Tag Archive | "WWII"

The Summer of 1945

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Dad 1945

 

Summer is, for many, a period of relaxation and reminiscence on the times and events that have impacted our lives.  A time that had a profound impact on my life was the summer of 1945.  On January 18, 1945, I had been inducted into the U.S. Army at Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania.

 

My processing during induction involved receiving the military equipment and supplies I would require for my training.  I also underwent an interview, more along the lines of an interrogation regarding my civilian life.  I was interrogated by a sergeant who asked me the reason I did not complete high school.  I responded “because I was drafted.”  Surprised by the response, the sergeant called for a lieutenant colonel to whom he repeated my statement.  The lieutenant colonel asked me if what I told the sergeant was true.  I said “yes.”  The colonel paused and responded “you are in the Army now.”

 

1945The sergeant continued the interrogation and asked me about my duties during employment at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.  I told him I was an electrician helper who had helped build and launch the Battleship Wisconsin, the Aircraft Carrier Antietam, and six destroyer escorts including repairs on ships of the line.  He then asked me ten electrical questions which I answered correctly.  He said “you are an electrician.”  I responded “please don’t put me on any high-powered equipment.”  He said “don’t worry you are going into the infantry.”

 

After induction, I was sent to Camp Robinson infantry training center near Little Rock, Arkansas for fifteen weeks training.  Here, I learned the art of infantry combat which included physical training, discipline, and bayonet and marching drills as well as the proper use of all the weapons needed by an infantryman.

 

Following my fifteen weeks of infantry basic training, I was sent home for a ten-day leave with orders to report to Fort Meade, Maryland at its conclusion for overseas assignment.  During this time, the Battle of the Bulge was being fought in Europe.

 

During my processing for overseas assignment at Fort Meade, the War in Europe ended.  Instead of going to the European campaign, I was sent to Camp Howze near Gainesville, Texas.  Camp Howze, named for Major Robert E. Lee Howze, a Medal of Honor recipient, was an infantry replacement training center and would serve as my home for six weeks during which I received jungle combat training.

 

On June 7, 1945, I along with my company left for the West Coast to train for the invasion of Japan.  Mock beach landings and climbing 60 foot cargo nets with full field packs and equipment put the finishing touches on my training.

 

On August 10, 1945, I boarded a troopship, the USS Extavia in San Francisco harbor and that evening sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge into the Pacific Ocean.  All the members of my company stood on deck and watched as it disappeared from sight, wondering if we would ever see these shores again.  Six days later, the ship’s captain announced the war had ended.  We all cheered and our Navy gun crew fired the last salvos of World War II.

 

As you can see the summer of 1945 has had a profound impact on my life.  The places I have been and the men I soldiered with are still fresh in my memories.  As I reflect on my life, my proudest moment was when I wore the uniform of the United States Army and pledged my life for the cause of freedom.

 

Camp Howze Grads

 

 

 

A broken trumpet from a sunken warship holds its secrets from WWII

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Howard E. Brooks USS Houston

 

Battered trumpet from sunken warship provides link to World War II tragedy

 

Navy conservator Shanna Daniel carefully cleans a smashed trumpet that was retrieved by a diver from the wreck of the USS Houston, which was sunk in battle by the Japanese in 1942. Navy experts believe the owner’s DNA might be preserved inside the instrument. (Michael Ruane/The Washington Post)

 

By Michael E. Ruane February 2

 

The old, bent trumpet is dripping with water as Shanna Daniel lifts it from its basin in the conservation lab at the Washington Navy Yard.

 

It’s a B-flat horn, made around 1934, with a bell that was smashed in battle, a missing mouthpiece, and brass tubing that is split and pitted.

 

Daniel, in a white lab coat and lavender rubber gloves, rests it on a layer of hard foam and lowers a magnifying light over it. She picks up a surgical scalpel and begins to scrape deposits from the surface.

 

She is very careful. The object has traveled a great distance, and sealed inside may be the DNA of the sailor who played it.

 

The trumpet arrived at the lab 21/2 years ago, handed over by an Australian diver who found it in the wreck of the USS Houston, a World War II cruiser, off the coast of Java in Southeast

 

The Houston, which had been President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s favorite vessel, was the elegant flagship of the Navy’s Asiatic fleet when it was sunk in a fierce battle with the Japanese three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

 

Hundreds of sailors died as the Houston and the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth blundered into the Japanese warships at night and were illuminated by enemy searchlights and attacked.

 

The Allied ships fought valiantly — the Houston fired flares at the enemy when it ran out of ammunition. But the Japanese pounded away with guns and torpedoes. The Perth sank first, followed by the Houston shortly after midnight March 1, 1942.

 

About 650 U.S. sailors, including many members of the Houston’s band, died.

 

Three hundred others survived and most spent the rest of the war in brutal Japanese prison and labor camps.

 

The trumpet, battered in the “sinking event,” as Navy senior conservator Kate Morrand put it, came to rest about 100 feet down as the Houston settled on its starboard side in the murky waters outside Banten Bay, west of Jakarta, Indonesia.

 

Despite its condition, and its 70 years on the bottom of the ocean, the instrument may hold clues to its owner, said Robert S. Neyland, head of the underwater archaeology branch of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

 

Conservators have found the trumpet’s serial number, which helped track its date of manufacture by the C.G. Conn instrument company of Elkhart, Ind.

