CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Joseph Zakalyk is a US Army Air Force veteran who served as a waist gunner in the 18th Air Force 456th Bombardment Group’s 745th Squadron from 1944 to 1945, achieving the rank of staff sergeant. During his service, he participated in thirty-five bombing missions over targets in Europe from Italy to Austria.
Zakalyk grew up on a farm in Barberstown, just outside of Frenchtown, New Jersey. He was working at a paper mill at the outbreak of World War II, but did not like the work. Zakalyk enlisted in the Army Air Force in October, 1942, at the age of nineteen. He had originally intended to enlist in the airborne infantry, but his mother was upset at that choice, so he switched to the Army Air Force. Zakalyk went through basic training in Atlantic City; and, in November, 1942 was assigned to an airfield in Gulfport Mississippi, where he served as a military policeman for eighteen months.
In 1944, Zakalyk was shipped overseas to Italy, where he was assigned to a sheet metal maintenance and repair team on B-24 Liberator bombers for seven months. He did not care for the work; however, and wanted to fly on bombing missions. In November, 1944, Zakalyk got his wish, when he was promoted to staff sergeant and assigned to the crew of a B-24 as a waist gunner on a .50 caliber machine gun. He also helped arm bombs prior to dropping them, and acted as an aerial photographer on bombing missions, recording the explosions of the bombs dropped for record. Zakalyk’s squadron flew on strategic bombing forays targeting industrial facilities, airfields, factories, refineries, viaducts, and railroads, including the Ploesti oilfields in Romania. The missions lasted an average of eight hours each and were flown at 30,000 feet. The B-24s had no heating and were often freezing.
During one bombing mission, Zakalyk’s plane was attacked by German fighter planes, and he fired at the fighters as they swooped in, shooting down one of them. He prided himself as a good marksman and enjoyed the work, recalling that he was never afraid, because he said to himself that he was “gonna die anyhow” at some point. In addition to enemy aircraft, the bombers received a lot of anti-aircraft “flack” fire from the ground, which slightly injured Zakalyk on one occasion.
During his service in Italy, Zakalyk visited the Vatican with a group of his fellow soldiers, where they participated in a group audience with Pope Pius XII. They were fortunate to be in the front row, and when the pope spoke in Italian, Zakalyk mentioned out loud that they could not understand Italian. The Pope then graciously called the Americans to come up to him and blessed them.
When Zakalyk wrote letters home to his family, he was not, due to official military censorship, allowed to say where he was stationed. He decided on a way to advise them, by putting a single letter at the bottom of each of his letters and spelled out ITALY, and his family eventually realized that the letters spelled his location.
In April, 1945, Zakalyk’s unit participated in the final Allied campaign in Italy, which ended with the German surrender. After the end of the war in Europe, he was involved in flying supplies to units stationed in northern Italy. Zaklayk requested a transfer to the Pacific Theater, but was denied. He returned to the United States and was discharged at the AAF Separation Base at Port Newark, New Jersey on November 13, 1945. For his service, Zakalyk was awarded the European-African-Middle Eastern Ribbon with one bronze star, the Good Conduct Medal and the Air Medal with three bronze Oak Leaf Clusters.
After his discharge, Zakalyk returned to New Jersey, where he met and married his wife. They subsequently owned and operated the Highland Picnic Grove in Fords, NJ. As a skilled carpenter, he built the site’s clubhouse himself. Picnics held at the venue at times hosted over 1,500 people during the summer season. The property later became the Highland Grove Swim Club and was eventually sold to Woodbridge Township. After selling the club in the 1960s, Zakalyk opened a construction business, personally working with backhoes and dump trucks until retiring at the age of eighty-five, and gaining the nickname “Backhoe Joe.” As time passed, he lost touch with his friends from the war, and at age ninety had quadruple bypass and valve replacement surgery, after being diagnosed with blocked arteries and a calcified heart valve. Zakalyk spent eight months in the hospital and a rehabilitation facility. At the time of his oral history interview in December, 2016, at the age of ninety-four, he still loved to talk about his time in the war.