Albert Tripodi’s Army Air Force squadron was limping back to England after successfully bombing a Merseburg, Germany, oil refinery in 1944. His plane had been hit by German ground fire when the Beaver Falls native noticed something ominous.
“I looked out and saw contrails. It was our gas line. Usually when that happens, you blow up,” said Tripodi, a Patterson Heights resident who turned 96 on Nov. 3.
These days, Tripodi is a kindly great-grandfather whose relatively unlined face has a ready smile for visitors. During World War II, though, he was a young right waist gunner aboard a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, nicknamed Shoo Shoo Baby, after a 1944 Andrews Sisters hit song.
But with two engines hit and one of them spewing fuel, the Shoo Shoo Baby and its crew were in grave danger of being shoo-shooed out of earthly existence.
“We lost 25,000 or 26,000 feet straight out, so we left the group. Usually fighters come after you,” Tripodi said. But at that moment there were no fighters pursuing the American B-17.
Soon, though, the pilot, who managed to keep some altitude, called for the crew to get rid of excess weight to stay aloft.
“I ripped my gun out of the window and threw it overboard,” Tripodi said. Then he grabbed a bunch of ammunition and threw that out, too.
His and his crewmates’ efforts lightened the load on the B-17, but the plane’s hydraulic system was failing due to loss of fluid. The pilot decided the solution was to use the only liquid available: the crew’s urine.
Using the urine, the B-17 built up some hydraulic pressure in the braking system. To help slow the plane, Tripodi decided to put a parachute on the post part of one of the guns.
“We managed to make it” over the White Cliffs of Dover and return to Horham Airfield in England, Tripodi said. “When we landed, the ship was full of holes.”
Tripodi’s son, Jim Tripodi, 70, of Beaver, who has researched his father’s World War II career, said there were 273 hits on the ship from a 20-mm cannon, 9-mm rifle and machine guns.
During that grim situation over Merseburg, “I called for my mother,” explained Albert Tripodi, who vividly remembers the mission date: July 28, 1944.
When he returned home on leave later that year, his mother brought out the 1944 calendar with the date of July 28 circled.
“She said, ‘I heard you call me.’ I said, ‘I did. I called you,’” Al Tripodi said recently. “She said, ‘I thought you were playing a joke on me. I checked every room in the house.’” But her son had been thousands of miles away.
Tripodi said recently, “I think mental telepathy was there.”
After landing, Tripodi told the crew chief on the ground about ripping out the gun. The crew chief told him, “No human being can do that.” Then Tripodi said he had also thrown out the ammunition. “That’s more than 200 pounds of ammunition. That can’t be done,” the crew chief told him. Since then, there have been recorded accounts of people exercising above-normal strength in times of fear and stress.
With his wartime stories of danger, surprising strength and even humor, Tripodi is the last of his 10-man aircrew and one of less than 400,000 American World War II veterans now surviving to observe this Veterans Day, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans Web site.
About 16.5 million American men served in World War II, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; of those, approximately 407,000 died while in service.
Former Staff Sgt. Tripodi flew on 26 missions over Germany, France, what is now the Czech Republic and Denmark, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters.
He was among about 16 million veterans who returned at war’s end, many to marry, raise families and contribute to their communities.
Tripodi served in the 334th Squadron of the 95th Bomb Group, which three times won the Presidential Unit Citation, also known as the Distinguished Unit Citation – the most of any bomb group, according the 95th Bomb Group’s Web site.
About 350,000 airmen served with the Eighth Air Force in England, according to “The Mighty Eighth,” by Gerald Astor. Of those, 26,000 were killed, or 7.42 percent.
“Strictly measuring the mortality rate for the 210,000 air crewmen (those who flew on air missions), the casualty rate soars to 12.38 percent,” Astor wrote.
Call it luck; call it divine providence – and Tripodi, a devout Roman Catholic, told his son God watched over him on many occasions – he was indeed one of the fortunate ones, such as when he had to fill in for his crew’s tail gunner.
During that mission, enemy aircrews used a typical strategy: to wait until the Americans had gone over their targets and were leaving the scene, “then they attack you.”
Tripodi happened to leave the tail gunner’s steel seat for some reason. When he returned, “there was a hole in the seat and part of the tail was gone. So you can imagine what would have happened to me if I had been sitting in that seat.”
