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Like something you would see in the movies

  • Published
  • By Retired Lt. Col. Terrence G. Popravak, Jr.
  • 142nd Fighter Wing History Office
Down came the rain. And it rained and it rained and it poured. It was miserable weather for flying for man and fowl alike ... in fact, there wasn't much of any flying going on.

So it was at Dole/Tavaux Airfield, also known as Advanced Landing Ground Y-7, in France in late October 1944 where elements of the 371st Fighter Group hunkered down and withstood the deluge. A month before, after working with Patton's Third Army in the dramatic advance across France, the group had been ordered south in France to support the U.S.-French 6th Army Group as it approached the Franco-German frontier from southern France. This army group landed in the second amphibious invasion of France in World War II in August 1944 and made good progress all the way up to the Belfort Gap and the approaches to the Vosges Mountains.

But in October 1944 poor flying weather became a real problem. The 371st Fighter Group was grounded for most of the month, and only flew on 13 days, including seven days of limited operations.

In the miserable weather, however, the fighting on the ground continued. In late October 1944 the bulk of the understrength 1st Battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment of the U.S. 36th Infantry Division, was cut off and surrounded on a hilltop in the Vosges Mountains southwest of St. Die, France, by German forces. Try as they might they could not breakout, and the rest of the 141st Infantry and other units in U.S. Seventh Army were ordered to break through to them, including the famous Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

The enemy, the terrain and the weather combined to make any relief a difficult proposition. The isolated unit soon became known as the "Lost Battalion," but not for any navigation reason. Soon the Lost Battalion's ammunition ran low; rations ran out, as did medical supplies as well as the life of the batteries for the radios they had to communicate with the outside world.  It was a grim situation.

With the battalion cut off, aerial resupply was a natural way to seek help, but the lousy weather grounded everything. Everything that is except for the pilots and P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bomber aircraft of the 371st Fighter Group's 405th Fighter Squadron. The group was essentially grounded since Oct. 23, 1944, by fog, thick clouds and constant, near-freezing rain. Pilots in the 405th, commanded by Maj. John W. Leonard who later would be promoted to lieutenant colonel, knowing the desperate situation on the ground, volunteered to risk flying in the poor weather to help the men of the Lost Battalion.

"Trucks were brought in and the supplies were stuffed into the belly tanks and affixed to the planes to be dropped," recalled Sgt. Louis Cellitti, an armorer with the 405th Squadron who rigged aircraft with ammunition for the mission.

The first aerial relief effort was made on Oct. 27, 1944, in terrible weather. All of Ninth Air Force and the XII Tactical Air Command were grounded except for the 405th FS. Eight aircraft, each carrying two-150 gallon wing tanks filled with ammunition, food, medical supplies and radio batteries, made their way at low level, trying to reach the Lost Battalion by flying under the clouds hugging the surface. When lack of visibility forced the airmen above the clouds, 1st Lt. Robert A. Booth crashed on the ascent through the weather and was killed. In the poor visibility on the way back Leonard accidentally smacked a wing tip into a tree and lost a portion of it but was able to land his damaged aircraft safely.

On Oct. 28, 1944, the 405th flew four air drop missions. The first "show," a flight of four P-47 aircraft, took off at 7:50 a.m. and was over the "Lost Battalion" drop zone at 8:30 a.m., greeted by German flak that was reported as "intense, accurate, and heavy." The four successfully made their drop and returned to Dole. Down came the much-needed supplies suspended beneath yellow, orange, and red parachutes.  Though some of the supplies landed outside the American perimeter, the soldiers fought to secure them.

The second show was also led by Leonard. With ten Thunderbolts, he decided to try two ships at a time in hitting the drop zone. But by the time Leonard reached the drop zone it was totally obscured and he had to return to base. His wingman Milton Seale remembered what happened on their return to Y-7.

"We were going along fine just under the clouds that gave us 200-300 feet above the ground," said Seale. "All of a sudden, we passed over a small valley, a stream of tracers were directed straight into John's plane. I was too low to get my nose down to fire back at the source, but I did see that it was our own people with a half-track vehicle mounted with quad .50 caliber machine guns. As I looked over at my partner, I said 'John, you'd better get out of that thing...It's on fire.' John, in his southern accent, said, 'Yeah, it's getting a little warm in here. I think I'll bail out.'"

Leonard rolled his aircraft over on its back, bailed out and quickly landed in a tree, with his feet about six inches off the ground, not far from the command post of an Army general. A jeep was dispatched to pick him up. One of the 405th's armorers, Robert Lindsay, remembered what happened then.

