Joseph “Joe” Sarnoski


Photo of Sarnoski

Joseph R. Sarnoski, late 1930s
(Rembisz collection)

Joseph R. Sarnoski

(Jan. 31, 1915-June 16, 1943)*


Joseph Raymond Sarnoski was born at home January 30, 1915, in his family’s single-story clapboard house on Jefferson Street in Simpson, Pennsylvania, a suburb of sorts to Carbondale, overlooking the D&M railroad and Lackawanna River. He was the fifth of sixteen children, the second eldest son of John and Josephine Sarnoski. His parents came to the U.S. separately from Poland amid the revolutionary unrest in that country in the early 1900s, his father in 1906, his mother in 1908.

Sarnoski’s father, by birth Johann Sarnowski, was a man of short stature, only 5’6”—a trait he would pass on to Joe—and dark complexion, with a scar of unknown origin on his forehead.  Records imply he had met his future wife, Josephine, before leaving Poland, since they were married shortly after her own arrival in the U.S., and John was already referring to Josephine’s sister’s husband—who paid for John’s passage to America—as his “brother-in-law” on the ship’s manifest. He referred to himself as a “laborer” on the manifest, but was a coal miner all his adult working life. Tight-lipped about his past, he was a simple man of simple purpose and life. He enjoyed fishing in the pond in the back of their country farm on No. 7 road, and never owned a car, choosing to walk to and from his work in the coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Josephine Kozlowska was in some ways an interesting contrast to her husband. A farm worker with her siblings as a child, she was already a polymath, fluent in Polish, German, and Russian, before emigrating. In America she added English, taking language lessons and becoming a frequent correspondent with family members, a practice Joe inherited while in the service. Unlike John, she also stayed in contact with family back in Poland. But like her husband, she was a hard worker, raising a total of seventeen children—a grandchild lived most of his youth with them—and running a farm that included livestock, fruit trees, and an extensive garden. By all accounts she did it remarkably well, marshalling her small army to help harvest the potatoes, carrots, corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, beets, and beans, among other vegetables, from the huge garden, and pick apples and berries from the trees. (The latter of which resulted in much stained clothing.)

From the beginning, though, Joe was a special case. While the other children worked the farm, he was granted a large degree of clemency from it, instead being given the task of helping put meat on the table through the abundance of game around the farm. After school at Grade School #4, a half-mile down the road in Fell Township, and on weekends, Joe would venture into the thick woods surrounding the farm in search of rabbit, deer, and wild turkey. Not surprisingly, he became an excellent shot with a rifle early on, a skill that would redound to his benefit later. He would include “rifle and pistol shooting” as a hobby on his service records.

He also listed aviation, and it was that ambition that propelled his life. From a young age his room was decorated with balsa wood airplane kits he built. From his tree stand in the large maple tree near the house—which he also built—he would send paper airplanes off into the breeze. True to his driven nature, he wasn’t content to stop there, taking to full-size gliders once he got older. “He’d often fly over the area in a glider,” his brother Charles recalled, “and usually crashed.”

Sarnoski did find a more earthbound outlet for his need for speed and freedom—an Indian motorcycle that became his pride and joy. He rode the bike all over the area, and may even have entered some local time-trial races. Like his forays into gliding, it also revealed his daredevil streak: both Francis and Martha remember Joe riding across a local bridge standing on the Indian’s seat.

Photo of youth band with Joseph Sarnoski on accordion

Sarnoski (far left) in The Buddy Howe Band
(Rembisz collection)

Like his mother and father, Sarnoski loved music, always singing, whistling, or humming, and it became a goal to play in a band. Fueled by his competitiveness and self-imposed need for excellence, it didn’t take long to get his wish. While still in grade school, Joe earned money working odd jobs after school. With that income, plus a dollar stipend from his mother, Joe bought an accordion and began taking lessons, following in his father’s footsteps. He was a fast learner, and by the age of twelve, was the sole accordion player in The Buddy Howe Band, a group of young players led by drummer Peter “Buddy Howe” Howanitz. The youth group played high school dances and weddings in Carbondale and beyond. Before long, Joe was even teaching lessons himself, with his own sister as a pupil.

