Swann Auction Galleries To Sell Dramatic Diary Of Tragic US Bomber Navigator

Art Daily
Published on
The train of his thoughts was reminiscent of Yossarian, the protagonist of Joseph Heller’s celebrated book Catch 22. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

NEW YORK, NY.- On March 10 Swann Auction Galleries will offer the dramatic diary of a navigator on an American bomber who died with his entire crew on a raid to Germany in World War II.

Second Lieutenant Richard E Thomas was just 22 when his Liberator Heavy Bomber was shot down over Lermoos in Austria on 3 August 1944. Part of the 465th Bombardment Group (Heavy) of the 15th USAAF based at Pantanella in Southern Italy that had been activated two days earlier, it was the only one of the eight aircraft in the group that day where not one crew member got out alive. They had been on a mission to bomb steel plants at Friedrichshafen in southern Germany.

Thomas, who flew 39 missions in Italy, had started to keep the diary towards the end of his training in 1943 and, as well as detailing his activities, it charted his mental state as he steadily worked towards getting through his appointed 50 missions safely.

The train of his thoughts was reminiscent of Yossarian, the protagonist of Joseph Heller’s celebrated book Catch 22.

Describing his first leave from McCook Air Field in Nebraska, he wrote ‘I spent it getting drunk in Denver with a woman, a married woman with a child… When I was a civilian and in college I was never bothered by women. They didn’t mean a piss hole in the snow to me. I intended to become a surgeon… Now it’s changed, I’m in the army. I must live for the moment.’ (3-4 January).

As his flight group began a circuitous route to the Mediterranean theatre in February 1944, Thomas offered vivid descriptions of Belém and Natal, Brazil (21-26 February), Dakar, Senegal (28 February to 3 March), Marrakesh, Morocco (3-5 March) and Tunis (8 March to 15 April).

The group arrived at Pantanella Airfield in Italy on 20 April, and soon began combat operations with the 55th Fighter Wing, 15th Air Force, flying in Consolidated B-24 Liberators. The first mission was on 5 May, a German army base at Podgorica in Yugoslavia: ‘Our bombs made a very good pattern as was shown in pictures taken off the raid. It was completely destroyed. Coming off the target, the lead sqdn ran into clouds and became separated. Therefore we led the rest of the groups home. I was lead navigator, did a good job in taking us home.’

The next day was a six-hour mission to Romania: ‘We did see enemy flak, and fighters… I had a wrong type of parachute issued, I did not know it until we had landed. If anything had happened, I would have been shit out of luck.’

Before his third mission, he already sounded jaded: ‘The faster I get my 50 in, the better. I’m sick of this shit.’ (8 May).

A 14 May raid was undermined by an indecisive major who asked Thomas’s advice and then failed to follow it: ‘The group leaders, big and important majors, blown up by their supposed importance, fuck us up every time.’

22 May brought ‘heavy concentrated flak, the pilot’s windshield was blown out, and we also received a flat tire. We didn’t know this until we were landing.’

Flak happy crew

After less than a month of combat, Thomas reported ‘Most of us now are flak happy. At first it didn’t bother us because we only saw the light stuff. But now that we’ve moved up to the big leagues, and we’ve been through this stuff on several occasions, we’ve all become flak happy’ (31 May).

On D-Day, Thomas wrote ‘Today the invasion started. From now on our targets will be more difficult, maybe farther from our home base’ (6 June).

On a 16 June mission to Vienna, he wrote ‘We were intercepted by enemy fighters. I saw two blow up there, and couple over the target. That’s the most horrible thing I can think of now, a burning plane. In my mind I can hear the screams of the men.’

On a 23 June mission to Guirgui, Romania (his 23rd mission), ‘Flak was moderate and heavy and accurate. Our bombardier as a result of today’s mission will receive the Purple Heart. He was slightly wounded today.’

A seven-day leave was spent in Rome and Naples, 16-22 July. On a 28 July raid to the Polesti oil refinery, ‘We lost one plane. The bombardier was Walt Hogan, a high school friend of mine. We think he and the rest of his crew were able to bail out safely.’
On 2 August, Thomas’s plane hit the docks at Genoa: ‘Same old story, flak, long mission, weather and fighters, but I have 12 to go.’ He returned safely to the base, took a shower, ate fried chicken, and ‘tried to deduce the whereabouts of tomorrow’s mission… Tomorrow I fly.’ The diary ends with these words.

The next day was Lieutenant Thomas’s 39th mission, to the southern German city of Friedrichshafen. 17 Allied planes were lost that day, including his. A 1986 note in the diary explained that ‘a low altitude flight blew up the oil refinery but also destroyed the planes.’ The 465th Bombardment Group received a Distinguished Unit Citation for its role in the attack.

Today, a monument to the crew, mounted by one of the plane’s propellers, may be found in Lermoos.

“This is a poignant insight into the mind of a young man confronted on a regular basis with the terror, horror and frustrations of war and its corrosive effects on him,” said Swann Galleries specialist Rick Stattler, who is overseeing the Printed & Manuscript Americana auction. “Reading his words are especially poignant in the context of knowing what fate was to befall him as he clung increasingly desperately to his hope of survival.”

The lot includes three photographs and an envelope from a friend, as well as the 1986 provenance note. The estimate is $1,200 to $1,800.

More in the auction industry