Harry Maroncelli of Fort
Collins receives the French Legion of Honor Medal from French Consulate General Christophe Lemoine in the emotion-drenched
ceremony in Windsor on Feb. 4. That’s B-17 tailgunner Philip Daily of Brighton, who already had received his medal,
watching. (Michael Brian)
In advance of the Feb. 4 French Legion of Honor medal presentation ceremony at the Good Samaritan Retirement Village in Windsor, I wrote or linked to major profiles on five of the six American
World War II veterans honored. Those stories also are linked in the box with this story.
I didn’t get to, and couldn’t find a suitable
story to link about B-17 bomber ball turret gunner and Staff Sgt. Harry Maroncelli of Fort Collins. When he was prominently
featured on the front page of the Tribune in the wake of the ceremony, in Michael Brian’s picture showing him receiving
the medal, I felt even more strongly that a void needed to be filled.
Harry Maroncelli with
his scrapbooks in his Fort Collins home. (Terry Frei)
So I visited Maroncelli at his Fort Collins home on Monday.
Near the end of our hour-long conversation, I finally got
around to his reaction to receiving the Legion of Honor medal from French Consulate General Christophe Lemoine.
“Oh, I think it was one of the most eventful
happenings in my life,” Maroncelli said. “I really appreciate the French thinking enough of the kids that were
over there, helping them get back their freedom. I really think it’s great. And I think all of us, in our hearts, we’re
not taking this medal for ourselves. We’re thinking of the guys we left behind. And we did leave an awful lot of guys
made it through an entire tour of duty, which by that time was 35 missions, flying out of Deenethorpe, England. Amazingly,
he never had to fire his gun. By that stage of the war in Europe, German forces were diminished. That doesn’t mean the
B-17 crews didn’t face danger. They did, from notorious German 88 mm anti-aircraft guns on the ground and also
remaining German fighters. But the young crewman from the Bronx, north of Yankee Stadium, couldn’t do anything about
that. Except hope and pray.
“Where I grew up, you could call it the Little Italy of the Bronx,” he said. “It was all centered
around Arthur Avenue. That’s the place to go when you want legitimate, original, best Italian food.”
Harry went to elementary school at Our Lady of
the Angels and then DeWitt Clinton High School, also walking 65 blocks north to work his Bronxville News delivery route.
After his 1941 high school graduation, Maroncelli went to work for a financial bookkeeping
firm in Manhattan.
the U.S. entered World War II, he signed up for the Army Air Forces. “Growing up, I had ideas of being a pilot,”
When he was
called up for induction in late 1942, he took the typical physical stress test designed to measure an inductee’s physical
suitability for pilot duty. “It was called the Schneider Test,” Maroncelli said. “I flunked. If you just
think about it, here’s a kid 18 years old, and gets flunked for having a bad heart. Now, at 94, I have to laugh.”
His path to becoming a ball
turret gunner was circuitous. After he went through basic training at Atlantic City, he was trained to be a mechanic for Douglas
A-26 Invader light bombers. That training was in East St. Louis, adjacent to the Pratt & Whitney engine plant, and he
was certified as a mechanic for the A-26 in mid-1943. As he was about to ship out to a base in Florida, he was yanked from
the mechanic unit, taken to a Navy base and given the pilot suitability test again.
“The sailor said, ‘Harry, you’re going to pass this
test before you leave here,'” Maroncelli said. “And I did. Whenever the figures were right, he put them down.”
He ended up placed with a group
of air cadet recruits in Missouri and went through basic training again. “I was a little bit bewildered,” Maroncelli
said. “I had corporal’s stripes by that time, after B-25 training.”
When he was left behind as the others shipped out, and he
went down to a headquarters and asked what was going on. “Somebody forgot to punch a hole in an IBM card,” Maroncelli
said. “The whole world was operating on IBM cards and until the right holes were punched, you didn’t move. So
I got somebody, I think, to punch that hole for the next shipment.”
