As told to John Howsden
Many times while I was flying and something went wrong,
I would say, “God, if I make it home, I’ll never come up here and bother you again.”
— Baci Frecceri
I was born and raised in Alameda, California, the last of seven children. My four sisters were born in Italy, but my brothers and I were born here. Dad came over in 1907, followed by Mom in 1912. Dad barely spoke English, but he muffled through it and made a living growing vegetables at Bay Farm Island. I grew up on Regent Street in a two-bedroom house that had a large attic, divided into two rooms, and a full basement. Three of us, plus two sisters, slept in the attic and every year my dad made 150 gallons of wine in the basement.
I went to Lincoln Grammar school and Alameda High. I did not care for school that much. I was more interested in graduating and getting a job. I developed a work ethic early on. My dad had us kids up at five in the morning walking the beach gathering firewood. When I was old enough I got a paper route.
Although I wasn’t the best student, I didn’t have the reputation my brother had as a prankster. I didn’t realize how much until I attended my first day in high school. I was in my history class when the teacher had us all stand up and introduce ourselves. When it was my turn I said, “My name is Baci Frecceri.”
“Are you John Frecceri’s brother?” the teacher asked.
“Yes I am,” I replied proudly.
She glared at me, pointed to the door and said, “Get out.”
Knowing my brother had been in her class before me, I didn’t ask any questions. I scooped up my books, left the room and joined another history class down the hallway.
While in high school I enrolled in Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). We practiced close order drill and attended military classes. I got extra credit for the ROTC class, which enabled me to get out of high school a year early. But before getting out of high school, I did learn to weld, which helped me get a job both in civilian life and military life.
Although I wasn’t into sports in high school, I loved riding horses. When I was 10 years old, my dad found an old beat up saddle discarded at the dumps. He brought it home and draped it over one of the barrels he used to make homemade wine. I spent so much time sitting on that old saddle I must have ridden to New York and back 25 times. From that point on I was hooked on horses.
Matter of fact I loved riding horses so much that I got a job working at the Redwood Canyon Stables in the Oakland hills when I was a teenager. The stable owner charged paying customers one dollar to ride a horse for one hour and 50 cents for the Shetland ponies. Still being in high school, I didn’t have any money, so I worked out a deal with the owner. I would muck stalls, tend to the horses and do whatever else the boss wanted done. In lieu of pay, I was allowed to ride one of the horses for one hour on the trails around the Oakland hills.
Not only did I not have any money, I didn’t have a car. In order to get to the stable, I had to walk from Alameda, across Oakland and into the hills, about six to eight miles. At the end of the day, I had to walk back home.
Citizen Military Training Camp
In the summer of 1938 I attended the Citizen Military Training Camp at Camp John P. Pryor near what is now Fort Ord. It was sponsored by the War Department. We slept in six-man tents, wore army uniforms and ate in the chow hall, which was good because I didn’t have a nickel to my name. It lasted for a month and we had the choice of training in artillery, rifle, machine-gun or cavalry companies.
Naturally I chose the cavalry and was assigned to the 11th cavalry. I trained right along with regular troops as we rode in formation, practiced jumps and trained in battle maneuvers. I’ll never forget doing downhill slides. The horse faces down hill, sits on its rump and stretches its front legs straight out. Meanwhile you jam your feet into the stirrups, lean back in the saddle and hang on for dear life. Sometimes at the bottom of the slide the horse would have to jump over something. This often flung the unwary rider out of the saddle.
Not only did I learn how to ride like a horse soldier, I learned how to take care of my horse and equipment. The first and most important rule was to take care of the animal. At the end of the day, before anything else, you fed, groomed and bathed the horse. Next you checked for injuries. If the hoofs were cracked, you notified the Army veterinarian immediately. Only after taking care of your horse were you allowed to eat and clean up. Of course, that didn’t mean you could lie around afterwards. You still had to rub saddle soap onto your saddle and clean your other equipment for inspection.
The Citizen Military Training Camp was a two-year program. If you completed the program, you could go into the Army as a second lieutenant. Had I done that, I would have been in the Army when the war broke out. That would have been bad for me because I did not want to be a dirt soldier. Although I really enjoyed the camp, I didn’t go back for the second year. But the training and experience helped me throughout my life.
