Operation Bobcat in ‘a place of great beauty’

Second of four parts

One summer day in 1940, my Uncle Sam walked down a street and blacked out. After he came to, he felt weak and his head throbbed. His doctor said he’d had a “digestive disturbance,” a “bilious attack.” A few days passed before he felt all right.

Sam Venditta

The spell gave Sam a scare. He’d never experienced anything like that before. He hoped it wouldn’t happen again. 

The next year, four months before Pearl Harbor, he was inducted into the Army in Philadelphia after a medical exam found him fit for military duty. He was twenty-two. He stood 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighed 132 pounds and was well-developed and muscular, with a normal nervous system. After reporting to the Army Reception Center at New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, he was on his way to becoming an artilleryman.

The Coast Artillery Replacement Center at Fort Eustis, Virginia, trained him in antiaircraft gunnery. He joined a highly touted Delaware National Guard unit, the 198th Coast Artillery Regiment (Antiaircraft), called to federal service in 1940. It had seventy-five officers and 1,300 enlisted men. After the Pearl Harbor attack, they moved from Fort Ontario, New York, to East Hartford, Connecticut, to protect aircraft engine maker Pratt & Whitney from any air attack by Nazi Germany.

Uncle Sam gave this photo to my dad. Could these be Polynesians on Bora Bora? The back is stamped “Passed by Army examiner.” The soldier who snapped the picture penned his name, Corporal Frank A. Cugino. He was in the Army Air Forces in the South Pacific, and Bora Bora had an Army airfield beginning in 1943. Frank and Sam might have been related. Cugino was my grandmother’s maiden name. She grew up in Landisville, New Jersey, Frank’s hometown.

Late in January 1942, the 198th shipped out of Charleston, South Carolina, its destination a secret. It was the largest of a dozen Army units in an expedition code-named Bobcat Task Force. Hundreds of sailors were also part of the venture, most of them Seabees geared up for a tidal wave of construction work. The entire group of 4,400, with Sam among them, traveled in a convoy of six troopships with Navy escorts.

Just a few hours into the voyage, one transport had its first abandon-ship drill. “They’re not wasting any time,” the 198th’s regimental intelligence officer scribbled in his diary. Later, he heard Franklin D. Roosevelt say on the radio that the “Samoan Expeditionary Force is on its way.” He wondered if the president was referring to Bobcat.

The ships passed through the Panama Canal into the Pacific. After three weeks, they arrived at a spit of land 2,700 miles south of Hawaii, 140 miles northwest of Tahiti, and far off the regular shipping lanes. This was the French Polynesian island of Bora Bora. War planners in Washington wanted to make it a refueling station for ships sailing from the West Coast to Australia and New Zealand.

“It is a place of great beauty with huge mountain peaks rising from the ocean, deep harbors and luxuriant tropical vegetation,” the intelligence officer, Ervan F. Kushner, wrote in Bogged Down in Bora Bora, a book based on his diary. “There are a few hundred Polynesians, some Chinese, and two or three Free French officials on the island.”

My copy of the 1984 book by the 198th Coast Artillery’s regimental intelligence officer

Operation Bobcat would transform the sleepy isle with roads, housing, docks, fuel storage tanks, warehouses, electric power plants, sewage and water systems, a 250-bed hospital, and big guns. It was “the first American experience in rapid deployment and support in World War II,” an Army historian later asserted. Sam and others in his regiment pitched in with the labor while providing the defense.

On its eleven square miles, Bora Bora had two large sites for dropping anchor. To reach them, ships had to enter a narrow passage through a coral reef. The French, who colonized the island in the late nineteenth century, had widened the path by dynamiting portions of the reef.

Now the Americans would work at that as well, and it would be my Uncle Sam’s undoing.

COMING NEXT: Felled by a mystery ailment

In the Pacific, one WWII soldier’s worst enemy

First of four parts

Sam Venditta in the Army, 1941

My dad’s brother Sam was a casualty of World War II, but not in a way you’d normally associate with war. He wasn’t killed, wounded or captured. He wasn’t hurt in an accident. He didn’t lose his mind.

In the South Pacific where he soldiered for a year, he never faced the enemy.

Yet, something happened to him there in 1942 that ended his honorable service in the Army, tormented him for years and, while he was still a young husband and father, took his life in a spasm of agony.

Uncle Sam was gone before my time. Mom says he was the nicest man you’d ever meet. He, my dad and two other brothers took up the fight against Germany and Japan when their country called. They were among a dozen children of an Italian immigrant and a farmer’s daughter born in Philadelphia.

