Tag Archive | "Japanese occupation"

My Buddy: A Veterans Day Reminiscence

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Today, November 11th, we celebrate Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day.  It is a day of reflection for many who have served their country, both in wartime and during often-tenuous peacekeeping missions.  Many veterans will relive a past they can never forget: the things they have seen and done, the places they have been, those who served beside them, those who fell in battle, and those who lived to carry on and remember their comrades.  If, like me, you are a veteran, these things will, like an unstoppable army, invade your mind, your heart, and your soul today.  And of all those memories, the sharpest will be the thoughts of your buddies, your comrades in arms.


On October 7th of this year, my buddy, P. Gerald Barbato, celebrated his 84th birthday. As I have for all of his prior birthdays, I placed my annual telephone call to him, to wish him well.


Of all the men with whom I had soldiered during World War II, Gerald is my last remaining contact.  On September of 1946, he and I and the rest of our military buddies parted company; our replacements had arrived to relieve us.  We were the men of the United States Army’s 24th Signal Company, stationed in Kokura, Kyushu, Japan.


After almost a full year of occupying Japan, our parting was heavy with mixed emotions.  We were happy to be returning home to civilian life after our tour of duty.  But at the same time, we realized that this would be farewell.  Before sailing forever away from Japan, we had all exchanged our names and contact information in order to remain in touch.


Over the years, the list of names dwindled as contacts were lost and we found ourselves down to a handful of friends who kept in touch.  In my last conversation with him, I told him of the passing of Paul Bartels, a sad occurrence leaving us the last remaining members of our group.  How odd that feels, as it seems like just yesterday that he and I both shared our 19th birthday in Matsuyama, Japan, in October of 1945.  He is three days older than I am, and since that day, our friendship has grown.


I always quizzed him about what the P. in his name signifies.  At first, he just sloughed it off, refusing to answer.  But after I pursued the issue, he said, “In confidence, Tommy, I was not expected to live when I was born, and so, was named after my dead Aunt Patsy.  Now I have to live with that name!”  From then on, I always called him Pat!


I returned home from the war in the fall of 1946.  A few years later, I received an invitation to Pat’s wedding, which I gladly accepted. It was my first visit to Long Island, New York.  Pat’s wife Kathy was as beautiful as the photograph he’d shown us all in Japan. He asked his cousins to accompany me through the joyous ceremony and reception, and also to ensure — as he and Kathy embarked upon their honeymoon — that I had returned home safely to South Jersey.


In April 21, 1951, I married Madeline (Midge) Fortino and got on with my life.  However, I still managed to keep in touch with the men with whom I had served, via annual Christmas cards.  I accompanied these with letters of the events that had transpired earlier each year.


1954 was a banner year for us, as Midge and I celebrated the birth of our first child, my son Tom Junior, and Pat and Kathy welcomed their first child, a daughter named Patty.  But, 1975 was a bad year as Midge suddenly passed away, leaving me with Tom Junior and his brother, Michael.  In trying to adjust to the loss of my wife, I went on the nightshift at work because it was easier to care for my sons that way.  With so much going on in my life, I dropped out of sight for a while with my old Army buddies.


In July of 1983, I remarried Priscilla (Pat) Nikunen, and added her three children to our blended family.  Like Pat’s Kathy, my Pat was a Long Island girl whose children still lived there.  This meant that I now had a reason to visit my buddy Pat in person.  Since then, we have enjoyed each other’s company while making family visits to Long Island.  During one of our visits, we had dinner at Republic Field Airport in Farmingdale.  It was in a World War II type restaurant, filled with memorabilia of the era.  It was a wonderful night filled with reminders of those heady, scary, glorious times overseas.


In our phone conversations over the years, Pat always reminds me that he hopes to be the oldest living World War II veteran, with me three days behind him!  So, today — November 11, 2010, I’ll be reminiscing about my buddy and our tour of duty during World War II.  I’ll be hoping we will still be around to celebrate Veterans Day in 2011!