"The general dispatched a jeep to pick-up Major Leonard from where he landed in the trees," Linsday said. "The major found the soldier who commanded the quad-50 gun crew and had a heated 'discussion' with him - most likely about Allied aircraft identification."

In Leonard's absence, 1st Lt. Edward J. Hayes led the third show of Oct. 28, 1944, with four P-47s. The flight was over the drop zone by 12:45 p.m. and was greeted by German flak described as "intense, accurate, and heavy." Unfortunately the supplies landed south of the drop zone.

The fourth and final mission of the day used ten P-47D aircraft. The flights of this mission were over the target by 4:30 p.m. All supplies landed in a wooded area near the top of the hill.

With the weather creating uncertainty about getting enough supplies to the beleaguered battalion by aircraft, ground commanders ordered an alternate resupply plan put into effect. This new plan called for 100 105mm and 155mm artillery shells filled with chocolate "D" ration bars, sulfadiazine wound tablets and halazone water purification tablets. The special shells were fired just after the last air delivery, starting at 4:40 p.m.

"Those shells may have had chocolate in them but if they hit you, they'd kill you," 1st Lt. Martin J. Higgins Jr., the acting commander of the Lost Battalion We decided to take a chance. "We figured, if you don't get hit ... you eat."

But some of the aerial supplies dropped by the 405th did indeed reach the Lost Battalion on this day, and feedback on the mission for the successful flyers came swiftly. On the afternoon of Oct 28, 1944, Maj. Gen. Ralph D. Royce, of the famous Royce mission to the Philippines in April 1942 and commanding general of the First Tactical Air Force, passed along a message received from walkie-talkies of the Lost Battalion using batteries the 405th dropped.

"Thank our pals in the Air Corps" Royce said. "We eat for the first time in three days!"

Brig. Gen. Gordon B. Saville, the "father" of American air defense and commander of XII Tactical Air Command, added his endorsement to this commendation as he passed it down to the group.

"It is with great pleasure that I forward the above commendation; the timely execution of this mission, in spite of adverse conditions, reflect great credit on all concerned," said Saville.

But the Lost Battalion was not out of the woods yet. Oct 29, 1944, the sixth day of being surrounded, was the hardest day for the Lost Battalion. The unit was down to three rounds of ammunition per man by the morning, and the enemy kept up attacks throughout the day. Fortunately, the 405th was right on-target with ammo to help them fight.

The squadron flew two supply missions on this day, with the first "show" over the drop zone at 10:45 a.m. Fifteen planes dropped external tanks loaded with ammunition and medical supplies including blood plasma. Leonard reported 22 landed inside the drop zone. The final supply mission of four aircraft arrived over the drop zone in the late afternoon and delivered seven supply bundles in the drop zone. The supplies dropped by the 405th arrived in the nick of time.

"It was like something you would see in the movies, shells falling with food, planes zooming and dropping parachutes, and belly tanks loaded with supplies -- it was really something, " said Higgins as he recalled the air-drop scene. "Most of the men cried like kids. You just can't put into words how we felt. I ordered all the food brought to one point for a breakdown and equal distribution. And not one man stopped to eat anything. They brought the food, piled it up, and looked at it. It was the strongest discipline I ever saw. Some of the men had to shoot their way to the rations as they landed near the [Germans] who tried to grab them first. We had the same sort of trouble at the water hole. [The enemy] placed snipers there."

In the mid-afternoon of the next day, Oct. 30, 1944, the Nisei soldiers of the 442nd RCT broke through the German lines and reached the Lost Battalion. Of the 270 men of the "Lost Battalion" at the start of the battle, 211 answered muster that morning.

The bravery and persistence of the pilots of the 405th Fighter Squadron in conducting these daunting aerial resupply missions proved vital to the ability of the Lost Battalion to hold out. The squadron dropped enough supplies to enable the battalion to continue effective resistance against repeated enemy attacks until they were relieved.

Echoes of the 405th's contribution to this epic battle continue to today. The famous "Sgt Rock" comic book series told the tale of the Lost Battalion in a special multi-issue story in 2008-2009, with notable artwork by William Tucci. The 405th Fighter Squadron was given due credit and illustration in this special.

More recently, an important event occurred in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France, at the small town of Le Val d'Ajol.  On July 15, 2012, the people of the town gathered with nearly 50 military personnel to dedicate a stele, a stone memorial, to 1st Lt. Robert A. Booth, near the site where he crashed on Oct. 27, 1944. He is buried on a plateau 100 feet above the Moselle River, in the American Cemetery and Memorial in Epinal, France. Let us also remember him, and the other Airmen who came to the aid of the Lost Battalion of World War II.