When I was young we were children of the depression. My father had no work and raised four kids. So, I poured my heart into sports; it was free.” He dreamt of being in the big league someday. At 17 he was offered an opportunity to be in the minor leagues, 3-I League (Illinois, Indiana and Iowa). Joe laments, “I didn’t have the guts to take the offer. I didn’t think I could handle eating in greasy spoons all the time while on the road and with so little pay.
After I graduated high school, I couldn’t afford college. Bus fare was 5 cents each way. We didn’t have 50 cents per week to spare. Instead, I entered the Civilian Conservation Corp which the army ran. We worked in the state parks. They housed us, clothed us, and fed us. It occupied the youth of America and gave men work too. The Department of Interior hired foremen like professional masons, who came in, taught us their trade; dig a hole, make a frame, pour concrete. Other trades too, like carpentry.”
Joe served from beginning to end in one outfit. He recalls being called up to headquarters after basic training to report to Colonel Fischer. He wondered what he’d done wrong. They gave him a job and two stripes, and another shortly thereafter. He was Staff Sergeant, but he always regretted not being a PFC (Private First Class) first. Headquarters is where he met Captain Nelson Bryant. Captain Bryant loved sports, especially baseball. He was putting a team together. On weekends Joe would work the obstacle course while others slept in. He wanted to be in the best physical condition. While assigned to headquarters, he worked in plans and training.
He was accepted for Air Cadet training, a program assigned to Army Air Corps. He said in his interview he wanted to be a pilot and fight one-on-one. He was concerned, being engaged to be married, he might not come back. He figured Nina, a beautiful young lady, could adjust if he didn’t return, but they decided not to wait and got married right away. After they married, General Arnold cancelled further pilot training and Joe was reassigned to his original outfit, Company D, 346th Regiment, 87th Division, who were still at Fort Jackson, SC.Now he was low man on the totem pole. He was lucky to rejoin his outfit where people knew him. Since he could read maps he was promoted to map Sergeant.
Company ‘D’ was really in the thick of it during the last six months of the war. He was asked to be part of C Company because he befriended Captain James T. Sanderson from Miami, but he chose to stay with Company D. A month later, Captain Sanderson was killed. Joe’s always wondered if he’d gone with him, would he have been with him.
Being on the frontlines, Joe remembered being asked to check on a broken wire for communication. “There were wires strung along the roadway for the phones, but the communication had been cut off. They didn’t know if the troops on the other end were taken by the Germans or what. It was midnight, dark, and here I am going down the line. Holy mackerel, I could be walking right into German territory, but it was my job to find the break. I found it and spliced it back together and returned safely.”
It may seem like a frivolous thing in the midst of war, but interest in baseball gave soldiers something to look forward to, something to keep their minds occupied with instead of the ravages of war. Baseball Commissioner Landis had written President Roosevelt after the attack on Pearl Harbor questioning whether baseball should continue while the nation was embroiled in war. The President responded the next day with what is now known as the “The Green Light” letter. He suggested the game would offer a much needed morale boost to those on the home-front as well as to men serving overseas.
Joe “Pepsodent Smile” Capilets was given orders to get a ball team together. When the war ended in Europe they had had two-hundred German prisoners in the process of building a baseball field. Captain Bryant told Joe if he wanted to pitch he’d have to turn down the pass he’d just earned to Paris. The colonel gave the order to win that ballgame! On his team was a Yankee Major Leaguer, Bill Johnson. Joe pitched.
The following is a recap of the game from Captain Bryant’s Sport Report:
The 345th waxed by order! 12-1
The 346th Invadors showing mid-season form opened their baseball schedule with a smashing, decisive 12-1 victory over the slightly faded Blue Devils for the 345th Infantry. The confident 345th’ers with two victories over the 87th Division team under their belt, were smothered under a combination of a 13 hit barrage, five hit pitching by Invader twirler Joe Capilets and flawless work in the field by the ‘Bryant-Man.’ Pepsodent smile Capilets worked well for the winners using a deceptive side arm delivery that had the 345th stickers coming back to the bench mumbling under their breath. Gene Tumelson and ‘Pop’ Reins took turns ducking line drives of the Invador line up which reminded one of the famous Yankee ‘Murderers Row’ with shortstop Bill Johnson, former 3rd baseman, adding the genuine Yankee touch. His long triple in the sixth inning was a clout that would have carried over many a left field wall in the Major League Parks that he cavorted in before coming into the army. Handling the catching chores was another American Leaguer, George Yankowski of the Philadelphia Athletics, whose heavy bat accounted for a single and a double, and whose smart ‘big time’ handling of pitchers promises to be one of the sparkplugs of the Invador championship machine. Centerfielder Rob Russell, former Georgie U. halfback put on a beautiful performance of defensive out-fielding that had spectators rubbing their eyes in amazement. His great running catch of Tony Gelon’s long line drive bid for extra bases in the 4th inning was easily the fielding gem of the ball game.
So WHY was he called “Pepsodent Smile” Capilets? “When I pitched, everyone thought I was smiling! I was grimacing really. It wasn’t a smile at all!” says Joe. “Captain Bryant did originate that name and sometimes referred to me ‘Jittery Joe’.”
He returned to America on a “Liberty” ship. During the next ten years, Joe and Nina had five girls. In his forties he took up tennis, playing a regular schedule three times per week. It wasn’t until Joe was in his 80’s when his doctor threatened to treat him for a mental disorder if he didn’t’ give up the game, that Joe was convinced to give it up.
Joe views Winston Churchill’s quote regarding the Royal Air Force: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few,” as the most accurately descriptive about the war.