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Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center
WW II B-17 Gunner Looks Back
By Jayna Legg, Lovell FHCC Public Affairs
Friday, May 29, 2020One of the memories that still chokes up 95-year-old Air Force veteran Joe “Gunner” Geraldi is his grandmother running into his arms when he arrived back at his Waukegan, Ill. home after serving as a gunner on B-17s in World War II.
During a phone interview just days after his May 4th birthday, he repeated the story of his grandmother, pausing as the tears came. “My mother was at work. My father was at work,” he said, sitting in his room in the Green House home where he resides at Lovell Federal Health Care Center. “I had to take a streetcar home, and when I stepped off the streetcar, my grandmother, who was in her 90s, was there and ran to me.”
Geraldi was 20 years old and had been gone two years, or what seemed like a lifetime.
More than seven decades later, on his milestone birthday, Geraldi was touched by the family members, friends and FHCC staff members who gathered to sing “Happy Birthday” outside the dining room window of his Green House home. “I was astounded,” he said. “I couldn’t believe so many people cared.”
Geraldi’s anticipation for his birthday grew during the long weeks of physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, it wasn’t a complete surprise to him when the group marched up, holding birthday signs and cheering. FHCC Director Dr. Robert Buckley, a Navy veteran, was there as well as several fellow veterans from the many outpatient Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other support groups Geraldi has participated in at the FHCC for the past 10 years.
FHCC Psychologist Dr. John Bair, who has asked Geraldi to accompany him for several public speaking engagements over the years, carried an American flag. “I wouldn’t have missed this,” Bair said.
Bair pointed out that Geraldi was also one of a few dozen FHCC veterans who regularly interact with medical students at The Chicago Medical School, Rosalind Franklin University, to help them learn how to best care for veterans.
Geraldi was drafted after high school and left home in August of 1943 for Camp Grant in Rockford, Ill. His assignment officer told him he was going into the infantry. Geraldi surprised himself and instead asked to be an aviation cadet. However, when he “washed out” of aviation cadet training because of a medical issue, he was sent to gunnery school.
After basic training, he trained to be a gunner on B-24 and B-17 bombers. He was assigned to a crew of 11 men he would fly with for 35 bombing missions, 32 of them over Germany. Lewllyn James, a 34-year-old waist gunner, took Geraldi “under his wing.”
“I was 19 years old then, and had never left home,” Geraldi said. “My mother babied me like I had just come out of the womb. That’s why Lew watched over me.”
When Geraldi and the crew ultimately left the United States in the summer of 1944 to fly on a B-17 to Europe, his mother, Vita, “finagled” her way to the airstrip in Kearney, Neb. to see him off. He still doesn’t know how she did it.
Tucked away in his bags was a small diary given to him as a going-away present. He already had started faithfully recording each day’s events. “I just wanted my family to know what I was doing when I went to war,” he said. “No one knows that scariness that comes every morning when they come and wake you up, and you know you have to go on a mission.”
For years he didn’t show the diary to anyone, until he handed it over to his daughter, Roseanne, in 2006 to organize and reproduce to share with family and friends. “She asked me about my service, and I said, ‘Well, here’s a diary.’”
Today he’s thankful he kept the diary, which he has reread frequently over the years. It has helped him with his public speaking about his wartime experiences.
Before he was assigned to the 401st Bomb Group, 613th Squadron, in Deenethorpe, United Kingdom, he completed advanced gunnery training and learned how to fly “at altitude.” Along with the target, the weather conditions and success of each mission, his later diary entries also included the number of hours he had to wear an oxygen mask.
Time to get up!
“They used to come and get you in the morning,” he remembered. “It would be 5 a.m., or earlier, and they would shine the flashlight in your face to wake you up to go on your mission.”
The earlier the flashlight in the eyes, the farther away and longer the mission.
“So you’d be walking with guys to the mess hall for breakfast, everyone thinking their own thoughts, thinking of family, and you would sit there quiet and try to make jokes, and you never knew who with you was going to be back the next morning, or if you would be back,” he said.