Joe “was always trying to advance, be the best,” his brother Ted would write later. “He didn’t like anyone to be ahead of him.” One can only imagine, then, how Sarnoski must have felt about having to drop out of school at age fourteen to join his other siblings working the family farm. This was a common enough rite of passage in farm families at the time, and with coal in decline in Pennsylvania by the late Twenties, all hands were needed on deck in the burgeoning Sarnoski household. Joe was already one of fourteen children at the time, six of whom were under ten. And so Joe’s eighth grade year would be his last of formal education.

It could not have been unexpected. And yet it’s hard not to sense that he felt the loss more keenly than most. From the time he was a young man, Joe always “enjoyed the company of educated people, and gained tremendous pleasure from talking to them and learning from them.” No doubt this was due in part to his inherently curious nature, but for someone as driven as Sarnoski, it’s hard to believe his abbreviated school career didn’t play its own significant part.

For the next six years, then, Joe’s world revolved around the family farm, specifically the huge garden adjacent to the house and barn and bordered by woods. Almost a quarter of an acre in size, its plowing, planting, and harvesting was truly a family affair, requiring a tractor that in due time became Joe’s responsibility to drive. In his off hours he continued his accordion playing. His competitive drive never abated, finding an outlet in his later teen years on the White’s Crossing Eagles baseball team. Many Sunday afternoons were given over to the game during those years.


Photo of Sarnoski home

Sarnoski homestead and property

Sarnoski was always serious and disciplined by nature, but the “not jovial” Joe his sister Martha recalled during his teenage years would have surprised his future squadron mates, who knew him to be an upbeat kidder who enjoyed springing the occasional practical joke. The contrast isn’t all that mysterious. Monotonous hours in a tractor seat provide a lot of time to think, and no doubt Sarnoski’s thoughts during those several years were focused forward, up and away from the family garden. Biding his time must have been hard for his restless nature and airborne dreams. That, combined with the responsibility of helping provide for his now eleven younger siblings, is likely the only explanation necessary for the difference in his personality during those last years at home. He worried about their future—he promised to buy Martha a watch if she graduated high school with honors—and wondered about his own.

In October 1935, he was able to stop wondering. On the morning of the 21st, twenty-year-old Joe went to the M&M Bank Building in downtown Carbondale and appeared before the Lackawanna County Emergency Relief Board. He was applying to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Depression-era work relief program run by the U.S. Army. He listed “seasonal gardening” as previous work experience, “tractor driver” as his previous employment. Both were true, and for a program focused heavily on natural conservation work, were a good fit.

After years of strict discipline at home and the camaraderie of the band and ball field, the Army lifestyle was a good fit for Joe personally as well. For six months he was stationed at Fort Hoyle, near Baltimore, Maryland, clearing, grading, draining, building firebreaks, and helping with reforestation.  Each month he made $30—$25 of which went to his mother back home.

CCC tractor in Maryland

CCC at work in western Maryland.
(Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources)

While a significant addition to the family income, it wasn’t enough to keep Josephine Sarnoski from wanting her son home and away from the military. His prominent role in helping with family and farm was enough, but with rumor of war in the future, all parents could be forgiven for wanting their sons well away from the armed services at the time. Whether Sarnoski actually intended the CCC as a stepping stone to the regular Army is unknown now, but considering his education and personality, it was a reasonable and logical next step. Practicality aside, it’s hard to imagine him being content to return home to farm work after such an experience.

Ultimately he prevailed. Records muddle the exact dates, but in early March, Sarnoski was honorably discharged from the CCC, after which he was driven by Corps bus to Baltimore where he enlisted as an air cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps. The newly minted private was assigned to the 58th Service Squadron, stationed at the heart of the fledgling Army Air Corps—Langley Field, Virginia. Sarnoski would call it home for most of the next six years.

Langley Field was already famous as the center of military aviation in the U.S. and as home to the 2nd Bombardment Group, the legendary air group tracing its beginnings to the First World War. The field was almost twenty years old when Sarnoski arrived in the spring of 1936, but much of it seemed as new to old-timers as it would have to him, thanks to significant improvements and additions that had been implemented in the early Thirties. A new sea wall set the field off from the river backing it, with fresh stonework and gardens adorning its length. Elegant Tudor-style enlisted and officer’s quarters had been built, as well as modern service clubs for both. A beautiful Tudor-Gothic chapel of brick and limestone and a new Post school had been built across a main street from one another, as well as a new movie theater. For physical recreation, a gymnasium had been constructed, adding basketball, boxing, volleyball, and badminton to the tennis, swimming, football, and baseball facilities already existing. For entertainment only available in town, trolleys ran multiple times a day into Hampton.

