Joseph Heller, Catch-22 and the Second World War
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
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.
The B-25 Mitchell in the American Air Museum, which never saw combat service, was re-painted to represent an 8U in 2015. Heller served on 8Us for three of his 60 missions.
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.
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
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.
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
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 (right), 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.
'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.’'