My favorite uncle, Joseph Kriss, passed away three years ago on May 16, 2011. He was my grandfather’s older brother, he was 94. He was a quiet, caring man who I loved and respected, this is why:
Joe Kriss, was a Pittsburgh boy who left for war right after college in 1942 and flew over 30 missions as a decorated B-17 Navigator and Pilot in Europe during World War II.
World War II
Uncle Joe was another of that generation of men who grew up tough during the Depression, shipped off to war, did their duty and came home to quietly work and raise a family. Like so many World War II veterans, he rarely mentioned his days of combat.
Joe was born June 1, 1916, in Pittsburgh, PA, where he was raised and educated. After attending Carnegie Tech, Joe worked as an engineer at KQV radio station in Pittsburgh.
In 1942, after Pearl Harbor, he joined the Army Air Force. He was stationed in Big Springs and Midland, Texas, where he trained bombardiers. In April 1944, he went overseas with the 8th Air Force at Deopham Green, England. As a B-17 bombardier, with the famed 452nd Bomb Group, he flew 30 missions over Germany; 15 missions as lead bombardier. He would serve for the remainder of the war.
During the invasion of Normandy he flew missions hitting airfields. He was in the last bomb group over Normandy and flying the mission as the lead bombardier.
The Bomb Group hit V-weapon sites, bridges, and other objectives in France; struck coastal defenses on D-Day, 6 June 1944. His unit bombed enemy positions in support of Patton’s breakthrough at St Lo in July and the offensive against Brest in August and September.
Later in September, 1944, the 452nd assisted in the airborne attack on Holland. They hit enemy communications in and near the combat zone during the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944-January 1945. They bombed an airfield in support of the airborne assault across the Rhine in March 1945 leading into the final push on Germany.
For their outstanding accomplishments in combat during that period the 452nd was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation (PUC), originally called the Distinguished Unit Citation for actions on 7 April 1945. Despite vigorous fighter attacks and heavy flak, the 452nd accurately bombed a jet-fighter base at Kaltenkirchen.
The PUC is the same as that which would warrant award of the individual award of the Distinguished Service Cross, Air Force Cross or Navy Cross. It is the highest award given to a unit that has displayed and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions. The award is given to set an individual unit that sets itself apart and above other units participating in the same campaign.
The 452nd flew the last combat mission of in the European Theater of Operation on 21 April 1945 striking marshalling yards at Ingolstadt. The famed bombardiers returned to the U.S. in August 1945. The unit inactivated on 28 Aug 1945.
Joe was proud to be associated with such a great unit. It wouldn’t be until later I realized what a big deal his wartime service had been.
Later in life I asked him some questions after I had been to Iraq and Afghanistan and he told a few stories, but he didn’t really say much. Only throughout 1944 and 1945, he flew over France and Germany in a B-17. Later he would begin to open up.
He once returned from a mission and noticed his friends pointing to his plane. He wasn’t sure what they were looking at until he saw a large hole in the canopy just behind his seat, inches from his head -a souvenir from anti-aircraft flak.
The episode that led to his Distinguished Flying Cross is more established. He earned the medal, given for heroism or extraordinary achievement in the air, after a mission in 1945, during which he led his squadron on a bombing attack on an air base near Nuremberg.
The assault destroyed many enemy planes on the ground and damaged others in the waning days of the war. The citation that accompanied his award described the mission over Nuremberg and praised him for exceptional airmanship and outstanding courage “in keeping with the highest traditions of the Army Air Forces.”
The Family Man
After WWII he returned to his job at KQV. Like most veterans he got married and had a family. In July 1946, he went to work in Washington, DC, for WRC television. In those early days of television, he worked several different jobs from cameraman to video engineer for the acclaimed show, “Meet the Press.”
He told me stories of meeting every President from Truman to Carter. He said, “Truman had the strongest handshake and was the most down to earth of all the Presidents. Nixon I didn’t care for when I met him in 1972, there just seemed to be something dishonest about him. Carter was very soft-spoken and humble, great traits for a farmer, but not for a President.”
I first talked to him after my grandfather died in 2002. I called to tell him his only brother had passed and would call three days later to tell him my grandmother had also passed.
Throughout this time he constantly asked if I or mom needed anything. During this time I grew to like him more and more. I would visit him and my beloved Aunt Lainey a handful of times over the next couple of years.
Despite a vast age difference we always got along well and over time he went from being a distant relative to becoming a great friend. He would tell me stories of my grandfather as a boy and I would tell him about being in the modern army.
Over time we would both talk about our war time experiences. Before I left for Iraq he gave me his original Captain Rank and Aviator Wings from the War. He told me how they had brought him luck throughout his life. I would carry them with me throughout my tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Both were in my pocket the day my friend Bruno was killed. They are in my pocket now as I write this as he is will always be in my heart.
After I returned from Afghanistan in 2008 I called more often and many times our conversations would drift to life and what makes it worth living.
From those conversations I think he secretly clung to the belief that life is not merely a series of meaningless accidents or coincidences. But rather, it’s a tapestry of events that culminate in a wonderful, awe-inspiring plan. He was said, “After the war things were clearer for me. I knew what it meant to live and what it meant to die. All time after that was a bonus,” he noted.
The story of Uncle Joe is a small one. Everyone who knew him always has a story to tell about him, a yarn about witnessing his heart of gold peeping out from his gentle and quiet exterior.
He was one for the good guys. I loved him and I know I was loved back. There was nothing I neglected to tell him and nothing he neglected to tell me. He taught me that life is about serenity and that people live and then they die, as long as they do both things properly, as he did, there’s nothing much to regret. He will be missed fiercely because he was loved so greatly.