Tag Archive | "WWII"

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.” 

The Strange Saga of Private Joseph A. Ermilio

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Have you ever had the experience in which you’d met a person for the first time and felt as if you had known him or her before?  Here in the States, we deem this a form of psychic phenomenon; the French call such occurrences deja vu.   No matter what you choose to call it, the experience leaves you a bit awestruck, and perhaps more than a bit.  You realize that life is not random, that it has a pattern, and even a purpose.  And sometimes you realize that, through your experience, you are meant to share what you have learned with others for an even higher purpose.  That is my aim in sharing this true tale with you.


My own deja vu begins in South Philadelphia, when I was boy during the 1930’s. Growing up in the vicinity of 10th and Ritner Streets, my contemporaries and I were, for the most part, the children of hard-working, God-fearing immigrants.  Life was pleasant in my boyhood.  It would be years before the streets of Philadelphia were choked with cars, so it was easy for the kids in the neighborhood to have some good, clean fun playing stickball and other games in the streets.  Although I had my own circle of friends, I also had those “familiar strangers” that we all have in our lives.  Mine were the boys with whom I attended the same school.  I’d see them in the halls and around the neighborhood; although I’d recognized many faces and had casual encounters with the owners of those faces, I was “tight,” as we say today, with my own group.


In the blink of an eye, a single event forever changed my life as well as many other lives — an event that forced boys to become men overnight.  On the morning of December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, thus providing our President, FDR, with the impetus to enter the United States into that long, bloody campaign known as World War II. I was not yet of military age, and neither were most of my friends and peers.  But as the war dragged on and more birthdays passed, Uncle Sam caught up with us via the draft.


One of the boys drafted from my South Philly neighborhood was Joseph A. Ermilio.  While Joseph was not a close friend of mine, I knew him from the neighborhood.  Enlisted into the Army on April 22, 1943, he trained as infantry and was not the first member of his family to serve his country in WWII; his brother Vincent was drafted in July of 1942.  After fifteen weeks of basic training, Joseph was slated to see active duty in the European theater.  There, he found himself in the heat of an invasion of Italy’s coast, near the resort towns of Anzio and Nettuno.


There is an Old Italian saying attesting to the beauty of Naples: “Vedi Napoli, poi morire” translates to,  “See Naples, then die.”  Unfortunately, during World War II, many American soldiers did just that.


In the predawn hours of January 22, 1944, British and American forces stormed the beautiful beaches in a flawless attack that caught the German defenders completely off guard.  Their high command had never expected an invasion in the months of January or February.  One paratrooper attached to the 82nd Airborne Division remarked, “It was a warm, sunny day and you could hardly believe that there was a war going on — and that I was in the middle of it.”


Securing the beaches, the Allies drove the Germans inland, then stopped to regroup.  This small pause in our offense allowed the Germans to counterattack, with a vengeance.  In next four months, the Allied troops would see some of the most savage fighting in this war.


It was during this time that Joseph became a casualty of war, listed as killed in action. At home, the news of his death spread throughout the neighborhood.  By the time Japan had surrendered to the Allies, Joseph A. Ermilio would be the sole casualty of all the South Philly neighborhood boys who had served in WW II.


With the war ending, all of the neighborhood boys, who were now men who’d served our country, gathered at the corner of 10th and Ritner to form a Social Club, which we called Club Gramercy.  As time passed, we all got married and drifted apart, as people do when they assume family life and the obligations that accompany it.


Many years later, in 1986 to be exact, two members of our club, Baby Joe Carabasi and Tony Griffoni, ran into each other in a supermarket in the Greater Northeast section of Philadelphia.  They vowed to get the old gang back together by networking through people that they both knew.  Baby Joe and Tony cobbled together a list, a list upon which the names of the original fifty-four club members emerged. In October of 1986, the first meeting of the Boys Of 10th and Ritner (nee, Club Gramercy) was held at Vitale’s Restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia.


Over the years, my friends and fellow soldiers celebrated a ten-year anniversary at the Coastline Restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Today, we are but a handful of that old gang and do not meet as often as we did.  But we do keep in touch.  In the many meetings we attended together, one name always came up whenever we would discuss what we’d seen and done overseas, during the war. That name was Chatty Joe Ermilio, a nickname given to Joseph by one of the neighborhood boys.  In my youth, South Philly was famous for nicknames in our crowd.  We had Nicky Blue, Baby Joe, Happy Joe and Happy Joe Jr., Duke Campisi, Fishy Yellow Gooney Ercolani, and many more monikers that would bring a smile to your face, as they did to ours.


