History of TACOMA Mission
From December 26, 1944 until May 24, 1945
- Captain Howard W. Chappell, mission leader
- T/5 Salvadore Fabrega, weapons specialist
- Cpl. Oliver Silsby, radio operator
- Staff Sergeant Eugene Delaini, weapons specialist
- Staff Sergeant Charles Ciccone, demolitions specialist
- T/3 Eric Burchardt, medical corpsman
- Fabrega – Distinguished Service Cross
- Chappell – Silver Star Medal
- Silsby – Bronze Star
- December 26, 1944: Chappell, Fabrega, and Silsby parachute near Belluno, North Italy. Make contact with Italian partisans and begin supply and training mission.
- February 6, 1945: Action on freight yards near Longarone destroys one locomotive and four cards loaded with men and material
- February 15: Attack troop loading and refueling point in Belluno, burning up 40,000 liters of gasoline and several vehicles
- February 21: Staff Sergeants Delaini and Ciccone and medic Burchardt parachute in and join the mission
- February 28: Engagement against Fascist troops leaves 120 Fascists killed and a very large number wounded
- March 6: Large German operation begins, including 1,500 SS troops and 3,500 Wehrmacht men under the command of Major Schroeder. Chappell, Fabrega, and Silby captured in Trichiana. Chappell manages to escape that night.
- March 17: Renewed German attack against partisan positions – repulsed by March 18
- April 1: Team destroys telephone poles and disrupts electric lines between Quero and Valdobbienidi
- April 3: Destruction of the bridge at Vas
- April 10: Attack the bridge at Busche, killing 24 Germans
- April 14: Second attack on the bridge at Busche – two armored cars destroyed
- April 22: Rescues from Communist partisans a Swiss countess who had supported OSS Captain Roderick Hall in Cortina d’Ampezzo until his capture by the Germans
- April 24: Team crosses several German roadblocks to take position in the Alps in order to cut off German retreat routes through the Brenner Pass
- April 27: Obtain surrender of hundreds of SS and Wehrmacht troops in the Belluno area
- April 29-May 1: Liberate alpine areas in preparation for arrival of US Army forces
- May 2: Fabrega and Silsby released from concentration camp in Merano
- May 3: Chappell reports to 85th Division Headquarters
- May 20: Entire team returns to the OSS headquarters in Sienna
What would become one of the most famous OG missions in northern Italy, the “Tacoma” Mission, began rather strangely. Both the commanding officer, Captain Howard W. Chappell, and his radio operator, Corporal Oliver Silsby, were members of a German-American Operational Group that OSS had recruited and trained in Maryland and Virginia for use in German-speaking countries. Why were these two members of the OSS German OG being deployed in Italy? The main reason was because of Chappell’s persuasiveness and his ardent desire for action.
Howard W. Chappell was one of those extraordinary individuals that so typified the OSS. He came from Cleveland, Ohio, the first of four children of a post office worker and a nurse. Because of his mother’s Prussian birth and ancestry, he was bilingual in English and German. A natural athlete, he played football in high school and college at Ohio State and Case Western Reserve and was also a Golden Gloves boxer. In June 1942, he joined the U.S. Army, earned an officer’s commission, and served first in the Military Police and then as a parachute instructor at Fort Benning, Georgia. It was at Benning, that he gained his nickname, “Flash Gordon.” This was due in part because of his movie-star looks—he was 6’2” tall, with broad shoulders, blond hair, and blue eyes. It was also because of his daring, even reckless, antics. In one episode, he allegedly perched on one of the horizontal bars of a jump tower, tossed out his parachute and leaped with it to the ground. In another, when some of his men were beaten up in a bar fight in notorious Phoenix City, Alabama, just across the state line from Fort Benning, he retaliated by driving a 2 ½ -ton Army truck through the front of the tavern. As a paratroop officer fluent in German, Chappell was recruited for the German OG being organized by the OSS. Like most other OGs, he trained at Area F and then Area B. In June 1944, he was sent to North Africa to await further orders.
