OCEAN PARK — A red-blooded hankering for excitement, American pride and hopes of flying heroic combat missions spurred Albert Carrasco to join the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. The Kelso native wanted to get close to the action in Europe.
“The war was getting close to ending and I wanted to be in it,” Carrasco, now 95, said. “There was nothing exciting about a war — believe me.”
Carrasco sat in a cushy armchair in the quiet library of his Ocean Park retirement home last week as he described how, at age 22, he landed in war-torn Italy.
He had wanted to be a pilot but, like most young hopefuls, he didn’t make it into the elite flying program. Instead, he trained in Texas to serve in the gunnery and taught new recruits as a technical sergeant in Florida.
“I didn’t have much to do,” he said. “We used to drive around and have the fellows shoot so they learned. I got tired of that so I asked to go overseas.”
First-generation American pride
The son of Spanish immigrants, Carrasco said he wanted to serve his country because he was the only one in his family who could.
He was sent to Italy in September 1944. From Naples on the southwestern coast, made his way across the country to an aviation complex near Foggia. A year earlier, the Allies had taken control of the airfields in Apulia region. That’s the southeastern part of Italy that makes the heel of its boot shape.
Carrasco flew 17 missions on Boeing’s B-17 “Flying Fortress.” He remembered how light flak from German fire sounded like gravel hitting the fuselage of the four-engine heavy bomber.
“When it was heavy, we didn’t know whether we were going to make it or not,” he said.
Young and fearless
On each mission, Carrasco went with a different 10-man flight crew, taking various positions behind .50-caliber machine guns.
“We never lost anybody,” he said.
The flight crews couldn’t say the same for the engines but, Carrasco said, the men weren’t spooked easily.
“We were too young to be worried,” he said. “We didn’t think anybody could kill us. We thought we were invincible.”
After one mission, a fellow crew member handed Carrasco two pieces of steel that likely would have gone through his body if the 15-ton metal bomber hadn’t taken the blow.
Carrasco finished his service on May 8, 1945, when the Allies accepted Nazi Germany’s surrender, ending the war in Europe. The armistice on Aug. 15, 1945, Carrasco’s 23rd birthday, brought news that Imperial Japan was giving up too.
Carrasco took a furlough and hitched a ride from the airbase to Rome, where he saw all the major sites, including the Vatican.
“When I was in Rome, they started shipping the fellows home,” he said. “I got back just in time to find out everybody else had gone home.”
He was stuck with a six-month wait until he could take the 15-day trip across the Atlantic. So he kept traveling. He visited each of the places he’d flown to on his missions, making his way through Italy, Austria and Germany.
“I tried to learn Italian. You can’t do it,” said Carrasco, who spoke mostly Spanish, a closely related language, at home with his family.
After the wait
Carrasco finally caught his ship home in December 1945. He boarded a train in Virginia that took him to Washington. He remembers the first stop in his home state.
“I bought some apples in Yakima and, boy, they tasted good,” he said.
From Tacoma, he hitched a ride to Kelso. His sister and brother in law were waiting for him when he arrived in Kelso. They introduced him to his newborn niece.
Carrasco married Cecilia McAneny in May 1948. During their 51 years together, the couple went wherever Carrasco’s career as a traveling cigarette salesman and grocery businessman took them.
A few years after Cecilia’s death in 1999, Carrasco decided it was time to retire. He moved from Vancouver to Ocean Park so he could make his home near his niece, Elizabeth Johnson, who lives in Ilwaco.
Carrasco still has the two pieces of steel he was carrying the day he returned from war to meet her almost three-quarters of a century ago. They’re a reminder of everything he might have missed.