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.

The Catch-22 Notebook #1

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 deservedly owns its place as a classic of modern American literature as both a narrative tour de force and a satiric view of one aspect of the military experience in World War II.  Its central character, Yossarian, is the modern anti-hero in uniform, a suffering, struggling, well-meaning individual who attempts to operate ethically in a world where ethical behavior has been replaced by professional opportunism.  The book is an unusual mixture of realistic description of the actual circumstances in which the author participated during the war as well as a series of improbable scenes and preposterous, often comic, dialogue, more suggestive of Lewis Carroll’s works.  The book stylistically is a mixture of All Quiet on the Western Front and Alice in Wonderland.

It is based on Heller’s experiences as a bombardier in a B-25 unit which flew from a military airfield located on Corsica, an island near the west coast of central Italy, in the last year of the war.  The men, missions, and aircraft described in the book are based on Heller’s experiences, and the dangers that the men faced are realistically described.  However, the central events described in the book are improbable, fantastic, and surrealistic.  The spirit of the book is a post-war spirit, an ironic spirit not normally associated with war novels based on lived experience.

Because of my flying background, I looked forward to reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 when it first appeared in 1961.  But when I tried to read the book, I put it down before I finished the first chapter.  The first chapter was not about one of the flying airmen; it was about the unit’s chaplain, Chaplain Tappman.  Yes, the main character, Yossarian, was present, but the chapter focused on the character of the chaplain, who never, as far as I could tell, went anywhere near an aircraft.  Where was the flying action?  It was not until much later that I set my initial expectations aside and determined to read the novel from beginning to end.  I had to admit, after I finished it, that it deserved its reputation as a classic of modern literature.  It was not a typical war novel; it was more complex in structure and theme, and its disconnected chronology worked against easy understanding even of the plot.

Most war novels written by the men who participated in World War II are based on their experiences in the war, with plots determined by personal progress through the combat action in which the author participated, often with names changed to protect the identities of the individuals involved.  The intent of these novels is to depict, especially to a reader unfamiliar with that aspect (or any aspect) of the war, what it was like to experience combat at that particular time and location, with that particular unit, which had a particular mission.  The plots of these novels generally follow the same chronological pattern: the protagonist trains for combat, enters combat, and survives combat.  What distinguishes each novel are the unique experiences of the protagonists, which show how they were able to survive, as a result of the successful application of their individual combat skills or through the assistance of other men in the unit.

Each military service has its own special setting in which the application of its force is practiced: the army on the land, the navy on the sea, and the air force in the air, and the war novels written by soldiers, sailors, and airmen demonstrate the unique tools, procedures, and capabilities of combatants in each area of operation.  The best examples from the World War II period in each arena are well-known: for the army, James Jones’ From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line; for the navy, Herman Work’s Caine Mutiny; and for the air force, Beirne Lay’s Twelve O’Clock High.  These popular novels describe the activities of the men and activities in the unit with which the author was associated.

Catch-22 is a war novel which describes the unique activities of the men and war-making machines in the author’s unit, in this case the North American B-25 (“Mitchell”) bomber.  The B-25 first earned fame as the aircraft used in the raid Jimmy Doolittle led over Tokyo and other Japanese locations in April of 1942, four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the event that brought America into the war.  The B-25 was a versatile, rugged, and noisy twin engine aircraft that was used in a variety of missions and locations during the war.  The typical crew numbered from six to eight, depending on the model and the mission: the crew members included the pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier, top turret gunner, tail gunner, and, when appropriate, two side gunners.


The hazards of combat flying are an essential part of the book, and when such episodes appear, they are vividly described, but in Catch-22 they serve a dual purpose: in addition to describing the combat flying activities of the novel, they also serve as flags to mark the narrative trail of the novel, which is told in a non-linear style, in which the chronology of events is interrupted and confused.  Heller consistently indicates the number of combat missions that Yossarian flies, starting initially as 25 and then proceeding to 80.

