Far Away, So Close: The Fall of a B-24 Liberator off the Coast of Italy – I

     On May 7, 1944, an aerial gunner in the 722nd Bomb Squadron of the 450th (“Cottontails”) Bomb Group – S/Sgt. Harry M. Beightol – composed the following letter to his mother, Nellie Mae Beightol, of Howard Hill, New York:

     “I am getting along fine, Mom, and am trying to be a good soldier and do my part.  I go to church whenever I can and I never fail to thank God for bringing us back after each mission.

     “I carry my Testament with me on every mission and before we get into enemy territory I read the 91st Psalm.  I believe that passage means to me that my fears vanish as dew in the morning sun.

     “Some of the boys in our group have finished their missions and are awaiting transportation to the States.  I have 45 missions to my credit.  Perhaps I’ll get to see you all one of these days soon.  I certainly won’t be sorry.

     “I haven’t done so much, but in a sense of the word I can say I have done a little something for my country.  I hope to be able to do more.  Perhaps I’ll get the chance.”

May 7, 1944

     Brief and direct; meaningful and sincere, Sgt. Beightol’s letter was shared with the upstate New York newspaper Chautauqua News and Sherman Advance, where it was published just over one month later, on June 9.  The impetus for its publication was his parents’ receipt – on June 8 – of a telegram from the War Department notifying them that Harry and his crew were listed as Missing in Action in the Mediterranean Theater of War, on May 12, 1944.

     Neither Harry nor his crewmen would return. 

     To those who knew them, they would become memories.  To their country, their loss would become part of both the cost and record of America’s victory in World War Two, an era that imparted and reflected monumental changes in American society, and, the place of the United States in the international arena.

     Almost seventy-three years have passed since then.  Times have changed; times continue to change.

     The impact of the Second World War – personal and cultural; historical and technological – while in many ways having formed and influenced the world we have lived in, is increasingly moving into the past, blending into and merging with the currents of time.  Such is the way of human nature; such is the way of history. 

     The memory and legacy of that era – which might once have seemed near-indelible to its participants, observers, and, their descendants – will, in the fullness of time, like all historical events, consist of memories of memories, words, and, images.  (Well, it does already…) 

     It is the latter – three images – that are the focus of this post:  Pictures of Harry’s aircraft, Marty the Rubble Maker, photographed it flew into history.


     An image of this aircraft appeared in publication as far back as 1973, in Steve Birdsall’s Log of the Liberators, where a photograph of the severely damaged B-24 is shown on page 225.  The picture is captioned, “Hit by flak over Porto Santo Stefano, this Cottontail stayed in formation for seven minutes with the entire left tail section shot off.  The aircraft stood on one wing a couple of times, but the pilot fought it and managed to get her level again long enough for the crew to bail out.”

b-24h-42-52096-log-of-the-liberators-steve-birdsall-225      From the caption’s optimistic tone, it would have seemed – well, then – that the crew survived.

      Another photograph of this B-24 was published three years later, in Ken Rust’s Fifteenth Air Force Story.  On page 23, an image of a diving B-24 with a half-destroyed tail is captioned, “Liberator was hit by flak on 12 May 1944 after completing its bomb run over Porto Santo Stefano, Italy.  After losing part of its tail, the plane remained with its formation for seven minutes, then split-essed a number of times with the pilot recovering control by use of ailerons each time.  Finally, after all crewmen had bailed out safely, the plane went out of control and crashed into the sea.”

       Porto Santo Stefano?  Liberator?  The caption was similar in content and tone to that in Birdsall’s book, and it became obvious that the two photographs were images in the same sequence.

     The key would be the Missing Air Crew Report (MACR).  In turn, the key to obtaining a copy of the MACR (as microfiche; well, this was 1985, years before the advent of Fold3.com, JPGs, and PDFs!) was the date: May 12, 1944.  With that information, I received the relevant MACR (4836) from the National Archives.  Placing it within a microfilm reader, I discovered that from the plane in question – B-24H 42-52096 – there were no survivors.

     What happened?


