Joe Belman: Mexican American, Turret Gunner, Veteran

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Isaac Olivera

 

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill – As a B-17 Flying Fortress was soaring through a white cloudy sky during World War II, other clouds, black in color, contrasted the peace of the moment -- painting black stripes on the white canvas.

Retired U.S. Army Air Corps Staff Sgt. Joseph Belman, 305th Bomb Group ball turret gunner, shivered and admired the spectacle. Unfortunately, what he originally found to be a thing of beauty, marked danger for Belman and his crew -- the black clouds streaming through the air were flak shot by a German anti-aircraft gun.

After the battle in the skies above Nazi occupied Germany, Belman’s crew flew back to their air field in England. The aircrew used this time to eat, and Belman brought an orange for sustenance. Due to the high altitude the B-17 flies, it’s common for food to freeze. He expected a partially frozen orange; however, when he reached into his pocket he felt juice and a small piece of flak.

“If it hadn’t been for the orange, I don’t think I’d be here talking to you,” said Belman. “It didn’t penetrate me, but it penetrated my jacket.”

After the World War II veteran told the story, he let out a distinct chuckle, one that only comes from someone who has seen a great deal of things throughout a long life. 

He is very soft spoken, his eyes a milky shade of blue due to cataracts. His hearing is damaged from the sounds of gunfire he experienced during the war. He is a kind man who did not let the old ways of the world tear him down -- such as archaic notions like prejudice.

Belman, a Mexican-American born February 20, 1924, and was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in April 1943. He only recalled one time where he was racially discriminated against during his time of service.

In 1943, Belman was stationed at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, which was utilized in World War II as a basic training site. Belman had just completed a letter with his friends, who lived in a separate barracks than he did. While sitting reading the letter his friends helped him write in the barracks, a troop in front facing away from Belman started insulting him. This troop was oblivious to Belman standing right behind him.

“I turned him around, hit him in the mouth and knocked him over a couple garbage cans,” said Belman. “That was an isolated case.”

When asked about people he met during his service, he gave a small smile. He enjoyed the brotherhood that he had with his crew. He recalled another story at a train station.

Belman and his crew were boarding a troop train going from Buckley Air Field, now Buckley Space Force Base in Colorado, to Arizona. They were the last to board and the train cart was almost full. Belman tried to enter the cart, but the train clerk would not let him board because there was not enough room. The clerk then advised the team that Belman would have to take the next train. He was ready to wait, but his sergeant spoke up for the troops.

“We aren’t going on without Belman,” said the sergeant. The group of five white troops also agreed to wait for Belman. He recalled that he met standup people like this throughout his career.

Belman enlisted in 1943, becoming a decorated soldier and was awarded with five Oak Clusters to the Air Medal and three Battle Stars to the European Ribbon. He completed a total of 35 missions, some of those battles included the Battle of Germany, the Battle of the Ardennes and the Battle of the Bulge. Years later, Belman has inspired Hispanic Americans in his community because of his service. There is a local baseball field and a local classroom at a school named after him. 

Looking back on his career, he enjoyed the people and experiences.

“Me being an 18-year-old kid when I went in, I felt it was more of an adventure,” said Belman. “Outside of the action, I really had a good time in service.”