Nicola Venditta and Mary Cugino were married in 1905 in Landisville, New Jersey. “Nick” had set foot on Ellis Island two years earlier after a boyhood spent herding sheep in the hills of southern Italy. He was twenty-two now. Mary had been under the thumb of a stern stepmother, forced to work in the fields growing vegetables instead of going to school. She had just turned fifteen.

Several years later, with two young sons in tow, Nick and Mary moved 200 miles to central Pennsylvania, where Nick toiled in a quarry. Their new home lay along a belt of the Appalachians in Mifflin County, between Harrisburg and State College. Sam, the couple’s fifth child, was born there in the fall of 1918, a month before the Armistice ended the First World War.

They didn’t stay in the mountains. Nick hauled his family back to New Jersey, to Glassboro, where he worked in a glass factory and his hair burned off, never to grow back except on the fringes. On the pavements through town, Sam would ride a tricycle with his younger brother, Frank, on the back.

Older brothers Jimmy and Tony once took little Sam and Frank to the shore.

“It was the first time I saw the ocean,” Frank said. “I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old. Jimmy and Tony and some of their cronies had this truck. ‘Stay right here,’ they said. ‘Don’t move.’ We just sat there on the beach. We weren’t allowed to go in the water or nothing, and they took off. Who in the hell knows where they went! Sam and I were sitting on the sand, we had to pee and we peed through our pants.”

I’m at the site of the former Bethlehem Steel limestone quarry in Naginey, Pennsylvania, where my grandfather worked in the 1920s. This photo was taken in 2021.

By 1923, they were back in the mountains of Mifflin County, in Naginey, where the Bethlehem Steel Corporation quarried limestone for its blast furnaces. Nick worked in the pit. The family lived in company housing that had pigpens and chicken coops.

“Christ, we were kids,” Frank said. “Some of the things we did! We went up in the mountains and chased rattlesnakes. What else are you gonna do in the summertime? We’d go down to the quarry and steal dynamite, put caps in it, tie it in the trees, and then light it. A wonder we didn’t kill ourselves.”

Another son and a daughter were born, and then came my dad, Carmine, in 1927. He was still a baby when Nick lost his job at the quarry, and the family moved again. The next stop was Camden, New Jersey, where the first of several family tragedies occurred – the death of their tenth child, baby Elizabeth, possibly from pneumonia.

The Great Depression took hold, jobs vanished, and Nick hit the road again for Pennsylvania. This time he ended up at a rural crossroads called Valley Store, about twenty-five miles west of Philly. He and oldest son Jimmy lived in a company shack at a limestone quarry. They cleaned up an abandoned stone house atop a hill and moved the family there. It had no running water or electricity, but Nick paid $17 to have a power line run to the kitchen. He and Mary took in boarders and kept pigs and chickens.

Frank Venditta

Frank said their new home was a paradise.

“I used to love it down in Valley Store. Country, boy, nothing but abandoned farms, that’s all there was. I could walk for miles and miles and miles. Apple orchards, peach trees, vineyards. God, our cellars looked like a warehouse! Mom used to can and jar and send us out all summer long to pick whatever was growing.”

At night, Nick told stories as the family sat by the light of a kerosene lamp atop the fireplace mantel. They heard about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and Diogenes’ quest for an honest man. In the kitchen, the oven warmed sweet potatoes or chestnuts for a bedtime treat.

Nick played the concertina and twanged a Jew’s harp. He hosted bocce games using iron balls from the quarry and rewarded winners with wine he made from chokecherries, elderberries or mulberries, if not from grapes. He smoked corncob pipes, chewed Five Brothers tobacco and drank Old Reading and Valley Forge beers and, for breakfast, whiskey-spiked coffee.

Louie Venditti
(He and his older brother Tony spelled their surname differently than their parents and siblings.)

He kept what he called his “good ax,” which he’d carry to show he meant business. Frank and Louie got the message when they played a trick on him once. Two fields from the house, a black tree stump looked somewhat like a bear. Louie stood at the stump and cried out as if the “animal” were attacking him. Frank ran to the house, where his dad was lying in the sun, and yelled, “Pop, some wild animal’s got Louie!” Nick grabbed his ax and was halfway to Louie when he saw it was a gag. He turned around and charged after Frank for waking him up.

A little older than Frank and Louie, Sam stood up to his dad from time to time. Nick made him pay for it.

“Oh man, he’d whack Sam one!” Frank said. “He’d punch him. He had this leather belt, must’ve brought it with him from Italy. He used it on Sam. … Maybe Sam didn’t do something he was supposed to do, or Pop just got mad because of the way the world was treating him that day.”

