Local Air Force Veteran Shares Story at AirFest

ERMA — Capt. Joseph J. Catanoso, 88, U.S.A.F. (ret.) greeted AirFest visitors young and old from his station in the front of the NAS Wildwood hangar on Aug. 30, the 2013 exhibit’s inaugural day. He regaled them with tales of his former crew and their Nagasaki mission that took place just hours after the bombing of Hiroshima.

Though he looked more than happy to do it, Capt. Catanoso stated that this AirFest would be his “last hoorah”, a sort of final mission. “I’ve been doing it since 1947, and it’s time for me to back off,” he said.

This North Wildwood resident is one of five brothers, better known as “the Catanoso boys,” all of whom served in World War II. Capt. Catanoso remembered his late brothers fondly and expressed his best wishes for his surviving brothers, now 94 and 96.

Catanoso recalled when he, along with his five brothers and friends, were drafted out of Wildwood High School when he was just a junior. “I was sent to Fort Dix for the opening. After we were there for abour a month, we got word that we would be pulling out soon. All of sudden, I realized – I don’t want to be in the infantry. I want to be in the Air Force.”

After passing the U.S.A.F.’s general aptitude test with flying colors, answering 135 of 150 questions correctly, Catanoso’s fate was sealed.

His group was the 431st Bomb Squad (HH-B-24) 11th Bomb Group, 7th Air Force/USA in the South Pacific. He served as both flight engineer and top turret gunner.

Catanoso remembers the moment during his training at March Field Base in Riverside, CA, when a “meeting” was called to form crews. “I got six men and four officers. We got a great crew, one of the best in the South Pacific.”
As if it were yesterday, Catanoso recalled flying from Okinawa on the fateful Aug. 6, 1945 when Capt. (later Brig. Gen.) Paul Tibbets, at the controls of the Enola Gay, dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

“He was on Tinian, we were on Okinawa,” said Catanoso, who was ordered to fly to Nagasaki, Japan that same day.

“We got a message from headquarters, ‘Do not go through that cloud, it is radioactive.’” said Catanoso.

It was at a later briefing the aircrews were informed that the “mushroom-shaped cloud” was top secret, and had been the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT.

“We also had to fly over Hiroshima on a recon mission, with orders to get as close as we could, and I still remember the devastation,” said Catanoso.

As he relived his wartime experiences, Capt. Catanoso became visibly excited to once again stand next to the B-24 aircraft that would in just minutes arrive at AirFest. When NAS Wildwood coordinators announced its impending arrival, Catanoso prepared himself to greet the B-24 “Witchcraft” and its veteran passengers.

After shaking dozens of hands and posing for a few photos, he searched eagerly for his name written on the side of the aircraft among many others who had given at least $1,000 to keep the bomber flying.

The AirFest visit by three World War II bombers, this B-24, a B-17, and a P-51, brought many veterans to Naval Air Station Wildwood from Friday to Monday, Sep. 2.

Their visit was made possible through NASW and The Collings Foundation, a Massachusetts group that maintains the aircraft so they can pay visits around the country and keep the history of that war and the veterans who flew them alive in a new generation.

The opportunity to once again stand at the foot of a B-24 aircraft, much like the “Puddle Jumper II” and the “Hell Cat Honey” which he had engineered, offered Capt. Joseph John Catanoso of the famous “Grey Goose Flyers” the closure that he needed to seal his retirement from the U.S. Air Force.

By Megan Kummer