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Miss Charlotte 1

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The night of 10th September 1944, a USAF B-17 from the 855th Bomber Group, carrying a crew of 9, flew over the mountains of western Piedmont. It had taken off from Algiers, carrying supplies, weapons and ammunition to drop to the partisan groups in the Cuneo area. Its name was Miss Charlotte. “Dear mother, in a few hours’ time I'll be leaving for my first mission. As you know, the oath we swore means I can't tell you what we'll be doing and where we are going, but I want you to be proud of me. As navigator I'll have an important role on this flight and the route we will take. I hope all the gunners, and especially Ernest (our radio operator, who, as I've told you, hails from Iowa), will help me follow the planned route and reach our target. Although it's September, here in Algeria it is still very hot. Has it already snowed in Portland? More than the heat, the sand is driving me mad. It gets everywhere, even in the toothpaste this morning. We leave at about 7 this evening. When this letter reaches you, we'll have already returned, and perhaps left again 2 or 3 times. This is the first of the flights before I can come home, 25 missions earn us leave. We have just relieved Captain Pullis’s crew, but one day it will be our turn to land for the last time and return home. I hope Dad's well - tell him not to worry and not to work too much. Pray for me and Miss Charlotte. I will do the same for you, Dad, Allan, Dorothy and Katy. Love to all, Yours, Ian.” For Europe, that late-summer night was very hot, heated by the flames of the war, but up there in the darkness, the brave crew of the B-17 had to deal with the icy embrace of a snow storm. The wind was deafening and its powerful gusts shook the majestic aircraft. Through the snow-encrusted windows, the men on board peered through the darkness, searching in vain for a clue, a signal, a landmark. They had taken the wrong route, but were not yet aware of the mistake, because they had no way of checking their position. The plane had turned north too soon, into the wrong valley. The Pesio valley where the partisans were waiting for it, was much further east, invisible and unreachable. The strong wind made the situation worse, pushing the plane further and further off course, into the heart of the storm. Their only choice was to reduce their altitude, and fly beneath the clouds, low enough to identify a landmark and calculate their position. Visibility was almost nil. The mountains were tall and the clouds low, and reducing altitude seemed a great risk. But Miss Charlotte succeeded. Passing by the 3,000 metre peaks of the Cima Frappier and Gran Queyron, the plane flew unscathed over the Frappier Pass and entered the Argentera Valley. It was the crew’s first mission, but they were trained, capable men who knew how to read maps and decipher their surroundings. And something was wrong. The peaks they were expecting to see should not have exceeded 2,500 metres, whereas the mountains around them were giants, their tops lost in the clouds. Like a strange and majestic guard of honour, the Ramiere, Pelvo and Ciatagnera on the left and the Giornalet, Platasse and Rognosa on the right flanked the plane. Nobody on board was familiar with those mountains, but everybody had realised they were off course. What should they do? Go back? Or make a last attempt to establish their position and set a new course for the Cuneo valleys? Suddenly the mountains seemed to be lower. The Furgon, Cima del Bosco, Sise and Alpette peaks could clearly be seen below the clouds, meaning the valley was opening and there was enough room to turn. To the right, the outline of a pass began to emerge. It was the Sestriere Pass, and the plane headed for it, circling it in an attempt to identify a place, a landmark. But it was useless. In the total darkness of the curfew, the crew could not make out their position. “From Vittorio Bianco, Captain of the Militia stationed in Sestriere, to the Head of the Border Militia. On the night of 10 September, an unidentified aircraft flew repeatedly over the Sestriere Pass. Alerted by the sound of the engine, I went out to try and identify it, but was unable to do so in the dark and with the low cloud. After flying twice over the town, the aircraft headed off south/south west, where shortly afterwards...” There was only one option - to return to Algiers and try to make the drop another night, in better conditions. Now the crew knew the way, and Miss Charlotte entered the Argentera Valley again, to travel back the way they had come. Like a curtain of smoke, the clouds descended, concealing the pass the plane had flown over on the way up. Suddenly, on the right, the back of the Ramiere loomed out of the