Aerial photo of Langley 1934

Langley Field, Virginia, in September 1934 (USAF)

Those were just the quality-of-life improvements. Langley had been the nexus of military air innovation for two decades, but now in the mid-Thirties the rate of change was increasing exponentially in advance of the possibility of war. The previous year the field became home to the nascent independent air arm of the U.S. military and the exciting new developments accompanying it. Heavier aircraft, notably medium- and long-range bombers, were replacing the biplanes and airships that had marked military aviation since the First World War. Already Martin B-10s were flying long-range missions out of Langley, including humanitarian efforts to storm-ravaged areas in Sarnoski’s home state of Pennsylvania. To house and support these larger aircraft, a double row of large hangars had been constructed along the flight line, the only one of its kind in the country. Meanwhile the cutting-edge research labs and wind tunnel facilities on the east side of the base continued their work in designing the next generation of aircraft.

To be sure, as twenty-one-year-old Joe Sarnoski crossed the impressive, new steel-and-concrete bridge over Back River to enter this grand, modernized air field, he must have felt a long way from the farm in Simpson and life in Carbondale.

Joe was one of almost three hundred enlisted men eventually assigned to the 58th, one of the four service squadrons comprising the 62nd Service Group, with the 58th itself attached to the 376th Bomb Group. It was Sarnoski’s first education in aircraft maintenance, and while brief, it was thorough. Not only was he primed in maintaining an aircraft’s various systems, but in its general repair, including sheet metal replacement and machining. That May he even got some practice breaking down and pitching camp, when the entire 58th made an overnight sojourn to Yorktown, Virginia, as an exercise in that very thing. Little could he know just how much a preview of things to come it all was.

After only five months, though, on September 1, he was transferred, still at Langley, to the 49th Bombardment Squadron, part of the already legendary 2nd Bomb Group. The 2nd could trace its lineage directly back to the first American air squadrons in World War I. His training in the 58th carried over to the 49th; records indicate he was put to work as an air mechanic on Langley’s Martin B-10s. He also pulled the inevitable K.P. and other mundane duties obligatory to life as a lower-ranking enlisted man.

Whatever monotony would usually attend such routine was checked both by the foreboding developments in Europe and the Army’s reactions to it. The men of the 2nd would certainly have been familiar with the Army’s competition for a new heavy bomber, and the headline exploits and subsequent crash on take-off of Boeing’s entry, a “flying fortress” called Model 299. No doubt, though, it was the modernization of Langley around them throughout 1936 that provided the clearest sign of the Air Corps’ forward attitude. Both efforts coincided in late 1936, when the base’s grass air strips were replaced with packed-soil strips. There was only one reason for the upgrade, and it surely stirred the passions of the entire base—to accommodate heavy bombers. Sarnoski must have been proud of his first promotion in the regular army, to Specialist 6th Class, on November 1, but undoubtedly he was more excited by the rumors that they would be receiving the first production models of Boeing’s 299.

The rumors were right. Despite the accident in 1935 that knocked it out of the bomber competition, the aircraft had so impressed the Air Corps brass that a legal technicality was used to request a production run of thirteen. All but one of the bombers—officially designated the Y1B-17, but commonly referred to as the YB-17—were assigned to the 2nd Bomb Group at Langley.

The first arrived to much fanfare on a cold March 4, 1937. Joe stood in parade formation with the rest of the enlisted men and officers, all eyes cast skyward to watch the big bomber fly over twice in review, before landing on the snow-banked runway. Everyone knew it was a huge aircraft, the first of the “heavy” bombers, but only when its throaty four engines brought it to a stop between a B-10 bomber and PB-2A pursuit plane, overwhelming them both, did the men who would be evaluating it realize just how big it was. No doubt as Sarnoski and everyone else not in the 96th Bomb Squadron gawked at the sleek, gleaming silver bomber, they envied its good fortune at being first in line to possess such a beauty.

Photo of YB-17 landing

Sarnoski's YB-17 #82, probably 1937
(Rembisz collection)

Sarnoski’s squadron was second in line, with its first Fortress delivered to Langley on March 11. The second would be delivered in May, and its third and final on July 3, 1937.  At some point Sarnoski was assigned to the third, serial number 36-158, soon emblazoned with a conspicuous “82” on the nose as its group identifier; he noted on a photo of this plane that “[t]his is the airplane I’m assigned to.” Other information in the note, however, indicates a much later date for that photo, and other evidence points to his being permanently assigned to it as a ground crewman no earlier than early 1938.