As a writer for this website, I have contributed stories of my experiences, including tales of some of the people who have touched my life.  These stories, which you can find here, include An American Hero and The Boys of 10th and Ritner.  At the beginning of this particular story, I had promised to explain my deja vu experience, and I’m going to make good on that promise.


In researching some of the material and quotes for my articles, I came across a man named Joseph, who commented on An American Hero.  He said he was directed to my article when he entered his name into Google, and the search engine indicated this website.  It turned out that this Joseph was the namesake of his Uncle Joseph A. Ermilio — the same person whose name appeared in the article I had written, the uncle who had died protecting our freedoms in World War II.


Since then, I have spoken with Joseph A. Ermilio II and learned that he has a son who also carries the same name.  Joseph the II wanted to keep alive the memory alive of an uncle that he and his son had never known.  He told me that he is the oldest living member of his family, and had little knowledge of his uncle, but for the fact that he died an unsung hero on an Italian beach in World War II.  As fate would have it, the Internet directed him to find some history of his uncle in an article written by me, the boy who had once shared the same neighborhood, a wider circle of friends, and service to our country with that uncle.



Joseph the II also told me that his parents and grandparents had moved out of South Philly to Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, and that Upper Darby is where he’d spent his youth.  His grandparents never experienced closure for their son’s death, even though the soldier’s remains were returned to American soil in 1948.  They brought their unease with them when they, too, were laid to rest, leaving Joseph the II to ponder the life of his namesake.


In my conversation with Joseph the II, I gave him a list of contacts that could shed more light on his uncle’s early days of growing up in South Philly.  I reminded him not to wait too long to contact the other members of club, because time is not on our side.  He said he’d spoken with Joe DeGenova, who is mailing him information.


Was it fate, deja vu, or the hand of Providence that allowed me to connect with a direct relative of the only boy who never returned to our neighborhood from the war?  Was it technology that enabled many intervening years between my boyhood and the present day to collapse for a brief moment, even as those years expanded to illustrate how Joseph A. Ermilio still lives on in his bloodline, through descendents hungry for information about the infantryman who had died on the soil of his ancestors?  Or was it Joseph himself, reaching out from the great beyond to direct his nephew, in effect, to me — knowing that nephew was searching for answers? 


As I ponder these questions, I have no real answers.  However, it is hard to believe that a story I wrote could have such a dramatic ending.   In the final analysis, I don’t think that this was a coincidence.  I feel that this seemingly chance encounter with Joseph the II contains a message for the American people. I believe the message is to remember those who took risks and offered the supreme sacrifice in protecting the freedoms we too often take for granted.  There are certain times during the year, such as Memorial Day, that our nation sets aside for just this purpose.  Too often, we enjoy that holiday as a time to relax, forgetting why we really have the day off and who, in effect, gave us that day.



Put Me in Your Pocket

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Soldiers Returning Home

The untold stories of World War II resurface now and again, reminding us of a time that left its mark upon countless lives, changing those of many Americans.

 

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, thus plunging this country into World War II, America needed a battle cry.  The World War I songs “Over There” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” sufficed for a bit, until the more appropriate “Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor” took its rightful place in our nation’s musical vernacular.

 

Throughout the four years that the war raged on, more songs associated with the conflict came forth from the music industry. Some were fighting songs fit for a country rallying behind our brave troops.  “Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor,” “Goodbye Mama, I’m Off to Yokohama,” and “There’ll Be Smoke on the Waters” played on jukeboxes across the land.  Then there were melancholy songs that evoked the feelings of the time, including “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “You Belong to Me,” and “Lilly Marlene.”  Others still were heart-breaking melodies.

 

One such song was a Country Western tune.  Titled “Put Me in Your Pocket,” it appealed to many men in the armed forces.  It was a slice of life song, about two lovers saying goodbye as he goes off to war and the unhappy ending he faces upon his return.

 

During World War II, many soldiers carried religious medals, lucky charms, and photos of loved ones; these talismans sustained them as they dreamed of returning Stateside to renew their lives.  After the war, Hollywood produced movies like “The Best Years of our Lives” to show the public the untold casualties of war, capping them off with happy but realistic endings.