clouds and down to the left, as if trying to trip them up, narrowing the valley and blocking the way. Miss Charlotte avoided it and started gaining altitude, heading for the Frappier Pass. But it was the wrong direction. The pilot noticed, corrected the course, and headed for the Frappier Pass again, but by then it was too late. I had the idea for Miss Charlotte in the summer of 2014, when I realized it was the 70th anniversary of the crash in which 9 American airmen died while they were flying over Italy to help us regain our freedom. I had heard about Miss Charlotte as a boy, because two brothers from Genoa, Andrea and Carlo Müller, told me about the plane that had crashed in the Argentera Valley on the way to drop off supplies for the partisans. The story had always fascinated me. In the summer of 2014 - 70 years after the accident - I thought the time had come to remember the sacrifice of those 9 airmen. At first I thought of a civil and religious ceremony, so I contacted the mayor of Sauze di Cesana, Maurizio Beria, and Father Paolo Molteni, to organise a Mass. Then, to give the event a proper meaning, I decided to look for the people who had found and identified the remains of Miss Charlotte in the summer of 1992. This led me to AERO Re.L.I.C., a French association that searches for and tries to identify the remains of allied aircraft that fought and either crashed or were shot down during WWII. I spoke to Christian Vigne, who actually found and identified the remains of Miss Charlotte. On the day I was looking for another plane that had crashed on Mount Limone, I came upon a letter written by John Mattison. John Mattison was a mechanical engineer. He was not aboard Miss Charlotte. I found this letter, which was given to me at the Limone border post (which no longer exists) by the Carabinieri. Mattison had written to all the military border posts in the Alps. Through the letter, I contacted the Association and Mattison. After a while we received a letter from Mattison, which said: I collected documents from the Carabinieri saying that a plane crashed on the night of 10th September 1944, near Sestriere, on a mountain called Gran Miôl. And he asked us if we could go and check if it was Miss Charlotte. Because we had already found aircraft from this squadron. We said: fine! We'll go and see what's on the site and we'll be in touch. So after, let’s say after 5 years, we set off, because we had many other aircraft. The first thing we did in Sestriere was go to the Carabinieri to ask for information. The Carabinieri were very helpful, but they had no records about the plane. In fact, they didn't even know that an allied military aircraft crashed in the Sestriere area. So, at this point, we asked where the Gran Miôl was and they said, “On the map, Gran Miôl is at the end of the Argentera Valley. Go and see.” The weather was bad and it was late... We made the climb and decided to wait until morning, and began setting up camp. When we had finished and the tents were up, I said, I can't wait, I’m going to see if I can find this plane. At that point we hadn’t seen any pieces. I started climbing the mountain, not knowing where to go because it was dark, almost foggy, there was still some snow, although it was July 1992. I climbed up, up, up and suddenly, just as I reached the crest, a wolf appeared in front of me. It was strange, because it doesn't happen often. As I reached the top, I saw the wolf appear. I was a bit frightened, so was the wolf, and it ran off immediately, along the crest for two minutes, then I lost sight of it. I looked down and saw pieces of aluminium scattered all over the place. I also saw armoured plates that were used to protect the engine. I said, “The planea's here, it’s here!” We knew immediately it was an allied plane because of the pieces of the engine. All the containers used to store the weapons were there, lots of pieces that aren't used today, there were the pilots’ binding plates, trait-du-route, and lots of ammunition, some fragments of weapons. But this was of little interest to us. It meant it was an allied aircraft, but it didn't mean it was Miss Charlotte. The important thing was to find a tag, an engine number or other identifying elements, a part of a weapon, a heavy machine gun, because we had the aircraft loss report detailing everything and we needed to find the numbers. Then one of our group, Bernard, was lucky enough to find, near the snow - because there was plenty of snow, even at that time of year, and we weren't in a snowfield - near the snow there was an army vest, the life jacket that pilots wear should they have problems over the sea. They are worn in the water, save their lives, acting like a kind of buoy. The crew had one each with their ID number and because we saw the identification number, we checked our list