They were young men from towns and cities across the United States who stood up to face an evil that threatened the world. Of the sixteen million American men and women who served in World War II only a handful are still with us today. One of these heroes is Dr. John Stellitano, of Westerly, who celebrated his 100th birthday this year.
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John and his wife Mary went to Westerly High School. John was captain and quarterback of the football team, Mary was a cheerleader. They were childhood sweethearts. John lettered in football, baseball, and basketball before graduating in 1941. He went on to college at URI but only four months later volunteered for military duty in the United States Air Corps.
He trained over the next two years and in May 1944 earned his wings and was commissioned as a Flight Officer assigned to heavy bombers. Mary and John married a few weeks later. After receiving intense training each B-17 crew selected a new aircraft off the assembly line and flew it to an airbase in England. John and his crew were assigned to the 728th Bomb Squadron, 452nd Bomb Group.
“I started flying combat missions in December 1944,” said John. “We flew almost daily for seventeen days because they were short of crews. We went from rookies to veterans in less than three weeks.”
During World War II John flew 36 combat missions as the pilot of the B-17 bomber he named Little Mary after his wife.
“The air war in Europe was in two phases. I have such regard, such respect, for those pilots who flew in the first phase of the war, they had the most difficult time. They had to fly from England, over the channel into France, and fight all the way to their targets. The losses of our guys were tremendous, over twenty-five thousand airmen were lost and a lot of that happened in the first phase of the war. We were more or less a cleanup operation and our main concern was the flack. We didn’t have to worry a lot about German fighters because we had developed fighter escorts, the P-51s, who flew alongside us. So I want to say that I have such a high regard and respect for those people who gave their lives.”
On February 10, 1945 Little Mary’s crew took part in a dangerous mission to Leipzig, Germany. After dropping bombs and turning for home the plane was hit by enemy flack, losing three engines they crash landed in France. Later, John would learn his oldest daughter was born on the same day.
“The mission we were on was to Leipzig, Germany and we were leery about the flight because Leipzig was one of the most heavily defended cities in Germany. As we approached the target there was heavy flack and when we made our turn we found out that we’d lost a couple of engines. Number one engine and number two engine were gone. And then, ultimately, we lost number four engine.”
“The weather was socked in and that didn’t help because we didn’t know where we were. Finally, at about 700 feet, we broke out of the weather and saw the ground. Our lone engine was straining and the crew chief warned it might explode at any minute. We had to decide whether to bail out or stick with the airplane. We decided to stick with the plane and take our chances that way.”
Looking for a place to crash land they saw a big field and decided to do a wheels-up landing.
“As we came in I remember our speed being called out, we hit the ground doing 114 miles per hour. God must have been with us because we scraped along the ground until we came to a stop. All the crew was safe and we didn’t get a scratch.”
Later, they found out that they were only about 15 miles inside the Allied lines in France. If they’d bailed out when they were trying to decide what to do they probably would have been prisoners of war. “So we were lucky that we stuck with the plane,” said John.
“That was February 10, 1945. I recall that date vividly and tie the two events together, our crash landing and the birth of my daughter. So it was an eventful week for me, as a new father and as a lucky guy who got out of a forced crash landing alive.”
After the war John went back to URI and got his BS in education. He went on to get a Master’s Degree from the University of Rhode Island and a Doctorate in Educational Administration from Boston University. He held many educational positions through the years; he also coached both football and basketball. During his 11 years as basketball coach at Westerly High School his teams won 4 state championships. They also won 8 straight Class A championships. Among his many honors John was inducted into the Westerly High School Athletic Hall of Fame, the Rhode Island Coaches Hall of Fame, and the Rhode Island Interscholastic League Hall of Fame.
“I was typical of young guys who came out of the service and considered myself to be a hot shot pilot after going through combat. I wanted to go to work for the airlines but after talking with my coach and mentor, Robert Mudge, decided to get into education. He convinced me that serving the kids in the town was a very important aspect of what we had to do for the future. I have enjoyed my 41 years in education and I’m so pleased with the friendships that I developed during those years. Believe it or not I have young people who’ve been out of school for 50 years come by to say hello to their old coach and it’s gratifying that these people consider me a friend.”
John spoke of his concerns for young people today.
“I’m concerned about our young people and how our culture seems to be changing. You know in 1941 when America seemed like it was going to be in trouble, I, along with a lot of my compatriots, decided right then and there that we had a duty to perform and we volunteered to go into the service to help the country. It was really a pattern of patriotism that existed at that time. Today I think that we’re losing that culture rather than gaining it. I hope and pray that our young people begin to see the importance of being an American and being able to serve your country when it’s in need of help. The advice I would give to the young people today is put your country first.”
Asking John what his secret to a long life is he said,
“It’s a question of relationships I met my wife Mary when she was a sophomore at Westerly High School and I was a junior and we’ve been together since 1940. The war began in 1941 and in 1944 we got married before I went overseas. As time went on we got to know each other not only as husband and wife but as good friends. We’ve been married now for 79 years and it’s been a happy relationship with our children and our grandchildren. We have 3 children, 7 grandchildren, and 17great grandchildren. It’s a story book tale in terms of family and we’re happy as can be. But I’m hoping that the next 100 years will be easier.”
At 100 years old John is active and still speaks at public events.
“The community seems to want to hear what kind of suggestions or advice I might have. I’ve been asked to be a guest speaker at several veteran events and I’m happy to do it. It goes to say that I still feel I’m a resident, a local citizen, and I still want to do my share when the town needs service. I want to be there to be able to help but I’m 100 years old so I get to slow down a little bit I think.”
After interviewing John for this story I met his daughter Kathy and told her I was thinking of calling this story Reflections of a Hometown Hero. She said she wasn’t sure he’d like it because he didn’t think of himself as a hero. But that is the nature of heroes; they are humble and usually think of themselves as ordinary men. But if they are ordinary men they did extraordinary things. Like most Americans, I think they are extraordinary men. This Memorial Day let’s give thanks to our veterans who sacrificed themselves when our country needed them most.