 

Since then, America has been involved in many wars.  Through the years, more songs have been written about war, the majority of them under significantly different circumstances than the two World Wars.  Beginning in the 1960’s, our nation’s perspective of war was shifting and our music reflected that shift, particularly the music written by young artists not limited to The Beatles, The Guess Who, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.  To a former soldier such as myself, these newer songs were full of raw emotion and were more universal than the songs that I remember.  Yet, this younger music was less about personal relationships torn asunder by war than it was about changing political mores. 

 

For me, that old Country Western tune “Put Me in Your Pocket” still prevails as a story that accompanied the armed forces into battle and reflected their destinies.  Why don’t you give it a listen? 

  

An American Hero

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Jim & Tom 2

We grew up in a neighborhood in South Philadelphia, bounded by Snyder Avenue to the north and the Philadelphia Navy Yard to the south and from Broad Street east to 7th Street.  It was an ethnically mixed neighborhood.  I lived in the 2400 block of Hutchinson Street, and he lived in the 2300 block.  As boys, we did not have a close friendship, even though we knew of each other.

 

We grew up during the Great Depression, but living in our neighborhood, as we realized many years later, was as close as you can come to Heaven.  As kids, we enjoyed the pleasure of playing in the streets without fear.  There was no television or home air conditioning or automatic gas heat, although we did have some modern conveniences, such as hot water, indoor plumbing, washing machines, and radio.  Life was much simpler then in an era when “spare the rod and spoil the child” was the order of the day.  Our parents worked hard trying to make ends meet.  It was here we learned family values, such as honor, duty, and respect.  The lost art of conversation still prevailed at family gatherings.

 

Pearl HarborThen something happened that would forever change our lives.  World War ll erupted in Europe. Initially, the United States remained neutral, until December 7th, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  On that fateful Sunday, President Roosevelt announced to the Congress and the American people that a “state of war” existed between the United States and the Empire of Japan and its ally Germany.

 

With the Declaration of War, America rolled up its sleeves, as every man, woman, and child, pitched in to help the war effort.  The Draft was instituted to call up men needed for the Armed Forces.  Factories all over this great country set aside peacetime products and retooled to manufacture implements of war.

 

I was two years younger than he, and while I worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, as an electrician helper, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.  He trained in the Infantry and was later sent to England as a replacement, with the Third Armored Division, for the Invasion of Hitler’s Europe.

 

Normandy D-DayJune 6th, 1944 the greatest Allied Armada ever assembled, crossed the English Channel and stormed the beaches of Normandy.  The German Army well entrenched, threatened to drive the Allies back into the sea, but by the end of a day that came to be known as “D-Day the Longest Day,” the American and Allied Forces managed to gain a beachhead on Fortress Europe.

 

Arriving in Normandy 13 days after D-Day, the Third Armored Division moved up to the line, for their “Baptism of Fire.”  Here at St Lo, the advancing American and Allied forces were stalled in what was to be called the Hedgerow country.  French farmers had planted hedges that surrounded their farms.  These hedges planted centuries ago, became a formidable defense for the German Army, who zeroed in on every opening with mortar, cannon, and machine-gun fire. 

 

A plan, dubbed “Operation Cobra,” was devised to break out of St Lo area. It called for the saturation bombing of the Hedgerow country in order to allow the American and Allied forces to break through.  On that fateful day, the sky was black with Allied bombers as wave after wave systematically dropped their bombs and opened a path for the advance of the stalled Allied and American armies.

 

Third Armored DivisionFollowing the break out at St Lo, the Third Armored Division raced across France, in pursuit of the fleeing German Army.  In a pincer attack they closed the Falaise Gap, trapping thousands of the enemy and causing their surrender.  In their rapid attack, they crossed the Seigfried Line, to become the first to enter Germany.  They penetrated into German soil, reaching the town of Stohlberg.  It was here they were ordered to return to Belgium to help stop the German attack called “the Battle of the Bulge.”

 

On January 3rd, 1945, near the town of Floret, Belgium, the hand of God touched him who was to become my lifelong friend.  It came in form of an enemy shell, ending the war for him.  As he lay on the battlefield with massive wounds of the arm and leg, the Medics who had picked him up informed him that he had “Million Dollar” wounds and would be returned to England for surgery and rehabilitation.  After his recovery, he was returned to his unit.  By this time, however, the war in Europe had ended and, in a short while, he would be going home.  With the defeat of Germany, and the introduction of the “Atomic Bomb,” World War ll ended on September 2nd, 1945 and with it came the return of the veterans of World War ll.

