The oldest of our nation’s veterans are now those who served in World War II, either in the European Theater, Pacific Theater, or stateside, preparing to join their fellow soldiers abroad.
Over the coming weeks, SUN staff will be sitting down with some of our community’s WWII veterans to hear their stories, memories, lessons and more.
For World War II veteran Jim Bisio, some of the greatest achievements of serving in “the Good War” didn’t happen on the battlefield, but, instead, were less tangible — providing for his family, becoming a better citizen, forming lasting friendships and meeting his future wife.
Bisio, now 87, joined the Army in 1943, at the age of 18, later serving in the European Theater in WWII.
At the time he joined, Bisio was studying mechanical engineering at the Institute of Technology in Chicago and had received one deferment for the draft, but decided against asking for another deferment, instead joining the military with his friends.
“It was the fact that all young men were doing that in those days,” Bisio says, adding that he was a proud American and that his country needed him.
After Basic Training, Bisio was given a choice — officer training school or engineering college. Because of his college studies, Bisio said the Army placed him as a combat engineer.
Bisio chose engineering studies and began a fast-paced system of study that consisted of 12-hour days, six days a week.
Unfortunately, about six or seven months into his studies, Bisio recalls sustaining an injury and missing enough class time that he was given another choice — resign with a passing grade, or continue and fail because of the time lost to the injury.
Bisio submitted his resignation and applied for pilot school in the Army Air Corps (the predecessor of the Air Force).
“Everybody wanted to be a pilot in those days, you know,” Bisio says.
When he wasn’t accepted for pilot training, Bisio was sent to gunnery school in Laredo, Texas, where, because of his short stature, he trained to be a tail gunner.
Troops of small stature were ideal for tail gunner positions because of the tight quarters of the turret, Bisio explains.
Bisio attended gunnery school from November 1943 to January 1944, he recalls.
From there, Bisio was sent to Idaho to be assigned to a crew, followed by a stop over at the Pueblo base (when he fell in love with Colorado), then sent overseas, “to get into the real business of why I was doing that in the first place,” Bisio says.
In the European Theater, Bisio was stationed at Old Buckingham Base in Attelbora, England, under the eye of commanding officer Jim Stewart (also known as film star James Stewart).
Roughly a week into the deployment, Bisio went to work — primarily flying missions to Germany, bombarding places such as munition and railroad yards, where “war-making machinery” was produced.
Bisio says the missions were “nothing spectacular,” and said he was fortunate to be in the Air Corps because he had a hot meal and a warm place to sleep after missions (versus spending nights in a foxhole), but did recall one mission that was “hairier” than the others.
That mission was flown near Berlin, Bisio recalls, and the target was protected by more antiaircraft fire and fighters than other locations bombed.
Bisio flew only nine missions while part of his 10-man aircraft crew, due to injuries sustained when his heating suit lost power on Halloween 1944, leaving him unprotected from the -42 degree temperatures at about 27,000 feet.
After the injury, Bisio was put into postal service duty, receiving and distributing mail to his fellow soldiers.
“You were still, in effect, helping the war effort because you were keeping up the morale of your fellow troops,” Bisio says. “I was still in the military, but I wasn’t doing fancy work.”
After a year in England, Bisio was sent home on May 9, 1945, aboard the first ship to land in Boston Harbor after the war had ceased in Europe.
“They kind of treated us like celebrities,” Bisio recalls of the homecoming, noting that a soldier couldn’t buy his own pack of cigarettes or pay in a bar upon coming home because Americans, unified in the war effort, wanted to take care of their soldiers.
From there, Bisio was sent to Camp Beale, California, where he continued postal service work until his Nov. 2, 1945 discharge as a staff sergeant.
Upon his discharge, Bisio went back to Chicago, where he worked until moving to Durango in May 1948, where he worked a number of jobs, primarily managerial. He later moved to Pagosa Springs.
“I think that it made you grow up much faster than you would have if you stayed a civilian, I think,” Bisio says of joining the Army, adding, “It made you a patriotic American, I’ll tell you that. Even though you were doing nasty work, it still made you appreciate your country, having lived in another one for a time.”
But the missions, jobs, injuries and growth are not all Bisio remembers from his days as a soldier.
And, in fact, delivering mail to his fellow troops was not the only, or perhaps fondest, memory of the postal system Bisio walked away with.
Bisio came away from the war and his time in the postal service with something much greater — love.
When stationed in England, Bisio eyed a picture of a “cute girl” by a friend’s bunk and asked about her. That friend informed Bisio that the girl in the photo was a friend from high school and asked if Bisio would like to write her.
The rest, as it is said, is history.
The woman, whose name was Helen, wrote back and forth with Bisio for two years, during which time a friendship blossomed, followed by stronger feelings.
“How could you miss somebody you’d never met?” Bisio recalls of writing back and forth with Helen.
After writing for two years, the two met and, a year later, married.
Helen passed away last spring, after more than 60 years of marriage.
While his story with Helen is one on par with any Hollywood movie, Bisio formed a number of other long-lasting relationships during his service time, primarily with the other members of his flight crew, which consisted of four officers and six enlisted men.
Over the years, the men met regularly, having reunions around the country, and corresponding via phone and mail. Now, however, Bisio is the only surviving member of the 10-man team.
“We were pretty close-knit guys,” Bisio says.
And now, 66 years after his discharge from the Army, Bisio notices differences that have emerged over the years.
“I think the fact that, having lived in a period of time that was a real Great Depression, nothing was ever given to you. You had to earn what you received,” Bisio says, adding that, “everyone was in the same boat.”
Bisio says he also feels that respect was viewed differently following the Great Depression — with respect earned, not demanded, with those in positions of authority (such as teachers) being highly respected.
But, despite the changes he’s seen over the decades, Bisio is clearly still a patriotic American, full of respect for his fellow veterans of all ages.
“It’s still the best place in the world,” he says.
If you are a WWII veteran with stories to share, please contact Randi Pierce at 264-2100 or email@example.com.