Avignon: The Mission on Which Yossarian Lost His Nerve

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.

As discussed in my last post, Yossarian’s journey is told through three key missions – the Ferrara missions are during a time when Yossarian is fully dedicated to carrying out his Commander’s orders. Dangers faced over Avignon mark the next turning point for Yossarian. 

The Allied invasion of the French Riviera was code named “Operation Dragoon”, and was originally planned to coincide with D-Day on June 6th, 1944, however was postponed due to an insufficient quantity of landing crafts. The plans were later revived, and August 15, 1944 marked the start to D-Day of Southern France.  This became a harrowing day for many in the Allied forces, including the 340th Bombardment Group.

Lieutenants Fish and Heller both participated in the morning mission on August 15, as shown in the mission roster.

488th Bombardment Squadron – August 15, 1944 (first mission)

Lt. Fish’s diary entry for that morning notes that for this, his 39th mission, he “was on the first planes over target…left for target at 05:00…thousands of planes in sky.”

Soldiers landing on Southern France via parachute on August 15, 1944

After returning to base, the airmen were told that they would need to prepare for a second mission that day, this one to Avignon, a city the squadron had targeted during the weeks prior and knew to be dangerous and heavily guarded. 

In Catch-22, Avignon becomes,

“the mission on which Yossarian lost his nerve.”

Catch-22, p. 230

The events that transpire over Avignon become the pivotal climax of the entire novel. In one of the first chapters of Catch-22 we learn that the turret gunner on the mission, Snowden, had been killed over Avignon and that Yossarian attended to him in his final moments.

A similar situation happened to Joseph Heller on his mission to Avignon, which he described in a 1975 interview with Playboy:

Heller: At first, I was sorry when nobody shot at us. I wanted to see a sky full of flak and dogfights and billowing parachutes. It was like a movie to me until, on my 37th mission, we bombed Avignon and a guy in my plane was wounded. I suddenly realized, “Good God! They’re trying to kill me, too!” War wasn’t much fun after that.

Playboy: That sounds like the Avignon mission in Catch-22, when Snowden, the gunner, is killed.

Heller: It is, and it’s described pretty accurately in the book. Our copilot went berserk at the controls and threw us into a dive. Then one of our gunners was hit by flak and the pilot kept yelling into the intercom, “Help him. Help the bombardier.” And I was yelling back, “I’m the bombardier. I’m OK.” the gunner’s leg was blown open and I took care of him. After Avignon, all I wanted to do was go home.”

Sorkin, Conversations with Joseph Heller, 1975 Playboy Interview with Sam Merrill, p.148

Heller made Avignon into Yossarian’s 37th mission, corresponding to Heller’s actual 37th mission. As with the morning mission, both Heller and Fish flew in the same formation.

488th Bombardment Squadron – August 15, 1944 (fourth mission that day for the squadron; and the second mission that day for Lieutenants Heller and Fish)

Fish described the mission as “very rough”, and noted that he “saw (a) ship blown to bits in mid-air”, and that his “ship went into water off Marsallies [with a tent mate] Wolsturn in it….One man picked up. 486th also lost a ship.”

The 486th Bombardment Squadron’s diary described how the mission proved to be very rough, with “intense and accurate flak”, and the status of multiple airmen who had to eject unknown. The entry continued, “On the return trip, pilots J.D. Smith and Morrison spotted a 488th ship going down and when the crew landed in the water they each dropped spare dinges and radioed fixes for air-sea rescue.”

The following week, the 486th and 487th squadron’s were again assigned to target Avignon, and their squadron diary entry shows the concern all had for returning to Avignon. 

“[Squadron] stand-down today was unexpectedly canceled when a mission was called for Avignon, a dreaded target! After great apprehension the combat crews discovered all flak at Avignon was silent! It may have been removed – no one seems to know.”

War Diary, 486th Bomb Squadron, August 1944

While Heller said that he wanted to go home after his mission to Avignon, shortly thereafter, his friend and comrade Lt. Julius Fish actually began to actively seek a way out for himself.

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