Like most G.I.s, John Michael Keefe wrote home as often as possible. Through the mail, soldiers, marines and sailors remained emotionally connected to a life they desperately wanted to return to after combat. Thanks to the diligent efforts of Keefe’s family, particularly his son, the bulk of his letters were preserved. Through those wartime letters the history of Keefe and his B-24 Liberator crew, from his enlistment to discharge, is also salvaged. To honor their sacrifice brief excerpts of their wartime story is included here. Were it not for the Keefe letters the world might have never known the Schadel crew.
Army Air Forces Flexible Gunnery School: Laredo Army Air Field, Texas
Lincoln was mostly processing and waiting for a crew. Keefe complained to his father that they were on a seven-day schedule with little time off, even to attend Sunday Mass. Medical inspections were run every day for the first six days. Lincoln was miserable by Keefe’s account. The weather was rain or snow. The barracks were heated with coal and the air was so thick with a black cloud hanging over the base, it choked the man who lingered too long outside [8 May 1944, letter to father].
Lincoln – May 1944: Once the crew formed they would depart for an Operational Training Unit. Keefe was, however, placed in a barracks that was then put under quarantine. The upside was that he drew no details or K.P.
Crew 6172 assembled at Biggs Field, El Paso, Texas during late summer of 1944. Keefe arrived 15 June 1944. Keefe was hopeful that they would pick up a plane and fly it across to their new station. The last method of transportation he wanted was a boat ride. It was a boat, of course, that he got [15 June 44 letter to father].
In July, the crew was still at Biggs. Keefe mentioned to his father that they had taken off behind a B-24 which crashed into a mountain. The plane exploded. Four of the men aboard the doomed plane were friends of Keefe from his days in gunnery school at Laredo. One of the men assigned to the crew was an airman from San Antonio that had become Keefe’s running partner. It was sheer luck that he had not flown with his crew on the night of their crash. The following day another plane blew up in midair. Only one man escaped [14 July 1944, letter to father].
Keefe informed, or bragged to, a friend that he was called to the front by the pilot. The pilot asked if he wanted to fly a Liberator. Keefe sat down in the copilot’s seat and was getting settled when the pilot turned loose of the wheel, folded his arms across his chest and leaned back in the seat. Keefe flew the plane fairly steady, while all the boys in back faked panic and grabbed at parachute packs. In the letter he also mentioned to his friend that his navigator had finished school at Ellington, thus supplying a bit of history about Newbury [22 July 1944, letter to Henry Lacour II].
While at Biggs, the crew’s schedule was typically night flights from 8pm through 1am. When they flew day shift the airmen rose at 3:30am and were expected at briefing by 5am. Keefe was promoted to corporal on 1 September [11 August 1944, letter to father].
The Schadel crew was stationed at Giulia Airfield, Italy. Apparently, the B-24 they routinely flew had no nickname.
The photo (left) shows the tail markings of the 459th BG. This combat-damaged B-24 belonged to the 759th BS.
The Commissioned Officers
Captain Schadel, Willard Harry. (O-696485). Born 16 April 1920 in Klingertown, PA. Son of Silas and Lottie R. (Willard) Schadel. He was a 1941 graduate of Susquehanna University. Enlisted in the AAC 10 January 1943 at Harrisburg, PA. Entered cadet training 10 January 1943. Overseas 6 September 1944 to 29 June 1945. Awarded Distinguished Flying Cross for mission over Austria, 7 February 1945, Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. Discharged 16 December 1945 in San Bernardino, CA. Position on aircraft, Pilot.
Schadel “was a twenty-two-year-old genius. He knew the plane better than the ground crew.” Joseph Foto, 2019
Schadel married Hilda Friederick , a 1940 graduate of Susquehanna. After the war, he earned his MA from Lehigh University on 9 October 1949. Schadel taught science at Pen Argyl High School while he attended classes at the university. Around 1955 he was promoted to major in the U.S. Air Force Reserves while assigned to the flight operations training course at Lehigh University. He later taught physics at John Dickerson High School in Wilmington, Delaware.
