06 June, 2009

Temporary post - D-Day's unforgotten casualty

Unfortunately, I don't have an airplane ready to post today.

But I do have a picture and a story to share. The strangely tinted photo above was taken at a place called, "Bodney." Right now, it's a patch of ordinary land in East Anglia, England. But during WW2, it was the base of the 352nd Fighter Group. The building shown is all that remains of the 352nd's base - the all-important Control Tower. It's also the site of one of D-Day's earliest casualties.

As you can see, the place is rather decrepit. But on Midnight, June 6,1944, though unfinished, the tower was part of a hub of anxious activity as the men of the 352nd prepared for their huge moment - provide air cover for the invasion of Hitler's Europe.

If you have any imagination, picture this - inky darkness, the steady, urgent clump of boots, sober, low toned voices, clanks of metal...and about 1:30am, clunks of boots on aluminum wings followed by the fire-belching coughs of Merlin engines...

If we were to go back in time, and stand in that spot where I took the picture, we'd look left as 16 Mustangs of the 486th Squadron* taxi down the field to turn around for their take-off run. The sound would be hypnotic - the crackling lope of 30,000 some horsepower, trundling away, down the field. The visuals, of course, would be vague shadows and indistinct shapes save for the soft flicks of blue and white fire sparking from the exhaust.

Then, just as the seconds would tick to 2AM, engines would howl as the first four Mustangs begin their race toward the tower, galloping down the barely marked field, laden with fuel, ammo...and a sweaty pilot with very little experience in taking off in the black.

A few seconds pass as these airplanes roar closer. Your instincts tell you to get out of the way! Louder, louder, louder...we flinch and step back as the heavily burdened machines leave the ground. If we could see each other's faces, we'd be wide-eyed and breathless, perhaps even buffeted by propwash. If you were near me, you'd hear me blurt, "COOL!"

Then just as the first are airborne, another four roar towards...louder, louder, louder, we flinch again...BOOOM! A supernova of flame blinds us, a blast of heat slaps our faces, the sweet smell of aviation fuel is blown into our sinus...and those bullets, thousands of them, explode like the coughs of demons...

Come back to that photo. Notice the little overhang on the far left corner. On June 6, 2:00AM, that whole corner was ripped from the building as Lt. Robert Frascotti's P-51 smashed into the new tower, shearing the reinforced concrete into pieces, instantly killing him.

Just after I took that photo, Robert Powell, a pilot with the 328th FS, pointed out the vague distinction between the original structure and where the corner had been repaired. This "new" concrete and brickwork can just be barely made out. Powell then stated soberly, "The rest all took off by the light of his flames."

As you can imagine, the story of Frascotti's death is worthy of more words than I've provided. In fact, click here for the full story.

Nevertheless, there's an inspiring message in the ugliness of this early, perhaps first, casualty of D-Day. Today, when you go out to mow the lawn, shop, have a beer on the deck with friends, think about, talk about, if only for a second, the people who, in the words of Red James (Profile 31) "Did what they were supposed to do."

*The 352nd Fighter Group contained 3 squadrons - the 328th FS, the 486th FS and the 487th FS. Each Squadron flying 12 airplanes.