Calif. veterans share memories as World War II pilots
It was in the jungles of Panama during World War II that Vince De Maio got his first taste of what it was like to fly in a B-24 bomber. His radar unit's monthly food supplier offered him a ride in the aircraft and he was instantly hooked.
"That was the thrill of my life. He was landing and taking off on the beach," said De Maio, 95, of San Rafael.
The experience led the 1941-drafted De Maio to switch his military focus and enroll in a pilot training program. He spent the last year of World War II flying the heavy B-24 bomber through 19 combat missions, dropping 800-pound bombs on enemy territory.
"We had one target we had to hit every two weeks in southern Germany," De Maio said. "We would pulverize that place and the Germans would have it back in service in a matter of days or weeks."
De Maio was one of three WWII pilots from Marin County who spoke Wednesday during a special meeting of the Sons in Retirement branch 134 at the Hamilton Field History Museum in Novato. A subset of the senior men's organization branch, the Military History Group, arranged the presentation.
De Maio was joined by Novato residents Henry Beadle, 99, and LeRoy Everett, 94, who also both served during WWII. Beadle was a glider expert who taught military personnel to fly canvas-covered wood and metal aircraft. Everett was a B-17 pilot who left the Army's horse cavalry to help destroy the German air force.
Beadle spent three years on an Air Force base in Chicago teaching people how to fly Waco CG-4 gliders, which were towed into the air by C-47 military transport aircraft and set free in areas with small landing spaces. Each glider could hold 14 people.
"I think it's the most wonderful job I've had," Beadle said. "It was a lot of fun."
Beadle said he never crashed a glider and while he didn't see combat, he did travel overseas to experiment with gliders in different locations. He said his military base would take people with no flying experience and teach them to fly a glider with ease.
"We trained an awful lot of people," Beadle said.
While Beadle volunteered to fly gliders, he never expected to become an instructor. One day, two instructors took rides with him, not divulging why they wanted to accompany him. Beadle said he thought he'd done something wrong, but discovered what they had been up to when he returned to his barracks and saw his orders.
"It said I'd be retained as an instructor. I was lucky to be able to stay," Beadle said.
As a B-17 pilot entrusted with special missions, Everett saw his fair share of action and tragic losses overseas. He started his military career on horseback, serving in the Army's horse cavalry and patrolling the Mexican border following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After being switched to a mechanical unit and shipped off to Africa, Everett asked his superiors if he could switch to the Army Air Corps.
He spent two years overseas near England flying his B-17 over hostile territory.
"I've been over Berlin at 2,800 feet bombing Berlin," Everett said. "When we were at 2,100 feet it was 60 degrees below zero."
Everett said the Germans were good fighters and planners and that it took two years to destroy their air force. He said the anti-aircraft defense cannons used by the Germans were brutal to planes.
"Flak was a tremendous problem," Everett said. "I had nine young men with me (on my B-17). Seven are still buried over there."
For Everett, it's important for others — especially younger generations — to understand the huge sacrifice citizens made to protect the United States.
"It would shock you to see the thousands of young men who died for you," Everett said. "Your country was made by people who were willing to fight for it."
By the time De Maio was flying his B-24 over Germany, the skies were a bit clearer and the sight of German fighter aircraft was an occasional incident. He said the heavy B-24 bombers weigh about 60,000 pounds fully loaded and are tricky to fly, especially when pilots only have 500 feet of runway.
"Our runways were just plowed fields laid out with steel matting," De Maio said. "These planes wouldn't fly until you got up to 95 or 100 miles per hour."
He said whenever the aircraft took off there was always a reminder that just getting off the ground was a dangerous endeavor.
"Standing at the runway on every one of our missions was a priest. He was blessing our missions," De Maio said.
After sharing stories and answering questions from the gathered group of nearly 25 people, De Maio, Everett and Beadle left the Hamilton Field History Museum, continuing to swap stories with attendees in the parking lot.
Alan Dunham, Sons in Retirement branch 134 Military History Group co-chair, said it's amazing to hear what these men have been through in their lifetimes.
"These are the kinds of experiences you never know about. It's chilling," Dunham said.