Truth Flies with Fiction
Truth Flies with Fiction
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During World War II, author Dale J. Satterthwaite was a B-25 pilot who flew more than seventy missions over Italy and France in 1944. Truth Flies with Fiction, his memoir, presents a truthful, firsthand account of the missions and adventures of the real Catch-22 airmen.

A personal tale full of humor and tragedy, this memoir provides insight into the life of a B-25 bomber pilot, as well as the experience of being part of an elite and highly decorated bomb group. Satterthwaite was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice, the Presidential Unit Citations twice, and the Air Metal eight times.

Told through journal entries and letters written home to Satterthwaite’s fiancée, Eleanor, Truth Flies with Fiction includes dozens of photos showing the airplanes in action, including the aftermath of the Vesuvius eruption that destroyed eight-eight airplanes at the Pompeii airbase. With a unique perspective, this firsthand account explains the equipment, missions, and tactics of World War II airmen and brings their experiences to life.

Catch 22 was a novel written about a B-25 bomber Group that flew from Italy and Corsica during the Allied air campaign of 1944-45. The book was loosely based upon the real events and people of the 340th Bomb Group. I was a pilot with the 340th from January 5, 1944 through December 10, 1944 and I flew 73 missions to targets in Italy and France.

I believe that some of the real events and people of the 340th rival the rather amazing yarns that Joseph Heller told in Catch-22. He served with the 340th in 1944 and I met him there. In some cases his novel closely mirrors the real Group story.

Catch 22 is written primarily from the perspective of one soldier, Yossarian. His take of the war was to avoid it as much as possible because it was dangerous and crazy. The war certainly was dangerous and crazy, but most of my fellow soldiers accepted the premise that our participation was necessary and honorable. For that reason we put our full effort into ending it as soon as possible. We also took whatever opportunity we found to frolic as young men do and I have included some of the enjoyable times that we shared. My book is written from a personal perspective and includes a number of letters that I wrote to my fiancé Eleanor. A full representation of the Allied air war can be found elsewhere. This is simply my take on that significant year. Here are three excerpts from the book…

January 14 Some of the boys got down and kissed the good earth when they returned from today's mission. It was rough, and some of the men were comparing it to the hectic raids around Solomon, South Tunisia, during the climactic days of that campaign. Nine planes from our squadron took off at 1315 hrs. The target was the marshaling yards and bridge at Pontecorvo, Italy which we were told is a vital link in enemy supply line. The ack-ack was accurate, and intense. Damage to 486th planes was mute testimony to the accuracy of the enemy. One of our ships was seen to go down over the target, a wing shot off and burning. My friend Edward Spray was aboard. A second ship, badly shot up, limped back across the bomb line with the entire crew bailing out successfully. Maj. Lewis E. Keller, squadron C. O., made his third forced jump, bailing out from that airplane. In a third ship, Radio/Gunner T/Sgt. Moran could not communicate with the rest of the crew in his heavily damaged plane because his intercom was shot away and he bailed out over enemy territory. 2nd Lieut. D. L. Glade succeeded in bringing the crippled plane and the rest of the crew safely to the home base. A fourth plane was also crippled by the ack-ack, and the pilot (2nd Lieut. C. J. Clark) was blinded in one eye by flying glass. They landed safely at Pomigliano Airfield. Our squadron losses were seven men and two planes. Of the seven airplanes returning from the mission, all were holed by ack-ack and five men were injured, but none critically…. Maj. Keller's report of his third jump: "As soon as we dropped our last 1000 lb. bomb we received a near miss which wounded the pilot, Lieut. Swope. I was on board as copilot. The flak burst hit the left engine causing the propeller to run away. Lieut. Swope’s left arm had been hit, and I took over flying the plane. Lieut. Swope immediately feathered the left prop. He took the ship back and made a right turn toward friendly territory while taking evasive action. We took additional near misses, damaging the right engine. I noticed the oil pressure was fluctuating seriously but as this was our only engine, we coaxed it across the bomb line at which time I ordered everyone to abandon ship. Just as Lieut. Swope left the ship, the right engine ran away at uncontrollable speed and I feathered the propeller. I then realized how quiet it was with no engines, but time was wasting. I made two turns, one to the right and one to the left. Then I looked at my altimeter airspeed and rate of climb instruments. My altitude was 5000 feet, my airspeed was 185 mph and my rate of climb about 1000 ft. per minute down. I decided to jump so I moved over to the pilot seat which was pushed back. After trimming airplane, I bailed out."…

