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2018 384th Bomb Group Reunion – A Teaser

I recently returned from the 2018 reunion of the 384th Bomb Group in Dayton, Ohio. I plan to share more about the reunion in the coming weeks, but for now only have time for a few photo highlights.

The group’s first tour was the National Museum of the USAF in Dayton. What better place for a photo op than in front of the Memphis Belle, probably the most famous of the type of aircraft our veterans flew in WWII, the B-17.

Veterans of the 384th Bomb Group in front of the Memphis Belle at the National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, Ohio.
Left to right: Peter Bielskis (ball turret gunner), Bill Wilkins (engineer/top turret gunner), Henry Sienkiewicz (navigator), John DeFrancesco (pilot), and Don Hilliard (radio operator)

We had about four hours to explore the museum, but probably needed four days.

Our second tour was the Champaign Aviation Museum at Grimes Field, Urbana, Ohio. It is the site of of an active B-17 restoration. Our group had a more hands-on experience here. Veteran pilot John DeFrancesco had the chance to show us how to fly our favorite warbird…

384th veteran pilot John DeFrancesco at the B-17 controls at the Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana, Ohio

…and I had the chance to see if I could fit into the ball turret. I did, but now can’t understand how those WWII ball turret gunners endured entire missions in that tiny capsule.

384th Bomb Group webmaster Fred Preller and veteran ball turret gunner Peter Bielskis help Cindy Bryan into the ball turret at the Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana, Ohio

I did also manage to get out of the ball turret. Afterwards, it dawned on me that I had a WWII ball turret gunner, Peter Bielskis, who had survived twenty-seven missions seventy-three years ago in the ball turret, helping me in and out of the one at the Champaign Aviation Museum!

Left to right: Bill Wilkens, Cindy Bryan, and Peter Bielskis at the Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana, Ohio.
2018 reunion of the 384th Bomb Group

What a day!

Attendees of the 2018 reunion of the 384th Bomb Group: veterans, family, and friends of the group
Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana, Ohio

But the day’s fun didn’t end there. That evening our group enjoyed our gala banquet and finished this year’s reunion with a veteran group photo in front of the wing panel that over one hundred fifty of our 384th Bomb Group veterans have signed.

384th Bomb Group veterans at the 2018 reunion in Dayton.
Left to right: Bill Wilkens (engineer/top turret gunner), Henry Sienkiewicz (navigator), Peter Bielskis (ball turret gunner), John DeFrancesco (pilot), and Don Hilliard (radio operator)

As I mentioned earlier, more details are coming in a few weeks. But until then, I have to rest up. It’s really tough trying to keep up with super heroes!

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2018

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An Italian-American Airman on Television

In October, RAI (Italian television and radio) journalist Vittorio Argento traveled from Rome, Italy to Ocala, Florida to interview 384th Bomb Group pilot John DeFrancesco. I previously posted this article about Vittorio’s visit here.

The TV show has aired in Italy and I thought I would share it here.  It is available now through this link. This is a direct link to the episode of November 26, 2017, episode 26.11.17 of TG2 Storie.

Before you watch, I must let you know that the program is for Italian viewers and everyone, including John, is speaking Italian, but I think with the wonderful job of editing that Vittorio did with the photos and WWII footage he used, you’ll be able to follow the story just fine.

Multiple stories are presented in the program. John’s story starts at 28:58 in the video and goes through 34:45. Notice the photo on the wall of John’s kitchen.  That’s me and my Stalag Luft IV daughter friends with John. Standing left to right are Laura Edge and I. Seated left to right are Ellen Weaver Hartman, John DeFrancesco, and Candy Kyler Brown.

The story includes a photo of my dad and some of his crewmates at 33:52. They are left to right, George Edwin Farrar (my dad), Lenard Leroy Bryant, Erwin V. Foster, and Sebastiano Joseph Peluso (also an Italian-American). Vittorio also included several other photos of 384th Bomb Group airmen and ground crew.

