CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Joseph Casino was born in Linden, New Jersey in August, 1924. He was a seventeen year old freshman at Newark [NJ] College of Engineering when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. “It was astounding; everyone wanted to enlist into a service,” he remembered. “I was big for my age, and I was the only kid on the block not serving. It was embarrassing. Everyone was asking my mother, how come your son wasn’t in? But the Air Force wouldn’t take you unless you were at least 18 years old.” Casino eventually enlisted in the United States Army Air Force in September, 1944. He was originally motivated to join the Air Force because he liked the uniform, but after he enlisted he found it “…a change of pace, being with everyone else in the same boat. I loved it,” he recalled.
Casino began pilot flight training at Biggs Field, Texas, but soon switched to navigation school. “I loved navigation. I was more at home with it because it fit well with my schooling in calculus, math, and trigonometry. It came easy to me,” he said. At the time of his interview, he demonstrated his wartime manual calculator, showing how he used it to determine the airspeed, wind and altitude information necessary for successful navigation. Casino also explained celestial and “dead reckoning” navigation, the latter often used on bombing missions due to German jamming of U. S. electronic equipment. Dead reckoning involved extrapolating known measurements of airspeed, compass heading and wind currents from a previously determined position to estimate current and future positions.
Casino met the rest of his nine-man crew for the first time at Biggs Field. The crew included a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, engineer, ball turret gunner, tail gunner, and two waist gunners. He recalled that every crew member on his plane tried to learn the others’ jobs, “… to pinch-hit if needed.” The crew trained on a B-17 bomber and competed against other crews at Biggs in navigation, gunnery, and bombing, using wooden bombs. “Our crew was the best, and our prize was permission to fly our B-17 to anyplace in the United States. We couldn’t decide where to go; everyone was from a different section of the country. So we drew a big circle on a map and in the middle of the circle was Kansas City. So we flew there for a couple of days. No one saw home but it was fun.”
Casino’s crew then flew from Kansas City to Lincoln, Nebraska, where, together with other navigators, he “…practiced celestial navigation…necessary to fly across the ocean.” Since his plane was apparently still on the production line, however, he recalled, “… they shipped us to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, where we waited for a large French ocean liner, the Isle de France.” At that time Casino’s parents lived in Linden, New Jersey, about ten miles from Camp Kilmer. While waiting to board the ship, he took most of his crew home to meet his parents. Unfortunately, they shipped out before they could return for the big Italian dinner his mother had planned for them.
After crossing the Atlantic in February, 1945, the Isle de France docked in Glasgow, Scotland, from where Casino and his crew took a train to an air base located at Thurleigh, forty miles north of London. There they were assigned to the 306th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force’s 368th Bomb Squadron. Casino liked England. When he and his crew members got passes, they would usually go to London. He recalled that they “…got to England late in the war and found London a little exciting. It was being bombed by German V-2 rockets all night long, and the V-2s were not that accurate.”
Casino recalled his first week at the air base as being quite stressful. He was billeted in a Quonset hut with about 30 other fliers and awoke each morning to the sound of names being called to fly a mission that day. “I was petrified, not knowing if they were going to call my name,” he remembered, noting that he woke up with sweaty palms for six mornings before he flew his first mission, which was to bomb a target in Czechoslovakia. The B-17s left at three in the morning and didn’t return until eight that night. The target was beyond the usual B-17 range, and Casino’s plane had to land in France to refuel on the return trip. “The first mission was the toughest, the second easier, the third a little easier, and so forth,” he recalled.
Casino said that the navigators “…were always a little behind” on a mission because they had to stay longer in the meeting room after the general briefing ended, for a special briefing on the weather and wind over the target, and instructions on what direction to approach it from. He explained that “… you approach the target upwind…the slowest possible time it takes to cross the target area. With a heavy headwind you may be going 100 miles an hour, which isn’t very fast. As soon as you drop your load you bank and head downwind, which helps you get out of there faster. This is all figured out before you take off. That’s the theory of bombing.”
