Mission 788, 22February45
On February 22, 1945, Lt. John T. Cravey, my father, went to the morning briefing at San Severo airdrome, Italy, to learn what the day’s mission would be. He and 50 other fighter pilots of the 309th Fighter Squadron of the 31st Fighter Wing then climbed into their P-51 Mustangs, got the engines warmed up and propellers moving, and took off from the poor excuse for a runway. Dad was flying wing for Capt. Roger Zierenberg. That mission, number 788 of 22 February 1945, was to “escort the 49th Wing [bombers] in an all out attack on enemy transportation facilities.”*
Lt. John T. Cravey, flight training
It was the birthday of George Washington, America’s first President, and those fighter pilots were climbing skyward to do their part in stopping Adolph Hitler’s dream of Aryan world domination. It was cold day, with a thick layer of clouds, but it would get much colder for dad that day.
After escort, as the briefing ordered, the fighters would peel off to strafe mainly rail transportation yards. The fact that this mission was a small facet of a larger – and secret --strategy called “CLARION” was not likely covered in the morning briefing. These fighters were among the nearly 11,000 Allied planes in the air that day over Germany. CLARION’s purpose was to bomb the last breaths out of the Third Reich’s war machine. As my father later recounted in a taped conversation, the flak was so thick that day that he thought he could get out of his Mustang and walk on it. The targets were Regensburg and Freising, near Munich. Dad strafed over Freising. According to the official War Diary entry for that day, the mission was successful: “4 locomotives destroyed and 9 damaged; 2 MT [German fighter planes] destroyed and 1 damaged; 24 railroad cars damaged; 2 power plants damaged; 1 barge damaged; and 1 railroad station damaged.”
Two men did not return to San Severo that cold day as recorded in the daily War Diary: “Lt. Roraus after strafing struck out for Switzerland or France with engine trouble and has not been heard from. Lt. Cravey was hit with flak and on return dropped down through undercast over Mid-Alps and is MIA.”
Capt. Zierenberg returned without dad. He filled out the required forms, including the MAC report and the narrative statement; they were filed on 24 February 1945. According to his report, he was leading Blue Section with dad as his wingman; they had taken off at 0940 hours to provide cover and strafe in Freising, Germany:
"At 1400 hours in the vicinity of Innsbruck at an altitude of 16,000 feet, Lt. Cravey was seen to jettison his canopy and disappear into an overcast, at a 30 degree angle of dive, pouring gasoline or glycol and dark smoke. The mountains in that area were covered by an overcast and his plane was not seen to crash or his parachute seen to open. I circled for 15 minutes hunting for any sign without any results. Damage observed on his airplane was a hole in his canopy and fuselage.”
Captain Zierenberg didn't know, of course, that there was also a small hole in dad’s lower left leg, where a piece of flak penetrated. His plane did crash on a glacier about 25 miles from Innsbruck. He did bail out, landing somewhere on Zuckerhutl, Sugar Mountain, at 11,500 feet the highest in the Stubai Alps. The odds of his survival on that mountain were worse than slim.
The story of my father’s harrowing survival, the real story rather than the “action hero, comic book” version that we knew as kids, began emerging only six months ago, September 1, 2012, when an unlikely, cold-contact e-mail from a stranger in Austria dinged into my inbox. That e-mail, which I nearly deleted, propelled me, my sister Susan, and our first cousin Emory (dad’s nephew) on a quest for the real story; we continue to fill in missing pieces.
Sixty-eight years later on this George Washington’s birthday, I will honor Lt. John T. Cravey as my father and as a man who fought for America in World War II by beginning serious work on a personal narrative of his story of survival. I will remember not only him, but also Lt. Roraus, who, according to Emory’s thorough research, also went down that day and also managed to survive. Both dad and Lt. Roraus were captured and spent the remainder of the war as POWs of the German Army.
by forced march to Moosberg POW camp.
* The details of his February 22, 1945, mission are housed at the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell AFB, in Montgomery, Alabama, which holds more than 500,000 historic Air Force documents: http://www.afhra.af.mil/. I drove there to see these original records on microfilm after e-mailing in advance a request for mission reports from that date. The staff had made copies and had them on the reading desk when I arrived. I am especially grateful for their help and support. [AFHRA’s IRISNUM call numbers for these documents were 00248401 and 00248402].
The AFHRA database is searchable on the web at: http://airforcehistoryindex.org/
The Lt. Col. John Thomas Cravey WWII USAAF and USAF Careers Collection© is the copyrighted property of Joanna Cravey Hutt and Susan Rebecca Cravey for their sole use. The collection includes but is not limited to the contents of three scrapbooks displaying letters, pictures, icons and other visual matter; 35 mm slide transparencies contained in the original storage tins; black and white photographs related to Lt. Col. Cravey’s USAAF and USAF careers; e-mails and letters donated to, given to, or addressed to the owners regarding the careers; private records; and other visual and audio materials.
Lt. John T. Cravey, P-51 flight instructor after WWII, Key Field
training young pilots in the P-51
Posted by Joanna Cravey Hutt at 8:54 PM