After graduating from high school, my brother John got me a job at Mother’s Cakes and Cookies in Oakland. I was 5-foot-5 and weighed 110 pounds. My job was to lug sacks of sugar weighing 125 pounds to the warehouse where I stacked them 13 high. I did this for two weeks until I finally told John it was too hard, and I was going to quit. He asked if I would like to work in the kitchen. They gave me a job pulling cookies out of the ovens. It was so hot in the kitchen that you had to take a 15-minute break every hour to cool off. I lasted half a day. I quit at lunch time.
Joining the Navy
I bounced around a little bit more with some other jobs. I was 21 when I got my draft notice. I did not want to go into the Army, so the day after getting my notice I drove to the Navy recruiting office at the Oakland Airport. I told them I was an acetylene welder and wanted in the Navy.
I passed the medical exam (short arm inspection), got sworn in and was told to report in for duty the next day. When I showed up they gave me a uniform and put me on a bus for the United States Naval Air Station in Livermore, which is now the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The station’s primary mission was to train new pilots. I was rated as an Aviation Machinist Mate. My job was to keep the planes running. We had over 200 planes and there were two kinds: Stearman N25 Kaydet and Naval Aircraft Factory N3N, sometimes referred to as the yellow Peril. We called them model A’s. Both types of planes were bi-wing and painted a bright yellow.
In order to qualify for my flight pay, I had to ride with a student pilot on a training flight once a month. We would fly to outlaying airfields a few miles away and practice landings and flight maneuvers. Sometimes we would fly in formation and other times we would practice loops and rolls. I hated flying with these students because many of them had only three or four hours of flight time under their belt. There were crashes all the time with people getting hurt or killed. Looking back, it was crazy to go up with them, but I wanted the extra $5.00.
There were trainer pilots from all walks of life. Robert Taylor, the actor, was there as a trainer. During lunch, he would get in his car and disappear for an hour. He did this for several days, never telling anyone where he was going. Finally a few guys waited until he drove away and then followed him. They tailed him to some hills nearby. They watched as he parked his car, got out and started jogging. So much for the mysterious life of movie stars.
I was in Livermore for about a year when I got my orders to report to the Alameda Air Station for sea duty. When I mentioned to one of my buddies that I didn’t want to be assigned to an aircraft carrier, he suggested I talk to the PBM seaplane squadron stationed on the base. PBM stands for patrol boat and the M stands for Martin, which is the company that built the seaplane. This seaplane was meant to complement the PBY, which is a similar patrol boat built by Consolidated.
This seaplane was designed for long flight. We had six cots, a galley and a bathroom. I usually ended up cooking. Thanks to the Navy, I now know 86,000 ways to cook Spam. The bathroom was a simple affair. It was a seat with a tube leading to an opening at the bottom of the seaplane.
I stayed at Alameda Naval Station for six months. I was only six miles from my house at the other end of the island. While at Alameda I was assigned to the VPB-19 squadron. A squadron has 15 planes with a crew of nine to 11 men per plane. The squadron also had three extra crews for back-up. The squadrons were part of Headquarters Squadron Forward Air Wing-8 (Hedron FAW 8). After six months we got orders for overseas, first stop Hawaii.
A couple of days before leaving for Hawaii, we spotted three bundles of old newspapers stacked against a building on the base. On the day we left, we loaded the newspapers on our airplane and flew really low over my neighborhood. When we over my house, we tossed the papers out of the waist doors of the plane, past the 50-caliber machine guns. The newspapers fluttered down like confetti.
After dumping the newspapers, we flew over the San Francisco Bay heading for Pearl Harbor. Our pilot, Jim Gates, wanted to fly under the Golden Gate Bridge, but he figured he was already pressing his luck with the newspaper stunt.
Our flight to Hawaii was 16.5 hours and we flew with two other seaplanes. We used extra fuel tanks that we jettisoned before landing in Hawaii. We landed on Oahu at Kaneohe Bay, a Marine air station.
