Many things must fall correctly into place for a person to reach the age of 95, body, mind and soul intact.
For Joe Massicotte of Keene, that’s obviously happened, as he’s a fit man in good health. Except for a minor stroke a few years ago that left no permanent effects, he’s escaped serious illness and accidents.
But one particular historical event may have prevented him from dying at a very young age about 75 years ago.
It was the famous Ploesti Oil Raid on Aug. 1, 1943, in which a huge armada of B-24 bombers of the U.S. Army Air Forces decimated the Romanian oil refineries crucial to Nazi Germany’s war effort. It was a very costly endeavor for this nation, with only 88 planes of 178 returning to their bases in Libya and almost a thousand Americans lost.
Because of that action, German fighter aircraft didn’t have the fuel to take off, confront and possibly shoot down the B-24 bomber that Massicotte would pilot the next year and in 1945 over Germany, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Austria.
“We were lucky. We had to deal with flak, of course, but we could see their fighter aircraft were still on the ground; they had no fuel to fly them,” he said.
Massicotte is a member of what’s often called America’s Greatest Generation — those who endured the economic debacle of the Great Depression only to be next greeted by the Second World War, which began for the Americans in 1941. Their numbers are thinning rapidly. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, only 558,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were still alive as of 2017. Only 3,086 remained in New Hampshire as of last year. It’s estimated that 400 World War II veterans die each day.
“I don’t know if we were the greatest generation; we just had a job to do, and when we did it, we just wanted to go back home,” he said. That attitude, it might be surmised, is why they’re considered the greatest generation.
The story of Massicotte’s life is a glimpse into much of the 20th century. He was born at home, as most of his generation were, in his case at 232 Winchester St. in Keene, abutting the Ashuelot River. The structure is still there, now the location of Gray Financial Center, a bookkeeping, payroll and tax preparation company. It was in that house that he and his three siblings were raised.
“I’ve only lived in two houses in my life,” he said, having moved to his present one, also in Keene, 32 years ago.
“I saw the 1927 flood (of the Ashuelot); I saw things floating down the street. I saw the 1936 flood, and I saw the 1938 flood and hurricane,” he said. That latter disaster devastated the city and forced the evacuation of his neighborhood. “One of the people we stayed with were Italian, and they made spaghetti for us, and I’d never had spaghetti before,” he said. “I loved it. Still do.”
His parents, French Canadians, had lost two daughters, one in Canada during the infamous Influenza Epidemic of 1918, and another after they immigrated to Nashua. After the couple moved to Keene, they had two more daughters, then him and his younger brother.
His father, who had been in ill health for four years, died when Massicotte was just 9 years old, during the depths of the Great Depression, and his mother was left to raise them alone.
“I don’t know how my mother did it. She called all the kids together and asked us if we wanted to move to Nashua, where she had relatives. We all wanted to stay in Keene, and so we stayed here,” he said.
To get through the hard times, Massicotte’s two older sisters worked at shoe factories in Keene, and the family rented out their upstairs for $16 a month. He recalls his mother purchasing meat bones at the butcher shop and building an entire meal from it, adding vegetables that had been grown in their garden.
“If anyone then was making $25 a week, they didn’t have a job, they had a ‘position,’ ” he said. “Getting by was hard, but everyone was in the same boat.”
“Hard work didn’t kill her,” he said of his mother, and she died at age 97. A circle-shaped, old-style photograph of his parents is displayed prominently in his den, in its original ornate glass frame. There’s not much space on the room’s walls because they’re filled with photos of his siblings, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as his late wife, Doris (“Dot”), who died Aug. 29 at Peaceful Harvest Home in Charlestown. The home is operated by their youngest daughter, Jenn.
Dot’s death was hard on everyone in the family, Massicotte said, a result of Alzheimer’s disease. He recounted how it first showed itself, in her confusion of streets in Keene while she was driving. The disease proceeded in its inexorable direction, and she eventually was brought to the home in Charlestown.
