World War II Air Force veteran Joseph O’Grady, 95, was honored during the seventh-inning stretch of the Yankees-Mets game on Aug. 15. For the lifelong Yankees fan and resident of Glen Cove, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he said was unbelievable. “I couldn’t believe it even while it was happening,” he said. “The nicest part was so many of my family were there. It brings tears to my eyes.”
Dressed in his former uniform, a bombardier suit and crusher hat, O’Grady walked out to home plate accompanied by his son and two grandsons. The crowd gave them a standing ovation.
Then the jumbotron displayed a photo of a young Lieutenant O’Grady when he served as a bombardier and navigator in the war.
With an emotional smile, O’Grady waved his hat at the crowd and sang along to “God Bless America” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” He happily accepted a game ball and returned to his seat, where more than 30 friends and family members were proudly waiting.
Air Force training
Before he joined the service, the only time O’Grady had been in an airplane was on his honeymoon with his late wife, Virginia, in a two-seater plane in upstate New York.
He has fond memories of serving his country, because he genuinely enjoyed flying. “The Air Force was fun, in a way,” O’Grady said. “It was nice, the camaraderie with the guys in the service. It was a good experience.”
It wasn’t fun when he was getting shot at.
And initially, it appeared that he might not go to war at all. When he enlisted, he was put on a waiting list, because there were so many people applying.
When he finally got in, O’Grady began basic training in Miami, where he learned how to march like a soldier. He then was shipped to the University of Jamestown in North Dakota, to take classes as part of his military training. From there, he was sent to Santa Ana, Calif., for pre-flight school.
Trainees were graded on their skills, and O’Grady qualified to continue training as a pilot, navigator or bombardier. His first choice was to become a pilot, but there were no openings in pilot or navigator school, so instead of going back on the waiting list, he chose to continue with bombardier school.
Before he could begin, however, he had to go to gunnery school in Kingman, Ariz. There he learned to assemble and disassemble machine guns, and shot at targets from planes. His bombardier training took place in Albuquerque, N.M., where he learned more about guns, planes, bombs and targets. “It was unbelievable training,” O’Grady said.
In May 1944, he graduated and became a bombardier cadet. He was 22, and the oldest soldier in his crew of 11 was 26. They flew in B-29s, and trained with other crews for missions in which there would be as many as 800 B-29s in the air at once.
O’Grady and his crew named their plane, a Z Square 21, “The Devil’s Delight.” They flew from the Midwest to San Francisco, across the Pacific to Hawaii, to Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, and finally to their home base of Saipan, one of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Within a few days, they took off on a 15-hour round-trip mission to bomb Tokyo, and over the following 30 months, as part the 20th Air Force’s 500th Bombardment Group, O’Grady flew 35 missions. In eight of them, he dropped bombs over Tokyo.
During one mission, he had to kick a bomb that was stuck out of the plane. “I had to go out there and loosen where it was stuck, and then put my foot against it and hold onto the top and push like that, and it went out,” he said. “Like they say, you had to be young and stupid.”
After the war, O’Grady was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.
When he was honored at the Yankees game in August, he was accompanied by his son, Jim O’Grady, and grandsons Matthew and Peter on the field. “Dad has been a lifelong Yankee fan, [and] grew up rooting for Lou Gehrig,” Jim said. “To be recognized for his service at Yankee Stadium was a great thrill for him and for us as a family.”
O’Grady’s daughter Ginger, who was also at the game, has written a book about he father’s life. “I can speak for all of us in the family that it was a moment of intense pride in his accomplishments,” she said. “It certainly increased my appreciation for what he went through and my appreciation for him as a man and a dad.”