Life History of Ralph Julius Lauper

Chapter 6b

[Further] War Memories

[These are] War memories continued in 1991 from a memory dimmed by age. Over 45 years have passed since this account was begun. Daily accounting of actual combat would be impossible now, much of, it would be redundant. I shall therefore, give a more or less overview of my combat and war experiences, some of which will be given in detail while others will be omitted entirely, in an attempt to make the work of some interest to the reader. [The previous chapter is a journal of activities from 1944 to 1945. It ends just before the completion of the Zagreb Raid, which is completed below.]

The Zagreb Raid (Continued)

We joined the war that day! We plastered the enemy. He, in turn, beat up on us pretty badly with both fighters and anti-aircraft gunners. They shot down quite a few bombers. We had holes all over our ship. The line crews would work all night and had most of us patched up for the next A.M. raid. The mission was successful in that we stirred things up and Tito's men did slip out of the dragnet. He was then a staunch underground ally. After the war he gained control in Yugoslavia, turned out to be a Communist Dictator, and like the rest of them became difficult to deal with. From that day until the end of my tour of duty I don't recall having flown any more easy missions, or "milk runs," as we called them.

My Work Load

My assignments in the squadron became several in number and varied in nature. I was made Squadron Armament Officer responsible for making sure that ordinance (bombs and machine gun rounds) were always available. My duty was to go over the reports from Line Officers and Ground Crew Chiefs to determine the combat readiness of our delivery systems on a day to day basis. Delivery systems consisted of bomb loading equipment as well as the actual mechanical workings in the bomb bay of each plane, which released the bombs over the target. The job was easy.

Another title I had was Squadron Censor. I had a directive of procedures to be followed. It was issued by 15th Air Force Headquarters, and of course 100% compliance was required. I did not open each piece of mail going out, but I did spot-check it pretty heavily. Other censors stateside would have a go at it when it arrived in the US. I cleared all romantic stuff. Some of those letters were really steamy. They would fog your glasses if you wore such.

The thing about the job that I didn't like and which seemed to me to make the whole project so useless and frustrating was the fact that I had to black out all references of a specific nature, written by anyone, which referred to the day a mission was flown, where to, the number of planes involved and losses sustained. At the same time, full accounts of these sorties were given in broad and detailed fashion in one or both of the two official army newspapers; "Yank" and "Stars and Stripes." Millions were printed and distributed world wide. I'm confident that no American newspaper has ever matched their circulation. Didn't the High Command know that German and Italian agents could read a newspaper? I weaseled out of that duty as soon as I possibly could. Meanwhile I solved my own information problem with my wife and the rest of the family by simply cutting out articles and sending them home. I even underlined parts that may apply to my outfit in any special manner. As far as I know they all got through.

Another job I acquired was as the Squadron Training Officer. Replacement crews soon began arriving with their ships to fill the slots in our shot-up group. I was considered to be a good formation pilot and good formation flying is essential to the process of staying alive as a bomber pilot in combat. The enemy, like the African lion or cheetah, would invariably pick out the squadrons and groups flying the poorest and loosest formation and hit them first. Coming off the target they would always pick on the wounded and crippled and who were unable to keep up with the main force. How often I watched as they would swarm over such a helpless victim like a swarm of bees, until they were able to finish it off.

On my days off I would take a formation of two or three planes up, and show them how to do it. No returned combat pilot was available either in the states or there to instruct us, we just happened as a group to be good at it. After having flown four or five sorties I got my own plane and since I had checked them all out I was able to get my pick of them and naturally I picked what I considered to be the best crew of the bunch. I even kept the first pilot to be my co-pilot for quite some time.

Squadron Life

The group as a whole did some other things to help ease combat life. We cannibalized bombed-out buildings in Foggia. We took bricks and laid them over the dirt floors of the tents in which we lived. We rigged up stoves, using the same method used in Tunis, which I have already described. There were several explosions and ruined tents while I was there. No one was seriously injured, so no big deal. Life was kinda' cheap.

