Of men and machines

“Sentimental Journey” B-17 Flying Fortress on tarmac in Hamilton.

I was battling rush-hour traffic. Ironically, I was listening to a Toronto radio station’s traffic reporter tell me I was in gridlock. Then, my cell phone rang. I read the call identification. It was one of my teaching colleagues at Centennial College. And he was excited.

“She’s here!” he said, with more energy in his voice than usual.

“Who’s here?” I asked.

“Sentimental Journey. She’s going to be in Hamilton all this week,” he continued.

It was Malcolm Kelly on the phone. He’s the co-ordinator of Centennial’s sports journalism program. And second only to his love of sports is Malcolm’s love of airplanes.

Degrees of separation

Staff Sergeant Joe Taddonio served as a gunner aboard USAAF Liberators during the Second World War. Courtesy Joe Taddonio.
Staff Sergeant Joe Taddonio served as a gunner aboard USAAF Liberators during the Second World War. Courtesy Joe Taddonio.

The voice on the phone wasn’t an automated one. An actual human being answered my call, last week, as I attempted to renew the registration on my website and domain name (tedbarris.com). But inevitably my 1-800 call took me outside the country. When I asked, the young man on the line said he was located in Phoenix, Arizona. I told him I was calling from way north of that and he then described a family outing he’d experienced over Christmas.

“I took my family up north during the holidays,” Chris Taddonio said.

“Oh, really?” I said. “Where to?”

“North to Flagstaff, Arizona,” he said. “And my daughter started to cry it was so cold.”

“And how cold was it?”

“Oh, it was around the freezing mark,” he said.

That’s when I told him that our thermometer readings had been nearly 20 degrees Celsius lower than that, this week, and that with the wind chill, we in Ontario were coping with what felt like minus-30 or minus-40 degrees Celsius.

And the phone went silent. He admitted he was sorry he’d tried to impress me with his trip “up north.” Then, we moved on to the job at hand – registering my domain name on the Internet. He looked at my website, realized I had an interest in military history, and then noticed an image on my site of a Second World War Spitfire fighter aircraft.

He mentioned that his grandfather had served in the U.S. Army Air Force during the war and that the man – now in his 90s – might have some stories for me. I said I was always interested in hearing from veterans, and suggested he ask his grandfather, in the Boston area, to call me. On Sunday I received a call from Joseph Taddonio.

Born in December 1920 (he celebrated his 93rd birthday over the Christmas holidays), Joseph Taddonio told me that he and his brother had grown up not far from Boston Municipal Airport. The boys had always gaped at biplanes and auto-gyro aircraft on the tarmac. When the United States was drawn into the war with the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, it seemed a natural thing to join the air force. But despite his love of airplanes Joseph had a problem.

“When I attended optometrist school just before the war,” he said, “I found out I was near-sighted… I kept flunking the (air force entry) course.”

His inability to read the eye charts required for an airgunner, kept preventing Taddonio’s successful entry into the U.S. Army Air Force, until one day, he found a training facility with exactly the same eye chart. He simply memorized the lines of letters, went back to an examiner, passed the test, and got in.

Joe Taddonio's Liberator crew on occasion of its 200th mission during WWII. Courtesy Joe Taddonio.
Joe Taddonio’s Liberator crew on occasion of its 200th mission during WWII. Courtesy Joe Taddonio.


Then, to ensure his eyesight would never fail him as a waist gunner aboard the Liberator bomber, he had his combat goggle lenses replaced with the prescription to overcome his near-sightedness. Taddonio served in the skies over North Africa, the Mediterranean, Italy and (late in his wartime career) France.

“On one mission to bomb Vicenza, we had 17 airplanes in our bomber stream,” he explained about a mission on Dec. 28. 1943. “We had no (Allied fighter aircraft escort to protect the bombers) when 60 German fighter aircraft jumped us. Fifteen waves of German fighters, four abreast. Only seven of our aircraft made it through.”

With each Liberator carrying a crew of seven to 10 men, the losses that one night proved disastrous. Taddonio finished the war by participating in the Normandy invasion; he and his aircrew bombed targets on the coast of France just prior to the D-Day invasion in the spring of 1944. He’d survived a year of missions over Europe.

In 1944 - when he turned 24 - Joe Taddonio completed his tour of duty and returned home to Boston.
In 1944 – when he turned 24 – Joe Taddonio completed his tour of duty and returned home to Boston. Courtesy Joe Taddonio.

On June 12, 1944 (D-Day-plus-6) Taddonio said he flew a mission over the Cherbourg peninsula in support of American ground forces there. The invasion had held and was moving inland.

“That was my last mission,” he said, “and I came home.”

It occurred to me that flying in the ball turret of a Liberator bomber, which could climb to altitudes of nearly 30,000 feet, that Taddonio might have experienced some extremely cold temperatures at those altitudes.

“The coldest it hit outside our airplane was 60 below,” he said. “We were flying back to England over Denmark that day.”

“How could you possibly keep from freezing to death?” I asked.

“We had jump suits that were like electric blankets,” Taddonio said. “They had rigged up a system for heating pants and coats and even wired our boots to try to keep us warm.”

I began to feel guilty having complained this week about minus-40 temperatures in Ontario. And I doubted whether his great-granddaughter, the one who had cried to her father Chris about the nearly freezing temperatures at Flagstaff, Arizona, would have any concept of minus-60 degrees. Much less facing that cold while German fighters and anti-aircraft guns tried to shoot his Liberator out of the sky.

More than a few degrees of separation there.

Gifts of a fill-in mom

There’s generally at least one of these in every neighbourhood. This person is most often extremely well grounded in the community or has lived there for years. People next door or down the block all feel they could trust this individual with their mother or their kids. I had a proxy parent like this. Only I didn’t realize I needed her as a surrogate until I was a young adult.

I knew her as “Ma Ross.”

Dick and Betty Ross met on the dance floor at the Palais Royale during the Second World War.

Actually her name was Betty Ross. She was born Helen Elizabeth Watson on July 11, 1920, in Toronto. When she was four, her father died. So, she was raised by a caring brother. Betty came of age during the Second World War, fell in love with an RCAF Spitfire pilot – when they danced on terrace of the Palais Royale on a night in 1940 – and waited for her beau, Richard Ross, to come home safely from the air war overseas. In the 1950s, I met Betty through her son, David, who’d become my closest friend in elementary school in Agincourt, Ont. But that’s not when she became my fill-in mom.

How we inspire others

Hap Harris on his Wings (Graduation) Day in August 1943. Photo courtesy Harris family.

Following a recent oldtimers’ hockey game at the arena Sunday night, my teammates and I made our way to the dressing room. The difference this night, however, was that we had won our game. For the first time in our Uxbridge Adult Hockey round-robin playoff, we had won – our first victory in four tries. We were all feeling pretty upbeat as we piled into the dressing room, where a teammate next to me suggested why we had won.

“We can thank Flying Officer Harris for this one,” he said.