Age: 94

Division: 64th Troop Carrier Group, crew chief on a C-47, a cargo plane capable of hauling up to 6,000 pounds

War fronts: Served 1942 to 1945 in Europe, Northern Africa and Burma

Family: He had 10 brothers and sisters. He has lived in the same house since birth.

His words: “When I went in it was $21 a month. Wasn’t that good pay for a month of being in the service?”

 

Before Pearl Harbor, before millions of troops joined the military, before the U.S. officially declared war on the Axis, Tony Scarpelli was drafted.

The military sent Scarpelli, then 24, a letter in July 1941. It arrived at his home in Hanna, where he worked in a machine shop for the Union Pacific Railroad. The letter said he would be a gunner on a boat off the California coast.

A year before, in September 1940, the U.S. started preparing for a possible war, building up troops just in case. The U.S Congress had passed -- and President Franklin Roosevelt signed -- the Selective Training and Service Act, mandating all men between 21 and 35 register.

In October 1940, a lottery process began. By the end of the month, fewer than 20,000 men received notice of their required 12-month service, said Eric Wimmer, curator of the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum. The war in Europe convinced Roosevelt that the country needed to be proactive, to build a reserve in case something happened.

Something did happen.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. officially declared war. Thousands flocked to the service.

Scarpelli switched to the Army Air Corps. He was a mechanic, not a sailor. Besides, he wanted to fly. 

The Air Corps assigned him to a C-47 cargo plane and in July 1942 shipped him to England. He was the crew chief in charge of all things mechanical. He flew nearly every day, training, dropping paratroopers, delivering supplies or launching gliders.

Sitting in English bunkers, Scarpelli read letters from his sister. Each one told him another brother had been drafted. The U.S. military took five Scarpelli boys, leaving only one back in Hanna.

“Every time I got a letter from my sister down there, she said what a hard time my mom was having and how Dad was crying because he wouldn’t ever see his boys again,” he said.

The two oldest boys went to Germany, the youngest two to the Pacific. Scarpelli, the middle son, would move between both fronts.

His group left England soon after they arrived, headed for Northern Africa. The men landed in a field in Algiers and made their first makeshift home -- pup tents on the airfield -- and lived on tangerines and eggs from local kids. They upgraded to bombed-out buildings before moving into Tunisia to train before the invasion of Sicily.

Sandstorms wreaked havoc on plane engines in Northern Africa. Scarpelli, sitting in the windowless body of the plane, didn’t know when the storms would hit. Instruments would tell him an engine was shot, if fluid was leaking or low or if parts would need replaced.

“You had to watch them controls there. If something was going haywire -- well, I don’t know what you could do while you were flying -- but when you got home you’d have to change engines,” he said.

They moved from Tunisia into Sicily and Italy. 

On April 1, 1944, orders came again. American troops needed air support in Burma. The 64th Troop Carrier Group assembled and moved toward the Pacific.

A windstorm grounded Scarpelli’s plane in Agra, India, near the Taj Mahal. Scarpelli paid local kids to take him through the monument, something he’d read about in books as a child and never dreamed he would see himself.

When his plane reached Burma, Scarpelli realized he had malaria. He and others caught the disease in Africa and spent weeks on cots covered with mosquito nets, eating salt tablets and taking medication.

Their mission in Burma was simple: deliver supplies, medicine, food and men over the mountains and into the jungle to Merrill’s Marauders. They were also to bring wounded back out.

The actual task proved harder. To reach the airfield, Scarpelli’s cargo plane needed to fly between two mountain peaks into Burma's Imphal Valley under Japanese fire.

“They was raising hell with the runway. They had a couple guns up in the mountains there, and every time we left they would pellet us,” he said.

For flying unarmed over rugged enemy territory, Scarpelli’s unit received a Distinguished Unit Citation.

The Marauders were an American special operations unit created to help the British and Chinese attack Japanese forces in Burma. They faced hunger, thirst and disease, but still completed their mission of capturing a key Japanese airfield. Six months after they formed, only 130 men out of the original 2,750 were fit for duty.

Each time Scarpelli's plane landed, Marauders crept out of the jungle, waiting for their supplies and fresh water.

“They would take their canteens out and empty them on the ground, and mud would pour out,” he said.

“I felt sorry for them.”

In the spring of 1944, the U.S. called some of its cargo planes back to Europe. Officials planned to invade Normandy and needed volunteers. They offered Scarpelli another stripe.

He said no. It was time to go home.

 “I had five stripes, and that was enough for me.”

Plus, he hadn’t seen Hanna, or his family, in more than three years.

He moved back, settled into the little Union Pacific house he left, and one by one his brothers returned, each unharmed.

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