Key fragment of the Fyrtle Myrtle recovered by the Salerno Air Finders.
Last Flight of the Fyrtle Myrtle
Research into the crash by the Salerno Air Finders
The Salerno Air Finders is a group of volunteers from the Italian organization Salerno 1943 who are dedicated to investigation of crashes in Campania and neighboring regions of Italy during WW II, and preservation of the memory of the airmen who lost their lives in the line of duty.
Many thanks to Matteo Pierro for allowing me post a translation of the report on the Fyrtle Myrtle from the Salerno 1943 site on the Camp 59 Survivors site.
Here is the report:
Plane: Bomber B-24, No. 44,
The Fyrtle Myrtle (Army Air Force serial number 42-40236)
Date of crash: July 16, 1943
Location: 94 km east from Salerno
Remarks: Identification confirmed
Ordine di local. 19°
On the morning of Friday, July 16, 1943 a formation of B-24 bombers took off from Berka, near Benghazi, Libya. They belonged to the 513th Bomb Squadron of the 376th Heavy Bombardment Group of the United States Air Force.
Among the planes was one called the Fyrtle Myrtle by members of its crew. Unfortunately, this was to be its last mission.
The objective of the big bombers was the airport facilities at Bari. Allies had landed in Sicily. Now they aimed to destroy the attacking potential of the Axis forces and to prevent the Axis planes leaving Puglia airports that could cause damage to Operation Husky. After dropping their bombs the planes headed back, but they were attacked by Italian and German fighter planes that had risen from nearby airports.
What happened to the Myrtle Fyrtle is clear from the testimony given by airmen from the returning bombers who returned to the base and from the records of the crewmembers who survived. This information is contained in the Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) procured by indefatigable aviation archaeologist Dino Pagano.
The MACR reports indicates the squadron was subjected to fierce attacks by numerous German fighters and the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica). One in particular targeted bomber 44 of the squadron, firing several shots toward engine number 3, which caught fire after a few moments. At this point the plane’s commander, Charlie G. Hinson, began to lose speed and altitude. The plane, in leaving the formation, became the target of other fighters who, noticing its distress, rushed against it.
The first to be hit was Patrick F. Shea, the dorsal turret gunner. The shots also caused a fire in the fuselage. The flames engulfed the parachute of radioman Lloyd E Kile, rendering it useless. The situation became untenable, and the captain gave the order to abandon the aircraft. Only three men managed to do so, while others could not as they were injured or trapped by the flames in the front of the aircraft. Flight engineer Cyrus F. Johnson Jr., side gunner Robert E. Dulac, and tail gunner Edward T. Dzierzynski jumped. Remaining on board, in addition to pilot Charlie G. Hinson, the dorsal turret gunner, and the radio operator, were co-pilot Orval H. Jorgensen, navigator Richard P. Greenawalt, bombardier Joseph M. Prendergast, and observer Don R. Willey.
The last attack on the aircraft was by Heinrich Steis, an ace of the Luftwaffe, in his Messerschmitt Bf 109G. In the end, the Fyrtle Myrtle began to spiral and it exploded just before touching ground.
Michele Potenza, then a child in Pietragalla, was an eyewitness to the air combat. That morning he was participating with his family and other children in the procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Hearing the sound of gunfire, Michael looked to the sky and saw the big plane in flames explode in the air and fall a few meters from the village. One of the airmen who lost his life fell on his father’s land. That episode so deeply impressed young Michele, that since childhood he had wanted to bring the tragic event to light and learn about its unfortunate crew.
Almost 70 years since that tragic Friday, Michele learned of Salerno Air Finders. We promptly organized a survey of the point of impact. Daniele Gioiello along with Michele and two of his friends—Michele Favullo and Clemente Fratusco—who had also witnessed the event, visited the area of the crash with us. There we recovered fragments of the aircraft.
The pieces we found confirmed that it was indeed the crash site of the B-24. In fact, several labeled fragments bear the prefix 32, indication of precisely this type of aircraft in the U.S. Army Air Force numbering system of the time.
Of special note, Daniel found a fragment of a leather glove used by American airmen—a solemn testimony to those who lost their lives that day.
Research in the United States archives has revealed that four members of the crew are buried in a common grave in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. They are Greenawalt, Hinson, Prendergast, and Shea. Evidently, their remains could not be identified. Lloyd E. Kile, who was 24 years old, is buried in Prairie Lawn Cemetery in Wellington, Kansas. Orval H. Jorgensen is buried in the American cemetery at Nettuno, Italy.
More information was available on Don Ray Willey. He was born on October 29, 1920 in Brookings, South Dakota, to Lloyd and Pearl Willey. After graduating from Brookings High School, he was preparing to enter college when the Second World War began. Since the U.S. was not yet involved in the conflict, Don joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in June 1941. He was transferred in the U.S. Army Air Force on May 26, 1942 and assigned as a lieutenant in the 513th Bomb Squadron. He is buried at the American cemetery at Nettuno. When communicating news of his death to family members, Don’s commander, Frederick W. Nesbilt Jr., wrote, “Your son has been a member of this organization for four months and was respected and loved by all those with whom he came in contact. My entire command joins me in extending our most heartfelt closeness at this time.”
