The following is a wartime newspaper account taken from a newspaper in Fall River Massachusetts, and it quotes another news
report at length.
One of the most heroic crews ever to fly a B-24 bomber was the 10 man detail
that graced the "Liberty Belle" which operated out of bases in Italy as a
member of the 15th Air Force.
Gathered from all corners of the United
States and trained for many months in the nation's finest schools, these
young men in their early twenties established an enviable record until the
eventful May 24, 1944, on a bombing run over Vienna, Austria, when fate
intervened on their 25th mission.
The crew was assigned to the "Sweet Chariot" One of the crew was killed and three
suffered wounds which sent them to hospitals, one back in the United States
for surgery and extended treatment.
This crewmember was a Fall River
resident, Staff Sergeant Joseph B. Rapoza, tail gunner, of 193 Hope Street.
The craft, riddled with flak and machine gun holes numbering approximately
1,100, limped back to its home field with its shattered human cargo. All
later received the Silver Star medal for their heroism.
The 25th mission was in recent months dramatized, the sketch being given in
the Western Coast States under the title of "Today's American Hero." The
text of this sketch is as follows:
This is the story of 10 heroes. When a bomber leaves its base you usually
can figure on one man being a hero, or mabye two. But seldom do all the
members distinguish themselves. However, all 10 men who went out on a raid
over Austria last summer in a B-24 bomber were heroes. The War Department
has announced that they were awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action.
The target was an important airdrome in Austria. When they had almost
reached the field, about 45 enemy fighter planes rose to meet them. The
anti-aircraft fire was heavy. The ack-ack scored. The bomber's hydraulic
system was shot out and the turrets and flaps were so badly damaged they
would not work. Holes showed in three propellers, in the wings, and
throughout the fuselage.
The pilot, Lt. Bryant Smick, of St. John Washington, began to take inventory
of the damage. He checked each of his men, asking if he was all right. He
called each man's name, and they reported on the damage the ground guns had
done. Three of the men said they were seriously wounded, but they were going
to stick to their posts. But when he called the fourth gunner, Sgt. Harold
Brown of New York, there was no answer. Again and again the pilot called,
"Brown, Sgt. Brown." But over the intercom came only silence. Smick sent
Sgt. Max Dowdy of Washington, Kansas back to check on Brown. A few minutes
later, over the intercom, came Dowdy's report. "Brown got his, sir." Smick
asked, "What happened?" Dowdy answered, "A machine gun bullet in the head."
Smick ordered Dowdy to stay there and take over for Brown. Dowdy said "Yes
sir," then Smick said, "Men we are in pretty bad shape. Our ship is full of
holes. The flaps are damaged, the hydraulic system is out and there are
holes in the propellers, wings and fuselage and I don't know if we can make
it back or not. Do you want to drop out of formation and turn back, or do
you want to try to drop the bombs on the target?" Sgt. John Roven of
Glassport, Pennsylvania said, "We came to drop these bombs, so let's finish
the job." One by one the men elected to go ahead with the mission.
Somehow, Lt. Smick and the co-pilot, Lt. Theodore Sorenson of Fergus Falls,
Minnesota, managed to keep the bomber in formation. They aided in a
successful bomb run. As they left the target area, they saw fires generating
from the airdrome.
After the bombs were gone, the bombardier, Lt. Edward Pontz of Lancaster,
Pennsylvania and the navigator, Lt. Joel Fulmer of Memphis, Tennessee went
back to the three wounded gunners to help them drive off the enemy planes.
Then, after the planes had left, they administered first aid to the wounded
The pilot and co-pilot managed to keep the plane in formation all the way
home, even after the controls had jammed.
The three men wounded on this mission were Staff Sergeant Joseph Rapoza of
Fall River, Mass., Staff Sergeant Max Dowdy of Washington, Kansas and ball
turret gunner Technical Sergeant Oliver Russell of Dupuyer, Montana.
According to Sergeant Rapoza who recalls the mission as if it were today,
Technical Sergeant Brown, whose home was in Canandaigua, New York, met his
death as the result of a bullet penetrating the aircraft. Russell also
suffered a leg injury from a 20 mm shell fragment and Dowdy had an arm injury
from the effects of ack-ack.
Rapoza was hit once in the shoulder and twice in the left leg. The fuses of
20 mm shells being responsible for the injuries which resulted in his
ultimate return to the United States and treatment at the Newton D. Baker
Hospital in Martinsburg, West Virginia. He is now enjoying a rest furlough
here pending surgery, if needed, at a later date.
Among Sergeant Rapoza's proud possessions, in addition to the Purple Heart,
Air Medal with clusters and Silver Star are the two 20 mm fuses that Air
Force surgeons removed from his shoulder and leg last May in Italy following
the return from his 25th mission.
The crew no longer functions as a single unit. Lt. Sorenson and Sergeant
Jack Thompson are back in this country for a rest follwing many missions.
Lt. Smick, Sgt. Roven and Lt. Fulmer are said to be prisoners of war in
Germany and Sergeants Russell and Dowdy were still in Italy assigned to
non-flying duties after a long list of missions when Rapoza last heard from
them. They correspond with each other frequently and since his return to the
United States, Sgt. Rapoza has visited the families of several of his former
crewmates and is hopeful of meeting the others in the months to come.
Reproduced with permission of Dave Lanteigne, grandson of Joe Rapoza