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The World War II Fighter Pilot who led the way to a Family Service Legacy

Above: Squadron patch of the 365th Fighter Bomber Squadron.

Article by A170 Tom Rozman

2nd Lieutenant August “Bobby” Garcea

Recently my son-in-law’s father shared a remembrance of a family member, 2nd Lieutenant August “Bobby” Garcea, U. S. Army Air Force, written and published in 1995 by his cousin Mr. Larry Garcia of California.  The title of the remembrance, His Spirit Lives On, captures the sense of the work.  It is a poignant narrative that resonates with anyone whose family members served during World War II, especially families that lost family members while they were in service.   The story also suggests the powerful legacy leadership by example aspect of the subject.

This leadership aspect is significant to address as the remaining veterans of this great struggle of World War II leave us at an accelerating pace. President George Bush’s last muster with us recently makes the point.

On a personal level, the veterans of World War II were an intimate part of my experience from my first memories.  Just in the fairly immediate family, my father, five known great uncles, 24 uncles and an aunt served in the armed forces.  My father and 15 uncles served during the war as well as a nephew of my grandmother and three of her brothers.  They served in the Army, Army Air Force and Navy.  Because of the larger family networks across Canada, New England, the Great Lakes region, Louisiana and East Texas, the extended French origin family had a much larger in-service footprint during the war.

But it wasn’t just family.  I grew up in the Army of the late 1940s to mid 1960s.  Many mid-grade and most senior officers and senior non-commissioned officers were veterans of the war. They were members of units my father was assigned to, neighbors in post quarters, scout troop adult leaders, chapel deacons, Department of Defense School teachers, proprietors of stores frequented, fathers of school classmates…they were very much a part of one’s life, teaching many early lessons in leadership and a significant source of good mentoring.

Even by the time I entered the Army’s rolls in the mid-1960s, the World War II veteran presence remained substantial to my experience.  Senior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) who had served in the war remained in my chain of command into the early 1980s and considering the president as commander-in-chief, into the 1990s and my retirement from the Army.

In this regard, seven post war U. S. presidents were veterans of the war, six as commissioned officers, one a senior commander of allied armies.  Another president who served as the commander-in-chief during the closing phases of the war, and afterward, was a combat veteran of World War I as well as a National Guard field artillery colonel.

Intermixed in the interfaces with this generation of leaders who, just in their acceptance of the duty to serve, exhibited a powerful form of leadership by example to my generation, were the stories of those who did not return.  The pain and loss felt by the families was palpable.  Even 32 years, and longer, afterward, the loss of my grandmother’s brother, Corporal Aimé Gagné, Company K, 23rd Infantry Regiment at Belleau Wood, France on 6 June 1918 continued to affect the family.  His story is told in the family to this day.

For the above reasons and others, 2nd Lieutenant Garcea’s story is one I think that bears remembrance.  The leadership he exhibited through his example of service and courage remains relevant today.  It is an inspiration to the following generations of family and people who love liberty.

Son of Joseph Garcea and Filomina Leonetti Garcea, Bobby Garcea grew up in Spokane, Washington.  Joseph had immigrated from the Calabria Region of Southern Italy in 1892 progressively operating a saloon in Boston, Massachusetts and Spokane then the proprietorship of the Western Bottling Company in Spokane, a long lasting and successful business.   He and Filomina married in 1906 in a Catholic ceremony in Spokane and raised a family of nine children of whom Bobby was the eighth.  He was born on 15 August 1921 in Spokane.

Thanks to the successful family business, the family lived well through the depression.  Bobby along with his siblings worked at the plant when not in school.

Bobby Garcea graduated from Lewis and Clark High School where he was a star quarterback on the football team being named to the All-City Team in his senior year.  He was a member of the Tiger Club, an athletic organization and had a high school girl friend.

The late 1930s and 1940s were a prosperous time for the bottling company, especially with the end of prohibition and the company’s expansion into beer and wine and the success of its distributorship for the new Pepsi-Cola product.  The family’s business success and work at the bottling plant allowed Bobby to continue his education at Washington State College after high school graduation in 1940.  He continued in this career working at the plant to make his tuition money.