 

But they’re hoping for more.

 

There is “the possibility of examining the interior of the [trumpet’s] valves and potentially locating some DNA remains of the individual who played the trumpet,” Morrand said in a recent interview at the Navy Yard.

 

It’s a long shot, but the theory is that the owner may have left his DNA when he took it apart to clean it. And, sealed in when he reassembled it and then by seven decades of marine encrustation, the DNA may still be there, Morrand said.

 

“If we could recover DNA, and if there are descendants that we could match with . . . [we could] identify who the owner of the trumpet was,” Neyland said. “It kind of pushes the technology and pushes the science . . . but it would be pretty exciting.”

 

***

 

On Feb. 4, 1942, electrician’s mate Howard E. Brooks, 22, the son of a Tennessee tobacco farmer, was a member of a damage-control team near the Houston’s rear turret when Japanese bombers appeared overhead. The Houston was steaming in the Flores Sea, north of Australia, and as enemy bombs straddled the ship, Brooks was called to fix an ammunition hoist elsewhere on the vessel.

 

While he was away from his post, a 500-pound bomb struck near the turret, and when Brooks returned, he witnessed a scene of carnage. Scores of shipmates lay dead or dying. And the massive turret, with its three huge guns, was askew and on fire. Inside, there was nothing left of the turret officer except for his shoes and a hand still wearing a Naval Academy ring, according to a history of the ship.

 

“Oh, boy,” Brooks, now 96 and one of the few living Houston survivors, said he thought to himself. “This is war. It came so quick.”

 

It was nine weeks after Pearl Harbor, and the tide of Japanese conquest was sweeping across the Pacific.

 

In a recent interview at his home in Mount Laurel, N.J., Brooks said that when the attack ended, the Houston, damaged but seaworthy, steamed for the friendly port of Tjilatjap on the island of Java.

 

En route, the dead were collected, put in canvas bags and laid out on the fantail, he said. Once in port, the crew built coffins for the 48 men killed, a Houston officer, Walter G. Winslow, wrote later. And as the coffins were carried ashore, the ship’s band played Chopin’s funeral march.

 

Japan announced that the Houston had been sunk. The announcement was premature.

 

***

 

In the summer of 2013, Australian diver Frank Craven, 68, was diving with a group on the wrecks of the USS Houston and HMAS Perth. The ships were about three miles apart, near the mouth of Banten Bay.

 

The water was warm, the current was strong and the divers had to pull themselves down on anchored ropes.

 

Visibility was poor. And Craven, a retired cattle rancher who lives north of Sydney, was an older, less-experienced diver. He thought he must be crazy. “Hardest dive of my life,” he texted his son.

 

But his mother’s first husband had been killed on the Perth. She had just died, and he wanted to leave a lock of her hair in the wreckage.

 

The next day, the divers went to the Houston, he said in an email.

 

The ship, which had hosted Roosevelt on four cruises in the 1930s, rested on its side. Its prow was broken off and there were holes in its hull made by enemy torpedoes, according to a 2014 U.S. Navy survey of the wreck.

 

Remnants of its 60-foot-high foremast were present, as well as evidence of damage caused by Japanese shell fire. There were no visible human remains. But the ship’s fuel oil was still leaking and drifting to the surface.

 

As Craven swam along the keel with an underwater flashlight, he noticed hundreds of ammunition shell casings, large and small. “What a battle they must have had,” he said he thought.

 

Then, amid the shell casings and other wreckage of war, he spotted a trumpet.

 

He wondered: “Who would be playing a trumpet in the middle of a battle?”

 

He picked it up and brought it to the surface, thinking he might somehow get it back to the United States.

 

***

 

By Feb. 28, 1942, the Houston and the Perth were two survivors of an Allied force of American, British, Dutch and Australian ships that had been decimated by the Japanese navy. Five Allied ships were lost, along with more than 2,000 sailors.

 

The two were steaming under a full moon on a calm sea, headed west for the Sunda Strait, which separates Java from Sumatra, according to Winslow’s account.

 

If they could get through, they might escape the Japanese onslaught and make for Australia. On the damaged Houston, only six of nine heavy guns were working. Both ships were low on fuel.

 

The Houston was at “condition 2,” Howard Brooks remembered. “You’re not manning your guns, but you’re sleeping by them.” He was up on deck, under the guns of the rear turret, clad only in white skivvies because of the hot night.

 

Suddenly, about 11:30 p.m., there were gun flashes from the Perth as it fired on an enemy vessel it had spotted. “That’s what woke us all up,” Brooks said.

 

“The next thing we knew, the whole sky lit up” with flares fired by the enemy, he said.

 

The battle of the Sunda Strait had begun.

 

The two Allied ships had stumbled on a huge enemy force in the process of landing troops in Banten Bay. The Houston and the Perth found themselves virtually surrounded and assailed from all sides. Brooks said enemy vessels came so close that Japanese sailors could be seen on the decks of their ships.

 

The fighting went on for less than an hour, when about 12:10 a.m., the Perth was spotted in the distance, sinking, recalled Winslow, the Houston officer.

 

All enemy guns were now trained on the Houston. “From that moment on . . . we began a savage fight to the death,” he wrote.

