Tag Archive | "Rocco Petruzzelli"

Unsung Heroes

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Many nations have had their defining moments in time; history recalls their distinctions.  America’s moment began with the signing of the Declaration of Independence and reached its peak with World War II.  This global conflict inspired our country to rise to the occasion, despite its not being prepared at the onset of the war.  To bring to fruition President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vision of winning “the inevitable victory, so help us God,” many men, women, and children got involved in the war effort.


To create formidable armed forces, Congress enacted the draft, whereby able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45 were inducted into military service.  America was also compelled to retool industries to build the equipment and manufacturer the supplies that we needed to conduct war.  Leaders of government and industry joined forces to attain this monumental objective that came to be known as, “The Arsenal of Democracy.”  This Arsenal supplied not only our own troops but also those of our Allies, who were sorely in need of war materials.


Throughout the four bloody years of World War II, many acts of heroism were performed.  Some of our military personnel received commendations for their actions; some did not.  This is a tale of a man in the latter category, an unsung hero.


When my brother Rocco turned 18, he received a letter from the local draft board ordering him to appear for a physical examination prior to his induction into the armed forces.  However, Rocco was rejected for military duty via the designation of 4-F (“unfit for combat”).


Rocco did not like the label of 4-F, so he decided to make a contribution in the way that he knew best.  He was attending Bok Vocational School in South Philadelphia at the time, studying to become a skilled laborer, a machinist.  As a top student, he was proficient in operating various machine tools.  Upon graduation, my brother received the American Legion Award of Excellence for leadership and vocational training.


He then procured a job as a machinist at Clark Cooper Industries, a Palmyra, New Jersey-based manufacturer of vital hardware for the U.S. Navy.  After his job ended for the day, back at Bok Vocational, Rocco instructed war workers concerning the use of various machine tools.  He continued this voluntary service until the war ended.


Always an achiever, Rocco managed to put himself through Drexel Institute to study Mechanical Engineering.  Twelve years of college taking night classes earned him a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering.   He was elevated to plant engineer by Clark Cooper upon attainment of the degree.  During his pursuit of the degree, Rocco was elevated to Shop Foreman at Clark Cooper, married his lovely wife, and brought a daughter into the world.


After the war, Clark Cooper Industries was sold, and the new owners planned to move the business out of State.  My brother was asked to make the move, but Rocco denied the request because of his strong family ties.


Rocco later procured a job at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard’s Naval Air Station.  The Station’s expertise focused on the launching and arresting gear used on aircraft carriers.  My brother’s skill and work ethic earned him recognition as a quality-oriented, cost effective engineer.  For a while, the Station utilized him as a troubleshooter.  In this capacity, he toured many shipyards nationwide, instructing personnel and repairing assigned gear.


Rocco was once asked to provide the gear necessary to land a helicopter on a destroyer as the ship rolled and pitched in the sea.  The strategy was to extend the security range of a fleet consisting of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers charged with protecting vulnerable aircraft carriers.  An additional helicopter would extend the security perimeter around the carriers.


My brother’s direct contribution was to design an optical system that allowed the chopper pilot to view a green-colored light.  This light provided the correct angle on which to land the helicopter on the rolling aircraft carrier.  Asked to name his invention, one of Rocco’s colleagues suggested that he name it the RP-1 in his honor.


The unit that Rocco devised was attached to a destroyer.  After a shakedown cruise, it was hailed a success.  The ship’s captain announced, “The unit will stay with my ship.  Build another one for somebody else’s ship!”


In 1974, the Naval Air Station at Philadelphia was moved to Lakehurst, New Jersey, a situation that concerned many engineers who could not make the move due to transportation issues.  Ever the problem solver, Rocco contacted the Philadelphia Transportation Agency to arrange a bus schedule to accommodate the workers requiring transportation to Lakehurst.  From Monday through Friday, the engineers assembled at Broad and Oregon Avenue at a predestined time and from there, proceeded to Lakehurst.  The bus waited at Lakehurst to carry the engineers back home.   Mission accomplished!