Casino noted that there were thirty-six planes in each bomber group. The usual tactical procedure was to have three groups fly at different heights, and then rendezvous with other groups from the twenty different air bases the Eighth Air Force had scattered throughout England. At the rendezvous point each group would fall into a prearranged spot within the larger force, before proceeding to the target. Contact between groups was maintained in flight by color-coded flare and the radio intercom system.
Casino recalled that areas heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns were colored in red on his maps. These areas were to be avoided unless they were specific targets. He mentioned that Berlin and the German submarine pens at Kiel were two of the most heavily guarded areas, and whenever they were selected as the targets of the day, a groan emanated from the men in the pre-flight briefing room.
Anti-aircraft guns fired shells that exploded in the air as black puffs of “flak.” Casino remembered that during raids he could see hundreds and sometimes thousands of these explosions in the air, filling the sky with pieces of shrapnel that could penetrate a plane’s fuselage. “If it [flak shrapnel] knocked out an engine, you go down,” he recalled. “You wonder how you are going to get through, because there is no way to avoid it.” He recalled that on one mission a large fragment of flak penetrated his plane and lodged in the fuselage above his head. Casino stated that the “flak jackets” issued to plane crews for body protection weighed about thirty pounds, and that he preferred to sit on his jacket rather than wear it, since he was more worried about flak coming from below than above. Overall, Casino remembered the B-17 as being “…a very solid aircraft. We lost engines by flak on occasion, but we always managed to get back to our home base. Friends of mine had gone into B-24s and were not as fortunate.”
Casino mentioned that due to their limited range, American P-51 fighters could only escort the bombers part of the way to their targets. This did not matter as much as earlier in the war, he said, noting that he didn’t see much of the German Air Force or Luftwaffe during his bombing runs. “By that time [early 1945] Germany was running out of planes. But they were just coming out with their jet airplanes that were so fast that our machine gun turrets could not swing around fast enough to keep up with them. If the Germans had jets in force, we would have lost a lot more B-17s and crews,” he said.
Casino recalled that his plane returned home with flak holes in the fuselage on about half of the missions he flew. His plane lost engines on several missions, yet still managed to return to base safely. Not all missions were as dangerous. Some, “…if your chances of coming home were much better then on most runs,” were called “milk runs.” Sometimes technical problems produced other dangers. Casino remembered that on one mission the bombs got jammed in the rack after the bombardier set the fuses and had to be jettisoned on the way home before landing the plane.
Casino recalled that a lot of air crewmen actually did not wear their parachutes when flying a mission. He stated that both the rear gunner and the ball turret gunner on a B-17 worked in spaces that were not large enough for both a man and parachute. He remembered that on one occasion a rear gunner went straight down with the tail section of a plane when it broke in half in the air. On one mission his own parachute had been rigged with an incorrect buckle, preventing it from being securely attached to his body. “I prayed that we wouldn’t be shot down,” he recalled.
Casino said that all navigators were aware of the heading needed to get to neutral Sweden if their plane was too damaged to return to base. He showed the interviewer a map of Europe printed on silk fabric that was issued to assist shot down fliers attempting to get to Sweden. He stated that at one time he knew another airman who had been shot down at the beginning of the war and escaped to Sweden, where he stayed for over two years before returning to England. Since he had not completed his twenty-five missions before being shot down, he was assigned to complete his missions in Casino’s unit after his return. Following the war he returned to Sweden to his wife, a girl he had married while he lived there during the war.
On some missions the B-17s supported ground troops, who would mark their battle lines by smoke from smudge pots. On one occasion, while supporting Canadian troops, the pots were not moved ahead of the troops, and the Canadians lost some men to American bombs. Casino did not fly on that particular mission but later met a Canadian soldier who became angry with him over the incident when he discovered that Casino was a member of an air crew. “We were both annoyed at each other but everything was okay after a couple of beers,” Casino remembered.
Lieutenant Joseph Casino was in Liverpool, England on V-E Day. He returned to the United States in March, 1946 and was discharged from the Army Air Force on May 1, 1946. He received an Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, each cluster signifying six combat missions.
He also received the American Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle East Campaign Medal, and a WWII Victory Medal.
Following his discharge Casino returned to New Jersey, where he married. At the time of his interview he was retired and living with his wife in Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Joseph V. Casino passed away on October 3, 2008.