A Hero Not Forgotten

July 30, 2003
Santa Paula News
By Jannette Jauregui Special to the Santa Paula TimesFor over one year the family of Joseph Avendano has been researching his combat experiences and the events leading up to the tragic death of the World War II pilot.With little information passed on to them two generations later, and only having Joe’s medals, pilot’s cap, and the American Flag placed on his casket at his funeral service, Joe A. Duran and his wife Phyllis, have pieced together most of the war story of their great-uncle. They have expanded their memorabilia to include numerous war photographs, a framed lithograph of Cambridge American Cemetery as well as Joe’s plot, and several other items that now fill a standard-sized trunk in their home. Nearly sixty years after his death, the Duran’s continue their search to learn more about Captain Avendano and will attend the sixty-year reunion for the crews that flew in the mission of Ploesti on August 1. It is their goal to ensure that the coming generations of the family are left with the story of their heroic ancestor.Joseph Avendano was born the fifth of twelve children to Jose and Lydia Avendano on March 10, 1917. His parents were migrant workers who traveled throughout California following the crops. After the family finally settled in Santa Paula, Joseph attended Santa Paula High School where he was a talented athlete participating in football, track and cross-country and was a member of the class of 1936.As a child, Joe had a strong interest in aviation. At twelve years old, he designed and built an airplane and called upon his brother and cousins to assist him in getting him and the airplane airborne. After graduating from high school, Joe moved south to Brawley where his older brother David lived. He then enrolled in El Central Junior College, working his way through as a night watchman at the local quarry where his brother was a supervisor. He graduated in 1940 with his associate’s degree.Joe learned about a program the government was sponsoring for free aviation training through Cal Aero. The government provided the program with expectations of entering the war that was worsening in Europe and had anticipations for recruiting a strong group of men, preferably educated men, which would make up what was then the Army Air Corps. Joe enrolled in the program and began his training as a combat pilot.During the fall of 1941, Joe began his training as a cadet at Cal-Aero Flight Academy in Ontario, California. He continued his secondary training and was transferred to Barksdale Field, Louisiana and was assigned to the 93rd Bombardment Group under the command of Colonel Ted Timberlake. (The 93rd would become well known as ‘Ted’s Travelling Circus.)Throughout his time training, Joe participated in co-piloting anti-sub patrols. In September 1942, the 93rd became the first American B-24 group to land in England and begin a new type of airborne combat. The newly trained American B-24 pilots were going to participate in daytime bombing missions over Europe, which was a drastic change for the enemy that was used to the English troops nighttime bombing raids, and they often entered combat territory without fighter protection. On October 9, 1942, Joe co-piloted in his first combat mission over Lille, France, which was then occupied by the German troops. For the next year, the 93rd continued to fly in missions throughout France, England and Italy and participated in the early morning missions, testing blind bombing under the command of George S. Brown. In December 1942, Joe was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and, only months later in April 1943 Joe became a lead pilot.The B-24 units had proven that they were a definite asset to the American troops in Europe and in winning the war. On July 26, 1943, Joe and some of his comrades in the 93rd were featured on the cover of Life Magazine.During their first year of combat overseas the 93rd suffered many casualties, but their greatest loss was still ahead. In the summer of 1943 the 93rd, along with four other bombardment groups, were sent to North Africa to prepare for an upcoming mission the government named “Title Wave.” They were assigned to fly their B-24s at low-level range, bombing an oil refinery in Ploesti, Romania. At that time, Ploesti supplied one-third of Germany’s petroleum. On August 1, 177 B-24s left Benghazi, Libya, including the ‘Dogpatch Raider’ piloted by Avendano. The five bombardment groups suffered a high number of casualties. Of the 1, 726 crew members flying the mission, approximately one third were either killed, taken as prisoners of war or recorded as missing in action. Eighty-eight B-24s returned to Benghazi and 23 would have to land in other allied territories. The mission became the most decorated in the war with five Congressional Medals of Honor, two of which were awarded to the commander of the 93rd, Colonel Addison Baker and his co-pilot, Major John Jerstad who flew the lead plane in to the mission and were killed after they were shot down. Joe was awarded the Silver Star for his efforts during the campaign and on August 28, was promoted to the status of Captain.
