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  • Ken Perrotte

A Mission to Italy – Searching for a Hometown Boy

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

The two American women were a little nervous as they boarded a bus in Florence, Italy, one sunny morning in 2003. They had begun their vacation to Italy as part of an organized tour group, but then split off to complete a separate, extremely important mission.

They talked quietly as the bus rolled along but the large gerbera daisy in one woman's lap made them abundantly conspicuous. Nobody spoke English. They noticed an increasing murmur among the other riders, voices whispering, "Americans." "We were a little nervous -- it was the start of the war in Iraq,” they confided.

Any worries were unfounded. When they reached their destinations, everyone on the bus turned, began smiling and pointing out that this was their stop. As they walked toward the bus door, their fellow riders began clapping.

Their mission to find a hometown boy was nearing its conclusion.

World War II B-17 crew heroes
World War II B-17 crew

Here is the full story I pieced together in 2003 from Air Force reports and discussions with a couple of wonderful ladies.I believe Mrs. Walker died in 2007. Mrs. Hylton has also passed away.

The story from an early 1944 edition of The Caroline Progress carried alarming news beneath a headline reading “Wings Above Fear” – Lt. Tommy Haigh is Missing.

Local residents worried the friendly young man they had watched grow up in Bowling Green

and who later helped them as a meat cutter at the Sanitary Grocery store might not be coming home. It had always been a possibility. Army Air Corps aviators in World War II, especially bomber crews, often flew through raging antiaircraft fire and swarms of enemy fighter planes to and from their targets.

News traveled slowly in World War II. Rapid-fire reporting from war zones that are taken for granted today weren’t available. Facts, though, eventually emerged, with worst fears confirmed: 25-year-old 1st Lt. Tommy Haigh had been killed in action during a combat mission Dec. 28, 1943. His mother Florence received a letter from the War Department confirming his death.

The Army Air Force kept records, known as “Missing Air Crew Reports” on each aircraft reported as missing in action. The reports include interviews with witnesses and survivors. These records reveal what happened to the B-24D Liberator of the 512th Bombardment Squadron, with a crew of 10, commanded by Haigh. Memoirs and notes from members of his crew who survived help fill in additional details.

Hazel Walker of Wellfleet, Mass., was the widow of Ward Walker, a captain who served as bombardier. He passed away in the 1990s. She recalled cooking dinner for her husband and Tommy when they were cadets taking flight training at Tucson, Ariz., in the spring of 1943.

“When I met Tommy, I felt confident Ward was in very good hands. Tommy was a great guy and seemed very mature and responsible,” Mrs. Walker remembered.

Mrs. Walker said her husband’s log noted they were flying a B-24 named “Old Sarge” that fateful morning. The plane they considered their own was named “Mister Completely.” His log didn’t indicate why they were aboard a different aircraft that day, but maintenance issues were commonplace reasons for swapping planes.

A B-24 carried ten .50 caliber machine guns arrayed around the aircraft to try to stave off enemy fighters. Six enlisted crew members manned the guns and handled radio operator and engineer duties.

Their mission was a high-altitude bombing attack on the railroad yards at Vicenza, Italy.

Seated next to Haigh in the cockpit was co-pilot 2nd Lt. Albert D. Matthai. His middle name was Dilworth. Most folks knew him as “Worth.” The navigator, 2nd Lt. Norm Troxell, a Kansan, rounded out the officer crew.

Clair Matthai, of Whitesboro, N.Y., is Worth’s widow. Her husband, who died in 1983, kept a detailed scrapbook highlighting their experiences. Most of the book was put together in Germany’s Stalag Luft I, where Matthai, Troxell and Ward were prisoners of war.

She remembers her husband saying the mission of Dec. 28 was supposed to be “a milk run,” slang for a routine mission. “They weren’t expecting any real opposition,” she said. Morning weather was cloudy at the American air base at San Pancrazio, Italy. The group of 17 aircraft was set to rendezvous with P-38 Lightning fighter escorts, but was late to the rendezvous point and the fighters had left the area, according to a published account by another pilot on the same mission. The bomber formation could have turned back to San Pan, but the mission commander decided to press on to the target, possibly because the same area had been hit three days earlier with no opposition.

Visibility above the clouds was good and the mission was tracking well with the aircraft flying between 20,000 and 25,000 feet high. One historic account of the air battle has the six planes of the 512th Squadron at the left rear of the formation, trailing other planes from the 376th Bombardment Group that rounded out the battle group.

Ward Walker’s log described the flight. “Everything was going fine; then all hell broke loose with our ship riddled and the wings in flames…”

An estimated 50 to 90 Messerschmitt 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 fighters attacked the formation, firing 20mm cannons and machine guns. The B-24 gunners knocked a number of German fighters (some estimates reported some 30 enemy planes shot down) from the sky, but they were overwhelmed.

Old Sarge was ablaze. Crew members fought through smoke and fire to don parachutes and bail out into the skies of Northern Italy. Internal intercoms were shot, making communication impossible. The co-pilot and bombardier were the last people to leave the aircraft. Aircraft commander Tommy Haigh stayed at the controls, unwilling to leave without knowing for certain if all of his crew had a chance to make it out safely.