He ended up at Washington University in St. Louis, attending classes and
flying 10 hours in a Piper Cub trainer. “By the time I finished those 10 hours, I knew I wasn’t going to be a
pilot,” he said. “I just didn’t and don’t have eye to hand coordination and depth perception for that.”
He went into the aerial gunnery
school in Laredo, Texas. There, on the firing range with a rifle, he didn’t hit anything, then heeded his instructor’s
order to switch the rifle to the other shoulder. Voila, he discovered that he had been doing it all wrong, and that his master
eye was his left, not his right, eye.
He was assigned as a ball turret gunner, with a B-17 crew training in Sioux City, Iowa. Then it was off to Europe,
joining the 8th Air Force’s 401st Bomb Group, 615th Bomb Squadron in Deenethorpe. A remarkable 615th Squadron History by Vic Maslen,
a 179-page typewritten manuscript, provides many details of the squadron’s missions. There are some missing because
of gaps in the microfilm.
Staff Sgt. Harry Maroncelli
With L.E. “Coop”
Cooper as the pilot, Maroncelli’s crew flew its first combat mission on Aug. 8, 1944. It was a 43-plane trip to Hautmensil,
France, near Caen in Western France, to support Allied ground troops. This was two months after D-Day and the landings at
bombing ahead of them,” Maroncelli said.
On that first Maroncelli mission, the 615th contributed 10 of the planes, and one was shot down,
with four crewmen going down with the ship.
“I never had any fear,” Maroncelli said. “I can’t figure that out. I was always sure
I was going to come back.””
The Cooper’s crew’s next missions were to Luxembourg, Brest, Schkenditz, and Terte/La Louvierre.
And then, on Aug. 27, it headed for Berlin, but bad weather forced the 615th’s planes to turn back. It was on to Coubronne,
Mannheim (twice), Gaggenau, the I.G. Farben oil plant at Merseburg (twice), Groesbeck, Hamm, Kassel, Nuremberg, Stargard,
Politz, Hanover, Hamburg, Munster, Frankfurt, Harburg and Merseburg.
Harry Maroncelli shakes
hands with UNC ROTC Cadet Taylor Duffy after Maroncelli was awarded France’s Legion of Honor medal in Windsor. (Michael
on Dec. 5, 1944, Cooper’s crew headed back to Berlin.
Maslen’s history noted it “was a strange experience for the crews to fly over
Berlin and find that the flak was meager and inaccurate.” But he also noted that the 17 fighters were lost in the mission,
and that the U.S. planes shot down 91 German fighters.
After that, the Cooper crew’s missions were to Merseburg (again), Koblenz, Gerolstein,
Rheinbach, Bingen, Kaiserslauten and Kassel.
From the spherical shaped ball turret attached to the bottom of the plane, Maroncelli’s scariest moment
was seeing a friendly P-51 fighter plane shot out of the sky by flak.
“He blew up right in front of me,” Maroncelli said. “This
guy was escorting us and we were safe. He just disappeared.”
Maroncelli remains flabbergasted that he didn’t have to fire that gun. He also notes
that on one long mission, the heat to the ball turret malfunctioned and he had to take great care to avoid frostbite. “I
was bringing one foot at a time into my lap and pounding it with my fist to keep the circulation going,” he said.
His 35th and final mission,
he said, “was what we called a milk run.”
And he was done.
B-17 ball turret gunner
He returned to the U.S. and volunteered for training in B-29 bombers, anticipating a continuation of the war in the
Pacific Theater against Japan. But after the August 1945 end of the war, he left the service the next month. He got out quickly
on a points system, based on his time in combat and his Air Medal with a silver leaf cluster, meaning he won the medal five
from Columbia University in 1949, he had a long career as a salesman, trainer and manager for the Yellow Pages, living in
Pleasantville, N.Y. Many years following his retirement, the widowed Maroncelli finally heeded the suggestions of his son,
Rich, who had moved to Fort Collins in 1982 and was working for Hewlett Packard. Harry purchased his Fort Collins home and
came to Colorado in October 2013. He lives with his partner, Beckie Wagner.
Harry’s 95th birthday will be March 4.
As did the French in Windsor, we salute him.