Thank you, Vittorio Argento, for helping the 384th Bomb Group “Keep the Show on the Road.” You did an exceptional job telling 384th Bomb Group pilot John’s DeFrancesco’s story!

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2017

An Italian-American Airman in WWII

384th Bomb Group veteran John DeFrancesco is a WWII rock star. He has been the subject of several magazine and newspaper articles and is now set to appear on Italian television. Both of John’s parents were from Italy. John’s father immigrated with his family when he was fourteen years old and served in the American Army in WWI, earning his American citizenship. John’s mother was also born in Italy and immigrated with her family when she was very young.

Italian Air Force veteran and journalist Vittorio Argento recently visited Florida to interview John about his role as an Italian-American B-17 pilot in WWII.

Vittorio currently works with the Department of Safety and Security for Italy’s national radio/television public broadcasting company, RAI. He is a veteran journalist who has worked in television and daily newspapers and was previously Deputy Managing Director for RAI Radio News. In 2016, Vittorio served as the Prix Italia’s (an international Italian television, radio-broadcasting and website award program) Secretary General.

Vittorio Argento looking at some of John DeFrancesco’s WWII documents

Vittorio has a personal interest in WWII history and has restored two WWII jeeps. You can read about Vittorio’s adventure to bring a 1943 Willys back to its Ohio factory from Italy here.

Vittorio Argento’s 1943 Willys Jeep

At John’s interview, Vittorio presented him with a beautiful plaque of the Italian Air Force. “Virtute Siderum Tenus” translates to “With Valor to the Stars”.

L to R: John DeFrancesco and Vittorio Argento

As a result of his interview, John will be the subject of two television programs in Italy and an article in the Italian Air Force magazine.

I enjoyed Vittorio’s visit with us and he has sparked an interest in my husband and me to visit Italy. My passport is ready, my phone is loaded with Google Translate for Italian, and, most importantly, I am shopping for travel shoes.

L to R: John DeFrancesco, Cindy Bryan, and Vittorio Argento sporting 384th Bomb Group caps

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2017

John DeFrancesco

John Joseph DeFrancesco, pilot with the 544th Bomb Squad. Photo courtesy of John DeFrancesco.

If you recall my post from last week, I recently spent an enjoyable weekend in Savannah with my three Stalag Luft IV sisters, Ellen Weaver, Candy Brown, and Laura Edge, and 384th Bomb Group veteran, John DeFrancesco. The better I get to know John, the more I am in awe of him and the other boys who served in the 384th and other Bomb Groups of the 8th Air Force in WWII. Most of the boys were just that – boys who had just finished high school or maybe had a couple of years of college. And here they were, fighting a war on foreign soil, defending our freedom, some of them dying for us. A very big responsibility for such young men.

John Joseph DeFrancesco, pilot with the 544th Bomb Squad. Photo courtesy of John DeFrancesco.

John Joseph DeFrancesco enlisted just a couple of months after graduating from high school. He was just eighteen years old when he enlisted, but despite his young age, he was selected for the aviation cadet program and was soon on his way to becoming a pilot. No, he had never flown before, but growing up he loved looking up to the sky when he heard the sound of an aircraft engine overhead and delighted in watching them in flight. That led him to choose the Army Air Forces for his military career.

John Joseph DeFrancesco, pilot with the 544th Bomb Squad. Photo courtesy of John DeFrancesco.

At the completion of his training, John was assigned a crew and they were assigned to the 544th Bomb Squadron of the 384th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force (a.k.a. “The Mighty Eighth”) and were stationed in Grafton Underwood, England. The 384th Bomb Group’s website displays John’s personnel data:

John DeFrancesco’s Personnel Data. Edited screenshot from 384thBombGroup.com.

John does not possess a full crew photo, but he does still have the escape/evasion photos of most of his crew. Escape/evasion photos were taken to assist a crewman who was able to escape or evade capture in the event he found himself bailing out of his B-17 and landing in hostile territory.