 

The Houston held its own for a time but then was hit by three torpedoes. It slowed and began to sink. The captain ordered the crew to abandon ship.

 

Brooks grabbed a gray kapok life jacket, and as the ship slowly rolled over, he clambered down the hull and jumped into the water.

 

“I wasn’t scared,” he said. “I wasn’t frantic. I’m saying, ‘Well, what do I do now?’ ” He reached a life raft filled with injured sailors and hung on. As they watched, he said, the sinking Houston was illuminated by enemy searchlights, its battle flag still flying from the rear mast, he said.

 

He couldn’t recall whether anybody said anything when the ship sank. But he remembered how silently it went down.

 

Three years later, when Brooks and other POWs were finally freed from Japanese captivity, their American liberators questioned them: “Sailors? What ship were you on?”

 

The USS Houston.

 

“Never heard of it,” he said the rescuers replied.

 

***

 

When the Houston sank, 11 members of its 18-man band went down with it, according to researcher Marlene Morris McCain, whose father, Edgar, played trombone in the band and survived the sinking.

 

Those who perished included Severyn “Steve” Dymanowski of Gary, Ind., who played trumpet. Three others known to have played the trumpet in the band survived the sinking, but they died in the 1960s and ’70s.

 

The instrument Frank Craven found may have belonged to one of those four.

 

A week after his dive, Craven emailed John K. Schwarz, head of the USS Houston CA-30 Survivors’ Association and Next Generations, to say he had found the trumpet and wanted to give it to the association.

 

Schwarz, whose father, Otto, also was a Houston survivor, thanked Craven but said that the wreck remained the property of the Navy and that it was illegal to remove objects from it.

 

Like all the untold stories of America’s wars that fill in the blanks of history special thanks go to The Washington Post and the excellent reporting of Michael E. Ruane and Matt McClain for this story, which was republished as a tribute to the friends and family of Howard E. Brooks and his brother in arms. This story would have been lost in the passages of time but for two of Howard’s church friends Banjo Joe Dougherty and his lovely wife Ilene.

 

On April 19th 2016 Howard E. Brooks was laid to rest at Brigadier General Douglas C. Doyle Veterans Cemetery in Wrightstown, New Jersey with full military honors in the passing parade of America’s Heroes.

 

 

Remembering D-Day

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June 6, 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the planned invasion of the Normandy coast during World War II.  The assembly of American and Allied forces in preparation for the invasion had England bulging at the seams, and a long stretch of bad weather with little hope for improvement had stalled the invasion plans.  General Dwight D Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of American and Allied Forces, was anxiously awaiting a break in the weather.  With his troops ready to go, how long could he delay without the enemy detecting the plan?  Finally, his meteorologists informed that there would be a brief window in time during which the weather would break.  Without hesitation, he gave the order to “Go.”

 

The plan was to drop airborne troops behind enemy fortifications on the Normandy coast.  Their mission was to secure vital roads that could supply reinforcements to the German defenders along the Atlantic wall.  The group selected for this critical component of the plan was comprised of the American 82nd and 101st and the British 6th airborne divisions to be deployed in the predawn hours just before the amphibious invasion.

 

They say that the “best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” and General Eisenhower’s plans were no exception.  The 101st airborne missed its drop zone with paratroopers scattered in low-lying marshland, and the 82nd airborne was accidentally dropped into the heavily-defended town of Saint Mare Inglese and sustained heavy casualties.

 

The amphibious landings were codenamed Operation Neptune.  The target 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast was divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword Beach.  The first two sectors would be landed upon by American forces; the latter three by British and Canadian troops.  The key to the invasion plans was the French city of Caen.  The responsibility for securing the city was delegated to British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.  But, this would not happen on that fateful day.

 

Also, the Allied naval bombardment of Omaha Beach fell short of its mark, and the aerial bombardment missed its targets, leaving the amphibious forces at Omaha Beach staring down the barrels of German artillery and gunfire.  This was witnessed by General Omar Bradley standing on the bridge of the Battleship Augusta and, at one point, he seriously considered calling off the attack.  But, as fate would have it, a company of Rangers missed their zone, landed at Omaha Beach, and bolstered the attack.  At the end of a long day, the American and Allied forces managed to secure a beachhead on Fortress Europe.  And, within a year, they would defeat Hitler’s Germany on May 8, 1945.

 

On June 6, 1944, I was 17 years old and working at the Philadelphia Naval shipyard as an electrician’s helper when President Franklin D Roosevelt summoned the American people to prayer.  He knew that, at that moment, the American and Allied forces were storming the beaches of the Normandy coast and, in his prayer, he prepared the American people for the realities of war.  Four months later, on my 18th birthday, I received a notice to report for the draft, and by December, I was drafted into United States Army.  That Christmas would be the last that I celebrated at home for two years.

 

After induction, I was sent to the Camp Robinson, near Little Rock, Arkansas, for infantry basic training, and after completing 15 weeks of basic training, I returned home for a 10-day leave before reporting for overseas assignment at Fort Meade, Maryland.   When I arrived at Fort Meade, the War in Europe had ended, and all eyes focused on the Pacific Theater where the war was still raging.  Subsequently, I was sent to Camp Howze, Texas for 6 weeks of jungle training, and upon completion, was transported to the West Coast for participation in a prospective final invasion of Japan, codenamed Operation Downfall.

