I have long wanted to relay the story of a young man featured in the National Museum of WWII Aviation. His story is particularly special because of how many artifacts we have from him and how many different sides of the war he saw.
Lt. Joseph Del Masso flew B-24 Liberator bombers during 1944 and 1945 in the China, Burma, India (CBI) Theater as part of the bomber component of General Claire Chennault’s famous “Flying Tigers” of the 14th Air Force, also known as “Chennault’s Forgotten Warriors.”
Joseph, a first generation Italian-American, grew up in Oakland, California with his two younger brothers Albert and Marco. They had a difficult childhood after their father abandoned them and their mother during the Great Depression; but the brothers would remain very close. Joseph graduated from high school in Oakland, attended college for a time, and then enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1942. He was selected for the Aviation Cadet Program. He completed pilot training in 1943 at Yuma Army Airfield, received his wings, and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. Joseph then went on to train in multi-engine aircraft prior to his assignment as a co-pilot in B-24 Liberators. Marco and Albert both followed Joseph into the service, with Marco joining the 27th Infantry Division and Albert joining the Merchant Marine. Albert would survive the war; Marco would be killed in action on Okinawa. The loss of Marco would prove devastating for both Joseph and Albert.
At the museum, we have two particular letters written during the war that show the human side of the conflict. Presented below is a letter from Marco Del Masso to his brother Joseph sent just before the invasion of Okinawa. At this point, Marco had already seen combat in the battles of Eniwetok and Saipan. In a letter to his mother, Marco said to her that he was wounded when he was on Saipan and they wanted to send him back home. He said, “No, Mom, I refuse to be released back home as long as you, my country, my family–as long as they’re in danger, I will stay.” Marco noted below that he was the first to hit the beach (Saipan) and also that this letter is written on captured Japanese stationery. Also evident below is the area removed by the censor.
March 16, 1944
Just a few lines to let you now that I am well and hoping you are the same. I am sorry I did not tell you that we were going for a little trip but they wouldn’t let us. Tell your girl I said thanks for the compliment and tell her that I would like to meet her sometime, is she the one you said that you were going to ask to marry you?
That’s too bad that they treat you guys that way but after all that’s the Army. If you do come over the pond in April I hope it is a place where I can greet you to the islands.
No I did not get any souvenirs because I did not have a change you see *I was in the first wave to hit the beach and if we were to stop for souvenirs not many of us would be alive today and so the troops that came in after us had (it) a lot easier and whenever they seen a dead Jap they would go for souvenirs. We had some fellow who got..[censored]…he…[censored]…them out of the Japs…[censored].
The only souvenir I wanted was myself and I got it, get it? But this paper I am writing on is Japanese paper; I also got a couple of the bastards (Japs).
I hope you get your wish about the bombers I have not heard much about the B-29s but they must be good planes. Yes it would be nice to have three pilots in the house but then of course you can’t always have what you want, by the way it looks Al will right up there with you pretty soon.
(The) folks at home say you miss me but you will never know how much I miss you, do you remember them days when we were always fighting, them were the day, ay what. Don’t worry about me because I am okay. I came through the fight okay; I wish I could say that for some of the other fellows.
I must blose now but will write again soon.
Your loving brother
This next letter is from Joseph Del Masso to Lt. Arthur Klein, Commanding Officer of his younger brother, Marco. This letter expresses Joseph’s grief over the news that Marco had been killed in action on Okinawa in April 1945, and demonstrates the closeness of the brothers and the admiration Joe had for the Infantry.
4 June 1945
Dear Lt. Klein,
A few days ago I received some heart breaking news, my brother Marco Del Masso had been killed. It hurt so much that I was stunned. I cried for hours & hours.
I love Marco very much; he was very young & always happy. He never had much time to go out on dates & learn what life has to offer. Everyone took it rather hard. Ray, one of Marcos’ buddies took it very bad also. We are going to miss Marco so much.
I’ve been to combat & returned safely, thank God. Needless to say I hold the infantry with great esteem. I’ve seen many combat films of our boys getting killed; I’ve often cried because they lost their lives for a great purpose.
The infantry has taken the roughest, dirtiest, most deadliest job & have come through with top colors. I’ve seen many men in uniform with ribbons galore, none are heroes except the infantry men; they and only they are the world’s heroes.
Mother called me up & asked me to write to you; Marco wrote in his letters once that he liked you very much. I’m very happy to know that.
I started to write you a letter once before but I forgot completely. I hope for you sake & your men you get to come home soon. It’s been a long and dirty fight for your men; you certainly deserve a long rest. If only some people could be made to realize how terrible this war is.
