My grandfather, Anthony J Capriola, Sr., is reverently and mystically referred to as “the Old Man” by those who continue to tell tales of his fiery heyday. He fought in “the War,” was captured the by Germans and held prisoner for a year/eternity, returned to civilian life (mostly but not entirely normal; some screws loose), raised four boys with his wife (my grandmother) Myrtle (who on rare occasion threatened to “stab him with no remorse” [but she never did; she was loath to swat a fly]), yelled only on Sundays (the one day of the week he didn’t work as a stone mason), built his own house (and all of his kids’ houses), was the smartest of eight Capriola/Caprioli/Capriolo/however-you-spell-it children (according to his sister Marie), survived a heart attack + open-heart surgery + 20 years of diabetes + 53 years of second-hand smoke, and defiantly, improbably lived to see six grandchildren (who called him not “the Old Man” reverently but “Pop-Pop” affectionately) before passing away in 2005 from mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos while working construction jobs before regulations forbid that kind of peril (and received no cash settlement, though his medical expenses were at least always paid for by the VA). He was a tough SOB. He worked through it all. He couldn’t sit still. He was known to help everybody and anybody and he never really retired, though he did inadvertently fall asleep midday more frequently while sitting on the couch watching afternoon baseball or lazing on the hammock as he got older. He did what he could and he deserves to be remembered. This is a monument for my dear grandfather.
Interview conducted on May 2, 1999 by Adam Capriola (his grandson) for a fifth grade class project.
[In Anthony’s living room, Anthony (aka Pop-Pop) is seated to the left in a recliner. Adam (Anthony’s grandson) is seated to the right in a wooden rocking chair. James the Butler stands idly, impassively, stoically in the background.]
Adam: [indecipherable] My name is Adam Capriola, and I will be interviewing my Pop-Pop, Anthony Capriola, who was a veteran of World War II. Thank you Pop-Pop for agreeing to do this interview…
Pop-Pop: You’re welcome.
A: …today on May 2, 1999. Let’s get started by asking: What branch of the military were you in?
P: I enlisted in the Army Air Force, and we were sent to basic training in Florida—St. Petersburg, Florida—and after about six weeks, I guess, of Basic Training, we were sent—put on railroad cars—and sent to Scofield, Illinois where I attended radio school for, I guess, about, oh, I don’t know how many weeks, it was quite a, about three months of schooling where I learned Morse code—dot dash, you know, they don’t use that anymore—and then after that I was assigned to a bomber crew in, up in Oregon. But before we did that, we had to go to gunnery school, to learn to school the .50 calibers. Then we were assigned to a crew, then we flew six hours every day, right around the clock—six off, six on—training, and we went to different gunnery ranges and fired so much ammunition. Then we had high-altitude training, too. And then by that time, I guess it was our turn to go overseas, so I was in B-17s, Flying Fortresses, and we started out to go to England. We flew up to Newfoundland, Iceland, and then finally arrived England, where we were assigned to a crew there. We were assigned to a Group, the 452nd Bomb Group, and I was 731st Squadron, which consisted, the Group consisted of 60 planes, and it has twelve planes in each squadron. We trained for a while up there and got ready. I guess you want to know where I went from there. What was your next question, Adam?
A: Why did you decide to join?
P: I decided to join because the country was at war and I guess I figured it was my duty to serve the country and protect our families at home because of Hitler and [indiscernible] taking all these countries in Europe, and Japan and all that started war too, so that’s the main reason we went to fight, to make sure they didn’t come over here.
A: How old were you?
P: I was nineteen when I joined up.
A: What year was it?
P: That was in 1942.
A: How did you feel about going to war?
P: I don’t think anybody feels too good about it, but it was something that we had to do, and I guess we figured we had to go to get it over with, and we had no idea how long it would last or what, we had no idea. We had no way of knowing how long it would take.
A: What squadron were you a member of and how many men were in it?
P: The 452nd…731st Squadron, 452nd Bomb Group. And we had 10 men were on each plane. We had a bombardier, navigator, pilot, co-pilot, engineer, I was the radio operator and gunner, and then we had waist gunner, two waist gunners, tail gunner, and one that flew in the ball turret was a gunner.
A: What type of plane did you fly?
P: That was the B-17, Flying Fortress.
A: Do you remember your first mission and how did you feel?
P: The first mission was, I didn’t think it would be that bad, because we seen the guys going out and a lot of them coming back. We figured, you know, it wouldn’t be too much. But then when we saw what happened, the fighter planes, you were attacked by fighter planes on every mission. And then you were also attacked with the flack, that’s the artillery that’s shot up and explodes in the air, and you would just go right through it. You wouldn’t change your direction, you just kept going straight through it because you couldn’t afford a full round. You only had so much gas to get there and get back.
A: How many missions did you fly?
P: I flew eleven missions.
A: What were they for?
P: They were bombing missions, mostly bombing on the cities, like we bombed Frankfurt, Germany, Augsburg. I was on the first mission to Berlin, which was really a bad time of it. And I flew to Poland, and that mission took eleven hours in the air, so quite a while.
