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Memorial Day 2016

Ninety-two-year-old Joe De Luccia has seen quite a few Memorial days, as have the dwindling ranks of his fellow World War II veterans – the men and women we’ve come to revere as “the greatest generation.” De Luccia, a widower, appears in fine health and fit enough to observe many more commemorations as he engages a visitor in his modest Saddle Brook home with tales of flak-filled bombing missions over Nazi-controlled France and Germany. “It was like flying through a cloud of steel,” he says, no small measure of pride in his voice at having survived the harrowing experience. The silver-haired nonagenarian’s recall is impressive, considering that the events he relates happened more than seven decades ago.

Joe was 19, one year removed from Eastside High School in Paterson, when he was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1943. He'd been working in a Western Electric plant, and his interest in electronics was his ticket to a duty assignment as a radio operator-gunner in the waist of a B-17 Flying Fortress, The Elizabeth Ann. Bomber pilots had a tradition of naming their aircraft after sweethearts back home, the most famous example being a B-17 nicknamed Memphis Belle.

"That movie they made about the Memphis Belle was a frigging embarrassment," the crusty veteran told a Rutgers University interviewer in 2008. On the other hand, when asked about Twelve O'clock High, the 1949 picture about a World War II bomber group starring Gregory Peck, Joe gives his stamp of approval. "That was the way it was," he says, "no baloney."

The B-17 and its workhorse partner, the B-24 Liberator, were the mainstays of the Eighth Air Force, the Army's administrative command responsible for the European air war. Below that highest echelon were bomb groups, each comprised of four, 12-plane squadrons. Joe De Luccia flew in Bomb Group 457, 750th Squadron, operating out of Glatton airfield in Cambridgeshire, England.

The British flew bombing missions, too, but mostly at night, which was safer but less productive. It was left to the Americans to fly the deadlier daylight missions, when the targets would be more clearly delineated, but also when the bombers would themselves become better targets – sitting ducks, in many cases – for German fighter planes and ground batteries. The losses were horrendous, especially in the earlier stages of the war, when P-47 Thunderbolt fighters had the role of protecting the bombers.

The P-47s were no match for the faster and more maneuverable German fighters, like the Messerschmitt 109 and the Focke-Wulf 190. And because the P-47s did not have the range to accompany the B-17s and B-24s deep into German territory, those bombers, through the end of 1943, took some of the highest unit losses of the war. One bombing run in particular is illustrative.

On October 14, 1943, on a mission that would become known as "Black Thursday," 291 B-17s took off from bases in England and headed toward Schweinfurt, Germany, to bomb factories producing ball bearings, which were essential to just about every piece of equipment that drove the German war effort. Sixty of the heavy bombers, more than 20 percent of the total, would fall prey to German fighters and flak from ground batteries; another 138 planes limped home, so damaged that many would remain useful only to be cannibalized for spare parts. Three thousand men took part in the raid; 600 were either killed or captured after bailing out of their crippled planes. Schweinfurt had been targeted earlier that year, on August 17, when 230 B-17s were dispatched. Losses on that raid were slightly less – 36 planes lost, 118 damaged – but still much too high.

Daylight bombing raids were suspended for five months after the devastating losses of the second Schweinfurt raid. For daylight precision bombing to succeed, the Americans needed a fighter plane that could shepherd the bombers into Germany and deal effectively with the German ME-109s and FW-190s. They found the answer with the introduction of the P-51 Mustang in 1944, initially powered by a Rolls Royce Merlin engine that enabled it to match or better the performance of the Luftwaffe's best fighters. The longer range of the P-51 also meant that the bombers would have fighter protection all the way to their targets. Bombers losses would remain significant, but sustainable because of the toll the raids were taking on the German war industry.

Joe De Luccia and his air crew finished training in the States in the spring of 1944 and, along with three other replacement air crews, headed for England, arriving in late May, 12 days before D-Day. The young Patersonian's baptism under fire came on June 18th, with his crew's first bombing mission, over Hamburg, Germany. It was during De Luccia's fourth mission, a "maximum effort" foray over Berlin on June 21, that the cost of war was brought home to him on a more personal basis. More than 1,000 bombers, B-17s and B-24s, took part in that attack, with 1,200 fighters, mostly P-51s, providing cover.

When De Luccia's crew first reported for duty in England, commanders told the men not to make friends with other air crews, because of the anticipated heavy losses. But that warning came too late for the four air crews that had trained together in the States and that had deployed to England at the same time. All four crews took part in the Berlin raid on June 21, but only Joe De Luccia's crew returned. The other 30 men, on three B-17s, were lost. When asked if he witnessed any of his friends going down that day, Joe De Luccia pauses before saying that he saw things through the open bomb bay doors while over the target. He does not elaborate, the memory still too painful to put into words, 72 years later.

A visitor asks, "Joe, what did you feel, climbing into your plane, mission after mission, with the odds so stacked against you? Where did you find the courage to go on?"

De Luccia brushes the question of his own personal fortitude aside. "I didn't worry about myself," he says. "What bothered me was seeing so many young people getting killed." He coped, he said, by simply "observing . . . and learning." He flew 32 missions before being rotated back to the states, where he continued to serve until the end of the war, training others to carry on the fight.

Joe De Luccia is now turning what he learned in the skies over Europe into an educational event for others, talking about his wartime experiences at libraries and other venues across northern New Jersey and nearby New York State, most recently in Waldwick and Old Tappan. His next engagement is at the Englewood Library on May 31 at 7:15 p.m. Anyone in the vicinity would do well to hear this stalwart member of the greatest generation tell it like it was during the air war over Europe . . . with no baloney.
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