Edward T. Dzierzynski died on April 19, 1966 at the age of 50 years. He is buried in the Fairview Cemetery in West Hartford, Connecticut. Cyrus F. Johnson Jr. passed away on April 19, 1985 at the age of 73. His grave is located at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, Colorado. [Actually, Cyrus died at the age of 62—he was born June 6, 1922.]
We hope to reconstruct the stories of all crewmembers and perhaps, in tracing their families, offer them a few fragments of the plane on which their loved ones flew.
Michele hopes that one day a monument in Pietragalla will serve as a reminder of that tragic day during the war and of those who lost their lives.
Participants in this research:
Crew of the Fyrtle Myrtle
Charlie G. Hinson, 0-791107, 1st lieutenant, pilot kia
Orval H. Jorgensen, 0-675350, 2nd lieutenant, co-pilot kia
Richard P. Greenawalt, 0-730258, 2nd lieutenant, navigator kia
Joseph M. Prendergast, 0-730818, 2nd lieutenant, bombardier kia
Don R. Willey, 0-664357, 1st lieutenant, observer kia
Cyrus F. Johnson Jr., 19013120, staff sergeant, engineer rtd
Lloyd E. Kile, 37146695, technical sergeant, radio operator kia
Patrick F. Shea, 11053556, staff sergeant, waist gunner kia
Robert E. Dulac, 39181897, staff sergeant, waist gunner rmc
Edward T. Dzierzynski, 31140926, staff sergeant, tail gunner, rtd
kia—killed in action, rtd—returned to duty, rmc—returned to military control
Additional Details from the MACR
Cyrus Johnson’s son Ron Johnson shared a copy of the Missing Air Crew Report with me. In the MACR, Edward Dzierzynski and Cyrus F. Johnson Jr. filled out casual questionnaires regarding the crash and fate of the comrades.
In describing the crash, Edward noted the plane was at 23,000 feet and “lagging far behind” when it left formation. Concerning his bail out, he wrote, “I was thrown clear after the plane exploded.”
After his listing of seven crewmembers who, he said, “were supposed to have gone down with the plane, Edward was asked, “When, where, and in what condition did you last see any members not described above?” His reply was, “S/Sgt. R.E. Dulac—at a hospital in Potenza, Italy—was badly injured about the eyes – head. S/Sgt. C. F. Johnson at Potenza, Italy. We there boarded the same train for P.O.W. camp. Johnson was in good condition.”
Cyrus Johnson also recorded the plane was at 23,000 feet, and that it was struck at “2 o’clock afternoon.” He said navigator Richard Greenawalt announced, “We have been hit” before the plane “blew up in mid air.” He reported, “I saw other chutes of the other two on my crew.”
Also contained in the MACR are two eyewitness accounts of the crash:
“Just before making turn on target, ship No. 44 was attacked by one fighter coming out of the sun. Ship was hit but stayed in formation for short distance, then peeled off to right with No. 3 engine on fire. When losing altitude I saw one parachute open and followed a short time later by another.”
—S/Sgt. S. O. Skrovig
“As section was making turn to go on target, I saw ship No. 44 with No. 3 engine on fire. It started losing altitude, leveling off twice but finally went into slow spin and exploded. During all this time, top and rear turrets were firing at fighters. Just before going into spin, saw three parachutes open.”
—S/Sgt. Richard Lipps
The Three Survivors
Last December I heard from Ron Johnson, who is one of Cyrus Johnson’s two sons.
Ron wrote, “Upon reading the names in Simmons’ address book, I ran across my father, Cyrus F. Johnson of Denver, Colorado. I have very limited knowledge about him, as my parents divorced and I left Denver when I was about 2.5 years of age.”
Ron directed me to the crash report on the Salerno 1943 website. He also introduced me to Salerno 1943 researcher Matteo Pierro.
Interestingly, the MACR includes the dates the three survivors were reunited with Allied forces:
Cyrus F. Johnson Jr., returned to duty, June 28, 1944
Edward T. Dzierzynski, returned to duty, June 28, 1944
Robert E. Dulac, returned to military control, April 29, 1945 (the date The U.S. 14th Armored Division liberated Stalag VII-A, the camp Robert had apparently been moved to from Stalag Luft III)
Referring again to Edward’s statement in the MACR, “S/Sgt. R.E. Dulac—at a hospital in Potenza, Italy—was badly injured about the eyes – head. S/Sgt. C. F. Johnson at Potenza, Italy. We there boarded the same train for P.O.W. camp. Johnson was in good condition.”
The POW database of the U.S. National Archives indicated Robert Dulac was “returned to military control, liberated, or repatriated” from Stalag Luft 3 Sagan-Silesia Bavaria (Moved to Nuremberg-Langwasser) 49-11.
The database indicates Edward returned from CC 59 Ascoli Picenzo Italy 43-13. Cyrus is included in the POW database, but no camp is listed on his record.
That the dates for Cyrus and Edward returning to Allied forces are identical suggests they escaped from Camp 59 hid out together during the winter, and in the spring found a way to reach the Allies.
We may never have the full picture, but I am glad to have so many pieces to this incomplete puzzle.
Cyrus Johnson with his sisters. Ron Johnson believes this photo was taken 10 or 15 years after the war. Cyrus died in 1985.