On 7 December the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S Naval and Army Air Corps installations and fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaiian Islands.  The country was at war.  In July 1942, Bobby Garcea enlisted for the Army Air Corps’ Aviation Cadet Program.

Though he applied for the fighter pilot track, he was initially assigned to the Navigator School at Hondo, Texas.  However, within a month he received further orders to proceed to the Glider Pilot School at Stuttgart, Arkansas.   Gliders during World War II were employed something akin to helicopters in the air assault mode of today.  They were a means of transporting large infantry and supporting artillery and anti-tank formations into enemy territory behind forward enemy positions using any available open terrain.

Bobby Garcea (far right) during early Army Air Force training

After starting the program in December 1943 Bobby successfully completed the Glider School in early 1943 and was awarded his Glider Pilot Wings and was promoted to Staff Sergeant.  He was initially retained at the school as an instructor.  Subsequently he was ordered to proceed to Primary Flight School at the Army Air Force Southeast Training Center in Union City, Tennessee.  Through May and June of 1943 Bobby mastered elementary pilot skills on the Stearman PT-17, a biplane with fixed landing gear and a 250 horsepower radial engine, eventually flying the aircraft solo.

U.S. Army Air Force Staff Sergeant August “Bobby” Garcea as glider pilot

On graduation Bobby proceeded to Walnut Ridge Army Air Force Flying School, Walnut Ridge, Arkansas for basic flight training.  He was introduced to the Vultee BT-13A and its more powerful 450 horsepower engine.  He successfully completed this phase of pilot training and was ordered to Single Engine School at Napier Field, Alabama.

Shortly after arrival at Napier Field Bobby was introduced to the North American AT-6 and its 650 horsepower engine.   A much more capable monoplane aircraft with retractable landing gear, it showed that the pace of training toward flying fighter aircraft was picking up.   Success with this phase of training led to selection for training, also at Napier Field, on the Curtis P-40.  A front line fighter early in the war and still serving in forward areas as a ground attack aircraft, it was now being employed as a transition fighter aircraft for training in the U.S.

On 10 October 1943, Bobby flew to Eglin Field Army Air Force Base, Florida for the Aerial Gunnery Course.  He met qualification standards and was awarded the Expert Aerial Gunnery Badge.  He completed Advanced Single Engine School and was rated an Army Air Force pilot at the end of October receiving his instrument rating on 1 November.

On 3 November, Bobby was discharged from the Army of the United States.  He then swore the commissioning oath as a newly commissioned 2nd lieutenant, U. S. Army Air Force.  He proceeded to Mitchel Filed, New York to train on the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt one of the Army Air Force’s cutting edge fighters.  Before proceeding to New York, he took a brief 10 day leave to visit family in Spokane.  He had entered the elite arm of fighter pilot…with all of what that meant.

From Mitchell Field, now 2nd Lieutenant Garcea was ordered on 17 November to Richmond Army Air Base on Richmond, Virginia’s east side for training on the P-47.  On arrival, he was assigned to the 327th Fighter Group’s 323rd Fighter Squadron.

2nd Lieutenant Bobby Garcea leaning on the cowling of a P-47

During this period of training Bobby was hospitalized and experienced surgery for a pilonidal cyst.  After discharge from the hospital Bobby chose to take his 15 day convalescent leave by traveling and recuperating in Spokane.  On 29 March 1944 he was given a physical and declared fit to return to flight status.  P-47 training resumed with a vengeance.

Initial re-familiarization on flight status occurred on a BT-13A followed by a dogged seven weeks of daily flying in the P-47 bringing his solo hours in his log book to 366.  On 7 June 1944 training completed and Bobby took pre-deployment leave to Spokane in late June and early July.  He returned to the replacement depot at Richmond Army Air Base then proceeded to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey for shipment to England, arriving at Camp Kilmer on 17 July.  On the 23rd he boarded the troopship Mauretania in New York City.

