Staff Sergeant Joseph L. Caruso was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. on March 18, 1921. Joe was the Top Turret Gunner on a Consolidated B-24H heavy bomber based at Sternara Air Field near Cerignola, Italy. He was killed in action on February 17, 1944. Ironically, he was only about an hour's drive from the birthplace of his parents Demetrio and Rosina Caruso who were from the Italian province of Calabria.
They were flying their first combat mission on February 17. (Actually, the first mission is listed historically as February 10, 1944 but the planes were prevented from completing the mission, perhaps due to weather conditions or visibility.) Their target for this mission was Field Marshal Kesselring's headquarters and the large German supply depots at Grottaferrata, Italy just south of Rome. Also targeted that day were motor transport parks in the Campoleone junction and Rocca Di Papa areas, a troop concentration near Frascati and other targets in advance of the U.S. Fifth Army's Anzio battle line which was under heavy counterattack by German forces.
According to S/Sgt David Stephens, who was the tail gunner on that mission, their plane was making its bomb run when they were hit by antiaircraft fire. Stephens was wounded in the leg and face and called forward to the pilot, 1st lieutenant John Eidson to report the situation. The captain told him to come up to the cockpit. The plane was in trouble and Stephens noted that an engine was on fire. The last he remembers was the pilot and co-pilot struggling with the controls. An eyewitness, S/Sgt Larry Jones, reports that "two planes went down over the target; one attacked by enemy fighters and one hit by flack." Another witness, S/Sgt James C. Boyd, saw one B24 hit by flack on the left wing, between No. 1 engine and the wing tip. The plane was on fire and in a slow roll over the target. One parachute opened." And yet another witness, Bob Field wrote to me as follows: "I think your uncle's crew was in the tent next to ours. I was in the plane right next to his when it was badly damaged. It caught fire and crashed and I saw a great deal of black smoke. I saw no chutes and at the time, I thought there could be no survivors."
Stephens doesn't remember anything after that. The next thing he remembers was being found by a squad of German medics who patched him up and sent him to a hospital in Germany. He spent five months recovering from his wounds and was then sent to Stalag Luft 6. Shortly thereafter, he was sent to Stalag Luft 4, perhaps due to the shrinking of German held territory. Stephens spent another seven months in the POW camps and was released at the end of the war.
The book The 456th Bomb Group: 1943 - Steed's Flying Colts - 1945, from Turner Publishing Company, Paducah, Kentucky, reported the mission as follows: "17 February, 1944, 2d Group Mission, the target, a German army command post at Grottaferrata, Italy, 40 bombers dropped 96.5 tons of GP bombs. Intelligence reports stated that the mission was highly successful. Flak was heavy, moderate and accurate. Three enemy A/C encountered, 1 destroyed, 3 probable, 2 damaged. We lost 2 A/C, one each from the 745th and 747th Squadrons. Combat flight time 5:00 hours. The target, German Army Headquarters.
One of the memories that has stayed with me was the picture of Uncle Joe that over the years occupied various walls and places of honor in our home. They must have been very proud of him and terribly sad that he did not return from the war. And I was proud too. Even though he died before I was born, he had for the most part the same facial structure and features as my father and his other brothers. So I felt as if I knew him. There he was in his uniform covered with the lamb's-wool-lined bomber jacket, his leather helmet and goggles.
Over the years, I heard many versions of the story of his death. The first story was that his plane was shot down over Italy and the entire crew parachuted to safety, only to be found by Italian troops on the ground, where they were all rounded up and executed. I remember the bitterness I felt that he was not taken prisoner and allowed to sit out the war in a prison camp like so many others. I also felt shame that he would be summarily executed by Italians, our own people. After all, Joe spoke Italian as well as English; surely he could have communicated with them.
Another similar story had the Germans standing the crew up against trees and shooting them. In a different version, they were stripped naked and shot. In another, they were stripped naked and beheaded. All were horrible fates that apparently did not take place in this case.
Whether these were bogus reports, superstitions or merely the wild imaginings of a grieving family, I cannot say, but it seems as though there may be some basis in fact for these versions. When the 456th bomb group first started flying, their commander ordered the flight crews not to carry side arms. He was certain that if the men had to parachute to safety, they would no longer be considered combatants if they did not carry weapons. From the number of crewmen that were subsequently taken prisoner and treated humanely, this strategy must have worked in Italy and Hungary.
Then, a horrific and much-publicized story broke concerning the downing of a B-24 over Yugoslavia. The entire crew parachuted to safety, only to be captured on the ground, stripped naked, hung upside down from tree limbs, tortured, mutilated and killed. When this story reached the commander of the 456th, he immediately reversed his earlier order and reinstated the use of side arms by the bomber crews. I believe that this information reached the States prior to definite word of Joe's death. He was originally reported missing in action on February 17, 1944 but was not officially reported killed in action until late November of that year.
From what I have been able to determine, only 2nd Lt. James McDaniel, the Navigator, was able to parachute out. The rest of the crew went down in the plane which crashed in a field at Fontana Fosso Di Fontana Colvino, a plot of farmland in the valley below Monte Porzio Catone. The plane exploded on impact and all of the fuel burned. Five unexploded bombs were found near the wreckage. My belief is that Uncle Joe and several of the others all died in the crash. This theory is supported by the fact that several of the crew, including Uncle Joe, are buried in a mass grave at Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. Those remains were also found buried in a common grave a few feet from the crash site. They were exhumed by the graves registration unit, which was unable to sort out who was who. Later, they probably shipped what was left of the bodies back home in one large box.
We also know that S/SGT Stephens survived and was taken prisoner. Lt. McDaniel, who tried to parachute to safety, was strafed by enemy fighter planes and lost an arm before he hit the ground. Signore Arnaido Paciotti of Via Caselmorena 14, Km 17, Casilena, Rome, Italy, stated that he had been on his farm at Fontana Colvino on the day of the crash. "The parachutist that had been strafed by the German fighters died in my arms, with a smile on his face." Signore Paciotti stated that "identification could be made of that body by the loss of the right arm." The identity tags of James W. Mc Daniel were taken from the body.
Back row: Robert R. Blakewell (Bombardier), John Eidson (Pilot), Carmine "Shorty" Oliver (Ball Gunner), Francis Keith Murray (Co-Pilot), James McDaniel (Navigator).
Front row: Robert M. Blalock (Engineer, Waist Gunner), David Stephens (Tail Gunner), Joseph L. Caruso (Top Turret Gunner), Ervin "Ray" Ruhe (Radioman, Waist Gunner), Joseph G. Adkins (Nose Gunner).