As the months dragged by, Chappell became tired of waiting to be deployed, and he asked Italian OG operational officer, Albert Materazzi for mission behind enemy lines. He got his wish in December 1944, a month after his 24th birthday. It was an assignment to organize the partisans to block the German Army’s vital supply and escape routes from northern Italy to Austria and Germany through the passes in the Alpine and Dolomite Mountains. This was the “Tacoma” Mission. The other two original volunteers were Corporal Oliver Silsby and Sergeant Salvadore Fabrega. Silsby, the radio operator, was from Detroit, Michigan. He had received his OSS communications training at Area C, then been sent to North Africa and subsequently made two jumps into Yugoslavia. At 32, Fabrega was the oldest of the three; trained as part of the Italian Operational Groups, he was fluent in Italian and accompanied the mission as its interpreter. He had a complicated and somewhat unclear history. Born in Catalonia in 1913, he later left with his Spanish parents to spend four years in Germany before the family moved to Argentina. In his teens, he became a merchant seaman and traveled around the world. In addition to Spanish and German, he learned to speak Italian, French, and English. From 1936-1939, the former Catalan fought in the Loyalist Army against Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. Twice wounded, he left for France at the end of the war and joined the Foreign Legion. Later, he deserted and when France fell in 1940, he fled to England and then the United States, working in the merchant marine and becoming a U.S. citizen. Living in New York City, he joined the U.S. Army in1942; the OSS recruited him into the Italian OGs and trained him at Areas F and B in 1943.
The day after Christmas 1944, Chappell, Silsby and Fabrega leaped out of plane into a snow-covered Alpine clearing, 200 miles behind the Germans’ front lines. They quickly began training the partisans in the raiding tactics, demolition work, and the use and maintenance of Allied weapons provided by air drops. Two raids successfully destroyed forty thousand liters of fuel and a locomotive with four cars of troops and material. Later, the team took in a couple of Austrian Luftwaffe personnel, who said they were deserters. But when it was discovered they were planning to rejoin their unit and inform on the team, their throats were cut. On 21 February 1945, three American sergeants of the “Tacoma” mission parachuted in to help with the partisans, Eugene Delaini, a weapons expert, Charles Ciccone, a demolitions man, and Eric Burchardt, a medical corpsman. When Italian Fascist militia moved into the local village and cut off the Americans’ food supply, the team and its partisans sneaked down from the mountain at night and in a firefight, blasted their headquarters with machine gun fire and 18 rounds from the bazooka, a new weapon which the frightened fascists referred to as a “mysterious cannon.”
The raids and rumors about the presence of an American team caused the German headquarters in the area to dispatch initially more than a hundred, heavily armed Fascist troops to capture the “Tacoma” mission. The Americans and partisans moved through the snow in mule-drawn sleds, but the Americans were awakened the morning of 28 February with cries from the partisans that “Fascists are coming—hundreds of them!” The Americans and partisans hit the Fascist troops with fire from rifles, submachine guns, light-machine guns, and mortars. There were now six American OSSers, plus nine rescued Allied aviators, and two dozen Italian partisans. During the day’s action, 120 Fascists and two partisans were killed. That night, both sides withdrew; the next day, German troops arrived and blasted the mountaintop with artillery for six hours before overrunning it, only to find it the stone-hut vacant, except for a booby trap that the Americans left inside the door and which killed six Germans. Field Marshal Kesselring, the German commander in Italy, concerned about the threat to the key German lines of supply and potential routes of withdrawal through the Alpine passes, now ordered that the partisans and their American leaders had to be captured at all costs. In the ensuing manhunt by 3,500 German troops, the combined “Tacoma” and “Aztec” missions found themselves surrounded on the morning of 6 March 1945; they had been betrayed. Everyone had to run for his life in different directions through the mountainous countryside. Most escaped, but half a dozen partisans and two Americans were captured. Radioman Oliver Silsby was the first to become exhausted and collapse. Captain Chappell stopped to help him, and both were captured, although Chappell was able to escape into the brush. Fabrega, who had dropped behind with two partisans, was also captured.
Interrogated by the SS in Belluno, Fabrega stuck to the story that he was a downed American aviator and knew nothing of the OSS or the partisans. He, like the partisans captured with him was tortured, tied to chairs, beaten with clubs, and given electric shocks to various parts of the body. Fabrega did not disclose information. The next day, he and forty other prisoners were taken to the Belluno town square. The square was filled with townspeople, but all was quiet except the barked orders of the SS officers. A small German truck was backed under a tree; two youthful but beaten partisans stood in the rear. An officer brought Fabrega brought forward and asked the two youths if they knew him. Both said “no,” despite the fact that they had been allied with the “Tacoma” mission for weeks and had shared the same stone hut with Fabrega only forty-eight hours earlier. Germans now beat them again and looped nooses over their necks, but neither said a word. Both looked up at the sky. The officer waved his arm, the driver pulled the truck forward, and the two bodies swung on the ropes. The silence was broken by a woman’s scream.