Schadel graduated from Susquehanna University, PA. In a tribute to their alumna, a brief account of his service was included in the autumn 1945 issue of the Susquehanna University Alumni Quarterly .
1st Lieutenant Fisk, William “Bill” David. Born 11 August 1921 in Tacoma, WA. Son of Otis D. and Bertha J. (Evenson) Fisk. Enlisted in the AAC 17 February 1943 at Buckley Field, Denver, CO. Fisk flew 25 combat missions as copilot and another ten as pilot of his own crew. Married Viola Messier 26 November 1947 in King County, WA. Fisk remained in the AF Reserves until retirement in 1981 with the rating of Lt. Col. Awards include the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded 7 May 1945, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters and the Europe-Africa-Middle East Champaign Medal. Died 17 June 1997. Position on aircraft, Copilot.
Fisk’s wife, Viola, served in the Coast Guard during WWII with a rating of Y3.
2nd Lt. Fuqua, Laurence James . Born 22 October 1922 in Saint Louis, MO. Son of Laurence Lacy and Fanniebell (Schatz) Fuqua. Before the war, he worked at Western Electric Company of Saint Louis. Married Doris Lee Kirkendall. Died 6 December 1998 in Florissant, MO. Position on aircraft, Bombardier.
After the war, Fuqua had a long career in education with the Hazelwood School District, MO., as a science teacher and then assistant principal at Hazelwood High School. In 1967 Fuqua was promoted to principal. He retired in 1983. He served eighteen years in the Air Force Reserves and retired with the rank of Lt. Col. Fuqua also served during the Korean War.
2nd Lt. Newbury, Walter Barnes (O-2060835). Born 15 April 1925. Son of Frank Gerald and Gwenola (Barnes) Newbury. Married Cynthia Colby Farr 21 December 1946 in Highland Park, MI. After the war he attended the University of Michigan earning a BA in Music. Died 16 May 1969 and was buried in Hanover Cemetery, Hanover, Michigan. Position on aircraft, Navigator.
On 20 November 1944, Newbury was shot down and captured while flying with 2nd Lt. Ernest Appleby’s crew on a mission to Hodonin, Czechoslovakia. See: MACR 9945.
One of the first missions for the enlisted men was to get their house in order. Keefe wrote frequently to his family and friends about the progress he and his tent mates were making on building comfortable living quarters. They scrounged rocks and built a floor. He told his younger sister, Mary, her playhouse in the backyard had nothing on theirs. They never let a stray board or piece of metal go unused. Some fellows who were departing gave them tent cots and mattress covers. The covers were filled with straw from a haystack in a nearby field. “We assign high value to any sizable piece of lumber, tin, or even an old oil drum…From this junk we build front doors, clothes racks, stoves, shelves and what have you” [15 Oct. 44, letter to mother].
The photo above was not the Keefe tent, but rather members of the same squadron showing what Spartan billeting they lived in and worked from. Still, it wasn’t a foxhole in sight of the German’s frontline.
The tent Keefe lived in was once filled with holes from the former occupants shooting into it when they erroneously heard that the war was over. (The war was not over.) To keep the frequent rain out, Keefe and his tent-mates chewed gum and stuck it in the holes. They preferred “Doublemint” because it lasted longer.
When the airmen weren’t on a mission they attended what was known as “ground school” [15 October 1944, letter to mother]. One of the main topics of ground school was identification of friend and foe. To the left is an example of a chart used to train airmen on aircraft identification.
The airmen had to learn money exchange and what the current rate of lire was to a dollar. Some of the new money went back home to show the folks and friends. Keefe sent various denominations back in his letters.
Another lesson every soldier had to learn was that there were things one could say, and there were things that one could never say. If an airmen forgot, the censor was there with his scissors to remind him.