My grandparents Mary and Nicola Venditta in an undated photo

In 1930, Sam entered sixth grade at East Whiteland Consolidated School in Chester County. Years later, the principal remembered he “went in for sports and was fair in all of his subjects.” But he didn’t stay in school, quitting at age fifteen to earn money. He tended the grounds at a cemetery, Philadelphia Memorial Park in Frazer, and drove a truck for his brother Tony, who had a limestone quarry.

Their oldest brother, Jimmy, worked for a nursery. One spring day in 1934, he was driving to a tree-planting job when a car crashed into his pickup truck near Newtown Square. He died hours later from skull fractures. Twenty-eight years old, he left a wife and two children. According to family lore, the other driver was drunk.

By the end of the Thirties, the family had moved for the last time, several miles away to Malvern on Philly’s Main Line. They rented a house on the main street and had friends as boarders, just as they had at Valley Store. Nick was now digging graves at Philadelphia Memorial Park. Mary kept house at a Catholic retreat, did other people’s laundry, and worked at a mushroom cannery in West Chester. Sam planted spawn at the same cannery. He worked there off and on until he was drafted into the Army in 1941.

But the year before his military service, something happened that presaged the trouble he’d have as a soldier in the South Pacific. His life, what was left of it, would never be the same.

COMING NEXT: Dropping anchor at Bora Bora

A Pearl Harbor radar man returns to Hawaii

Dick Schimmel last month at the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project Roundtable

Pearl Harbor survivor Dick Schimmel was a familiar sight at the Allentown YMCA when I was going there to swim. I remember thinking, here’s an old guy who’s taking care of himself, staying fit.

That was two decades ago. Schimmel is ninety-nine now and spry as ever. He’s in Hawaii with his grandson Mark for ceremonies marking the eightieth anniversary of the Japanese attack that yanked the U.S. into World War II.

Though I knew about Schimmel from the Y as we entered the new millennium, it was years before I interviewed him, not until 2007. That’s when I wrote an “in their own words” war story about his experience on December 7, 1941. He was with the Army’s new radar unit, which had early warning of a large number of planes heading for Oahu. Stationed at Fort Shafter, east of Pearl Harbor, he heard explosions and saw planes diving over the harbor, and smoke. The attack was on.

Schimmel relaxes on an Oahu beach in 1941

For the seventieth anniversary in 2011, I got Schimmel together with two of his fellow radar men, Joe Lockard and Bob McKenney. Lockard was one of two soldiers manning the mobile radar station that picked up the host of planes coming in. The reunion of the three became another story for my employer, The Morning Call of Allentown.

It’s ten years later, and I’ve written about Schimmel again for the newspaper. I’ve put links in this blog to that just-published story and to the two previous ones, so you can learn how one soldier experienced this enormous event. Precious few who were there are still with us. Schimmel remains a witness to history.

How a WWII bomber crash in Colorado hit home

B-24 trainees (from left) bombardier Leonard A. Kuther, navigator Billy G. Adams, co-pilot Robert E. Cockrell, pilot Charles H. Everett, air engineer Furnifeld M. Simmons, nose gunner Arthur E. Nixon, top turret gunner Dale M. Baird, radio operator John D. DiMarino, and ball turret gunner John L. Weidrick. The photo was taken February 25, 1944, at Peterson Field in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The trouble on the B-24 started when its radio shorted out, sparking a fire on the flight deck and knocking out the interphone that kept crew members in touch. The four-engine bomber left the formation of other Liberators creasing the sky high above Colorado and descended to 10,000 feet. Below lay the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains and, in the distance, Peterson Field, where the Army Air Forces training mission originated.

Suddenly, No. 3 engine, driving the inboard propeller on the right wing, began spewing gasoline. The pilot shut it down, feathered the propeller and headed for the airfield. Radio operator John DiMarino, from his table directly behind the pilot and co-pilot, told the top turret gunner to get into position for an emergency landing.

The photo was in the attic of Mom’s rancher outside Downingtown, Pennsylvania, where she had lived for sixty-nine years. I found it after she moved to assisted living, while we were cleaning out the place to prepare it for sale. The eight-by-ten glossy print shows the crew of a B-24 Liberator in their flight suits, lined up in front of their heavy bomber, looking serious. A mountain range is in the hazy background. There’s no credit on the photo, but it appears to have been taken by an Army Air Forces photographer.