Six more YB-17s would be delivered to the group prior to #82's arrival. During that time, the awe-inspiring Fortress began its journey to becoming a national celebrity, with the 2nd’s growing contingent participating in a display for dignitaries in Washington, D.C.; a formation flight over twenty cities in eleven states, from Langley to Maine to Ohio and back; and a formation fly-over of New York City broadcast over NBC radio.

June would have provided Sarnoski some diversion. Early in the month he managed an afternoon visit home by hitching a ride to Scranton, a short drive from Carbondale, with a fellow Langleyan in a B-10. While the visit was surely welcome, what would be most remembered by the family for decades was the pair’s low-level pass over the Sarnoski homestead to toss out bags of candy. The same month Sarnoski also received his second promotion, this time to specialist fifth class.

It is clear he was already distinguishing himself. In August 1937, Sarnoski was sent to Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland for a course in chemical warfare. The traditional course was six weeks long and trained participants in both the deployment of and defense against chemical weapons. Those participants were almost solely officers, with only a limited selection of enlisted men as deemed necessary, whose purpose was to then train their own units upon their routine. If the 2nd followed the pattern of other bomb groups, Joe was one of only two enlisted men and an officer from the 49th to be tasked with training their squadron. It was the beginning of a pattern for Sarnoski. Throughout his Air Force career, he would continue to be tapped for a select group, and to teach his expertise to those around him.

Through the end of the year Sarnoski was kept busy helping to maintain the 49th’s B-17s. Not long after his return from New Jersey, the 49th spent a week in Virginia Beach on gunnery training. In October, extensive performance evaluations of both the new bombers and their crews took place, involving flights of at least twelve hours, many off the East coast. November brought another promotion; Sarnoski was now a private first class.

Test Pilot movie poster

Test Pilot (1938) with the 2nd BG's YB-17s
(Movie Poster Database)

In late December, the 2nd got attention from a most unexpected source—Hollywood. The Army Air Corps, keen to raise the profile of its new bomber in Congress’ eyes, had granted permission and full cooperation for the YB-17s to be featured in the climactic finale of Test Pilot, starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy. Reportedly all twelve of the 2nd’s YB-17s were flown to March Field in California for shooting with the main stars.  If Sarnoski had been assigned as ground crew to #82 yet, it seems likely he would have accompanied the aircraft to the west coast. With no family stories of what would have been a memorable experience for Joe, it's safe to assume he hadn't yet been assigned to the plane.  If any case, all of the aircraft were back at Langley by year’s end, where for two weeks over the new year all of the main aerial sequences were shot at Langley.

The same day Hollywood shooting wrapped, shooting of another kind began for Sarnoski, and a new chapter for him. On January 4, 1938, he joined just nine other students in the reopening of the School of Aviation Ordnance at Langley. Covering ammunition supply and delivery plus maintenance, repair, and operation of all aircraft ordnance, the course added gunnery to Sarnoski’s skill set, becoming his ticket to ride in the YB-17 rather than simply repair it.

February was largely taken up with preparing for a historic, six-plane, twelve-day ambassadorial tour to Argentina, which included Sarnoski’s YB-17 but not Sarnoski himself, due either to school or seniority. But by the time the 2nd Bomb Group participated in the massive, multi-group field exercises in Florida, Joe was likely in the air demonstrating his new skills.

It must have been a thrilling experience for all involved. Consisting of bombing practice on both land and water targets (the latter using a mixture of oil and aluminum dust); gunnery practice on ground and air targets; fighter intercepts of the bombers; and photo reconnaissance, the exercises were as close a simulation of actual combat any of the participants had experienced. Topping it off was a visitor’s day which welcomed tens of thousands of civilians to the various fields hosting the exercises. On display were all of the aircraft used, with the 2nd’s gleaming, awe-inspiring YB-17s and their crews the biggest celebrities of the day.

April brought a promotion to Specialist 4th Class, with Sarnoski rated as a journeyman in aircraft armament. He continued improving his skills, and racking up his flight time, in another massive exercise across the northeastern U.S. Forty-two officers and 239 enlisted men, manning eight of the 2nd Group’s B-17s, were represented by Joe’s 49th squadron, stationed in a mass encampment around the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, airport. Some of the photos Sarnoski would send home were from these maneuvers. The 49th further distinguished itself during these exercises when its YB-17s, accompanied by the New York press, located an Italian ocean liner 600 miles off the U.S. coast despite cloud banks and rain squalls. The prearranged, friendly intercept made national news and further cemented the ability and potential of the Air Corps.