John Joseph DeFrancesco, Pilot

Escape/evasion photo for John Joseph DeFrancesco, Pilot, 544th Bomb Squadron. Photo courtesy of John DeFrancesco.

Robert Edwin Simmons, Co-pilot

Escape/evasion photo for John DeFrancesco crewmember Robert Edwin Simmons (Co-pilot). Photo courtesy of John DeFrancesco.

Jerome Calnitz, Navigator

Escape/evasion photo for John DeFrancesco crewmember Jerome Calnitz (Navigator). Photo courtesy of John DeFrancesco

William C. Brown, Bombardier

No photo available

Ira J. Bias, Jr., Radio Operator/Gunner

Escape/evasion photo for John DeFrancesco crewmember Ira J. Bias, Jr. (Radio Operator). Photo courtesy of John DeFrancesco.

Evan L. “Dixie” Howell, Engineer/Top Turret Gunner

Escape/evasion photo for John DeFrancesco crewmember Evan L. (Dixie) Howell (Engineer/Top Turret Gunner). Photo courtesy of John DeFrancesco.

Charles J. Doleshal, Ball Turret Gunner

Escape/evasion photo for John DeFrancesco crewmember Charles J. Doleshal (Ball Turret Gunner). Photo courtesy of John DeFrancesco.

Harmon C. Hastings, Tail Gunner

Escape/evasion photo for John DeFrancesco crewmember Harmon C. Hastings (Tail Gunner/Flexible Gunner). Photo courtesy of John DeFrancesco.

Ferris J. Walker, Tail Gunner

Escape/evasion photo for John DeFrancesco crewmember Ferris J. Walker (Tail Gunner). Photo courtesy of John DeFrancesco.

John Allen Williams, Flexible Gunner

Escape/evasion photo for John DeFrancesco crewmember John (Johnny) Allen Williams (Flexible Gunner). Photo courtesy of John DeFrancesco.

There were a few other men who John DeFrancesco served with on a number of missions. He flew with William E. Moon (no photo available) of the James W. Orr crew on twenty-one missions. Moon was originally a bombardier who retrained as a navigator.

John flew with Homer L. Lott of the James Robson Gilmore crew on eleven missions. Lott was a flexible gunner turned togglier and flew with John on the January 8, 1945 mission on which both me became POWs.

Homer L. Lott of the James Robson Gilmore Crew, 384th Bomb Group. Photo posted on Ancestry.com.

John DeFrancesco’s sixth mission on October 18, 1944, target Ford Motor Works in Cologne, Germany, was a memorable one. As the bombardier bent over the bomb sight, a piece of flak smashed through the Plexiglass nose of their B-17. It flew over the bombardier’s head and struck the navigator on that flight, Jack Lyons, in the arm, tearing away a large chunk of flesh and shattering his arm.

The piece of flak continued through the aircraft and came through the floor of the cockpit, lodging under his pilot’s seat. With other crew members unsuccessful in their attempts to aid Lt. Lyons, John turned the controls over to his co-pilot and went to Lt. Lyons’ aid in the nose. He cut the sleeve off Lt. Lyons’ jacket, formed it into a bandage, and applied it to the wound to stop the flow of blood.

John’s actions saved the life of Jack Lyons, as without John’s help, Jack would have bled to death before they returned to their base at Grafton Underwood. With Lt. Lyons stable, John returned to the cockpit and assumed the controls of the aircraft, bringing navigator Jack Lyons home alive.

John DeFrancesco became a POW on his thirty-fifth mission and served 144 days as a POW in Germany in the prison camps Stalag 13D (Nuremburg) and Stalag 7A (Moosburg). The story of John’s thirty-fifth mission will be the subject of a future post.

