PALM HARBOR — Frank Bolek arrived in Lesina, Italy, as part of the U.S. Army Air Forces 325th Fighter Group in December 1944.
Bolek's assignment with the 325th, known as the Checkertail Clan because of the black and yellow checkered pattern on the tails of their aircraft, was to escort B-17s and B-24s on bombing missions against the Germans.
On farmland not far from the town's center, the U.S. military built a temporary airstrip. Every morning, the 22-year-old would climb out of a tent he shared with three other pilots and into the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang.
"Our bombers would form at 7 a.m., and as escorts, we'd catch up with them over the Adriatic where the German line was,'' Bolek recalled. "We'd fly them over the Alps into Germany, three hours in, three hours back.''
Recently Bolek, 91, had an opportunity to share a few memories with Tom Ricci, who was born in Lesina. Ricci's father was a child there during the Nazi occupation, and on May 16, Tom led a dedication of a monument in Lesina in honor of the 325th Fighter Group.
More than 300 people attended the dedication, including Frank's daughter, Gayle Bolek. She represented her father, who did not want to make the trans-Atlantic trip. During the festivities, she and Ricci struck up a friendship.
And on June 2, when Ricci, an independent management consultant based in Toronto, was in Florida on business, he visited with the Bolek family at the home Frank shares with his wife, Pat, in Palm Harbor.
Ricci explained to Frank Bolek that the idea for the monument was rooted in a request his father made before he died in 1992. "The 325th were seen as liberators,'' Ricci said. "My father told me that he wished the 325th could be thanked somehow for what they did for the people of Lesina.''
Bolek shook his head. "We went to do a job. I didn't realize the townspeople felt so strongly about it,'' he said.
The 325th had entered combat in April 1943, escorting the bombers, flying strafing missions and conducting sea sweeps from bases in Algeria and Tunisia before being sent to Italy.
At the start of the war, Bolek was in Cleveland working for a tool and die maker, building motors for submarines. "Because of the work with the subs, I got a few deferments before enlisting,'' he said. "Once the Army said no more deferments, I got into flight school, and that's how I ended up in Italy. ... The (325th) had been there a while before I came in.''
Ricci's grandfather, Tommaso Ricci, was a bricklayer in Lesina who helped the Americans build the airstrip and an office building for the Checkertail Clan.
Ricci asked Bolek if he had much interaction with the locals. "Do you remember many Italians working with the Americans?'' he asked.
Bolek stressed that because the town's buildings had been destroyed, he didn't have an incentive to go into town often. "I only remember that there were a few Italians that came out to where we were and did some jobs, cooking, that sort of thing,'' Bolek said.
Ricci nodded. "The Germans did destroy it all. What the 325th did was bring the life back into Lesina — through the medicine for those who needed it and also the feeling of hope and new prosperity and then after they moved out, the people used the materials that were left behind … the parachutes, parts from engines, the steel from the airstrip, it all helped the people rebuild.''
Ricci also reminded Bolek of how the winter of 1944 was one of bitter cold. "It was the first time in 100 years that it snowed there,'' Ricci said.
"I remember it as being cold, and we were muddy all the time,'' Bolek said. "You'd get out of the tents and you'd be in mud over your boot tops.''
In May 1945, Bolek moved with the fighters to Mondolfo, Italy, where the 325th helped advance the Allied ground forces. That October, he returned home to Cleveland and his work in the tool and die making industry. It would be 15 years before he would meet Pat, who was working as a surgical nurse. Along with Gayle, they have a son, Martin, and two grandchildren.
Gayle doesn't remember her dad talking about the war when she was a child. "I've pushed him to tell me as much as he can just in recent years,'' she said. "When I went to Lesina, it was a chance to see the history.''
Her visit was marked by rain. Some would have been disappointed, but not Frank's daughter.
"The wet weather didn't bother me,'' she said. "It added to it because dad had described it as that way. I was able to get closer to what he experienced.''
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163. Follow @Florida_PBJC.