Aerial photo of Lowry Field, 1938

Lowry Field, 1938
(History Office, Lowry AFB)

The next several months Sarnoski seems to have spent moving back and forth between armament and mechanic work. On March 6, 1939, he was honorably discharged when his term of service expired, but he re-enlisted the next day. He remained in the 49th Bombardment Squadron, but two weeks later found himself on a train bound for Denver, Colorado. He wouldn’t return to Langley for another four months.

Sarnoski was en route to the Air Corps technical school at Lowry Field, where he would be taking the Advance Aircraft Armorer’s Course, a fifteen-week course which would train him on both fighter and bomber armament. The biggest of Lowry’s tech schools, the course taught not only how to dismantle, repair, and operate every type of weapon currently used by the Air Corps in the air and on the ground, but the electric and mechanical knowledge needed to maintain powered gun turrets and bomb racks.

Photo of men loading gun turret

Lowry students learning to load a gun turret
(Lowry Field Handbook, USAAF)

Sarnoski lived with scores of other students in temporary tent barracks; construction of permanent barracks, among other needed infrastructure, had only begun the previous year. Days consisted of classroom instruction, field exercises with pistols and carbine rifles, physical conditioning, and basic military training, with staggered days off. Hands-on training using real-world equipment allowed rapid learning; Sarnoski would learn gun turret maintenance in just eight weeks.

He would leave the clean mountain air of Colorado in early August 1939, returning to Virginia under the gathering clouds of war. He arrived back at Langley shortly after the 2nd Bomb Group received its first B-17B, the first new variant of the Fortress since its inception two years before. The slow development of the bomber reflected the painfully slow realization of the U.S. government of just how vastly American air power lagged behind those of foreign powers, allied and otherwise. President Roosevelt himself had recognized the imbalance the previous year, and over the summer Congress had approved funds on a massive expansion plan for the Air Corps, but when World War II erupted in Europe the month after Joe’s return, its effects were still months away. Joe enjoyed a promotion to private the same month, but besides the arrival of the B-17B, the most notable occurrence in the 49th the last quarter of 1939 would be its participation in another good will tour to South America.

The earliest visible signs of the expansion were in personnel, a change Joe would experience himself at the beginning of 1940. On January 8, he was honorably discharged so that he could re-enlist in the 49th Bombardment Squadron, but temporarily attached to the 2nd School Squadron in Denver. Once again, he was returning to Lowry Field, this time to begin training as a bombardier.

The 49th had begun experimenting two years earlier with training enlisted aircraft armorers as bombardiers, who up to that point had always been officers. The experiment had begun with just two men training under the squadron’s first—and perhaps the group’s first—enlisted bombardier, S/Sgt Ernst Chaput. When that proved successful, the program began to be implemented on a small basis throughout the 2nd’s squadrons, with continued success. With the outbreak of war in Europe, the effort picked up urgency.

Sarnoski impressed enough in his aircraft armorer training the previous year that he became one of fifteen enlisted men at Langley selected to take the bombsight maintenance course at Lowry for the term beginning in January 1940. Departing as before by train on the 10th, the men once again were lodged in Lowry’s tent city, this time along with a total of 600 other students that month, further indication of the wartime preparation the United States was taking while publicly maintaining an isolationist approach.

Photo of bombardier students with bombsights

Lowry students learning the Sperry bombsight, 1945

Promoted to sergeant shortly after arriving, Sarnoski’s bombsight maintenance training consisted of learning how to change out bearings, balance the rotors, lap and polish the discs, clean the various bombsight components, and how to calibrate the bombsight. While information on actual bombardier training of enlisted men at Lowry at the time is scant, it likely mirrored that of similar experimental programs being undertaken around the country. At Hickam Field in Hawaii, the 5th Bombardment Group combined fourteen hours of classroom theory and technical training with over seven hours of bombsight operation on the ground before students began actual bombing missions, during which each student would drop a total of sixty bombs. The Lowry program must have approximated this, as by January 1940 an Air Corps correspondent there reported that “[a] great many live bombs and dummy bombs and thousands of rounds of ammunition are being fired daily on this immense range,” using a mix of B-18s and B-10s.