Keefe told his mother he had encountered his first difficulty with minus fifty-degree temperatures. His ear had gotten frostbitten on a recent mission. For a week it had ached but, at least to mom, it was reportedly okay [28 Nov. 44]. He turned to more general living subjects, such as telling her that six enlisted (assuming a crew) lived in each “c.c. tent” and the four officers lived in one tent in their area. Returning to the trip over he said he did not get seasick, however, a twenty-foot wave packed a wallop.
The Noncommissioned Officers and Enlisted
Tech. Sgt. Coakley, David M. Born 1924 in Detroit, MI. Son of Patrick F. and Lillian (Picking) Coakley. Both parents were born in Ireland. Graduated from Slocum Truax High School in 1942. Married first, Jean Ann Morris in 1954. Married second, Jan Ryan in 1986. Married third, Martha “Marty” Hunter in 1995. Coakley served in the USAF at Phoenix, AZ. during 1951 and 52, at the height of the Korean War. Awards include the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. Died 17 October 2014. Position on aircraft, Radio operator.
Tech. Sgt. Richard Joseph Cole. Born 2 April 1925 in Harve, MT. Son of Wilfred N. and Marie (Shinner) Cole. Attended St. Jude Thaddeus High School. Enlisted in Army June 1943. Training in Salt Lake City, UT, Panama City and Apalachicola, FL., Lincoln, NB., Kessler Field, Biloxi, MS., Amarillo, and El Paso, TX. First combat mission 23 October 1944. Last combat mission 15 April 1945. Awards include the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, European-African-Middle East Champaign Medal with three battle stars. Married Louise Mabel Irving 1 October 1946. Died 29 January 2010 in MT. Position on aircraft, Engineer.
Before the war Cole worked for Great Northern Railroad during high school. After the war he returned to Great Northern/Burlington Northern Railroad and worked on the railroad for thirty-seven years.
Sgt. Leo Wilensky (16089808). Enlisted in the 25 July 1942 at Milwaukee Wisconsin Wilensky was shot down 18 December 1944. He listed his emergency contact as a cousin named Leo Brodsky. Brodsky was living at 1027 W. Capital, Milwaukee, WI. Foto said that Wilensky was a “college guy.” Foto also knew that Wilensky was Jewish. Awards include the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, Europe-Africa-Middle East Champaign Medal. Position on aircraft, Top turret gunner.
Joseph Foto Jr (18138378). Born 1925 in New Orleans, LA. Son of Joseph and Leona “Lena” (Ragusa) Foto. Enlisted in the Army 27 September 1943 at New Orleans. Trained at Sheppard Field, Wichita Falls, TX. He washed-out of pilot’s training at Sheppard and was sent to Laredo, Texas for gunnery school. Foto went to El Paso after gunnery school and the crew assembled there for overseas duty. Foto says that the crew went to New Port News, VA. where they boarded a liberty ship and sailed to Italy. He states the sea voyage took twenty-seven days. Awards include the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters and the European-African-Middle Eastern Champaign Medal. Married Mary Jane Ruffino in 1950. Lives in Louisiana. Position on aircraft, Waist gunner. See: Oral History Interview with Joseph Foto.
Foto, Champi and Wilensky were selected, as combat veterans, to fly a mission with the fresh crew of 2nd Lt. Fredrick H. Coe on 18 December 1944. The plane crashed in Yugoslavia. The crew was rescued by partisans and escorted on foot back to Allied lines. See: MACR 10698.
John Michael Keefe Jr (18232999). Born 28 October 1925 in Victoria, TX. Son of Margaret Ida (Warburton) and John M. Keefe Sr. Worked at Western Electric in San Antonio before the war. Enlisted in the AAC 22 December 1944 at Fort Sam Houston, TX. Trained as an Aerial Gunner (MOS 611). Departed the U.S. for overseas duty 11 September 1944. Keefe wrote a V-Mail to his parents on 29 September from the ship, telling them how he had been put on a permanent detail making coffee for the ship’s crew and passengers. Arrived in Italy 7 October 1944. Departed Italy 20 June 1945. Arrived in U.S. 26 June 1945. Awards include European-African-Middle Eastern Champaign Medal with four bronze battle stars, Good Conduct Medal, Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. Discharged 23 October 1945 at March Field, CA. Married Mercy Jo Yzaguirre 23 August 1948 at Cameron, TX. Died 31 May 1980 and was buried at Catholic Cemetery no. 3, Victoria, Texas. Position on aircraft, Tail gunner and Assistant radio operator.
