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Len Heller, Page TWO
1944 | Corsica, France
Lt Heller received a Distinguished Flying Cross for Aerial Heroism under the most critical circumstances, he made a successful Bombing drop on the primary Target in Italy and then returned a full crew safely to his home-field on Corsica in a crippled B-25. WWII Mediterranean Theatre of Operations.
LEONARD CHARLES HELLER
MAY 27, 1919 - MAY 30, 2011
A Remembrance by Son, Thomas Leonard Heller
Pop was Born Leonardus Friedrich Heller, in Tegelen, Holland. The family immigrated to the USA in 1926: Pop (7 years old), his brother Theodore (9 years old), father Franz, and mother Theodora.
They settled in an apartment in Newark, NJ. They lived through the Depression years with the boys in school and Franz (now called Frank) working as lead tool and die maker for Acme Metal in Newark
After graduating high school, Pop served an apprenticeship at Western Electric in Kearney. Upon completion of his apprenticeship he went to Acme Metal and worked with his father.
Pop enjoyed recounting that while at Acme, he became enchanted by a beautiful secretary with red hair named Jeanne. After she decided to not give him too much attention, he decided that maybe she’s not really his cup of tea anyway. “Yeah”, Pop would say, “She was kind of aloof, but in a very refined way.”
After the war broke out Pop enlisted in the Army Signal Corp and was stationed in Wilmington, Delaware.
For the first time in his highly structured life Pop has some freedom, not too much responsibility, and 3 squares a day. This is really great!! Well, this will prove otherwise.
One night, after “lights-out”, Pop and a buddy take a Jeep for a joy ride – foot to the floor they speed past an oncoming car: it’s the General’s car.
Pop was given the “opportunity” to transfer to another branch of service.
That singular event permanently changed Pop. He set a new course for himself that he would follow for the rest of his life.
He decided to test for the Army Air Corp. It would have to be for the pilot’s seat, or nothing. He tests and finds that he has passed. So off he goes to Columbia, SC, to one of the Army’s many flight training schools.
During the course of his training he is taught to set even higher standards for himself, especially because it meant that he might be going it alone.
After graduation get got his pilot’s wings and became 1st Lt Heller. He is attached to the 57th Bomb Wing in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. He will volunteer for a second tour of duty and flies a total of 56 missions. Every mission is different, and none are milk runs, but the mission on March 14, 1944 was one to remember. The target was a concentration of German supply ships in Italy’s, Piombino Harbor.
There were 36 aircraft assigned to this mission. As soon as they had regrouped and started their bomb run over the target the German flack hit them. Pops ship was no exception and was hit repeatedly during the run. Three aircraft were downed in the first few minutes. After delivering their payload, Pop banked his ship to evade and return when he was hit again. These later hits knocked out one of his two engines, and control of the ailerons, and sent the ship plummeting toward the ocean in a steep dive.
Pop managed to regain control of his ship, but he had to steer the aircraft by controlling the pitch of the prop on his only good engine. He nursed his stricken ship along the Corsican coast at low altitude and when reaching the air field he found that one of his wheels had also been shot out.
So there was this 24 year old kid from Newark, NJ flying a B25 bomber with over 200 shrapnel holes in it, only half of its landing gear, one engine, and no ailerons, coming in at 125 mph to land. And he landed it. Pop and his crew are safe but his ship is a total loss and scrapped. It was his unyielding determination and his never, ever, EVER give up… backbone that saved himself and his crew and earned him the Air Corp’s Distinguished Flying Cross. This was another life changing event that steeled Pop with the virtues of Perseverance, Sacrifice, Discipline, Responsibility, Accountability, and Respect.
But there had been more than just active duty over the Mediterranean. Pop started to receive letters from that beautiful secretary back in the States. It seems his father had added match maker to his resume of skills. And that’s how the chemistry got started. Letters lead to more letters and to time spent with each other during rare leaves of duty. By the end of the war they were hooked, and they married.