On the second mission to Cassino we had what might be my closest call. My ship must have been flying on the right side of the formation because Nelson Dozier, the first pilot had his seat pushed way back so that I could see the aircraft on my left. We got into heavy and accurate antiaircraft fire on the bomb run. Nelson slid his seat forward and said “I’m going to take it". Suddenly there was a hell of a bang and some of our instruments went dead and there was a continuous roaring wind which whipped paper and other debris around like a tornado inside the airplane. I knew that we had been hit, but didn't know the entry point or the extent of damage. As far as I could tell there was no fire. We finished up the bomb run and Nelson said “Is anybody hurt?" Courtney the bombardier said “I am." Nelson had me go check on him. As I moved towards him, Courtney threw something and I caught it. It was hot. He pulled his flak jacket out of the tunnel and it was torn and smoking. He was bruised, burned and cut from his chest down to his belt. The tail end of an 88 shell came through the Plexiglas in the nose and went right over the top of his flak jacket while he was looking through the bomb sight. This four-inch piece of metal stopped next to his belt! Fortunately the Plexiglas had stopped most of its velocity. It may have been falling when it hit us.

The thing that made all the noise and made the instruments go dead was a big piece of flak that came through from the bottom to the top of the airplane. It entered where Nelson had been sitting before he slid his seat forward two seconds earlier. If he hadn't moved it would have hit him under the seat and in the legs. It cut a bunch of wires and cables which caused the instruments to go dead. When the flak exited, it took out a dinner plate sized piece of the top turret glass. Somehow the turret gunner's injuries were limited to cuts on his neck and a slight concussion. Air rushing in through the shattered nose and out the gun turret caused the whirlwind and noise. After rendering some first aid, I returned to the cockpit amazed that we were still in the air. Nelson said the ailerons were okay, but the rudders were very stiff. We cycled the landing gear early to make sure it was working. Nelson released a red flare over the field and made a standard slow approach rather than our usual high-speed turn. The landing was fairly normal and we climbed down to survey the damage from the outside. Courtney was in hospital for a couple days and the ship was moved to the shop where it remained for two weeks…

Since we were near the water with a protected bay, I thought it would be nice to have a boat. I took a Jeep and went up to the town of Bastio which was about 20 miles north of us. There was a harbor there and I strolled around the harbor and came upon a 30 foot air-sea rescue boat. There was a soldier guarding the rescue boat and I told him what I was there for. He said “you see that boat that's about 70 feet up the dock? It's been sitting there for weeks and I don't think the owner is around. Why don't you bring a truck down and take it away." It was a big double ended open boat with large beams where the motor used to sit.

This harbor was under the cognizance of the Navy. They had a squadron of PT boats there. Access to the harbor was through a single gate. I returned a few days later with a deuce and half truck and several friends. At the gate there was an ensign in charge and I explained to them that I had permission to pick up a boat and he waved us on through. The boat was longer than the truck bed by 6 feet and must have weighed more than 600 pounds. We used some empty bomb casings, two winches and ninety minutes of elbow grease to get it on the truck bed.

Dale J. Satterthwaite was a pilot with the 340th Bomb Group made famous by the novel Catch 22. He led as many as seventy-two B-25s on missions against Axis targets. While garnering two Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Presidential Unit Citations, he also explored Italy and the Middle East on off-duty flights.
In this book Dale J. Satterthwaite, a veteran of the 340th Bombardment Group, 486th Bomb Squadron, gives us an intriguing and detailed insight into the workings of a B-25 medium bomber group at war in the Mediterranean theater during WWII.

An interesting twist in recounting the memoirs of this veteran of 73 combat missions, is that his first-person accounts are interspersed with his letters home to his girlfriend (and later wife) and also with excerpts from the official War Diaries of the squadrons that made up the 340th Bomb Group. The use of the war diaries provide a context for the memoirs and letters and allows us to view the events recounted within the grand scale of the struggle being waged against a stubborn and determined enemy.

The 'Fiction' part of the title refers to Captain Satterthwaite's relation with Colonel Willis Chapman. Chapman was Group Commander and served as the model for the character, Colonel Cathcart, in Joseph Heller's great novel, Catch-22. Satterthwaite and Chapman flew together on several combat missions trading positions as pilot and co-pilot on different flights. The author also mentions several other true events that made their way into Heller's 'fictional' novel.

The author flew combat missions in some of the hairiest engagements of the Mediterranean war: Monte Casino, Anzio, invasion of southern France and the Battle of the Brenner. His descriptions of combat missions are harrowing. Without being overly dramatic he makes you feel the thud of the flak shells exploding around you and the horror of seeing aircraft in your formation catch fire and spiral into the ground.

It is not all blood and guts, there is the fun of seeing exotic sites, dances at the officer's club, pranks and the expected boys-will-be-boys trouble that young men always get into.

This book will be appreciated by all students of the war in the Mediterranean theater and those interested in the inner workings of a bomber squadron in combat.
Dan Setzer 

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