‘I Wanted Wings’ author visits Italy, plane crash site

Harlan "Jake' Hill liked the book his son wrote about his World War II experience in the mountains of Italy. "It was terrific,' the 88-year-old man said Thursday as he looked over pieces of wreckage found recently at the crash site of the B-17 bomber on which Hill served in the U.S. Air Force.
Becky Vargo
Aug 13, 2011

 

Three years after “I Wanted Wings: A Tail Gunner’s Story” was published, author Gary Hill, now of Boston, followed up on his yearning for more information. He traveled to the small Italian village near the crash site that had such a big impact on his father’s life.

Sixty-seven years to the day of the crash, Gary and one of his new Italian friends unfurled an American flag over the crash site in an area called Colla del Vaccarile on Mount Basalta. Gary said the flag was given to him by Matt Ernst, the son of the plane’s pilot. The flag had been draped over the man’s casket when he died in 1974.

“Matt couldn’t go to Italy, so he sent the flag to the crash site,” Gary said.

While at the sight, even so many years later, the hikers were able to find small pieces of debris — including an empty 50-caliber shell, a handle from inside the plane, part of a walkway and a broken piece of windshield.

“I had a piece shatter and hit me in the face,” Jake said of that fateful day — July 24, 1944 — as he looked at the Plexiglas in his gnarled hand.

Staff Sgt. Jake Hill was part of a 10-man crew on the bomber headed for Romania, where they were targeting oil refineries. Fortunately, on this day, they had a big escort of P-51 Mustang fighters.

All of a sudden, Jake — a tail gunner — said he saw a bunch of little black spots falling out of the sky in front of him.

“I won’t be going home today,” Jake said he thought to himself as he identified the spots as German fighters.

The planes turned away as they saw the escort of Mustangs dropping their wing tanks to lighten their planes in preparation for a fight, Jake said.

But, damage had already been done to the bomber — whether from a broken oil line or from fall-out of bullets shot from above or below, he said. Two of the bomber’s engines caught on fire.

In preparation for a crash, the crew had to drop their bombs, Jake said.

The crew members pulled on their parachutes, and all 10 of them made it to the ground alive, Jake said.

Jake and three of the crew ended up making camp outside of a small mountain town called Febbio. This is where they were befriended by Italian resistance fighters called Partisans. They also were adopted by a local family headed by Giovanni Gebbinini.

Jake said each of the flight crew had 50 $1 bills in their escape kits. They used this money to purchase an occasional lamb, which Mrs. Gebbinini would make into stew. They would also buy wheat and have it ground into flour, which the Gebbinini family would use to bake bread for the soldiers and their own family.

When Gary went to Italy last month, one of his objectives was to try to locate descendants of the family — but, at the time, the only name he had was Giovanni.
Gary said he went to the only cafe in the picturesque little town and handed the waitress a letter of identification he had written, also noting what he was looking for. It had been translated into Italian. Gary said the waitress showed the letter to some older residents.

After only 40 minutes, Clara Gebbinini walked through the door.

“She invited us to her home for coffee,” Gary said.

Clara lived in a more modern home next door to her grandparents’ house, where the soldiers had often visited. Clara’s mother had married Giovanni’s son, who was 13 at the time the soldiers were in town.

Because Clara spoke no English, her niece was summoned to translate. Moments later, the niece walked into another room and came back with a picture of two soldiers — one of them was Jake, Gary said.

On July 23, Gary visited the museum in another town — Chuisa di Pesio — where they had a three-panel display about the plane crash. Gary had been in touch with the museum director and knew he was going to meet the mayor that day. He said he was surprised to find out that a program had been put together that included two of the Partisans who had helped Gary’s father back in 1944.

“Everyone of them spoke of the ongoing appreciation for the Americans being there and liberating their country,” Gary said, “and how they also appreciated me being there to validate this.”

A visit was also made to a nearby monastery where the Partisans had taken the machine guns they had stripped off the crashed bomber. A monk there fashioned tri-pods for the machine guns, Gary said.

Although his visit was short, Gary said it helped bring the story full-circle. And he was happy that he could share it with his father, who had stayed in touch with his crew members, but had never made it to Italy.

Jake, now a resident at Oak Crest Manor in Spring Lake Township, smiled as he recalled some of the happier memories of the time.

He also recalled how sad the Gebbinini family was when the soldiers announced it was time to leave before the winter came — they would have to try to make it past German lines into allied territory. One crew member and one Partisan made it through. Jake and two others were captured and sent to a German prisoner of war camp, where Jake said he spent nine months before being freed.

Jake’s story is documented with the letters he saved from the war years — letters Gary used to compile the book, which is available at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum and at Amazon.com.

 

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