An Italian mason was engaged to erect an enclosure. The familiar wing tank was mounted on top, filled with high octane fuel. The gas descended through a copper tube. The same device was used to handle water which was brought to us by army tank trucks, local water was contaminated. Both lines were controlled by clamp valves at a point in the lines where rubber was substituted for plastic. The gas line came to rest beneath coil upon coil of the water line and when lit--presto! You had a warm shower waiting. When it was finished I enjoyed my first warm bath in over a week --and every day thereafter.

About Churches

As the war turned hot for us the general attitude began to also turn in some ways. The group went suddenly religious on me. Guys who hadn't thought of a church in years, much less been in one, now spearheaded a drive to collect donations and build one. They succeeded with the collection of a few bucks from each of us willing to give. A very nice chapel was built. It held upwards of 250 men. The crowd grew with each service held until ultimately worshippers would be literally standing outside, looking in, listening through open doors and windows. While this was going on our numbers were decreasing due to the attrition of war. Still the "faithful" grew in numbers. Services were held on Sunday and two or three evenings each week. I had gladly contributed but didn't attend any of them. My entire religious experience during my stay in Italy was confined to the two LDS services I attended in a room in downtown Foggia, conducted by an LDS Chaplain from one of the bases in the area by the name of Wooley. He was from Cedar City, Utah. Those two Sundays were the only ones on which I was free. The Air Force always bombed on Sunday or so it seemed and I was always "up."

Wooley was a good man and his services were excellent, but he did do something which annoyed and irritated me no end. He wrote to my mother, told her I was a fine man but exhorted her to write and urge me to go to church. Can you imagine how my mother would feel upon reading such stuff as that? What a boo boo! He really goofed me up.

The guys in the group started getting on me for not going to church. The group Chaplain, Father Frank Kelley, joined in with them. I brushed it all aside, declaring it all was a flimsy try to take out a little last minute "fire" insurance. I reminded them that, of the fortunate survivors of the war, less than 25% would still be religious. But I would be one of the 25. They all knew me as a "churchy" individual.

A word about Kelley, he was a likeable and gregarious Catholic Priest from up around Boston. A rather hard drinker, he still wore well on people. I liked the padre and he seemed to like me. He liked to come along when I would take a crew up for training and would stand in the cockpit right behind my seat. Our conversations, while in flight or elsewhere, were nearly always religious in nature. They were always lively and always friendly. The subject of authority was a source of great sensitivity to the father and it cropped up continually. I nearly killed his enthusiasm for the subject one day when he jokingly urged me to come to confession, saying that, "even Mormons needed to confess." I told him I certainly couldn't agree with him more as to the need but that I'd just as soon confess to my pet dog, who had every bit as much authority as any Catholic Priest, who represented the largest single group of Apostates in all the history of mankind. "Besides that," I told him, "I know the dog better and would feel more comfortable, confessing to him." No mater that I didn't even own a dog at the time, my point had been made, and clearly so. Kelley and I would remain friends to the end of my duty tour. I asked him to fly a mission with me and take the place of one of the gunners. He was not venturesome enough to take me up on it -- said he still had too much personal confessing to do.

Doc Mastrangelo, the Squadron Flight Surgeon, did accept my invite. He did decide to fly one with me, it was pretty bad, pieces of flak came through the waist gun position where he was standing and missed him a foot or so. That, combined with everything else that happened on that flight to Budapest, simply scared the pants off of him. He had always wanted to see Buda and Pest astraddle the Danube in much the same fashion as do our own "Twin Cities" of Minneapolis and St. Paul on the upper Mississippi. Incidentally, the Blue Danube is not very blue, at least as best I could determine from flying over most of the length of it so many times that I came to use the various bends for visual checkpoints in calculating where I was. In short, it is a muddy river. Strauss really reached for that one!

