Finito? The “Mission Limit”

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. 

US military leaders faced a dilemma as they needed skilled flight crews in order to carry out their military objectives, however they had set limits on the number of missions required to be flown in order to complete a tour of duty. 

Without competent replacement crews, there were few options but to keep their experienced crews flying by increasing the mission limit. In Catch-22, the mission limit begins at 25 and rises to 60 in increments of 5.

Catch-22’s Colonel Cathcart continually raises the mission limit not just by necessity, but also in order to be viewed more favourably by his superiors.  For Yossarian, every time he gets close to hitting the mission limit, Cathcart raises it.

Forty missions,” Hungry Joe announced readily in a voice lyrical with relief and elation.  “The colonel raised them again.” 

Yossarian was stunned.  “But I’ve got thirty-two, goddammit!  Three more and I would have been through.”  Hungry Joe shrugged indifferently.  “The colonel wants forty missions,” he repeated.

Catch-22, page 164

For the airmen in the 340th Bombardment Group stationed on Corsica, the mission limit was raised in the same increments of 5, and by October 1944 the limit was up to 60 missions.

Lt. Fish completed his 60th mission on October 3rd, 1944 – a mission he noted as being “the roughest mission” he had been on. 

However, since it was his 60th mission he presumed it to be his last. He’d never have to crawl back into the bombardier compartment and hold the bomb line while hoping flak or worse didn’t penetrate the thin exterior of the plane and his flak jacket.

He felt lucky to survive this mission and was ready to return to run his carpet company and his brother and business partner, Sol. In his diary entry, he wrote “Finito Tour of European Duty”, and again after describing the mission, “FINITO” – using the Italian word for finished to signal he was done with flying, done with being in Italy, and ready to be home. 

During the following week, he rested by traveling to Rome, building a stove and desk for his tent, writing home, watching several movies and shows, pracing shooting on the skeet range (where he hit 9 of 11 targets), and taking pictures of the insignias on the planes. However, by late October he started to get antsy, and he noted in his diary on October 24 that he “better get back to Brooklyn soon”.  News came later that week on Sunday, October 29th that he would have to fly more missions.  

Similarly, in the war diary of the 488th it was noted, “Major Cassada told crews that they would have to fly more than 60 missions and the crews didn’t take it too bad.”

For Lt. Fish, his frustration was clearly mounting. If the military wasn’t going to honor their commitment of sending him home after his 60th mission, he was determined to find another way out.  

Lt. Fish’s diary entries for his 61st through 65th missions offers evidence of his first attempts to protest the continued demands placed on he and his comrades.  On all but one of these missions, Lt. Fish found a reason not to carry out the bombing runs, noting he had to turn around due to either the weather or technical difficulties with the airplanes:

  • Mission #61 – Tuesday, November 7, 1944 – “Couldn’t bomb.  Complete overcast.  (target was) Casada Rail Bridge
  • Mission #62 – Wednesday, November 8, 1944 – “Started on #62. Had to turn back, bad engine.”
  • Mission #62a – Thursday, November 9, 1944 – “Mission #62, Tomba (Railroad Bridge) couldn’t bomb bad weather.”
  • Mission #63 – Friday, November 10, 1944 – “Cittadella Bypass”
  • Mission #64 – Monday, November 13, 1944 – “(mission to Castel Novo), had to turn back bad weather”
  • Mission #65 – Thursday, November 16, 1944 – “(mission to Castel Novo) had to turn back 15 min TO again”

While his 65th mission did end up being his final mission, Lt. Fish did not write “finito” in his diary as he had after his 60th mission, or note in any other way that he would be heading home.  For all he knew the mission limit could be raised again. Realizing he would soon run out of bad weather and faulty airplanes, he sought a plan B.

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