World War II Veteran | U.S. Army 1943-1945
It’s not every day you get to interview a hero, someone that has done incredible things. Survived things that most people can’t even imagine. How do you honor a hero like this? You can start by telling his story.
In late October, Judith Russell, VCC Client Care Specialist and I were privileged to sit down for a conference call with Joe J Caserta, one of the most decorated war heroes I personally have ever had the opportunity to speak with. And if you have ever seen the most famous footage from World War II, taken March 6, 1945, during the tank battle at the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, you’ve had a small glimpse of what this month’s veteran has been through.
Caserta was born in Philadelphia in 1922 as the youngest of seven children, five boys, and two girls, and raised by a widowed mother. He wanted to do his part, aspiring to join the military, but his mother was worried, as one brother was already a merchant marine, and he was the only male home at that time. So he worked at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard until he was drafted by the Army in March of 1943, at 18 years old. Caserta was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for 13 weeks of basic training and then on to Camp Campbell, which is now Fort Campbell, for an additional ten weeks of training for the Sherman tank. The Sherman, named after the famous US Civil War Gen William Tecumseh Sherman, weighed 35 tons and carried a crew of five men. It was also equipped with three machine guns. It was there Caserta learned all five positions, which are driver, assistant driver, loader, gunner, and commander.
Arriving in France a few weeks after D Day, Caserta was assigned to the 3rd Armored Division, also known to some for its nickname, the Spearhead Division. Caserta served as a driver and commander of “Everlasting” in E-Company, 32nd AR, 3rd Armored Division. Caserta and his crew would spend weeks at a time in the tank, and at 6’1” in small quarters, he looked forward to his turn sleeping on the floor since it was the only time they could stretch out. He participated in five different campaigns during WWII. He traveled 1500 miles across Europe during these campaigns; 1300 of those miles were under enemy fire. Throughout that time, he formed close relationships and a mutual respect with his fellow crew members. After helping liberate Paris, the crew moved on to Belgium. He was headed to Germany as the lead tank when they traveled 90 miles in one night to make it to the Battle of the Bulge. That winter Caserta and his crew survived one of the worst battles in Army history. They made it through the coldest winter in 45 years in a tank without heat. Caserta was knocked unconscious in a ground-level explosion that killed his commander. He received severe wounds from shrapnel embedded in his shoulder when they had to run for cover after their tank started to overturn in a bomb crater. After receiving medical attention Caserta was quickly back in battle now as a newly promoted tank commander. He would later receive the Purple Heart for his injuries and actions that day. These are just a few harrowing moments that lead to the long list of medals Caserta would be rewarded. Including the Bronze Star awarded for saving his crew from a tank fire that started in the back near the gas tank. While under heavy enemy fire, he climbed outside of the tank and cut away the burning gear. Caserta courageously put himself in danger to save his crew. The Purple Heart recipient stated, “I was so blessed to go through the whole Normandy France Belgium campaign, the Battle of the Bulge without getting hurt real bad. So many of my friends had their tanks shot out from under them, but I never had a direct hit, only small arms fire.” He went on to say, “Somebody was looking out for me”.
Caserta also took part in the Battle of Cologne, which is the basis of the book Spearhead, and perhaps the most famous tank battle in history. On the streets in front of the Cologne Cathedral, they know the Sherman’s are no match for the German Panther they are facing and call for back up from the T26 Pershing nearby. The U.S. T26 was a rare but extraordinary tank and pretty much an equal to any tank in the world. Thankfully, the Pershing is able to take out the German Panther with three direct, rapid-fire hits, and it was all caught on film by an Army correspondent. The footage made its way to movie theaters across the country, and the battle is considered another major turning point in WWII, with the first major city in Germany to fall to Allied troops. Caserta is mentioned four times in the book and is driving one of the Sherman tanks in the footage. Caserta’s tank was also the first to make it to the Rhine, where the Germans had retreated to the other side in hopes of using the river as a perimeter. Through the promotion of the book Spearhead, Joe was able to reconnect with old friends and even discovered a picture of him standing next to his Sherman tank “Everlasting.” His son Mike Caserta commented, “The name (Everlasting) makes sense since it was never shot out from under him.”
Caserta spent just under two years overseas without a furlough. The 3rd Armored Division participated in 231 days of combat, while Caserta spent six months as part of the Army occupation in Germany following the end of the war. In his final days, he traveled to the French Riviera before being honorably discharged on November 18, 1945.
After returning home, he met Eileen, and they were married in 1948. The couple had four sons. Caserta opened a gas station and repair shop and, in 1975, expanded the business with a partner. In 1987 Caserta retired and moved with his beloved wife to Ocean City, where he and his family spent every summer vacationing there. Today Caserta has 8 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren, all to whom he is very close.
Around 12 years ago, Caserta started going to reunions for the 3rd AD, and for the first time in his life, he started talking about the war. That’s when the stories all started coming back to him. It also gave him an outlet and a chance to see old friends. The 3rd AD was disbanded in 1992 after Desert Storm, but Caserta added, “The young guys gave me a free membership for life and had me join their association, but it’s different than the one I belonged too” referring to the 1st Armored Division.
The retired decorated war hero still lives in Ocean City and takes part each morning at 9:20 A.M. in a ceremonial flag-raising starting on Memorial Day and ending on 9/11 every year. Caserta makes his way down to Gillian’s Waterpark at Plymouth Place and the Boardwalk every morning to salute the flag as it is raised and lowered. He can be seen proudly saluting it as everyone stands at attention while the “Star-Spangled Banner” plays.
Over the years, Caserta has earned the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, American Campaign Medal, World War II Medal, and European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal. In 2013 he was appointed as Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the President of the French Republic for his contributions to France’s liberation during World War II. Most recently he received the Distinguished Service Medal from the Governor Of New Jersey for distinguished service in the U.S. Army during WWII.
In true hero fashion, Caserta started the interview by thanking Veterans Care Coordination by saying, “I wanna thank your administration for the service you’re providing and helping to keep the veterans in their home.” He went on to say, “It is very important to me.” Joe J. Caserta is an admirable man who can tell you stories that will give you chills, yet he starts the conversation by showing his gratitude for VCC.
Joe Caserta is a client of Touching Hearts at Home, located in Northfield, NJ. When VCC reached out to Touching Hearts at Home about their work with veterans they stated,” Touching Hearts at Home strives to help all that need homecare, especially our veterans. Unfortunately, many people who could benefit from homecare services, do not have the financial resources to obtain them. Thankfully, that’s where Veterans Care Coordination (VCC) comes into play. The experienced people at VCC can determine if they qualify, after asking just a few short questions. This is invaluable to our clients, who are seeking to supplement the care that we are already providing or who cannot afford care. Once the application process is completed, Touching Hearts at Home is contacted, and we provide caring and compassionate caregivers to assist the approved client with activities of daily living (ADL’s) in the comfort and privacy of their own home.”
Veterans Care Coordination is proud to recognize Joe J. Caserta for his service to our country. We are privileged to have the opportunity to share the stories of our nation’s heroes.
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