November 26, 1998 Delaware County Daily Times
Author - Leslie Krowchenko

45 Years after surviving Thanksgiving Day plane crash, former USO troupe performer still has flashbacks.

For most, the fourth Thursday of November is a day for turkey and football. For Joe Soprani, it is truly a day of thanks.

Today marks the 45th anniversary of a plane crash which nearly took the lives of the cast and crew of a USO show touring in Korea. Soprani, an 18 year old accordionist was the youngest member of the group.

"I have a flashback every year, and I'm getting emotional just talking about it, Soprani said in a recent interview. "I am an outgoing guy but it was tough in the beginning."

Soprani was invited to join the troupe after winning a national talent contest. The two-hour show included a guitar and banjo act, magician, comedian, family dance act, and accordion solos. The performers left La Guardia Airport on August 31, 1953, for a 17-week tour of army hospitals and prisoner of war camps in Japan, Korea, and the Pacific Islands.

The entertainers, moving in convoys with military escorts, traveled by plane, boat, jeep, truck, ship and bus. They slept in sleeping bags in tents and Quonset huts heated by wood-burning stoves. During on e outdoor show, the temperature was so low Soprani was forced to wear three military jackets, two pairs of pants, long johns, three pairs of socks, boots and woolen gloves.

"I managed to play 'Flight of the Bumblebee' even with the gloves on," he said. "I received a standing ovation from the thousands of troops that attended."

The performers enjoyed a thanksgiving dinner before their scheduled flight to Miho, Japan. Engine problems prior to departure in their usual C-47 forced them to travel in a different plane and 15 passengers and numerous bags of mail were added to the cargo.

Rain impaired the pilot's visibility as the C-46 approached the runway. The plane was traveling 140 mph when it hit the water four miles from shore. One of the crew members opened the escape hatches and inflated two life rafts as the passengers quickly exited. Each raft held 12 people but there were 30 individuals on the plane.

"It didn't take much to figure out some of us wouldn't fit in," said Soprani.

The plane was sinking rapidly and Soprani and two other musicians plunged into the icy, shark-infested water. His life jacket did not inflate properly and he drifted from the group. Soprani was pulled to safety and he and five other men clung to the side of the raft.

The 25 passengers and five crew members were rescued an hour later by an Air Force rescue team. The most serious injury was a broken arm and many suffered only minor cuts and bruises. The wreckage was located two weeks later but Soprani's accordion a gift from his grandfather, was never found.

"The hospital staff expected the usual - no survivors," said Soprani. "It was a miracle we all lived."

The troupe returned to the states aboard the USNS General William O. Darby. The ship was carrying musical instruments, including an accordion, and the performers entertained the troops during the voyage. Soprani arrived in Philadelphia on December 27, where he was welcomed by his mother, grandfather and many aunts, uncles and cousins.

After the ordeal, Soprani pledged he would never board another plane. He broke his promise to himself two years later when he enlisted as an accordion soloists with the U.S. Air Force band. The musicians traveled the globe for four years.

"How else? he asked. "By plane, of course."

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