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Overcoming illness, then enemy flak

Michael R. Carestio wanted to leave his job as a tool-and-die maker at the former Wales Strippit plant on Niagara Street in Buffalo to get off the ground in World War II.

He soon made progress and was flying solo in PT-19s, a training plane used by the Army Air Forces in Cimarron, Okla.

Carestio figured that he was well on his way to getting his wings.

But two bouts of pneumonia grounded him.

"I got washed out of flight school, but my second choice was as a bombardier, and that's what I followed up with," the 88-year-old veteran recalled.

By 1944, he was flying out of England as a crew member on a B-24 Liberator bomber.

"Our first missions were in support of the troops who had invaded during D-Day. We were bombing just about anything that moved, along with bridges, roads and railroad tracks. We flew at lower altitudes. The targets weren't like a city or a factory. They were smaller and tougher to see," Carestio said of flying at about 10,000 feet.

As the war progressed farther inland, the B-24s soared higher, often up to 30,000 feet. The deal was 33 missions, and you got a ticket home. It's a sure bet that Carestio was keeping count.

Then, out of the blue, the deal changed.

"We were told we had to do 35 missions," he said. "So we had to do two more."

He says the finish line had been unfairly moved.

"We'd been looking forward to going home. We weren't happy, but we thought, 'Well we got this far, so we'll probably get the rest of the way.' "

There was good reason to be concerned, though.

Flak from enemy anti-aircraft artillery often filled the skies.

"Sometimes we'd go through it unscathed, and other times we'd get hit," he said. "We were pretty lucky. Only once was a crew member wounded. This guy Paris was hit in the hand, very damaged, and he couldn't use it. I was first-aid officer on the flight, so I crawled back to him and gave him a shot of morphine."

War was grim, although at first, it hadn't seemed that way for the young man from Buffalo's West Side.

When Carestio had first started dropping bombs on the enemy, he said, it was "pretty darn thrilling to be up there at 21 years old."

But on his 22nd mission -- Aug. 26, 1944 -- he gained a different perspective.

"We lost three ships that day, and one of them was off our right wing," he said. "It took a direct hit. We didn't see anyone come out of that plane. You look to see if parachutes open up, and we didn't see any."

The mood on Carestio's plane turned somber.

"I have a note in the logbook that I kept of every mission we went on, and that day, I wrote, 'No one said a word over the intercom for a full minute. I guess we were all praying and waiting. No matter what anyone says, today we came back only by the grace of God.' "

The attack had occurred on the way to bomb a chemical plant in Ludwigshafen, Germany.

They learned later that, despite the losses, the mission had been successful.

"We were told that the target had been destroyed," Carestio said.

But the lesson learned that day was that "we were just human beings, and we could get as scared as anyone else."

On every mission after that, Carestio said, he and fellow crew members wondered whether they would return.

He did return and went on to raise a family of three sons with Emily, his wife of 65 years.

"The war is one of those things that you're glad you went through," he said, "but you wouldn't want to do it all over again."

***

Michael R. Carestio, 88

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Rank: First lieutenant

Branch: Army Air Forces

War zone: Europe

Years of service: December 1942 to October 1945

Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters

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