Joseph B. Rapoza was born on 28 August 1915 in St. Michael's, Azores. His
family moved to Fall River, Massachusetts when he was 10 months old and he
was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1936.
He joined the Army National Guard in 1933 and served in the 241st Coast
Artillery for 6 1/2 years.
He volunteered for the U.S. Army and enlisted on 4 February 1943. His basic
training was conducted in Miami, Florida. After basic training, Joe attended
Armament School in Ft. Myers, Florida.
After Gunnery School, Joe was sent to
Salt Lake City for Group, Squadron, and crew assignments. He was assigned to
the 450th Bomb Group, 723rd Bomb Squadron in Manduria, Italy. His new crew
was sent to Biggs Field in El Paso, Texas for full crew training. The crew
was then sent to Topeka, Kansas to pick up their new B-24G aircraft, which
was to become the "
" The new crew and plane were sent to their
Port of Embarkation, Morrison Field, Florida, and they embarked for Manduria,
Italy with stops in Belen and Natal, Brazil. The crew arrived in Manduria on
1 April 1944.
Joe and his crew flew their first mission on 2 April 1944. Joe flew a total
of 25 missions to Ploesti, Vienna, Sofia, northern Italy, Yugoslavia, and
the submarine pens in Toulon, France. The "Liberty Belle" was severely
damaged on the 24th mission, and the B-24 "Sweet Chariot" was assigned as
a replacement for the crew's 25th mission.
The 25th mission, on 24 May 1944, was a bombing run to airfields in Vienna,
Austria. Near the target, the bombers were met by approximately 50 Me-109's
and FW-190's bearing the Goering "Yellow Nose" markings. The anti-aircraft
fire was heavy, and it scored hits on the "Sweet Chariot." The bomber's
hydraulic system was shot out, and the turrets and flaps became inoperable.
Huge holes appeared in three propellers, in the wings, and throughout the
fuselage. During this engagement, the Flight Engineer/Gunner was killed.
The Ball Gunner, Radio/Gunner, and Tail Gunner (Joe Rapoza), were all
seriously wounded. The pilot, Lt. Bryant Smick of St. John, Washington, took
inventory of his men and the condition of the plane. Lt. Smick reported the
plane's condition to his crew through the ship's intercom, and told them that
they might be unable to make it back to their home base. He asked the men
whether they wanted to drop out of formation and attempt to return home
immediately, or continue on to bomb the target. One by one, the men voted to
continue. Somehow, Lt. Smick and his co-pilot, Lt. Theodore Sorenson of
Fergus Falls, Minnesota, managed to keep the bomber in formation, and
proceeded to bomb the target.
After the bombs were released, the bombardier, Lt. Edward Pontz, of Lancaster,
Pennsylvania, and the navigator, Lt. Joel Fulmer of Memphis, Tennessee, went
back to the wounded gunners and helped them drive off the enemy planes. After
the enemy planes had left, they helped administer first aid to the wounded.
The pilot took the bomber to a higher altitude to allow the blood flow on the
wounded to freeze, so they would not bleed to death. Over 1,100 flak and
20 mm shell holes were counted on the crippled "Sweet Chariot" after it's
return to base. The entire crew later received the Silver Star for the
heroism shown on their 25th mission. Sgt. Rapoza, on his 25 missions as a
B-24 tail gunner, was credited with 2 enemy plane kills and 3 probables.
Joe was hit once in the shoulder and twice in the leg. He was
treated for his injuries in Bari, Italy and eventually moved to Martinsburg,
West Virginia for two years of hospitalization and rehabilitation.
Joe became an Air Force photographer and served in New Hampshire, South
Carolina, and Texas before retiring in 1967.
He received a total of 12
medals including the Silver Star, Purple Heart, Air Medal with 2 Oak Leaf
Clusters, an Air Force Commendation medal, and a European Theater Medal.
He worked as a photographer for the National Archives in Washington,
D.C. and retired from this position in 1981.
Today, Joe and his wife,
Jennalee, reside in Columbia, Maryland and enjoy traveling and visiting with
children and grandchildren.