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Joseph B. Rapoza
723rd Squadron

Joe Rapoza1 Joe Rapoza2

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 " Liberty Belle. " 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.

Reproduced with permission of Dave Lanteigne, grandson of Joe Rapoza

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