MOUNT VERNON — Joseph Heindl Sr. has lived a life full of fire and determination. A life full of great friends and a tightly knit family. A life full of struggles, adventure and love.
On Monday, Heindl will start a new adventure in his life, when he serves as the grand marshal in the Mount Vernon Memorial Day Parade.
He is described by his family as a humble man, never seeking the spotlight or recognition for his accomplishments or sacrifices, yet a man fueled by desire and passion for excitement.
The day after graduating high school in a desolate coal mining town in Pennsylvania, the 17-year-old Heindl headed out to join the Army. Unfortunately, the Army would not accept new recruits under the age of 18.
“I thought I would work on the Alaskan highway,” Heindl said.
However, Heindl was directed to go to the next town to talk to the Navy recruiter.
“I couldn’t find the Navy recruiter, but I did find the Marine recruiter,” he said.
That day Heindl became a Marine, a man destined to get out of the coal mining town that had nothing to offer him. So little to offer, in fact, that he was looking forward to three hot meals every day.
“It was just after Pearl Harbor and feelings were running pretty high,” he said. “We were just coming out of the Depression and a lot of us were just looking for enough to eat and clothes to wear.”
Ultimately, though, it was an underlying feeling of patriotism that pushed Heindl to the armed forces.
His experience as an apprentice mechanic, Heindl believes, helped with his placement and job assignments in the Marines. Stationed mostly in the Pacific during his four-year tour, he flew in 46 bombing missions as an aerial gunner in the B25 Mitchell bombers. In his unit — the VMB-413 — the day and night missions were quite successful. It was some of the night raids that truly got under the skin of the Japanese, he said, enough so that the squadron became known by the enemy as the “Flying Nightmares.”
“It was mostly night missions, where we stayed over the target, dropping one bomb at a time, diving in and out of the searchlights. We would stay there for an hour and leave and another one would come on,” he said. “It just heckled the Japs and kept them off guard.”
Day missions would see the use of machine guns from the belly of the bombers. The equipment, gunners and pilots were so in synch with the mission that they were just as successful and just as scary to the enemy as the night raids. For Heindl and his fellow crewmen, the thrill of victory was often tangled with the loss of American men close enough to see, yet unable to help.
“Oh, I’ve seen lots of planes, and men, go down,“ Heindl said. “Once on either side of me I saw them both go down. The first big raid we had, the guy next to me, they shot his engine out and he went straight down. It was a big raid — Army, Navy, Marines, Australians, New Zealanders all together — boy, the sky was full of planes.”
Even today, Heindl questions why he was able to fly so many missions and have such a different fate than some of the other men. He will probably never find the answer.
While other gunners stuck to one type of airplane, Heindl’s passion for his career and love of flying pushed him to broaden his scope, and he flew in anything with wings.
“Some people just fly in one plane; one type and they stay with it,” he said. “I would fly in dive bombers, torpedo bombers, medium bombers — whatever would fly.”
When he wasn’t on flying missions, Heindl was not a man to just sit and wait.
“When we weren’t flying actual combat missions, we volunteered as gunners on PT boats,” he said.
It wasn’t just his skills as a gunner, Marine and friend that drew people to Heindl; his boxing skills caught the eye of a colonel at Pearl Harbor.
“I was good at it, and a colonel, he wanted to keep me at Pearl Harbor on the boxing team. A bomber squadron came through and the turret gunner got appendicitis, so I volunteered to take his place. This colonel wanted to keep me there like a pet. I begged to go on this plane,” he said. “I could have stayed on Pearl Harbor and lived the life of Riley, you know. I just wanted to see some action.”
Heindl is proud of his accomplishments and commitment to the United States during the war in the Pacific, but at the end of the day, it’s his family’s connection to the military where he wears his heart on his sleeve.
“My wife served three years in the Navy,” he said. “Joe [Jr.] served three years in Germany in the Army. My grandson, Kevin [Henthorn] was in the Air Force for four years. I had a grandson, Justin Organ, he was in the Navy. They found out he had leukemia. He came home and he died in about a couple of weeks,” he said.
Heindl met his wife, Margie (Durbin), a Mount Vernon native, at a USO in Cleveland.
“She was a WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services) in the Navy. We called her a ‘ripple’ because she was barely 5 feet tall,” he said.
Three times the couple set a wedding date. The first two dates came and went with Heindl overseas. When his ship docked near the third date, a telegram was waiting for him.
“Twice I was supposed to get married, I went overseas. The third time when my ship came into Norfolk, Margie, my wife, sent a telegram to the ship. It said you will be in Mount Vernon at 10:30 on April 26. You are going to get married,” he said.
His commanding officer gave him seven days off to come to Mount Vernon and marry his sweetheart.
Heindl finished the remainder of his four years as a Marine while the new Mrs. Joseph Heindl was discharged from the Navy.
“Once you were married, the Navy would discharge the women,” he explained. “I ended my flying career in the Marines with sea duty on a small carrier, a Jeep carrier, where all takeoffs were from catapult — they flung you off.”
Heindl ended his Marine career as a Staff Sergeant.
“It was exciting all the time — the whole four years,” he said with a grin.
Heindl went on to volunteer with the National Guard and later the Army Reserve in Mount Vernon, where he was honored with a certificate of merit for leading the largest, best-trained group of men in a three-state area.
“The average Army Reserve group was only about 15 to 30, and we had over 100 at one time. When we went on parade, it looked like a whole company instead of just a couple of ranks,” he said.
Serving as Monday’s parade marshal, Heindl said he will represent all of the branches of the military, as well as American military families around the world. He will be accompanied by his fiance, Phyllis Stinger. The parade starts at 10:30 a.m. and rolls from East High Street to Public Square.