398th Bomb Group

Joe Joseph and the Miracle Hit

Joe Joseph

Joe Joseph, who was the former “friendly PX entrepreneur” of the 398th has more behind his happy smile than meets the eye. Like 57 more missions in a B-17 than probably all the men who did their normal 25 to 35 during the group’s tenure at Nuthampstead in 1944-45.

How did this come about? Joe explains it as being “very young and no wisdom.” After trying his hand as instructor at the aerial gunnery school at Kingman Army Air Corps Base, “it was like being back in the minor leagues,” he said. “No comradeship, no compassion and a horrible amount of politics.” Only a few months before, Joe had returned to the U.S. after flying 57 missions with the 97th Bomb Group in 1943 out of Biskra, Algeria.

Joe was an engineer-turret gunner, flying missions to the eastern coast of Africa from Bizerte to Tripoli ... and on to Italy. It was on a mission to the Borrizzo Air Drome in Italy that won for him the Distinguished Flying Cross. This for saving the lives of the ball turret and tail gunners when German fighters knocked out their oxygen system. Two months previously, Joe had been awarded the Soldier’s Medal for heroism after their B-17 crashed on take off at Chateaudun, Algeria. After his stint at Kingman, Joe was transferred to Gulfport, MS, where he hooked up with a “young dude” pilot named Newell Moy. Next stop was the 398th Bomb Group, 603rd Squadron, and another 26 missions before war’s end for a career grand total of 83 missions!

Others on the Newell crew were Archie Kritchman, co-pilot; Charles Berthoud, navigator; Ken McLaughlin, bombardier, Robert Noterpole, radio operator; Benny Bracia, ball turret gunner; Homer Rhodes, waist gunner; and William Wight, tail gunner.

Joe retired as a General Motors mechanical engineer, wrote the story below for his local Defiance, OH newspaper in 1985 when he and wife Rozanne traveled to Seattle to take part in the 398th and 97th Bomb Group reunions, and the 50th anniversary of the B-17 Flying Fortress.

Allen Ostrom

The Mircle Hit - by Joe Joseph
Engineer-Gunner, 603rd Squadron

On Feb. 22, 1943, the Allies had been in Northwest Africa just three months and 14 days, and they were having plenty of trouble. Instead of holding a half of Tunisia, as they once had, they now held a third. The British First Army, standing on a mountainous line from the Mediterranean to Medjezil-Bab and then southwest to the vicinity of Maktar, had held firm against the attacks by Von Arnin. The Americans, on the southern flanks, had everywhere given ground before the vicious probing of a force of Rommel’s armor. A great arc of strong points had been lost, and now the German armor had pushed northwest through Kasserine Pass in a twin thrust for Tebessa and Thala. Thala, in German hands, probably would menace the right flank of the whole British army and probably force its withdrawal west.

The battered American First Infantry Division and some armored remnants were drawn up in a flat arc which started in the hills just southeast of Thala and ran southwest to the heights of Jebel el Hamia. Backing the whole American line was a small web of British and American artillery. The Germans, drawn up before this line just a few miles south of Thala, were threatening to punch through to the town, when Air Force headquarters received a vaguely worded order directing it to bomb “the Kasserine Pass Area.”

This didn’t mean much to the two groups of Fortresses based at Chateau Dun, 150 miles to the east. The Kasserine Pass area covered a lot of territory, but an order was an order, so intelligence officers of the group studied all the front line messages they could find, and finally decided the Germans ought to be three miles south of Thala.

Early in the afternoon on the twenty-second we took off, loaded with fragmentation bombs, to see what we could hit. The weather was atrocious. Our sister group, the 301st, turned back, but the 97th Group, of which I was a member, went on. Some place around Thala we caught a few glimpses of the fugitive earth and were about to pin point our position. Then the clouds closed their ranks again and the earth disappeared.

Under such circumstances, our group commander would have been justified in returning with his load, but we of the 97th wanted to help our men down there. So a trial and error bomb run was made over solid overcast at a point the group commander hoped would be about three miles south of Thala. We returned to Chateau Dun and glumly reported that the mission had been a washout, due to solid cloud coverage.

This unhappy report was sadly made a matter of record. Then, at one o’clock on the morning of the twenty-third, the duty officer was called to the phone. Someone in a high British rear echelon -- our office couldn’t get the name -- wanted to congratulate our group on a “jolly good show.” The puzzled O.D. said, “thanks,” and hung up. Later in the morning, several more messages of congratulations came in over the teletype and telephone, but none of them gave any details. The 97th decided it had done something worthwhile and wondered what it was.

We found out that night. A newspaper photographer, flown back from the lines, happened to land at Chateau Dunn. When he heard he was facing the 97th, he reacted with a bang. “You’re wonderful,” he told a few of us gathered around him. “I know, I was right up in the front lines before Thala with the boys taking pictures, when a German armored column came up the road, looking for trouble. It looked very bad, because we didn’t have much to put up against it. Then we heard this roar overhead. We couldn’t see the planes because of the thick clouds.

“Well, there that column was, moving in on us; and there were those planes, and between them was a group of clouds. It was sad, I’m telling you. Then, all of a sudden a bunch of dust bursts began to pop up all around the column. In a minute, you couldn’t see the column at all for the dust and smoke. When it cleared away, there were a number of vehicles burning. There must have been a bunch of casualties, as everyone was riding uncovered and not expecting trouble. A little later they began pulling out everything they could save, and they never did come back. Say, how did you fellows do it, anyway?”

We had the wit to look mysterious.

Transcribed by Dawne Dougherty, wife of Tomas Dougherty, gunnner on the 602 Sqadron Woodson crew.

Printed in Flak News Volume 5, Number 3, Page(s) 8, July 1990

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