In the fall of 1943, Joe fought in his last mission over Pisa, Italy before becoming part of an elite, handpicked group of men selected to become part of the highly confidential group assigned to the 482nd Bombardment Group and nicknamed the ‘Pathfinders Units.’ The Pathfinder’s Unit was stationed in Alconbury, England and prepared lead aircraft ships with the latest radar systems. Joe was assigned as one of the operations officers for the B-24 pilots who were under the command of Major John Roche.Joe was now a veteran of nearly thirty missions and was selected to undertake the top-secret duty of providing radar leads for specific bombing missions, including that of the invasion that would take place in only a matter of months over the beaches of Normandy, France.On the night of January 23, 1944 a volunteer crew of six, including Captain Avendano, boarded a plane to test a radar system and the plane’s equipment for an upcoming mission. Commander John Roche was communicating to Joe throughout the test when the plane suddenly began descending nose first and crashed, causing a massive explosion and killing the entire crew.On February 3, 1944, Joe’s brother, David, received a Western Union Telegram notifying the family of Joe’s death. Later that month, they received a ‘letter of regret’ from Chaplain Captain Willis A. Brown, which included details from Joe’s funeral at Cambridge American Cemetery where there was an 18-gun salute and a ‘Taps’ salute. A bronze plaque is displayed at the cemetery honoring Joe and his crew. It is one of only two plaques in Cambridge that were given the bronze honor.The government would not disclose any information about Joe’s death, other than that it was an accident, because the Pathfinders Unit’s duties were still confidential. Only recently did the family become informed that the crash was a result of what they called a ‘major mechanical failure’ that was possibly partly due to the automatic pilot feature.During his time overseas Joe was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters.When the Duran’s began their search for information regarding Joe Avendano’s military service, members of the 93rd Bombing Squadron learned of the inquiries and invited them to their reunion in Colorado Springs in 2002. Upon arriving at the reunion they were bombarded with much information regarding Joe’s war experiences. They were told that Joe was a gifted pilot and that if anyone could have prevented the crash, it would have been him. It was also at the reunion that they met Joe’s commander, John Roche, the last man to communicate with Joe through radio contact just before the crash. It was inevitable that each soldier would become like brothers during their time overseas where all they had was each other. Roche and Joe were no exception and the affect of Joe’s death is still an emotional memory for Roche who became a close friend of Joe’s. In a letter to Joe’s family written two months after his death, Roche stated, “Joe could have gone home, but he felt as though he would be neglecting his duty to rid the world of these enemies. So he, like myself, remained overseas. We are forced to say there are very few people such as Joe. He was a real soldier who had done more than his share and remained a true, hard working soldier to his country when actually, he could have gone home and probably gotten married.”Whether it is at a military reunion or just in passing, when a war veteran is approached and called a hero they are quick to refer to their fallen comrades as the ‘real heroes’ for sacrificing their young lives. It is true that those who gave their lives for their country will be forever embedded in the minds of those they fought for, and even more so in the minds of those they fought with, as heroes, but what the living veterans don’t realize is that whatever their rank, or whatever their role, each soldier played an intricate part in keeping this country free. What they also don’t realize is that they are heroes for another reason; they are the ones who have given the generations to follow the gift of their stories as well as the stories of their comrades that didn’t make it home, a gift the Duran family, as well as many others, will be forever grateful for.At last year’s reunion, one veteran approached Phyllis Duran and thanked her for her efforts and asked with tears in his eyes that his generation not be forgotten. As time makes the race to get these stories more intense, it is even more crucial that the World War II generation is not forgotten. Though many are not here to tell their own stories, there are many still alive to tell it for them because after all, as one veteran once described, ‘we were all in it together.’

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