I sincerely hope that my buddy Pat gets his wish.  As I have traveled down the hard road of life, I have found that hope is a good thing.  It may be the best of things, for without hope, life would be as cold as yesterday’s pizza.

No Leg to Stand On: Another Untold War Story

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GI's Wearing Long Johns

Christmas 1945 dawned sweeter than Christmases past; World War II was finally behind us.  Soldiers like me who had seen active duty were immensely grateful to have survived the conflict.  While many of my fellows had returned home to gild their trees with sparkling baubles and sing carols with their loved ones, I was facing Christmas abroad, about to live through more heretofore untold stories of the war.

 

As part of the forces assigned to occupy Japan following that nation’s surrender, my company moved into an old Japanese Naval barracks outside of the city of Matsuyama.  Assigned to guard duty on December 7, 1945, I elected to take the last watch.   Rumors flew, alleging that we were going to have trouble with the Japanese army veterans returning from China.   At 4:00 AM, I was awakened by another Army man, Jack Severson, to stand guard duty.  Jack advised me that because of the perceived threat, he had pulled double duty and would stand with me.

 

En route to our post, I noticed a flurry of activity inside the supply room.  Jack explained that our fellows were cleaning weapons as a precautionary measure. Vigilantly, we patrolled the perimeter of our compound without incident.  Then, just as dawn broke, a shot rang out in the area occupied by the 3rd Engineers.   Cutting my eyes to Jack, I announced, “This is it” as we both tensed for the onslaught.  We waited and waited, but nothing happened.  Not a single shot ensued. 

 

A few weeks later, a member of our company requested a pair of long johns to keep him warm against the cold Japanese winter.  When he unfolded the long johns, he found that one of the legs had been “amputated.”   The men in our company drew odds as to what had happened to that missing leg.  Most of us had assumed that in the mad dash to find rags with which to clean the weapons, our friends had sacrificed a pair of long johns.  But we never did unearth the real truth behind this strange casualty of war.

 

Christmas and New Years Day came and went, and early in 1946, the 24th Division was ordered to the main island of Honshu to replace His Majesty’s Cameron Highlanders at Okayama.  Our stay at Okayama was quiet and uneventful, except for the day the Officer’s Quarters, which was adjacent to our mess hall, caught fire.  What had begun as a wisp of smoke ended up a blazing inferno that destroyed the two-story building and sent the officers and their personal Japanese maids fleeing.   Fearing the loss of their prized possessions, the officers then ordered some of the enlisted men to return to the inferno to save their prize possessions, which once rescued, were kept under guard, away from marauding GI’s.

 

As the blaze raged on, our water truck, which was parked near the fire, began to smolder. Suddenly someone yelled, “Look out, the truck is going to blow!”  Without a moment’s hesitation, Private Paul Bartels dashed out, leaped into the cab of the scorching truck, and drove the vehicle out of harm’s way.  For this act of heroism, he received nothing but the praise of his fellow soldiers. 

The Incredibly Amazing Adventures of Stoveman

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Superman

Virtually all of you, no doubt, are acquainted with the adventures of the comic book superheroes, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and even The Fantastic Four.  But, are any of you familiar with the legendary exploits of the most unlikely superhero of them all, “Stoveman?”    

 

Contained herein is the never before told story of how a solitary soldier saved a company of 200 men and officers from near starvation.  Did he accomplish this feat by harvesting the seas of Japan?  Did he apportion the provisions into what, Stateside, might have been called Communion slices?  No, his victory was won with more difficulty: he kept the ancient field stoves working so that the cooks could get their daily meals out on time. 

 

In the Army, the term “field expediency” equates to the maxim, “necessity is the mother of invention.”  In other words, if something you need does not work, make it work or invent something that does.  When the cooks of the 24th Signal Company could not prepare the daily meals on time because of their cantankerous field stoves, they invented Stoveman.

 

Stoveman was a 210-pound Italian-American born and raised in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  When I looked in the mirror, Stoveman gazed back me, for I had become him.  When my superiors asked if I were afraid to work around a combustible chemical (gasoline), I replied, “No” and thus was instructed to report to the Mess Sergeant, Werner (“Dutch”) Poppe.  My first meeting with Dutch was short and sweet.  When he asked my name, to which I replied, “Tom Petruzzelli”, he informed me in his thick German accent, “From now on, I call you Tommy.”

