Emily Charles, Curator, American Air Museum
Monday 8 July 2019

Published in 1961 by American author Joseph Heller, Catch-22 is a satirical novel about the experiences of the fictional 256th Squadron in Italy, from 1942-44.  Heller himself had served in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations – the area of North Africa and Italy covered by US soldiers - in the US Army Air Force (USAAF) in 1944. Although he initially claimed that the novel was purely a work of fiction, many of the characters and events illustrated in the book are parallel’s to Heller’s own experience of conflict.

Heller joined the USAAF aged 19 in 1942. He arrived in Corsica in May 1944 and flew 60 missions over France and Italy before completing his tour of duty in October that year. Like Catch-22’s protagonist Captain John Yossarian, Heller was also a bombardier aboard B-25 Mitchell aircraft which were used to bomb targets accurately and effectively. The success or failure of each mission was reliant on Heller - and his alter-ego Yossarian's - ability to do their duty. 

B-25 Mitchell 8U

Joseph Heller's Catch-22 aircraft, the B-25J Mitchell

B-25 Mitchell 8U

Heller served with the 488th Bomb Squadron, 340th Bomb Group which flew B-25 Mitchell: one of the most widely used aircraft of the Second World War which Heller described as ‘stable, dependable,’ and ‘dull-green’.  In the Mediterranean theatre, under the command of the USAAF’s 12th Air Force B-25, Mitchells were used to support the troops on the ground as they fought through southern Europe. Many of the missions involved attacking bridges and other transport targets.

Like many airmen, Heller flew on board several aircraft during his service, including the B-25 Mitchell 8U. IWM’s B-25 Mitchell, which never saw combat service, was re-painted to represent an 8U in 2015. Heller served on 8Us for three of his 60 missions.

The IWM B-25 Mitchell is on display at our IWM Duxford American Air Museum

Heller's 8U was nicknamed 'L’il Critter From the Moon,’ after the popular US cartoon character, L’il Abner which was painted on to the aircraft’s nose. It replaced the original drawing of a baby's bottle which had been used to reflect the term ‘milk run,’ the name crews gave to missions they thought were safe or easy. A superstitious commanding officer, however, considered 'milk run' to be an unsuitable name for the aircraft and ordered it to be changed. 

Looking back on his service Heller reflected: 'People think it quite remarkable that I was in combat in an airplane and I flew sixty missions, even though I tell them that the missions were largely 'milk runs'.'

He neglected to mention that he experienced heavy anti-aircraft fire on over half of them.  ‘L’il Critter From the Moon’ was ultimately lost in a mid-air-collision on 21 January 1945, its remains are displayed in the AAM.

Avignon

L'il Critter from the Moon's wreckage remains
L'il Critter from the Moon's wreckage remains following a mid-air collision in 1945 (AIR 599 )

Avignon

One scene in the book describes how Yossarian dangles from the ceiling of the nose of his aircraft by the top of his head, unable to move. It’s a key Catch-22 moment which Heller found the inspiration for during a flight in the 8U over Avignon on 15 August 1944. As Heller’s group experienced heavy anti-aircraft fire over the target, the pilot was forced to take such extreme evasive action that Heller was thrown from his seat inside its nose, and pinned against the top of the Perspex dome by the G-force. The action cause Heller’s headset to become detached, causing confusion among his crew.

“I’m the bombardier,” Yossarian cried back at him. “I’m the bombardier. I’m alright, I’m all right.”
“Then help him, help him,” Dobbs begged. “Help him, help him" - Catch-22

In the book, a side gunner called Snowden is wounded in the leg and Yossarian is unable to stop him from bleeding to death. In reality, Seargeant Carl Frankel, the side gunner on Heller’s crew was injured on board the 8U over Avignon but Heller was able to save him. The moment serves as a catalyst for Yossarian’s outlook for the majority of the book, and embodied his desire to avoid death.

Pont-Saint-Martin

Aftermath on the bomb on Pont-Saint-Martin, Italy
Istituto Luce-Cinecittà

Pont-Saint-Martin

One of the important scenes in the last act of Catch-22 is a bombing raid on a small, undefended Italian village. Heller’s characters, already disenchanted by their service, don’t like the idea of attacking civilians without warning and verbally protest against the mission until they’re ordered to do so. Yossarian’s friend Dunbar is later ‘disappeared’ by the US Army, when he refuses to carry out the attack.

‘Yossarian no longer gave a damn where his bombs fell, although he did not go as far as Dunbar, who dropped his bombs hundreds of yards past the village’ - Catch-22

Catch-22, Delores Avetta
Courtesy of Dolores Avetta

The characters of Catch-22 were not alone in questioning the necessity of an attack on such a small town. On 23 August 1944, Heller took part in a bombing mission to destroy the bridges around the Italian town of Pont-Saint-Martin.

Dolores Avetta, was eight at the time. Her family were celebrating a birthday party and were delighted to see aircraft fly over their town, until the bombs began to fall.

'It is my most bitter memory’ - Dolores Avetta

'One of the things that horrified me the most was this lady who I knew well because she was our customer who was completely naked with all the skin off,' said Delores. 'And the colour of the body of this woman was orange. And she was lifeless, was dead. And she was almost at my feet, about three metres away from me. This was a dreadful thing and I smelt that body, which was a horrible smell. Really, a smell of death, putrefaction, gangrene, I don’t know, but it was something terrible. It is my most bitter memory.’'

The attack devastated the town, killing 130 people were and wounding 300 and for many years, the people of the town bitterly debated why they were chosen for attack. Later, research showed that the bombing was ordered to try and stop the German army in North Italy reinforcing their defences in Southern France.

See the B-25 Mitchell at the American Air Museum at IWM Duxford. Visitors can also view objects and stories related to Catch-22 and the the events at Pont-Saint-Martin.  

Related content

Off Duty: Locals and United States troops meet at the Dove Inn, Burton Bradstock, Dorset, 1944.
American troops and locals at the Dove Inn, Burton Bradstock, in Dorset, 1944.
Second World War
Tips For American Servicemen In Britain During The Second World War
In 1942, the first of over 1.5 million American servicemen arrived on British shores in preparation for the Allied offensives against Germany during the Second World War. That year, the United States' War Department published Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain to help soldiers, sailors and airmen – many of whom had never travelled abroad before – adjust to life in a new country. 
Keystone Photo Shows: Gable talks, from behind a machine-gun, to Sgt. Gunner Phil Hulse, of Springfield, Mo., Right, and Sgt. Gunner Kenneth Huls, from Perkin, Oklahoma.’ On reverse: US Army General Section Press & Censorship Bureau [Stamp]. Print No: 268131.
Second World War
American Airmen In Britain During The Second World War
Over two million American servicemen passed through Britain during the Second World War. In 1944, at the height of activity, up to half a million were based there with the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). Their job was to man and maintain the vast fleets of aircraft needed to attack German cities and industry. 
Inside the American Air Museum
©IWM
American Air Museum

IWM Duxford

Permanent