The rest of the Italian prisoners were then hanged, some by rope nooses but others savagely snagged by the throat on meat hooks. Fabrega kept to his cover story and continued to be starved and tortured. After eleven days, he was taken to an SS prison camp near Bolzano, 150 miles north. Startlingly while on the way, the Italian driver, “Sette,” a chauffeur for the SS commander in Belluno, told Fabrega that he was also a spy for the OSS and tried to convince Fabrega to escape with him to the partisans. But the sergeant, either not believing him or realizing the importance of the kind of information the spy provided the Americans, declined. Instead Fabrega remained in the car all the way to the SS-run prison camp. There, he continued to undergo torture and interrogation.
While Sergeant Fabrega and Corporal Silsby were prisoners, Captain Chappell had escaped capture, despite being wounded in the leg. He was caught again, but using the silent killing technique taught by William (“Dan”) Fairbairn, he snapped the guard’s neck and took his weapon. He later killed an SS lieutenant with a walking stick. He was able to regroup with the partisans and other American OSS team members, Sergeants Ciccone, Delaini and Burchhardt. When the Allied offensives began in April 1945, they and the partisans scattered roadways with four-pronged road spikes, which caused considerable damage to vehicular traffic, they tore down telephone poles and telephone and electric wire, and blew up bridges at Vas and Busche, and killed a couple of dozen enemy troops. On 24 April, seeking to get to a mountain pass to prevent retreating Germans, Chappell and two other Americans, aided by a blonde Italian countess, hid in boxes in the back of a truck, as their partisan driver narrowly got them though two German road blocks. Together with partisan groups in the area, they mopped up a number of small German garrisons and learning that a large convoy was headed north, they blew up a bridge just north of Caprile and set up a road block and a trap for the Germans in the narrow winding mountain road. When the convoy arrived, Chappell and the partisans opened fire from the high ground, killing some 130 Germans in fifteen minutes. The single-file convoy was trapped, and after the initial firefight, its leaders asked for terms of surrender. Chappell said unconditional surrender, and after a few minutes of threats and discussion, the 3,500 Germans surrendered. Among the prisoners were a number of SS men, including the notoriously cruel Major Schroeder, head of the SS in the region and responsible for the torture and executions in Belluno and elsewhere. When Schroeder surrendered, after first threatening to kill all the civilians he had as hostages, he was found to be carrying the weapon the Americans had given to a teenage partisan who had served as Chappell’s assistant. The youth had been captured in March, and in torturing him in a vain attempt to get him to betray the Americans, Schroeder’s SS men had cut off his hands and gouged out his eyes before executing him. The morning after the surrender of the German convoy, several officers of the 504th Panzer Division and other units told Chappell that they were very disturbed about being confined with SS and asked to be separated. Chappell granted their request. That night, he summoned Major Schroeder and his seven SS officers to his quarters, where they talked in German. Chappell’s report tells what happened next:
We became quite friendly and even joked about how they had once captured me. We drank a little wine, and I learned the name of the spy who had disclosed my location prior to 6 March. This man was later killed in an attempt to escape.
We laughed about the fact that some of my equipment that had been captured was in his, and some of his officers, possession. He told me at this time that neither he nor any of his officers had ever committed any outrages and they regretted some of the brutalities that other Germans had committed.
Before he left he told me that he was glad that he had surrendered to me because all of his staff felt I would treat them as they would have treated me, if they had the chance. That was the way I felt about it. All of them were killed that night trying to escape.
Over the next few days, as the Allies advanced north, Chappell, his men, and the partisans extended their roadblock farther south preventing the escape of more German troops. They tied up several German divisions and forced the surrender of 7,500 Wehrmacht troops. On 3 May, Chappell drove down to Feltre and welcomed the U.S. 85th Infantry Division and turned the German prisoners and his intelligence information over to the advancing American Army. Both Fabrega and Silsby had survived the prison camp. In the final days of the war, Fabrega escaped in the confusion and went to Merano, where the top SS officials in the region were located. Brazenly, he walked into an SS barracks, announced he was a U.S. Army captain and told the Germans they were restricted to the barracks. His bluff worked, they stayed put, and when the U.S. 10th Mountain Division arrived the next day, Fabrega turned the city and the SS troops over to them, courtesy of a sergeant of the OSS. Thus ended the Tacoma Mission. All three initial members were awarded medals, Fabrega the Distinguished Service Cross, Chappell the Silver Star Medal, and Silsby the Bronze Star, for their heroism.