By Jaclyn Lazar

Picture of Joe

Sergeant Joseph A. Lappen was a dedicated fighter for the United States 15th Air Force. He joined the Air Force on December 15, 1942 and fought until September of 1945. Joe was a tail gunner of a B-24 Liberator. He was part of the 456th Bomb Group, which was formed in May of 1943 at Wendover Field in Utah. This bomb group was one of twenty groups, with forty planes per group, that was stationed in Cherignola, Italy for a total of six months. While they were in Italy, the 456th Bomb Group flew in one hundred different bombing missions. Joe flew in fifty of those one hundred missions himself. There were a total of forty B-24 bombers for each mission. The men in these missions were strong and committed fighters, but they were all haunted by the fear of never returning home.

Main Targets:
Joe and his flying crew fought for six months bombing a variety of different targets. Their main goal was to attack anything aiding the military. For example, they destroyed factories producing machinery, aircraft, and anything of that sort. Also, the Air Force tried to curtail supplies to the enemy, mainly oil. To do this, they bombed oil refineries and storage tanks. One of their main targets was Polesti, Romania. Polesti was a heavy oil producer, producing an estimated 450,000 tons of oil per month. Finally, in August of 1944, Polesti was destroyed by 23 attacks, 19 from the 15th Air Force. Joe also helped to bomb targets such as Vienna, Munich, Budapest, and many more.

This is a map from World War II. The arrows indicate the places that Joe bombed.

The B-24 Liberator:
The B-24 Liberator was the aircraft that Joe and many other soldiers used to carry out their missions. The B-24 Liberator was the most highly produced aircraft during World War II. It held a crew of ten men. This included a pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier, and six people to man the guns. Of these six men, there was one in the front, one in the back, one on the top, one on the bottom, and two on the sides. Joe was the tail gunner, meaning he was the gunman in the back of the plane. By being in the back of the plane, he was able to see enemy fire and track how close it was getting to their plane. He saw how each shot was closer then the one before, so when a shot finally hit he was not surprised like the rest of the crew. As the tail gunner, Joe was responsible for fighting off enemies from the rear.

             B-17 Bomber Plane

                       B-17 Bomber Plane

                               B-24 Bomber Plane
                     B-24 Bomber Plane  (the plane that Joe flew in)

Getting To Italy:

Before heading to Italy, the men of the 15th Air Force picked up their planes in San Francisco. They then traveled to South America. From there they flew to Africa, and from Africa they flew to their base in Cherignola, Italy. When the men first picked up their planes, they found special notes inside. These notes were from the women who had been working in the planes, preparing them for combat. The notes offered support for the soldiers and wished them luck. Some of the notes included, "write to me", "I love you", "good luck", and many more. Often times the men would write to these women and received wonderful responses. The letters gave the men the hope and encouragement they needed to make it through the tough times that lay ahead of them. 

A Typical Day:
In the airfield in Italy, the men slept in tents with cots. Each morning they would wake up and have breakfast between five and six in the morning. After breakfast, all the men would assemble for a daily briefing. During this briefing, the men would learn the day's mission and the targets they were to attack. They were informed of who would be there and whom they were attacking. Then they would drive over to their planes and load the guns and equipment needed.

Each crewmember would get into their position on the plane. Joe had to climb into the "tail turret", which was where the tail gunner sat. The "tail turret" was approximately 2ft by 2ft and was somewhat protected by a small piece of bulletproof glass in front. Joe had only two guns with him in the turret.

When all forty planes were ready to go, they would take off two at a time. As the planes took off the men would get into their positions and begin to test their fire. As the planes rose higher into the sky, the temperature would drop to below zero and the oxygen level would also drop. To stay safe from the low temperatures and low oxygen, the men wore electric flying suits and oxygen masks, which they put on as they were heading to their target. The crew also wore flack suits, which were made of particles of metal to protect them while in the air.

On their way to the target, the pilot would give the crew updates on their position. As they got closer, they would begin to see flacks or big explosions and there would be guns firing from the ground. When they got to the target, the German planes would come out and start firing at them. This heavy fire was an attempt to keep the planes out of the area. As they got closer to the target, the forty planes gathered in a tight formation to drop their bombs. They used anywhere from 500 to 1,000 saturated bombs for a single target.