In the next several weeks I intend to discuss the context and reputation of the novel, and the historical as well as thematic aspects of the novel.  I will first examine the historical aspects of the novel, including the key individuals in the unit whom Heller includes in the novel (usually disguised in some form), and Heller’s role in the unit.  Then I will discuss the structure and theme of the novel.


Poem of the Month: June

The Ghosts of the Eighth Attack

J. L. Hitchings

Lieutenant J. L. Hitchings was a member of the 8th Aero Squadron, United States Air Service, during World War I.  His poem acknowledges the sacrifices made by the men of the squadron.  The names of many of the men whose names appear in the poem can be identified as combat and training losses.  The De Havilland DH-4 was a two-place reconnaissance aircraft manned by a pilot and an observer.  The 8th Aero Squadron was active on the French front during the last four months of the war, from August to November of 1918. 

When first the roar of a D.H. 4

    Came sounding over the plain,

The clan who flew were tried and true,

    And stout of heart and brain;

Our squadron then lost gallant men,

    And well we have learned their lack;

And we’ll drink a toast to each brave ghost—

    The Ghosts of the Eighth Attack. 

Kingsland turned to a spin and burned,

    Rex and Gallagher died

In battle flame on the field of fame,

    With Mitchell by their side. 

From Death unveiled they never quailed,

    Or broke upon the rack;

But well we ken they fought like men,

    The Ghosts of the Eighth Attack! 

Dean and Bateman and Hollingsworth—

    Death garnered thigh and thew,

And Captain Shea, with his Irish way,

    Virgin and Hartman too. 

Robinson, Martin, Grodecki,

    And Mackey, and Womack;

Brave hearts of gold that now lie cold—

    The Ghosts of the Eighth Attack. 

And I sometimes think, when the night winds howl,

    And never a ship is out,

That I hear the roar of a D.H. 4,

    And the wail of wires in doubt;

And I think I see in a spectre ship

    Spirits that must come back;

And I hail them then, who have died like men—

   The Ghosts of the Eighth Attack! 

Poem of the Month: May 2020

The poem for this month is “Airplanes 1938,” written by Edward Weismiller and published in his collection of poems called The Faultless Shore, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1946.  It describes how the early vision of the airplane as a harbinger of good was tarnished by its use as a weapon of war, specifically as an instrument of destruction in the Spanish Civil War and then in World War II.


Airplanes, 1938

That was when flight was the long, silver dream
Curling with cloud, and spangled by the sun;
Teaching no death, except what heaven might seem;
No end of time; only how time might run

Endless and endless, over and under space,
Always the same, and being the same, not there –
Strong as a circling web of metal lace,
Or frail as the cold spider’s shivering stair.

That was when flight was the clean, silver song
Heard in the massed buildings; down dark lanes;
When we could live forever – but not long
Without the consuming music of the planes.


They are the cuckoo’s young. Separate and grim
They have left the crucible, and do not at all
Follow the makers’ words now, but a hymn
Of ruin: the sirens’ call:

Restless, they mouth the wind. In their flying
Will be malice and time, the doom of kings,
Both hired; so they start out low and crying,
The trade-marks of oblivion on their wings –

They beat a pathway up through a kind of heaven
For idiot hate that spills its seeds in air –
And so they come, cold, and always groaning, driven
Toward cities only loved, and never fair:

They come: they have beat through time to this one hour,
The raging musics mingle over the walls,
The builder runs mad from the branching tower.
The world roars, and falls.


That was when flight was the dream, the silver song.
It is over now; not as the moon wanes.
We wake in the shrieking dark to the downward, long
Fall of time – to the endlessness of planes.

The Dyess Air Force Base C-130 Crash of 12 October 1966

The Dyess Air Force Base C-130 Crash of 12 October 1966 

David K. Vaughan 


Early in October 1966, as the late summer breezes blew across the runways at Dyess Air Force Base, near Abilene, Texas, the C-130 crew with which I was flying was notified that we were scheduled for our annual simulator training.  The simulator training lasted for an entire week and included classroom sessions as well as time in the simulator.  We did not need to report to the squadron building, located on the east side of the flight line; we would proceed each day to the simulator training buildings.   In the simulator we practiced basic cockpit procedures and most importantly, emergency procedures.  The Dyess C-130 simulator had been recently installed and incorporated the most modern features of the time, including simulated engine noise, a modest amount of cockpit movement, and even a semi-realistic visual environment as seen through the cockpit windows.

