366th Bomber Squadron, 305th Bomber Group, Heavy
Joseph Casatelli grew up the youngest child in a lower middle class Italian immigrant family in Altoona, Pennsylvania. His father, John, worked as a tailor in a retail store and on the railroad while his mother, Mary, stayed at home to take care of their six children: Carl, Alexander, Thomas, Frank, Louise, and Joseph. The family were active members of the Mount Carmel Catholic Church.
Casatelli graduated from Altoona High School in June 1942, where he played baseball and basketball. At age 19, Casatelli enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces on January 5, 1943. Two of Casatelli’s brothers also enlisted. Carl entered the U.S. Navy and fought in the Pacific Theater and Thomas joined the U.S. Army and fought in Sicily.
Casatelli trained in Miami Beach, Florida and earned his wings at Harlingen Field, Texas. Based at the airfield in Chelveston, England, he became a left waist gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress.
Life as a Waist Gunner
The U.S. Army Air Forces used the B-17 in the daylight strategic bombing campaign of World War II against German industrial and military targets. The B-17 was an important strategic weapon–it flew at high altitudes, had long-range bombing capabilities, and could still return to base even if it suffered heavy damage.
Casatelli was part of a ten-man crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress. Each member of the crew received specialized training for their position: pilot, copilot, flight engineer, navigator, radio operator, bombardier, waist gunner, or ball turret gunner. Casatelli was a left waist-gunner. He provided protection from enemy attacks directed at the midsection of the plane. He also monitored the engines. To hit enemy fighters from this position required great skill and good luck.
Casatelli and his crew were part of the 305th Bomber Group (Heavy). This group was part of the “Mighty Eighth” Air Force under the command of General Curtis Emerson LeMay. The group’s motto was “Can Do.”
In November 1942, the group started flying combat missions and operated chiefly as a strategic bombing operation until April 1945. They were involved in campaigns in the Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, Northern France, and Central Europe. The 305th Bomber Group flew 337 missions and dropped 22,363 tons of bombs. Under General LeMay, the 305th Bomber Group pioneered formations and bombing procedures that became standard in the Eighth Air Force. The group received two Distinguished Unit Citations: one in France on April 4, 1943, and one in Germany on January 11, 1944.
The Odds Were Against Him
Staff Sergeant Casatelli successfully completed 27 combat missions, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart and an Air Medal with Three Oak Leaf Clusters. However, a bomber’s odds of surviving missions dropped considerably with each mission he completed. Thus, Casatelli had less than a 45 percent chance of survival on his 28th mission.
On April 27, 1944, Casatelli’s plane was shot down in an air battle; the plane was 30 minutes outside of the intended target, an airfield in Nancy, France. Casatelli sustained wounds to his head and chest from flak and died in the arms of another crew member. Of the ten-person crew, six members were killed and four became prisoners of war in Germany.
Two French citizens, a pharmacist and a restaurant operator, buried Casatelli’s body in the churchyard of Église Du Grand at Mailley-le-Camp. In 1945, his body was interred at the temporary, U.S. military cemetery in Champigneul, France.
On May 11, 1944, a telegram arrived informing the family that Casatelli was Missing in Action. It was almost a year later when his father, John Casatelli, was notified of his death on April 28, 1945. His father chose to bury his son in France. His body remained at Champigneul until 1950, when his remains were transferred to Epinal American Cemetery where he rests permanently. Although Casatelli’s remains are in France, the family chose to memorialize him in Altoona. A headstone was erected while the family still believed Joseph to be Missing in Action, and a statue commemorating Altoona’s Italian sons who died in World War II bears Casatelli’s name.
In an editorial about Casatelli, the Altoona Mirror wrote,
It should be realized he did his duty heroically, that he battled not only to preserve what was good but to create something better, and that it is for the living to realize that we, too, must devote our every energy, to the end that the ideals for which he strove may be attained and the sacrifice assessed to the end that the world may be rid of such conflicts in the years to come.
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