By the end of 1945 Pop had returned to civilian life. By 1946 a father and son partnership named Republic Tool & Mfg. Co. was incorporated and underway in Nutley, NJ.
March, 1946 – I am born. I am the apple of my father’s eye. My grandfather takes one look at me and says to my mother “He looks like Howdy Doody.”
Despite that, Mom and dad are not to be deterred. Chrissy was born in 47’ and Jeanne in 48’. Mom takes a well earned breather for a few years and in 54’ Diane bursts upon the scene.
Also growing is the family business. Pop and Pop Pop buy property in Fairfield and build a new home for the business. The year was 1954. Within a few short years of being in the Fairfield location, our Pop Pop would die in Pop’s arms while the two ate sandwiches for lunch.
Another character builder for Pop.
Dads love of living a principled life and his hard work brought the family from Little Falls to a new home on 6+ acres in Randolph. The year was 1955. For the next 56 years that house would be the rock that Pop and Mom built our family upon. During our growing years he was our ballast, our defender, our protector, our standard bearer. He taught us his gifts of guidance, leadership, sacrifice, and forgiveness. If you had a secret that you had to share with someone, Pop was your man. Telling him something in confidence was a good as locking it in a vault.
If he didn’t know how to do something, he would teach himself. He was a voracious reader and always a quick study. When he made mistakes, and there were some beauties, they would not be repeated. He shared those mistakes with us so that we too would learn.
But the one thing he couldn’t fix or couldn’t change was yet to come.
During our earlier school years he would make time for a spring motor trip to Washington DC, or Gettysburg, or some other hot place where the six of us would cram into his Oldsmobile Rocket 98, no air conditioning – thank you, and collectively stick together with one-another’s sweat in the heat and humidity of the DC area.
He saved for our education, and sent us all off to college.
For the next 30 years life was a steady building of family and friends for Pop and Mom. They would see their children go off to work, sometimes marry, have children, sometimes endure an annulment and an attempt to rebuild. And in each and every one of those ups and downs Pop was there for us. He was always a champion for the underdog. And Pop with his steady and reassuring manner would always give comfort and you always knew that he understood the pain that you were in, because he was feeling that pain with you.
And in 1986 that pain would be acute. Our Mom was diagnosed with A Plastic Anemia. Pop was shaken to his core. He did everything anyone could to get her the care and treatment she needed to save her life. It tore him to pieces to see her suffer. He would have given his life for hers if it could save her. But, after almost 2 years, Mom lost her valiant struggle and the only woman he ever loved in his life was gone. He worshiped our mother and the loss left him hollowed. For many years he visited her grave daily.
After we lost Mom in 1988 our sister Diane moved back into the house so he wouldn’t be living alone. She caringly nursed him through recovery of several cancer surgeries and other events that strike the elderly without warning. Together she and I would make sure he was well cared for whenever he was in the hospital. And to this day, none of us remember a single word of complaint spoken by our father. Regardless the adversity, regardless the loss. Not a single word.
This last year wasn’t particularly kind to Pop. At times he suffered terribly from a digestive and intestinal disorder. He cheated death several times though, but each event weakened him further.
In the end the Lord called him home. How perfect it was for him to go to The Lord in the company of two of his daughters. How perfect it was for him to make his final mission on Memorial Day; accompanied by the loving hand of Jesus, away from this life’s boundaries and into the light and love of eternity. An eternity with his beloved Jeanne.
He deserved no less. Written and recited by his proud son Tom Heller.
Barbara Ennis Connolly PRINCESSBARBI_B25@msn.com 57th Bomb Wing Historical Researcher and 319 and 321st BG Historian (2007-___)
Corsica of 1944 and WWII remembered by George Underwood
1944 | Corsica, France
Life on Corsica 1944 for Leonard C "Nat" Heller and his CREW as written by George Underwood.