 

Early in August 1945, I boarded the troopship USS Extavia.  That evening, I, along with other soldiers embarking for Japan, sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and watched from the ship’s deck until its image disappeared from sight.   I wondered if I’d ever see these shores again.  Six days later, the ship’s Captain announced the Japanese surrender.  All on board the ship cheered, and our Navy gun crew fired a salute for the occasion.  We continued our journey to our next landfall, Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands.

 

After three days of loading on provisions, we sailed until we reached Ulithi atoll in the Carolina Islands.  We didn’t know it then, but this would have been the site for the gathering of ships for the final invasion of Japan, an Armada the size of which would dwarf the Normandy Armada.  We stayed there for a few days and then continued on a journey that would take us to the island of Leyte in the Philippine Islands and the 8th Army Replacement Center near the town of Tacloban.  With the ending of World War II, replacements were needed to replace men from other units that were going home.  Because of my electrical background, I was transferred from infantry to the 24th Signal Company of the 24th Infantry Division on the island of Mindanao.

 

In mid-September, we joined a giant task force to secure and occupy the islands of Japan.  Our ship dropped us off at a town named Matsuyama on the island of Shikoko on or about October 7, 1945, just day before my 19th birthday.  Shikoko would be our home for the next couple of months.  Early in 1946, the 24th Division moved to the main island of Honshu to replace his Majesty’s Royal Cameron Highlanders stationed at Okayama.  It was like a page out of a Rudyard Kipling novel with kilted Scotsman and bagpipes.  Before they departed, they put on a show that included a dance.  I guess it was the Highland fling.  After a few months, the 24th Division was ordered to move to the southernmost island of Kyushu.  Our company set up headquarters at the Kitagawa racetrack near the town of Kokura.  This would be our final destination in Japan until our replacements arrived.

 

All of these events, although occurring 70 years ago, are still fresh in my memory – as I am certain they are in the thoughts and memories of others who served our country during and in the aftermath of World War II.  The War in Europe, Pearl Harbor, the American entry into World War II, the Normandy Invasion, the German surrender, the deployments of the atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the surrender of Japan all seem as if they recently occurred.  Clearly, they have left an indelible mark on me and others of my generation.  As I think back to America’s role and my own small contribution to the war effort, I am proud of my country and its leadership in saving large portions of the world from the threat of tyranny.  As much of today’s world cowers from threats including terrorism, a Russian bear seemingly intent on reassembling the old Soviet Union, a resurgent Iran, and China’s expanding economic and military power, America’s leadership is again needed to ensure the safety and security of those who wish to live in freedom.  One can only hope that we as a nation can summon the collective will and courage to meet today’s challenges, just as we did in the dark days leading up to D-Day, June 6th, 1944.

Nicky Blue

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Lately, my email system’s in-box has been filled with out-of-the-ordinary messages.  Sadly, the last of these was from the grandson of a dear friend, informing me that his grandfather has passed on.  Thus, I am moved to write this tribute to an extraordinary man who touched my life.


My friend was baptized Nicholas J. Prestipino in 1923.  Nicky, as he would come to be called, was raised in an ethnically mixed South Philadelphia neighborhood, in the vicinity of 10th and Ritner Streets: my neighborhood.  Although he was three years older than I was during the Great Depression, we grew up together and even attended the same schools.  It was during these years that he was nicknamed Nicky Blue, a moniker that would stick with him until he was laid to rest.


En route to our manhood, something happened that would forever change our lives.  When World War II erupted, it subjected men between the ages of 18 and 45 to the draft.  Enlisted into the armed forces, many boys from our neighborhood were called to serve their country.


Nicky was inducted into the Army and trained for the Infantry.  His tour of duty would take him to the theater of war known as China, Burma, and India (CBI).  By chance, two other neighborhood boys serving in an Ordinance company were sent to the same arena.  Their names were Anthony Didio and James (Jimmy) Celotto.


Because of the different branches of the service into which they were inducted, these three young men did not serve together.  Anthony recalls that while stationed in China, he and Jimmy decided one day to visit a local airfield to watch planes arrive and depart for various destinations.  As they watched a plane taxiing along the runway in order to refuel, they were surprised and delighted to see Nicky Blue among the men deplaning.  For a brief period, all three had a joyous reunion.


Nicky told Anthony and Jimmy that he was assigned to Mars Task Force Company G, 475th Regiment, as a heavy machine gunner.  Nick said that his company was bound for Burma to battle the Japanese occupying that country. After the plane refueled, Nick had to climb aboard to continue on in his journey as a gunner. As Anthony and Jimmy watched him board, Anthony turned to Jimmy and said, “This is the last time we’ll see Nicky Blue alive.”


The story of the war in that region proved to have heavy American and Allied causalities; it had been a near impossible task to repel the occupying Japanese.  So vivid and poignant were these stories that Hollywood made two movies about this arm of the war, naming the films Merrill’s Marauders, starring Jeff Chandler, and Objective Burma, with Errol Flynn in the lead role.  Thankfully, Anthony and Jimmy had been wrong about Nicky Blue.  His courage and smarts enabled him to survive what so many had not.