and saw that the army vest belonged to John Meyers, the captain on board Miss Charlotte. We had identified the aircraft. We took photographs, sadly we found human remains and we buried those we found behind a rock. We laid some plastic flowers their families had sent me an American flag. Then we went back down. Months later, we received a request from two people who wanted to visit Miss Charlotte’s crash site. They were the sisters of one the airmen on the plane We said, “Of course we can take you, but you have to come to Europe and we'll take you to the site, we are going there anyway to lay a plaque where the plane crashed.” Only we didn’t know that they were elderly ladies, we didn’t realise that they were a lot older than us. I can’t remember their exact age, they must both have been over 70. After we picked them up in Cuneo, we took them to the area. They had never seen such tall mountains. So we took them to Sestriere. From Sestriere we took them up to mountain shelter, then we told them, “We can't go any further. Your brother is here, on this mountain, but we don't want to take any risks we don't have a doctor, or anyone who can help if something happens, because at your age your heart...”. We didn’t know how to say it was too dangerous for them to go up. But they wouldn't listen. At the age of 70 plus, they climbed up, on foot, to an altitude of almost 3,000 metres, with us. They were very happy to see where their brother was. They said, “This place is beautiful. It was sad not knowing where our brother was, and now we know he is here, on the Alps, in a lovely place. We are happy at last.” These are the two sisters I was talking about, the sisters of Ernest Kolln. This is Phil Castellano, the Chairman of the Association. This is the place the two sisters climbed to, where we didn't want them to go, and this is the husband of one of them, Donald. He was a little unwell, because it was too high for him, he came from Iowa and had never seen a mountain. Neither had the sisters. This is the area Miss Charlotte crashed in, their brother's final resting place. In 2014 we decided to ask Father Paolo Molteni to hold a Mass. And we asked the Taurinense alpine brigade to attend, and pay military honours to the 9 airmen. We also invited Professor Gianni Oliva to talk about events in the area at the time of the crash, in September 1944, and put things into context. Professor Oliva told us about what was happening in the partisan squads and in the nazi-fascist groups in the Upper Val di Susa, particularly in the Argentera Valley, when this plane crashed on the Gran Miôl. In 2015 we went one step further. We decided to build a memorial stone, a monument in the site of the crash. With the mayor Maurizio Beria and other volunteers from Sauze di Cesana, we carried up cement and stones to build the monument on the exact spot. On the monument we laid a plaque with the names of the 9 airmen. We did this as a sign and symbol and in memory of what happened in the summer of 1944. The third step was to think about creating a sculpture representing the sacrifice of the 9 airmen. To do this, I contacted the students of the International School of Turin, better known as the American School, the best contact between our region and the United States. I also contacted Professor Mondazzi, a teacher and sculptor at the Albertina Academy of Fine Arts, who guided these students in the design and creation of the sculpture. The sculpture was first made out of cardboard and wax, then cast in aluminium, the same material Miss Charlotte was made from. Its cylindrical shape is a reminder of the tube-like containers with the Americans dropped to the partisans. The sculpture, the cylinder, has 9 empty spaces, representing the lives of the 9 American airmen, the 9 lives lost by the 9 American airmen. The empty space they left in the lives of their families, the people they loved. The sculpture should have been installed in September 2016, during the third ceremony. Professor Mondazzi will tell us very briefly how it was made, the materials used and the principles that inspired it. It represents the fuselage of the aircraft, and the figures of the 9 young men... It wasn't possible because on the day of the ceremony the first snow fell, so we were not able to go up to the site. It was installed later, in December, with a small ceremony held on the peak, with the mayor of Sauze di Cesana, Maurizio Beria, and a few others who came up with us.

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Duration: 24 minutes and 58 seconds
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Language: Italian
License: Dotsub - Standard License
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Posted by: gabriella61 on Jan 31, 2018

Miss Charlotte 1

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