by Douglas J. Tomas
In 1981, I began my research on my great-uncle, TSgt. Charles L. Berg, who had been shot down and killed in action over Italy in 1943. Charles was an employee of Gisholt Machine Co. in Madison, Wisconsin, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942. As a World War II aviation buff when I began my research, I had intended to just find information on what group, squadron, and aircraft he was in. My research at that time was not very successful, but after seeing the Collings Foundation’s B-24 do a fly-by during the EAA airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, August 1, 1993, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the infamous Ploesti Raids, I started again, in earnest, and this little project suddenly took on a life of its own!
Tech Sergeant Charles L. Berg was the flight engineer of Ralph Jackson’s crew on aircraft #36, serial number 42-72768, “Ready, Willing and Able” of the 512th Squadron, 376th Bomb Group (heavy), the “Liberandos.”
One surprise that came to light as I dug deeper into the bomb group’s history was that the B-24 “Strawberry Bitch,” now in the National Museum of the U. S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, was in the 512th Squadron during this same time. I found a mission report where Charles and his crew flew a combat mission on the 14th of December 1943.
Sadly, “Ready, Willing and Able” and its crew were shot down on a mission over Vicenza in northeastern Italy on the 28th of December 1943. On that mission, three squadrons of the 376th Bomb Group, with a total of 17 B-24s, did not join up with another bomber group and fighters as planned, and were attacked before getting to the target by a large number of German fighters that had not been previously reported. They shot down all six aircraft of the 512th Squadron, and two each from the 514th and 515th Squadrons, leaving only seven aircraft able to return to base. My great-uncle, and four others of the crew, were killed that day…five crew members survived. I was very fortunate in my research to be able to contact all five survivors.
Along the way, I was contacted by Giuseppe Versalato in Vicenza, Italy, who was researching these bombing missions over his city. We became very good friends and pen-pals, and exchanged quite a lot of information over the years.
Not long ago, Giuseppe informed me they had determined that a known B-24 crash site from the 28th of December 1943, was that of my great-uncle’s aircraft, based on information I had provided him about the crew, and the notes in a priest’s diary, who had gone to the crash site to attend to those who were still onboard.
Then in 2011, Giuseppe informed me they had arranged with the mayor of the City of Arcugnano (approximately 9 km south of Vicenza, where the actual crash site is) to dedicate a plaque on the site, on the same date 68 years later on December 28, 2011. So I now had my excuse to finally go to Italy and visit the area, and started making plans.
The morning of December 28, 2011, when Giuseppe picked us up at the hotel, he handed me the Vicenza newspaper. Inside was a full-page story about the mission, complete with photos of my great-uncle and crew! Already, I was overwhelmed. He then took us to the cemetery in Vicenza where the Germans brought the bodies of dead Allied crewmen to be buried.
Prior to the ceremony, we all met in the town square of Arcugnano. I knew of one gentleman who Giuseppe had talked with and told me about, who was a witness to the air battle overhead that day as a young boy. I was looking forward to meeting him. But to our surprise, two other gentlemen came forward, who were also witnesses!
The crash site is in a park area south of the city in farm fields near a lake. As people assembled for the ceremony, I was quite surprised by all those who attended…among them, the police chief of Arcugnano; the mayor of Arcugnano, Paolo Gozzi; and Col. David Buckingham, commander of the U.S. Army garrison in Vicenza! The Alpine Soldiers veterans, the Italian army division for the area, provided the color guard. The procession to the site was something to see, and they included me and my traveling companion in the procession.
At the plaque site, Mayor Gozzi presented his remarks, Col. Buckingham provided his remarks, and Giuseppe Versalato also spoke. Then Giuseppe asked me to join them. I had no idea what was coming next. He then presented me with a gift box. As I opened the box, I found a piece of twisted metal which was a part of the aircraft “Ready, Willing and Able.” It seems this piece had been recovered by the priest mentioned earlier, and had been kept until finding its way to Giuseppe. I had no idea it even existed. They asked me to say something, for which I was very poorly prepared.
The Alpine Soldiers then laid a large wreath at the base of the plaque while the Italian and United States national anthems were played. The plaque (in Italian) reads:
In Memory Of The Fallen Crew
Of The American B-24
In The 376 Group USAAF
Shot Down Here
In The 2nd World War
On 28 December 1943
The City Of Arcugnano
Placed This On
28 December 2011
Again the following day, the Vicenza newspaper carried a nearly full-page story about the ceremony with photos. It was a wonderful ceremony in memory of my great-uncle’s crew, and all those who were involved on that terrible day.
It was very clear to us that the Italian people still have great respect and reverence for the events of World War II that occurred on their land, and showed their appreciation for the Allied airmen and soldiers, and respect their sacrifices.
Needless to say, this was far, far more than I had ever expected, but the ceremony, plaque and friendships are very much appreciated, and it was an honor to represent our family.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Douglas J. Tomas is an airframe and powerplant technician with inspector authorization, and an aircraft restorer. He owns and operates Vintage Aviation from the East Troy, Wisconsin airport, and is employed full time in Technical Support Services at CNH (Case International Harvester/New Holland) in Racine, Wisconsin.