When the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, World War II came to an abrupt end.  With its end came the return home of those soldiers who had endured this long conflict.  As the boys returned one by one to our neighborhood, they gathered on the corner of 10th and Ritner Streets to re-forge the connection that the war had interrupted. From these informal meetings, Club Gramercy was born.  This was a social club in which we spent many pleasant hours in pursuit of our past.


As time passed, many of the boys — now men — married and drifted away to pursue family life.  But in 1986, two members met across a meat counter in a Northeast Philadelphia supermarket and decided to bring the boys together again.  These two friends were Baby Joe Carabasi and Tony Griffoni.  Through networking, they accomplished the first meeting of 12 friends at the home of Amadea (John) Adelizzi in Palmyra, New Jersey, a conference of sorts for The Boys of 10th and Ritner.


Within six months, our numbers had more than quadrupled.  Fifty-four friends showed up at Vitale’s Restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia for the first official meeting of The Boys from 10th and Ritner.  These meetings continued for more than ten years at Cobblestones Bar & Grill in South Philly.  We celebrated our 10-year anniversary in 1996 at the Coastline Restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.


Over meals and a little wine, we relived our youth, told war stories and jokes, and shared news of happenings that pertained to us. Today, our members have dwindled to but a few.  Our ages and our accompanying ailments have put up roadblocks to our physical gatherings, but we do keep in touch by phone and email.


When I received the news of Nicky’s death by email, I contacted Joe DeGenova and Anthony Didio to inform them, and to ask them to pass the information on to our other surviving members.  Perhaps not surprisingly, both Joe and Anthony had the same response when hearing the news: “I can’t believe that Nicky Blue is gone!”  Neither could I, because Nicky had always had that “larger than life” personality. 


My wife and I used to gather with special friends every July at the Golden Inn in Avalon, New Jersey.  One year we were introduced to a new couple that spent the weekend with us.  In conversation, they told us that they resided in Hammonton, New Jersey.  This caused me to ask if they knew Nicky Blue Prestipino.  With a broad smile on his face, the husband   replied, “Everybody knows Nicky Blue!”  Indeed, Nicky seemed to touch the lives of all whom he encountered.


An unforgettable person, just saying that nickname, “Nicky Blue,” brings a smile to my face and the face of anyone who knew him.  Nicky has become a legend amongst family and friends. Not just an ordinary person, he exhibited extraordinary courage fighting in the jungles of Burma during the war, and the memories of that war haunted him until the end.  Perhaps that is why Nicky still retained his great zest for life.


In my last conversation with Joe DeGenova, as we reflected upon our lives, Joe told me:


“Treasure your yesterdays.

Dream your tomorrows.

And live your todays.”


I know Nicky Blue lived his life by that motto. A beloved member of The Boys of 10th and Ritner, he will be greatly missed by the surviving members of our group.  We offer the final salute in saying “Goodbye, Nicky Blue,” as we have to all of our members who preceded him into the Kingdom of Heaven.


D-Day Remembered

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For some of us, June 6, 1944 is nothing more than a random date in history. But for others, that date will never be forgotten. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (a.k.a., The Desert Fox) of the Axis forces had predicted that June 6, 1944 would prove to be the longest day in history. Rommel was right. Known now as D-Day, June 6, 1944 was the day on which one of the most epic battles of the Second World War was waged. The outcome of what occurred that day would determine ultimate victory, or ultimate defeat, in that long, bloody conflict.


They say that time heals all wounds. But there are some survivors of that battle who cannot speak of it — for the things that they witnessed and the things in which they participated were unspeakable. Those who can verbally relate the scene at Normandy that day describe it tersely as ranging from “sheer hell” to “pandemonium.” But words are inadequate to describe the feelings of the men on the beach that day, the sands that would later bear the name “Bloody Omaha.”


Omaha Beach, in Normandy, France, was more than a strategic territory in the war; it was vital, for it linked the Allied Forces in their efforts against their Axis foes. For Rommel, it did turn out to be the longest day. The Allies’ victory at Omaha enabled them to secure a stronghold upon Fortress Europe; in less than a year, they would achieve victory in Europe.


But it was a victory that came with enormous sacrifice.


Most who landed on the beach that day were young, green soldiers with little or no combat experience. Many of them were Americans, joined by their fellow British soldiers-in-arms. There was nothing to prepare these young men for the horror into which they were about to step, a merciless attack from their enemies.


From the deck of the American battleship Augusta, General Omar Bradley watched the nightmare unfold. After witnessing the initial carnage, he made preparations to abandon the assault. But as fate would have it, a company of Rangers arrived as critical fortification.


Today, the beaches of Normandy are silent, but the memories linger on. Each year on the anniversary of D-Day, French locals, families of the deceased, and veterans of that war gather to honor and respect their fallen heroes and loved ones.


To the veterans who survived the war, and who fought on the beaches, in the jungles, and in the deep waters of the oceans, D-Day serves as a reminder of their contributions to World War II. With the sobering memories of June 6, 1944 also comes a sense of pride, for having worn the uniform of the United States military. And with that pride come prayers for our casualties of war.


The old refrain of the song “The Way We Were” tells us that, “what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.” And, yet, we will never forget D-Day and those who made amazing sacrifices to the cause of freedom.