 

As the South Philadelphia neighborhood boys came home, they started to congregate at the corner of 10th and Ritner streets.  It was here that a long and lasting friendship began.

 

Jim & Tom

 

In the spring of 1951, we married two girlfriends, I married Madeline (Midge), and he married her dear friend Thelma.  He was our Best Man and Thelma was our First Bridesmaid.  A few weeks later, Midge and I would be the First Bridesmaid and Best Man at their wedding.

 

In the years to follow, they would become Godfather and Godmother to my first son born in 1954.  And, just a few years later, we would both relocate to the town of Maple Shade, New Jersey.  We continued a close friendship over the years, until Midge suddenly passed away on May 27 1975.

 

With her passing and the need to care for my two sons without the aid of a wife, my life became very hectic.  I altered my work schedule to allow me more time with my boys, and I didn’t have much time to socialize with friends.  In essence, I dropped out of sight.  With my children grown, I remarried eight years later and resumed my life.

 

In the fall of 1986, I got a call from my good friend who asked me if I had interest in attending a reunion of the “Boys of 10th & Ritner,” an offer I enthusiastically accepted.  This first of what would become regular meetings of all the old gang was a huge success – so much so that we held them every six weeks for more than 10 years!

 

We would meet at Sam Cobblestone’s Bar & Grill in South Philly on designated Tuesday evenings.  Here, we reminisced about growing up in the old neighborhood, told jokes, and related tales about our experiences in World War ll.

 

In 1987 I retired and, following a period during which I traveled about the country, took a part-time job with a local liquor store.  On occasion, my friend would stop in and shoot the breeze with me, discussing plans to attend our next meeting and any other news he happened to know.  

 

It was during one of these visits that I introduced him to my manager, Bob Sparks.  As usual the subject of World War ll came up.  Bob indicated that he also had been in the War and mentioned that he had trained together with Tony Lanciano from South Philly.  This coincidence almost blew our minds, for he had mentioned the name of one of the old gang.

 

On the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, he came to visit me at work.  He looked a little distraught as we discussed the Normandy Invasion.  Then suddenly, all the memories came back and welled up inside of him – then came pouring out.  Taking him aside, I calmed him down.  Then, I said to him, “50 years is too long to carry this burden, and it is time that you let it out.”

 

It was then that I came to the realization that, in all the years I had known him and all the times we had been together, I had been standing in the shadow of a real American Hero.  At that moment, I decided to set the record straight and give him the recognition he so richly deserved.  And so, whenever he was in the store, I would introduce him to customers upon whom I waited, saying “I want to introduce you to a real American Hero, from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge where he was wounded.  This is one of the guys who kept you from doing the goose-step.”

 

As they would look at him in awe, he would laugh and say, “Don’t listen to this guy, I was only doing my job.”  Like all heroes, he did not consider himself one.  Yet, he held five Medals – Good  Conduct, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Purple Heart, World War II Victory, and European Theater of Operations (ETO) with five Campaign Stars for Normandy, N. France, Rhineland, Ardennes, and Central Europe.  And, the memories of his experiences in the War haunted him for the rest of his life.

 

But, it was not merely the memories he carried with him.  Many years after completing his service, he fell down a flight of stairs during a visit to a relative’s home.  Following an emergency room visit and thorough examination, he was released, but not before being approached by the radiologist on call who queried “do you know that you have a piece of steel behind your right knee?”  In response, my friend stated “it’s probably a German shell fragment, I guess they didn’t get all of it out.”

 

Like all heroes, he was matter of fact about his injuries, wounds from which he suffered both physical and psychological pain for the remainder of his life.  Yet, he never spoke of either the memories or the injuries.

 

Jim Tedesco 2

 

They say “old soldiers never die,” and I pray that this is true.  For, the hero of whom I am proud to have spoken was my good friend and Best Man, Vincent {Jimmy} Tedesco.  On June 19, 2003, he took his memories and injuries with him to his earthly grave at Brigadier General William C. Doyle Veterans Cemetery in Arnytown, New Jersey.  Yet, I believe that his spirit lives on.

 

And, so that he does not remain among the nameless who took the risks, paid the price, and returned to build the greatest nation in the history of our planet, I wrote this tribute.  To my good friend Jimmy and to all the Jimmies whom I did not know, I salute you!

 

Jim Tedesco

Whatever Happened to St. Christopher?