On another mission, he had to walk on a catwalk in the bomb bay to dislodge a live bomb the air crew had “to get rid of” – with the bomb bay doors open thousands of feet in the air.
The aircraft couldn’t land with the bomb hanging down; it would have exploded on impact.
“I had to kick that bomb out,” he said, adding matter-of-factly: “I got it out.
“Those are things that could have been disasters,” he said. But Tripodi explained that once a crew flies five successful missions, luck tends to stay with its members.
The war opened Tripodi’s eyes. Having been raised by his Italian immigrant parents in integrated Beaver Falls, he was shocked to see separate restrooms and drinking fountains for black and white people when he trained in Texas.
It was a far different life than the one he experienced as one of the “Five Roses,” five young men who wore red roses in their lapels when they went to dance halls in high school.
They were such good dancers, “they’d stop the band and say, ‘The Roses are here,’” Tripodi said.
He graduated from Beaver Falls High School in 1941, just five months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
All told, Albert Tripodi flew 26 missions on nine different B-17s before returning to Beaver Falls after the war, in 1945.
In 1947, he married Delores Ross of College Hill, a high school classmate of his whom he “knew I was going to marry” even during their school days.
The Tripodis settled down in Beaver Falls, where Al Tripodi worked for Babcock & Wilcox while attending Geneva College part-time. The former waist gunner said his wartime experiences had helped to make him more disciplined and more organized in civilian life.
In 1955, he was asked to take over the B&W credit union, which had assets of around $84,000. He and his wife ran the credit union out of their home for more than 12 years while raising their two children.
In 1967, his regular job at B&W was terminated, whereupon the credit union appointed him full-time treasurer-manager. Eventually, the credit union built a permanent home, expanded and became the Beaver Valley Federal Credit Union.
“When I quit three years ago, we had over $67 million,” the former credit union CEO said. During his tenure, one of the longest-serving CEO credit union tenures in the country, Tripodi had been featured on the front page of the nationwide CUNA Mutual Insurance Group newsletter.
During his growing up years, his father “never talked about the war,” Jim Tripodi said.
“We didn’t want to tell the kids anything that wasn’t suitable,” his dad said. But Jim Tripodi managed to glean a few details when some of his father’s crew who lived in nearby states would drive through Pennsylvania.
“So they’d get off the turnpike (at Beaver Falls) and come to the house,” Jim Tripodi said. “I’d just sit in the other room and listen to them.”
And whenever the television show “Twelve O’Clock High” was on in the mid-1960s, Jim Tripodi and his sister, now Pam Balbach of Chippewa Township, always looked for the Block B on B-17s in the war footage used in the show.
The Block B indicated an aircraft from the elder Tripodi’s squadron, though not necessarily the Shoo Shoo Baby.
“There was that excitement,” Jim Tripodi said of seeing the Block B.
Not talking to his family about the war changed when two of Al Tripodi’s grandchildren were in high school in the 1990s and had to interview a veteran. Jim Tripodi’s children, Jeffrey and Jamie, drew out many of their grandfather’s memories, he said.
Al Tripodi’s war memories recently were revived by the news that a reconstructed Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress crashed into a de-icing facility while attempting to land at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut, killing seven people.
That B-17 had been repaired with a part from the Shoo Shoo Baby. And it was the same aircraft that had crashed previously when it was used to give rides during a 1987 airshow at Beaver County Airport in Chippewa Township.
Three generations of Tripodi men had wanted to catch a ride on the B-17 back then, but a Columbus appointment derailed their plans, sparing them the non-fatal crash and continuing Al Tripodi’s luck.
Al Tripodi has slowed a bit and these days uses a walker to make getting around easier. So the veteran, who looks decades younger than the nonagenarian he is, didn’t attend the 75-year reunion of crewmates of the Horham base and their families Nov. 7 in Savannah, Ga. But his son and daughter-in-law, Janet, did go.
“Only five veterans attended; everyone else was a relative,” Jim Tripodi said.
In 2001, the younger Tripodis accompanied Al and Delores Tripodi on a trip to England. The feisty Delores, who passed away two years ago just short of 70 years of marriage, made sure to tell every Brit she met in London: “This is the guy who saved your country.”