Lt. Klein, if at any time you desire something please write to me and ask for it. I’ll be more than willing to get it. If at any time you go to Oakland, Calif. Please drop in to see my mother; a good Italian dinner will be in store for you.
I would appreciate it very much if you could write me about Marco and tell me what happened. This is strictly between you & I. Please write me something, anything.
I kind of fell like crying again, so please excuse me if I end my letter here. Hoping to hear from you soon, I remain-
Joseph Del Masso
1st Lt. A.C.
Joe would never hear back from the Lieutenant as he was also killed in action on Okinawa, April 27, 1945.
Joseph’s B-24 crew trained for their combat deployment at Hamilton Field, near San Francisco. Here they flew their brand new radar equipped B-24J eight to ten hours a day for familiarity. The crew was then sent to Langley Field, Virginia for low altitude radar bombing training (LAB). From there the crew flew their B-24 to Chengkung, China via Bangor, Maine; Gander, Newfoundland; Lajes Field, the Azores; Marrakech, French Morocco; Tunis, Tunisia; Cairo, Egypt; Abadam, Iran; Karachi, India; Agra, India; Chabua, India; and across the eastern Himalayas to their new home.
At Chengkung the crew was assigned to the 375th Bomb Squadron, 308th Bomb Group, of the 14th Air Force commanded by Gen. Clair Chennault. The 375th’s B-24s–equipped with radar integrated with the Norden Bombsight–flew low-altitude night radar strikes against Japanese shipping in the South China Sea and daylight raids against enemy land-based installations in eastern and central China. The 375th crews flew extremely hazardous and long duration missions in the CBI. In addition, they had to fly missions across “The Hump” over the Himalayas to pick up supplies in order to keep their bombing operations going. On average, it took three mission across “The Hump” for every combat mission flown.
One of Del Masso’s most difficult and dangerous missions was the 13-hour mission of August 31, 1944 to drop anti-ship mines in the harbor at Takeo, Formosa (now Kaohsiung, Taiwan). Formosa had been held by the Japanese since 1895 and was a well defended stronghold for the Japanese Navy. Reconnaissance showed large numbers of Japanese ships in the harbor. On August 31, 1944 a night mission was planned to bomb Takao, with an attack force from the 308th consisting of two flights of radar-equipped B-24s– the first group of twelve would hit the Takao docks at 5000 feet and the second group of four would come in at 400 feet and drop mines. Joe and his crew were part of the low level group of four. Joseph and his crew received the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission. Joseph would complete 36 missions and log 358 hours of combat time as part of the 308th–the group that took the heaviest combat losses in China. Yet the 308th would also be recorded as having the highest bombing accuracy of any group in the war.
Below is an excerpt from his journal about that mission–what they would call “A Mission of Hell.” At 1720 on August 31, 1944, the planes left Liuchow for the 675 mile flight to Formosa…
Here came a mission of hell. Same old routine; grim reaper comes around and we are informed that we lucky ones are to fly– so we hobble to the truck somewhere at 1500. We walked into the briefing room and were told our mission was Formosa, Takao Harbor, another mining deal. Twelve B-24s were taking off at ten minute intervals to bomb the harbor and we were to come in an hour after the first B-24 took off. There were four of us. We were to come in at 400 ft and mine the entrance to the harbor while the twelve bomb the harbor. Purpose: to scare shipping out of the harbor and hit our mines.
We reached the coast line and flew on for another 1 hr 50 min. Before long we sighted a huge fire burning in the harbor about 70 miles away. We had our radar on so we could spot convoys and avoid them. All this time we were letting down from altitude. The ships at five thousand feet were still coming in at ten minute intervals. We could see tracers, a solid wall, in the path of the B-24s; 30 cal; 50 cal; & 20 mm & other heavy stuff. Searchlights picked them up and they were plastered. From that moment on I knew this was going to be hot. We hit our I.P. (initial point) and started on our run, then I saw a huge explosion from above the harbor & I knew for certain one of our boys ‘got it.’
The harbor was full of ships and so was the surrounding water outside. We saw three or more ships burning in the harbor as we approached it. Our altitude was 400 ft and air speed 160; our altitude couldn’t vary up to 500 ft because the mines would break on contact with the water. I started to synchronize the props so their radar wouldn’t be able to pick us up. There weren’t any tracers or searchlights, except for the fire; I was sweating and was damn scared. In we went on our short (but it seemed much longer) on minute run. I changed pitch constantly; the radar operator called out mileage; the bombardier was in the nose waiting for the release point to arrive.
