World War II veterans reflect on careers

  • Published
  • By Capt. Martha Petersante-Gioia
  • 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Editor's Note: This is the third in a series celebrating the Air Force's 60th Anniversary. 

In 1943, America was in the midst of some of the most heated air battles of World War II. Two young Massachusetts men, then just 18 years old, walked down the street and into local military recruiters' offices. Hearing the call of duty and dreaming of taking to the skies, both shed their civilian clothing for the Army Air Corps' "olive drab." 

Mike Modica and Tom Fahey Jr., now long-time friends, did not know each other while growing up in Wakefield and Dorchester, respectively. However, both staff sergeants found themselves stationed in Italy with the 15th Air Force serving on B-17 aircraft crews. 

These early Airmen also flew side-by-side with the 332nd Fighter Group of the Tuskegee Airmen, who were charged with bomber escort duties. For Mr. Modica, it had always been a dream to fly. "When I was 17, I enlisted in the reserve corps with the dream to be a pilot or navigator," he said. 

But the Department of Defense had other plans for the young troop. "I went to Florida for basic training. There, I found out there wasn't a need for pilots or navigators, so I became an infantry troop," he said. "However, when [the trainers] found out I had enlisted in the reserve corps they told me I had to go back to the Air Corps for training." 

Mr. Fahey, who hails from a naval family, originally wanted to serve in the U.S. Navy. His high school grades prevented him from achieving this dream, but another door opened in the process. "The Navy recruiter sent me to the Army Air Corps. There, I had to take a test -- everyone passed," he said. 

He joined the next day and proceeded to gunnery school. After training and being assigned to an aircrew, both men made the 3,700 nautical mile trip to Bari, Italy -- Mr. Modica on a ship, and Mr. Fahey on an airplane. 

Their adventures were just beginning. 

Mission -- Bombs Away! 

After flying two missions with an experienced crew, Mr. Modica, a ball turret gunner, flew for the first time with his assigned crew and ran into "some problems." A combination of being hit with flack, an engine out with a propeller "windmilling," manifold pressure dropping in another engine and a slow loss of altitude forced the pilot to order the crew to bail out. 

However, after discussing the situation with the targetier, who had experienced similar circumstances with another aircraft, the pilot decided to try and make it home. There was just one small problem -- the crew had already followed the order to bail out. 

Mr. Modica recalled hearing small arms fire as he floated silently to the ground through layers of clouds. He believes he landed in a tree in [the former] Northern Yugoslavia. When he spotted approaching forces, Mr. Modica did the only thing he could think of -- yell out "American! Americanski!" hoping they would be friendly. 

Luckily, the forces were Yugoslav partisans who assisted him out of the tree. This began a 43-day journey from safe house to safe house in an attempt to get back to Italy. Eventually he was turned over to the Russian forces, after crossing the Drava River. 

"It was pretty cold," he said. "Back in the day, when you flew you had heated suits, except when you got on the ground there wasn't anything to plug the suit into." 

After a journey consisting of "begging for food, marching, riding on narrow-gauge trains and in the back of trucks, on horseback and oxen cart," Mr. Modica and his crewmates were "repatriated back to Italy on a C-47, flying at low altitude and under the radar in Romania." 

Having to bail out of an aircraft was a common event for many crews during this era in aviation. Mr. Fahey, who flew with an experienced crew that had lost its right waist gunner, worked to hit some "real tough targets at the time -- Vienna was number one." 

Like Mr. Modica, Mr. Fahey also experienced the need to bail out of a failing aircraft. On Feb. 20, 1945, during his seventh trip over Vienna, Mr. Fahey's plane was shot down directly after the "bombs away" order was echoed. 

A large shell hit the plane disabling the number two engine, putting a large hole in the nose, blowing the navigator's table across the plane and threw the navigator into the upper turret position. He also recalls that engines three and four "were smoking and we lost so much power the plane just rolled over and went down," which forced the pilot to make a snap decision. 

At 15,000 feet near the Alps the pilot "pulled it out" and the crew was ordered to get everything out -- including weapons -- and drop the ball turret. The crew was given the order to bail out. While, scenes similar to those in the 1990 film, Memphis Bell, where the ball turret gunner is stuck and panicking in the turret because of problems with the hydraulic system, played out over the European skies, 

Mr. Modica was lucky. "I was very fortunate that never happened to me," Mr. Modica said. "I was able to open the hatch and climb out into the airplane." Because of the limited space inside the turret, Mr. Modica was unable to wear his shoes or parachute -- both were kept inside the plane just outside the ball's entry hatch. 

Luckily, when the pilot gave the bail out order, he was able to put on his parachute and grab his shoes before jumping. Mr. Fahey remembers performing a front flip to clear the plane's stabilizers and pulling the rip cord on his shoot, which released with tremendous force. 

"It ripped off the scarf my mother made for me that I was wearing and also my gloves, which were wired to my suit." Mr. Fahey, who still has pieces of his escape kit and remembers the evasion and survival training he received more than 60 years ago, suffered temporary snow blindness after landing in a tree. 

He was found by friendly villagers and was taken to the nearby community where he met up with his buddy -- John Vasquez, the crew's left waist gunner. Later, both met up with the rest of the aircraft crew and went from house to house, making their way back to Italy. 

Base Camp 

Wartime conditions were difficult. Mud was abundant, supplies were short and the dangers of simple, everyday tasks lurked everywhere. "We lived in tents, unlike other servicemembers stationed in England living in barracks," Mr. Modica said. 

"The tents were heated with 130-octane gasoline." Each man was assigned a week to light the stove, "which could be suicide," Mr. Fahey said. Stoves were constructed of parts salvaged from "banged up airplanes. "If it leaked during the night and you opened it first thing in the morning to throw the match in -- it might throw you straight across the room." 

Yet, even in the midst of war, the camaraderie of the military lifestyle allowed both men to see much of the Italian countryside. During the conflict, Capri was utilized as a rest camp for the Allied Forces; there, Mr. Fahey said servicemembers stayed in villas and ate at the La Palma Hotel on "real plates with real silverware," which was a treat compared to their mess kits back at camp. Capri was just one of many areas servicemembers visited; other areas included Rome and Naples. 

A common occurrence for many servicemembers was to fill socks with sugar or coffee when at a rest camp, Mr. Modica said. "We'd take colored parachutes used to deliver supplies and the socks, and barter our way to and around Rome -- those supplies were worth more than money." 

Victory! The War is Over! 

Both men, who served in different groups, shared numerous similar experiences over the skies and grounds of Europe and met for the first time during their discharge process back home through Atlantic City, N.J. 

Looking back on their time in service, they said they didn't think twice about enlisting, feeling it was their duty to serve. But that duty did come at price. To this day, Mr. Modica fondly remembers his crew mate, Robert Kimball, who did not make the trip home. He believes his friend was killed in action by the native Yugoslav fascists -- the Ustashi. 

Both men challenge everyone to always remember those who did not make it back home. Both also believe that the best opportunities are in the Air Force today. Mr. Fahey encourages young Airmen to stick it out and put 20-plus years into the Air Force. "You'll be better prepared for a civilian career with a technical background that will be second to none."