Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Fred Becchetti doesn’t hesitate when asked what he was doing when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
He was washing dishes for 10 cents an hour at the old Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque.
At the time, the Albuquerque High School junior had more important things on his mind, such as earning his letter in track and field. He remembers dancing that night with friends until 2 a.m. at an old Central Avenue church before retiring for some red-hot chile and juke box tunes at the Red Ball Café.
“Pearl Harbor, the Japanese, and the war had nothing much to do with me at 17,” Becchetti, now 96, told the Journal last month from his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
That would change soon enough.
Shortly after his 20th birthday, he would find himself crammed inside the nose turret of a B-24 Liberator, coming under anti-aircraft fire, unloading six 1,000-pound bombs in the north of France.
And nursing a bout of facial frostbite after being exposed to 50-degrees-below-zero temperatures on his return to base.
“At one point, the door of the turret got caught in the wind … and the door flew off and then got jammed. So I couldn’t move the turret,” he says.
“I had to have one of the crew members come and crank the turret so that I could get out. And while all of this was going on … wind was hitting me on the face and that’s how I got frostbite.”
That was his first mission. There would be 34 more – including “the most frightening experience of my combat tour” on D-Day and an emergency bailout over England – that would culminate in the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Becchetti was born on March 31, 1924, in Dawson, New Mexico, nearly a dozen years after 263 men were killed in the second-deadliest mine disaster in U.S. history. Both his grandfather, Domenico, and his father, Frank, worked in the Dawson coal mines, but neither were in mine No. 2 when it exploded in 1913.
After he flunked kindergarten – “Well, it was disciplinary,” he says – the family moved 35 miles north to Raton, where he attended public schools up through fifth grade. Then it was off to a Catholic junior high school in Trinidad, Colorado, before enrolling at Albuquerque High School as a sophomore.
Shortly before graduating in May 1942, Becchetti registered for the draft, but he didn’t wait to be called. In November, he and his buddy Burton Smith visited the Albuquerque Federal Building to consider their options. After speaking with recruiters, both enlisted in the Army Air Corps, the forerunner to the U.S. Air Force, with dreams of flying sleek fighter planes, he said, “like those landing occasionally at Kirtland Field.”
Two months later, Becchetti boarded a train in Albuquerque for the 500-mile trip to frigid Wichita Falls, Texas, for basic training.
Or, in his words, the “hell hole” known as Sheppard Field.
‘Like dogs after a bone’
For Becchetti, basic training in North Texas became the standard against which all future training would be judged.
And not in a good way.
“For almost a month, we were treated almost like animals at Sheppard Field,” he wrote in his collection of war memories. “Our hair was cut down to about an inch, we were injected in both arms, we were subjected to painful calisthenics by seemingly sadistic instructors, we were forced to participate in games on a dirt field called ‘the Cow Pasture’ in which we fought for giant balls like dogs after a bone … Nothing was ever as bad as Sheppard Field.”
Case in point: Wichita University in Kansas, where cadet-bound trainees were sent for two months of mostly academics.
Life was good here, Becchetti says, and not just because of the “beautiful girls” on campus. With the help of his colleagues, he survived his biggest academic challenges, even earning a coach’s half-serious invitation to return after the war to play football. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Becchetti, it turns out, could toss a football 65 yards in the air “like a bullet.”
Still, his stay in Kansas ended with a case of kindergarten redux.
He flunked his flight test.
“I wasn’t very good,” he says. “I couldn’t drive a car; I had never driven a car at that time. And here I was in an airplane trying to fly an airplane. The instructor just couldn’t get me to do anything … Anyway, he gave me a bad grade, and I don’t blame him because I didn’t know what I was doing up there.”
That wasn’t true at his next stop, the San Antonio Classification Center, which would decide whether cadets entered the war as bombardiers, navigators or pilots.
After undergoing a battery of tests, Becchetti was chosen to train as a bombardier, the person responsible for dropping bombs over enemy targets from altitudes of 20,000-25,000 feet while flying 200 miles per hour. That also made him the de facto nose gunner. So when he underwent additional training as a navigator, he became, in Becchetti-speak, a “bombinavitriggalator.”
From here, Becchetti’s course was set: bombardier training at Houston’s Ellington Field; advanced work on the use of bombsights in Big Spring, Texas; combat training with his nine crewmates aboard a B-24 bomber in Casper, Wyoming.
On May 5, 1944, following a grueling 10-day trek, Becchetti and his crew arrived by train at Tibenham, the Norfolk home to their assigned 445th Bomb Group – and American movie star Jimmy Stewart.
