When Anthony J. Queeno was 14, he joined the Civil Air Patrol because he was in love with the military and aviation.
Members of the patrol gathered at the Bell Aircraft plant on Elmwood Avenue for their meetings. The teenager stood at attention at the plant’s gate with the night watchman and allowed only air patrol members admittance. At other times, he accompanied the watchman on his rounds.
Queeno’s duties also included going on the occasional search and rescue mission, scouring rural areas for missing people.
“I didn’t fly but I went up as an observer,” the 83-year-old Clarence resident recalled.
When he was 16, Queeno fibbed about his age and joined the New York State Guard, where he learned how to march and carry out combat maneuvers.
“But probably the most important thing I learned was how to follow orders,” he said.
When he was 17, he yearned to enter active duty.
“It was after North Korea attacked South Korea. I was 17 and tried to join the Air Force, but my mother wouldn’t sign the early enlistment papers. I was a senior at Buffalo East High School,” Queeno said.
So the day he turned 18, on Aug. 5, 1951, he enlisted in the Air Force and was off to war as a B-29 scanner and aerial gunner, one of 11 crew members.
“The B-29s were the first pressurized aircraft, and we flew between 29,000 and 32,000 feet. I was the right gunner for a twin 50-millimeter gun, and I was also the right scanner. The pilot’s view was obstructed because he was way up in the nose, and he needed pairs of eyes on the left and right to let him know the degree of flaps, keep an eye on the four engines and observe for other air traffic,” Queeno said.
Takeoffs were tough.
“Every time we had a full bomb load, 20,000 pounds, it was a white-knuckle takeoff because we were so heavy.”
Anthony J. Queeno, 83
Branch: Air Force
Rank: staff sergeant
War zone: Korean War
Years of service: 1951 - 1955
Most prominent honors: Air Medal, Korean War Medal, United Nations Medal and Good Conduct Medal
Specialty: scanner/aerial gunner, B-29 bomber, known as the Superfortress
Stationed at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Queeno said there were times when he thought the plane might tumble into the Pacific Ocean at the end of the runway -- but that never happened to his crew.
“The B-29 was known for having bad engines that leaked gas, and with the combination of the weight, several of the planes did go in the ocean,” he said.
Queeno flew 25 combat missions aboard “Command Decision,” which ended up the most decorated B-29 in the Korean War.
“Most of our missions were at night, and you really couldn’t see attacking enemy aircraft until there were bursts of gunfire or if there was a bright moon,” he said. “The most damage we had was from flak shot by anti-aircraft guns. One time we had an 88-millimeter shell go through our right wing.”
Among the most dangerous missions were those above the Chosin Reservoir, where the Chinese had routed American ground forces earlier in the war.
“When you flew over that area, the flak was so thick, the sky would turn black from the bursts of shrapnel,” Queeno said.
Another dangerous bombing route was known as “MiG Alley,” where fighter jets attacked American bombers.
“A lieutenant colonel that I knew would later write a book called ‘Black Tuesday Over Namsi’ when the MiGs shot down nine of our 12 B-29s,” he said.
When the Americans set out on bombing runs along the Yalu River, part of “MiG Alley,” the bombers occasionally drifted into Chinese air space, Queeno said.
“That’s not a well-known fact,” he said, “but we would be about 12 miles into Manchuria as we were trying to turn around. We did not conduct any missions while we were there.”
His plane always managed to return to Okinawa except for one time when they had carried out low-altitude “front line support” in a battle, dropping one bomb at a time and running low on fuel.
“We landed in South Korea at Suwon’s K-13 base, about 16 miles south of Seoul.”
That’s the same base where fighter pilot Ted Williams, the Major League Baseball slugger, crash-landed his Phantom fighter jet and survived.
On Queeno’s final mission, a truce was being signed between the United Nations and North Korea. That was July 27, 1953.
“We were already airborne and had to complete our mission. I thought I was going to buy the farm,” he said, expecting bad luck.
But he survived and returned home to Buffalo in August 1953 for leave.
Of all the honors he received, he says, “I am most proud of my gunnery wings,” which were awarded in 1952.
He serve until 1955 and discovered that he enjoyed imparting knowledge, rising to the head of the Strategic Air Command Gunnery School at Biggs Air Base in El Paso, Texas.
“I had really intended to stay in the military as a career. I left and went to Buffalo State College, but my plan was to stay at college three years, then go back in the military and finish college at night. I then would retire from the military and become a school teacher and wait for retirement from that and have two pensions,” Queeno said.
Love, however, altered his plans.
While at Buffalo State, he met the former Winifred Lynch, who was also studying to become a teacher. They married June 25, 1960, exactly a decade after the Korean War started.
Queeno retired from the Maryvale Central School District after 36 years as an art teacher. His late brother, Carmen, also worked at Maryvale as an art teacher.
“We had classrooms next door to each other,” he said.
Queeno’s wife, an elementary and special education teacher, left her career after 10 years to raise the couple’s three children.
The war provided Queeno with the most exciting times in his life, but he adds that the Air Force also guided him into meaningful civilian work.
“After the war, the Air Force pushed me into teaching at gunnery school. After a month, I just loved it,” he said. “I wouldn’t have had a successful career as a teacher if it wasn’t for the Air Force.”