I must mention, in connection with our tent life, how happy I was that we were each issued a mosquito net draped over a T-bar, fastened to each end of our bunk. The ends and sides of the net would fold snugly under the mattress. This guarded us from the dreaded malaria-bearing anopheles mosquito. There was no known cure for malaria. Those who contracted that form of it could count on a lifetime of disabling attacks, some died. Sprays were partially helpful. Atrabine pills were the most helpful agent against contraction. The mosquito didn't like the smell or the taste on the skin and would flyaway from the user. A bowl full of pills was to be found on each mess hall table. I ate them like candy, I even to carrying a supply in my pocket. I ate so many that my skin actually turned yellow. I didn't get malaria. My nightly ritual by flashlight was to get into my bunk and clear out any intruders, then snuggle down and listen as they dive-bombed the net from outside of it. The two dreads of my life while I was overseas were malaria and the possibility of being blinded. Fear of death was not all consuming with us. It merely lurked in the pit of the stomach like a gnawing hunger, surfacing to the mind only in moments of great stress. Only a few "broke" under the strain.

The Breaking Point

Dick Sherwood, a waist gunner on our original crew, was one such. He just couldn't take too much of it. Dick was a nice curly-headed chap about 20 years of age. I judged him as having grown up as a "mamas" boy and having been over protected. He was completely out of his water in such a hostile environment as that in which he now found himself. Although he was an intelligent kid, he started to ask questions. If they were unanswerable he would still ask, over and over.

On our missions each plane would carry a couple boxes filled with metallic tinsel I called "chaff." When the stuff was sprinkled out over the target area it was supposed to fuzz up the radar screens of the enemy range finder on their flak gun batteries. It worked pretty a well according, I suppose, to the evenness of its scattering and the proficiency of the ground gunners. Sherwood was assigned the task of dropping the Christmas tree decorations, as we called them, in order to keep him occupied. It didn't work at all. Every few miles he would be on the intercom to ask if he should begin the drop. I got the impression that if he had his way in the matter, he would be dropping the stuff on take-off.

One day after a mission Dick announced that he would not fly another one, no matter what! No amount of talk or persuasion changed his mind. Back at the crew's tent it was explained to him by some of us just how serious this act could become. Wartime desertion and murder were both Capital Offenses of course. Dick was reminded that refusal to fly or failure to obey a direct order in wartime would put his offense only one step lower and, if convicted of it, he could expect to draw at least 20 years of hard labor at the barracks of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Still he would not budge.

When Major Bob Allyn was told of it he flew into a rage. Bob was a good guy, an excellent pilot and a good friend. He was also Commanding Officer of my squadron, the 775th. Allyn was also under strain, attrition was speeding up, replacements were slowing down, morale was sagging and he had been thus far unsuccessful in his efforts to boost it by getting us pilots promoted to First Lieutenants. Headquarters had also ignored our requests to promote our crews. Now here was a guy who wouldn't fly. He was going to Court Marshall the S.0.B.! When I told him he wasn't going to do it, he asked me why not. He got about half mad at me when I said, "Because I'm not going to let you do this." I then explained, "Look Bob. This guy didn't start the war or ask to be any part of it. He can't help it that he isn't a warrior or a killer type. Life with himself is going to be difficult enough. Don't you become a part of that."

He simmered down and Doc Mastrangelo fixed up the necessary "stress" papers to ground Dick. He was assigned to be a member of our ground crew of 5, whose function it was to keep our plane airworthy. So instead of flying with us, he would stand with the crew and watch us take off and land. A forlorn figure.

I hoped that Dick would make it in life and he did. In retrospect, I have come to, realize that perhaps his character enabled him to face his shortcomings in a way that my own false pride very probably would have denied to me, had our situations been reversed. I never saw him again after Europe but within the last few years he succeeded in sleuthing me out from his home in the Los Angeles area.

Dick phoned to talk about the old days. I learned that he had done well in the stock brokerage business. He is retired and has fun with his kids and grandkids. He still calls about once a year to urge my attendance at the annual group reunion, always held at a different point in the USA. He makes them all. I have yet to make one, but I still welcome his calls. The outcome of Sgt. Richard Sherwood represents one of the better memories of my military experience, in that I feel responsible, in part at least, for salvaging a shattered life to become one of useful, happy productivity.