Along the bottom, someone had used a red pen to identify each man by his position – bombardier, navigator, co-pilot and so on. On the back, again in red, are the names of the crew, along with their ages, home states, the date the photo was taken, February 25, 1944, and the place, Peterson Field, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Josephine Venditta

Mom had penciled in that John DiMarino, identified as the radio operator (second from right in the photo) was engaged to my dad’s older sister Josephine Venditta and was killed. I found a photo (right) of Aunt Josie with the crew picture.

DiMarino is on the Chester County Hall of Heroes website. It has a write-up on him because his hometown was Devon, which is in the county and on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The story says he was killed aboard a B-24J Liberator when it crash-landed due to engine failure, five miles north of Peterson Field. The accident happened April 5, 1944, less than six weeks after the crew’s picture was snapped.

It made me sad to learn there had been such a tragedy in Aunt Josie’s young life. She was only eighteen when her fiancée died. He was twenty and never got a chance to fight in World War II.

“Johnny was a nice-looking guy,” said my Aunt Patty, one of Josie and my dad’s younger sisters. “He was an Italian and lived in Devon. We all knew him. The families knew one another.”

She didn’t know how Johnny and Josie met. It might have been at Tredyffrin-Easttown High School.

“They started to date and got engaged,” Patty said. “He died and she went on with her life.”

Patty was ten at the time. She said Josie gave her engagement ring to their mother, who had it enlarged and wore it on her own finger. What became of the ring when Grandmom died in 1966? We don’t know.

I’ve always thought my dad’s big Italian family in Malvern, Pennsylvania, was as big as they come – he, Josie and Patty were among a dozen children. But then there was Johnny DiMarino’s family – seventeen children.

Johnny’s parents came from the same town, Torricella Peligna in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. Mariano DiMarino came to America in the 1890s, and Maria followed him in 1904. They were married in Philadelphia that year and moved to Greensburg in western Pennsylvania, where John Dominick DiMarino was born May 18, 1923. The family moved to Devon. Johnny’s dad died there at the close of 1930.

John D. DiMarino

Johnny attended Tredyffrin-Easttown High — he’s in the freshman class photo in the 1938 yearbook – but didn’t graduate. According to the Army enlistment card he filled out, he worked for American Non-Gran Bronze Corporation in Berwyn. The company made bearings and bushings for cars, trucks and planes, including Charles Lindbergh’s history-making Spirit of St. Louis.

In the summer of 1942, Johnny registered for the draft. By the end of the year, he was with the Army Air Forces and went on to become a radio operator and gunner. A week after his death on the training flight in 1944, a Requiem Mass was celebrated at the Catholic Church of the Assumption in Strafford. He was buried in Philadelphia National Cemetery.

His mom survived him by three decades. She died at age ninety-four.

The Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, has accident reports from World War II to 1956. I emailed and got a digital version of the report on what happened to Johnny DiMarino’s plane. It’s twenty-four pages long, part of a compilation titled Aircraft Accident and Incident Reports: 1941 thru 1948.

When I read the account, there was an immediate disconnect not entirely unexpected. The picture of the B-24 crew taken just weeks before the fatal crash shows nine fliers. But there were eight men on the bomber that crashed. (B-24s typically had a crew of eight to ten.)

Two of those in the photo were not on the doomed B-24 — bombardier Leonard A. Kuther (at the far left) and ball turret gunner John L. Weidrick (far right). One man who is not in the photo but was on the plane was gunner Andrew F. Krempusch.

According to the accident report, at 3:14 p.m. on April 5, 1944, the B-24J made a forced emergency landing five miles north of Peterson Field. It crashed and burned, killing five men. Three crew members, all of them gunners, escaped injury.

Here’s who was on the B-24:

1st Lieutenant Charles H. Everett, pilot, age 27, from Georgia (fourth from left in pix) KILLED

2nd Lieutenant Robert E. Cockrell, co-pilot, age 23, from Mississippi (third from left) KILLED

2nd Lieutenant Billy G. Adams, navigator, age 25, from Texas (second from left) KILLED

Staff Sergeant Furnifeld M. Simmons, air engineer, age 32, from North Carolina (fifth from left) KILLED

Staff Sergeant John D. DiMarino, radio operator, age 20, from Pennsylvania (second from right) KILLED

Staff Sergeant Andrew F. Krempusch, tail gunner, age and home state not known (not shown in pix) NOT HURT

Sergeant Dale M. Baird, top turret gunner, age 27, from Pennsylvania (third from right) NOT HURT

Sergeant Arthur E. Nixon, gunner, age 21, from Texas (fourth from right) NOT HURT (The report doesn’t specify which gun he manned.)