After getting to Hawaii, we started flying practice flights. Whether flying in practice or combat, flying is dangerous. Within a couple of days of starting our practice flights, we had our first casualties in the squadron. A seaplane doing practice reconnaissance hops near Kaneohe Bay, for reasons I never learned, crashed into the sea. The few survivors clung onto the wreckage for several hours waiting for the rescue ship, but by the time the ship arrived, all had perished except for one.
The lone survivor, who was about my age, was scared half out of his wits. He said the only thing that saved him was the other planes flying over him doing loops and barrel rolls to keep up his moral. He was sent to a hospital back in the states for a month and then returned to our squadron, but emotionally he was finished. He kept telling us how he wanted to go home. Within a week, they shipped him back to the states.
For about a month we flew practice flights in reconnaissance, patrol, mine laying, and bombing practice. Each time we took off, we would fly over Pearl Harbor. It looked like a giant junkyard. Then we got our orders to fly to Johnston Island to support the invasion of Saipan.
The sand on Johnston Island was so white it looked like salt. It hurt your eyes to look at it. Johnston was just a stopover to refuel. From there we went to a tiny island near Saipan.
We were capable of providing search, patrol reconnaissance and rescue service of down pilots, but we spent 99 percent of our patrol time looking for Japanese submarines. We would fly about 1,000 to 2,000 feet for four or five hours, but we never found any subs. We had a close call with a couple of Japanese Zeros though. We were flying along when we spotted them heading our way. They got close enough that we could see the red meatball on the side of their planes. I guess they didn’t want to tangle with us, because they didn’t stick around.
Had they tried to shoot us we could have handled them. In addition to having bombs and mines, we were armed with eight 50-caliber machine guns: two in the nose, two on top, two in the tail and one on each side. My primary duty as a flight engineer was to monitor the gauges and keep the engines running, but I also served as waist gunner when I was needed.
When we were not on patrol we lived on various islands in six-man tents. Sometimes there was no fresh water on these islands. What water we had was shipped in and we got only two cups per day. We didn’t really have cups. We had beer cans with their tops cut off. The food wasn’t bad though.
Since there was not fresh water, we did not have fresh showers. Instead, when a storm blew in, we stood in the rain and lathered up. It was a funny thing to see a bunch of naked men, bars of soap in their hands, running out of their tents the minute the rain started falling. With any luck it would rain long enough to rinse off the soap.
The officers in our crew were great, especially Captain Jim Gates. Gates was 27 years old, so we called him the old man. He was from Alexandria, Louisiana. He was a good pilot and saved our lives many times when we had engine problems. I asked him once if he was going to fly airplanes when he got home. In his southern drawl he said, “Frecceri, when I get back home to Louisiana, I am going to buy me a new Cadillac. Then I am going to put big fat tires on it all the way around, and those tires are never going to leave the ground.”
In addition to Gates being a good pilot, he appreciated his crew. On Dec. 24, 1944 we had taken an 11.4 hours patrol to Ponape Island. We were beat and so we sacked out early in our tent. The military has a rule that officers must live in separate quarters from the enlisted men and are not suppose to mingle. On special occasions enlisted men get beer and officers get whisky, not to mention nurses. But this Christmas Eve, to show his appreciation for the crew, he bent the rules. It was dark and we were nodding off in our tent when Gates pulled back our tent flap a few inches. He slid in two bottles of whisky and a box of cigars and said, “See if you guys can enjoy this.”
He left and we drank whisky, smoked cigars and got goofy. We were feeling pretty rough the next morning, but it was a Christmas Eve I’ll never forget.
While stationed on the islands, I swam every day. The water was clear and warm. The seaplanes were moored off the shore about 100 yards apart. We took turns standing guard on the seaplanes.
Sometimes we would swim over to another seaplane, visit for awhile and then swim back to our own seaplane. Some guys worried about sharks, but I didn’t. But it could still be dangerous on these islands even after the Japanese had been cleared off. We were stationed on Eniwetok. Sailors, many of whom had not been off their ship in a year, would come ashore for the day to rest and stretch their legs. They got two beers and could roam the island. Many of these sailors didn’t have any shoes, and the ones that did have shoes, their soles were worn down to the threads.