This article is dedicated to Corporal Carmine S. Farnolo, who was there at Omaha Beach. Carmine was attached to the 9th Army Air Corps, 409th Flight Group, 512th Squad. Now 86 years old and fast approaching his 87th birthday, Carmine remembers D-Day with utter clarity. But those memories live in his heart, for he is among those who will not speak of that day.


Get Out of Jail Free

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To those of you born into the greatest generation of our time, you know the game Monopoly as the family entertainment of its era.  But what you may not know is that, strangely enough, this game was used to help the Allied Forces win World War II.


In 1941, after being shot down and captured, many British airmen found themselves involuntary guests of the Third Reich.  With RAF (Royal Air Force) in short supply of pilots, the British military began to craft plans for the captured pilots’ escape and return to duty.


Fearing nothing but fear itself, the resourceful Brits had planned to have information available to all captured RAF pilots.  This data included maps marked with safe havens that would afford food and shelter once the pilots had escaped the camps and been repatriated to England.  By necessity, the medium that contained this vital information had to be both concealed and durable.


Paper was initially considered as the medium, but it did not meet the qualifications of durability.  Then, someone in MI-5 (British OSS) came up with the idea of printing the information on silk.  The material was durable, easily concealed, and met all the qualifications.


The search for a manufacturer capable of printing on silk brought them to the only company to have perfected this process: John Waddington, Ltd.  When asked to do the job, the firm graciously accepted in order to help the war effort.  But, by sheer coincidence, John Waddington, Ltd. also was the U.K. licensee of the popular American board game, Monopoly.


This strange coincidence laid the groundwork for conveying escape material via the Red Cross, which included pastime games in the care packages that it sent to prisoners of war.  Thus, did Monopoly put the icing on the cake for one of the most effective escape weapons ever contrived.


In collaboration, the British Intelligence and Waddington, Ltd. selected a group of workers sworn to secrecy.  This cadre began mass producing the maps for camps in every region in which RAF prisoners were held.  When the maps were produced, they could be folded into tiny dots and inserted in Monopoly playing pieces.  In addition to this inspired genius, the clever workers managed to add the following:


  • A playing token containing a small magnetic compass,
  • Two metal components that could be screwed together to fashion a metal file, and
  • Useful amounts of genuine high-denomination currency (German, Italian, and French), hidden in piles 
        of Monopoly money packs.


British and American pilots were advised that a small red dot located in the Free Parking section on the game board, appearing as nothing more than a printing error, distinguished the games that contained vital information.  The utmost of secrecy surrounded this brilliant strategy.  None who came to use the information for escape purposes divulged it.  Until 2007, every pilot who had used the secreted data to escape the Axis Forces kept this true wartime tale confidential.  Of the 35,000 escaped WWII POWs, approximately one-third attributed their return to duty to the game of Monopoly!


Hollywood has produced movies about POWs, such as the “Great Escape and Stalag 17.”  But, due to secrecy, the filmmakers never new about the special Monopoly games.


After declassification in 2007, in a public ceremony, John Waddington, Ltd. and the surviving members of the select group of craftsmen were honored for their contributions.   So, the next time you play Monopoly and draw a “Get out of jail free card,” give consideration to the double entrendre and the small, wondrous piece of history that you hold in your hand. 


The Way We Were

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With the change in the weather brings thoughts of spring after a long hard winter. It’s the time of year when Mother Nature ushers in the birth of all things; it’s a time to reminisce.


They say that with age comes wisdom, and rightly so.  But after experiencing a lifetime upon which to reflect, I wonder where we went wrong … particularly since it seemed to start out right.


My formative years were spent in South Philadelphia, where I grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood during the Great Depression.  Life was hard during that Depression, but it was also much simpler.  Then, my family’s chief concerns were the basics of life: food, shelter, and clothing.  The family, in fact, was the center of our existence.


Sharing my joys and sorrows with my brothers and parents gave me, and indeed, all of us, a sense of unity and security.  Dad supplied the needs of the family while Mom managed the household duties.  Religion also was part of our lives.  It helped to mold our characters by instilling humility and kindness into our lives.


Although times were hard, life was not unpleasant.  Family outings and visits to friends and relatives, punctuated with much laughter and good times, brought peace and serenity to our lives.  I guess you really could call them “the good old days.”


During the Great Depression, we had few amenities such as people enjoy today. The main modes of travel were automobiles and public transportation. There was no air conditioning back then, and no one had a telephone in his or her home.  Health insurance had yet to emerge, and television had yet to be invented.  Credit cards were still a thing of the future.  Yet, we all survived.


We did have gas appliances, hot water, and forced-air heat. For entertainment, we had Victrolas™, local movie houses, and the radio.  This was the Golden Age of Radio.  The music was good, and the radio also offered mystery stories, such as The Shadow, that sent chills up the spines of every single family member.  We looked forward to gathering around the radio for fun.


Other forms of entertainment were really up to the individual.  We walked and hiked to explore our world.  We played street games or listened to a public concert at a local park, which made life more pleasant.  I can clearly recall sitting by the Wissahickon Creek on warm summer afternoons, listening as the water rushed and gurgled through the valley.  That is a fond, lasting memory for me.


