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Warren Aderholt’s Evasion Adventure

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy --

On April 9, 1945, 2nd Lt. Warren Aderholt, of Birmingham, Ala., flew his fifteenth combat mission with the 309th Fighter Squadron, 31st Fighter Group. What started as a routine mission for a combat-seasoned P-51 Mustang pilot would instead change the lives of two families for the next 75 years.

Warren Aderholt sits on the wing of his P-51, nicknamed Kate, with two other pilots from the 309th Fighter Squadron in Italy, 1945. Photo courtesy of Robert Aderholt.

By early April, 1945, World War II was quickly drawing to a close.  In March, the Allies had crossed the Rhine River into Germany, and by April were closing on Berlin.  In the Mediterranean Theater, winter weather had slowed further advance up the Italian peninsula, but the Allies took full advantage of the lull in the fighting through the winter of 1945 to re-equip, rest and recuperate, and plan.  Although the ground offensives had been limited during the winter months, the Mediterranean Allied Air Force (MAAF) had not been idle, and the Allies now enjoyed almost complete air supremacy in the theater.  In addition, the strategic air campaign had strangled the German supply efforts, denying the Germans their badly needed re-enforcements and critical supplies.  In anticipation of the planned spring offensive, the 31st Fighter Group had moved north from San Severo Air Field near Foggia to Mondolfo air field, east of Florence along the Adriatic Coast.  From Modolfo, over 230 miles northwest of San Severo, the pilots of the 31st escorted the bombers and cargo aircraft of 15th Air Force throughout the theater. 

Aderholt had joined the 309th in December of the previous year, and in the condensed lifetime of a soldier at war, was a seasoned pilot by the time he lifted the wheels of his P-51 from the runway at Mondolfo Air Field that April day. Junior pilots in the 31st flew different planes that were assigned to them on a mission by mission basis.  Once a pilot achieve a certain level of experience and expertise they were permanently assigned a plane, stenciled with their name and their crew chief’s name. Frequently pilots gave their planes a nickname that was added as well.  By his fifteenth mission, Aderholt was given his assigned plane and his Mustang bore the name Kate, in honor of his mother.

The mission was a relatively short trip across the Italian peninsula to the mountains north of Sarazana, Italy, only a couple hundred miles from Modolfo.  There the pilots of the 309th met up with a flight of C-47s that were scheduled to air drop supplies to Italian partisans in the mountains north of Sarazana. The mission went flawlessly, but Aderholt’s P-51 developed engine trouble.  Aderhols was still 30 miles behind enemy lines when he realized he was going down.  He notified the other members of his flight, who joined up with him to see him safely down.  Far below, Aderholt noticed a seemingly abandoned air field with what appeared to be an intact runway, and began his approach.  While the Germans had very few aircraft to oppose the Allies by the spring of 1945, they did have an extensive network of anti-aircraft artillery across the peninsula in a desperate attempt to protect the movement troops, equipment, and supplies from Allied air attack.  Aderholt was a victim of that network as he tried to bring in his crippled plane, opting to ride it in and dodge the anti-aircraft and small arms fire, rather than risk being killed in his parachute as he floated to earth.  As he approached the air field, he noted that it was riddled with bomb craters, the work of his Strategic Air Force brethren, but to one side was a relatively clean stretch, at least long enough to set down his stricken Mustang.

Had Aderholt known that the air field that he approached had been heavily mined by the Germans to prevent use by the Italian partisans or the Allies, he might have made a different choice. Luckily for Aderholt, however, the caretaker of the field was Osvaldo Ghio, a former pilot in the Italian air force, and a covert Italian partisan.

Shortly before the war, Ghio, then a Sergeant Pilot in the Italian Air Force, the Regia Aeronautica Militare, had nearly died landing a disabled aircraft of his own before the war. Unable to continue in a flying status, Ghio remained in the air force, and was assigned to administrative duties.  In 1940, Ghio assumed the position as caretaker for the Bartolomeo Arrigoni air field at Sarzana-Luni, the very field that Aderholt spotted that day in April. 

Following the Armistice of Cassible, when the Kingdom of Italy ceased combat operations and joined the Allies in the fight against the Axis forces, the Italians ended operations from the air field at Sarzana-Luna, and Ghio became the only Italian stationed there. He lived with his wife, Adele, and his two daughters, Vanna, age seven, and Rosalba, age six, in a former powder magazine on the field.  As soon as the armistice was in place and the Regia Aeronautica had moved out, Ghio quickly hid as many of the supplies left behind by the Italian Air Force as he could. Most of the supplies he passed on to the local partisan unit, the "Ugo Muccini" Brigade, which occupied the mountains near Sarzana.  Fortunately for Aderholt, Ghio had also paid close attention when the Germans came to mine the air field.  Asking questions that were intentionally stupid to prevent the Germans from suspecting him, Ghio not only mapped out the areas that had been mined, but closely observed how the Germans armed the mines.  Despite having never de-armed a mine before, Ghio returned at night, and working only by moonlight, disarmed and removed the mines.

The Ghio family in the late 1940s. Left to right, Adele, Rosalba, Osvaldo, and Vanna. Photo courtesy of Robert Aderholt.

Ghio maintained regular contact with the partisan bands, providing them with intelligence on German strength and movements, equipment and weapons, and passing on food and supplies gathered in the local community.  Ghio had stacked terra cotta blocks at one end of an abandoned cottage near the air field, making the pile look as though it had simply been a convenient place to store the blocks until they could be used.  Instead, he had built a clever hidden room inside, complete with a cot for a bed, where partisans could safely hide when necessary.