Upon graduation on April 5, 1940, Sarnoski was awarded his aircraft observer rating as a bombardier. This signal accomplishment was matched by an equally significant change upon his return to Langley. During his absence, he had been reassigned from the 49th, his home for over three years, to the newly activated 41st Reconnaissance Squadron (Long Range).

The 41st was one of the new units created as part of the rapid expansion of the Air Corps ordered the previous year. Constituted in December 1939, it was activated at Langley on February 1, 1940, just two weeks after Joe boarded the train for Lowry. Like all of the newly activated units, the 41st command structure came from reassigned 2nd BG group veterans. It was a bittersweet blow to the old 2nd, but fortunate for Joe, since his new commander in the 41st was his old commander from the 49th: Major Caleb V. Haynes. Another familiar face was the 49th’s rising star Captain Curtis Lemay.

Little is known about Sarnoski’s time in the 41st. It was a step down for the newly rated bombardier in terms of aircraft to go around. While the squadron was the new proud owner of America’s largest bomber, the XB-15—yet another transfer from Joe’s old 49th—when President Roosevelt visited Langley on July 29, 1940, the 41st had only the XB-15, the single B-17A, and three B-18s to contribute to the aerial review. The 13th’s status as a reconnaissance squadron contributed to this, but such squadrons could and did participate in combat bombing; it was part and parcel of anti-submarine patrols, which the 41st itself would be doing off the coast of Newfoundland before Pearl Harbor.

Photo of B-17A

B-17A in flight near Mt. Rainier, 2/28/38

While the XB-17 was reserved to an elite crew, the B-17A would have provided excitement of its own. The fourteenth YB-17 built, the plane had been intended as a static test bed, but became a flying test bed after one of the original thirteen YB-17s survived a violent spin in a thunderstorm, thus negating the need for any static testing. As such, it became a prototype for the first turbochargers installed on a B-17. It was still the only B-17 so equipped, and stood out for it—it was almost as fast as any fighter in use by the Air Force at the time, and could fly far higher. As a bombardier-rated sergeant also teaching gunnery, it’s almost certain Sarnoski would have flown in the plane, and it must have been the highlight of his flying career up to that time.

And Joe did get to display his skills. Lemay, who only would have known him as a bombardier in the 41st, remembered Sarnoski being a crack example of an enlisted bombardier. It wasn’t the only part of his résumé that was likely put to use. In October 1940, thirty-one of the 41st’s enlisted men “demonstrated their ability to handle a machine gun in cloud ‘battles’ so well” that they were rated as expert aerial gunners. It’s fair to reason that the already rated expert aerial gunner in the squadron had a role in that.

Sarnoski’s tenure in the 41st, however, would only last through the end of 1940. Come early January 1941, he would be one of two hundred men of that squadron standing in line to volunteer for yet another new reconnaissance squadron, the 13th. Only an exceptional forty of them were chosen by its commander, soon-to-be Major Russell Wilson, “a gruff, outspoken, kind-hearted Officer of the old school,” and Joe was one of them. Probably not coincidentally, on January 15, Joe himself was promoted to staff sergeant, and the 13th Reconnaissance was officially activated. As it was attached to a new heavy bombardment group, the 43rd, it also meant the end of his time in the 2nd Bombardment Group. The 2nd had been his home since the spring of 1936—almost five years. The 43rd Bombardment Group would be his home for the rest of his life, and most of it would be spent in the plucky new 13th Recon.

While destined for Bangor, Maine, Langley would remain home to the group and squadron for the next several months. A section was found on the base, one upper floor of a barracks, for the twenty-five single men of the unit. Joe was among them, but he was apparently at least thinking of becoming one of the married men who, as was standard, continued to live off base.

At some point upon his return to Langley, he had met Annice Marie Maddox, a nineteen-year-old from Lynchburg who was living with her parents in Richmond. She went by Marie, and took to calling Joe her “Chris,” for reasons known only to them. He in turn referred to her as his “little Lana Turner.” They met at a dance held at Langley, reportedly on a blind date. Blind or not, Joe immediately liked what he saw: pretty, headstrong, devout, and compassionate, an appealing mix for a Catholic enlisted man. While it isn’t known for certain when they started dating—one report puts it the previous September—by early 1941 it was already long enough for Joe to consider making it permanent. Reporting on highlights from the 13th squadron in March 1941, an Air Corps News Letter mentions that “Staff Sgt. Joseph R. Sarnoski, choosing between romance or travel, decided that wedding bells were preferable to a tour of duty in Panama.” As it happened, the bells were postponed, but they would sound eventually.