Our crew was happy to have some down time, as we had recently returned from a two-month temporary duty assignment flying NATO missions in Europe, first out of Evreux, France, and then, for the final week or two, out of Mildenhall AB, England.  Although I had enjoyed our flights across Europe and the Mediterranean, our families were happy to have us home for a few days.

Only three of us were required to participate in the simulator training: Major Dusty Watkins, the aircraft commander; me, the co-pilot; and Sergeant Jerry Coleman, flight engineer.  Dusty sat in the left seat, I sat in the right, and Sergeant Coleman sat in his seat centered just behind the pilots’ seats.  All three of us were involved in take-off and landing procedures, and most importantly in the emergency procedures, which typically involved shutting down more than one engine for various simulated systems failures.

The two other members of the crew, Lieutenant Karl Klein, the navigator, and Airman Jerry West, the loadmaster, were not required to participate in simulator training because the simulator emergency procedures did not involve them or their equipment.  They were free to help out around the squadron, catch up on required reading in the squadron files, or assist in other small tasks deemed necessary by the 347th Troop Carrier Squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Sidney Richardson.  I appreciated the simulator practice; although the C-130 was (and still is) a wonderfully reliable flying machine, various system malfunctions could create problems if our cockpit responses were slow or incorrect.

We were just past the halfway point in our simulator training when I was awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from Dusty Watkins.  He told me that one of the squadron C-130s had crashed on a night low level mission north of Dyess and that our navigator, Karl Klein, was dead.  I didn’t know that Karl was involved in flying activities.

Karl had volunteered to fly in the navigator position on the mission, whose purpose was to give the two pilots, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Johnson and Major James Ashcraft, the opportunity to complete their night low-level qualifications.  They had died in the accident, and two other airmen who had volunteered to fly on the crew were also dead: Staff Sergeant John Brace, flight mechanic, and Airman Douglas Kouba, loadmaster.  Another loadmaster, Airman Gary Speer, had been pulled from the wreck but was badly burned.


The aircraft was the third in a flight of three aircraft which were flying the night route.  They were flying approximately 2500 feet above the ground.  They had flown on a direct route north from Dyess to a point about fifty miles west of Lubbock, Texas, when they made a slight right turn to a northeast heading.  Apparently the pilots (it could not be determined which pilot was flying the aircraft) became disoriented in the darkness as they tried to maintain separation from the other aircraft and overbanked to the left as they rolled out from the turn.  The aircraft continued in a left turn, descending as it did so.  The aircraft struck the bare Texas landscape at over two hundred miles an hour and immediately caught fire.  It turned as it skidded across the ground, shedding parts until only the tail was left, pointing in the opposite direction of flight.   Because it crashed in the rough terrain of a Texas ranch, far from the nearest road or trail, several minutes elapsed before the first person arrived.  By that time what was left of the aircraft was consumed with fire.

When the accident review board convened, I was asked to provide comments.  I had flown as a copilot on a crew with Major Ashcraft four months earlier.  I had never flown with Johnson.  Ashcraft and Johnson had come into Tactical Air Command (TAC) from the Strategic Air Command (SAC), as I had, and there was some concern that they might not have been familiar with TAC nighttime flying procedures.  I testified that during my flights with Major Ashcraft (we had flown a two-week mission to Europe), I had never seen any evidence of hesitation or uncertainty in the cockpit.  We had flown an airdrop mission together out of Erding, Germany, but we had not flown any night low-level missions.  The board concluded that the cause of the accident was pilot error, not equipment failure.