As Warren Aderholt aimed his disabled P-51 at Ghio’s runway, Ghio had already saved his life once when he removed the mines from the field, and he was fully prepared to do it again.  As Aderholt’s plane skidded down the runway, the local German troops began to converge on the air field.  Aderholt’s flight mates buzzed overhead, strafing the approaching Germans and Aderholt’s plane setting it on fire causing an explosion to denying the Germans the use of its weapons, ammunition, or fuel and allowing Aderholt to escape.

As Aderholt made his escape from his fallen plane, he heard a whistle behind him.  Ghio stood at the edge of the field, beckoning Aderholt to come to him.  Uncertain, Aderholt kept running, but slowed as he considered his options.  Making a snap decision, Aderholt decided to trust the man, and ran towards him. Ghio turned and quickly led Aderholt through a wheat field, to an irrigation canal with a concrete drain.  After hiding Aderholt in the drain shaft, he replaced the lid, and went quickly home.  As Aderholt lay hidden, the Germans interrogated Ghio and his family, demanding to know the location of the American pilot. They lined Ghio, his wife, and two young daughters up against the wall of their house, at gun point, shouting, “Where is the pilot? Tell us where he is!”  Rather than betray Aderholt, Ghio provided false information to the Germans, who ransacked Ghio’s house anyway, searching for any clue of the pilot’s whereabouts.

After retrieving Aderholt form the ditch, Ghio took Aderholt to his house, where he gave him a set of civilian clothes.  Even as Aderholt prepared to change, however, the Germans re-appeared, forcing Aderholt to run once again, this time out the back of the house where he hid first in a wheat field before crawling to a grape arbor that offered better concealment.  After the Germans departed for the second time, Aderholt quickly changed into the civilian clothes, including a new pairs of pants to replace the pair he had lost while fleeing out the back door. Ghio then shepherded Aderholt to the nearby cottage and the hidden room.  Germans continued to roam through the area, often passing close to the cottage, and Aderholt spent a sleepless night in the tiny block room, afraid that his snoring would give him away.  Ghio and other partisans were at the cottage early, though, equipped with farm tools to complete the ruse that they were on their way to work the fields for the day.  In reality, Ghio linked Aderholt up with a man named Giacomelli, a local partisan, who would pass Aderholt on to the members of the Ugo Muccini Brigade, the very partisans that had been the recipients of the supplies Aderholt had helped deliver the day before.

In 1954, Warren Aderholt made one of several visits to the Ghio family while stationed in Germany.  This 1954 photo shows Aderholt and Osvaldo Ghio in front of the abandoned cottage where Aderholt hid the night after he crash landed his P-51 at the Bartolomeo Arrigoni Air Field at Sarzana-Luni.  Ghio had carefully stacked the blocks to appear as a pile of unused building material, but which in reality contained a secret room. Photo courtesy of Robert Aderholt.

The partisans, and the Allied commandos embedded with them, kept Aderholt with them in their mountain hideout, while they watched the Allied advance in the valleys below.  After a few days, the Allies had advanced close enough that the partisans could safely escort Aderholt through the lines.  Upon reaching the Allied troops, the Americans of the 442nd Infantry Regiment were shocked to learn that Aderholt, who they thought was an Italian, was actually a downed pilot trying to get back to his unit.  They sent him quickly up to their headquarters, where he spent the night with the German prisoners of war while they sorted out his story.  The next day, he was shipped to Bari, where he was notified that he had been promoted to 1st Lt., then returned to the 309th on April 20, 1945.

While Aderholt’s ordeal had ended, Ghio and his family continued their resistance.  When the local Black Brigade, members of the Italian Fascist Army that remained loyal to Germany after the armistice, learned that an Allied fighter had crash landed at the Bartolomeo Arrigoni Air Field and had not blown up by the mines, they came to investigate. They quickly realized that the field had been cleared of the mines and began interrogating the locals to find the culprit. While their power was quickly waning as the war neared its end, they still carried enough authority to have partisans executed.  Ghio and Giacomelli were forced to flee and hide with the partisans for several days until the Black Brigade gave up their search and returned to Sarzana.

After returning safely to the 309th, Warren Aderholt went on to a distinguished career in the Army Air Force and the newly created Air Force, flying combat missions in both Korea and Vietnam before retiring as a Lt. Col. in 1972.  Osvaldo Ghio and his family continued to live in the Sarzana area, though an Allied bombing raid destroyed their makeshift house at the air field.  After the war, Ghio went to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), and helped build houses for families who had lost theirs in the war, including himself.  Aderholt and Ghio maintained contact for years after the war, exchanging letters and gifts.  Aderholt visited the the Ghios several times while stationed in Germany in the 1950s.  After the war, Ghio was recognized many times for his active role in the Italian resistance, most recently by name in the U.S. Congressional Record, in a resolution honoring the Ghio family for their bravery by Aderholt’s cousin, Representative Robert B. Aderholt.

 

Note: The information for this article came out of the tireless research of two primary individuals, Mr. Robert Aderholt, Warren Aderholt’s son, and Mr. Claudio Mischi, historian and WWII researcher.  Between them, they assembled a comprehensive collection of documents, letters, and photos, only a fraction of which was related in this short article.  The complete story is much richer and deeper thanks to the efforts of Mr. Aderholt and Mr. Mischi.  Through their efforts, the two families came together again in 2018 to honor the bravery and sacrifice of Osvaldo Ghio and his family, as well as the countless Italian partisans and ordinary citizens that offered up their freedom and their lives to help Allied fliers and other service members during those dark days.