Italians honor pilots of U.S. WWII bomber

Nearly 70 years after they died when their crippled bomber slammed into a northern Italian mountain, the two Americans at the controls of the ill-fated warplane are being honored by residents of a village near the crash site.

The B-25 Mitchell dubbed “Maybe” was damaged during a bombing run near Trento during World War II. Pilot Earl Remmel of Hooker, Oklahoma, and co-pilot Leslie Speer of Jeffersontown, Kentucky, kept the plane steady long enough for the other five crew members to bail out. The plane crashed into a mountain moments later.

“There’s no question that Remmel and Speer were heroes,” said Silas Barrett of Norfolk, Massachusetts, who was a 19-year-old gunner when he safely parachuted to the ground along with the other crewmen on Feb. 6, 1945. All five were captured by the Italian police and handed over to the Germans.

In the alpine village of Ronzo di Chienis, the two pilots are remembered as heroes for another reason. With their airplane severely damaged by antiaircraft fire before it could complete its bombing run over a rail yard, Remmel and Speer apparently decided not to jettison their bombs as they flew over the nearby village during a desperate effort to gain altitude so the crew could bail out.

“From reports I’ve heard from the town, they consider my dad a hero also because it saved the town,” said Barbara Nash, Remmel’s daughter, who was only 1?½ when her father died.

Nash, of Troup, Texas, will be in Ronzo di Chienis on Sunday for the dedication of the memorial to her father and Speer. Her husband, their three daughters, a son-in-law and a granddaughter also are making the trip, which includes a visit to Remmel’s grave in the American military cemetery in Florence.

Nash said she’s overwhelmed by the tribute the Italians are paying to the two pilots. “It’s a great honor,” she said.

Also planning on attending are the two daughters of Bronx native Isidore Ifshin, the only other of the five crew members still living. Health problems are keeping the 90-year-old retired postmaster at home in Boca Raton, Florida.

Remmel was on his 70th mission when his plane was shot down, according to Ben Appleby, an organizer of Sunday’s memorial ceremony and co-author of a book on the Maybe’s last flight. For Ifshin, the plane’s engineer and top turret gunner, it was his 60th and final mission.

“I got away with it 60 times. They got me in the end,” Ifshin said. “Sooner or later, something’s gotta give. That’s the way it is.”

The ceremony includes the unveiling of a memorial plaque bearing the pilots’ names and placing it near the crash site, speeches by local officials, and the opening of an exhibit on the Maybe and the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which fought the Germans in northern Italy at the end of the war. Organizers said a representative from the U.S. Air Force and soldiers from the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade based in Aviano, Italy, also are expected to attend.

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