Pennsylvania to Pearl Harbor
My grandfather, Joseph Michael Gasper, was born 23 April 1918, the youngest of three children born to Hungarian immigrants Michael and Mary Gasper. His mother died in 1930 when he was barely 12, and a few years later, during the Great Depression, Joe left home. After a few weeks of traveling and working with the Ringling Brothers Circus, Joe joined Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). He had wanderlust in his heart and wanted to see the world without having to shovel animal waste and set up and tear down the Big Top.
Civilian Conservation Corps
In the CCC, he went from his native Pennsylvania to all parts of the U.S. and Mexico. While in Juarez, Mexico, Joe fondly recalls playing football with his peers, going to school two hours a day and working his tail off.
“I was tired a lot, but it was a good tired,” Joe said. He was a leader in the CCC, and a “three stripes major.” “I drilled men for two hours every day,” he recalled. “It was just like being in the Army. We slept in Army barracks, cleaned out the forests and built bridges. We worked from sun-up to sun-down.”
Another of his CCC duties closer to home included driving soldiers back and forth to aid during the Johnstown flood of 1936. The then-18-year-old was impressed with the soldiers and their actions during that natural disaster. He also enjoyed hearing their stories on the drive from Rockwood, PA, to Johnstown. He was in Rockwood for several months during that project.
“Rockwood was a one-horse town,” Joe joked. “We would work all day, then go into town at night. Sometimes we would play poker. Sometimes we would meet a pretty girl. I was making $45 a month because of my three stripes; I kept five dollars and sent the rest home to help support my father.”
In the Army now
When his time in the CCC was done, Joe enlisted. “I wanted to serve my country,” he said, signing up at Indiantown Gap. After basic training, he was stationed in San Francisco, across from Alcatraz on a small island. “We went into San Francisco on the tug boats,” Joe said. “We toured Alcatraz, but weren’t allowed into all areas of the prison.”
It was while he was stationed in San Francisco that Joe had the opportunity to go to Hawaii. “I wanted to go to Hawaii,” Joe recalled enthusiastically. “I thought it was going to be an adventure. When we were there we built an Air Force Base on a coral reef.”
As well as constructing Air Force Bases and living barracks, Joe quickly rose through the ranks and became a drill sergeant. “I would drill men for two or three hours, we would eat, then we would drill some more,” Joe said. “Even though we weren’t in war, I was training them to be soldiers.”
Day of infamy
The then-23-year-old had many friends on the USS Arizona, and spent evenings there sometimes visiting and talking. He lost several good buddies the morning of 7 December 1941; some on the Arizona, some on land. That morning, like many others, Joe was up early with his troop training on the hill overlooking Pearl Harbor. He had no idea how his life would change in the next few minutes.
“When I first heard the planes, I thought it was our boys out on maneuvers,” Joe said. “I didn’t think much of it, and we continued to drill, until the planes got much closer.”
“I could tell by the look of the planes that those were not ours,” he continued. “Then, the planes were almost flying level with us on the bluff. I could see the pilots, and the whites of their eyes and teeth. I knew those were not our men.”
As soon as Joe and the other soldiers realized it wasn’t their men, they jumped into the jeeps and trucks parked in the field, and headed towards Pearl Harbor. “Bombs were dropping, planes were firing at us, and it was scary,” Joe said somberly. “I will never forget the sight of it all.”
He could hear people screaming below, and watched in horror as a truck in front of him got hit and veered off the road. “It was scary,” Joe admitted. “We were swerving to avoid debris and being hit by the planes’ fire. Our friends in the truck in front of us were hit. We thought, ‘This could be it’.”
Joe’s driver did the best job he could, but their number came up a few minutes later, as their jeep was hit by shrapnel. Joe was thrown into a ravine, suffering injuries to his neck and back. After what seemed like hours, he was rescued. “I had terrible pain in my back and neck,” Joe said, “but I knew there were people who needed help.”
Joe recalled a young man bleeding profusely from his leg. Joe pulled the leather tie-downs hanging from his pistol holster and secured it around the man’s leg to stop the bleeding. “I didn’t think,” he said, “I just pulled it out, and tied it as tight as I could. I don’t know what happened to him afterwards, but I think about him sometimes.”
“I know I lost a lot of good friends on the Arizona and at Pearl Harbor during this attack,” he continued. “We were talking and having fun the night before at the PX, then they were gone. I couldn’t believe it. I was lucky to be alive, even if I was injured.”
Joe spent over a month recovering in the hospital with other wounded men. His back injuries still plague the almost 99-year-old to this day. After recovering, he went on a mission to Saipan to deliver supplies via ship. He was in the Army until the war ended.
After the war
When he returned home to Ellwood City, PA, Joe met a beautiful young woman, Rosemary “Dolly” DeNome, in a jewelry store. He told his buddy, “I’m going to marry her,” and he did, in June 1946.
Almost every year since the attack on Pearl Harbor, local newspapers and other media outlets have interviewed Joe. The 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor just passed and Joe still has the Honolulu Star newspaper that came out shortly after the attack. It is one of his few possessions that he kept through the years. He still has nightmares about the attack and its aftermath, “It was a terrible ordeal to go through,” he admitted. “I wake up sometimes thinking about it. I will never forget that day.”
A life well lived
Joe will turn 99 in April 2017 and he is still as sharp as he was when he was a teenager. He doesn’t talk much about the war, “I’ve outlived all of my friends and fellow survivors in our area,” Joe said sadly. “There aren’t a lot of people left who were there and know what it was like.”
Joe has three children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren and the entire family respects and remembers everyone who was lost on 7 December 1941, having been taught the importance of that date.
Most of Ellwood City knows Joe as well. Up until two years ago he was still driving and going out for breakfast and lunch, hardly ever having to pay since there were many people who treated him and thanked him for his service. Joe visited local businesses in town, mostly because he didn’t want to sit around. He was an active member of Holy Redeemers Special Activities Group and the Golden Agers, and he loved going to casinos and playing pool. Joe has been more homebound as of late, as his back hurts too much for him to walk around or travel. He would love to see Hawaii again, but knows that will just remain a dream.
Joe was proud to serve his country. He was eager to see the world, and he learned a lot about life and death in a few short years. He, along with other WWII veterans, has a brick in the World War II National Museum of New Orleans. He has received proclamations from the mayor, a medal from the President, and been honored many times in his life.