Tag Archive | "occupation of Japan"

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.

Old Soldiers Never Die!

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Recently, I lost an old friend.  An e-mail from the daughter of my WWII Army buddy, Paul P. Bartels, informed me of his passing. After expressing my condolences to his family, I wondered what I might do to ease the pain of their loss.  Into my mind flowed the sagacious words of General Douglas MacArthur, in his address of April 19, 1951 to Congress on the occasion of his retirement from military life.  In summing up his career, the General stated proudly, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”

Thoughts of MacArthur took me back to August 10, 1945, when I boarded a troopship in San Francisco Harbor bound for the Carolina Islands.  My ship was part of a massive Allied armada bent on invading the nation that had bombed Pearl Harbor: Japan.   Due to Divine Intervention, which was spurred on, no doubt, by my mother’s fervent prayers, that invasion never took place.  After we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered unconditionally on September 2, 1945.

When the war ended, I was no longer needed to serve as an infantryman.  Thus was I transferred to the 24th Signal Company on the Island of Mindanao in the Philippines.  I served my country as a member of a gigantic taskforce assigned to secure Japan and keep the peace following its surrender.  From Mindanao, my fellows and I shipped out again — this time, directly for Japan.

It was near the town of Matsuyama on the Japanese island of Shikoko that I first met Paul.  We were both assigned to the mess section of our Army camp.  Paul  drove the mess truck and I repaired, maintained, cussed at, and prayed over antiquated field stoves in order get the 24th’s meals out on time.

After a few months, the 24th Division was ordered to replace His Majesty’s Royal Cameron Highlanders, who were stationed at Okayama on the main island of Honshu. Mess Sergeant Werner Poppe selected our cook, Tony Prekosivich, our driver, Paul Bartels, and yours truly, who came to earn the moniker The Stove Man, to set up an advanced kitchen at Okayama.

In a two-and-a-half ton truck that also towed a small water carrier, we stowed all of our  necessary gear.  Over the island’s mountainous terrain, Paul maneuvered that truck like a pro, toward the ferry station on the inland sea at Takamatsu.  There, we boarded a ferry that would carry us to the town of Uno on the island of Honshu.  En route, the ferry captain invited us into the wheelhouse, where he cordially served us saki (rice wine).  That trip would create a fond memory for me in the years to follow.

Arriving at Uno, we motored to Okayama, where life unfolded in imitation of art.  Like a page out of a Rudyard Kipling novel, we were greeted by a band of welcoming, kilted Scotsmen.  Before their forces pulled out so that we could occupy the area, they put on a show for our division that featured the rousing Scottish dance, The Highland Fling.

We set up our mess hall at Okayama, near a barracks that housed officers.  Because it was summer, we noted with suspicion a wisp of smoke curling from the eave of the officers’ roof.  Rapidly, that wisp escalated into a raging inferno that caused a hasty evacuation by the officers.  One of our trucks was parked perilously close to the fire and had begun to smolder.  If the flames had reached the gas tank, it would have been a terrible, life-threatening disaster.  Without hesitation, Paul leaped into the smoldering truck and drove it out of harm’s way.  In all of the excitement, his act of heroism went unnoticed — but I will never forget it.

After a few months at Okayama, we were ordered to make our final move to the most southern island of Kyushu, near the town of Kokora.  Paul, yours truly, and the rest of the 24th Signal Company set up camp in the Kitagawa Racetrack area.  This would be our home until other troops would arrive to replace us.

During our occupation of Japan, we came in contact with the native people.  They could not speak English and we could not speak Japanese.  Our mode of communication was like a mad cross between Show and Tell and Charades, with the results often hilarious.  Paul and I often had a good laugh this way.

As the one-year anniversary of our landing at Matsuyama approached, rumors began to fly, hinting that we would be receiving our replacements. When the rumors proved true, it was a bittersweet departure.  We all shook hands, slapped each other on the back, and said farewell to our buddies, knowing full well that our paths would probably never cross again, at least, not in person.

After we returned to our respective hometowns and got on with our lives, we tried to keep in touch.  Annual Christmas cards, very much anticipated and cherished, contained letters of how our families were growing and what we had all been up to in the preceding twelve months.  But as years passed, that Christmas card list dwindled down to just three of us old soldiers.  With Paul’s passing, it is now just two of us: Pat Barbato and me.  Pat never fails to remind me that he wishes to be the oldest living World War II veteran, with me right behind him!

As I write this tribute to Paul and those days overseas, I hope I have enlightened his family as to how he served his country and enriched the lives of the people he touched. I believe that when General MacArthur said that old soldiers never die, he should have finished the phrase with “as long as they still live in the hearts and minds of family, friends, and the nation they served.” 

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. 

Tom’s Story

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In August, 1945, I was somewhere in the Pacific Ocean heading for the Invasion of Japan when the ship’s Captain announced the Japanese surrender.


Instead of invading Japan, I became a part of the first Occupation Forces to secure and occupy the islands of Japan in October, 1945 – thanks to the Atomic Bomb.


Tom Petruzzelli, Sr.
24th Signal Company

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