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Christmas at Mileni, 1943.

By Bill Shoesmith

https://www.awm.gov.au/images/collection/items/ACCNUM_SCREEN/MEC1757.JPG
Snow-covered RAAF trucks in Italy.  [AWM MEC1757]

Many thanks to Margaret Deacon for typing up the following extract from Bill Shoesmith’s Italian diary.  Bill [widely known as “Shooie”] was 3SQN’s Canteen Truck driver from 1942 to ‘45 – and therefore one of the most well-connected men in the RAAF! 

Margaret notes that Bill paints a treasured picture, using down-to-earth language.  His story begins in October 1943 when the Squadron arrived at Foggia, only one day behind the advancing Army.  - The locals’ houses were deserted, with meals left on the table, as if the people had [in Shooie’s words:] “just got up and went for a walk down the road, and would be back to do the dishes.”

“Shooie” continues…

We had only been on the [Foggia Main] ‘drome a short time (naturally a Fighter ‘Drome) when the “Powers That Be”, in the shape of the US Air Force Bomber Group, came along and told us, in no uncertain terms, to “get lost” (or words to that effect) as they were going to come onto it, to make it into a Bomber ‘Drome.

And so off we go, a short way to a place called Mileni.   (Later on called “The Mud of Mileni” – bloody miles of it.  Mud, Mud, and more Mud.)  Even getting into the place was a hazard; the road in had a very steep ‘camber’ on it.  It was very simple to have your truck slide off the track.  Everybody was getting in on the act, including myself.  


A photo from Bill's album, "Mileni Mud."

(Everybody happy again when the track in was graded level.  The Yanks with their six-wheel-drive trucks often had the pleasure of pulling us back out of the ditch.)

Mileni

We were on this ‘drome for quite some time.  – Well, it seemed a long time to us.  Got there about 26th October, 1943, and departed about 31st December.  Up to then, that was a long time for us to be in one spot.

[Shooie goes on to describe the Xmas lunch at Mileni.  Since he was in charge of obtaining ‘vittels’, he got his mate, Bill, to shoot a pig on the side of the road which belonged to an ‘Itie’.  But there were ramifications…]

On coming upon the pig along the road, I said, “That looks like a good Xmas dinner.”  Bill wholeheartedly agreed with me, so we thought it best if something was done about it.  So we stopped.  Out came the trusty .303 rifle.  

I suggested that he was a better shot than I, so BANG!!! And over went the pig!  Well you should have heard the commotion and the wailing that the ‘Itie’ put on.  You would almost think we had shot him!!!

Not to worry, we put the pig in the back of the truck, and hot-footed it back to the ‘drome, and straight around to the Airmen’s Mess. - Seeing how the Cooks weren’t the sticky-beak types, they didn’t enquire as to where it had come from; just proceeded to dispose of it, in a manner befitting the occasion...

We were very happy about our contribution to Xmas Dinner, and all seemed well.  - Until about half an hour later, all hell started to break loose!  Officers from the Wing Headquarters were over to see our C.O., complaining to him that somebody had gone and “knocked-off” a pig that had been getting fattened-up for them.  The pig did, in actual fact, belong to the Officer Commanding 239 Wing (he was a South African Colonel).  Seeing as how I had been away from the place that day, I had to go up to our Orderly Room Trailer to answer lots of questions. 

Shock!! Horror!!  …I was “amazed” that anybody could do that!!!  No, I hadn’t seen any such thing about.  Apparently when the Italian guarding it went and told them what had happened, they straightaway sent the M.P.s [Military Police] over to us, firmly convinced that, “Those Australians had done it.  

https://www.awm.gov.au/images/collection/items/ACCNUM_SCREEN/MEA0837.JPG
[Official photo:]  Foggia, Italy, 1943.  A group portrait of transport drivers of No.3 (Kittyhawk)
 Squadron RAAF, who have driven their trucks from Alamein, maintaining a maximum
serviceability throughout.  [AWM MEA0837.  - Just don’t ask who owned the goods in the trucks!]