About Food

The mess hall deserves mention. I can best explain that need by noting that meat was rationed in the US. Many freighters were sunk by German U-boats on the high seas. Many, many more got through. Some of the world's finest grain fed beef and pork from the Midwest came through the mess hall kitchen only to arrive on the table in the form of a greasy stew. It all looked the same, tasted the same and was the same, Bad! Bread was barely edible. The forays of the mess cooks into the field of pastry making were a poor joke. Potatoes and eggs arrived in an already ruined condition, having been dehydrated in 1940s fashion. They were shipped in five gallon cans. When they hit the table in lumpy, greasy balls, they stayed a long time. I love potatoes and eggs today. I am sure it stems from the fact that those were so far from any resemblance to the mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs we now have, that my sense of taste draws no connection between them.

Strangely enough two good items were quite often available in the form of Spam and Fruit Cocktail. I loved them then and I love them now. I would live on them for days at a time, when they were to be had at mess or when I had been able to wheedle or steal a few cans from the mess crew and stash them under my bunk. Other times I would enter the hall for breakfast, or after a mission, take a look at the table and walk out. A man could sustain life with K-Rations. We always kept a couple of cases in our plane. They became tiresome very easily.

A treat enjoyed by some, and especially those of us who were non-smokers, was to buy our weekly cigarette ration of 7 packs at 8 cents each, sell them to the kid we hired to clean our tent for $2.50 each. He'd sell them for 10 times that much on the Black Market.

Luigi would sell us eggs for $2.00 each. We boiled them on our tent stove. The Medical Corps labeled local eggs off limits…contamination!! Who cared, we were getting shot at remember? We just boiled them longer!

The Business of Making War

An age-old truism says that an army runs on its' belly. Successful military campaigns have through the ages depended in great part upon the availability of food supplies. Italy never did possess enough of it. Its farms were more or less to be found in the south and level areas of its boot. Inasmuch as it comprised the bulk of the nations more flat and level areas it was natural for the 15th and 12th Air Forces to be based there. Air fields dotted the countryside within a 50 mile radius of Foggia. All were built by the US and Britain after our armies invaded Italy, subsequent to the African Campaign. Where the British 8th Army "Desert Rats" and George Patton's famed 3rd Army badly defeated General Rommel's formidable Afrika Corps, had driven them across the Mediterranean, through Sicily, onto the continent and now we occupied about a half of Italy itself, including its wheat belt. Gen. Mark Clark's 6th Army had made a beachhead landing at Anzio, below Rome and about 70 miles above us on the west coast. He waged a long campaign at the Arno with top-notch German forces under the very able command of Air Marshall Albert Kesselring.

After costly bloody battles there the Germans were slowly driven northward. They settled in the Cassino area for more heavy fighting. We never bombed Rome or other art centers, such as Venice, and Florence. Hitler never did play fair and used Rome as his chief rail hub and troop concentration point all the time while his armies were in Italy. We flew over Rome several times but never dropped a bomb there or upon any other "open city." The 15th did bomb Anzio at least once. I wasn't on that one, but on a clear night we could hear the rumble of the heavy artillery, firing up on the front. I did go to Cassino. The Nazis had dug gun emplacements into the side of the mountain and also made use of many caves there.

Attacking troops were unable to dislodge the enemy from Cassino. Ground troops, artillery, mortars, rockets and tanks were committed to no avail. It was known that much of the success enjoyed by the Germans was due to the fact that they had commandeered the old historic Abbey up on the hill and were using it as an artillery-spotting headquarters. We had refrained from damaging the Abbey out of humane concern.

One day after some bad losses, Gen Clark found himself "up to here" with his foe. He'd had it with the Germans. "Enough already," he said. He'd warned them openly, several times via radio and they had failed to get out of the Abbey. He now called in the 15th. Three or four hundred bombers took out the Abbey and every piece of ordinance either in use or stored there. We also hit other storage dumps in the area.

Clark then sent in a sizeable contingent of Polish Resistance fighters. They were fierce survivors of the 1939 German rape of their motherland. They seemed to thrive on hand-to-hand fighting and loved the idea of meeting their adversary on a personal basis. After our bombing, plus an intense allied mortar and artillery bombardment, the Poles eagerly went into those caves with bayonets and handheld flame throwers. Twenty-four hours later the Germans who had neither surrendered nor been slain came to an even worse end. Giant US bulldozers, equipped with armor-plated front ends, were brought up. They literally sealed off the openings to the caves and tunnels. The army continued its march to the north.