If the tail gunner’s job wasn’t hard enough, this B-24 (42-52377) of the 759th BS was struck in midair by another plane of the 759th BS (42-52195). The collision killed tail gunner, S/Sgt. Michael P. Maloney. MACR 4758. 25 April 1945.
Keefe had other problems, according to Foto. When a man was desperate to relieve himself in a B-24, he did so by removing an extensive amount of outer wear. Then he urinated into a funnel attached to a rubber tube that drained outside. When the “relief tube” worked properly it was difficult to use without some spillage. Like any other liquid at 20,000 feet, urine froze. Typically, the spot that collected the wayward yellow ice was the plexiglass of Keefe’s gun turret. Foto said, at that point when Keefe had had enough, he forbid anyone from using the relief tube while in flight. Foto summed it up. He got so pissed off about the piss, no one was allowed to piss. (Phone interview with Joe Foto, March 2019.)
S/Sgt. Almando Herman Champi (33613093). Born 11 June 1924 in West Pittston, PA. Son of Louis and Mary (Troisi) Champi. Both of Champi’s parents were born in Italy. Entered AAC on 6 December 1943 at Wilke-Barre, PA. Sent overseas 11 September 1944. Returned to U.S. 15 May 1945. Discharged 28 August 1945 at AAF Hospital, Fort Logan, CO. Died 23 November 2003. Buried at St. Rocco’s, Pittston, PA. Position on aircraft, gunner.
The airmen had a fifteen-year-old Italian boy that served as their laundry man and helped around the base. Keefe referred to his position as “our man Friday.” The boy had served the Germans for three years prior to the arrival of the Americans, as their man Friday. He was teaching Keefe a bit of Italian. [30 November 1944, letter to mother]
Keefe, to be expected, apparently answered as often to “Hey Tex” as he did Mike. He spoke of one occasion when he was left by his driver after partaking of Red Cross cookies and coffee. He was thumbing a ride when hailed by “Sonny” his ball turret gunner in an ambulance. Sonny had been treated in a nearby hospital for a week and was on his way back to the squadron. [7 December 1944] Sonny was Champi’s nickname. Newbury was more often referred to as “Fuzzy” than lieutenant.
In the 7 December letter, Keefe mentioned the beating his nose took in an earlier forced parachute jump. The plane had taken some hits over a target and they were attempting to limp it back to base. The situation deteriorated rapidly and the pilot ordered the crew to bail out. The pilot and copilot stayed with the plane and did land it safely in a farmer’s field. The rest of the crew bailed out over friendly territory and were picked up by trucks for transportation back to base. Keefe mentioned the undamaged chutes were returned for reuse. His chute was divided into small pieces for keepsakes and shared with the other crewmen. Since all crew members returned safely to base within hours of the crash a missing air crew report was not filed.
Letter postmarked 26 December, Keefe lamented to his father that he hoped this would be the last Christmas he ever spent in a hospital.
Keefe wrote his mother, probably sometime before Christmas, but the letter was not postmarked until the 29th. The main feature of the letter was his presence in the hospital. The doctors had fitted him with a headgear bandage that covered his entire head expect for holes for his eyes and mouth. Keefe admits the “ordeal” as he called it really scared him, meaning whatever happened inside the plane. He was especially concerned about his eyesight. He talked a nurse into allowing him to go out on a patio but returned after running into a flower pot and other objects he could not see. The other crewmen mentioned were Dick and Fuzzy (NewBury). “Dick busted his ankle and was afraid to move for fear of complicating what he thought was a fracture,” Keefe wrote. Also,”[Newbury] couldn’t have taken a more severe beating in the roughest football game.” Keefe said, he may have given details of the jump “a month ago,” which places the accident sometime the end of November.
