THE MYSTERY OF SCHNAPPS YO-YO
BY: Nick Loveless , 340th, 486th
Far out in the Mediterranean
Many miles from either shore
There’s a bomber crew that’s sleeping
‘Neath the mighty water’s roar;
No poppies mark their graves,
But, there’s a mound for every soldier
In the vastness of the waves.
By: Staff Sargent Jimmie Church
Pup tent Poets of the Stars and Stripes 1945
It was cold and clear as the dawn broke over Alesan, Corsica, on the morning of Sunday, November 5, 1944. Over forty miles east, the silhouettes of Elba and Montecristo rose sharply out of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Corsica, the birth place of Napoleon and vendettas which had begun in the middle ages; Elba, Napoleon’s exile between conquests, and Monte Cristo the site of the hidden treasure of Edmund Dante’s legendary ‘Count of Monte Cristo’. Those histories meant little to the men of the 340th Bomb Group that morning as the prepared their B-25s for another assault on Hitler’s Festung Europa. One of the eighteen planes scheduled for the mission that day was “Schnapps Yo-Yo” of the 486th Squadron.
On the Italian Mainland after the fall of Rome, the American 5th Army drove 150 miles north to face the German’s at the center of the Gothic Line. As winter approached the Germans dug in South of Bologna in the high Apennines, and the 57th Bomb Wing was assigned to cut the enemy supply lines entering Italy through the Alps from Germany. “The Battle of the Brenner Pass” had begun. From October 15th, rain and overcast skies covered most of the primary targets, and with few exceptions, kept the 340th grounded most of the time. After almost three weeks of inactivity and scratched missions, the flight crews were becoming restless and frustrated. On the evening of November, 4th a mission that had been posted and canceled several times was finally scheduled for the following day. Lt. Richard H. Brandle, of Philadelphia, and his crew were scheduled to fly “Schnapps Yo-Yo. His crew included Co-pilot, Lt. William C. Johnson of Doddsville, MS: Radio/Waist Gunner T/SGT William Robert Spoonamore; Engr./Turret Gunner CPL. Andrew Thrash, of Choctaw, AL; Armorer/Tail Gunner; SGT Ernest B Lay, of Richmond, VA. Lt Kenneth E Turner of Lusk, WY was the bombardier/Nav. But found that his name had been removed from the mission and replaced by Lt. Milton Frankel of Chicago, IL. Lt Turner had been placed on orders for rest leave at Capri for the following morning and would not return until a week later.
Tech. SGT. John A. Whipple, of Maden, MA; Crew Chief of “Schnapps Yo-Yo”, had been on the hardstand early that morning to pre-flight his plane in preparation for the mission. Gas tanks had been topped off, engines tested and the four on thousand-pound bombs filled in the bay. How Schnapps Yo-yo had come to receive its non-descript name has been lost over the years, but it was most likely chosen by a crew chief or pilot for some special reason. A large awkward bird constructed of mechanical parts, carrying a bomb in its claws was painted on the nose between the pilot and the bombardier compartments. On each vertical stabilizer, a large 6M marking, the first two having been lost in combat.
The flight crews reported to the 340th briefing tent and listened intently as Group Commander Willis F. Chapman announced the target for the day. Twelve B-25s of the 486th and six of the 489th were to bomb a rail bridge south of Padua, Italy. Luftwaffe fighters were scarce in the Po Valley, but flak might be encountered over the target. Not exactly a milk run. When the briefing was over the crews were dropped off at each aircraft and crew members checked their respective equipment. Escape and evasion was distributed and a final personal relief call made for those who felt the urge. Lt Brandle ran up the engines, tested the controls and taxied to the end of the runway to await his turn for take-off. At signal from the tower, each B-25 rolled down the gravel runway straining under the full load to become airborne.
Shortly after take-off each plane gained altitude and began to assemble in boxes of six planes each, Lt Brandle flying the number four position of the last box. Approximately 15 minutes after take-off from the airfield, the last box was at an altitude of 4500’, with an airspeed of 160 to 170 mph and on a compass heading of thirty-four degrees. At 1020 hours the Island of Elba was to the rear of the right wing of the formation. Dead ahead a large cloud bank was so dense it was difficult for the crews to see their own wingtips. Thirty to forty seconds later, the flight, now scattered, cleared the clouds. Schnapps Yo-Yo was missing and was never seen again. It was assumed by other crews that it had developed trouble and had returned to base. There were no indications that it was in trouble or had gone down. On the return form the mission, almost four hours later, the grim fact was evident that it had disappeared without a trace. Searches of the area of the disappearance were made but revealed no tell-tale signs of debris or oil slick usually noticeable in ditching’s and crashes on the water. As the days passed, the searches were called off and hope for the survival of the crew faded. Lt Brandle may have lost power, lost control, or possibly both. There had been some turbulence in the clouds, but other aircraft did not report icing conditions. Scott Rohwer, of the 486th, in his book “Palouse Pilot”, by Nona Hengen, relates some of the possibilities that may have occurred in those last crucial moments.
The Battle of Brenner Pass continued into the winter of 1944-1945 and the bitter cold over the Alps added to the hazards of flying over that rugged terrain. On March 18, 1945, another 486th B-25 disappeared after takeoff. Lt James Voelkers, of Oklahoma City, OK was assigned to 6V, “Bottoms Up”, appropriately named for the Varga girl painted on the nose. Shortly after take-off from Alesan, the formation was to assemble off the north cape of Corsica. 6V did not keep that rendezvous, and memories of Schnapps Yo-Yo returned to haunt the flight crews. Several weeks later, the scattered wreckage of 6V was found in the mountains of northern Corsica. The cause of the crash was never determined and the crew remained missing in action.
Many aircraft lost during WWII have never been located, but unlike Schnapps Yo-Yo, most were known to have been crippled or to have crashed.
In 1990, a group of 57th Bomb Wing veterans on tour held Memorial Services and placed wreathes at the American cemeteries at Anzio-Netutuno and Florence, Italy, in honor of their lost comrades of the 57th. The Wall of the missing at the Chapels of the cemeteries bear the name of the men that flew on the final flight of Schnapps Yo-Yo and Bottoms-Up.
For many years the mystery that surrounds the disappearance of the Schnapps Yo-Yo has captured the interest of Robert Schmeltz, of Ft. Wayne IN, whose uncle, T/SGT Spoonamore, had flown with Lt Brandle on that last mission. Mr. Schmeltz, who is a pilot, has attempted to reconstruct the details of the mission and hopes someday to locate the missing bomber. Presumably it rests on the ocean floor somewhere off Elba.
Whatever happened to schnapps Yo-Yo on that fateful morning over 50 years ago can only be conjecture. If the supernatural can be eliminated and enemy action improbable, only sabotage, mechanical malfunction or failure, and pilot error remain. It is incredible that in less than 45 seconds, a bomber in formation could vanish in the clouds unseen by seventeen other crews, and yet it happened. If Mr. Schmeltz’s effort prove successful, many questions that have plagued the families of the missing fliers over the years may be answered and the mystery of the ghostly bomber finally put to rest.
This story was written by Nick Loveless and was published in the 57th Bomb Wing Journal. Nick was a tail gunner and mission photographer with the 486th, and was in the formation that day. A special thanks to Nick for letting me post the story here.