Germany and its Allies in Europe

Let us continue with our assessment of the Axis countries of Europe and how they stacked up against the needs of war. Italy was led by Benito Mussolini, a two-bit Dictator. He did have a certain charisma in the eyes of his people. He could rouse them to fever pitch with his oratory. He had sold the Italian people on the idea that he and Hitler together would bring them once more to the top of the world. He invoked memories of the glory days of the Great Roman Empire. They believed in him implicitly, never mind that the only victory he had or would ever give them was to defeat the Camel Riding Desert men of King Haile Selassies' Ethiopian Kingdom in Africa during the 30s. His son Bruno, who flew as a pilot in that so-called war, happily described his bombing of the Mounted Cavalry, pride of the Ethiopian Army as, "like watching a mushroom explode upward, flowering out at the top as they took direct hits from my bombs." Like father, like son.

Italy never did have enough industrial capacity and we further negated it by bombing such places as Genoa and Milan. His airplanes were not good. His pilots were worse. His armies were not suited temperamentally for modern warfare. Perhaps I'm being too hard on them, but we laughed at them at the time. We called them poets and donkey riding, guitar playing, troubadours, who were at their best in retreat. Hitler's idea behind taking Italy on as an ally was to protect his southern flank and tie up large numbers of Allied Troop. Mussolini didn't deliver much besides oratory and was not that great an asset to Germany.

If an army runs on its stomach, then modern warfare had injected additional elements necessary to getting it running: oil, ball bearings, steel and supply systems. Lacking these vital ingredients an army could not even come out of the starting blocks. Here we sat right in the middle of Italy's breadbasket. They lacked everything it seemed but Germany, on the other hand, seemed to have all that Mussolini needed, enough for both of them. Oil from Romania, (especially Ploesti) ball bearings from Regensburg and Schweinfurt had aircraft manufacturing plants with airfields all over the country. Add to this the steel and munitions factories of Czechoslovakia, the Ruhr Valley, and Essen headed by the famous Adolph Krupp Conglomerate. Blended with an efficient transport system, boasting excellent highway and rail systems and you now have a nation ready for war.

Germany went into the war with the largest, best equipped and best trained army the world had ever seen. Her planes, for example, were for a long time every bit as good as ours. So were her pilots. Germany also enjoyed access to every morsel of food grown throughout Europe. It was the job of the 8th Air Force in England and the 15th Air Force in Italy to put a stop to all of this. When we succeeded Germany lost the war.

Hitler had hoped to rule the world. Hitler made two monumental blunders which contributed more to his downfall than did others he made. First he underestimated America's Industrial might, as well as the quality of its soldiers. He said we were too soft. He claimed to have great respect for the British, always claiming that they were a good people, but no accolades for us. His second worst 'boner' would go in defense of their homeland. He attacked them in violation of the peace pact they had signed. In my view those two errors, standing alone, assured his eventual defeat.

Describing an Airbase

We all took off and landed from the same runway. If there happened to be crosswind we all still used that runway, it was the only one we had. When the crosswind was particularly strong it could make things a little hairy. The runway was made up of strips of steel matting, all joined together to form an adequate but not overly long take-off bed for a fully loaded bomber. We had to clear a fence to get off. Have you noticed that all airfields have either a fence or a freeway or both at the end of each runway?

The runway itself was about 5 or 6 inches in depth and could be expected to hold up indefinitely under normal usage since the bed beneath it had a well-packed gravel base. Conditions were far from normal however, what with rain and heavy loading. Like our own truck-laden freeways it soon developed depressions and even chuckholes. As a bomber would pick up speed on its takeoff, the pilot was always a little concerned about tires being blown out or the force of the bounces sending the landing gears up and into the wings, and finally, inability to get up enough speed to take off at all.

The strip was always covered with fine dust. A slight rain caused it to become as slick as ice. I experienced this once upon my return from a training flight. When I applied my breaks the wheels stopped turning, sending up showers of sparks as I alternately applied and released. The plane skidded off the end of the runway into axle-deep mud. I couldn't move an inch. A tractor came out and rescued me. Many other pilots shared my experience.

