Wreckage from a B-24H “Flying Coffin” Liberator found in Italy

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

After 70 years a forgotten story about death and survival is brought to light. The remains of a US plane from the Second World War were discovered, of plane type that was known as the “The Flying Coffin”.

Found in the forests of Selva del Lamone, a reservation near Farnese, Viterbo, in central Italy, the remains were identified as belonging to a Consolidated B-24 Liberator.

The archives show that the B-24 planes dropped more than 630.000 bombs in the Second World War. They were the most produced aircraft in America. The four engine plane was notorious among it’s pilots and crews. Officially called “The liberator”, B-24 could easily turn into a death trap. The controls were heavy and rigid, which made it hard to handle so, unofficially, it was named “The Flying Coffin”. It had only one exit, through the plane’s tail, and the crew couldn’t reach the back of the flight deck wearing a parachute.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

The historian Mario Di Sorte says that the fragments of the wreck found in Selva del Lamone belong to a B-24H model which served in the 14th Air Force, 454 Bomb Group, 736 Squadron.

“We managed to completely reconstruct its last flight, revealing a drama that involved fugitives from South Africa, Italian civilians and American pilots” said Di Sorte.

The B-24H took off from San Giovanni, on March 3rd, 1944, heading to the Canino airport, to the southwest of Lake Bolsena. It was one of the 227 bombers – B-17 “The Flying Fortress” and B-24 Liberator – which took off from the airfields in Puglia to bomb bridges, train stations and airports controlled by the Germans. The B-24H was part of a formation of 18 bombers that launched 25 tons of bombs over the Canino airport, where a group of Focke Wulf 190 operated, led by Erich Honagen, an expert of the Luftwaffe.

The weather and the clouds blocked the accurate bombing. Only half of the bombers dropped their bombs, in many cases missing the target area” added Di Sorte.

B-24s bomb the Ploieşti oil fields in August 1943 – Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

Two German planes attacked and fatally damaged the B-24H containing a crew of 10 men led by Lieutenant William J. Goodwin. Only two of them managed to parachute out: Sergeant Wallace H. Cleveland and Sergeant John M. Ashby, they were the only survivors.

The B-24H aircraft exploded before crashing. It broke into three parts, offering the Italian civilians who came to investigate a terrible scene.

“Charred corpses were scattered around the wreckage, a body was hanging from a tree with its parachute and Lieutenant William Goodwin was lying on the ground wearing an oxygen mask filled with bandages”, the historian explained.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

Seriously wounded Sergeant Cleveland landed away from the crash site and was captured by the Germans, who took him to a concentration camp in Germany. Sergeant Ashby together with two South Africans were helped by the Sabatini family – they were hiding in the caves they found on this family’s land.

The fragments of the wreck will be exhibited in the reservation of Selva del Lamone, along with some commemorative panels.

Ovidiu Popa

Ovidiu Popa is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE