After I was restricted to lead ship flying, I and my crew had a lot of non-combat time on our hands which we used to good advantage. Took a few trips in my jeep to Lecce, the nearest town of any size where a pack of cigarettes could be used as barter for almost anything. I remember one little kid asking me in broken English for a pack of cigarettes in return for his sister’s sexual favors. I told him he was too young to smoke. He explained the cigarettes were for his father.
One day, I got a call from 15th Air Force HQ in Bari asking if there was anyone available to fly a VIP, the movie actor Joe E. Brown, from there to Casablanca so that he could hitch a ride back to the States. I allowed as how I was available, and the caller accepted my offer. Arrangements were made and I asked the crew to come along for the ride. Everyone accepted except my waist gunner, Battaglia by name, from Buffalo, NY because he wanted to get in some more missions to his credit and would therefore be able to go back to the States sooner. We didn’t know how long we would be gone and “Baggs” figured he could volunteer with another crew until we returned. My mistake was on not ORDERING everyone including “Baggs” to come along. I’ve been living with that monkey on my back ever since.
The trip involved picking up Mr. Brown at Bari and then flying across the Mediterranean to Algiers where we were to be met by the Brass who invited him to a big blowout dinner. Mr. Brown, a real fine fellow, asked the brigadier to include me and my crew in the invitation. The general said the four officers on the crew would be welcome, but the enlisted men would not. Joe replied that it was all or none including him. The brigadier capitulated quickly and we got into our dress uniforms and went to the party with Joe. Algiers was the Paris of North Africa so the dinner was first-rate. A good time was had by all with the possible exception of the general who, in my view, acted like a pompous ass.
From Algiers we would fly to Casablanca where Joe would make his connection. Joe was a very friendly person and never uttered a word that was the least bit out of line. He took all our names, addresses and telephone numbers and promised to call our relatives which he did. (My sister answered the ‘phone and didn’t believe the caller was Joe E. Brown. She thought he was some kind of prankster and said, “Oh yeah! I’m Hedy Lamarr and slammed the ‘phone down. Joe called back later and got my mother on the line who was delighted to get the message from me.) He was a fun man to be with and told us about his son who, during flight training in California, was killed in a crash. The brass called it an accident, but Joe said it was sabotage. We believed Joe.
I invited him to sit in the co-pilot’s seat and fly the plane, an invitation he accepted with alacrity. Needless to say, we were all over the sky. I told him not to worry. He was doing fine. If things got out of hand, I told him I would be right there. They did, and I was.
The trip proceeded without incident and once we were sure he was gone, we were back to San Pancrazio in Italy in a matter of three or four days. We found that “Baggs” had volunteered for a mission with another crew which was shot down over the Bay of Naples. All aboard were lost including “Baggs.” Had I exercised by command powers and insisted he come along on the trip, “Baggs” would not have died. I’ve been living with that monkey on my back ever since.
Editor's note: Battaglia was KIA on the Albert Martin crew on February 12, 1944. I believe it was the mission in support of the Anzio beach landings. His death sets a time frame for your dad’s story.