The ages above were how old the men were at the time the photo was taken, so they might not all be accurate. All eight were with the 2nd Air Force, which conducted basic military and technical training. Their unit was the 214th Combat Crew Training Squadron, Section III, at Peterson Field.

Photo from the accident report shows the wrecked B-24J burning.

Now, here’s what the report says happened:

After No. 3 engine was shut down and the propeller feathered, the plane returned to Peterson Field and dropped two flares while passing over it at about 2,500 feet. The flares meant the plane would have to make an emergency landing and that radio contact was impossible.

In his statement, Sergeant Baird, the top turret gunner, said: “Shortly after Number 3 engine was feathered, the radio operator [DiMarino] told me to take my position for emergency landing … so I took my position.”

The page from the accident report that has the investigators’ findings

Several planes were in the traffic pattern. The pilot, Lieutenant Everett, decided to make a long approach to give the tower time to clear the field. Soon after the plane passed over it, Number 4 engine — the outboard engine on the right wing — started smoking badly and apparently lost all of its power. The plane veered to the right and back again. Everett continued heading away from the field, with the plane losing altitude all the while.

“Evidently he held this heading too long before turning back to the field for an emergency landing, because soon after the turn, the plane crashed while nearing the field,” the report says. “Airplane complete wreck.”

Sergeant Nixon gave a statement saying he and the two other gunners who escaped unhurt tried to get others out of the burning wreckage. “After the crash, there were still three alive,” he wrote. “We tried to get everyone out, but it was impossible to get to them. The co-pilot told us to get away.”

An undated photo of Josie with my dad, Carmine J. Venditta. Dad was a senior at Tredyffrin-Easttown High School, bound for the Coast Guard, when his sister’s fiancee was killed in the B-24 crash.

Six officers who investigated the crash focused on the failure of the Number 4 engine and found that one of two things or a combination of both caused it. “First, that either the pilot applied excessive power to this engine, causing detonation when Number 3 engine was feathered, or, secondly, material failure occurred on this engine due to previous abuse by another crew.”

The officers also laid some blame on Everett, saying “he could have reached the field with 2,500 feet of altitude when directly over it, which was about the same time Number 4 engine started smoking and losing power.”

Corrective action, according to the investigators, was this: To all fliers, stress the importance of never going farther than gliding distance from the field when operating on fewer than four engines “once you reach the field with sufficient altitude to land.”

In trying to picture Johnny’s last moments, I assumed that because he had told the top turret gunner to brace for impact, he too got into position for an emergency landing. But what was that position for a radio operator?

 To find out, I got a digital version of Primary Flight Instructions for the B-24 from the AirCorps Library in Minnesota, but the manual didn’t have the answer. AirCorps data/library specialist Ester Aube jumped in to help me.

“That info would usually be contained in a flight manual like the one you downloaded,” she emailed. “I did some more searching, though, and found a slightly more detailed description in a manual that I have called Emergency Procedures for PB4Y-2. The PB4Y was a slight variation of the B-24 used by the Navy, so presumably the information is the same for ditching techniques.”

Ernie Beam was an Army Air Forces M.P. in North Africa.

The PB4Y manual’s entry for radio operator says this about how he gets ready for a crash landing: “To assume his ditching position, the radioman sits on the radio table, facing aft, with back and head braced firmly against radio equipment rack; feet should be placed in radio operator’s chair, legs slightly bent.”

Is that what Johnny did? Is that where he was when he died?

Josie lost the young man she wanted to marry, but as Aunt Patty put it, she got on with her life. She married Ernie Beam, a boarder at the Venditta house in Malvern and an Army Air Forces veteran who served mainly in North Africa as a military policeman. They had two sons, my cousins Mike and Bill.

Aunt Josie died in 1995, Uncle Ernie in 2020.

Johnny DiMarino’s death in a training accident doesn’t diminish his sacrifice. He lost his life honorably in the service of his country.

Adding to the picture: old photos, fresh look

Ever come across an old family photo you’d never seen, even though you’d thought you’d seen them all? Maybe you overlooked it while paging through an album, or a relative you have little contact with handed it to you. You’re surprised and delighted by the find.

I have three on this page I’d like to share.  

The first shows my dad the Coast Guard radioman at a ship’s gun in World War II. It was in an album of his service photos I’d looked through a few times over the years – and missed until recently.

Carmine Venditta (right) and a buddy on a Coast Guard frigate in 1945 or ’46.