Then something happened that would forever change our lives: World War II came along.  With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America was plunged into war and many young people grew up overnight.  In the process, thousands of men from ages 18 to 45 years old were conscripted into the military.  In the work force, particularly in the factories, women stepped in to fill the shoes of the men drafted into service. 


Those were the days when the patriotic spirit of America flourished throughout the land. War bond sales and Hollywood stars joined forces to defeat our enemies.  USOs sprang up around the nation to offer a home away from home to our servicemen.


After four and a half years of bloody war, America emerged victorious on September 2, 1945.  The introduction of the atomic bomb put an end to the conflict and propelled the troops to return home.  There, we tried to pick up the pieces of our lives and move on into the future.


The immediate postwar years were bleak.  There was too much manpower and not enough jobs.  Factory wages were less than $2.00 an hour and the need for housing to accommodate newlyweds was on the horizon.


As we slowly moved into the future, enterprising real estate developers, such as Levitt in Pennsylvania, offered burgeoning new families modest dwellings in suburban locations, thus creating the exodus of many city dwellers to suburbia.  Along with the introduction of television, this industry spurred our economy with the need for more jobs to satisfy the wants of new home buyers.  Happy days were here again!


The fly in the ointment was the banking industry.  Back then, banks followed stringent standards when supplying loans to people without collateral.  A rule of thumb in procuring a loan was that one week of the loan recipient’s monthly income had to cover his mortgage payment.


Enterprising businessmen saw the opportunity of establishing credit to these borrowers, by offering store credit cards.  It seemed a good solution to the problem.  Hence, the system of credit scores evolved.  As we continued to move into the future, the economy improved, bringing more jobs and higher wages.


America was on a roller coaster ride.  We climbed high and exuberantly as Wall Street experienced record sales with an inflated economy.  However, the threat of financial collapse waited around the bend.  The ride, you see, was dictated by banking institutions and the very watchful eyes of the government.  The banks had to remain prudent in their lending practices; in turn, those practices were to be monitored by the SEC (Securities Exchange Commission).  Obviously, the banks and the government loosened their vigilance, for in September of 2008, we experienced another crash on Wall Street.


Barbara Streisand once had a hit song bearing the same title as this article.  Her haunting words still ring in my ears, “What’s too painful to remember is so very hard to forget.”  That just about says it all.


As I sit typing this article of reminiscence about the America in which I grew up, and the America in which we live today, I recall the Native American portrayed in a poignant, old commercial.  A tear ran down his face as he watched this beautiful land turn into a garbage dump.  Indeed, “where did we go wrong?” 


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.

Remembering the Greatest Generation

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To the best of my knowledge, my grandfather Rocco Petruzzelli was born in Italy in 1865.  In 1896, he left his homeland and the village of Castelluccio Valmaggiore near Foggia / Apulia, Italy and set out for America, leaving his son and my father Donato – born a matter of months earlier on October 31, 1895 – with relatives.  Apparently, Rocco’s wife and the mother of Donato, Filomena (nee Schiavone) died during or shortly after childbirth.


Upon arrival in America, my grandfather settled in Roseto, Pennsylvania, an enclave populated primarily by Italian immigrants and named for the village of Roseto Valfortore in Italy.  There, he met and married Giovanna Campanaro and, shortly thereafter, sent word to Italy for his son to join him.


Donato, then age 5, left Castelluccio accompanied by Domenico Rosso, a family friend from the village.  Years later, he told me that when he left home, he was riding on the back of a donkey and that, as he and Domenico departed, the villagers came out to wave goodbye.


They arrived in New York City, America in January 1901.  Anxiously awaiting their arrival, my grandfather somehow missed them as they landed at the dock.  Frantic, he contacted the New York Police, and they searched the entire area to no avail.  The police advised him to return to Roseto where, they reasoned, the person accompanying him would likely go.  Arriving home, Rocco found that his son and friend had preceded him from New York.  Safe and sound in Roseto, a joyous reunion and celebration commenced.


The Petruzzelli family continued to reside and grow in Roseto.  Not a skilled worker, my grandfather worked laborious jobs to eke out a living.  When there was no work available, he would strap a small grinding wheel on his back and seek out opportunities to sharpen knives, scissors, and various types of cutting tools.  Often, the search for work would find him walking to other towns.  One year, he walked all the way to Pittsburgh, a distance of more than 250 miles, sharpening knives and tools to provide for his family.


Nine years later, he moved his family to Philadelphia in an effort to enhance his own employment prospects and the quality of life for his family.  They settled in South Philadelphia residing in a house at 1240 South Iseminger Street.   My grandfather secured a job as a laborer with the Philadelphia Street Department, and in 1912 at the age of 47, proudly became a Naturalized Citizen of the United States of America.   At the time, his wife Giovanna (Joanne) was 14 years his junior, and they lived with their five children – Donato age 17, Filomena 8, Lucia 5, Jane 3, and Nicholas 1.


A few short years later, they purchased a home in the 1100 Block of Cross Street that would be our extended family’s gathering place in the years to follow and their residence for the remainder of my grandparents’ lives.  Here, they had two more sons, Biagio (Bill) and Rocco Jr., bringing the family total to 7 children.  When the United States entered World War l, my father Donato left this home, enlisted in the United States Navy, and served until he was Honorably Discharged on September 3, 1919.