When they had completed their mission, they would begin to head back to their base. Before landing, they would organize any emergency landings and decide who needed to land first. This decision was based on medical emergencies and damaged planes.

When the men finally made it back after a long and stressful mission they received a small reward. After every bombing the men would receive a shot of whisky. This was to help settle their nerves. However, a single shot of whisky could never fully settle the pain and suffering these men endured.

Blanket Bombing:
During World War II, the Air Force used a bombing technique known as "blanket bombing." In World War II, bombing was not as accurate as it is today. This technique helped to increase the chance of hitting the target. In blanket bombing, all forty planes in the mission would stay together in a tight formation while flying over the target. Then, they would all drop their bombs at the same time creating a blanket of bombs that were all very close together. This way, they had a better chance of hitting the target. During this time, it was very important for the crew to remain focused and stay in formation because one lost plane could effect the entire group. There were large punishments for planes that did not stay in the formation.

             P-38 Fighter Plane
                        P-38 Fighter Plane

           P-51 Fighter Plane
                                      P-51 Fighter Plane

These two planes were fighter escorts to Joe and his flying crew

Longing To Make It Home:
During their time in Italy, the men feared that they would never return home. There was a very small chance of survival. During the six months that Joe and his fellow soldiers were overseas, there were one hundred crews lost. Many planes never made it back to the base. When returning from a mission, their main goal was to at least make it to Yugoslavia. In Yugoslavia there was a group called the Partisans. This group would pick up the soldiers and send them back to the base and keep them safe from the Germans.

Luckily for Joe, there were no deaths on his plane. However, many people were hurt or cut up from gunshots to the plane. Many shots would hit the plane making holes in the sides. A plane could come back from a mission with anywhere from ten to one hundred holes in it. Unfortunately though, one of Joe's friends was declared MIA, and he never did find out what happened to him.

Emergency landings were very common after each mission. Many times they were for medical emergencies or for problems with the plane. Joe's plane was forced to make an emergency landing one time in Bari, Italy. The plane had lost two engines and one of the wings had been hit off. Luckily, no one was killed.

Joseph Lappen is a true war hero who survived vigorous training followed by six months of intense bombing missions overseas. He was one of the lucky soldiers who returned home. During his time in the war he was promoted to staff sergeant and was also awarded the Oak Leaf Cluster "for meritorious achievement in sustained aerial operations against the Nazis." He aided in many successful bombing missions that were able to curtail oil and disrupt the enemy's military. Joe was a strong and dedicated fighter for three full years and graciously offered to share his amazing story with me. 

The following is an article written by Joseph Lappen for a community magazine in Boynton Beach, Florida about his experiences in World War II.


Off we go into the wild blue yonder wondering if we will make it back.
Flying 50 Bombing Missions thru heavy Anti Air Craft Fire, fighting off attacking ME109 fighter planes and dropping our bombs was what it was all about.
My job was Tail Gunner protecting our rear.

Targets included Vienna, Munich, Budapest, Polesti oil fields, refineries, factories, bridges, rail marshalling yards, etc, etc.

We prayed, thought of our loved ones back home and pay tribute to those we left behind. I was amongst the lucky few that did go home.

Interesting side note!
10 years later walking into a gas station, I noticed a picture on the wall of a B24 Bomber. The owner of the station exclaimed he got shot down the first day he was in Italy. It turned out their crew arrived in our group that night before in a blinding rainstorm. We helped them unpack and down they went the next day. We never knew what happened to them.


Primary Sources:

Fifteenth Air Force. "The Fighting Fifteenth." Sortie Jul. 2004: 1.

Gillum, Kent. "My Story." Gulf Coast Wing. 2000. 18 Nov. 2004

Lappen, Joseph. "50 Bombing Missions Over Europe."
    Cascade News and Views.

Lappen, Joseph. Telephone interview. 20 Dec. 2004.

Secondary Sources:

Brown, Ken. "World War II Map." 7 Jan. 2005. 10 Jan. 2005

Gurney, Gene. The War In The Air. New York: Bonanza Books, 1983.

Maurer, Maurer. "456th Bombardment Group." Air Force Combat
    Units of World War II. 16 Nov. 2004 http://www.webcurrent.com/archive/456th.html.