     Who were the plane’s crew?

Pilot: 2 Lt. J.C. Word (Full first name unknown.)
Mrs. Ava Word (mother), Wright City, Ok.

Commemorated on Tablets of the Missing at Florence American Cemetery, Florence, Italy.

Co-Pilot: 2 Lt. Norbert T. Bertling
Born 1919
Mrs. Agnes Bertling (mother), Cashton, Wi.
According to ABMC website, commemorated on Tablets of the Missing at Florence American Cemetery, Florence, Italy.
According to FindAGrave.com, buried at Moen Cemetery, Cashton, Wi.

Navigator: 2 Lt. Edward Franklin Garrett; On 38th Mission
Mrs. Catherine T. Garrett (wife), 11 Villa Road, Menands, N.Y.
Mrs. John Dobler (mother), 41 Ford Ave., Troy, N.Y.
Mrs. Harry Stufflebeam (sister)
Commemorated on Tablets of the Missing at Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, Nettuno, Italy.
Photograph and missing in action notice from The Times Record (Troy, N.Y.) of June 15, 1944

New York State Digital library
New York State Digital library

Bombardier: 2 Lt. John M. Werner
Mrs. Ethel V. Werner (wife), 1122 Voight St., Houston, Tx.
No record at ABMC website
No record at FindAGrave.com

Flight Engineer: T/Sgt. Gilbert Wesley Hatfield; On 50th Mission
Born 9/8/17, Klamath Falls, Or.
Mrs. Elsie Mae (Postma) Hatfield (wife), Jean (step-daughter), Tuscon, Az.
Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Pleasant and Grace Bernice (Jones) Hatfield (parents); Three siblings
Commemorated on Tablets of the Missing at Florence American Cemetery, Florence, Italy.
Photographs and biographical information by Sally Wise, at FindAGrave.com.

hatfield-gilbert-wRadio Operator: T/Sgt. Morris Spector
Miss Celia Mayer (ward), 487 East 174th St., New York, N.Y.
Commemorated on Tablets of the Missing at Florence American Cemetery, Florence, Italy.

Gunner (Nose): S/Sgt. Harry M. Beightol; On 50th Mission
Born 6/5/20
Mrs. Mary Jane (Wood) Beightol (wife), Route 1, Mayville, N.Y.
Mr. and Mrs. C. Vernon and Nellie Mae (Persons) Beightol (parents); Mrs. Marjorie Shepardson (sister), Howard Hill, N.Y.
Buried at Mayville Cemetery, Mayville, N.Y.
Information from the following New York state newspapers: Chautauqua News and Sherman Advance 6/2/44, 6/9/44; Jamestown Post-Journal 10/21/43, 6/26/44, 10/27/44, 12/7/44, 2/5/49, 2/7/49, 10/28/54; Daily Sentinel (Rome) 3/5/45

Gunner: S/Sgt. James G. Shirley
Mrs. Alice V. Shirley (mother), 180 Sears Point Road, Vallejo, Ca.
Commemorated on Tablets of the Missing at Florence American Cemetery, Florence, Italy.

Gunner: S/Sgt. Paul Dillard Boaz
Born 1/8/23, High Point, N.C.
Mr. and Mrs. Hobart Dillard and Susan Evelyn (Barefoot) Boaz (parents), Route # 1, Cameron, N.C.
Commemorated on Tablets of the Missing at Florence American Cemetery, Florence, Italy.
Commemorative grave marker at Barefoot-Lamm Cemetery, Wilson County, N.C.
Photograph and biographical information by Jeff Barefoot, at FindAGrave.com.

boaz-paul-dGunner (Tail): S/Sgt. Lloyd Whitley
Mrs. Ethel J. Whitley (mother), Route #1, Charlotte, N.C.
Commemorated on Tablets of the Missing at Florence American Cemetery, Florence, Italy.

    Three photographs of Lt. Word and his crew are also available at the 450th Bomb Group wesbite.

     Photos of the fall of Marty the Rubble Maker appear in the next post.

– Michael G. Moskow

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