Each plane was assigned to its own parking space. The space was round, large enough to turn around on and constructed of the same materials as was the runway. Access to each parking space was accessed over taxi strips of the same design.

The British

Our 463rd bomb group, with its planes, tents, buildings and personnel, occupied the area on one side of the runway. The British had a group of heavy bombers stationed on the other side. The operation of the one control tower was equally shared. No real problems arose. To our traffic controllers, a take off or landing was just that, to theirs it was a lift-off or pancake. The enlisted men never did get along with each other. They had no occasion to even speak to each other except during duty changes in the Control Tower. In the bars and pubs in downtown Foggia it was quite another matter. Many fights and near riots developed. It could be said that England and the U.S. have a long history of friendship. On a personal basis, however, the exact opposite was then too often true. The average American soldier considered the British to be stuffy and bland and brought the British charge of wild and arrogant against them. The label of "Limey" infuriated the English and it infuriated them more when the get even name of "Yank" didn't seem to bother their American counterparts, who they maintained were insufferable show-offs. A large part of the problem could be attributed to understandable envy on the part of the British as it concerned the affluence of the GIs.

Wide disparity in matters financial generally gives rise to many social problems. And so it did. The Brit would tip the bartender with a few pence from his meager earnings while the GI standing next to him casually tossed out a dollar. At a two-seat shoe shine stand downtown the service was never equal. When a Brit and a Yank arrived at approximately the same time the English soldier invariably cooled his heels while the G.I. was served. The operators knew where the real money was. Most officers on both sides understood the problem and found it possible to appreciate each others efforts and abilities. A sincere feeling of mutual trust, respect, and admiration, generally.


We were briefed twice each day that we flew. Morning briefings were attended by all pilots. Bombardiers, navigators and crew each attended their own briefings. Our briefings included an overview of all that they would receive plus our own info. Morning briefings were usually participated in by the following officers, including their ranks, if the group was at full strength: Group Commander (full Colonel - called Chicken, Eagle or Bird Colonel), Deputy Group Commander (Lt. Colonel---called either Leaf or Light Colonel), and the G2 or Intelligence Officer (Captain Major or Lt. Colonel). The last thing we did before leaving the Briefing Room would be to get a "hack" on our watches --we synchronized all watches down to the second.

The Ground Crew was presided over by a Sergeant (I finally got mine promoted to Master Sergeant) who presided over the plane while it was on the ground. He and his crew of five were charged with the job of keeping the plane ready and able to fly. They would go to work the minute we landed and while he was responsible to me in all things, he would never allow me to get in the seat before he had personally checked out the performance of each engine.

The Flying Crew was composed of the pilots and the bombardier who sat down in the nose area with the bomb sight and his two 50 caliber machine guns. The Navigator sat near him with his gun firing out the window, right above the little table where he worked. The rest of the gunners were spread out through the plane as I have previously noted. The man who ran the crew for me was Tech Sgt. John [Jack] Haymaker of Texas. He was young, but smart and a natural leader. He sat in a 360 degree swivel seat right behind the pilot's seats. In aerial combat I always drew comfort at the sound and vibration coming from the twin 50's he operated from the plastic blister atop the plane. I also turned to Jack to solve or fix any problems between one another or between them and me.

All smart crews soon found a way to increase their odds by laying sheets of steel plates on the floor beneath their feet and even along the walls. My crew was one of the smartest. Although I always entered and exited through the floor hatch door which opened and closed right behind my seat I still knew what was going on. Steel is heavy and the plane became more and more sluggish during take off and even in the air. I took Jack aside and expressed empathy for his boys. I also pointed out the peril being created. I told him, "Take care of it." He left some of it but there never was a problem with it from then on. He was a good guy who knew how to get things done.

Come Again!

Please return to this site for regular updates and more items of family interest.

Upcoming items will include:

  • more reunion schedule details
  • more and better pictures
  • more items of family history
  • registration to attend the reunion
Check the What's New page for a listing of what has changed.