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Saint Christopher

If you were born into the Roman Catholic faith, you must be familiar with St. Christopher, also known as the Patron Saint of Travelers.  Despite his status as one of the Church’s most popular Saints, much of what we know of Christopher’s life is attributed not to fact but to legends, including the tale that this man from Canaan, born some time during the third century, stood 12 cubits tall (18 feet).

 

After giving his allegiance, respectively, to an earthly king and Satan and finding both lacking in courage, Christopher decided to serve the greatest being of all: God in heaven.  Because of his great size and strength, Christopher was asked by a hermit to help people cross a dangerous river, insisting that this service would please the Lord.  The future martyr accepted.

 

One day Christopher ferried a child across the river, a relatively simple task that proved to be most difficult and perilous.  Once safely across the water, the child declared himself to be the Creator and Redeemer of the world; he promised to prove this after Christopher had planted his staff into the ground. The following morning, the staff was found transformed into a living, fruit-bearing palm tree.  This miracle enabled Christopher to convert thousands to the Christian faith, particularly in the pagan city of Lycia.  Thus, he invited the anger of that city’s monarch, who ordered his beheading.  Christopher was made a martyr and centuries later, a Saint.

 

Because his canonization occurred many years after the Roman tradition, his feast day was removed, in 1969, from the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints.  Despite his decommissioning, many Catholics still venerate the martyr.  As a former soldier drafted to serve in World War II, I am one of them.

 

Thousands of Americans were inducted into the military following the December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor; the induction was mandatory and inevitable.   A few weeks after I turned 18 years of age in October of 1944, I received a draft notice stating that I was scheduled for induction into the United States Army on January 18, 1945.  In keeping with the tradition of many families whose loved ones were marching off to war, my family gave me a going away party at our row house in South Philadelphia.  My entire family and all of my friends showed up to wish me well and present me gifts and mementos. At the end of a gala evening, I found that I was the recipient of thirteen St. Cristopher medals.

 

The next morning after breakfast, I kissed my family goodbye and convened, along with other inductees, at the 30th Street Train Station in Philadelphia.  There, we boarded a train to an induction center in Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania.  Arriving late in the evening, we were ushered into a mess hall and fed, and then assigned sleeping quarters. Over the next few days, we underwent complete physical examinations and received a full complement of Army equipment. Upon completion of induction, we were assigned to fifteen weeks of Infantry Basic Training at Camp Robinson, near Little Rock, Arkansas.

 

During my training, other soldiers asked me about the thirteen medals in my possession.  After I had explained that St. Christopher was the Patron Saint of Travelers, I received offers to purchase the medals.  To my comrades, I presented the medals along with the good wishes that they were intended to carry.  When I finally boarded a troop ship bound for the invasion of Japan, I retained but one medal given to me by a dear friend.

 

During the war, St. Christopher served on land, on sea, and in the air; he was a constant companion to those who carried him.   I believe that St. Christopher was in North Africa, at Normandy, Guadalcanal, Anzio, Iwo Jima, the Battle of the Bulge, and Okinawa.

 

When the global conflict finally ended in 1945, and the automobile became the mode of travel, St. Christopher was placed with reverence upon many a dashboard.  His next mission was to protect a multitude of drivers and passengers.

 

Although St. Christopher no longer appears on the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints, he is still venerated by many.  Should he not receive recognition in the World War II Hall of Fame, or would that be considered politically incorrect?  Perhaps, St. Christopher can still be found protecting the souls listed in the rosters below.   Click on the links to view these Websites.

 

American Cemeteries and Memorial Parks

 Aisne-Marne, France
Ardennes, Belgium
Brittany, France
Brookwood, England
Cambridge, England
Corozal, Panama
Epinal, France
Flanders Field, Belgium
Florence, Italy
Henri-Chapelle, Belgium
Lorraine, France
Luxembourg, Luxembourg
Manila, Philippines
Meuse-Argonne, France
Mexico City, Mexico
Netherlands, Netherlands
Normandy, France
North Africa, Tunisia
Oise-Aisne, France
Rhone, France
Sicily-Rome, Italy
Somme, France
St. Mihiel, France
Suresnes, France
 

 

One Minute of Silence

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Armistice Day 1937 

At precisely 11 o’clock on November 11, 1918, the guns of World War I fell silent.  With the signing of the Armistice between Germany and the Allied countries, the first global conflict officially ended.  Armistice Day was thus created to commemorate the men and women who served their country during World War I.  On this day of remembrance, we observed one minute of silence for those who gave their lives to bring peace to the world.

