Forgotten Fifteenth: The Untold Story Of Heroic WWII Airmen

Posted: Jun 02, 2014 12:00 PM

When we think of American air warfare in WW II, the famous “Mighty Eighth” Air Force quickly comes to mind. Historians have long shown the spotlight on the combat and bombing missions flown out of England. However, there is a fascinating, untold story of the American campaign in the Mediterranean that has been buried in history – until now.

Barrett Tillman’s latest book, Forgotten Fifteenth: The Daring Airmen Who Crippled Hitler’s War Machine, reveals the details of the courageous missions from The Fifteenth Air Force. During the war, Nazi Germany depended greatly on oil from refineries in the Balkans, safeguarding them with extensive anti-aircraft defenses. The Fifteenth dared to fly to these almost impenetrable war factories and cut off the Axis powers’ main fuel supply.

Renowned expert Barrett Tillman is the author of D-Day Encyclopedia and Clash of the Carriers. He has written over 40 books and 550 articles on American military aviation. I got the chance to ask him some questions about his powerful new book just in time for its release today.

All your life you have written about military aviation; what makes this book different?

Seldom does an author have a chance to do groundbreaking work. There had only been one short account of the 15th AF, an illustrated softcover in the 1970s, and a more recent chronology. So Forgotten Fifteenth is like Whirlwind (Simon & Schuster 2010), the first one-volume accounting of all air operations over Japan. It's remarkable how much WW II history remains unrecorded, and I'm conscious that each book I begin is likely to be the last on that subject with numerous veterans who lived the events. Over half of my contributors now are deceased, so Forgotten Fifteenth and the previous few books represent a last-minute grab at history.

With the history of the Fifteenth Air Force being 70 years old, how did you go about uncovering and researching it?

We're now where Civil War historians were in 1935 and WW I historians in 1988. Therefore, many of us in "the community" commented over the years about the lack of a full-length treatment of the 15th, which was remarkable considering that it conducted the southern half of the Allied Combined Bombing Offensive. But the subject went wanting until I discussed it with my agent, Jim Hornfischer.

Most authors will tell you that researching is the most enjoyable part of a book. Good writing is good writing, regardless of the subject, but a researcher is part archivist, part psychologist, and part cold-case detective. I don't recall the number of primary and secondary sources I consulted, but I think there are more than 400 footnotes which gives some indication of the extent of research: Air Force archives, published accounts, documentaries, foreign sources, and of course interviews.

A broader aspect was the number of Axis air forces the 15th opposed--not just the Luftwaffe but Fascist Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia. Researching each of those posed a separate challenge that I enjoyed. Fortunately, I established some excellent European sources including embassy contacts.

Who were the individuals who stood out to you in your research?

I have to start at the top. The first commander of the 15th was then-Major General Jimmy Doolittle, best known for his 1942 raid on Tokyo. I was fortunate to know him somewhat over several years, and he was an amazing man. He earned one of the first aeronautics PhDs, was a champion racer, developed instrument flying techniques, and midwifed high-octane fuel well before the war. Despite his enormous talent and success, he had no visible ego. A gentleman to the bone.

I knew one of the fighter group commanders, Colonel Bob Baseler, an unconventional but highly effective leader. He had a puckish sense of humor and engaged in a continuing feud with his crew chief over their airplane's name: Big Stud or Mortimer Snerd. He also dropped an unauthorized note to the Italian commander on Sardinia, demanding that the island surrender to "The Checkertails." Bob got a mild reprimand but continued as CO until his seniority got him "demoted upstairs." He never made general but he didn't care!

There's also Colonel Frank Kurtz, commander of a B-17 group, a multi-talented, well regarded officer. He had been a two-time Olympic diver, won a medal in 1932, and was personally known to the German-American propagandist "Axis Sally" who made radio threats against him. His daughter grew up to become actress Swoosie Kurtz, named for one of his airplanes.

My favorite is a Romanian fighter pilot, Prince Constantine Cantacuzino. A fabulous character: international sportsman (captain of the hockey team, national champion aerobatic pilot) and bon vivant with matinee idol charisma who regarded air combat as the ultimate competition. In 1944 he crammed a senior U.S. POW into the fuselage of his Messerschmitt fighter and flew from Bucharest to 15th AF headquarters in Italy to arrange for an airlift to return Americans before the Soviets "liberated" Romania. He adored women (and vice-versa) and one of his wives later became the mother of actress Linda Gray of Dallas fame.

Out of all the missions flown by the Fifteenth, what was one mission that was pivotal to the war?

The strategic air campaign was too large and too complex to be determined by one blow. Some people think that the spectacular low-level bombing mission against Ploesti, Romania's oil refineries in August 1943 was flown by the 15th but actually "Operation Tidal Wave" was three months before the 15th was formed.

However, the 15th waged a four-month campaign against Ploesti that turned off about one-third of the Axis oil supply. That was the main reason the command was formed, because Romania was beyond range of UK-based bombers. The campaign was costly--nearly 250 planes--but achieved results felt far beyond the Balkans.

We think of D-Day as the turning point of the war; where does the Fifteenth's rank in comparison to the invasion?

As noted above, the strategic bombing effort against Axis oil was critical to Allied victory. In early June 1944 the 15th was about halfway through the Ploesti strikes, and already had reduced output of crude oil as well as high-octane aviation fuel for the Luftwaffe. That was among the reasons that the German Air Force was nearly absent in Normandy.

Also, the 15th supported "D-Day South," the invasion of southern France in August, at the end of the Ploesti campaign. So I'd say the 15th exerted war-winning influence on a variety of fronts. I touch upon that aspect in my D-Day Encyclopedia, also just released by Regnery.

How much longer do you think WWII would have lasted if it weren't for the Fifteenth dismantling Hitler's oil supply?

The war was going to continue as long as Hitler remained alive. However, the 15th's success in reducing oil and gasoline to the Wehrmacht saved an incalculable number of lives on both/all sides because it diminished Germany's ability to continue full-scale operations. Additionally, the 15th consistently pounded German aircraft factories, which combined with diminished fuel meant the Allies achieved air supremacy earlier than they could have otherwise.

What about the Fifteenth Air Force would be most important for young people to hear today?

As much an influence as the 15th had on victory in Europe, I think it's more important for youngsters to place the perceived "second string" in context of any endeavor. Even today, 70 years later, there's something of a rivalry between the Mighty 8th in England and the Forgotten 15th in Italy, since the UK received vastly more coverage during and after the war. A contributor to the book asked, "If you were a war correspondent would you rather sip scotch in a London hotel or swill vino in a tent at Foggia?" But the veterans of the 15th still take enormous pride in their largely unheralded success--and I think that's a lesson for everyone. Each of us knows the value of our own work.

Today, people learn through many different mediums. Would you like to see this story turned into a movie?

In the book I note the difference in public knowledge and appreciation of the 15th. In contrast to the 8th Air Force, the entire Mediterranean air war has been the subject of only three movies, the best being Catch 22 about the 12th Air Force, also in Italy. The other two were about the Tuskegee Airmen, a 1990s TV film that was generally OK, and the more recent Red Tails that left much to be desired. In checking the relative coverage of the Tuskegees I found that their 332nd Fighter Group generates more hits than any other five groups in the entire Army Air Force, so clearly there's room for recognition of the other 30 units in the 15th.

But a movie about an 18-month air campaign is unlikely--even the Battle of Britain that lasted through the summer of 1940 was a large topic for a film. I've sold a WW II screenplay, and cannot imagine squeezing the 15th story into two or even three hours. However, a TV mini-series could offer some excellent prospects, especially continuity of characters, and I'd be delighted to see that happen.