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Our War: Belleville philanthropist recounts exploits as WWII pilot

The book Tale Spinners written by Jack Giannini.
The book Tale Spinners written by Jack Giannini.

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Fresh from The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., in 1941, Jack Giannini knew war was coming.

Not enthusiastic about the idea of getting shot at as an infantryman or the prospects of having a ship torpedoed from beneath him, Giannini decided to become a fighter pilot. He wanted to be the one doing the shooting instead of being the target.

"A friend said to me: 'Jack, what in the world are you doing joining the Air Corps? You don't know the first thing about flying a plane,'" said Giannini, who is 88. "I said, 'That's why I joined. I want to learn.'"

Giannini went to the desert of Arizona, where he learned to fly the famous P-40 Warhawk fighter used -- with a shark's mouth painted beneath the propeller -- by the Flying Tigers in China. When he was assigned to the 81st Fighter Squadron, he was put in the cockpit of an oddball plane, the Bell P-39 Airacobra.

The plane had a funny, fishlike shape. Its door was on the side like a car, not the sliding canopy used on most planes of the time. The most unusual thing was that it had the engine placed behind the pilot, unlike most propeller-driven planes, which gave the aircraft an unbalanced feel.

"It was underpowered," Giannini said of the Airacobra, which he flew in strafing missions in northern Africa, including Operation Torch, the allies' effort to start a second front against the Nazis. "You had to be careful with it."

Designed as a high-altitude interceptor, the lack of a supercharger made the plane a poor performer in the thin air up high. That made it useless for its intended role. But it eventually found success as a ground support fighter, especially as a tank buster, in both the American and Russian air fleets.

"You were a fool if you flew it over 100 feet off the ground," Giannini said. By staying low, the planes avoided both enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire. "We would attack convoys of these Italian trucks with cabs that could hold 12 people. You would only get one pass at them because, when they saw us, they would jump out and run in every direction. Boy, were they surprised when we came over a hill."

While target opportunities were fleeting, for a while it looked like Giannini wouldn't get into the fight at all.

When he flew from Europe to North Africa, he did it without a map. And he unwittingly fell into enemy hands as he searched frantically for a place to land.

"When we were getting ready to fly over, my commanding officer was giving a briefing and he didn't have a map, so he asked me for mine," Giannini said. "He kept it and told me I could fly his wing to Africa. But, on the way, my C.O. lost his belly tank and I knew he wasn't going to make it to Africa."

The commanding officer gave Giannini a heading in the direction of Africa, then turned back. When the young pilot hit the African coast, he wasn't exactly sure if he was in friendly territory.

"I saw a strip of concrete," Giannini said. "I didn't know exactly where I was. But I needed that concrete, so I landed."

It turns out the airfield was in Spanish-held Morocco, which was sympathetic to the German cause. When Giannini ran off the end of the short runway into the grass, soldiers ran out and surrounded his plane.

"I flipped the switch for the landing gear as I got out of the cockpit when they took me to the base headquarters," Giannini said. "They sat me down and gave me something to eat and some coffee. But when they tried to push the plane back onto the runway, the landing gear went up and the plane sat right down. The commander came into the room and took my food and coffee away from me."

More a guest than a prisoner, Giannini lived in a hotel for about six months before the Moroccans decided to let him go. He spent time enjoying the restaurants and taverns -- the closest he came to action was when an argument between two men over a woman erupted into a bar fight.

"The one guy threw the other through the plate glass window in front of the building and I knew all hell was going to break loose," Giannini said. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled out through the kitchen."

Eventually, Giannini's captors told him they were going to pay the U.S. government $5 as payment for his plane. Then they sent him on his way.

After a year of attacking convoys in Africa, Giannini's unit was sent to Europe. In early 1944, its pilots switched from the Airacobra to the new P-47 Thunderbolt, a huge and powerful plane with a lot of firepower.

It was in the P-47 that Giannini had his only air-to-air combat -- a tangle with a German fighter over Sardinia.

"I got the advantage on him, and he didn't see me until it was too late," Giannini said. "I opened up on him and could see pieces of the plane start breaking away and then the canopy came off."

Giannini said he can still see the startled look on the enemy pilot's face as he suddenly realized he was being shot at.

"I never saw if he went down," Giannini said. "He took off in one direction and I took off in another. I figured I had done enough damage. Besides, I had a saying: There are old pilots and there are bold pilots. But there are no old, bold pilots. So I got out of there."

After the war in Europe ended, the 81st Fighter Squadron was sent to China where it flew escort missions for B-29 bombers on their away to attack the Japanese mainland.

It was boring work, and Giannini said he couldn't see the point.

"Those bombers were so full of fuel that they could only carry a 500-pound bomb load," Giannini said. "That's peanuts, 500 pounds! You couldn't do any real damage with something like that. We were basically just harassing the Japanese."

After the war ended, Giannini's career in the military was far from over. He was stationed in Germany, France and Italy before he came to Scott Air Force Base. He was head of public affairs.

He retired from the Air Force in 1976 and returned to his pre-war plans of becoming an attorney. He worked in the law office of William Stiehl for 16 years before Stiehl became a federal judge.

Many in the metro-east know Giannini not for his service to his country, but as a philanthropist who donated more than $100,000 over the years to Belleville District 118 grade schools so they could stock their libraries with books. He gave to the Belleville Public Library to buy new computers. He gave $10,000 to Temple Beth Israel.

"I give so, hopefully, it will inspire other people to give," Giannini said.

As far as flying goes, that stage of his life ended as quickly as it began.

"I had enough of it," Giannini said. "After the war, I never flew a plane again."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 239-2626.

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