World War II Oral History Interview
Date: September 17, 2001
Veteran: Staff Sergeant Donald Fitz Maurice
461st Bomb Group
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Irving Bauman
Donald Fitz Maurice was born in Orange, New Jersey in April, 1925. He attended LaSalle Military Academy in Oakdale, New York. In April 1943, Fitz Maurice, in order to avoid being drafted after graduating from high school, took a train into New York City and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He originally wanted to become a paratrooper, but the recruiting sergeant dissuaded him from that choice, and he ended up in the Air Corps. Fitz Maurice reported to Fort Dix, New Jersey on August 4, 1943, where he spent three weeks undergoing testing and classification before being assigned to Miami Beach, Florida, for cadet basic training, with hopes of becoming a pilot.
Fitz Maurice recalled that while in Miami he was quartered and had classes in a hotel. Although he and one other trainee shared a hotel room, all the other aspects of basic training remained the same as for soldiers in barracks in the usual army training camps. He awoke at 5:30 every morning and engaged in physical training on the beach and on a nearby golf course, where trainees negotiated a series of obstacles constructed on the course’s water hazards and sand traps. Sometimes the trainees were trucked to a swamp near the Everglades for forced marches.
Due to a previous medical condition undetected during his initial physical examination but discovered during a subsequent examination, Fitz Maurice was “washed out” of cadet school, told he would not be able to become a pilot and sent to Tyndal Field Flexible Aerial Gunnery School at Panama City, Florida. At Tyndal he received extensive instruction in disassembling, cleaning, lubricating and reassembling the .50 caliber Browning machine gun with and without a blindfold, both on the ground and in the air. After mastering the mechanical aspects of the machine gun, Fitz Maurice received intensive training in machine gun target practice with moving targets. In this unique training, a trainee was placed in a turret fitted with a .30 caliber machine gun and mounted on a flatbed truck. The truck drove along the range while another truck, towing a target, drove parallel to it, providing practice in firing at a moving target from a moving vehicle, a useful skill for an aircraft gunner.
Upon graduation from gunnery school, Fitz Maurice was granted a five day furlough and given orders to report to Westover Field, Massachusetts, where he was assigned to a ten man B-24 Liberator bomber crew as a tail gunner, assigned to fire twin .50 caliber machine guns at enemy fighter planes. After initial training at Westover, his crew was transferred to Chatham Field at Savannah, Georgia where they engaged in intensive training flights over the Atlantic Ocean, to Cuba and back. These exercises included aerial target practice for Fitz Maurice and his fellow gunners, firing their .50 caliber guns at target “sleeves” towed by other planes. On completion of this training Fitz Maurice’s crew was transferred to Mitchell Field, New York, from where they were ordered to fly to Europe.
The movement was accomplished in stages, with the first being a flight to Bangor, Maine, followed by another to Newfoundland, where the crew was “weathered in” for three weeks. While they waited for clearance to fly again, Fitz Maurice and his fellow gunners shot skeet with shotguns four times a day to maintain their shooting skills on moving targets. Once the weather lifted the pilot opened sealed orders, and Fitz Maurice and his comrades learned for the first time that they were enroute to Toretta Field, near Cherignola, Italy, via the Azores, Marrakech, Algiers and Tunis. On arrival in Italy in late August, the crew was assigned to the Fifteenth Air Force’s 461st Bomb Group’s 765th Bomb Squadron, which was just being organized.
Fitz Maurice’s crew was assigned to a living area situated in a former vineyard that they had to clear themselves, erecting tents, reconstructing farm buildings and digging latrines. The base grew from an original group of a dozen tents to a small tent city of more than 200 tents over the time Fitz Maurice was stationed at Cherignola.
The B24s of the 765th were assigned to long range missions into Austria and Germany and to the Rumanian oil fields at Ploesti. New crews were initially split up for further training and flew as individuals with veteran crews to gain experience. The number of these missions varied according to the individual’s place in the crew. The pilot, for example, flew on four or five such missions, while tail gunner Fitz Maurice only flew two. His first mission was to Ploesti, but it was aborted in progress, and the B-24 did not drop its bombs. In between bombing missions he and his fellow gunners practiced shooting, using shotguns for skeet shooting and .50 caliber machine guns on moving targets. They also practiced with .45 caliber Model 1911 automatic pistols and performed guard duty every night to insure that none of the local Fascists tampered with their aircraft.