“I was scared to death every time,” he said. “I always wondered what would happen if I got shot down and taken prisoner.”
While his crew was technically never shot down, they had many close calls and lost one member, Bill Mathhies, during a particularly harrowing mission.
Geraldi received his first Air Medal (he finished with seven oak leaf clusters signifying additional Air Medals) for his sixth mission, Aug. 16, 1944, to Schkenditz, Germany. He said that was the mission where he “learned what the air war was all about.” The target, an airdrome and bomber assembly plant, was clouded over. The flak was “highly accurate and intense,” he wrote in his diary.
“I saw a shell float up right above my position, and then explode. That really shook me up,” he wrote. “On the second run over the target, we dropped our bombs. By now the flak was in our shirt pocket.”
The tail of the plane was shot up, and Geraldi’s neck was scratched. The pilot told the crew to get ready to bail out after the number two engine was hit. So Geraldi crawled away from his position, put his parachute on and gathered his escape kit. He tied his shoes to his waist so he wouldn’t lose them. Then he heard the co-pilot say, “Let me try, Frank.” The co-pilot took the plane into a dive, which “apparently shook the prop off,” Geraldi wrote, and then the crew was told to return to stations. “I was the happiest guy in the world.”
The ball turret gunner, Bill Lee, broke his ankle during that mission, when he was thrown into the side of the ball turret, and Geraldi took his place. From that mission forward, he also started drinking his whiskey ration – given by the medics to every man returning from a mission – instead of giving it away.
Mission no. 8, Weimar: “Everything went wrong”
Aug. 24, 1944, mission no. 8, the target was a V-1 and V-2 Rocket plant in Weimar, Germany, and “everything went wrong” from the beginning, when they were rustled out of bed at 3:30 a.m., an hour late for a briefing and chow.
Their B-17, Homesick Angel, “was battered worse than any ship ever to return to home base,” according to a newspaper article written about the mission.
Geraldi suffered an injury to his left arm when it was sprayed with shrapnel. Radio Operator Mathhies was seriously wounded when he was hit in the abdomen by 20mm cannon fire. He died four days later.
The crew didn’t start out in Homesick Angel. When they started taxiing in their original “shiny new” B-17, a wing tip caught on an engine nacelle of another plane. At the last minute, they switched “ships,” and consequently, Geraldi didn’t have time to thoroughly check the guns in the ball turret. He only got one to work before they were hit by 15 Messerschmitt Me-109s, prior to even reaching the target. Geraldi could see the formation behind him “getting all shot up.”
“The German fighters shot before we could even see them,” he said. “They shot down three planes behind us and started battering us, right and left. They just kept coming.”
He heard a “terrific bang,” and the back half of his left gun was hit and shattered metal all over his arm. He thought his arm was broke. He couldn’t make a fist. Then the one working gun he had left malfunctioned. It was only after “pulling and pulling and pulling” that he ejected the shell. The ball turret was so small, it had an elaborate pulley system to eject rounds. “You can imagine how tiring that is when you are at altitude and on oxygen,” Geraldi said.
The enemy made four passes at Homesick Angel. “The one I got was the last one to attack,” Geraldi said. “Looked like he was aiming right at the ball turret itself. I put about four short bursts in him … I saw smoke come from the engine. I tracked him all the way until he exploded. It looked like a matchstick lighting up on the ground.”
After that, Geraldi discovered the intercom had been damaged, so he couldn’t communicate with the crew, and his oxygen supply was diminished. “I began to feel a little woozy,” he said.
He was able to open his hatch “after a long struggle” and get out of the turret. Two crew members were leaning over Mathhies, who was bleeding profusely. Geraldi found an unexploded 20 mm cannon shell lying on the radio room floor and tossed it out of the open bomb bay.
