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‘Lucky Joe:’ WWII vet given new medals after losing originals

Decorations lost, but significance remains: 97-year-old veteran honored again ((Air Force/Released)

To most outsiders, the act of becoming a celestial navigator during World War II, accurately directing planes to German targets, completing 27 successful missions, and earning three U.S. Army medals sounds like the result of a lot of work and perseverance.

Joseph Kollenberg simply calls himself “Lucky Joe.”

He uses that phrase several times in recounting how he went from being a child in Michigan to a successful navigator within the 329th Squadron, 93rd Bombardment Group of the Army Air Corps.

He flew in a B-24 in missions across Europe, eventually becoming decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross; the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters; and the European, African, and Middle Eastern Campaign Service Medal.

However, over the years those service medals became lost or misplaced, causing a group of friends and neighbors to look for how to have them re-awarded as a way of thanking him for his service.

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The now 97-year-old Kollenberg was re-presented his medals in a ceremony held last year held in Ohio.

They were presented to him by Maj. Gen. Carl Schaefer, Air Force Materiel Command deputy commander, who ended the presentation by saluting the WWII veteran.

Kollenberg, who spent most of his adult life living in Illinois and Indiana, moved to Sloans Valley in 2004. He move here after the death of his wife, Jean.

Neighbor Deborah Kidd-Trammell explained that he and Jean had spent many nights in the Lake Cumberland area camping, so when she passed away, Kollenberg decided to come somewhere with happy memories for the both of them.

Kollenberg says his life’s adventures could all be traced back to being a child in Michigan.

“This whole business started when I was a kid,” he said. “My dad didn’t want us to listen to the radio and didn’t want us to hear all that jive. So what we did is, we went out on a summer day and we stretched out on the grass in the front yard, and we watched the stars.”

Eventually, other neighborhood kids started to join them, with some of the older ones telling the younger ones the names of the different stars and constellations.

The next step to becoming a navigator took place in high school, where a mathematics teacher invited him to take a college-prep course in trigonometry.

“I knew that it was pre-college. I knew I was never going to go to college. That was a fact. I was never going to go to college, so, I wasn’t gonna (take the class),” Kollenberg said.

But he was surrounded by a group of friends with whom he had taken so many other classes, and through peer-pressure they convinced him that he “wasn’t going to amount to nothing” without it.

“I found out I liked it. It was logical. It was the most logical course I ever had,” he said.

A few months out of high school and after having moved to Chicago for work, Kollenberg received his draft notice.

He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, choosing it because his older brother, Harold, had gone into it before him.

He enlisted on October 15, 1942. His military record notes that he was a five-foot-eight, blond-haired, blue-eyed, 20-year-old employed as an “order writer” in civilian life.

He was channeled into becoming a navigator, which appeared to suit his mathematics abilities.

Kollenberg explained what happened on his final exam. He, a pilot, an instructor and two other students being tested all went up in a plane. The students were tasked with trying to locate a bridge in northern Louisiana – in the dark.

“It was the middle of May, and it happened to be a very clear night. Not a cloud in the sky. Lucky Joe,” he said with a laugh.

“I had a chart all made out – that was part of it. I was to take readings on the stars, and then I had to do the work (calculations.) The work was very, very similar to the mathematics (from high school), so that was a snap. And I got the line, and I put it on the chart, and it fell right on that line. Wasn’t to the left. Wasn’t to the right.”

That’s how he determined how far the plane had gone, and how fast they were going, so all he had to do was figure out how much time it would take to get to the bridge.

“When we got to the estimated time of arrival, I went up front and all I saw was black. Absolute black.”

It was then that the instructor told the pilot to make a left turn. As the plane banked, Kollenberg could see the ground outside of the window.

“We were right smack dab over that bridge,” he said.

Not only did he earn an “A,” he scored what was considered a “perfect mission.”

Kollenberg entered active duty on April 22, 1944. Then, just three months later, his brother Harold was killed in a bombing mission over Romania.

Still, when asked if he ever was nervous or excited about fighting in WWII, Kollenberg said he wasn’t that emotional at all.

“I didn’t even think about it,” he said.

Or, as he told a reporter during last year’s medal ceremony when he was asked which mission scared him the most, he said, “I was never scared and didn’t have anything to be afraid of.”

He flew missions from August 1944 to April of 1945, but there is one in particular 1945 mission that stands out to him, not necessarily for the mission itself, but for the events leading up to it.

He was stationed in England, trying to get to Norwich where they were to board a train to London. He and his pilot missed the truck to take them, so they decided to hitchhike.

The vehicle that picked them up happened to have a U.S. officer in it, and while Kollenberg rode in the back, his pilot and the officer sat up front and talked aviation for the entire trip.

Kollenberg didn’t know it, but they were hitching a ride with the commandant for the entire Air Corps Wing.

Whether it was luck, coincidence or design, when the February 25 mission to bomb Aschaffenberg, Germany’s train yard took place, Kollenberg and his pilot were given the honor of being the mission’s lead plane.

“And do you know what? It was a clear sky. Not a cloud in the sky. There was no wind. None whatsoever. We just sailed in there and dropped the bombs. It’s the same thing that happened on the final exam. It was all luck.”

Kollenberg was discharged on April 21, 1944. Then, one last piece of luck fell into place. Despite his earlier belief that he would never go to college, he was able to earn a Master’s degree thanks to the G.I Bill.

He decided to follow his wife into her field of social work, earning a degree in counseling.

“She was a social worker. Somehow – I don’t know how that it happened – she thought I ought to be a social worker.”

After finding his niche as a group therapist, he spent at least part of his civilian life helping others.

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© 2020 the Commonwealth Journal