Proud son accepts father’s WWII medal

Posted on Sat, 12/01/2018 - 11:30am

By Tracy Poyser

OSS MedalA while ago, our neighbor Patrick Corriere asked me to take photos at a very special ceremony. He and his sister, Rosemary, received an OSS Congressional Gold Medal recognizing the World War II service of their late father, Sebastian Corriere, as bestowed by U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky on Oct. 24 in her office (see photo).

As told to me by Patrick, Sebastian Corriere’s life story and service during WWII are the stuff of a John le Carré novel.

Born in May 1920 in Milwaukee as a son of immigrants, Sebastian Corriere grew up during the Prohibition and Depression years. He was drafted into the Army in 1942. Initially assigned to an Army base in Utah as a military policeman, he pleaded for an overseas transfer and landed at an Army air base in northern England with the 801st/492nd Bombardment Group.

In 1943, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA and established in Washington, D.C., in 1942, called upon the U.S. Army Air Forces to conduct special operations from the UK. Although aircrews started dropping leaflets in October 1943, more dangerous, clandestine missions were begun, deep into the heart of Nazi-occupied Europe. They secretly air-dropped supplies by night to partisan fighters on the ground, under the code name “Operation Carpetbagger.” As directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in September 1943, the Eighth Air Force formed the 801st Bombardment Group at Harrington Airfield, known as Station 179 during the war, outside of Kettering, England. In May 1944, Sebastian’s 492nd Bombardment Group was assigned to the same base.

This combined unit of 5,000 servicemen and officers became known as the Carpetbaggers. They flew B-24 Liberators with air-ground devices connecting the navigator to a ground operator who would confirm the intended drop site. A cargo hatch, called the Joe Hole, replaced the B-24 ball-turret. Male and female OSS agents, referred to as Joes and Janes, parachuted to the ground over designated targets. The first B-24, painted glossy black to avoid identification by searchlights, flew to France in January 1944. Carpetbaggers often flew their missions in harrowing weather to supply members of the French Resistance in support of the upcoming D-Day invasion in summer 1944.

At Harrington Airfield, Sebastian was part of the grounds crew. A skilled mechanic, he helped fix and maintain the aircraft for their crucial night flights. He also helped to load the planes and to clean and repair them for future missions after their return, in addition to participating in a number of missions to help with critical airdrops.

Carpetbagger missions over France ended in September 1944 after most of France and Belgium had been liberated. But, as Allied armies advanced eastward, the Carpetbaggers soon returned to risky, low-flying nighttime operations into Nazi-occupied territories, using faster A-26 airplanes for deliveries to Norway, Denmark and Germany.

From January 1944 to May 1945, the Carpetbaggers completed 1,860 sorties to support resistance in western and northwestern Europe, delivering 20,495 containers, 11,174 packages of vital supplies, and parachuting more than 1,000 individuals into enemy territory. Sadly, 208 men were killed or declared missing in action as 25 B-24 planes were lost and 80 returned irreversibly damaged. Many of those missing had parachuted safely and were returned to England by the Resistance.

WWII in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, and Sebastian remained in England until July 1945. He returned to Milwaukee for a month’s furlough, expecting to join an invasion of Japan. But, during his furlough, the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, so he was honorably discharged from the service. He returned home to his parents and reported back to his old job at the Milwaukee Gear Co. the day after Labor Day 1945. Throughout his civilian career, he worked as a machinist in the Milwaukee area.

Sebastian married Josephine Provinzano in September 1946. They honeymooned in Chicago, and Patrick still has a photo of his parents dancing at the Aragon Ballroom. Patrick’s sister, Rosemary, was born in September 1947, and Patrick in January 1952. Sebastian, who had dropped out of high school during his senior year, got his GED after Patrick’s birth. Josephine died in September 1963, and Sebastian wed his second wife, Viola, in 1966. The couple invested in a laundromat business for several years, with Sebastian fixing the machines as needed.

After the war, veterans groups of the Eighth Air Force organized into reunion groups, except for the Carpetbaggers. Since they were part of the OSS, they were sworn to secrecy for 40 years. In the 1980s, Congress finally passed legislation to declassify many WWII military records, including those of the Carpetbaggers.

At last, the secrecy was over, and former Carpetbaggers and OSS members were allowed to speak openly about their war experiences. In the mid-1980s, they began collecting information about what happened from 1943 to 1945. In 1984, the French government awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm to members of the 801st/492nd Bombardment Group, including the Carpetbaggers for their work with the OSS and the French Resistance. Sebastian received his Croix de Guerre with Palm on Oct. 20, 1984.

Eventually, members of the 801st/492nd Bombardment Group decided to form their own veterans organization separate from the Eighth Air Force. The group’s primary goal was to document the Carpetbaggers’ essential contributions to the war effort – estimated to have shortened the duration of WWII by two years. In December 1986, Sebastian was elected the organization’s first president, and re-elected every year by voice acclamation until 2014. He was a happy warrior and enjoyed his role. The group held its first reunion in Milwaukee in fall 1989. Sebastian attended every reunion except one.

In 1993, the Carpetbaggers traveled to England and France for the 50th anniversary of their group’s formation. Sebastian and Patrick were part of the festivities. In Kettering, Northamptonshire, a stone memorial was dedicated on the site of the air base. In Paris, the French Resistance organized memorial ceremonies at the Arc de Triomphe, and other ceremonies were held in the South of France. Patrick still has a French Resistance pin.

Sebastian was also a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and was elected commander of VFW Post 2804 in 1997. He died at the age of 93 on May 4, 2014.

To keep its history alive, the children of Carpetbaggers became members of the group early on. It had hundreds of members when it was first formed, but now, very few original Carpetbaggers are still alive. As a tribute to his father, Patrick remains a dedicated member of the 801st/492nd Bombardment Group.

Although many awards and medals had been issued to veterans, Congress never properly rec­ognized the contribution of the OSS, partly because of the longtime secrecy surrounding its WWII missions. But, after a recent lobbying campaign by survivors and their families, legislation was passed, and a specially designed OSS Congressional Gold Medal was presented to the CIA to collectively honor those who put their lives on the line during WWII. In addition, individual medals were to be presented to Carpetbaggers and other members of the OSS, or their surviving family members – in Sebastian Corriere’s case, personally delivered by Rep. Schakowsky to Patrick and Rosemary.

Please pause for a moment of gratitude and think about where our country of immigrants would be without the Sebastian Corrieres of the world.

Additional sources:

Carpetbaggers: America’s Secret War in Europe” by Ben Parnell (Eakin Press, Fort Worth, Texas, 1987)