From training accidents to combat, one of the things that changed every soldier for the worse was watching friends die. The numbers of men and women that entered the armed forces during WWII were staggering. Every hometown had dozens, if not hundreds, of their friends and family serving. Keefe was often contacted by mothers and fathers of missing boys he had known in high school or around town. December 1944 was particularly devastating on the AAC. Two friends from Victoria County, “Freddy” Fredrick C. Smyth and Julius Fajkus were shot down on 17 December. The War Department was habitually slow about contacting families. In turn, they reached out to anyone they thought might know something more than what they were initially told by the government. Unfortunately, even if Keefe had known what happened to his friends, he was not at liberty to say due to censorship. In Freddy and Fajkus’ cases, he did not know. Though stationed at nearby bases in Italy, they were in different groups and missions had not allowed Keefe to go visiting. He only knew what the airman’s grapevine transmitted. That was never enough for grieving parents and spouses [January 1945, letter to father].
In the January letter, Keefe also remarked that he had heard from “Fuzz’s” (Lt. Newbury) mother asking about his condition. He was in a prisoner of war camp somewhere far behind enemy lines, which said a lot about Fuzzy’s physical and mental state. Also imprisoned was Lt. Frederick C. Smyth, incarcerated at Stalag III-A. See: MACR 10652. As unfortunate as their ordeal was to be until liberated, Sgt. Julius G. Fajkus had been less fortunate. He was killed in action when his aircraft went down near Muglitz, Germany. See: MACR 10658.
Mail was important. The boys hungered for news from back home. Keefe and Foto’s parents had sent them subscription for the local newspaper. Keefe went several months without receiving the first paper. One week he received ten papers in one delivery.
A particularly hairy mission to Vienna had left such a bad memory the boys shunned resupplies from home that included such reminders as “Vienna sausages” [Jan 45, letter to mother]. The illusion of glory in battle, which has lured young men into the ranks of the armed forces for centuries had lost its appeal for Keefe and the crew. A candid letter to one of Keefe’s clergy revealed his disillusionment caused by the loss of life and the physical destruction encompassing everything sacred to him. “I suppose many of our men are being attracted by the various recruiting posters. Especially ‘Wings’. I’m in no position to opine, but maybe they’ll be fortunate enough to get in too late.” Keefe reflected on his experience in battles over enemy territory and laid his darkest fears out in the letter. His sadness easily penetrated the distance between him and his recipient. “The war becomes a rather personal thing when the anti-aircraft shells begin ‘blowing up’ planes nearby, and burst just a little too close to our own crate…When the flak begins bursting close enough to rip the plane a little, I guess we too realize we are just a frightened bunch of little boys and must seek beyond flak-vest for protection.” Keefe was a devout Catholic and brought his faith into service with him. Unlike many who sought God on the troubled waters of warfare, Keefe’s religious fervor was present from day one and he experienced the horrors of combat resolute that a protective hand knew his location even at twenty-five-thousand feet.
The letter went on to convey the destitute and wrongs done to the citizens of Italy in the name of liberation, which to Keefe was a two-edged sword cutting both the enemy and the innocent with its stroke. He finished by comparing his, the liberator, conditions to theirs. His upbringing and open-mindedness allowed him to see his life in the air in comparison to the collateral destruction on the ground with an empathetic understanding absent from his peers who had never tasted the bitter fruits of war. “As for my part in the war; I live in a tent out in a mud-hole. It’s quite cold and not so convenient. The food is not the best, but ‘O.K’…We like best letters from home, and hate flak. We get very scared and admit it. We figure we aren’t so bad off and try not to complain…We wanna go home!” The letter was one of the most candid missives Keefe wrote and remains a timeless commentary of what combat does to young souls. [February 1945]
For as cold and damp as the tent was in winter, in the summer months it was almost unbearable, wrote Keefe [31 Mar. 44, letter to father]. Another downside to living under canvas was the rodent problem. Keefe likened it to a battle. He joked that he and his tent mates had received a “battle star” for their efforts. However, the mice had won a major victory. Over the course of their stay in England, Keefe and the others had lost almost all of their uniforms to the rodents. No one was sure if supply would reissue the losses based on rat attacks [31 Jan. 45, letter to father].
