World War II pilot recalls career with backdrop of Operation SEAs the Day

Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: ‘Ferd’ Comolli, with friends and family, was on-hand to welcome the wounded warriors to Bayside during Operation SEAs the Day’s week-long event held in the Quiet Resorts.Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: ‘Ferd’ Comolli, with friends and family, was on-hand to welcome the wounded warriors to Bayside during Operation SEAs the Day’s week-long event held in the Quiet Resorts.When supporters greeted participants in Operation SEAS the Day last week, Ferdinand M. “Ferd” Comolli of Bethany Beach was among the crowd at the Freeman Stage ready to give the wounded warriors and their families a hero’s welcome to the Quiet Resorts.

Comolli, a decorated World War II fighter pilot who flew 73 missions over Germany, recalled with a wry smile that when he and his comrades returned from that war, there were no such parades or fanfare. So, he said, he was happy to be able to participate with his Rotary Club friends at the special ceremonies last week.

At the age of 19, Comolli said, he knew what he wanted to do. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, ready to be trained to fly.

“I didn’t want to be a foot soldier,” he said. “I wanted to fly.”

In his family, as in many others in the mid-1940s, enlisting in the armed forces was just what everyone did.

“We were worried about our country,” Comolli said. One of four children of a Rhode Island stone carver, Comolli said one of his brothers joined the Seabees and the other joined the Army. “Everybody went, at that time,” he said.

Not only did Comolli know he wanted to fly, he knew he wanted to be a fighter pilot, rather than a bomber pilot. “I wanted to be able to get away,” he recalled.

Comolli enlisted on Dec. 7, 1942 — one year to the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He was allowed to finish his college education before reporting for duty in February 1943.

Comolli trained at a number of U.S. bases, from Niagara Falls to Tennessee, and finally went to the Lodwick School of Aeronautics in Lakeland, Fla., “and that’s where I really learned to fly,” he said. The school had been taken over by the Air Force, Comolli said. There, among other feats, he learned to take his plane into a spin while dropping from 10,000 to 5,000 feet, and then take it out of the spin.

At Courtland, Ala., Comolli learned to fly bigger and more powerful planes. He mastered the P-40 fighter plane, and then, the P-47 Thunderbolt, in which he would go on to fly 73 missions over Germany.

The P-47 was one of the largest and heaviest fighter aircraft in history to be powered by a single piston engine. Flying them was physically grueling.

“We had to do a lot of physical exercises,” to stay in top shape, Comolli said. “We had to do a lot of mental training, too.”

Pilots were shockingly young, most in their early 20s.

“They wanted young men, because, well, at 400 mph, you blacked out for a second,” he said. Practice doing all sorts of “acrobatics” helped the pilots learn to deal with being in control, no matter what their plane was doing.

The planes weighed 8 tons, each one loaded down with two 500-pound bombs, as well as eight machine guns, each one of those fitted with 400 bullets, Comolli said.

“It was kind of scary, that first one, not knowing what I’d find over there or whether I’d come back,” Comolli recalled. That was a legitimate concern — many of his peers didn’t make it back. “I was lucky in many ways,” he said. “Many of my friends didn’t make it, didn’t come back.”

In fact, every time he flew, he faced a 50 percent chance that he would be one of those unlucky ones.

One of his more treacherous flights ended with a “belly landing” in a field in France, when his gas tank, unbeknownst to him, was hit by shrapnel and was emptied. “I knocked out a few small trees and escaped without injury,” he recalled.

Another time, during training back in the States, his plane was struck by another plane on the runway and “chewed it up,” he said. By some miracle, the gas tank on that plane remained intact, and he walked away from that incident, as well.

During much of his time in Germany, Comolli and his fellow pilots served as support to the missions of Gen. George Patton. But it was his 60th mission that earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. As flight leader, he led a low-level strafing attack on German locomotives. The commendation he received with the medal explains that Comolli was awarded the Cross for “extraordinary achievement in aerial flight against the enemy.”

The mission, carried out on April 26, 1945, resulted in several crucial trains being destroyed, despite defensive maneuvers by the Germans.

“His courage in the face of great personal danger, as well as his superior airmanship and devotion to duty, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Army Air Forces,” the commendation concludes.

But Comolli is quick to clarify that he wasn’t the only hero that day. “It wasn’t just me that did the shooting,” he said. “All my buddies were right there with me.”

When the war ended, Comolli returned home and married. He and his wife, Annetta, would eventually have six children. By the time the Korean War heated up, Comolli already had two children and decided that he did not want to risk leaving them fatherless by taking to the skies as a fighter pilot again. While he said he missed the feeling of flying — “I like being free up there” — he didn’t pursue it as a civilian pastime because of the cost.

He did instill in his family a love of travel, however, spending many happy days camping all across the country. He pursued a career as a chemical engineer with the Dupont Co., settling for many years in the Kennett Square, Pa., area before retiring to Bethany Beach.

Comolli’s wife of 65 years, Annetta, passed away in 2013, after a long illness. While he enjoys good health and continues community activities and travel — in fact, he recently returned from a trip to Alaska with his son and daughter-in-law — he said he realizes that he won’t be around forever. With technical assistance from his son, he has put together a DVD that includes photos of his time in training and in Europe, as well as a complete history of his three years as a fighter pilot.

Now, 70 years after coming home as a war hero — although there was no fanfare, no parades or special programs for him and his fellow soldiers at the time, he said — Comolli looks back on that time fondly, despite the tremendous danger and the loss of so many other pilots.

“I made a lot of good friends,” he said.