Fitz Maurice’s first mission with his own crew was in support of the invasion of southern France, carrying fuel to American forces near Lyons rather than bombs. After landing at an airfield in Lyons on September 15, 1944, the crew had the opportunity to interact with some German prisoners of war, some of whom spoke English. The Germans stated that their radio news had told them that German bombers had destroyed the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan’s Wall Street and Newark, New Jersey’s Penn Station, which the Americans found amusing.
Following the trip to France, Fitz Maurice’s crew began to conduct bombing missions, many to Ploesti and Vienna, two of the most heavily defended areas in Europe, with occasional runs to Germany. Their targets included oil fields, railroad marshaling yards and factories. Early on, losses in the squadron were heavy, but lessened as the crews gained experience. On October 13, 1944, on his ninth mission, Fitz Maurice’s plane was so badly shot up that it crashed in a field on the way back to Cherignola. Fortunately, all the men in the crew survived. On another occasion he was blown out of his tail gun turret by enemy fire and had to be pushed back into it by fellow crew members.
Fitz Maurice’s plane also flew five single plane unescorted missions into Germany in full daylight, which he remembered “was not a good time.” On their twentieth mission, the crew flew deep into Germany, bombing a factory south of Berlin. They were told that the factory was making jet planes, which they had seen fly by on occasion, without knowing what they were.
According to the regulations in place when Fitz Maurice arrived in Italy, air crews were rotated back to the United States after completing fifty missions, a number subsequently upped to sixty-two. He recalled that a “mission” was, at that time, calculated by time in the air, so that a long flight to Ploesti, or into Germany, might count as two or even three, and on occasion four missions. He stated that the rotation criteria was changed once more to thirty-five “combat sorties” or individual flights to drop bombs, no matter the length of time in the air.
In early January, 1945, Fitz Maurice’s crew received a five day “Rest and Recuperation” leave in Naples, which turned into nine days when the flying weather turned bad. His missions finally completed, he left for home aboard the USS United States, a cruise ship converted to wartime troop transport, in April, 1945. He landed in Newport News, Virginia seven days after leaving Italy. He remembered seeing Red Cross workers and nurses lining the dock, with loudspeakers playing Christmas music. It was, he recalled, the first time he had heard the song “White Christmas.” Once ashore, the returning troops were served in mess halls by German POWs, which some soldiers found offensive. Since they were hungry, however, most did not argue the point.
Three days after arrival back in the United States, Fitz Maurice was transferred to Fort Dix for a medical evaluation and then received forty-five days leave at home. Following the leave he reported to Atlantic City for another physical, and was then sent to Fort Thomas Medical Hospital in Kentucky, where he had a physical condition corrected by surgery. He was discharged from the hospital on August 30, 1945.
Fitz Maurice and a number of other veterans and their wives returned to Cherignola fifty years after they had first landed there. The old airfield was now a family farm, with a small chapel on the land, which had a tablet inscribed with the names of men from his squadron killed in action. The veterans had a luncheon hosted by the mayor and a guided tour provided by a man who, as a boy, had swept the American tents at the airfield but who later moved to America. At the time of the reunion trip the former tent sweeper owned several restaurants in Connecticut and an apartment in Cherignola.
At the conclusion of his interview Sergeant Fitz Maurice displayed his awards and medals, which included the Purple Heart, Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, European/Mediterranean Theater Ribbon with eight battle stars, Good Conduct Medal, Presidential Unit Citation with two Oak Leaf Clusters, World War II Victory Medal, and New Jersey Distinguished Service Medal.
Fitz Maurice believes that future generations of Americans should be exposed to a more detailed account of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, not the “quick brushes” he sees in today’s history classes. At the time of his interview, he was working with members of the New Jersey legislature in hopes of implementing curriculum changes in that direction.