 

As a boy growing up during the Great Depression, I distinctly remember that, at the stroke of the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year, factory whistles would blow, signaling that one minute of silence.  At that moment, every man, woman, and child in this great nation paused to respect the soldiers who had fought and died in World War I.

 

After “The War to End All Wars” ceased, President Woodrow Wilson, who dreamed of lasting peace, formed the League of Nations to ensure harmony worldwide.   For two decades, peace reigned.  When World War II erupted, it swept Europe, England, the United States, parts of Africa, and Japan into a conflict that lasted four very long, bloody years.

 

When it finally ended, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day in order to pay our respects to those who had fallen during both World Wars.  In so doing, something profound was lost in the transition: that one moment of silence.

 

In today’s rapidly changing, politically correct world, when holidays set aside to honor God and Country are losing their meaning, I would like to see that old world custom restored to Veterans Day:  that minute of silence when every man, woman, and child pauses, no matter where they are and what they are doing, to honor and respect, lest we forget. 

 

Veterans Day - Thank a Vet

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.

Hiroshima: A Personal Perspective

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Hiroshima

“Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”

 

Prophetic and chilling, this Biblical admonition scripted centuries ago may well have been written at a far later date: August 6, 1945, to be exact.  On the day known afterward as “Hiroshima” for both the event and the city that it affected, the course of history was forever altered.  As an American soldier serving in the Pacific Arena, I found myself entangled in the changing tide that had begun with a well-planned and meticulously coordinated attack, the most devastating ever witnessed in recorded history.

 

On the day that Hiroshima fell, followed, like a horrific game of dominos, by the city of Nagasaki, three B-29’s rose separately into the skies over Tinian Island, in the Pacific, carrying deadly cargo.  Colonel Paul Tibbets commanded the Enola Gay namely, in an ironic twist of tenderness, for his mother.  It bore a single atomic bomb, code-named Little BoyThe Great Artiste, commandeered by Major Charles W. Sweeney, carried instrumentation gear, and under the direction of Captain George Marquardt, The Necessary Evil conveyed photographic equipment.  Over Iwo Jima, the three planes rendezvoused and headed for Japan in the longest six-hour flight ever known to man.

 

As a precaution, the bomb was armed en route to Japan and the safety devices removed a mere thirty minutes before reaching its primary target, the city of Hiroshima.  When the bomb found its mark, those aboard the B-29’s described the strike as a giant fireball and a mushroom cloud roiling into the sky that completely engulfed and destroyed the Japanese city.

 

Housed in Tokyo, Japan’s military headquarters sent out a plane to investigate the sudden and complete lack of communication from Hiroshima.  Nothing had prepared the pilot and crew for the sight they beheld, of a once thriving city burning like Hell and reduced to rubble.  Immediately, the Japanese government sent aid to Hiroshima, but it was too late; indeed, it would forever be too late.  Although the bomb itself had killed 70,000 people, the fall-out claimed another 70,000 lives in the years to follow.

 

After the bombing, the Allied Forces demanded that the Emperor of Japan surrender under the terms of the Potsdam Declaration.  Had he refused, he was promised that more death would rain from the skies over Japan.  The Japanese do not believe in surrender; a proud people with a fierce sense of nationalism, they wished to negotiate different terms. Having witnessed Japanese resolve, I was acquainted with the suicide (Kamikaze) bombers at Iwo Jima, and the realization that our enemies would prefer to fight to the death rather than surrender.

 

August 9, 1945, the Allied Forces prompted the Emperor of Japan’s decision by way of another B-29 named Bockscar. Armed with a second atomic bomb, the plane unleashed its weapon, code-named Fat Boy, over the city of Nagasaki, Japan. Confronted with destruction on a scale never before witnessed, the Emperor tendered an unconditional surrender under the terms of the Potsdam Convention; on August 12th, he sued for peace.

 

While history was being made, I was aboard a troopship, the U.S.S Extavia in the Pacific Ocean, when our Captain announced the surrender of the Japanese.  We had been heading toward Japan, scheduled to converge with a force of other ships, planes, and troops in the event that a Japanese invasion was necessary.  Thus combined, the size of this force would have dwarfed the greatest armada that had crossed the English Channel on D-Day, in 1944.

 

In Tokyo Bay aboard the Battleship Missouri, on September 2, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur, as Supreme Allied Commander, and the Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shegimitsu officially ended World War ll by signing the instruments of Unconditional Surrender.