 

Things looked bleak as I assessed the gastronomic situation.  All of the stoves had seen better days and parts were in short supply.  But, I had grabbed the tiger by the tail and would not let go. I cannibalized old stoves for parts, laboring to cobble together one functional stove.  It was an exercise in futility, or near-futility.  I was spending so much time in the kitchen, there was no time left for me to perform my other duties.  One day, the First Sergeant told me, “You might as well move in with the mess section, since you’re always on call for them.”  And so, I did.

 

As Christmas neared, Lieutenant Parks, our supply officer, paid me a visit to question me about the stoves.  Risking blasphemy, I replied, “Sir, I’m not Jesus and I can’t resurrect the dead.”   Parks asked me how many good stoves I could make out of the eight stoves we had.  I told him I could make two.  With that, we scrapped 6 stoves and requisitioned 6 brand new ones, which solved our problem.

 

Upon my separation from the U.S. Army, the sergeant who spoke to me for my  exit interview asked what my duties were, so that he could document them properly in my service record.  I proudly stated, “I was the 24th Signal Company’s Stoveman.”  The sergeant then searched though  four large volumes of occupational classifications, only to inform me that there was no classification for Stoveman.  At his wit’s end, he asked me to describe what I did.  When I explained my wizardry with the cooking apparatus, the man shrugged and with a look of complacency, informed me that I was a Utility Repairman #139.

 

Had the sergeant been given a bit of creative leeway, I may have gone down in the record books as the only Stoveman in the history of the U.S. Army.   As the saying goes, “Some men are born to greatness, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” 

The Battle of the Mess Hall

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Mess Hall Japan

By the winter of 1946, the Japanese people had come out of hiding.  They no longer feared the American forces occupying their country, including the 24th Signal Company, to which I was attached.   For a price, the natives were attempting to unload their old underwear on the U.S. military.   Because of linguistic differences, communication with the Japanese people was difficult.  It was a combination of “Charades” and “Show and Tell,” with the results often hilarious.  General Sherman said “War is hell,” but maintaining the peace was something else.   Winter’s thaw ushered in a welcome spring, as well as our orders to make our final move to the island of Kyushu.   

 

After landing at the port of Moji, we then traveled to Kitagawa Racetrack, near the town of Kikura.  Here, we set up our compound, using the existing buildings for the different groups within the 24th Signal Company, which provided communications for the 24th Infantry Division of the Army.  Our stay at the racetrack developed into another story that history books have yet to reveal.

 

One muggy summer night, I was sleeping with the mess section in what was once the vault building of the racetrack, adjacent to the mess hall.  The guard on duty noticed a few Japanese people trying to break into the Mess Hall to confiscate some victuals.  He ordered them to halt but they fled, so he took aim and misfired.  His gun had malfunctioned.  With that, he ran to the orderly room and chose another weapon.  Continuing on with his patrol, he returned to the mess hall, only to find that the same intruders had taken advantage of his absence by attempting a second break in.  The entire scene was played out again as before, with the guard shouting, “Halt” and his weapon misfiring as the would-be thieves ran off.

 

Frustrated, the soldier returned to the orderly room to draw and check his original weapon, which now appeared to be in good working order.  For the third time that night, the escapade was repeated but with different consequences.  One of the unfortunate bandits took a bullet and was sent to the hospital for treatment.   The guard must have been right under my window when he fired the first shot.  What I’d thought was distant thunder roused me from out of a deep sleep.  The next two shots made me jump out of bed; they sounded as if they had gone off right next to my ear. By that time, the whole company was awake and running to the mess hall area, ready to defend us all against a few natives who had tried to steal some food.  Under other circumstances in which defense of the camp would have been critical, this incident might have been disastrous.   When our story was escalated to the proper parties, our company received peace of mind in the form of new automatic carbines.

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