In late July Mauretania docked along the Mersey River in Liverpool.  Bobby was  transported to the Replacement Depot at Stone then forwarded to the 495th Fighter Training Group at Atcham.

Concentrated combat training on the P-47D followed.  On 30 August Bobby’s orders had been cut assigning him to the 358th Fighter Group operating in France.  He and his several pilot friends had been given choices.  They chose the 358th because it had a high pilot replacement rate.  Their thinking was that this meant it was an aggressive combat unit…they’d be going where the action was.

Confident in his ability to fight the P-47D with 393.5 solo hours in his log book and extended training, 2nd Lieutenant Bobby Garcea began the transition to warrior as a combat fighter pilot.  It would be grueling, dangerous and too often fatal work for many pilots.

Though the P-47 had previously been a major means of gaining air superiority over Western European skies…Army Air Force pilots like the European Theater top ace at 28 reconfirmed kills in World War II, Colonel Francis S. Gabreski, flew the P-47 (6 ½ kills in Korea flying the F-86 Sabre for 38 ½ lifetime kills, one of only 7 U.S. fighter pilots who became aces in two wars), its mission had changed.   At this stage of the war the P-47s were almost entirely used as fighter bombers flying low to the earth hitting every ground target of value…troop positions, convoys, airfields, trains, barges and bridges…anything of tactical or operational value.  The low level flight meant that everything could be thrown at them from the ground and air and if the pilot had to leave the aircraft, he was so low his chute would likely not deploy in time to save him.  It was dangerous, deadly work.

As rugged and powerful as the P-47 was, the numbers speak for themselves in terms of the form of combat and its danger.  Of the 15,638 P-47s produced fully a third were destroyed in combat operations.  As stunning as this loss rate is, it is even more telling when compared against other combat aircraft loss rates that were significantly less.  And the P-47 was one of World War II’s toughest aircraft in terms of absorbing damage and still being able to fly.  The losses were a direct reflection of the mission.

The deadliness of the duty underscored the courage and bravery of the pilots who flew the missions.  By this time in the war a pilot in a P-47 flew missions until either combat operations ceased or he was shot down and either captured or killed.  There were no “magic” number of missions to fly…the pilot now flew for the duration.  Many of these late war pilots who survived were well over 100 missions by war’s end.

Bobby began combat operations from strip A-28 near Pontorson 60 miles south of the D-Day beaches in August 1944.  The 358th Fighter Group was supporting VII U.S. Corps, part of General Patton’s 3rd Army in its drive out of the Brest Peninsula.  From this point Bobby would fly progressively across France from strips A-67 at Vitry-le-France in September, strip A-80 at Mourmilon in October, and strip A-90 at Toul by November.  He would fly his  28th and last mission from strip A-90 on 25 November.

P-47D of the 365th Fighter Bomber Squadron, 358th Fighter Group—“Orange Tails”

The French 2nd Armored Division had taken Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, on 23 November. A small portion of Alsace north of Strasbourg remained under German control, an area called the Bas-Rhin.  Bobby had flown in missions against these positions on 11 November.  Now, on 25 November German pontoon bridges at two locations would be the 358th Fighter Group’s primary targets, one attack hitting a bridge to the north and the second mission to strike a pontoon bridge to the south and continue into Germany on an armed reconnaissance.

Bobby would be assigned to the second mission as an element leader in the Blue Flight of four P-47s.  Blue flight’s mission was to over fly (serve as “top flight”) to the ten aircraft of the White, Red and Yellow Flights as they flew low to hit their targets and give them cover if the formation was attacked.  The mission report stated 30 Me Bf 109s, though the actual strength of the German force was likely closer to 15 aircraft, attacked the 358th.

It was a tactic of the Germans at this stage of the war to make a demonstration causing the P-47s to drop their ordnance, then pull off.  Instead, on this day the German gaggle flew down into the 358th making a sudden diving turn into Blue Flight opening up with their 20mm cannon.   All P-47s dropped their ordnance and a dogfight erupted.