On March 9, Keefe wrote to his mother, certain to include praises that put her mind at ease. “Our crew, except Fuzz, is in fine shape. Joe is just as fat as ever. We are not quite so flak happy as people accuse us [of] being, the rest (from flying missions) being a good reason” [9 Mar. 45].
Keefe wrote his father on 10 March, telling him that he had completed twenty-two combat missions. This was at a time when the 15th AF had just completed an eighteen-day streak of missions. The news had reached back home and the folks on the home front had believed each crew had flown for eighteen-days straight. Keefe, as was probably true of every flyer, explained the misunderstanding to his parents. He remarked that his crew was still together, minus “Fuzz” Newbury [10 Mar. 45].
29 March, the highlight of the week was that Sonny was staging a self-styled haircut strike. Keefe and Foto would have none of it and held him down for a trim. They only trimmed the part that curled over his ears, leaving him opportunity to reconcile the situation himself before they took further, more drastic, action. No explanation was given as to why he refused to follow haircut regulations. Joe was also in an unfriendly mood. Keefe had “borrowed” a candy bar from him but had forgotten to mention the loan. Discovering the missing bar later, Joe “borrowed” three from Keefe and hid them so well Keefe couldn’t find the stash to borrow them back. Joe had also been wronged by the appearance of the wrong brand of cigarettes. He threatened his tent-mates with reverting to cigars if they did not soon produce his favored brand of cigarettes. This was tent life at it’s primal base.
On 30 April 45, Keefe wrote his oldest sister, Elizabeth Cole. In that letter, he said that only four of the crew remained. He and the pilot each had one mission to go. The other two, unnamed, had a couple missions left. If he were able to finish, he might not have to go to another theater of operations, i.e. the Pacific or China-Burma-India. It was not just a matter of pride to finish the required number of sorties, it was a matter of survival.
Half joking, he wrote his mother that he had worked relentlessly for nine months to get his missions in and go home. In April the war was coming to an end and he realized he was unofficially finished with only one more mission left to never be flown [29 April 45]. On 5 May, Keefe told his father he was finished with his missions. Whether he meant because the war was over or if he did fly that last mission remains unknown. In the same letter to his father he mentioned that Sonny was gone. Some of the crew had passed Keefe in number of missions while he was in the hospital.
Two June 1945, Keefe was stuck in England and feeling the frustration of “hurry up and wait.” He was pulling guard duty several times a week. The only good, reliable news, was that they would be flying home. By September ’45, Keefe had spent much time on reflection. He was impatient to be discharged. Most important was to get home and start a new life. He told his mother he felt he had “wasted two years” doing “absolutely ‘niente.’” He wanted a job with the phone company and had a dream to attend college part-time while he climbed the ladder of success with Southwest Bell [3 Oct. 45].
From overseas, Keefe touched down in the U.S. at Drew Field, FL. He found it hot and expected make-work details for the two or so weeks there. However, he was happy because above all else, it was “state side.”
Photo: “Courtesy, Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System.”
Keefe was sent to March Field, CA., awaiting discharge orders. He found March to be the best of the “peacetime” Air Force and could understand why some men reenlisted and made a career of the Army (Air Force). His talk turned to what he would do after discharge and simply how to get on with normal life. This was his last stop before home and the things of war were being placed into the far corners of the mind, bombing runs, milk runs, Jerrys and B-24s. Like most veterans, he rarely spoke, even in passing, to family about his time in service.
The Consolidated B-24 Liberator: 459th BG, 15th Air Force
For further reading on the 759th BS: World War Two Memoirs of a B-24 Bomber Flight Engineer Gunner in Italy, 1944-45 by William L. Whitley, self-published, no date.