Someone had written on the back of the small black-and-white print: “Battle stations!” But it’s surely staged. Dad and his unidentified shipmate look amused under their helmets, as if they’re just posing for the camera. There’s nothing to indicate they’re at sea. Nazi Germany had surrendered by the time Dad, at eighteen, sailed into the North Atlantic, so there was no enemy threat. The patrol frigates he served aboard collected weather data and could be called on to rescue fliers whose planes ditched or crashed.

It cracks me up to see Dad kidding around like that.

Which ship was the photo taken on? It could have been either the USS Abilene or the USS Sheboygan, both of which were based at Argentia, Newfoundland, while Dad was on them in 1945-46. The two Tacoma-class frigates had the same armament. It appears the gun he’s standing at is an Oerlikon 20 mm cannon, of which each ship had nine.

Sally Venditti with her baby Nicky in November 1948. (Sally’s husband, Louie, and another brother changed their surname from Venditta to Venditti to match how the family spelled it in Italy. Their parents and their ten siblings were all Vendittas. ‘Venditta’ was how my grandfather’s name was recorded when he reached Ellis Island at the turn of the twentieth century.)

Why didn’t I just ask Dad? To my regret, I never asked him about his Coast Guard service. By the time I was interested, it was too late. Alzheimer’s had eaten away his memory for years, until he died in 2004.

The second photo shows my Aunt Sally with her newborn son, Nicky. Twenty years after it was snapped, on the Fourth of July 1969, Nicky arrived in Vietnam as an Army helicopter pilot. He never got a chance to fly in combat. Just eleven days later, he died from a training accident involving a grenade.

Sally was the first wife of my dad’s older brother Louie, an Army Air Forces ground crewman in England during World War II. He and Sally had another son and were divorced while Nicky was in grade school. Both remarried, and Sally had a daughter by her second husband.

I wrote a book about what happened to my cousin in Vietnam, Tragedy at Chu Lai, published five years ago. The daughter, Nicky’s half-sister, gave me the photo while I was promoting the book in Malvern, Pennsylvania, where Nicky grew up. I’d never seen it before. I wish I’d had it for the book. It’s something to see Nicky, a fun-loving practical joker, as a baby.

His father died in 1997, his mother in 2001.

Frank Venditta in the Army, 1941

The last photo shows another one of Dad’s older brothers, Frank. It was probably taken soon after he was drafted into the Army in April 1941, eight months before the Pearl Harbor attack brought America into the war. I have other pictures of him in uniform, but none where he looks this young – and wistful. He was twenty-one at the time.

Frank went to Panama as a medic, then to the War Department psychiatric hospital on Long Island, Mason General, where he met the Women’s Army Corps technician who became his wife. He visited Dad at the Southeastern Veterans’ Center in Chester County just about every week, and died two years ahead of his only surviving brother. (There had been six brothers in all.)

The picture of Frank was in an album of Aunt Sally’s that her daughter gave me.

So, old photos newly discovered can conjure a fresh appreciation. I’m lucky to have found a few that did that.

For ‘Pappy’ Hannum, mixed duty on Attu’s Ordnance Hill

Last of three parts

Navy aviation ordnanceman Walter Hannum on Attu: He was pay officer, carpenter, truck mechanic, beer hall manager.

Attu is the westernmost island in the Aleutian archipelago, more than a thousand miles from the Alaskan mainland, just below the Bering Sea and so far out in the North Pacific, it’s in the Eastern Hemisphere. It’s a relentlessly gray place of cold, wind, rain and fog about twenty miles wide by thirty-five miles long. There are no trees, but craggy mountains whose peaks are covered with snow year-round. Today, no one lives there.

Walter Hannum remembered the guys would say, “If you don’t like the weather here, wait five minutes. It’ll change. You won’t like that either.”

I read this 357-page paperback to learn how World War II was fought in the Aleutians. The book was first published in 1969. Author Brian Garfield was a novelist, historian and screenwriter. He died in 2018.

In June 1942, Japanese troops occupied the island. U.S. forces recaptured it a year later in desperate fighting that included a banzai charge by the enemy. The battle lasted three weeks and left more than 500 Americans and 2,300 Japanese dead.

By the time Walter arrived, the Japanese were long gone. It was June 1945, a month after the war in Europe ended, and the Allies were ratcheting up their efforts to defeat Japan. Attu had many thousands of U.S. Army and Navy personnel manning bases that launched air and naval attacks across the North Pacific.

Walter and two aviation mechanics traveled together the more than 400 miles from Adak to their new assignments. When they saw Attu airstrips not paved but made of steel mats, it struck them how inadequate the mats seemed.  