John DeFrancesco  received the following medals for his WWII service:

  • European-African-Middle Eastern Service Medal
  • Air Medal with 5 Oak Leaf Clusters
  • Victory Medal
  • POW Medal

After WWII, John DeFrancesco served in the Air Force Active Reserves from 1945 until the late 1960’s when he went into the Inactive Reserves. In 1984, John retired from the military as a Lieutenant Colonel.

In 2014, John DeFrancesco signed the 384th Bomb Group’s Commemorative Wing Panel. I was honored to attend his signing and meet him and 384th Bomb Group armorer Paul Bureau that day.

John DeFrancesco signs the 384th Bomb Group Wing Panel, 2014. Photo courtesy of 384thBombGroup.com.

John DeFrancesco addresses the audience at his 384th Bomb Group Wing Panel Signing, 2014. Photo courtesy of 384thBombGroup.com.

To be continued in a future post…

John’s thirty-fifth mission with the 384th Bomb Group and his time as a prisoner of war in Germany.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2017

Paul Bureau and the Marion County Florida Veterans Memorial Park

I live in North Central Florida. We don’t have beaches, but we have plenty of moss-covered oak trees and horse farms. In fact, Beautiful Marion County’s motto is Horse Capital of the World. We breed and grow great thoroughbred race horses here. Another thing we in Marion County are proud of is our veterans.

The Ocala/Marion County Veterans Memorial Park opened in 1997. It is a lovely park where folks like to have a picnic lunch on nice days, which we have a lot of here. The park is a lasting memorial to veterans of all wars, with more than 5,000 personalized bricks set into pedestals, 200 benches, and 100 plaques.

The first time I visited the park was January 25, 2014, when the 384th Bomb Group’s wing panel came to Ocala. Two 384th Bomb Group veterans, pilot John DeFrancesco and armorer Paul Bureau, added their signatures in a ceremony near the park’s pavilion. John’s signature was the wing panel’s eighty-sixth and Paul’s was number eighty-seven.

 

John DeFrancesco

John DeFrancesco

 

Paul Bureau

Paul Bureau

Like many military parks, the park hosts a Memorial Day celebration every year. But the Ocala/Marion County Veterans Park goes a step further. They host a Memorial Ceremony every quarter to honor those Marion County veterans who have died in the previous three months.

Saturday, October 1, 2016, I attended the ceremony to honor Paul Bureau. Paul was an armorer in the US Army Air Forces, 8th Air Force, 384th Bomb Group, the same group my dad served with in Grafton Underwood, England. Paul’s was among the names read during the ceremony’s “Roll Call of Honored Deceased.” Paul died on August 9 this year.

Paul Bureau in uniform during WWII

Paul Bureau in uniform during WWII

The park had recently acquired a cannon and chose to use it in the memorial ceremony. The ceremony began with the firing of the cannon. Almost as startling as the tremendous sound of the cannon fire was the ring of smoke that ascended to the heavens as though carrying away the souls of the veterans toward their final mission.

The ceremony continued with the invocation and a youth group called the “Young Marines” posted the colors. Everyone joined in the pledge of allegiance to the flag and sang the national anthem. The roll call began and a bell was rung after the reading of each name. Taps were played. A man named John Earl dressed in a kilt played the bagpipes. The Ocala Police Department Honor Guard performed a twenty-one gun salute.

The ceremony concluded with the benediction and a second firing of the cannon. I knew what was coming, but I still jumped at the tremendous boom.  This time, though, no smoke ring accompanied the boom. Only the sad realization that many of our country’s finest defenders are no longer with us.

Memorial bricks at Ocala/Marion County Veterans Park

Memorial bricks at Ocala/Marion County Veterans Park

Note:  Please visit the home page of the 384th Bomb Group’s website or the Veterans Signing Project page of the 384th Bomb Group’s photo gallery for more information about the 384th Bomb Group Veterans Signing Project and photos of past signers. Volunteers are still touring the country with the wing panel collecting signatures of 384th Bomb Group Veterans.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2016