THE RARE BREED
Recognizing Area Veterans Of World War II
Joe Drastata's TC Squadron
Called 'Angels From Heaven'
BROTHERLY REUNION: When Cpl. Joe Drastata, left, arrived with his troop carrier squadron at Nadzab, New Guinea in November 1943, he used a jungle telephone to call his brother, Cpl. Jim Drastata, right, stationed with an engineering unit elsewhere on New Guinea. Before long, the brothers who hadn't seen one another since they entered service, were having a happy reunion at Joe's airfield. They were each discharged from service at about the same time in January, 1946.
Joe F. Drastata was a 17-year-old farm boy, helping his parents, Frank and Frances Vacek Drastata, with the chores on the family farm at Taiton (where he was born Aug. 15, 1924) in Wharton County when Japan hit Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
At the age of 18 he became a member of the Army Air Force on March 10, 1943 at Houston. Six months and nine days later, on Nov. 16, 1943, he was in the war zone at Port Moresby, New Guinea with the 65th Troop Carrier (TC) Squadron.
In between Houston and New Guinea, a fast track had taken Drastata to Fort Sam Houston; Jefferson Barracks, Missouri; Bear Field, Indiana (twice); Pope Field at Fort Bragg, North Carolina (where he was assigned to the 403rd Troop Carrier Group of the 65th Squadron); Camp Stoneman, Calif.; then to Amberly Field, Brisbane, Australia for a month before making the hop over to Port Moresby.
Value of troop carrier squadrons had become a reality in the fall of 1942. The Japanese, in their sweep through the South Pacific with Australia the goal, had seized virtually all of New Guinea -- the second largest island in the world and the size of France, Germany and England combined -- except for Port Moresby. And Moresby's defenders, outnumbered four to five times by fresh Jap troops, tired, low on food and ammunition, were in a bad shape.
Troop carriers came to the rescue. Divisions were flown across the Coral Sea to Port Moresby; reinforcements, guns, jeeps, ammunition, medical supplies, food, clothing was flown up into the mountains and, if necessary, flown over the mountains to the front lines of battle. Where planes could not easily be landed, rough airstrips were carved out of the main-high kunai grass. Where planes could never land, dropping grounds were prepared and supplies went in by parachute. Later, hundreds of wounded soldiers and evacuees would be flown out of battle zones by the C-47s.
From there on, the troop carriers played their important role in each successive step on the return to the Philippines -- Buna, Wau, Nadzab, Lae, Salamua, Finschhafen, Admiralties, Cape Gloucester, Arawe, Saidor, Aitape-Tadji, Hollandia, Wakde, Biak, Noemfoor and Moratai Island. Then finally, the Philippines, via Peleliu and Anguar Islands.
From Port Moresby, Corporal Drastata, in the TC communications section, was with the 65th squadron to such places as Nadzab, Biak Island and Moratai Island, before reaching the Philippines.
To Drastata, one of most rewarding actions by the 65th troop carriers, and with a second chapter, was the squadron's role in the liberation of Los Banos prison camp. He told the story as follows:
"In Los Banos, a Japanese prison camp 20 miles south of Manila, were 2,146 civilian prisoners, American, Australian and from a few other Allied countries. In February 1945, much of the area around Manila was back in Allied hands, but Los Banos was still under Japanese guards.
"From flights over the camp and info from the Filipino guerrillas, it was known that 7 a.m. all guards stored their funs in the guardhouse and went for exercise.
"At 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 23, nine 65th C-47s loaded with 11th Airborne Division paratroopers took off from Nichols Field, Luzon, circled to form three Vs and headed south. At the same time, 67 2nd Amphibian Battalion armored amtrac vehicles were making their way through the jungle and across a lake to the prison. The lead C-47 was over target just outside the prison at 7 a.m. for a low level drop. Paratroopers rushed to the stored guns and killed all the guards that did not escape into the jungle.
"The civilians, including Catholic nuns, in the prison called the descending paratroopers 'Angels from Heaven'."
For its role in the liberation and dropping the paratroopers right on target at the precise time, despite the small drop zone being surrounded by trees on three sides and a high voltage power line extending diagonally across the area, the 65th TC Squadron received a Presidential Unit Citation.
Among other things, the Presidential Citation said: "By effecting the precise timing necessary to the success of this operation, and by dropping the paratroops into the target area as quickly and efficiently as possible, the crews of the 65th Troop Carrier Squadron played a major part in the successful liberation of several thousand men, women and children in desperate need of help. The courage and skill of the personnel of the 65th Troop Carrier Squadron are in the keeping with the highest traditions of the armed forces of the United States."
As for the second chapter of Drastata's Los Banos story, a special visitor to the August 2000 reunion of the 65th TC Squadron, in Wichita, Kans., was Robert Wheeler. He was 12 years old when he, his father, stepmother and younger brother were among those liberated from Los Banos.
"I owe you my life," Wheeler told the men at the reunion. In addition to telling how the prisoners ate dogs, cats, slugs and looked for any bug they could find to cook in their rice mush for more nourishment, Wheeler said the Japanese guards had planned to execute all of the prisoners the day they were freed.
"There wasn't a dry eye in the bunch of us old men," Drastata said about Wheeler's appearance at the reunion and his thank you to the 65th.
After two years, four months and 22 days of foreign service, that took in three Christmases, Drastata arrived back at Camp Stoneman, Calif., on Jan. 5, 1946. One week later he received his discharge, with the rank of Corporal. His total time in the Air Force summed up to two years, 10 months and a couple of days.
For his overseas service, Drastata earned the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, with five Bronze Stars; Philippine Liberation Medal; Distinguished Unit Badge, with one Oak Leaf Cluster; the Victory Ribbon; and four Overseas Bars.
Drastata returned to the farm at Taiton when he got out of service. He married his sweetheart, Margie, from Hillje in Wharton County in November of 1947. They moved to Palacios in 1949 when he bought a local recreation club, then later he went to work at Alcoa's Point Comfort Operations. Today, they live on FM Road 2853.
There are three children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren in the Drastata family. The children are Janet Bliss of The Woodlands, distribution coordinator for Mitchell Gas Services; Douglas Drastata of La Porte, in the oil industry; and Diana Morrison of Pasadena, a secretary.
The 65th TC Squadron will hold its reunion this August in Fredericksburg, Texas, home of the Admiral Chester Nimitz Museum --the only museum in the world dedicated to the war in the South Pacific. Joe Drastata aims to be there, with his old friends who made the journey from Moresby to Manila, via Troop Carrier.
Area resident since 1949
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