By LANCE ARMSTRONG, Valley Community Newspapers writer
It has been nearly seven decades since former Land Park resident John Kanelos served as the lead radio operator aboard a Consolidated B-24J Liberator warplane. But he will soon be at the radio controls of one of these classic American heavy bombers once again.
During World War II, John, 88, was a member of the 15th Air Force, 450th Bombardment Group, which flew out of southern Italy. Altogether he flew with the group in 57 missions.
Because of his experience aboard this bomber, John, who presently lives in Elk Grove, was selected to participate in a living history event on Friday, June 1.
On that date, John will be traveling aboard an original B-24J that will leave Stockton at noon, fly above McClellan Airfield, then land at McClellan at 1 p.m.
This flight is part of the Wings of Freedom Tour, which will also feature a North American P-51 Mustang and a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.
And as a special, previously unannounced bonus, a German Messerschmitt will also be on display at McClellan.
John said that his cousin, Jack Stavros, a 90-year-old, former flight instructor, will be a passenger aboard the P-51.
Considering that John is the only member of his crew who resides in the greater Sacramento area, his presence at the event is one of both convenience and honor.
Certainly John’s firsthand stories of his wartime involvement aboard these bombers are of increasing value as the number of living World War II veterans continues to diminish.
Evidence of this fact was well presented last week during John’s meeting with this publication.
While holding a 1943 photograph of his bomber crew, John said, “The only two (people) alive out of the whole crew are (the pilot Fred “Pick”) Pickering and me.”
Continuing, he ran his finger along the old, faded photograph, stopping at various faces to provide commentary.
“(Pickering) is a Sacramento boy,” John said. “This is my pilot right here, Fred Pickering.”
And moving his finger to other faces, he said, “This is the guy who got blown up in the plane. He’s gone. This guy is dead. This guy is (dead), too. And so is this guy.”
With his crew, John was stationed in southern Italy from 1943 to 1945 and participated in missions in Romania, Greece, Italy, Germany, Yugoslavia and North Africa.
John, who grew up in the old town of Florin and graduated from Elk Grove High School in 1943, acknowledged that he was one of the fortunate military men to return home alive.
His most notable near-death experience occurred when he came within inches of being killed.
“I caught a 20-millimeter (cannon round),” John said. “We were flying at 28,000 feet and I saw the shell leave the plane – I was in the radio room, sitting right behind the co-pilot – and that 20 millimeter came up right through the bottom of the plane between my legs and left a (large) hole (in the top of the plane) when it went out. It was a dud. It didn’t explode. We were lucky. I think about it today and I shudder.”
Of the 20 planes that participated in that mission, John said that 15 planes returned.
During a separate mission, John survived another dramatic incident, in which his plane was hit by a 20-millimeter cannon round that knocked out its number three engine and caught on fire above the Adriatic Sea.
Both John and Pickering said that, of their 57 missions, there were only five missions in which they were never hit by enemy fire.
An incident that has vividly remained in John’s mind since his war days was witnessing the death of a new squadron member during the bombing of the Ploesti (spelled Ploiești in Romanian) oil fields.
“We made some (bomb) runs over Ploiești, Romania and I was the only one who could break radio silence, because my pilot was a full bird colonel,” John said. “And when we were heading toward the target, we had 40 planes on the squadron and in Ploiești, we lost six planes over the target. And we lost a (squadron) member. He was 18 years old and on his first mission. And I saw him get a direct hit right over the target. The 24 is a good-sized plane. When they got hit, we had three 2,000 pounders on it and that plane went up just like you’d light a firecracker. That plane disappeared and he lost his life on his very first mission.”
In addition to his overseas wartime experiences, John shared details about his pre-European military days, including a crucial moment that could have prevented him from ever making it to Europe.
“We were out at (Edwards Air Force Base on the border of Los Angeles and Kern counties) and they said, ‘Okay, you guys are flying out tomorrow and you’re going overseas, but you cannot call your parents or anything,’” John recalled. “So, that night, we flew from Hamilton Field (near Novato) to Amarillo, Tex. When we got into Amarillo at about six in the evening, it was dark and it was raining, drizzling. We landed there and I and a buddy of mine, we got out and I called my folks (Andrew and Thomasina Kanelos) and I said, ‘I’m not supposed to tell you, but we’re going overseas.’ The next morning, we got up and headed for Stewart Field in New York to the military academy. It was about five or six in the evening when we ran out of fuel over Wilkes-Barre, Pa. We made an emergency landing. My pilot, who was a colonel, he said, ‘Look around and see if we have a small base here that you can contact.’ So, I picked up a base there and I told them, ‘This is Army, B-24 and we’re headed overseas and we’re out of fuel and we want to make an emergency landing.’ And the guy said, ‘Man, you’re crazy. The biggest thing we’ve had land here was a Piper Cub. You can’t land on this field.’ I said, ‘We’re coming in.’ I remember coming in over some cornfields and there were some people picking corn and it was drizzling. Well, when we hit the runway, our wheels were on the outer edge of the runway. The only thing that stayed on the runway was the nose wheel. We came in at about 200 miles an hour and we landed in a canal and the whole front end dug down, nose into the canal. So, we were lucky we got out of there all right. People from the town came out. I think there were about 200 or 300 people there.”
John added that shortly after leaving to the United States, his crew lost a generator and had to make another emergency landing in the island of Faial in the Azores Islands of Portugal.
The crew soon afterward made another emergency landing in South Africa.
During a telephone interview last week, Pickering, 90, who grew up in Fair Oaks, attended San Juan High School and now resides in the state of Washington, was asked to comment about John’s work as a radio operator.
“He was a damn good radio operator,” Pickering said. “He didn’t cause me a bit of trouble. He knew what to do all the time.”
Fear of flight
Pickering noted, however, that when it came to flying, John never felt comfortable in any of the missions.
“He told me that he was scared all the time,” Pickering said. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll protect you.’”
In discussing his fear of flying, John, who was married four times in his life, but had no children, said, “I never did care to fly. I later flew to Hawaii with my wife at the time on four occasions and I never liked any of (the flying).”
Nonetheless, as he did during his military days, John will ignore his fear of flying and board a B-24J, and land at McClellan Airfield, where he is expected to be greeted by a crowd of friends, aviation enthusiasts and other spectators.
For additional information regarding the Wings of Freedom Tour, call (800) 568-8924 or visit the Web site www.cfdn.org.