When a 1943 graduate of Williamsville High School returned home on leave from World War II and shared war stories, James A. Kaeppel knew he wanted nothing to do with the infantry.
“This fellow had graduated early in January and was part of the Army’s infantry. He told us how he spent a lot of time in foxholes and I figured it would be safer to enlist in the Army Air Force,” the 93-year-old veteran said.
Kaeppel’s strategy for playing it safe did not work out.
He arrived in England in February 1945 and quickly learned that German fighter pilots and enemy anti-aircraft guns on the ground made the skies over Europe a very dangerous place. But his most harrowing experience was the result of a malfunction aboard his B-24 bomber.
As the aircraft flew above its target, an airfield in Czechoslovakia, the order was given to drop the payload, approximately a dozen bombs. When nothing happened, the captain fired off an order to Kaeppel, the plane’s armorer, who doubled as a waist gunner.
“He told me, ‘Kaeppel, I want you to go to the bomb bay and see why the hell those bombs didn’t drop.’ I hurried back breathing oxygen from a handheld canister. I spotted two cables that were supposed to be hooked up to the command deck and they were just hanging there. I told the captain I could release the bombs immediately, but he told me to wait.”
Rather than risk flying a second time over the target, the captain explained that they were heading back to their base in Shipdham, England. On the way, they would find a spot to safely discard the bombs.
“As we flew over the English Channel, the captain went down to 10,000 feet and I went back into the bomb bay and pulled up on a sliding device that released the bombs. As soon as the bombs went out, the plane went up. It had lost at least 1½ tons of weight from the bombs and I had to hang on.”
From his perch, Kaeppel said he watched as the bombs hit the water and exploded.
James A. Kaeppel, 93
Branch: Army Air Force
Rank: Staff sergeant
War zone: World War II, European theater
Years of service: August 1943 – March 1946
Most prominent honors: Army Air Medal, European Theater Medal, Good Conduct Medal
Specialty: Armorer-gunner on B-24 bomber, a.k.a., Liberator
On another bombing run, he recalled a lone German fighter plane approaching to attack the B-24 squadron’s formation. The attack was cut short when a swarm of American P-51 Mustang fighter planes made mincemeat of the enemy.
“I felt sorry for the German pilot. He never had a chance. He was going up against the best pilots in the world,” Kaeppel said.
In yet another aerial encounter with the enemy, a Messerschmitt Me 262 fighter jet raced by Kaeppel’s squadron, stunning the Americans at how fast the craft flew.
“Our navigator said the jet was moving faster than 550 miles an hour and that was 100 miles faster than our P-51s could go at top speed,” he said of the propeller planes. “The jet was ahead of its time and fortunately it was too far away from us to attack.”
And while he was spared the nitty-gritty of ground combat, Kaeppel said that by the time the war in Europe was won in May 1945, he had come to believe that aerial battles were far more hazardous.
Back in the United States, he said he was certain it was only a matter of time before he would be assigned to the Pacific theater for more fighting. But the war against Japan abruptly ended in August when the world’s first two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
For the remainder of his duty, Kaeppel was parked safely behind a typewriter at Fort Dix, N.J., assembling paperwork for soldiers who were being discharged.
“Whenever there was a soldier from Western New York, I would work on his paperwork right away,” he said of showing the soldier hometown courtesy.
In March 1946, it was Kaeppel’s turn to leave the service and a year later the honorably discharged war veteran married the former Marjorie Muth. Together, they raised two daughters on his salary from Westinghouse, where he worked as a tester for electrical controls and motors. When the plant relocated out of state, he retired in 1985 after nearly 38 years of service.
A widower since 2002, Kaeppel says he belongs to a senior citizen group in Amherst and it is there he sometimes discusses his war stories with others. He also reads books about WWII.
“I remember growing up in the Depression and you could almost see there was going to be a war, the way Hitler was doing things in Germany,” he said, adding that Hitler’s downfall was his overreach in attacking not only western Europe, but the Soviet Union to the east.
“I think if Hitler hadn’t attacked the Soviet Union, it would have been a lot longer war.”
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