My brother was subsequently elevated to Acting Branch Manager, a position that he held until he retired in 1988.  Upon his retirement, U.S. Navy brass at Lakehurst honored him with a testimonial dinner at the Cherry Hill Inn.  My brother Anthony and I, and our wives, were among the honored guests.  Adapting a Father Guido Sarducci persona, the chaplain roasted my brother to the cheers and laughter of all.  I called it the icing on the cake, which Rocco richly deserved


In Rocco’s honor, I entered his name into the World War II Registry, which recognizes military personnel as well as civilians that helped win the war.


Always a perfectionist in everything he undertook, yet very humble concerning his accomplishments, Rocco demonstrated leadership and love of family and country, qualities that are sorely lacking in many of our leaders today.  The stories of the unsung heroes of World War II are the legacies of those who put country first, those like my brother and thousands of others across this nation.  These were the men behind the Arsenal of Democracy, the men who helped us win the inevitable victory that FDR had envisioned.

My Brother Rocco

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Born December 19, 1924 and named, in the Italian custom after his paternal grandfather, my brother’s entry into this world was the beginning of a life that would come to enrich our entire family.  Twenty months later, I was born; our little brother Anthony came along almost four years later.  Early in Rocco’s life, he demonstrated the qualities of leadership.  Always an honor student through the course of his education, he was the pride of the family.


As the sons of an Italian immigrants, Donato and Rose, my brothers and I grew up during the Great Depression in a happy home in South Philadelphia.  We had great times together as a family, even though our economic situation, and that of other families we knew, was poor.  My dad was a barber who worked for my maternal grandfather, who happened to be my namesake.  This was convenient for all involved in the business, as the barbershop was situated on the corner of the street where we lived!


In years to follow, our uncles and aunts came to reside in the same neighborhood.  It was a fortuitous occurrence, because in the Italian-American culture, family was a big part of our lives and as you will soon see, it was also lucky for one of our aunts.  We all celebrated the major holidays together as well as the smaller glories that every family enjoys.


As kids, Rocco was the leader of our gang; he assumed the responsibilities of watching us and keeping us out of trouble every day of the week as well as during those occasions when we ventured beyond the neighborhood.  This included the simple pleasures of life afforded us by hiking through Wissahickon Park, taking a steamboat ride down the Delaware River to Riverview beach, and, of course, the many family gatherings.


When World War II erupted, Rocco, being of military age, was called for the draft.  Considered physically unfit for military duty, he was classified as a 4-F.  However, he proudly graduated Bok Vocational School first in his class by merit of his grades, and was presented the American Legion Award.  Here is how that happened.  Because his major was Machine Shop, during the war, he trained adults during night school in the use of many machine tools.  These folks took their skills into the factories, where they made equipment needed by our troops.  During the war years that followed his graduation, in addition to training these workers, Rocco was employed as a shop foreman by Clark Cooper Corp. in Palmyra, New Jersey.  This company produced vital equipment for the U.S. Navy.


When the war ended, my brother married the one and only love of his life, Teresa Cifuni; I was Best Man at the their wedding.  In the ensuing years Rocco would become the proud father of Donna, his only child.  He purchased a house across the street from my parents and went on with his life.


Determining to better himself and thereby, his family, Rocco decided to pursue a career as an engineer.  To prepare for entry into this field, he applied for admission to Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Because he held a diploma from a vocational institution and not a regular high school, he had to make up the credits he did not receive earlier in his education.  After twelve years of attending college three nights a week, for which he paid the entire tuition himself, my brother graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering.   Upon his graduation, Clark Cooper Corp. elevated his position to that of plant engineer.  A few years later, the company was purchased by another corporation, which offered him the same position but in a different city.  Not wishing to uproot his family, he sought work elsewhere and was ultimately accepted at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, Aircraft Division.