 

In October of that year, we who had been designated to invade Japan secured and occupied the islands of that nation.  Assigned to the 24th Infantry Division, I landed, with other military units, on the island of Shikoko and set up camp in the town of Matsuyama.  The tents that my fellow soldiers and I pitched would become our homes for the next several months.  As 1946 dawned, we were ordered to replace His Majesty’s Royal Cameron Highlanders at Okayama, on the main island of Honshu. Mess Sgt. Werner Poppe selected three men to accompany him, to set up an advanced military kitchen in that city.  Those three men were Tony Prikosovich (the cook), Paul Bartels (the mess driver), and Tom Petruzzelli (yours truly, who manned the stoves).  With a truck weighing three-quarters of a ton, we hauled a small water carrier over the mountains of Shikoko to a ferry station at Takamatsu on the inland sea.  Boarding the ferry, we then sailed across the inland sea to the town of Uno on the island of Honshu.  The Captain of the ferry invited us up to the wheelhouse and offered us sake, a Japanese wine fermented from rice.  Harsh, hot, and completely colorless, it slid down my throat like fire, bearing little resemblance to the wine I sometimes drank at Sunday dinner prior to my experience with the U.S. military.

 

Landing at Uno, we then motored to Okayama where a page out of a Rudyard Kipling novel awaited my fellows and me. Uno had been secured previously by Scottish forces, which dominated the Asian landscape with their plaid kilts and keening bagpipes; truly, it was sight to behold.  We bunked with Sgt. Major MacDonald, who allowed us to photograph him and a friend in uniform.  Before the Scots left, they put on quite a show for the Americans, which included bagpipe playing and the lively Highland Fling (a Scottish native dance).  Okayama was to house us for the next few months, until our last move to the island of Kyushu.

 

In the latter part of that spring, we were ordered to the southern-most island of Japan: Kyushu.  Landing at a town named Moji near Sasebo, we then motored to the Kitagawa Racetrack area and set up camp near a town named Kokura. This would be our final home in The Land of the Rising Sun until our replacements arrived.  Summer was on the wane and the coolness of the night air brought the hint of autumn.  Soon, we would mark the one-year anniversary of the end of World War II, and that of my own year of living in the Japanese islands.  Rumors flew, bringing with them the hope of heading back home to America once our units were replaced. 

 

In September of 1946, when those rumors were realized as truth, I said, “Sayonara” to Japan as well as the good friends I had made during the most surreal year of my life.  Knowing it would be the last time that we would see each other, the departure was bittersweet.  After a train ride to Yokohama, my unit and I boarded the U.S.S  Hood Victory.  Our voyage home took a northerly route, ferrying us past the Aleutian Islands to the port city of Seattle, Washington in the good old USA.  As we passed the Aleutian Islands, our ship narrowly avoided striking a mine floating but a few hundred yards away, a near-catastrophe that caused quite a stir onboard.  Imagine surviving World War II and facilitating the transition for an entire year, only to meet death so close to home!  Thanks to the watchful eyes of the U.S Navy, I was spared that fate

 

Upon reaching Seattle, our final destination, there were no cheering crowds or marching bands to greet us; war weary America was not ready for us.  My separation from the U.S. Army began at Fort Lawton in the State of Washington.  The Army welcomed us home with a feast, telling us that anything our hearts desired was on the menu at the mess hall.  Then came the long journey home to Separation Centers all across the nation.  I was separated at Fort Mead, Maryland, and on November 17, 1946, I was Honorably Discharged from the U.S. Army.  On that day, World War II finally and truly ended for me.

 

Years after World War II, there was talk among some Americans that President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop the Atom Bomb on Hiroshima constituted a war crime.  As one prepared to defend his country in the wake of Pearl Harbor, I heartily disagree with this perspective.  A President’s first priority is to defend the Constitution and protect American lives. By bringing the conflict in the Pacific to an abrupt halt, the bombs not only saved thousands of American and Allied lives but also thousands of Japanese lives that would have been lost in more drawn-out battle.

 

As you may well imagine, World War II has left an indelible mark upon me.  The things I that did, the things that I witnessed, the places I have been, and the people I have met have all impacted me, in ways both small and significant, my entire life.  Thanks to my mother’s prayers, President Truman’s decision, and the eagle eyes of my compatriots in the U.S. Navy, I was spared from becoming a casualty of war.

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