We climbed into our B-25 and cleared Valle near Phillipville (now Anaba), North Africa in the early afternoon and landed at Ghisonaccia-Gare, Corsica a couple of hours later. First thing we saw was a shot up, full of holes, wrecked, B-25 with blood all through the machine. That sight shook us up some. We had arrived with our 75mm cannon toting G models and we were now in combat. The date was January 21, 1944.
I was billeted in a two story rock building along with my radio gunner Jim Heaney and tail gunner Herb Campbell again. The room, on the second floor, overlooked the main street and the old railroad station, had a great fireplace that kept us warm evenings and produced enough light, along with some candles, to let us play our Monopoly game and cook those midnight meals we enjoyed. There seemed to be enough wood around to scrounge so that was not a problem. No cots, of course, so we just slept on the wooden floor and just where the Monopoly game came from is still a mystery.
Outside our front window (we were on the second floor with windows overlooking the rock station building and the road) next to the station was a railroad engine that had been sabotaged and badly damaged by the Germans as they left. It sat near the ‘theater’ where we had occasional movies and even more occasionally live shows both British and American. Our theater chairs were upside down bomb crates. The British shows were better generally and it seemed that our shows did not provide the talent available that the British did. Maybe it was because we were in an ‘unusual’ area for shows to visit. After all we were about a hundred miles behind the German lines. Only one show stands out and that was a Joe E. Brown U.S.O. troupe and show and he was terrific. It was small but good with a couple of real live American girls in it.
Our food is very good now compared to when we first arrived on Corsica. Few ‘C’ rations and well prepared meals now and we had lots of ‘C’ rations mostly stew and dehydrated stuff early on. Now our squadron sends an aircraft to Catania, Sardinia, where they load up with fresh vegetables and fruit. Even some fresh meat from time to time and the entire squadron get the ‘trots’ from the fresh food after a time on army rations. We go back on ‘C’ rations when the fresh stuff is gone and another aircraft is sent for a re-supply.
The Red Cross Service Club finally opened and we could get doughnuts and coffee. It features a radio and we can listen to some very good swing music with comments from Axis Sally and her announcer friend ‘George’ who bombarded us with nasty propaganda trying to scare and discourage us. According to them we had lost the war already but the only piece of accurate news we got from them was a warning of a bomb raid on the 340th Bomb Group up the coast from us. They announced that they (the Germans) would bomb them out of existence soon. No dates or time of course, just soon. And it happened one night a week or so later when the 340th did loose a bunch of aircraft again. They lost all 80 of their aircraft when Mt..Vesuvius erupted in March of 1944.
I was able to visit Adjaccio on the western side of Corsica, birthplace of Napoleon, on a three day pass and it proved to be a beautiful city that I enjoyed very much. I wandered through the narrow streets, along the boulevards with genuine busses running in this the most modern city I have seen so far here in the Mediterranean area. Well dressed people sat in sidewalk cafes eating and drinking. Getting there and back was relatively easy. I just stuck out my thumb and the next 6x6 truck that came by stopped and drove me over the hill from Ghisonaccia to Adjaccio. The road was very narrow and windy and in places steep and it took several hours to make the trip over the 7,000 foot snow capped ‘hills’. We crossed the narrow gauge train tracks several times but encountered no trains. The trains, I am told, are very old, small and still have an oil lamp for a headlight. The mountains were beautiful and reminded me of home and Southern California.
Home construction I saw on Corsica was interesting. There are lots and lots of rocks all over the place so that is the main building material used. A square of rock walls is built of rocks up to about 8 feet by 2 feet wide, there they stick a long log across to the other wall, add more rocks until the desired height is reached leaving openings for doors and windows. Then they either burnout or pull the logs from the walls, fill the holes with more rocks. Houses are quite small and each room seems to have a fireplace for cooking and heating. Kitchens are low, raftered, and dismally dark. Packed dirt floors or an occasional wooden floor contains a dining area also. Hanging from the rafters are various kinds of meats, spices and herbs. Lighting is by a single light bulb or oil lamps and candles. Toilets, of course, are outside the houses. The post man rides as bicycle wearing a funny hat and a uniform…very official.
