Before flying off to war in North African in the spring of 1942 during World War II, Bruno Virgili married Lulubelle Gaehner. It wasn’t easy. He was a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps stationed in Long Beach, Calif. She was working in a munitions plant in Connecticut.
“My wife-to-be took a DC-3 (airliner) out to Long Beach to meet me. When she arrived I had to give her the bad news,” the 95-year-old former Air Force officer recalled 70 years later telling his war story.
“There was a three day waiting period in California before we could get married. I knew her family wouldn’t approve of us being together for three days without being man and wife. So we went to Las Vegas and got married right away,” he said with a smile.
By the time the war was over Virgili was a lieutenant colonel in the 42nd Bombardment Wing. He was part of First Fighter Group comprised of P-38 “Lightning” fighter planes. They arrived in North Africa shortly after Gen. Erwin Rommel’s North Afrika Korps showed a green American Army division how costly war could be during the Battle in for the Kasserine Pass in the Atlas Mountains of Tunisia in ’42.
His DD-214 tells his tale. Virgili was: “Operations and Training Staff Officer who served on the staff of a Medium Bombardment Wing in operations over Italy and Central Europe. Assisted in mission planning for four bombardment groups (72 B-26 airplanes in each group). Supervised gunnery training with power operated turrets. Supervised maintenance and care of 75 P-38 fighter airplanes in England and North Africa.”
Virgili’s records indicated he saw action in: Algeria-French Morocco, Tunisia, Sicily, Naples-Foggia, Rome-Arno, North Appennines, Northern France, Rhineland, Central Europe, and the Air Offensive Europe.
His proudest moment in the Second World War may have been in North Africa when he designed a skip bomb rack for P-38s that attached under the wings of the twin engine fighters.
“We used the skip bombs when the Germans moved their troops by barge from North Africa to Sicily,” Virgili said. “I received a Legion of Merit medal for my bomb rack.
“On the way to war in North Africa, I remember being stuck in Greenland because of the weather. I had the good fortune of playing cards with Maj. Paul Tibbets. He was a very unassuming mild-mannered officer. I was a second lieutenant at the time.”
Tibbets went on to command a B-17 bomber squadron in Europe. He piloted a “Flying Fortress” dubbed the “Red Gremlin.” What he is best remembered for is the “Enola Gay,” a B-29 bomber named for his mother, he flew that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan helping end World War II.
“In Iceland, on our way over, one of our P-38 pilots shot down a four-engine German observation bomber. What was important about that was it may have been the earliest engagements where an America pilot destroyed a German bomber during World War II,” he said.
“After flying to Scotland and on to England we embarked for North Africa landing in Algeria on Nov. 9, 1942. We moved on to Tebessa, Youks Les Bains, not far from the Tunisian border, where we took over an old French airfield,” Virgili said. “The one and only redeeming feature about the area was a Roman bath with clean, warm running water we used regularly while we slept in pup tents in the desert.
“We celebrated our first Thanksgiving of the war in North Africa. We found a native who swapped us a goose for a mosquito net. With nostalgic memories of past Thanksgivings we built a spit and started an open fire. It turned out the goose was old and tough, but we enjoyed our Thanksgiving in North African anyway. Sadly it was not to be our last Thanksgiving away from home.”
After a lot of effort by Allied forces in North Africa, including Virgili’s First Fighter Group of P-38 fighters, Rommel and his North Afrika Korps withdrew to Sicily. Allied forces were close behind. It was at this point he became the operations officer for four squadrons of B-26, twin-engine attack bombers–288 bombers.
“Their primary function was to bomb German railroad marshaling yards, bridges, anti-aircraft emplacements and targets of opportunity: enemy tanks, trains or rolling stock,” he said.
After Allied forces ran the Germans out of Sicily, Virgili and his B-26 bombers were used during Gen. Mark Clark’s 5th Army invasion on the beach at Anzio along the west coast of Italy.
“We operated out of Cantina, Italy with our bombers. We provided air support for the Americans who were trapped on the beach at Anzio,” he said. “Mark Clark was a lousy general who let the Germans take the high ground before we could take it.”
Clark was obsessed with capturing Rome from German forces. But Rome was declared an open city. Clark’s legions walk into the “Eternal City” without a fight.
Virgili’s last big battle in World War II was the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino in Northern Italy. The Germans were using the 1,500 year old abbey to anchor their Gustav Line of enemy fortifications.
Allied bombers, including the four groups of B-26s he was responsible for, dumped 1,400 tons of bombs on the church in mid-February 1944 reducing it to rubble. Almost immediately, German paratroopers took positions atop the rubble. Before the battle was over it would require 20 Allied division to force the enemy from their hill top at Monte Cassino.
When he retuned from war in 1946, he took the G. I. Bill and continue his education at North Western University in Chicago. Virgili graduated with a degree in dentistry and established a practice in Portland, Conn. he ran for 37 years.
He and Lulubelle first came to Florida in 1970 and bought a condo in Venice. On April 21 the couple celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. They had two children: Jim and Laura. Their daughter died several years ago.
Name: Bruno J. Virgili
D.O.B: 17 May 1917
Hometown: Chicago, Ill.
Currently: Placida, Fla.
Entered Service: 25 Oct. 1941
Discharged: 13 Feb. 1946
Unit: 42 Bombardment Wing
Commendations: Legion of Merit, American Defense Service Ribbon, American Theater Ribbon, EAME Theater Ribbon w/2 Silver Battle Stars, 6 OS Service Stars
Battles/Campaigns: Algeria-French Moroccan, Tunisian, Sicilian, Naples-Foggia, Rome-Arno, North Appennines, Northern France, Rhineland, Central Europe Air Offensive
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, May 6, 2013 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view the War Tales fan page on FaceBook.
Click here to search Veterans Records and to obtain information on retrieving lost commendations.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.