The bomb bay doors, the top turret, two engines, part of the tail, the oxygen system, the intercom, Geraldi’s left gun, landing gear, the air speed regulator and more was damaged or destroyed. Mathhies, Geraldi and waist gunner Sgt. Harold Quist were injured.
The pilot and co-pilot had to use dead reckoning to navigate and keep the plane at altitude to get out of Germany. “So, it was freezing,” Geraldi remembered, and crew members were sharing portable oxygen tanks. The rest of the formation was long gone, shot down or on the way home.
They made it back to England without any more enemy attacks, skidding off the runway into the grass when only one wheel came down and the other tire was flat. After a debrief, Geraldi went to the hospital for treatment before returning back to the barracks only to find his uniforms had been “requisitioned” by his bunkmates when they incorrectly heard Homesick Angel was shot down. “That was just what you did when crews were shot down,” Geraldi said. “It wasn’t stealing, just re-appropriating. It took me days to get my clothes back.”
The next day, the crew went to see the battle damage done to Homesick Angel and took photos by their crew positions. “Then we found out how lucky we really were,” Geraldi wrote in his diary. Besides two dud 20 mm shells in the radio room (one that Geraldi tossed out while they were still in the air), there were three more that had hit the right and left wing gas tanks and not unexploded.
The duds led Geraldi to note in his diary he believed concentration camp prisoners saved the crew. In late 1943, the Germans moved manufacturing of detonator caps for munitions to concentration camps, where they had free labor, and the chances of being bombed were slim. “For the loyalty of a group of people in that concentration camp, and their tampering with the finished shells, I am alive today to tell about it,” Geraldi wrote.
By the time Geraldi had 35 missions under his belt, he was ready to go back to the states. “They wanted me to be a gunnery instructor, and I said, ‘listen pal, I want to go home,’” he said. “I never regretted serving,” he added. But he didn’t want to stay in.
His large Italian-American Catholic family was overjoyed to welcome him home with open arms and celebrations. At one party, a friend brought a girl and asked Geraldi to see her home. “I asked her if she wanted to go to a movie the next day, and she said yes. That was the blossoming of our courtship.”
He married the girl, Lillian “Dolly” Loquidis, three years later, and “it turned out alright for me,” Geraldi said. They were married for just shy of 60 years and had a son and two daughters. When she died in 2007, they had eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Since then, six more great grandchildren have joined the family.
Geraldi served a short time more in the states after his homecoming from Europe and was discharged in 1945 after Japan surrendered. He used the GI Bill to go to trade school to become an electrician. He took a job for 95 cents an hour at Houdaille Hershey Automotive Parts until they closed in 1980. He also owned a liquor store in Waukegan.
The year before his wife died, Geraldi went on an Honor Flight to Washington, DC to see the WW II and other monuments. The emotional memory that sticks with him is the letters he received on the plane ride. “Some of the girls who wrote to me when they were single and young during the war wrote me again for the Honor Flight,” he said. “Tears came to my eyes when I read those letters.”
Later in life, when he couldn’t get around and up and down stairs, he tried living with his children, and “it didn’t work out,” he said. So, he moved to the FHCC Green House home. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
The FHCC has four Green House homes, which are part of the Community Living Center. Up to 10 people live in each home. Each has a private room and bathroom with a lift. The homes are comfortably decorated and have a common kitchen and dining room, porch, den and living room. Residents control their own schedules, help plan meals and may have visitors at any time.
Geraldi said he has a “nice comradery” with the other residents in his home. “They are all very nice to me and made me feel accepted.”
He makes a concerted effort to keep active every day. To keep his mind sharp, he plays Solitaire and does crosswords at the dining room table.
Even though he was physically isolated for his birthday, he enjoyed the weekend visiting with his children and grandchildren through the open window of his home’s dining room. The phone rang off the hook, too, he said. “I couldn’t believe how many people called me.
“I’m thankful,” he told FHCC Recreation Therapist Amy Lefstad after his birthday parade. “I’m humbled that so many people care.”