War knows no holiday, says former area Connellsville vet
On Christmas Day 1944, Ernest DeBlasio expected a holiday dinner with all the trimmings.
Instead, the airman was stuffed into the ball turret of a B-17 bomber plane, manning two machine guns over Italy.
“Boy, was I naive!” said DeBlasio, who was 18 then. “I figured they wouldn't fly on Dec. 25. I found out in a hurry that war knows no holiday. We got our turkey dinner after our mission.”
The young DeBlasio was used to fireworks but not the fire power of war. His father, Ernest DeBlasio, and his uncle, “Bedy” Lizza, had founded Keystone Fireworks in Dunbar in 1934.
Flew 31 missions
By the time World War II was over, DeBlasio was well acquainted with war's dangers. He flew 31 missions — half of them as a ball-turret gunner, suspended like a nipple, on the underbelly of the 15-ton B-17 Flying Fortress.
The other half of DeBlasio's missions were spent as an aerial photographer.
“They depended on me to take photos that would determine whether or not our mission was successful,” he explained. “I would take pictures from the time the bombs were dropped until the target was hit.”
The photography plane turned around early and headed back to base to develop the film — unescorted by fighter planes.
“It made us nervous, I'll tell you,” DeBlasio said. “If the Germans wanted to hit us, it could have been done very easily.”
DeBlasio joined the Army Air Corps in January 1944 because he wanted to become a pilot. His hopes were dashed, however, when doctors discovered he had a heart murmur. DeBlasio, though, was relieved that he could fly as a crew member.
DeBlasio's small stature made him a good candidate for the ball turret, where personal space was cramped. After basic training, gunnery school and flight training, he headed to Europe with the 15th Army Air Corps 2nd Bomber Group 20th Squadron, with seven planes per squadron.
They flew from Lincoln, Neb., to Bangor, Maine; to Newfoundland; to the Azores (islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean off the African coast); to North Africa; and finally to Foggia, Italy, where his squadron was based. Foggia is south of Naples.
The 15th Air Army Air Corps' bombing missions took them over Northern Italy, Austria, then-Yugoslavia and, finally, into Germany. The B-17 would fly as high as 31,000 feet before dropping its bombs.
When the plane reached 10,000 feet, DeBlasio would don his heated jumpsuit — it was freezing up there — and squeeze himself into the half-moon shaped turret, in between its two machine guns.
The plane would drop bombs on bridges, oil refineries, rail yards and enemy planes that were on the ground. DeBlasio saw (and felt) plenty of flak — ammunition shot from the ground by anti-aircraft guns — but his ball turret was never seriously damaged.
He did see several B-17s shot down. One time, his plane was hit.
“It was full of holes and gashes, but we made it back to base,” he said. “I was fortunate — our squadron didn't lose many (planes).”
Peering through the clear ball turret, DeBlasio kept an eagle eye out for German fighter planes, ready to take aim.
He didn't see many.
“Our fighter planes kept them off us (B-17 crews),” he said.
One day, he saw something that took him by surprise.
“A fighter plane with a red-painted tail came alongside us. The pilot was black. He smiled at me, waved and poof! He was gone,” DeBlasio remembered. “I thought to myself, ‘Hmmm, they (Air Corps) must have black pilots, too.”
He never gave it much thought at the time.
About 25 years later, DeBlasio heard about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first-ever black Air Force fliers.
“I thought: ‘Isn't that strange?' I recognized the planes' red tails and remembered they (the black pilots) were good fliers.”
Technical Sgt. Ernest DeBlasio flew his last mission in May 1945. On the way back, the B-17 he was on ran out of gasoline and had to refuel at a B-25 base.
“I think I was the last plane back to the base in World War II — but I can't prove it!”
When he came home in the summer of 1945, he saw a sign at Langley Field, Va., that read: “AMERICA DROPS ATOMIC BOMB ON HIROSHIMA (Japan)!”
“We said: ‘What's an atomic bomb?' We'd never heard of one — and then a second one was dropped a couple of days later (on Nagasaki, Japan).” The war was over.
After the war, DeBlasio, who graduated from Connellsville High School in 1943, went to college at the University of Pittsburgh, receiving a business administration degree. He also earned an MBA degree from West Virginia University and worked for the Department of Labor as a law enforcement officer.
In 1970, he went back to Keystone Fireworks after his father died and ran the company until it was sold in the 1990s.
Twice married and twice divorced, DeBlasio — now 86 — lives in Uniontown and enjoys his retirement. He visits with his family, especially his daughter, Jo-Ann Petanovich of Butler, his grandson and other relatives. His sister, Edith Torchio, lives in the Connellsville area.
“You've got to take it one day at a time,” said DeBlasio, “and live life to the fullest.”
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.