Just before our first mine fell a radar searchlight picked us up. Damned but I was scared; they had us; then five more picked us up and then all hell broke loose; tracers were pouring in at us from the nose to the tail. I yelled “get those damn mines out, they’ll get us.” I could hear them hitting the ship. I was ducking up there when tracers came too close but it wouldn’t have been much good if they had my name on it. Most of it was light stuff since we were only about two thousand feet away from their batteries. The flack seemed to come right at me from over the nose and off to the right. I watch the stuff flip over our nose about two feet away. I heard the sickening thud and felt inside we weren’t going to get away. I was scared and damn planty; I even shook. They came a little too close for comfort. The run was the longest I’d ever experienced.
When the last mine was dropped the bombardier (Leabo) yelled “let’s get the hell out of here.” The moment I heard that I pushed forward all the RPM and throttles and we turned out. I was damn well relieved. We made a sharp bank to our left and left the light but they still fired at hus blindly. We poured the soup and went hell bent for home. We’d been hit over one hundred and thirty times and miraculously no one was hurt. We had one large hole about 2 feet in diameter in our right flap nearly severing the gas hose. Some control cables cut and severed and the radar knocked out.
We headed for home. At thirty minutes from our field we found out they were being raided so we headed for Kweilin. We certainly had a job getting to it through overcast. We sighted the field and cam in on our downwind leg but we lost the field in low clouds. We tried again and with the control towers help we kept it in sight and came in on our approach; the hole in our right flap stalled the wind out and we came in swerving from one side to another. We didn’t know at the time that were was a hill just to the left of the approach and we just missed it. We were about 50 ft when we gave it the throttles and tried again. We made it this time but I was a nervous wreck. We disembarked from the shpoi and went to eat. It was about 0500 now and we were plenty tired. We ate and slept and arose the same morning; we closed the hole p and put a new mag in the four engine. I didn’t care for that field; not both ways. We landed the same day at Liuchow and were debriefed.
I believe the mission was completely planned wrong. We lost two ships on that mission. They were at 5,000 ft. It’s unbelievable how the first three ships that went in a 400 feet emerged without a scratch. Pierpont was the pilot on one of the ill fated crews; his first mission. Really tough! Lady luck was with us. We should have never gotten away.”
The tail number of their plane was 440820, which–on 13 August 1944–they would name “The Big Wheel. It was in “820” that Joseph Del Masso would fly most of his mission until 15 November 1944. As they taxied out for mission start they hit a soft spot and sunk in. Bombs and gas were offloaded but left near the ship. Thena Japanese air raid hit the field and scored a direct hit on “820.” The ship they had flown around the world was completely destroyed. Del Masso would now fly any available B-24 until 12 Jan 1945–when his tour of duty finally ended.
After his return home from China in February 1945, Joseph trained in the P-51 Mustang and ferried fighters between bases. On June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union blockaded the Allied sections of Berlin. The U.S. responded by airlifting food and supplies to Berlin–an operation that became known as the “Berlin Airlift.” Joseph, although sent to Germany to setup orphanages, was called into service due to his qualifications as a pilot. Joe flew 32 missions in C-47’s as part of this relief effort. His was the 2nd plane to land in Berlin as part of the U.S. mobilization. The Berlin Airlift ended on May 12, 1949 when the Soviets finally restored over land access to West Berlin.
He then served as a special observer for the Nuremberg war crimes trials. These were a series of military tribunals for the presecution of the leadership of Nazi Germany who were responsible for the Holocaust and other war crimes. Joseph Del Masso attended the trials as an observer and presented at the museum are his original tribunal trial documents.
In the post-war years the Allied occupation of Germany was faced with large numbers of war orphans. As part of this, an officially mandated U.S. Army “German Youth Activities” program began, which implemented programs for orphaned children. As part of this, Air Force personnel followed the “Boys Town” model as created by the famous Father Flanagan and began setting up orphanages. As part of his assignment in post-war Germany, Joseph Del Masso worked in the creation of these orphanages. Presented at the museum are photographs he collected from his time working with the “Boys Towns” in Germany. Another of his assignments was as a special observer to the French Indochinese war against rebels in Vietnam. In fact, Joseph was present at Dien Bien Phu in the days leading up to the French surrender. After this, Joseph became involved with early satellite reconnaissance programs at Vandenberg AFB, California.
Joseph Del Masso retired from the Air Force in 1965 as a Command Pilot in the grade of Lieutenant Colonel. Del Masso’s decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with one device, the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with device and two battle stars, the Occupation Medal with the Berlin Airlift device, the Medal for Humane Action, the American Campaign Medal, and the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award.