“Can you believe it? Seventy-one years of marriage. I’ll bet not many people can say that. But in a way, I lost her years before she died,” he said. Her funeral was held at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Keene, where the couple were both parishioners and where Massicotte still attends Sunday mass.
“I was baptized there, I had my first communion there, I was confirmed there and married there. I have one more appointment there,” he said, without cracking a smile, a glimpse into the dry Yankee wit that peeks out from time to time.
The two met when Massicotte was on a short leave from the service. She was employed at a company where he had worked before the war. They dated when he came back on another leave.
“She was the one,” he said. They married on Feb. 15, 1947, and in May 1948 had their first child, Paul. Their son was named after Massicotte’s younger brother, a Marine who had been killed at Iwo Jima.
“On the day I received the letter telling me my brother had died on Iwo Jima, I had the roughest bombing mission I’d ever been on. All I could think about when I was in the air was my mother getting another letter,” he said.
Massicotte had joined the Army in February 1943, at the age of 19, and was selected for service in the U.S. Army Air Forces, the predecessor of what is now the U.S. Air Force. He was trained as a pilot at various locations around the country — Atlantic City, N.J., Rochester, N.Y., and at an airfield in Alabama.
He was sent overseas in 1944 to become part of the 485th Bomb Group, based in Venosa, Italy, and arrived there in January 1945. From Venosa, B-24 aircraft flew on sorties. That type of aircraft was referred to as the “Flying Boxcar” because of its awkward shape and difficulty in flying. Each had a crew of 10 men.
Fleets of aircraft would “drop in salvo,” he explained, meaning that once over their target, all planes released their bomb loads simultaneously. Each plane’s bombardier would look out a small glass “blister-window” on the top of the aircraft’s fuselage, watching for the exact time the lead plane released its entire bomb load and following suit. This was because the bombs had to fall in a precise, progressive pattern. “Once those bombs were released, you could feel your plane lift right up in the air,” he said.
The B-24 had many quirks that made it dangerous to fly, he noted, including its propensity to sink almost immediately if it were necessary to ditch the aircraft on water. This was because its bomb-bay doors were flimsy and easily ripped apart in a water-landing, filling the plane almost instantly. Thankfully, he never had to abandon his plane, but others did.
“It was important to keep in precise formation, because any variation in movement could cause bombs to hit way off the mark,” Massicotte explained. “That means you couldn’t evade flak; you had to stay in formation and fly through it.” His plane often sustained damage, pock-marked by the flying shrapnel of the ordnance. “We came back from one mission with 15 holes from flak,” he said. “That wasn’t so bad; some planes came back with more than a hundred.”
Thankfully, he and his crew escaped serious injury. But that certainly wasn’t true of men on other aircraft, he said.
When the war with Nazi Germany was in its final stages, the 485th Bomb Group was grounded and preparations made to transfer it to the Pacific Theater. “We closed up our base on the day the Germans surrendered,” he said.
Airmen with 11 missions or fewer were transferred back to the United States to prepare for the Pacific. Massicotte had flown 12 missions and was transferred stateside. With the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and its surrender four months after Germany’s, Massicotte and millions of other servicemen and women were mustered out.
Back in Keene, he took a series of jobs in manufacturing plants. Eventually, he joined Findings, Inc., a jewelry manufacturer on Water Street, and worked there 42 years. He retired as the vice president of engineering 23 years ago. “I was a short-timer there,” he joked.
“Most of my friends didn’t go to college; we were self-educated. My niche was tool-making.”
A footnote about Massicotte’s name. He was born Joseph Henry Massicotte, but because of a French-Canadian tradition of often calling children by their middle names, he went by Henry. When he joined the Army, he was referred to by his first name, Joe. “People who knew me before the war called me Henry; those who knew me afterwards called me Joe,” he said.
Paul Massicotte of Walpole, his eldest child, describes his father as an extremely hard worker, devoting countless hours to his job as he and his mother raised their six children in Keene.
“Our family is very close,” Paul explained, and they all get together frequently. “Dad is a wonderful man, and yes, he does have a good sense of humor. A warm man and a great father.”