“We were wonderin’ what in the world we were doin’ there.”

A civilian crew came in and worked night and day to remove all of the steel mats, and started laying concrete runways. Four-engine patrol bombers, PB4Y-2 Privateers, arrived with crews that included some of Walter’s instructors from the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Memphis.

“They were gettin’ ready to bomb the hell out of Japan.”

Walter, a Pennsylvanian in his mid-thirties and known to the younger guys as “Pappy,” worked on Ordnance Hill as pay officer. Around him was so much ammo, there was barely room to store it all.

 “Our ammunition was spaced so close, our cook said if anything happened around here, the whole thing would go up. If you were from Ordnance Hill, when you went down the chow hall, they’d give you anything. They figured you weren’t gonna be around long.”

Walter’s skill as a mechanic proved especially useful on Attu. The climate dampened ignition systems, preventing trucks from running on all cylinders. In a shop Walter and his “brother” Ralph built on my grandfather’s farm in 1927, Ralph once showed Walter what to do: Wipe inside the distributor with an oily rag. It beaded the filmy moisture into droplets of water.

This 1945 photo in Walter’s album of Attu images identifies him on the back only as Pappy and the sailor on the right as Gutirez.

“That’s all I did, and when you started the motor, all six cylinders took off.”

When word spread about Walter’s savvy, a higher-up got him to help in the garage. “Just keep those trucks running,” he told Walter, who then took another side job he was also perfectly suited for — as a carpenter.

“And, of course, I inherited the beer hall.”

He got that job as a result of the creepy behavior of a sailor in the Quonset hut that served as a barracks. The “simple nut,” as Walter called him, had found the frozen body of a Japanese soldier and taken off the head, and was keeping it in a bucket in the hut.

“When we’d go to chow at night, he’d put the bucket on a stove, and then when we came back from chow, he’d take the head out of the bucket and he’d start picking the flesh off of it.”

Walter couldn’t stand being around for that, so he’d escape to the enlisted men’s beer hall, a small Quonset hut. He’d take pen and paper along to write home, and spent so much time hanging around there, the sailor who managed the place asked him if he’d tend bar once in a while.

He did that for several weeks, and then one morning at muster, the beer hall guy said, “You’re up there every night. Here’s the cash box and the key. You might as well run the place.”

But what happened with the Japanese head?

“Well, this guy finally got his head cleaned up, and he got hold of some gold paint somewhere and painted it all up, and he hung it over the hut door. And then one of the officers seen it, so that ended that.”

Walter liked the officers, because they were casual about discipline. One morning, he and some other guys heard an officer grumbling after he’d met with the commander at headquarters. One in the group asked, “What’s the matter?”

Walter was authorized to drive vehicles on Attu, and carried this card as proof.

“Oh,” he said, “I went in to see the old man and some guy was salutin’ me down there. I told the old man. He said, ‘Well, we’ve got to stop that. We don’t want that going on around here. Maybe the fella’s new, and he doesn’t know any better yet.’ ”

“You see,” Walter said, “there was no nonsense.”

One day, Walter learned he would have to fly gunnery on a mission to Paramushiro Island, where the enemy had a huge base that guarded the northern approach to Japan. He would be flying in a speedy, twin-engine patrol bomber, the PV-1 Ventura.

“What’s that like?” he asked a fella who had made the trip.

“Well, you sit on the floor for four hours, and then you’re over target and you’re real busy, and then you sit on the floor for another four hours back and hope both engines keep running.”

Walter knew why flying across the bitter North Pacific was scary.

“They didn’t bother giving you a raft or nothin’, because you weren’t gonna live in that water.”

Luckily for Walter, he didn’t have to go to Paramushiro. The atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Japan formally surrendered the next month.

One of Walter’s best friends on Attu was a stray dog named Old George.

Walter with Old George on Attu. The dog was popular with the sailors on Ordnance Hill.

“I guess you’d call him a shepherd. He would stay in the beer hall at night till around 9:30 or 10 o’clock, then he’d go down to the hut, and I’d tell him, ‘George, damn you, when I come down to the hut, don’t you try to bite me,’ because he would raise cane when somebody’d come in the hut.

“So then if you went down to the hut and he was on your bunk, you didn’t give the dog hell, you gave the guys hell: ‘OK, who gave Old George permission to get on my bunk?’ If you weren’t on the bunk, he’d get up and put his nose on it, but somebody gave him permission before he got on it. He was somethin’.

“We didn’t see him for a long while. I’m goin’ down the road in a ten-wheeler one day and here’s this dog runnin’ along in the gutter, and I stopped and I called to him, ‘George, where in the hell are you goin’?’ He got in the truck with me and come back up on the hill.”

