Share this article

print logo

WWII navigator took some flak during his 35 bombing missions

John F. Canale, 92

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Army Air Forces

War zone: World War II, European Theater

Years of service: enlisted February 1943 – November 1945

Rank: 1st lieutenant

Most prominent honors: Army Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters, Bronze Star and Good Conduct Medal

Specialty: B-17 navigator

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

John F. Canale had a ringside seat above Europe during World War II, tucked into the Plexiglas nose of a B-17 bomber as its navigator.

“I could see the flak as we flew into it. Flak is from the fragments of a bomb that is set to explode at the altitude of the plane,” Canale explained. “You just gritted your teeth and you hoped it didn’t hit your plane.”

Canale had enlisted in February 1943 with the intention of becoming a fighter pilot. A freshman at the University of Buffalo Law School, he put his books aside, believing it was his duty to defend America.

“It also gave me the chance to select what branch I wanted to serve. I wanted to be a fighter pilot, and that’s how I started out. But my depth perception was way off,” he said.

During flight training school in Tennessee, Canale recalled a hair-raising session when he was flying alone in a PT-23 single-engine aircraft.

“We were taught that as we approached the runway when we were 6 inches above the ground, you pulled back on the stick and stalled the engine out and you mushed in for a three-point landing. I always had trouble with landings, and this time when I looked out over the side of the open cockpit and thought I was at 6 inches, I actually was at 30 feet in the air.

“When I stalled the engine, I came down like a ton of bricks. The two wheels under the wings went right through the wings. The propeller hit the ground and the body of the plane twisted and went into a ground loop.”

Oh, and one other thing: “I also bumped my head.”

Needless to say, his visions of aerial dogfights were finished.

“My training lieutenant said, ‘Canale, you’re washed out. You’re going to navigation school.’ I was heartbroken.”

In retrospect, he said the job switch was a blessing.

“It kept me in the country for another four or five months to finish navigation school while my buddies from fighter training school were getting shot down over Europe.”

As the navigator on a B-17, also known as the Flying Fortress, he had a better view of the horizon than even the pilot and copilot. But the view came at the price of great hazard.

“The Plexiglas was easily torn by the flak.”

And while on a mission a few shy of his 20th with the 615th Bomb Squad, flak knocked out his instrument panel and almost took him out as well.

“It’s the closest I ever came to getting killed. I was wearing a World War I steel helmet and flak vest and the flak came in behind me in the space between the helmet and vest cutting my jacket, shirt collar and tie and nicking my neck,” he said.

If he’d gone to the hospital after the mission, he could have received a Purple Heart.

“I didn’t think it was bad enough to go to the hospital, but the bombardier also had been hit by flak and got some cuts on his arm. He went to the hospital, got stitches and a Purple Heart.”

Canale does not regret passing up on the esteemed Purple Heart.

“Guys that were seriously injured deserved it.”

And not all of his 35 bombing missions were peppered with enemy gunfire or flak.

“We called those missions milk runs.”

The bombing targets, he said, were usually fuel depots, oil plants, airplane factories and Berlin.

During what he believes was his most interesting mission, Canale said two of the four engines on his B-17 were knocked out by flak.

“We couldn’t keep up with the formation of other B-17s. We were losing altitude and speed. Two German fighter planes started circling us and we were about to get shot down. Then two P-51 fighters, our boys, showed up, and the minute they showed up, the Germans left. The P-51s, one on each of our wings, escorted us into friendly territory.”

After safely landing, he says, he and the nine other members of his crew tried “everything we could” to learn the identities of the two fighter pilots, whom they considered their guardian angels.

“We sure wanted to thank them and at least buy them a drink, but we never could find them.”

When the war ended, Canale returned to law school in September 1945, entering an accelerated program that allowed him to complete three years of law school in two by attending summer classes.

To this day, Canale still practices law at the Bouvier Partnership in downtown Buffalo.

“I practice negligence law for plaintiffs and defendants. I go into the office every Friday.”

A widower who had been married 67 years to the former Gladys “Becky” Beckett, he and his wife raised three children.

“My wife died in December and boy, do I miss her,” Canale said, but adds that he has plenty of company with five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

And he has his fellow lawyers, with whom he enjoys breaking bread on Fridays.