The last time Chuck Casella was inside a B-17, he was firing .50-caliber bullets from the rear of the plane during World War II.
Casella, a tail gunner for the 379th Bomb Group in the 8th Air Force, would spend his eightto 10-hour missions fending off enemy aircraft and having a birds-eye view of the combat below.
Monday, the 89-year-old was back in a B-17.
Now retired after working nearly four decades with Pacific Gas and Electric, Casella lives in Lodi with his wife, Vedah. Mondays are usually a day for a trip to CVS Pharmacy — Casella likes going there because the store’s initials match those of his name, his wife’s and their pug, Smiley — or a midday nap.
But Casella was able to spend the day strapping himself into a B-17 and taking flight for the first time in more than 60 years.
“This will be my 32nd mission,” Casella said, kissing his wife before leaving for Mather Air Force Base on Monday morning.
Casella was able to reconnect with a monumental time in his life and American history because of The Liberty Foundation, a group that aims to educate others about aviation during World War II. The foundation has a fully restored B-17 that tours the nation as part of its mission to spread awareness. The plane was in Sacramento on Monday and Casella was able to see how it compared to what he flew in.
He talked about his service during the drive to Sacramento, but was in silent awe as he stared at the gleaming steel plane when he arrived at the airport. The aircraft features hundreds of rivets, striking yellow lines on its wings and a pinup model — the “Liberty Belle” — on its left front.
After taking a moment to soak in the scenery as the plane sat near the runway, Casella headed directly for the tail gunner’s position. Although unable to sit in the seat once more, since the area was inaccessible, he was able to peer through the windows and reminisce about the past.
“He’s got so much room,” Casella said of a tail gunner who would have that position if the plane were to be used for combat purposes again. “We (tail gunners) sat on a bicycle seat on our hands and knees.”
The San Jose native volunteered for the Air Force when he was 20 years old. For his service, Casella earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and was awarded the Air Medal four times.
He spent two years stationed in Kimbolton in the European Theater. Soldiers like Casella were typically free to go after their 25th mission, but his case was special and required additional service. Casella was about to be sent home when the invasion of Normandy Beach took place. He ended up continuing to serve during the D-Day invasion and subsequent assaults before finally flying his last mission several weeks later.
When asked about D-Day, Casella didn’t hesitate to say it was one of the most chaotic experiences in all the war. The B-17, despite typically flying at an altitude of 25,000 feet, cruised at 14,000 feet that day as a full-scale invasion went on below.
“There was so much traffic down below,” Casella said. “I thought they were going to shoot my butt off.”
The flights were not only dangerous, they were endurance tests. Temperatures regularly dipped below the 20s and crew members breathed gasoline fumes while .50-caliber rounds were shot off around them. Using the bathroom before the marathon missions was a must, he said.
“We had a little canister if you needed to pee, but you needed to take care of No. 2 before you got on,” Casella said. “It wasn’t that difficult to hold it, we were kids then.”
After logging his 31st mission on June 20, 1944, Casella said a celebration broke out with his crew. It was then he achieved another milestone.
“That’s the first time I remember being drunk,” he said. “People were just passing drinks around; I didn’t even know what it was.”
His time in service was filled with close calls. One time during combat he bailed out into the English Channel and was picked up by British soldiers. Casella had jumped out because he heard the alarm telling personnel to abandon the plane.
“They taught us not to question it,” he said. “You heard the alarm and you went. There was no time to question it. I was out in 10 seconds.”
It turned out to be a false alarm and the British rescue crew returned him to the airfield after the plane landed, Casella said.
“(The crew) didn’t even know I was gone until they landed,” he said.
Monday’s flight was far less stressful. Once the B-17 reached its cruising altitude of 1,000 feet, Casella was able to undo his seat belt and walk around the cabin. He went to the side windows and held one of the cannons as the airplane flew over Folsom Lake before moving his way toward the cockpit to get a better view of the area.
Although he shared memories of his service with those nearby, his words were drowned out by the four-propeller engine and rumbling inside the plane.
“Ours had more insulation,” Casella said after landing. “Not much more, but a little bit.”
Wearing a hat displaying the regiment he served with and a shirt decorated with B-17s and B-24s, Casella was a magnet for news reporters and fellow veterans before and after the flight. Casella exchanged stories with Keith Cornell, a Stockton resident who was a squadron leader in 1943.
After parting ways, Casella remarked on how small the world can be and yet the two didn’t cross paths before Monday.
“He was stationed just a few miles from me,” Casella said.
Upon returning to Lodi, Casella looked through some old photographs of him and his fellow crew members and reflected on the war. The yellowed photos reveal kids in their 20s with bright smiles and pressed uniforms. On the backs of the photos are hand-written notes.
“Time for cigars and Scotch,” reads one taken on Casella’s last day in service.
Even though parts of the plane were different than the B-17 he waged war from, Casella said it was important for him to have another flight in one.
Plus, the flight was definitely out of the ordinary of his usual routine, he said.
“Pretty eventful — for a Monday,” Casella said.
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at email@example.com.