A: Can you tell me about the last mission you were shot down?
P: We had bombed Augsburg, Germany, and we were on our way back—we got through everything good, dropped the bombs, turn around to come back—and we were about maybe, oh I guess about five, maybe ten miles from the Channel, we were going back to England to our base, and we thought we saw—the sun was shining up above—and we thought we were supposed to meet a P-51 escort, American escort. But there wasn’t; there was the German fighters. 109s swooped down on us and hit us right before we knew what happened. We had to drop out of formation, engine caught fire, and we had to bail out.
A: Did all your crew survive?
P: No, one of the waist gunners was shot and killed. He must have been killed before we knew he was. We bailed out; we didn’t know until afterward.
A: Where were you captured and where were you taken?
P: I was captured in, right near DF France—it was on the coast. France then, at that time, was still in Germany’s hands—this was before the invasion took place—and we were captured there, and we were sent to Frankfurt that night to get interrogated. And that night, the English come over, the first night we were there, and bombed the camp—blew it right off the map—but we were lucky, we got in the shelters—the air raid centers—and they destroyed the interrogation center there.
A: How were you treated?
P: Well, you know, they didn’t treat you like a relation you know. We were bombing their cities, you know, setting fires. The main problem, I guess, maybe, was we didn’t get much food. The food was very scarce. Then the first camp I went to we were sent to East Prussia, and we were on boxcars for, oh, I guess, two or three weeks, getting there because their transportation was slow. Most of their transportation was for the military, and we were in boxcars.
A: Can you describe the condition of the POW camp?
P: I was in four or five different camps, and every one was different. Some had tents, some had wooden barracks, and the last camp I went in had a big tent that held 500 people, the camp I was liberated in, at the end of the war.
A: What did you do there?
P: Well, there is not much you can do but wait, just sit and wait until the war got over. And we were liberated there by General Patton coming in. I saw General Patton coming in the main gate, he was on the tank, he had all his pistols around him. Boy, what a sight it was. It was something.
A: What did you eat there?
P: What did we eat? Not too much, Adam. It was just water, potato peels, and once in a while they sent us in some bread they used in the African camp band, and they brought it in but it had all kinds of mold on it, and we couldn’t eat it because it was bad. Once in a while the Red Cross parcels come in, but by the time they divided it up, you didn’t get very much. All hard stuff to eat. Nothing too fresh.
A: Where did you sleep?
P: We slept in the different camps. We slept in beds, bunks, top and lower bunks, crowded barracks. And then when we were on the march, the forced march, and the Russians starting to come in and Americans from the other end, they made us march. We marched through the snow. And, oh, it was cold, and no food. Only what we could find in the fields, like beets, sugar beets, and things like that. And we kept marching around in circles. I guess we marched maybe 150 miles. With no food—that was the hard part—because they didn’t have any.
A: Did you or anyone try to escape?
P: There’s guys that tried to escape, but they were shot, going over the wall or going past the warning wire. They were shot, so they kind of discouraged that. Well, they were all digging tunnels all over trying to, you know, it was something to do. Not very many escaped.
A: How long were you a prisoner?
P: Eleven months or twelve. It might have been twelve. I think twelve months, yeah, a year.
A: Were you able to communicate with your family?
P: The only communication we had after we got up to our camps, we got letters once in a while from home. But our messages, they didn’t get through too often. It took a long time because they were busy with the war; it didn’t seem like they had too much time for that sort of thing.
A: Tell me about the day you were freed from prison.
P: That was in, what the heck was it, I can’t think of the name of the town. But that was the day that Patton come in and freed us. The Germans took off. The guards, they all took off and ran across the field and Americans were firing at them and chasing them. So we stayed right there until they got out of the way. They built a bridge to come in, they built a pontoon bridge over this river, and then we started to hear shots being fired, it was American troops coming in then, we were very happy then that we were going to get out.
A: How did you get back home?
P: I guess probably by the time we got organized and we went to France, a camp in France, and then I saw Eisenhower there, walked right past him, it was a good feeling too to see somebody with a lot of authority, a real important man. He said he’d get us home quick, and he did. I guess in maybe about a couple of weeks we were home.
A: Did you get a medal?
P: I got some; I got the Air Medal and [oak] leaf cluster—things like that—but I don’t particularly worry about the medals too much. I just wanted to get back to civilian life. [It was] pretty tough going. It’s not easy [fighting in a war].
A: Do you have any favorite memories?
P: I might have told you before, the day that we got liberated—when we were free, when we got out of the camps. And also when I got home. They were my two, the best things that could happen to you. You miss your home a lot.
A: Thank you for your interview.
P: Okay, Adam. Thank you.
[Interview ends. Adam is now alone, outdoors. Birds chirp.]
A: This is my Pop-Pop’s license plate. It says that he was a prisoner of war.
[Camera zooms in on Pennsylvania license plate, POW-P45, on brown Jeep pickup.]