Through the spring of 1941, an irregular but steady flow of trucks brought new faces, replacements, and equipment into the 13th. One of those faces was Charles “Rocky” Stone, who in time would become an integral part of the squadron’s development and Sarnoski’s crewmate. Eventually the 13th gained a B-18 and a couple of PT-17 Stearman biplanes for training on aerial combat, bombing, and servicing. Joe went to work instructing the squadron on the finer points of bombardiering and aerial gunnery. His skill as an instructor—and his double-threat skillset—attracted the attention of Group command. It soon tapped Sarnoski to begin training throughout the group’s squadrons.

Photo of Zeamer from Army commission application

Jay Zeamer, 1940

The 63rd Bombardment Squadron was one of three attached to the 43rd. Among its new faces come May 1941 was a recently graduated pilot, 2nd Lt. Jay Zeamer, Jr. By background, Zeamer couldn’t have been more different from Sarnoski. While Joe was one of sixteen children of an immigrant miner and his industrious wife in the coal fields of rural Pennsylvania, Jay Zeamer grew up in comfortable Orange, New Jersey, the son of a globetrotting company executive and society mother, whose roots included a prominent Pennsylvania newspaper publisher and a soldier who fought under George Washington.

But different as their origins were, they shared a passion for flying and personal excellence, and for making their own fate. Zeamer, too, had grown up in a room bedecked with model airplanes, and even became a private pilot while attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While Sarnoski had become a talented accordionist in a touring band by age twelve, Zeamer became an Eagle Scout by age fourteen. Sarnoski had raised himself from an eighth grade education to a rare enlisted bombardier and gunnery instructor. Zeamer had the benefit of a military academy education, but to pass the Army flight training entrance exam had overcome a prohibitive vision deficiency in a few months through personal eye training exercises. Neither man lacked drive or ambition.

Zeamer liked Sarnoski’s congenial toughness as an instructor when Joe passed through the 63rd on his teaching circuit, and respected his bombardier and gunnery skills. Sarnoski was drawn to Zeamer’s quiet, relaxed self-assurance. It was likely a recognition of their kindred desire for excellence and action, though, that sparked the instant friendship between them. Zeamer, ever the engineer, pressed Sarnoski for his knowledge of the machines, and Sarnoski was happy to oblige. It couldn’t have hurt his ego to have an MIT engineer treating him as a subject expert.

The new pals even had a common denominator in girlfriends. Zeamer had also begun dating a Lynchburg native, Lucile Christmas, the daughter of a lieutenant colonel. Whether the two couples, Joe and Marie and Jay and Lucy, ever shared a double-date during their happy moment at Langley isn’t known, but seems likely.

It would prove a brief moment, whatever the case. By late June or July, Zeamer had been transferred to Ohio to flight test the new B-26 Marauder. Meanwhile Sarnoski’s 13th Recon, as well as the rest of the 43rd Bombardment Group, had finally received its transfer orders. Their permanent change of station to Bangor Air Base in Bangor, Maine, was in the offing. On August 23, 1941, by military truck and aircraft as well as private vehicles, the group began the almost-thousand mile trip to their new station.

Sarnoski had already seen at Lowry some of the effects of the Air Corps expansion. In Bangor, he witnessed the full effect. Bangor Army Air Field, soon renamed Dow Field, was among several of the new air bases created, usually out of existing airports—in Bangor’s case, tiny Godfrey Field. The scale of the Air Corps additions was truly impressive, consisting of

36 enlisted men's barracks, 9 day rooms, 6 enlisted men's mess buildings, 5 buildings for bachelor officers’ quarters, 7 administration buildings, 9 supply rooms (organization), 2 QM warehouses, 6 operations buildings, 5 storage buildings, one each officers’ mess building, fire station, guard house, hosp[i]tal, infirmary, Flight Surgeon’s Unit, Post Exchange, QM gasoline storage, QM motor repair shop, recreation building, telephone and telegraph shop, theater, AC gasoline and oil storage building, Link Trainer building, parachute building, school building, AC shop (hangar), radio station building, control tower, and necessary utilities.