In 1942, my grandmother Giovanna passed away only to be followed a few short months later by my grandfather Rocco.  Both were laid to rest in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania.  At the times of their deaths, the winds of war were fanning the flames of World War II in Europe and the Pacific.  Ultimately, three of their sons, Nicholas, Biagio, and Rocco Jr., as well as their grandson, Thomas, would all make contributions to America’s war effort.


Today at age 83, I am the oldest living member of the Petruzzelli family and filled with fond memories.  I recall a trip to Roseto with my grandparents at the age of 8.  We spent a week visiting my grandmother’s relatives.  As a city boy, I found it a wonderful experience seeing how they lived in the country.  They raised chickens and had vegetable gardens and grape arbors that stretched from the chicken coops to the house.  They even had a goat that produced milk.  Offered a glass of it, I found it strange drinking warm milk, and everyone had a good laugh at the look on my face as I drank it.


At every opportunity, I try to instill in my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren their Italian heritage in hopes that they will know about their cultural roots when I am gone.  As I reflect on my own life, I realize that my most enjoyable times were spent in the company of family and friends.


Tom Brokaw, a well-known journalist and news anchorperson on NBC, wrote a book entitled The Greatest Generation.  It was the story of the generation of Americans who lived through The Great Depression and then fought and won World War ll.  And, I am very proud at being numbered among that group.


Yet, Tom Brokaw never met men like my grandfather and all the other Western European immigrants who left their homelands to come to America seeking a new and better life for themselves and their families, many arriving with just the clothes on their backs.  In my estimation, it is they who are worthy of the designation as “The Greatest Generation.”


VJ Day, 1945

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August 6, 1945 was no ordinary day.  Although the Allied Forces had achieved victory in Europe, World War II still raged on in the Pacific Theater.  The Japanese were, and remain to this day, an extremely proud race.  Demonstrating their resolve at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, they preferred to fight to the death rather than face dishonor by surrendering.  Many Japanese pilots became kamikazes: the equivalent of human bombs.  The devastation they left behind made the war more costly to the Allies, and the Japanese had hoped that we would cave in by suing for peace.   Even Japanese civilians were trained to counterattack their enemies with anything that could kill or main.  This included hastily fashioned weapons such as sharpened bamboo stalks.


The war had begun during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.  FDR had vowed that we would achieve unconditional surrender from our enemies.  When Harry S. Truman assumed the Presidency after FDR’s death, he was honor-bound to fulfill the wishes of his former Commander-in-Chief. And fulfill them, he did.


The atom bomb, or A-bomb, was classified as Top Secret.  Testing at Alamogordo, New Mexico revealed that this weapon represented an incredible, unprecedented level of destruction.   So secret was it that those on the “Need to Know” list were a relative handful.


With the A-bomb, the planned invasion of Japan was on the drawing board, along with the date, the time, and calculated cost of life.  President Truman agonized over whether to drop the bomb on a city, rather than a military target, or follow the original invasion plan and pay the price in American casualties.  In the end, he ordered that the city of Hiroshima be bombed on August 6, 1945.  On that day, accompanied by two other B-29 bombers, the Enola Gay unleashed the power of the atom and initiated the Atomic Age, devastating the city of Hiroshima.  After bombing another city, Nagasaki, Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.


August 14, 1945 was declared VJ day.  All across America and the rest of the free world, crowds gathered and cheered to commemorate the peace for which we had prayed for four long years.  The famous photograph of a sailor spontaneously and joyously kissing a girl in New York City’s Times Square echoed the world’s elation.  The photo was widely circulated and reproduced.  Today a statue of this couple still stands in Sarasota, Florida; no doubt, other likenesses stand elsewhere in our nation.


On August 14, 2010, a reenactment of that scene will be held in Times Square to commemorate the surrender of Japan to the Allied Forces in the Pacific.


It was 65 years ago when that sailor kissed that girl.  As he was planting that kiss, I was sailing on a troopship in the Pacific Ocean, heading — literally — for a baptism by fire.  I was part of a massive armada sent to invade Japan.  But when the Captain of our ship announced Japan’s surrender, the invasion was no longer necessary.  Thus, I served my country in another capacity, by occupying Japan for a full year.  From October 1945 through September 1946, my fellow soldiers and I — Americans and European Allies — ensured the stabilization of Japan subsequent to its surrender.


I was recently interviewed by a reporter from The Courier Post, for an article that the newspaper is running with respect to VJ Day.  After she finished the formal interview, the reporter asked me, “As a veteran of that war, how do you feel about us no longer celebrating the days that finalized World War II — VE Day and VJ Day?”


I answered, “August 6th was not the official end of the war.  That took place in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.  That is another day that is not celebrated; another day that gets lost in the Labor Day weekend, like other holidays set aside to honor God and country.”


Maybe something that occurred 65 years ago has no meaning to those who weren’t there.  But it still means something to me.  Those who sacrificed themselves for that war did so to protect the lives and fundamental freedoms of Americans as well as all who were oppressed, tortured, and murdered by the Axis Forces.


It has been rightly said that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  For that reason, the study of World War II is immensely important and the reason why Americans and, for that matter, all inhabitants of this planet should both remember and commemorate events like VJ Day.


Related Post:  VJ Day: August 14th

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