loss of VanderMeulen, however, events transpired that made Lt. Fish feel that he had to prove that he earned medals that he was awarded.
He received the following letter shortly after he was sent back to the United States on furlough from Cpl. Sid Schneider, Public Relations Officer.
As the letter says, “Knowing your desire for evidence at a time like this, I’m enclosing some pictures taken at the last medal ceremony which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the “Spam Salad” is the Real McCoy.”
The term “Spam Salad” is military slang for reference to the medals worn on a soldier’s uniform. Clearly someone was questioning whether Lt. Fish received or deserved to receive certain medals.
Similarly, in Catch-22, Cathcart questions whether he should have awarded Yossarian the Distinguished Flying Cross. As Yossarian states,
“Christ, Danby, I earned that medal I got, no matter what their reasons were for giving it to me.”Catch-22, p. 445