I whizzed down to tell the chap at the Mess what was going on, and this is when the good old Aussie ingenuity came to the fore.  You see, it so happened that the Mess Cooks already had a pig there.  (They never said where that one came from either!)  The only difference with our pig was that our one had a hole in the head, so this could be quite incriminating.  

The Cook, who was a butcher by trade, lopped the heads off both the animals and cut the head without the hole to fit our pig, and then hid the original in one of the tents.  So when the people came to the cookhouse to inspect the animal there, everything looked all ‘above board’.  They certainly gave that head a good inspection, and even tried it out, fitting the head to the body, but it fitted too good.  The butcher had done a good job.

It was a lovely piece of pork, well worth the trouble.  But even so, those Pommies still didn’t believe us.  In the finish I was told that they suspected that I had something to do with it, and were going to go further with it.

So I went to have a talk to a couple of our pilots about it.  One of them, Flying Officer “Dingle” McKernan, offered to be my Defending Officer, if needed.  He was quite a “card” this chap, a great sense of humour, real larrikin.  By the time he had finished “briefing” me as to what to say, etc., and telling me that he was convinced that I was innocent and that the other mob were trying to persecute me - I believed him!!

I did in fact make an appearance before the “Boss” and when my Officer put the case forward for me, it was eventually fixed up.  How he done it, I don’t know, but it all came to a satisfactory conclusion.  (For us, anyway.)

A couple of months later on, when I received some papers from home, there was a bit in one of the papers, about some Colonel somewhere in Italy, losing his Xmas dinner.  Some dastardly bastard had shot his pig.  I still have the clipping amongst my souvenirs.

[Margaret wonders if Bill’s family still have the newspaper article?]

We had been having plenty of rain at Melini, and where our tents were, it was nothing but a vast area of mud.  Operations were pretty restricted, so the lads were able to relax for a while - perhaps by having a drink or two by way of celebrating…

I can remember one morning, going outside the tent, (as I have said, there was mud everywhere) and I seen one of the lads, walking around, picking up pieces of mud here and there.  So me being the ‘sticky-beak’, I said, “What’s up, Stan?  Have you lost something?” - Yes, says he, last night I had a few drinks, and I was feeling a bit crook, so I took my teeth out, so as I wouldn’t lose them, and I put them under a bit of mud - and now I can’t find them!!!  Needless to say he didn’t find them, either.  There was mud everywhere, so he was toothless for quite some time.  (Until he was able to get back somewhere and get fixed up.  Come to think of it; where did he get them fixed??)


Bill annotated this map of Italy (showing the airstrips used by 3SQN) with the following notes:
"Started our Middle East Campaign at No.1 Drome Amiriya [near El Alamein, Egypt] 1942."
"During the Desert Campaign we were on six dromes in one week; very mobile unit."
"Our longest stay at one drome was at Cutella [located on a beach on the Adriatic Coast north of the Cassino battlefield] four months."
"Whilst in Italy I had to go to Bari via Rome, 1000km, for supplies."
"Lavariano.  FINISH, 1945"

For More of Bill's writing, see our article "Bill Shoesmith Takes Stock"

Unearthing Mileni

Some months ago, our Association’s satellite-recon expert Bruce Nash spent several long computer hours searching for traces of Mileni airstrip, but without success.  (In particular there was a lack of firm information regarding the correct distance and bearing from Foggia.)  More recently, a further exercise - matching the visible rivers, hills and levee-bank features from old photos - seemed to offer a promising site.  – But unfortunately there are many similar-looking sites on that agricultural plain! 

https://www.awm.gov.au/images/collection/items/ACCNUM_SCREEN/MEA0891.JPG
Mileni, Italy.  December 1943.  Ground personnel of No.3 Squadron RAAF, working on one of the squadron's Curtiss P40 Kittyhawk aircraft on the airfield at Mileni.  [AWM MEA0891]

The real breakthrough came when an old USAAF document was found by our good friend Giuseppe Marini in Italy.  So we now have a good fix for the site, 12km north of Foggia near where road SP24 crosses a river.  - Why it was called “Mileni” still eludes us – the name does not appear on modern maps.  The famous “mud” also meant that Mileni was destined for short-term use only; 239 Wing moved out early in the 1944 New Year, having been the only user of Mileni strip.

 

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