In perhaps a minute the melee had ended.  Three German aircraft were noted to have gone down by the pilots of the 358th and the remainder withdrew.  The 358th reformed noting element leader Garcea’s P-47 absent and no contact with him.  He had last been seen heavily engaged in a fight with a German fighter. Initial search produced no results.  The unit returned to base.

Spokane, Washington newspaper article announcing Lieutenant Garcea as missing in action

Another fighter group returning from mission overflew the area and did note an orange tailed white cowling striped P-47 that had belly landed and appeared intact but there was no sign of the pilot in the cockpit or on the ground.  Though the aircraft was a scant 3 miles from XV Corps positions, a short walk in normal times, German control and as it happened extensive mine belts made the area a deadly playground.

An attempt was made by the 358th in April on the allies pushing into Germany and on reaching Sondhofen to send an officer back into the now occupied area of the site, but to no avail.  The aircraft had gone down in a German Army training area in the Hagenau Forest, a German Army training area that proved unreachable at the time the 358th’s officer visited the area due to blown bridges and uncleared mines.  The officer was able to determine from interviews of construction workers that an orange tailed, white striped cowling P-47 was located in the area where one had been reported.  Further search in the area found no trace of Bobby Garcia.

The 358th made several other unsuccessful search attempts.  But these ceased when the unit   was returned to the United States in August 1945.  The group deactivated at La Junta, Colorado.

In July 1946 bridges had been rebuilt.  Private First Class Arthur Barnes of the 535th Quartermaster Company was able to reach the site.  The aircraft was relatively intact its tail faded to a red color.  Twenty feet from the right wing tip was a wooden cross.  The body had been wrapped in the remains of a parachute and covered by a mattress cover.

Quartermaster records indicated that the body had suffered severe burns.  It had been shot in the chest area by small arms.  Positive identification was made of the body using dental records.  Lieutenant Bobby Garcia was determined “Killed in Action.”

Later information from ground reports by one Mueller Albert who had been digging trenches in the Oberhofen artillery firing range stated that on or about the time of the 358th’s engagement he had observed a German and an American fighter engaged in a fight and saw both aircraft on fire and crashing.  Due to German presence, the observer was unable to return to the site for three days.  When he did he noted that the body was burned but had been hit with small arms fire in the lungs.  He didn’t know who buried the body.

This statement was corroborated by the 358th in its report that Bobby Garcia’s plane was last seen heavily engaged.  Further, the 366th Fighter Squadron on return from its mission overflew the vicinity of the Hagenau Forest on 25 November 1944 and observed the dogfight reporting “four” German aircraft going down.

Mr. Larry Garcea in the research done for his book contacted Herr Winfried Bock, an expert on German claims information.  Herr Bock confirmed that IV Gruppe, Jagdgeschwader 4 under command of Hauptmann Franz Wienhusen had engaged a U. S. Force over Hagenau Forest on 25 November 1944.  The unit lost ”four” Me Bf 109s.

Though this information remains insufficient for the Air Force to award the aerial victory, the information strongly supports the conclusion that Blue Flight element leader 2nd Lieutenant Bobby Garcea did what he was trained to do.  He engaged and destroyed the enemy.  He was alive on the ground initially as the P-47 could not have belly landed without a pilot flying the aircraft.  Without a pilot the tremendous weight of the engine would quickly put the plane into a nose dive.

Initially interred in St. Avold, France, Lieutenant August Garcea, U. S. Army Air Force was permanently interred at Golden Gate National Cemetery near San Francisco, California on 30 August 1948.  A brave warrior had returned.

2nd Lieutenant August Garcea’s headstone at Golden Gate National Cemetery near San Francisco, California

The leadership example of the warriors of 1941-45, especially those who faced and braved combat as 2nd Lieutenant Bobby Garcia did, resonates through time to their families today.  The Garcea Family has had members serve in the armed forces in the last two generations with one in service with the Air Force today.  These following service members from the family are a form of family salute to this brave fighter pilot and his leadership by example, leadership that pointed the way for other family members to follow and serve.

358th Fighter Group