Rocco’s working knowledge of his trade soon came to the attention of his superiors, who utilized him as a troubleshooter.  Traveling extensively nationwide, he investigated and resolved technical issues with mechanical equipment.   His home phone was connected to the switchboard at the Navy yard!  One night while I was visiting him, I listened as he spoke to an American sailor in Naples, Italy.  Well before the age of computers and emails, my brother instructed this man remotely as to how to repair some equipment aboard his ship.


When the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard transferred the Aviation Division to Lakehurst, New Jersey, Rocco was assigned the job to coordinate the move.   He organized a shuttle bus system to transport workers to their new location, thus solving a problem for those who could not find transportation readily. Eventually, he was selected to serve as Acting Plant Manager at Lakehurst, in charge of the Aviation Division.  When he achieved that particular promotion, he informed me that his next salary increase had to be approved by the U.S. Congress!


When Rocco finally retired, he was given a testimonial dinner at the Cherry Hill Inn, in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.  My brother Anthony and our wives were invited, in his honor.  Needless to say, we watched and listened in awe as the Navy brass extolled the accomplishments of my brother.


Retirement for Rocco came easy, as he had lived in a modest home and well within his means. He said, “I am going to relive my childhood and have all the things I wanted but could not afford when I was younger.”  Thus did he acquire beloved stamp and coin collections and model trains, the latter of which were fully equipped with all the appropriate paraphernalia that any aficionado might covet.   He even got involved in home repairs.  Being a perfectionist, anything he built would outlast the Seven Wonders of the World.


When Mom and Dad passed away, Rocco was the glue that held the family together.  Then the question arose as to what to do with Aunt Angie (Mom’s sister), who was living with my parents and getting on in years.  Rocco called a family meeting and announced that we’d had two choices: allow our aunt to move in with her sister Lucy and her husband Ray, or let her stay and finish out her years in the house that was willed to we three brothers.  My aunt, who was always a loving aunt, was not always easy to live with.  In fact, she probably would have driven Uncle Ray to an early grave.  This left us with the one remaining choice.  Rocco therefore devised a plan in which we three brothers would share the expense of maintaining the house while Aunt Angie resided there.  Little did we know then that our frail aunt, who’d been sickly most of her life, would live to be 92!


An extremely generous person, Rocco offered to take up the slack if my brother or I fell short on the monthly payments.  Over the years as our family grew, my older brother’s nieces and nephews coined a phrase pertaining to Rocco and his wife.  Reflecting their generosity, RUR and RAT meant “Rich Uncle Rocco” and “Rich Aunt Teresa.”


On May 17, 1989 Rocco said goodnight to his wife and daughter and retired to bed, not knowing that these were the last words he would ever speak.  Rocco passed away quietly in his sleep, leaving a family devastated by his loss.  My brother, with all his generosity and attributes, was always a planner; in his wisdom, he left his family well cared for.  He also possessed a great sense of humor and serenity when meeting life’s many challenges.


Today as I reflect upon his life, I cannot help but count my blessings. I have lived a charmed life thanks to my mother’s prayers, the omnipresent and once-dreaded cod liver oil, and most of all, by being part of a happy home with loving relatives, such as my big brother Rocco.


In retrospect, I suppose my brother Rocco should have been christened Rocco III, after his grandfather and uncle. Whenever I think of him, he brings a smile to my face as I reminisce about the things we have done together and most of all, the joys we have shared.


I am now the oldest living member of our family that still on carries the tradition of naming youngsters Rocco.  My Rocco is our beloved Pekingese dog.  Sometimes I tell him about the men he was named for, and that he should be proud to have such a heritage.  My dog looks at me quizzically, as if he understands.  But don’t get me wrong; I do not believe in reincarnation!


As I have said before, I have lived a charmed life.  Among my few regrets is the fact that the younger members of our family will never have known my wonderful brother Rocco. 

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