Stewart put his award-winning acting career on hold to join the war effort, flying more than a dozen combat missions with the 445th before being promoted up the chain of command. He held the rank of colonel in 1946 when he starred in his first film back as George Bailey in the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The 445th and its 50 bombers were attached to the 8th Air Force, which would lose more than 26,000 men by the end of the war. Statistically, according to Becchetti, the most dangerous place to be in World War II was seated in a bomber flying over Germany.
Becchetti’s most terrifying mission of all was D-Day – but not for the reasons one might think.
On June 6, 1944, he and his crew were awakened at 1:30 a.m. to provide air support for the dawn invasion by 150,000 Allied troops along the beaches of northern France. But, unlike Becchetti’s previous nine missions, this one took flight at 2:52 a.m. in total darkness, making it next to impossible to enter proper formation with his 36-bomber squadron for the 235-mile flight across the English Channel.
“On D-Day, we were in the darkness all the time, and, of course, that really threw us off because we weren’t used to forming our formations at night in the dark,” he says. “We had orders not to shoot flares in order to protect ourselves. But when we got up to 10,000 feet and we were trying to do the formations, everybody was shooting flares to keep from being collided. It was horrible. It was a terrible, terrible experience.”
Unable to join his bombing group, Becchetti and his crew hooked up with a stray B-17 Flying Fortress and B-26 Marauder – “We just looked for anyone going our way,” he says – for the flight to Omaha Beach. Becchetti was supposed to drop fragmentation bombs on enemy gun positions prior to the Allied landing, but he could tell through some breaks in the heavy cloud cover they were too late.
“By that time, we didn’t dare drop our bombs because the troops were already starting to land and they were already wading into D-Day against the defenses. So we just flew over the beach and dropped our bombs 50 miles beyond the beach, and let them fly wherever they went. It was a real mess,” he says.
“We were happy about the invasion and felt confident that it would succeed, but we were miserable about not having done more to help.”
Bailout over England
Another scary flight occurred eight weeks later on mission No. 32, an assignment to bomb a chemical plant in Ludwigshafen, Germany. At 17,000 feet over England, however, the plane encountered engine trouble and began to lose altitude, forcing most of the crew to bail. Becchetti parachuted out at 750 feet, drifting silently through the clouds before landing smack-dab in a newly dug garden, face-planting in the soft dirt.
“Suddenly,” Becchetti says, “this Britisher comes through the hedge and he says, ‘Y’having a bit of trouble, Yank?’ ”
Military police escorted Becchetti back to base, but not before he accepted the Englishman’s gracious invitation into his home for a scotch and soda.
At 9 o’clock in the morning.
Becchetti’s 35th and final mission took place two weeks later, an assignment to bomb a railroad bridge south of Laon, France. The crew met no resistance. When the men returned to Tibenham, Becchetti exited the plane, kneeled and kissed the ground.
His bombing days were over.
So, too, his combat service. On Sept. 3, Becchetti boarded a C-54 transport plane bound for home. After some welcome R&R in California – he danced at the Hollywood Palladium – Becchetti trained for three months as a bombardier instructor in Midland, Texas, before being assigned to New Mexico to train Chinese nationalists at the Carlsbad Army Air Base.
That’s where he was stationed on July 16, 1945, when Manhattan Project scientists tested the world’s first atomic bomb 200 miles away near Alamogordo, foreshadowing the Japanese surrender and the end of the war a month later.
Becchetti was discharged on Sept. 23 – at 7:10 p.m. to be exact – at the Fort Bliss Separation Center in El Paso, Texas. By the next weekend, he was back in Albuquerque for his favorite cousin’s birthday.
One year later, he married Vivienne – they will celebrate their 74th wedding anniversary next month – then took advantage of the G.I. Bill to further his education. He taught and dabbled in small-town politics for a time, then embarked on a 27-year career as a diplomat for the U.S. Foreign Service in Central America. When he retired in 1989, he took up watercoloring as a hobby, painting 500 landscapes while traveling the next 10 years throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The Distinguished Flying Cross ranks among the highest of all military medals, awarded for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” Charles Lindbergh received the first for his trans-Atlantic solo flight. Navy Commander Richard E. Byrd, Amelia Earhart and the Wright Brothers were other early recipients.
That’s pretty esteemed company, but Becchetti won’t have any of it. For him, the Distinguished Flying Cross is a measure of having flown and survived 30 or more missions – no more, no less. Ditto for his Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters and a handful of others.
“They are nice to have, but not really necessary,” he says. “They have nothing to do with heroism. They are just a measurement of my survival of the violence sent my way during the summer of year 1944.”
Nick Pappas is a former city editor at the Albuquerque Journal.