Lesina, a little town on the shores of Lake Lesina in south eastern Italy, played host to the P-51 Mustangs of the 325th Fighter Group, USAAF during the latter stages of WWII. Known as the “Checkertail Clan,” the men and machines of the 325th FG made a great impression on the local population, whom greeted them as liberators when they arrived in March, 1944, such was the brutality of the German occupation in the region.
Sadly, little physical evidence of their presence remains today. The temporary airfield, which shut down in late 1945, has largely returned to farmland, with just a few crumbling buildings serving as a reminder of its wartime history. One man hopes to change this though. Tom Ricci, an Italian-Canadian whose father Primiano Ricci lived in Lesina during the American occupation, is seeking to set up a formal memorial to the “Checkertail Clan” in Lesina.
Tom Ricci now takes up the story…
My father, Primiano Ricci, was born in Lesina on December 24th, 1929. Before he passed away, he told me that it was his dream that the men of the 325th FG be recognized for what they did, bringing life back to his beloved Lesina. My father’s recollection of the terrible months lived under brutal and inhuman treatment from the Nazi soldiers always troubled him. When the American forces arrived, life in the town was renewed and the soldiers were welcomed with open arms. Interestingly, they celebrated the Americans’ arrival on the same land where the US Army Corps of Engineers would build the 325th Fighter Group’s airfield.
In his last few years, my father made a few trips to Lesina. He spoke proudly of his family in Canada to his friends and siblings. They all knew of my interest in World War II military aviation, and especially Lesina’s military history concerning the Americans’ influence and goodwill during 1944/45. My father regaled me of these events, and in September 2011, after 41 years absence, I returned to Lesina to meet up with cousins and some of my old classmates.
During my stay with a cousin, one of our favorite discussions concerned the American wartime airfields. We went for a ride and actually drove onto the field where the 325th’s airstrip used to be. I was overwhelmed with emotion. Finally, I had returned to the very same field that I played on as a child.
On our next excursion, my cousin and I went into one of the ruined buildings. It was extremely weather beaten with a collapsed roof and peeling paint. Most of the wooden fixtures were rotten and falling apart. This building was once used by the 325th’s officers to administer the Fighter Group and where the pilots were briefed – if only those walls could talk.
I walked in and out of the structure, carefully looking for written names or remarks on the walls, trying to hear voices from the past. I sniffed the air, searching for that scent of cigarette smoke, and touched the walls and doors that were touched by the pilots and staff many decades ago.
In my mind, I would replay the stories that my dad had told me. When he would be bartering and swapping goods with the staff. I would imagine the discussions between my grandfather, Tommaso Ricci, and the American staff to erect the buildings to house the officers’ administration and direct the construction of the buildings.
Realizing that I was standing in one of the buildings that my grandfather built was captivating to me, coupled with the fact that this building also housed the 325th’s senior staff had me in awe of where I was. With tear-filled eyes of joy and pride, I mentioned this to my cousins, and they just took it in stride, realizing the emotional ride I was on.
Over the next few days, we visited several other fields and ruins including the large maintenance and storage building in the small town of Ripalta, just outside Lesina, that housed the gymnasium used by the 325th’s pilots and crews, and the mechanics shop and storage facilities under the building.
We visited the field that housed the base hospital, the remains of Lesina’s train station. We also compared old photographs with the remains of the station and took pictures trying to match the angles shown in the old images.
I recalled a wish my dad made, that one day a celebration or memorial be made to honor the 325th FG. At the time, I did not think much of it, as this was an event that took place a long time ago. But over the years I learned to appreciate what happened during those days of war, and the men and women that put their lives on the line against an oppressing invader. The liberators were foreigners that saw and understood the plight and suffering that innocent people were being put through by the Nazis. The Americans brought back the positive aspects of life to Lesina, and remain well appreciated even to this day.
In the last couple of years, I made contact with members of the 325th “Checkertails Clan”, a group made up of surviving Checkertails veterans and their family members. Unfortunately, as the veterans pass away in increasing numbers, their memories go with them. Therefore, I decided to create a lasting memorial in Lesina to commemorate the 325th FG and the 317th, 318th and 319th Fighter Squadrons which were under its command.
To date, the City of Lesina has passed the required local by-laws to honor the 325th. They formed a committee to overlook the development and construction of the monument, and hopefully we will soon be successful. And WarbirdsNews will be bringing you any new developments on this story as they happen!