–by Pat Weeden
Those of you who were able to attend the March 31, 2014 meeting of the Brodhead Historical Society heard a very interesting presentation by Doug Tomas of East Troy, Wis., who talked about his “great uncle Berg”, TSgt. Charles L. Berg who was the flight engineer of a B-24 bomber, “Ready, Willing and Able” in WWII. The B-24 was part of the 512th Squadron, 376th Bomb Group, the “Liberandos.” Since Doug’s presentation, the story has taken a surprising, and very local twist. First, some of Doug’s original story is below:
“Sadly, “Ready, Willing and Able” and its crew were shot down on a mission over Vicenza, Italy in northeastern Italy on the 28th of December, 1943. On that mission, three squadrons of the 376th Bomb Group, with a total of 17 B-24s, were attacked before getting to the target by a large number of German fighters that shot down all six aircraft of the 512th Squadron, and two each from the 514th and 515th Squadrons. My great-uncle, and four others of the crew, were killed that day. Five crew members survived. I was very fortunate in my research to be able to contact all five survivors.
Along the way, I was contacted by Giuseppe Versalato in Vicenza, Italy, who was researching these bombing missions over his city. We became very good friends and pen-pals, and exchanged quite a lot of information over the years. Not long ago, Giuseppe informed me they had determined that a known B-24 crash site from the 28th of December, 1943, was that of my great-uncle’s aircraft, based on information I had provided him about the crew, and the notes in a priest’s diary, who had gone to the crash site to attend to those who were still onboard.”
Doug spoke about traveling to Vicenza, Italy, visiting several crash sites from that day in 1943 and attending a ceremony attended by U.S. military personnel and local dignitaries where a memorial marker was placed near Berg’s crash site.
The day after Doug’s presentation, things got more interesting. Most Brodhead Historical Society members know Winona Walters, one of our original members and our first curator. Winona couldn’t attend the previous day’s meeting but had heard about Doug’s story and wanted to contact him. An excerpt from Winona’s e-mail to Doug is here:
“Dear Doug: My name is Winona Walters and I am a member of the Brodhead Historical Society. I was unable to attend the meeting last week, where you presented a talk about the above subject.
My oldest brother’s name was Sgt. John Albert Swearingen, 376 Bomb Group, 512 Bomb Squad. He was in a B-24, piloted by Lt. Paul Brown. The name of their plane was Mizpah. They were shot down over Vicenza, Italy on Dec.. 28, 1943. The three officers on board were kept alive and captured, but any crew member that survived the bailing out were killed by Italian soldiers. The enlisted men who died there were said to be buried in a field by the Italians.
I would appreciate hearing from you if you have any other information about what happened to my brother’s remains. It was a source of great sorrow to my parents and his siblings to not even know where his body lays.”
If you’re paying attention, you’ve noticed that both men were in the same B-24 squadron and shot down on the same mission. As Doug would tell me later, “…a shiver went down my spine when I read Winona’s message.” Doug tells the rest of the story (to date) here:
“Last night, we went to Winona’s home in Brodhead, and met with her, her son, and his daughter (her granddaughter), and shared with her the information we had found, and especially the information Giuseppe had from his research.
The information she had was they had never been able to locate her brother’s body after that mission over Vicenza. What actually happened, was that he had not been able to bail out of the aircraft, along with six other crew members, and after the crash and fire, the Germans, and later the U.S. Army, were unable to positively identify each body. So he, as well as his other crew members were, and still are listed as ‘missing’, where ‘unidentified’ or ‘unknown’ is a more accurate description.
We did find documentation that they had been buried at the military cemetery in Vicenza. This was the same place my great-uncle was buried, and Giuseppe had taken me to visit when we were in Italy. Later the men’s bodies were moved to the U.S. Military cemetery in Mirandola, and postwar, again moved to now the U.S. military cemetery in Florence. So I was able to share with her 70 years later, we do know where he is buried, but not specifically which grave.”
Doug was able to show Winona a picture of the marker at the cemetery in Florence that had her brother’s name engraved, “Sgt. John Albert Swearingen”. She and her family had never known about this. It is quite an amazing story and it all came from a coincidental guest speaker at one of the regular meetings of the Brodhead Historical Society.
Don’t miss another meeting!