Ghosts of the Po River Valley – Finding the Lost Flyers of the Italian Air Campaign
by Moreno Aguiari
When many of us think about combat in the European Theatre during WWII, it is easy to focus upon the well-known battles, such as D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. Indeed, we celebrate D-Day each year. But too often we neglect to consider some of the other significant regions of conflict, such as the Italian Campaign of 1943. This seems strange, in a way, as the September 1943 invasion of Italy represented the Allies first major foothold on the European continent during the war. And it was a bloody conflict here, despite Italy’s surrender, because German forces dug in deep. Combat on the ground and in the air over Italy was fierce, and progress was slow and costly. It took 19 months of grinding endeavor to move the lines from southern Italy to the Po River Valley along the Alpine foothills bordering France and Switzerland.
There were many aerial combats over this region between the Allies and the German-aligned ANR (Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana). Many airmen died in these battles, their remains lost seemingly forever in the wrecks of their crashed aircraft, buried deep in Italian soil. But in recent years, several groups have formed in Italy with the intent of finding these lost pilots and their machines. One of these groups is called Air Crash Po, and Warbird Digest’s Moreno Aguiari recently had the opportunity to interview one of its founders – Luca Gabriele Merli.
When asked why his group searches for these lost pilots, Merli responded, “We do it out of respect for those whom lost their lives in the line of duty – and for their families. We do it for passion. We do it out of a sense of duty.”
Luca Gabriele Merli, who founded The Air Crash Po Project with his brother Stefano Daniele Merli and three fellow researchers in 2007, with the aim of collecting as much information as possible about the Po Valley air raids which took place between July 1944 and April 1945.
“This is very important historical research. Only a few years ago, it would have been impossible to access the records of the period concerned. Now, with the help of e-mail and the Internet, parts of the research have became easier. However, it’s a real race against time to collect and preserve all the memories of those times during World War II. Because of the lack of official documentation, we are often forced to resort to the memories of people present at the battles of those years. We evaluate the data, comparing and contrasting the memories with the retrieved documents in the archives.”
The group has researched, located and retrieved parts from more than 80 aircraft including the remains and personal belongings of some of the airmen.
“Meeting with the families of pilots thought to be lost forever is an incredible experience. It is very emotional, but it also gives a sense of accomplishment,” Said Luca. “It is what makes us continue with our mission.”
Luca’s favorite story is the one of Lt. Hall, a U.S. Air Army Forces pilot. German forces shot down Hall’s Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress 44-6271 Magnificent Malfunction over Italy.
This is a 3-minute video showing the Air Crash Po Team using metal detectors, searching for the remains ofMagnificent Malfunction.
The members of Air Crash Po note, “We assure you that reconstructing the history of those years is not a small job. Putting together the pieces that make up the puzzle of our recent past involves a considerable expenditure of energy in all respects. However, the desire to know the history of our territory causes us to persevere, and our commitment is stronger every day.
For this reason, we invite anyone with this passion to join us. Anyone in possession of documents, photographs, stories or information useful to this cause, please contact us HERE.“