This past Christmas, my grandmother dug up her family photo album. Going through the old pictures, she began telling us stories about her parents and her brothers. A figure of special interest was her older brother Joe, a radio operator who was stationed in the UK during WWII. I set about to reconstruct the story of this man I had never known, using my grandmother’s memory and the contents of that crumbling photo album. I now share that story with you.
My great-grandparents – Emil “Mill” Jablonsky (b. 1891) and Antonia “Antoinette” Kerch (b. 1900) were both first-generation immigrants who met and married in the 1910s. They had two sons – Joe and Danny – during the prosperous 1920s. Joe in 1920 and Danny in 1928. Their daughter – my grandmother – Mary Ann was born in 1935, during the Great Depression. As a result, there are not as many baby pictures of her as there are of her brothers.
With the start of WWII, the Jablonsky boys went to war. Cousins Tony and Les joined the Army. Cousin Steve enlisted in the Navy. Danny was too young at first, but he would be a part of the post-war occupation of Japan. Joe enlisted 30 September 1942 and went into the USAAF.
Joe trained to become a radio operator in Scott Field, Illinois – home of “the best damned radio operators in the world!” As Mark Walderman wrote for the Belleville News-Democrat (2018), this school produced 77,370 radio operators/mechanics for the war. It remains an active Air Force base.
During training, Joe kept his family updated about his life at the base, sending them photos of him with his friends. He doesn’t name them, and I could not find out any more information about them in my research. Joe was deployed in late 1943.
From here on out, gaps and inconsistencies start to appear in the story the photo album was telling us. I decided to start my own research, consulting the American Air Museum in Britain, the Museum of Berkshire Aviation, and the website http://www.airbornetroopcarrier.com to determine the official record of my great-uncle’s activities during the war. While helpful, there was only so much information to be found, and occasionally I would see his surname misspelled as “Jablowki.”
There were a few facts that I could determine. He was the radio operator on C-47A #42-92099, nicknamed “Iron Ass.” His crew included 1st Lt. Edgar H. Albers Jr. as pilot, alternately 2nd Lt. Roy E. Alderman and 2nd Lt. Charles F. Bryan as co-pilot, 1st Lt. Ralph S. Gorton as navigator, and Sgt. Edward Baldwin as engineer. They were part of the 75th Troop Carrier Squadron in the 435th Troop Carrier Group in the Ninth Air Force. For the bulk of the war, they were stationed six miles outside of Newbury at Welford Airport. The squadron arrived 25 January 1944 and relocated to France in early 1945. On 19 January 1945, a different crew had to execute a forced landing due to engine failure. That was the end of “Iron Ass.”
While in Britain, Great-Uncle Joe and his crew flew two missions during D-Day (6 June 1944), dropping paratroopers at 1:20am and later gliders at 11:10pm. The whole of the 435th was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for their performance during the invasion. They were also involved in the unsuccessful Operation Market Garden (17-25 September 1944). On one of their missions, Joe’s radio was destroyed by flak. He would bring a piece of that flak back home with him as a memento. For the remainder of the war, they flew resupplies for the 101st Airborne Division.
The family back home never heard about these missions, though, at least not as Grandma remembers it. The only bit of the above information she recalled was that his plane was called “Iron Ass.” Admittedly, that is probably the most memorable part of the story. Joe’s correspondence did not mention specifics, or alternately it outright misled his family. For example, a letter dated on the 3 November 1943 was supposedly sent from somewhere in northern Africa. Joe evens writes about seeing jungles and deserts. However, he flew directly from the US to the UK on 23 October 1943. They did not have a layover in Africa.
That said, even after the war, Joe would relay stories about flying over jungles in South America. He would even tell his son about having to shake their boots every morning in case of scorpions while in northern Africa. As I do not see why Joe would continue such a ruse so long after being discharged, I must acknowledge that there is some incongruity to his story.
The rest of the correspondence that my grandmother preserved were more innocuous and straightforward, as he took time to send his 8-year-old sister souvenir postcards from Scotland and London in early 1944. In these posts, he joked about London Bridge and thanked her for the candies sent from home. In one of his stories, while in London, Joe had his first ham sandwich and covered it with Coleman’s Mustard, thinking that it was the same as American yellow mustard. It was not.
For Mother’s Day 1944, a local Chicago paper published his and other soldiers’ messages for their mothers. Joe wrote: “Dear Mother, having swell time in London. Thinking of you very much this Mother’s Day.” These correspondences all preceded D-Day.
Joe was never the same after the war, as my grandmother recalls. She shared a few of his stories. Joe had a girlfriend in London, the daughter of a local professor. But they were killed by a bomb, presumably as part of Operation Steinbock (21 Jan – 29 May 1944). Joe found out when he went to visit their house only to find it in ruins. Grandma did not remember the girl’s name, so I was not able to learn anything else about her. In another story, Joe recounted seeing one of his friends and fellow crewmembers hit by shrapnel and bleed to death right next to him.
Joe died in 1976, survived by a son. He was 55.
Over these past few months, I’ve been scraping together bits of information from various sources in order to create this incomplete narrative of a man’s life. I wish I could say that this exercise has made me closer to him, but it doesn’t. He just feels further away. The pictures are fading. The online archives are incomplete. Soon, Joe will leave even living memory. This blog post too will turn into digital dust. Putting this story up here feels like a futile gesture as I hope for someone – anyone – to remember Joe Jablonsky.
Rather than despair, I am more convinced than ever of the importance of keep these stories – these people – alive through preservation and through retelling. Thank you for indulging this little bit of family history. I hope that you enjoyed it.
A special thanks to Mary Ann Hedin, Michael Jablonsky, and Elizabeth O’Malley for helping me compose this account of our family’s history.