“Worth told me that they couldn’t make Tommy get out. It was like he was frozen to the controls. Nothing would make him move,” Mrs. Matthai said. “When Worth bailed out, there was so much fire in the bomb bay that it singed his hair.”

World War II B-17 crew heroes

Walker passed by Staff Sgt. Romeo Giagnoni -- who was severely burned, but survived -- in his chute on the way to earth. The official reports later revealed that three of the enlisted men, Private Winston Ivey, the assistant engineer, tail gunner Staff Sgt. Joseph Kerschner, and Staff Sgt. Leonard Hager, assistant radio operator, had been mortally wounded or killed by the 20mm rounds enemy fighters raked across the B-24.

The fliers, dangling beneath their parachute canopies, watched their burning plane until it exploded. It was just a few minutes before noon. Most of the 512th Squadron’s planes flying that day met similar fates. Ten B-24’s went down that morning. Approximately half of their crews perished in the battle. Almost all the rest were captured.

World War II B-17 crew memorial

Walker’s log has a heartfelt page dedicated to Haigh. "Should I at this time be dedicating the largest and finest structure in the world, I could find no one more deserving of the honor than Thomas Haigh. During the nine months I was with him, I found him to be the essence of fair play and conscientiousness. While we were flying those hours in combat together, he never failed in his duty. When the battle reached its climax, he displayed a courage so great in saving other lives, including my own. He was killed while still at the controls. Throughout the rest of my days, the memory will enter my mind regularly and when it does, I shall always wonder, if our positions were reversed on that day, could I have carried on as he did.”

Matthai’s scrapbook contains the handwritten note, “R.I.P. Lt. Thomas Haigh. Displaying conspicuous gallantry, he gave his life for his crew.” Matthai visited Haigh’s mother and sister in Bowling Green shortly after the war to talk with them about their experiences and the heroism of his friend.

Fast Forward 60 Years

You receive a lot of interesting phone calls in a military public affairs office, but the call that came in during February 2003 was one of the most unique. Caroline County residents Barbara Hylton and her friend Dale Brittle were planning a trip to Italy and seeking help with a special mission.

They wanted to locate the grave site of Tommy Haigh.

Mary Campbell Cook was Haigh’s 87-year-old sister. She and Hylton’s parents were long-time friends and she had always been close to Barbara Hylton and her husband Dick. Mrs. Cook’s husband Davis had recently passed away and she resided in an assisted living facility in Ashland. They had been married 67 years. She didn’t have children and Tommy had been her only sibling.

When she learned Barbara was going to Italy, she wondered if it would be possible to visit the cemetery where her brother is buried. All she knew, though, was it was somewhere in Italy. Nobody in her family ever had the opportunity to visit. Her mother received a letter on Sept 4, 1946 from the Quartermaster General of the Army notifying her Tommy had been buried at the U.S. Military Cemetery Mirandola, 18 miles northeast of Modena, Italy. Sometime later, though, his remains were relocated.

Luckily, Fort A.P. Hill’s civilian Deputy to the Commander Chuck Munson had previously served as the active duty area support group commander for the U.S. Army in Northern Italy. He said the grave had to be in one of two American cemeteries. After a couple of quick phone calls, Lt. Haigh was located in the American Cemetery at Florence, managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

“God Bless the American Soldiers”

Back to the cemetery…

The Virginia women knew they needed to take a bus to the cemetery. With a large, beautiful daisy in hand, they boarded, feeling every bit like strangers in a foreign land.

As they found out, they were among friends -- supportive, loving friends. “As we started to leave, the Italian people on the bus started clapping, expressing their support and wishing us well,” Hylton said. “It was an incredible, touching moment.”

Hylton and Brittle were the only visitors at the cemetery that early spring morning. The Italian caretaker took them directly to Tommy Haigh’s grave, marked with an immaculate, white marble cross resting silently on the well-manicured hallowed ground.

They laid their flower at the cross. Tommy Haigh was no longer missing.

The caretaker took them into the small chapel and played Taps, the mournful, yet peaceful tones echoing across the cemetery.

They noticed a bouquet of freshly cut flowers with a note attached that read, “God Bless the American Soldiers.” The caretaker explained that the tiny community nearby had taken the cemetery under its wing and that someone came every day, often with flowers cut from their own garden, to honor the more than 4,400 Americans resting there.

“It was a wonderful thing for me to be able to get there and see this – not only Tommy’s grave, but the way that the Italian people still remember and care. It was -- still is, as I think about it -- an emotional experience,” Barbara said with tears moistening her eyes.

Mrs. Cook welcomed the women back from Italy. They shared the story of their visit and gave her a book of photos and memorabilia.

The moment was simultaneously joyous and poignant. Mrs. Cook said that up until the time she saw the pictures of his grave, she always thought -- held out a faint hope -- he might someday appear at home, walk right through the door -- that everything had been a horrific mistake. After seeing the photos, she said she knew at last - 60 years later - that Tommy wouldn't come home. As they left her room, Mrs. Cook gave them a framed 8x10 photograph of a good looking, smiling young man to help, perhaps, everyone understand how she remembers him. He was Bowling Green, Virginia’s Tommy Haigh. To those who knew him, he’ll stay forever young, the smiling, happy guy in the photo. He gave the full measure for his crew and country. He’s resting in Florence.


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