CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
United States Army Air Forces veteran Joseph R. ”Bob” Belgam was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in November, 1921 His oral history interview tells a story of compelling patriotism and effective leadership. Serving from 1942 to 1945, Belgam was a member of the 569th Bomb Squadron, 390th Bomb Group, 3rd Air Division of the 8th Air Force. His personal narrative covers everything from his life in basic training to flying bombing missions and bailing out of planes. He was one of many U.S. Air Forces heroes who have had a positive impact on our nation’s history. His interview both educates and entertains listeners, as Belgam was a born storyteller. Born and raised as a “Jersey Shore guy,” life in the military would expose him to a world far beyond his wildest dreams.
Belgam was a graduate of St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City. He had been attending college at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina, when the war broke out; and, he left school to join the Army Air Forces. After training in the United States, Belgam, then a first lieutenant, was sent to Framlingham, England. Leaving the base when he could to visit Brighton and London, he complained about the British rock beaches and cold Channel water, which were so different from the sand beaches and warm surf he knew and loved back home.
When Belgam was assigned to the 390th Bomb Group, the reality of the war really set in, and beaches were forgotten. His life revolved around 3:00 AM wakeups, followed by Catholic Mass, breakfast, mission briefings and bombing missions. Missions kept the airmen busy and on their toes as active participants in the war.
Belgam shared a story of an October 1943 raid, in which he and his crew claimed the most enemy aircraft shot down by a bomb group. He also told stories about getting separated from his group, while being forced to duck into clouds to avoid enemy fire; and, on one occasion, ordering his crew to bail out of a plane due to engine failure, low fuel and an inability to crash land safely. These captivating tales, tied to the general knowledge of the era shared in his interview, are what help set Belgam aside from other veterans. His articulate ability to share his compelling stories for the sake of recorded history are a true asset to this oral history collection.
Perhaps the most interesting tale of Belgam’s service occurred on February 6, 1945, the day he ordered his crew to bail out of their faltering B-17 over La Celette in central France, while returning from a bombing mission over Chemnitz, Germany. The friendly, grateful local French civilians housed and fed the Americans, who would return to their base in England, as well as go on to complete their total of 25 missions.
At the end of the war, Belgam was able to repay the kindness of the French by flying released French prisoners of war home, circling the Eiffel tower on the way. This personal narrative is one of enthusiasm, empathy and true heroism, highlighting both the highs and lows of war and Air Force life. Further information on the 390th Bomb Group can be found in numerous books, articles and museums, here and abroad.
His wartime experiences graphically returned to Belgam in August 2001, when he returned to France with his wife Vera to attend a ceremony commemorating the 1945 La Celette incident. He was presented with three gold commemorative medals by French Consul General Gerard Gaudin in a ceremony at the Hotel de Ville in La Celette. Belgam later told an Asbury Park Press reporter: “I had to keep wiping away the tears rolling down my face.”
The following day, the Belgams visited a chateau where a small museum dedicated to the B-17 bomber was being created, to which citizens of the village had donated bits and pieces of Belgam’s plane they had saved as symbols of their liberation. At the dedication, he was told by Jean Claude Montmartin, a French aircraft manufacturer who had arranged his visit: “We are bound to you forever; you are the strongest symbol of our American liberators.”
After the war, Belgam left active duty but remained in the Reserves, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He had a long career in both the private sector and state government.
At the time of his death at the age of 86 on December 23, 2007, Joseph Robert Belgam was living in Brick Township, NJ.