BATAVIA, N.Y. - A member of the greatest generation from Buffalo is finally being recognized for something incredible he did while serving in World War II.
Now 92 years old, Former Sergeant Joseph Dispenza enjoys life from the comforts of a veterans home in Batavia. It's not a bad way to spend your golden years when you were once a member of a flight crew that experienced something so improbable the army had initially written all of them off as dead.
The year was 1944 and America was fighting World War II in Europe and the Pacific. One of the most the popular songs back home was "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer," which was dedicated to the brave men who flew dangerous missions. One of them was Dispenza, who was just 21 years old when he became the tail gunner for this B-24 D Liberator named the "Blessed Event."
On New Year's Day in 1944, Dispenza's plane was part of a squadron headed toward New Guinea on a bombing run. Suddenly the engines started to fail, causing it to fall out of formation. Within seconds, they were surrounded by 20 Japanese fighters called "Zeros."
"It's like a fairy tale," Dispenza said of that fateful flight.
The Japanese fighters peppered the plane with hundreds of bullets, blowing a hole in the plane the size of a bath tub. Two of the 10 crew members were killed. The rest were shot or bleeding from shrapnel, including Dispenza.
Somehow they escaped, shooting down as many as eight of the enemy fighters. With the hydraulics and landing gear destroyed, the pilot crashed landed the plane on a dirt airstrip in Guadalcanal.
REPORTER: Was it pretty hard when you hit (the ground)?
DISPENZA: Oh Yeah. And we jumped off that plane fast (laughs).
No one could believe they made it back. In fact, minutes earlier, the army had sent a telegram to his parents back on the west side of Buffalo, telling them he was dead.
When he arrived home a few weeks later, his parents were happy to see him.
REPORTER: Big hug when they saw you?
DISPENZA: Oh yeah. They hug you. They kiss you (starts to cry). That's all I would tell you about it.
For the next 64 years, Dispenza, who later moved to Cheektowaga, told this amazing story to no one... until 5 years ago, when he grabbed an old issue of Look magazine out of a drawer, flipped to an article, and showed it to his family. It told the entire story of that incredible flight. His daughter, Janeen Schnitzer, said her jaw nearly dropped when she read the article.
DAUGHTER: I was horrified by it. And very thankful that he was here.
REPORTER: You had no idea?
And Dispenza, like so many World War II veterans, never applied for his medals. So his family did it for him. The medals arrived three weeks ago. Schnitzer said her father was stunned when she showed him the medals, and he even asked her whom they belonged to.
"And I said this is your purple heart and these are the other medals," she said. "And he (said) 'these are mine?' And I said 'Yes, they're yours.' And he couldn't believe it."
REPORTER: You don't think of yourself as a hero, though, do you?
DISPENZA: No. Never. Never thought of myself as a hero. I still don't think I'm a hero. The guys that died are heroes.
All of them are heroes from a crew and a generation whose stories of bravery will never be forgotten.