The week following the accident, Dusty and I drove to San Antonio, Texas, to assist in the funeral ceremonies for Karl Klein. Karl’s family was from San Antonio.  He was buried in the military cemetery at Fort Sam Houston.   He left behind a wife and two young children, a son and a daughter.  Less than four months later I was far away from Dyess, flying C-130s in South Vietnam.


In the middle of November, before I left Dyess for my new assignment, I found a manila envelope in my mailbox in the squadron.  When I opened it, I saw that it contained an eight by ten inch black and white photograph of Karl Klein.  It was the photograph that Karl’s wife had sent to the Abilene newspaper for inclusion in the story about the accident.  When I asked why the photograph was in my mailbox, I was told that Karl’s wife had left no forwarding address, and the squadron administrative officer said he didn’t know who else he should give the photograph to.  There was no reason why I should ever encounter Karl’s wife again, but I kept the photo.  It was a nice studio portrait photograph, a head and shoulders shot, clear and with excellent detail.  He must have had it made when he was promoted to first lieutenant.

I decided to take it with me when I left.  It was easy to carry, lightweight, compact.  It stayed in my files when I moved to a new assignment or a new location.  Every time that I came across Karl’s photo in my files, I briefly asked myself if I should keep it or throw it away, but I always decided to keep it.  It was just too significant to throw away.

And then, one day about forty-five years later, I received an e-mail from an individual named Joe Johnston, asking if I was the David Vaughan that had flown with Karl Klein at Dyess Air Force Base.  Joe had married Meg Klein, Karl’s daughter, and he and Meg were trying to learn more about the accident that had killed her father.  As Meg was growing up, her mother had refused to talk about the accident.  I sent Meg and Joe my accounts of flying C-130s with Karl in Europe in the summer of 1966 and included two or three photos that I had taken.  There was one photo of Karl and me standing in our flying suits on top of one of the walls that surrounded the ancient town of Diyarbakir, Turkey.  The airfield at Diyarbakir had been one of the stops on a flight into Turkey in the summer of 1966.  I also sent her the black and white photo that I had been carrying around for forty-five years.  It was a photo of her father in his Air Force 1505 uniform wearing the rank of first lieutenant.  She had never seen it before.  They stayed with us when they visited the Dayton, Ohio, area two or three years later.  When my wife and I moved to Texas in 2015, we stayed in touch.


In the summer of 2019, I received a call from Meg.  A civic organization in Abilene had raised money to create a memorial park near the main gate to commemorate those Dyess airmen who had died in the line of duty.  An ad hoc memorial had developed over the years, with commemorative markers that contained the names of the airmen who had died, but the memorial area had evolved in a random manner, and the committee had come up with a creative park design in which all markers would be placed in a meaningful pattern.  A dedication ceremony was scheduled for July 19, 2019.

Joe and Meg arrived in San Antonio a few days early and visited with family members, many of whom still lived in the city.  I traveled up to Abilene with them and attended the dedication ceremony.  Several other members of Karl’s family, who still lived in San Antonio, attended as well.  The main speaker was General Maryanne Miller, commander of Military Airlift Command.  Many city dignitaries and relatives of the deceased airmen were present.  The morning was bright and sunny, and the ceremony ended before the temperatures climbed into the 90s.

Dyess Memorial Park honors fallen military
133 Gold Star families attended the opening of the expanded park that recognizes the 79 Dyess military personnel who have given their lives in the line of duty. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jodi Martinez)

Meg decorated the marker containing Karl’s name with a large bouquet of roses and hung a frame with a copy of Karl’s photograph—the photograph I had carried for forty plus years—from the marker.



While we were there we drove as close as we could to the Dyess flight line to see the C-130s taxying, taking off, and landing.  It was a dusty, windy day, warm and dry, but standing near the flight line, hearing the low growl of those C-130 engines, and seeing the low mesas to the southwest of the field, made it easy for me to remember how much I had enjoyed flying C-130s over central and west Texas.  I remembered exactly how excited I had felt, fifty-three years earlier, when Karl and I had walked from the squadron operations building across the concrete ramp, to climb into the cockpit of the C-130 and fly across the Texas countryside to worldwide destinations.