CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
John Cirelli, one of five brothers, was born in January 1925 in Union City, New Jersey. He was living with his family in Union City at the time the Pearl Harbor attack resulted in the American entry into World War II. All but one of the five siblings would be drafted into the service during the conflict. Cirelli was shocked by the Japanese attack, as he had believed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s statement that “there will be no soldiers setting foot on foreign soil.” Pearl Harbor changed the mood of the country overnight.
Cirelli’s father was born in Italy and emigrated to America when he was ten years old. The elder Cirelli was upset that Italy, as a member of the “axis” with Germany and Japan, was now at war with America; but, he accepted the fact that his home country was now the enemy. Mr. Cirelli closed the family grocery business during the war, because he was uncomfortable refusing service to his regular customers due to imposed food rationing. The main source of family income would become army wages paid to the Cirelli brothers.
Cirelli was drafted in June 1943 and completed his basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Although initially assigned to the Armored Cavalry, he took a test for the Army Air Forces, passed, and was transferred to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri for instruction as a flight engineer. Cirelli went on to gunnery school and combat crew training after assignment to a B-17 bomber in Lincoln, Nebraska. In January 1945, his crew received orders to fly their plane to England. They made several stops along the way, including Goose Bay, Labrador, and Iceland, which Cirelli remembered as having a landscape of “desolate barren dirt,” before delivering the bomber to a base in Northern Ireland. The crew then took a ferry across the Irish Sea to England; Cirelli recalled that the civilians aboard the ship seemed annoyed at their presence. His crew was stationed at a base in Sudbury, located in southeast England, as part of the 486th Bomb Group’s 835th Squadron, where they were assigned a B-17 nicknamed Happy Warrior, in which they would fly nineteen missions over Germany.
On the Sudbury base, Cirelli lived in a camouflaged Quonset hut. He was able to go to the post office in a nearby town and phone his brother, who was stationed at a base in northern England. Cirelli remembered listening to German propaganda radio daily. The Germans intended to hurt American morale, but the broadcasts provided amusement to the air crews; although, when their bomber group’s location and missions were noted, it was a bit unnerving. There were also incidents of supposed, albeit unlikely, sabotage on the base, including an incident when Cirelli found a mouse in his oxygen mask.
The average bombing mission involved a briefing on the target the day before, followed by waking up at 2:00 the following morning to ride bicycles to a building where a large board displayed their target area, and what to expect in the way of German defenses. The usual enemy opposition on a mission involved “flak” from antiaircraft guns as the bombing run began, followed by German fighter aircraft attacks that often followed them for quite a while.
The Happy Warrior was equipped with .50 caliber machine guns for defense against enemy aircraft. Cirelli manned the two guns located in the B-17’s top turret, which was capable of rotating 360 degrees. His other tasks as a crew member included calling out air speed as the aircraft taxied down the runway, making sure it had achieved the 110-120 mph required for take-off, as well as manually cranking down landing gear if necessary. He noted that senior officers occasionally flew on missions, including five of his. This meant one less machine gun available for defense as the gunner’s seat was occupied by an observer officer.
Cirelli vividly recalled his nineteenth and final mission, on April 7, 1945, over the town of Parchim during an attack on the German air base located there. He noted that the air temperature was below zero, so cold that he risked frostbite if he removed his gloves and touched his gun. Happy Warrior took heavy antiaircraft fire, and was apparently accidentally hit by an American bomb dropped by another plane. Cirelli was wounded in his arm by a piece of shrapnel. As the plane began to go down, the crew bailed out. He remembered the descent to the ground via parachute as much more tranquil and quiet than being on board the four-engine plane.
Cirelli was captured almost immediately after landing and was transported, along with several other surviving crew members, in a straw-lined cart to a toolshed, where they were held for the remainder of the night. Local civilians, whose town had been bombed, did not treat Cirelli and his crew kindly, rocks were thrown at them as they were transported to their makeshift jail. He was later told that the locals intended to shoot the Americans the following morning. Unfortunately, two men of the Lucky Warrior crew who landed in the town itself were shot by local SS men, and another died when his parachute failed to open. Only six of the ten-man crew survived.
The next morning, the Americans were moved to a nearby German army barracks, where they were given straw beds and a small stove, and a German sergeant named Gerhard Mohr was assigned to guard them. Mohr shared his rations with the crew and protected them when they were transferred to a railroad boxcar to leave the area. The railroad trip ended at a German army hospital, where the Americans were treated for their wounds. One of Cirelli’s fellow crew members developed an infection from his shrapnel related wounds and could hardly breathe for some time but recovered.
The Royal Air Force bombed the hospital and surrounding area at night, and the patients, including POWs, had to retreat into the woods to escape the bombing. Cirelli and his comrades were held by the Luftwaffe and were liberated by the advance of the American First Armored Division shortly afterwards. He had remained in the hospital and was never confined in a formal POW camp. Cirelli returned to the United States in June 1945 and was discharged in January 1946, with the rank of T/Sgt. He earned the Purple Heart, POW Medal, Air Medal with two Bronze Stars, the American Theater Medal, WWII Victory Medal, and the Good Conduct Medal for his service.
After the war, Cirelli attended several reunions with surviving crew members of the Lucky Warrior, once driving to Texas to visit two of his fellow POWs. He was also reunited with Gerald Mohr, who emigrated to the United States after the war, on a 1953 television show. At one point, Cirelli wanted to go to Germany to search for the remains of two of the other crew members, but the Soviets denied him access to that area, which was then in East Germany. John Cirelli passed away at the age of 90 on April 21, 2015.