One day a group of sailors exploring the island found a mortar lying on the ground. Thinking it was a dud, one of them picked it up, even though there were signs posted everywhere not to. Five guys crowded around to look at it. We heard an explosion and ran over to see what had happened. The blast had gutted all five of them. We tore off our T-shirts and tried to stop the bleeding but it was hopeless. Within a couple of hours they were all dead. Now, how do you explain that to their parents?
A couple of times we landed in the water next to Bikini Island where they later tested nuclear bombs. The natives paddled out in their canoes. Some of the teenage girls were not wearing any tops. We traded beads and other trinkets with them, but they loved our white T-shirts.
Once we traded some things for a suckling pig. We made it our mascot. We called it Oink, and it followed us everywhere. One guy took responsibility for feeding it. We had to leave the pig behind when we were transferred to another island. We would tease the guy that fed it about someone was probably having it for dinner right now.
Another time some guys built a huge box kite. It was so big and the wind was so strong that they flew it with a steel cable instead of a string. But they got in big trouble. It flew so well that it got up high enough to interfere with the airplanes. They caught hell from the officers.
Iwo Jima was the next invasion after Saipan. When it comes to Iwo Jima, there is one thing that I cannot get out of my mind. It happened on the third day of the invasion. Our mission was to fly out to Okinawa to check for any Japanese reinforcements heading for Iwo Jima. When we got back from our reconnaissance flights, we would moor our planes about 150 yards offshore in a little bay north of where the invasion was taking place.
In Saipan, when we moored our planes near the shore, some Japanese had swum out to the planes and tossed hand grenades into them. To avoid this on Iwo Jima, we posted three guards on the wings of the plane armed with Thompson submachine guns. The fighting on Iwo Jima was heavy and the constant roar of bombs and artillery was deafening.
We watched the Marines using their flamethrowers. We were even close enough to see the Marines climb up the side of Mount Suribachi and plant the first flag. When the flag went up the ships blew their horns. It was a proud moment. But it all came at a terrible cost. Seeing the flame throwers and hearing the constant roar of the exploding bombs was bad, but I’ll never forget what I saw on the third day. I was sitting on the wings looking for Japanese swimmers when I saw the first body float by. Soon the water was full of bloated bodies of dead Marines that had been carried out by the tide.
The carnage on Iwo Jima was awful, but luckily, we never lost one of our crew members. I flew with the same crew the two years I was over there and we never knew where we were flying to or our mission until we were in the air. Once we were up, Gates would get on the radio and tell us where we were headed and what we were doing.
One time we took off, and before he could tell us what our mission was, both engines quit. We had just refueled from a barge and were headed to Kwajalein Atoll for a patrol. We were under full power and climbing when we lost power. Gates put the plane into a dive so steep all I could see was ocean below. I figured this was it. At the last second Gates yanked back on the stick. The nose came up, the tail went down, and we landed smooth as silk. After we were down, we saw the other two seaplanes that had been flying with us in the water as well.
Come to find out, the fuel we had just taken off a barge had been contaminated with saltwater. That is how quickly you can get in trouble in an airplane.
We didn’t worry about the enemy shooting us down. We sweated the planes. We lost engines all the time and had to switch them in midflight. On one mission we had to fly all the way back on one engine.
Once we were coming back from Iwo Jima. We landed and started taxing to our buoy three miles away. Half way there we ran out of gas. That is how close we came to running out of fuel and ditching in the ocean.
Many times while I was flying and something went wrong, I would say, “God, if I make it home, I’ll never come up here and bother you again.”
On my birthday, in July 1945, Captain Gates announced that we had earned enough points and had gotten orders to go home. We turned our plane, number 15, over to the new crew and caught a flight to Hawaii.
At Hawaii officers were allowed to fly home—rank has its privileges—while the enlisted men were put on a transport ship, which I called a banana boat. It took forever to sail back home. Down in the hole the cots were stacked twelve high, and I was assigned the lowest bunk. I couldn’t sleep knowing there were eleven guys above me. I grabbed my blanket, went topside and slept under a life boat.
Gates gave me a surprise call about eight months after we got back. He told me I was award the Victory Medal for completing five flights over enemy territory.