This time, however, Sarnoski would become one of those living in the married men’s section off base. Rather than be separated, Marie chose to follow Joe and be married in Maine. They lived in a small house near the base in what officially was called the Government Project Area, but was colloquially referred to as “the Dogpatch.”

It wasn’t the only great change for the young sergeant. The northern New England environs were a world apart from the Atlantic tidewater of Langley, from climate to culture to speech to architecture. To ever-curious Joe, it must have been fascinating, and welcome. Meanwhile the squadron was growing rapidly. New recruits and equipment arrived weekly, many from the various Air Force technical schools that Joe himself had graduated from. One piece of new equipment in particular would have pleased Sarnoski: the squadron inherited the B-17A from the 41st Recon.

Daily life continued apace until the fateful seventh day of December. The squadron diary describes the moment and its immediate effect:

Some of the 13th men were in barracks, some at home, some downtown in Bangor, when the radio flashed the horrible news of Pearl Harbor, followed by the local warning for all Air Corps men to return to the Base immediately.


Men rushed back and then sat waiting, huddled over the radio, talking over the reports as they came in. No one was allowed off the post until midnight…


Overnight the Base was transformed. There was an air of tenseness and expectancy. Guards were quadrupled and rigid blackout enforced. Drivers sat in trucks by the runway twenty-four hours a day, ready to drive on to the strip and obstruct landings in case of a surprise assault. Maybe these precautions were needless—but Bangor Air Base was taking no chances.

The next weeks were of a much different character than any the squadron had experienced, all the stranger for long-timers like Sarnoski. But his long personal experience had prepared Joe well for what followed. In subzero weather—this was Maine in the wintertime—the squadron flew patrols from Mitchell Field north to the Canadian border, and as far as five hundred miles east over the Atlantic. The squadron gained nine A-29s that had been intended for England, but then tragically its pride and joy, the B-17A, crashed on take-off in mid-December. The aircraft was a total loss, but fortunately all nine crew members survived unscathed, including Sarnoski’s friend and future frequent crew mate S/Sgt. Lewis Waltman.

It was a somber and strict Christmas and New Year’s, with squadron personnel prohibited from leaving the base, but orders the day after Christmas to prepare for a move kept the squadron busy through mid-January. It was then news arrived that they would begin preparations for a sea passage.

Suddenly the reality of war became starkly clear. Adding to the effect was the replacement of their squadron commander with First Lieutenant Thomas N. Charles, who would figure largely in Joe’s career to come. On January 18th, the squadron was told it would be departing by train at 6 PM that same day for Fort Dix, N.J. To his credit and the squadron’s undying gratitude, their outgoing commander’s last official act was to secure permission for “wives, relatives, and sweethearts” to visit the men on base before leaving for destination and fates unknown. Joe and Marie spent their last hours together at a table in the squadron mess surrounded by dozens of others taking, like them, every last moment of time they were given. By 6:00, however, all ninety-one members of the 13th Reconnaissance were boarded, and departed to a two-mile line of cheering crowds.

Photo of troops boarding transport ship

Troops boarding transport, January 1942

Fort Dix was both familiar and a portent of things to come for Sarnoski. The Army had turned the fort into a sea of thousands of pyramidal canvas tents, and a January storm had turned the whole affair into a frigid, muddy swamp—not unlike his time at Lowry. Added to it now, though, was a rushed lack of organization that led to hours of the 13th searching for their prescribed area. The full scope of the Army’s urgency and lack of preparation was revealed the next day, when first the squadron was joined by 151 new members, all of whom had less than three weeks’ military training, and then was informed that it had just hours to consolidate and draw its allotted equipment before boarding ship. It managed the feat, but only through decidedly unofficial means. It revealed an initiative and bravura in the scrappy squadron that would see it through, indeed, come to define its entire service in the Southwest Pacific.

Just forty hours after leaving Bangor, the 13th, having shouldered their barracks bags and full field gear overnight on yet another troop train, boarded the U.S.S. Argentina docked in New York City. Sarnoski and his squadron mates joined some five thousand other U.S. Army troops packed onto the converted passenger liner. There they would wait another three days in suspended animation before the convoy finally departed after midnight on January 23, 1942, their destination unknown.

A week shy of his twenty-sixth birthday, Joseph Sarnoski was sailing into a future beyond the imagination of the son of a coal miner.


- Stay Tuned for Part 2 -


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