A group of amateur researchers have discovered dramatic evidence for one of World War II's last Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and Luftwaffe's JG 53 “Aces of Spades” dogfights, revealing a forgotten story of courage and survival.
The team unearthed the remains of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, an American single-engine, single-seat fighter and ground attack aircraft, in the Lepini mountains near the village of Gorga some 50 miles from Rome.
The finding prompted the group to reconstruct some powerful events which occurred 69 years ago. Involving U.S. pilots and Italian civilians, the story mainly centers on Lt. James Dealy, one of three U.S. pilots shot down during an aerial fight in 1944.
All the American pilots were aboard P-40 Warhawks. Known for the "shark-mouth" artwork on its nose, this fighter first flew in 1938 and was then used by the air forces of 28 nations, including most of the Allied powers during World War II, remaining in frontline service until the end of the war.
“We found parts of the engine, sheets of metal and the remains of ammunitions belonging to a M2 Browning machine gun up high in the mountains,” Marco Ballini, a wreck hunter from Montelanico near Rome, told Discovery News.
With the help of Air Crash Po, a group of wreck hunters from Cremona, Ballini and colleagues were able to identify the wreckage fragments as belonging to the plane.
“Archival research and witnesses revealed the plane crashed on May 13, 1944. That was the last fight in the Mediterranean war theater involving the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk planes,” Agostino Alberti of the Air Crash Po group told Discovery News.
“Further research made it possible to establish that the fighter’s pilot was 23-year-old Lt. Arthur F. Kusch. He was flying with seven other pilots belonging to the 324th Fighter Group,” Alberti said.
The pilot team took off from Pignataro Maggiore, near Naples, for an armed reconnaissance mission near Rome. Flying over the Liri valley, looking for possible targets, the U.S. pilots were caught by 8–10 German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters.
In the fight that followed, three American planes were shot down. The first to be hit was Kusch’s aircraft. It crashed from about 10,000 feet, leaving no hope for the pilot, who had remained inside the plane. His body was first buried by local civilians near the crash site and later moved to Saint Louis County cemetery.
The plane of Lt. Matthew O’Brien was the next to come under fire, and he was able to bail out, wounded in a leg. O’Brien was befriended and hidden away by three Italian civilians for more than a month, until the liberation of the region by the advancing Allied troops.
“Unfortunately, that’s all we know about Lt. O’Brien,” Alberti said.
The last to be hit was 28-year-old Lt. James F. Dealy, who bailed out further south, injuring his leg. He too was saved by Italian civilians.
“I have identified the crash sites of both Dealy and O’Brien’s planes, but the pieces are not easy to reach as they lay up high in rugged mountains,” Frateschi said.