I was back in the states and still in the Navy when the atomic bomb was dropped. I know it killed a lot of people, but we were at war. I wished they had dropped it sooner. It would saved a lot of American lives.
I was discharged from the Navy November 21, 1945 at Shoemaker, California. At the time I was an aviation machinist mate third class. My final payment from the Navy was $51.65 plus travel pay of $1.70. For several months after getting out, I would get a check for $60.00 from the Navy.
With the help of the GI bill, I attended bartender college for eight weeks in San Francisco. It was three hours a day; I was out by lunch time. After getting my certificate, I started tending bar.
In 1948 I was working at a nice dinner house in Oakland when I met Georgette, my future wife. I spotted her having dinner with her mother. Later, after her mother had left, I introduced myself and asked her if I could buy her breakfast when I got off. We started dating and we got married later that year. I continued to bartend in the Bay Area until 1955 when we moved up to Sonora.
I had fallen in love with Sonora when I was 17 years old. I worked at Tony Pedro’s ranch one summer moving cows up to the mountains. I stayed up in the mountains for a month working the cattle. I came back on the weekends in the fall to help herd the cattle down Highway 108 back to Sonora.
When we moved up to Tuolumne County, we bought a little house on two acres in Soulsbyville for $6,000. Then I bought the ugliest horse you ever saw for $50. I was happy as could be.
However, Georgette, who was 29 and accustomed to city life in San Francisco, was not excited about country life. Matter of fact, she cried when we decided to move up here. Luckily a couple of ladies in their fifties that lived across the way came over each day and gave her moral support. In time she came to love Sonora.
I tended bar at Sullivan Creek dinner house. A lot of movies were filmed in the hills around Sonora and the actors came in for dinner and drinks. I met Gil Favor and Clint Eastwood of “Rawhide” to name a few.
When the movie directors found out I rode horses, I was hired as an extra for “Rawhide” and some other movies made around here. Eastwood was young and a little stuck up, but Gil Favor was quiet and friendly. He often was barefoot. Gary Cooper came in when he was filming “For Whom the Bell Tolls”.
I was a disc jockey at KVML in 1956. I worked there for about a year until the station was sold. I played big band music. Ninety percent of requests were women dedicating songs to their husbands. I worked there during the day and tended bar at night. I would start my program each day by saying, “This is the voice of the Mother Lode.”
When the owner sold the station, I told the new owner I wanted to stay on, but he wouldn’t keep me. He was a religious man and did not like me being a bartender.
In 1961 I was working as a bar manager at Sonora Elks Lodge when a patron offered me a job selling insurance for California State Auto Association. I had sold insurance before in the Bay Area and didn’t want any part of it. He convinced me to try it anyhow, and I loved it. I drove from Sonora to Kennedy Meadows and learned the county inside and out. I met a lot of great people and worked there for 27 years, but when I turned 65 I had to retire.
I joined the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Posse about the same time I started selling insurance. For the next 15 years I participated in parades in some of the major cities in the Central Valley. More often than not we took first place.
I was also appointed by Governor Reagan to serve as a director on the Tuolumne County Fair Board. I stayed on for three terms for a total of 12 years. It was an interesting position and I met a lot of nice people. I had senators and congressmen to my house for dinner. Gene Chappie, a congressman for our area, came over for dinner. He had served in Washington D.C. for awhile, but said he would never go back – it was the most corrupt place he had ever seen.
After retiring, Georgette and I traveled a lot. I helped start the Sons in Retirement chapter in Sonora 33 years ago. In that time I served as the travel chairman, hosting 197 trips and cruises all over the United States and Europe.
In 1977 I along with a couple of Italian friends formed Figli di Italia social club, and we still meet at the Elks Lodge.
I attended the reunions of the crew that I flew with, but there are only two of us left, myself and Robert Hackley, who is 89 years old. War is terrible, but you do the best you can to serve your country. I miss the guys I flew with; they were a great bunch of men.
I went on to have a great marriage and two wonderful daughters: Susan M. Voorhees of Sonora and Christy Frecceri of Sacramento.
I have always enjoyed people and tried to get along with everyone.
Medals Awarded to Baci Frecceri
Good Conduct Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Ribbon (two stars)
Fleet Unit Citation (one star)