I’d like to share a story with you all about a very humble man who embodied courage and heroism at war. He single-handedly saved the life of his pilot and fellow flight crew over the Mediterranean Sea, and suffered from the injuries he received in this action for the rest of his days.
Felix Napoliello grew up in the farmland of Southern New Jersey, in a small town called Cedar Brook. He was born in 1917 and passed away just shy of his 94th birthday in that same small town. He was 1 of 12 children, a first generation American, and the son of a clothing tailor.
On 15 October 1938, Felix enlisted with his younger brother in the Army Engineers, serving at Fort DuPont in Delaware and in Puerto Rico.
In January 1942, he re-enlisted in the Army Air Forces, and was sent to gunnery school, where he became a tail gunner of the B25B (the bubble about 2/3 of the way down the tail of the airplane was where the tail gunner worked!). Felix was then assigned to the 12th Army Air Force and sent to North Africa from 1942 to 1943. It was there that he earned his first Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Air Medal. His unit provided bombing and straffing support of Patton’s ground forces. Felix flew in 60 or more combat missions during this combat tour.
In 1944, Felix’s unit (the 321st Bombardment Group, now in the B25C Bomber) was sent to the Mediterranean in support of the Italian and Southern Europe ground campaigns. It was during this combat tour that he selflessly risked his life so that others could live.
During one of his 45 combat missions during this tour, Felix and his fellow flight crew flew were hit by enemy fire near Portoferraio, on the isle of Elba, Italy. With one engine out, the left wing on fire, and all air crew, including Felix, injured by anti-aircraft spray, Felix stayed in position in the tail gunner position to defend his crashing airplane from further hits by the enemy and so the crew could attempt to complete their bombing run.
Eventually, the pilot ordered everyone out of the airplane. As his crew one-by-one jumped out of the airplane, Felix realized one of the bombers and his pilot were trapped and unable to jump to safety. Despite his own injuries and rather than saving his own life by jumping out of his gunner position, as was protocol, Felix crawled forward in the crashing airplane, first to the bomber in the middle of the airplane. The bomber was wounded, and Felix assisted him out of the airplane. Then, Felix crawled further forward and cut his pilot out of the cockpit. The pilot told him to save himself, but Felix refused, and he was able to cut the pilot free in time for Felix to drag him out of the plane to safety. Felix pulled the pilot’s chute and thus pulled his own very late, causing injury to both of his legs when he impacted the water. Felix credited this crash into “the drink”, as well as injuries sustained while fighting in Vietnam, for his crippled legs in his last years.
Following this action, Felix and his entire flight crew were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (his second!) on 24 July 1944. When asked what it was like to continue to serve following the crash, Felix said, “Everyone wanted to fly with me. I was lucky!”, which was followed by one of his signature ornery chuckles and half smiles.
Coincidentally, Felix was involved in two crashes – this was the second. The first occurred exactly one year earlier in the United States on a work-up! He and the rest of the air crew parachuted to safety during that first crash.
Felix continued serving the United States long after WWII ended. In addition to serving in WWII, he also served in Korea and Vietnam. Felix was awarded a Bronze Star for heroism in Vietnam.
He retired in 1970, following 32 years of service. He reached the rank of Chief Master Sergeant (the rank of E-9). He spent many of his later years in the Air Force attached to the Strategic Air Command (now dissolved).
He retired to very small farm in New Jersey, where he lived close to his beloved brothers and with his wife, Rose. He loved growing hot peppers, managing local baseball teams, Ford trucks, playing cards, spending time with family, and causing good trouble.
An elderly man in uniform attended his funeral. He informed me that he had been in Felix’s flight crew “on that day” and he credited him as a hero and lifesaver. I spoke to him for only a few moments, but it was quite moving. The man said that he was the last man alive from the crash, and he wanted to make sure Felix’s family knew he wasn’t forgotten. I believe he was a member of the mission over the Mediterranean, though it’s possible that he was also a Vietnam veteran.
Thank you for remembering Felix with me today. I don’t believe anyone truly dies until their name is spoken for the last time. Felix Napoliello did not have any children, so it’s up to us to keep speaking his name and remembering him for his heroic actions.