Catch-22: Joseph Heller’s Squadron and Yossarian’s Squadron

Joseph Heller was, like Yossarian, a bombardier in a B-25 unit in Italy during World War II.  He was a member of the 488th Bomb Squadron, one of four B-25 squadrons in the 340th Bomb Group, which was one of the groups in the 57th Bomb Wing.  The 57th Bomb Wing was a unit in the 12th Air Force, whose units flew in the Mediterranean Theater.  At the time that Heller was in the squadron (from May to December, 1944), all units in the 340th Bomb Group were located on the east side of the island of Corsica, near the west central coast of Italy.  Although an island named Pianosa (the island where the events of Catch-22 are set) exists, it is a small, rocky island located between Corsica and the mainland of Italy.  It was much too small to accommodate an airfield and was probably used for bomb-dropping practice by the units of the 340th.  Most of the targets that the Corsica-based units attacked were located in central and northern Italy, but some targets in southern France were attacked as well, especially in the vicinity of Avignon as the date for the southern invasion of France drew near (August 15).

Heller describes the same organizational arrangement in Catch-22.  Yossarian is a bombardier in an unidentified B-25 squadron in an unidentified bomb group which is part of an unidentified Air Force.  The squadron has a squadron commander, Major Major, a reclusive nonrated officer who is appointed to the position by the group commander, Colonel Cathcart, because his last name is Major. There is at least one other unidentified B-25 squadron in the group.   Other officers in Catch-22 are loosely based on officers Heller knew on Corsica.

In his memoir, Now and Then, Heller identifies several individuals who were the models on which their fictional counterparts were based: a bombardier named Yohannon, who lived in an adjoining tent, was the basis for the central character, Yossarian.  Yohannon was in fact a reliable crew member in the organization.  He arrived and departed about the same time as Heller but flew more missions.  Heller says that Yohannon’s tentmate, a pilot named Joe Chrenko, was the model for Hungry Joe.  Joe Chrenko was also a dedicated crewmember, who flew many missions.  One of Heller’s tentmates on Corsica was Captain Ritter, who Heller says was the model for Orr.  Like Orr, Ritter had successfully ditched his aircraft in the Adriatic; like Orr, Ritter constructed a safe and reliable stove in the tent which kept them warm in winter.  Heller says that there was an officer in the unit with the last name of Major who was a Major; this person become Major Major Major Major.  The squadron’s executive officer, Major Jerre Cover, became Major ____ de Coverly.  Major Cover did in fact travel to Rome to set up rest and relaxation (R&R) facilities for the squadron personnel.  However, unlike Major ____ de Coverly, he did not disappear on a trip to Florence.

Veterans of the squadron in which Heller flew became aware of the fame of the book after it was published, but they were unhappy that Heller had painted such an unfavorable portrait of the men and activities of the unit.  This reaction probably intensified after the Mike Nichols movie was released, which exaggerated the worst characteristics of the figures with whom Yossarian interacted.  Although Heller never identified the units with which he flew in Catch-22, military historians eventually identified them.  Recently several books have been published whose primary aim has been to correct the public image of the units with whom Heller flew in the war.  The authors believe that Heller’s version (and probably the Mike Nichols film) of the men in the units did not present a true picture of the actions and motivations of the men who flew in those units.  A secondary purpose of these books was to shed light on the men who might have been models for the characters Heller presented in Catch-22.

Patricia Chapman Meder, in her account of the relationship between Catch-22 and the men of Heller’s flying unit, The True Story of Catch-22, says that her father, Colonel William Chapman, is the model for Colonel Cathcart, and that her father, when he learned of Heller’s characterization of him in Catch-22, was not particularly pleased with that distinction.  She also states that the 57th Bomb Wing Commander, General Robert Knapp, was the model for General Dreedle.  She suggests the following additional correspondences of officers in the unit to characters in the novel: unit Chaplain James H. Cooper was the basis for Chaplain Tappman; 488th Bomb Squadron Flight Surgeon, Captain Benjamin Marino for Doc Daneeka; 488th Bomb Squadron Adjutant, Major Joseph Ruebel for Major Danby; 340th Bomb Group Bombing Officer, Captain Vincent (“Chief”) Myers for Chief White Halfoat; 340th Bomb Group Assistant Operations Officer, Captain George Wells for Captain Wren; and 340th Bomb Group Assistant Operations Officer Captain Fred Dyer for Captain Pilchard.

Heller insisted that he was not trying to make fun of the men with whom he flew but that they were the basis of comic types.

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