Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923, in Coney Island, New York. His father died when he was young, and he was raised by his mother and two older siblings. When World War II began, Heller became a blacksmith's helper in Virginia. He then entered the Army, and finally the U.S. Air Force in 1942. He graduated cadet school and became a bombardier in Italy.
During a combat mission, he experienced an incident similar to the flight in Catch-22 on which Snowden dies. The co-pilot grabbed the controls from the pilot in a panic. When the pilot regained control and Heller plugged his headset back in, he heard the co-pilot crying "Help him! Help the bombardier!" When Heller assured them he was all right, he was send back to help the gunner with a wound in the thigh. Although this is not the only World War II experience Heller draws upon in Catch-22, this real experience became one of the most important incidents in the text.
When he left the armed forces, Heller entered college on the G.I. Bill. He graduated from New York University in 1948. For several years, he wrote short stories, did some graduate work, and taught. In 1952, he went into advertising.
Heller began writing Catch-22 in 1953, but it was not published until eight years later. Originally titled Catch-18, the name was changed because another popular book at the time had the number 18 in its title. If the title had not been changed, a well-known expression in the English language would be just a little different.
Heller wrote several other novels, memoirs, and plays. He married twice. In 1981, he developed Guillain-Barr syndrome. He later recovered from this nerve disorder.
Joseph Heller died in 1999 of a heart attack in his home in East Hampton, New York.