The Reel Catch-22, Part 3: The War Diaries

Today’s post was written by Burton Blume, a brand consultant/creative strategist based in Tokyo, Japan. He contacted us last year when we featured footage shot by his father, Lt. Wilbur T. Blume. In part one of this series of posts, Blume traced his father’s story up to when Lt. Blume was assigned the task of producing a film about the training of 340th Bomb Group air crews. In part two, Blume discussed Catch-22 author Joseph Heller’s involvement in the film. In this final installment, Blume looks to the 340th Bomb Group War Diaries for more evidence of the inspiration for Heller’s classic novel. 

The War Diaries

Literary scholars should note that during the time Training During Combat was being produced from July-September 1944, the airmen of the 340th were flying some of their most critical and dangerous missions over targets in northern Italy and southern France. For my father, Joe Heller and the other men of the 340th Bomb Group, this would have been a period of intense exhilaration and fear.

The War Diaries are a series of daily observations about life in the group. Composed by an officer in Group Operations, they are often no longer than a paragraph long and are written in an informal manner. The 57th Bomb Wing Association has made these documents available online.

WTB & Flak Fodder II Crew
Lt. Blume (3rd from left) with the crew of Flak Fodder II. Photo courtesy of Burton Blume.

During the second half of 1944, the War Diary of the 340th Bomb Group provides additional insights that help us understand Col. Cathcart’s PR program and the themes that Heller exploits for satirical effect in Catch-22:

“Squadrons are trying to get as many medals and decorations for their men as possible, and seem to be heroicizing many a routine action in the process. Each unit in the 340th group is trying to raise its bombing efficiency above the other, and the 340th is doing its best to outdistance the other two B-25 groups. Public relations, as a result of Colonel Chapman’s interest, is trying to turn out more pictures and stories on personnel than it ever did before.”

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, June 10, 1944

Wing PRO, 1st Lt. John W. Dillon, Florida, arrived to analyze and inject some adrenalin as well as converse with Colonel Chapman regarding the PRO situation here in the Group. Principalling [sic] the endeavor will be to boost the Group’s production of PR material several thousand percent, and to attempt equaling the volume of output of other Groups in this wing. If necessary, though far from his preference, the Colonel agreed to permit what he referred to as “Rubber Stamp Stories” so as to meet the desired volume…

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, August 3, 1944

Bombardier’s skills and training were subject to special scrutiny:

Captain Eggers, Group P.I. Officer continues to be pestered by grieved lead bombardiers claiming that their pattern of bombs were not the bombs to overshoot the target etc. But photographs seldom deceive the trained eye and so long it is known what order the boxes bombed in their run over the target, there is little ground for argument…

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, August 7, 1944

Photo courtesy of Burton Blume.

Provisioning the 340th often involved special logistics and negotiating skills:

The Catania Mission returned partially successful with a total of 200 Litres of Assorted beverages for the Enlisted Men’s club and an endless assortment of fresh vegetables including some 1800 eggs for headquarters’ mess…

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, August 13, 1944

As the mission limit was raised, the stress of combat began to show, and some men took their complaints to the CO:

Something entirely new in the way of disciplinary problems cropped up today. The up-cropping is the result of the recent order of this Wing that the men are to fly till they can fly no more. So many of the men having come into combat with a seeming understanding that at fifty they would be entitled to furloughs or rotation back to the States, and later to have the ante raised to 53 and now raised indefinitely find themselves grumbling quite loudly. On the morning of the completion of their 55th mission two gunners and several officers turned to the Squadron C.O. telling him that they thought they had had enough flying and hoped to be taken off combat status. The two gunners are now in the guard house under charges of misbehaving before the enemy. Actually all that was involved was their telling the C.O. their intentions to no longer fly. It is apparent that the Group Commander and Wing Commander are both interested in having the charges pressed if for no other purpose than to have a test case upon which to base further action. Other combat members of the Group have grievously resented this reaction of the Colonel and have lost much of the respect previously held toward him. The matter is now under investigation…

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, August 20, 1944

Filming Training During Combat. Photo courtesy of Burton Blume.

Through the following interweaving diary entries that mention Training During Combat, the mission limit being raised and medals being awarded, the imaginary world of Catch-22 begins to come into focus.

“The 340th Group, it appears, will get into the motion picture business to a greater extent than ever before, in the near future. In the past the Group has carried newsreel and combat film cameramen on missions, and much movie footage has also been taken of our personnel on the ground, our planes and installations, but now the Group is to help make an orientation or general information film on the extent of training undergone by air crews while flying combat. The Story and “shooting script” have already been produced by 2nd Lt. Wilbur T. Blume of Oxford, Ohio, commander of the Ninth Combat Camera detachment here, and Tech Sergeant Hickey, of Group Public Relations. The film will be called “Training During Combat” and will show how a replacement crew arrives at the 340th base and continues training throughout an entire tour of combat duty. The project still requires the perusal and approbation of Colonel Chapman, Group Commander, but apparently he will be very happy for the opportunity to “plug” the Group, his organization…”

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, September 7, 1944

“Lt. Wilbur T. Blume of Ohio and the 9th Combat Camera Detachment of which he was C.O. and which had been with us for some time, moved out lock, stock and barrel, destination Florence. Before leaving he completed his motion picture of the Group. Lt. Blume worked hard and long at this, covering every aspect of this Group from an operational, social and administrative point of view…”

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, October 8, 1944

“Men with sixty combat missions are no longer automatically placed on rotation to go home. From now on sixty missions merely qualifies a man to appear before the medical Disposition Board and certainly with no assurance that they will be found needy of a rest…”

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, October 29, 1944

“1st Lt. Wilbur T. Blume of 9th Combat Camera Unit dropped in to see the PRO today and tell him “Training During Combat” was given a favorable review in New York where all combat camera films are sent for processing, review and distribution. The production mentioned was made by Lt. Blume last summer at the 340th group and showed how our crews continue training activities while they are flying combat missions.”

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, December 26,1944

“A special medal awarding formation was held today for combat crew members who are awaiting orders to go home after finishing their missions. General Knapp made the presentations, as usual.”

The 340th Bomb Group War Diary, December 28, 1944

Set against this background, one can’t help but wonder whether the discrepancy between the PR film’s view of the war and the reality of combat-induced stress stimulated Heller’s fertile imagination to create the situations and characters that would come to life when he began writing Catch-22 nine years later.