Clothes washing is always done by the women in the cold, fast flowing river using rocks as washboards. Black dresses are almost always worn by the women and water for home use is drawn from that same river, carried to the houses by women. Various kinds of water containers balanced on their heads with a bucket or pitcher in each hand. An occasional look at the animals near the house seemed to be the work of the men folk who usually sat by the fire smoking and drinking. Electricity it seems is in the cities mostly and in a few farm houses that will have a single low watt bulb hanging from the ceiling and usually in the kitchen which seems to be the equivalent of our family rooms today.
Ghisonaccia-Gare, a village on Corsica was our base. It had been a depot for the narrow gauge railroad that serviced Corsica. The nearby airfield had been a German fighter base and the runway was extended and enlarged to handle our B-25's. Our Army engineers added the pierced steel strips that made the field useable in wet weather. This village had been a railroad depot sort of town and was made up of a row of stone two-story houses with a two story building in the middle across from the row of houses. This building was the depot itself. The window overlooked the center of the village and the beautiful mountains beyond. We thought it was the best room there was in the village. This was later proved correct when the Squadron CO ordered us out to the tents with the enlisted men and he moved in.
The swampy land, where our airstrip was located, ended at the beach a mile or so away from the railroad station town of Ghisonaccia Gare. Yeah, Corsica had mosquitoes and Malaria. I had a taste of that. The Army engineers just drained and cleaned the swamp, enlarged the airfield and got rid of most of the mosquitoes in the process. They used lots of DDT again as well as oil and other chemicals to rid us of mosquitoes. Got most of them but not all. Anyway it was cooler there.
Corsica is a beautiful place. 8,000 foot mountains with snow in the winter, winding, narrow roads, lots of trees, and a narrow gauge railroad runs up and across the mountains from the east side to the west where Adjaccio (the home of Napoleon) is located. A fast moving river, the Piumorbu, runs just north of Ghisonaccia from the mountains and out to the nearby sea and I would go there for a swim or to the ocean beach also nearby. Both had cold water. Because of the mosquitoes, in the area where our field was located, (until the engineers cleared the swamps) were so thick and hungry the native Corsicans would move to the mountains in the summer to avoid them and it was also cooler in the mountains. Many just stayed and conducted whatever business they had. People in Corte, however, stayed year-round.
Corte was a medieval city with a castle on a cliff, narrow streets and houses made of stone and with stone floors. It was located a few miles north of Ghisonaccia and much higher. There was some electricity available and if they had it had only a single, low wattage bulb, would hang from the ceiling beams. Plumbing, of course, was outside. In and around rural areas the women in the household carried the water from the stream. City homes while years behind our standard of living did have water and some toilets inside. Not many.
I was delighted to find that, as in Valle, Algeria, North Africa, there was a public hot bath in a nearby mountain town. Dating back to Roman times these natural sulfur, hot baths were wonderful. In small rooms the carved stone tubs were delightful on cold Corsican winter days and were enjoyed by the Roman Legions as well as us GI’s of WWII. Rock buildings lined the narrow twisting road and a steep trail led down to the bathhouse in the small mountain town of Pietrapola.
This we visited as often as possible but it was hard to get to on windy narrow roads and not too many GI trucks used it. Hitch hiking was not good. However, upon stopping a GI supply truck for a ride, found that we could toss a couple of boxes of food over the side to be picked up later. Good idea except that in the dark we couldn't read the contents. We had eaten, for weeks it seemed, Vienna sausage. I'm not terribly fond of that particular item and guess what...the two cases we tossed off that truck were. Right! Both were Vienna sausage and probably headed for our mess hall.
George B. Underwood -- 310th Bomb Group/381st Bomb Squadron