When it was just about time to leave Attu, Walter made wooden crates for guys going home with the dogs they’d befriended.

“What about if I make a box for Old George?” he asked the cook, who knew the dog well from his visits to the chow hall.

“No, don’t worry about him. I can’t go home for a while. I’ll take him when I go.”

It’s not the answer Walter hoped for.

“I left George behind,” he said. “He was somethin’.”

Just before Christmas 1945, Walter left Attu for home. Two weeks later, at Bainbridge, Maryland, he was honorably discharged from the Navy as an aviation ordnanceman third class with Pacific and American theater ribbons.

He took advantage of the GI Bill to get his commercial pilot’s license and become certified as an aircraft mechanic. He flew passengers and worked on engines for less than a year.

“It was seven days a week, and I was makin’ $70 a week, and I could make more at pattern-making in only five days, in less hours.”

He returned to Downingtown Manufacturing, quit after a management change he didn’t like, and took another airplane job that didn’t work out. Then he made patterns for a former co-worker who did custom work, but got tired of that and returned to Downingtown Manufacturing. Beloit Corporation bought the company in 1955, and Walter stayed on, making patterns until the plant closed in 1971.

“I was on unemployment for a year. Where was a guy sixty-two years old gonna find a job, anything worthwhile?”

When Walter left the Navy, he and Emma lived in an apartment in West Chester. He liked the idea of getting a trailer, so he could be mobile.

“See, I found pattern-making was a very uncertain trade. If I got out of  [Downingtown], I’d have to go to Philadelphia or Lancaster for a job. So I felt, why tie yourself down with a house and worry about it if you have to move somewheres else to work?”

Emma in front of the plane her husband built, Little Red Shoes

He and Emma bought a trailer for $6,000. His dad offered Walter an acre on his property. “Why don’t you take this ground here with the shop on it?” he said, referring to the workplace Walter and Ralph had built in the twenties. So, in 1954, Walter and Emma parked their trailer up a slope from the shop. Ralph dug a pond for them.

Pop-Pop and Nanny, as we grandkids called them, had made similar offers to my Aunt Hilda and Uncle Mike, and to my mom and dad. As a result, a sizable chunk of contiguous land along Route 113 in East Caln Township, north of Downingtown, belonged to my grandparents and their three children and their spouses. It was a true family compound.

All three young men in our extended family had done their part against Germany and Japan. Besides Uncle Walter’s Navy duty in the Aleutians, my dad was a Coast Guard radio operator on patrol frigates in the North Atlantic, and Uncle Mike was a propeller mechanic with the 8th Air Force in England, servicing B-24 Liberator bombers.

Pop-Pop and Nanny had given these veterans a lift up.

Walter lost Emma on the first day of May 1973.

“Em wanted me to mow the yard. I said, ‘It don’t look too bad.’ She said, ‘You got more done around here when you were working than you do now when you’re retired.’ So I said, ‘Oh all right, we’ll mow the yard.’ ”

He was on a tractor he’d built. She was pushing a power mower.

“When I seen her laying with the mower running, I said oh, she got her foot under it. That wasn’t the case. She had a stroke. Em was dead.”

They’d had no children. She had taken care of him, even urging him to take a spoonful of cod liver oil every day, which he always did.

Walter built his own equipment — tractors with plows, carts and mowers, a gasoline-powered woodcutter, an excavator tractor with caterpillar tracks. His shop brimmed with tools and machinery. You’d see a technical magazine on aviation or a copy of Popular Mechanics inside. He had plastic model planes hanging from the rafters, a nudie calendar on the wall, an old airplane propeller mounted outside on the front, above the wide sliding door.

Walter rides one of his creations on his property outside Downingtown, Pennsylvania. In the background is the pond his ‘brother’ Ralph dug for him.

For fun, he consumed books about the Wild West, especially cowboy novels.  Mom brought him bagsful of them from the county library, where she was a volunteer book-mender, and I got him some used paperbacks once. He had oversize, illustrated volumes from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Reader’s Digest.

After he died, two weeks into 2009, we went through his shop and trailer. There were dozens of photos of him and Emma, of airplanes and the buddies who worked on them and flew with him, of sailors he knew on Attu. He had saved newspaper clippings of the plane crashes he and his friends survived. Among his books were Early Air Pioneers, Veteran and Vintage Aircraft and The American Heritage History of Flight. He had all seven videotapes of the Warbirds of World War II series.

I still have snatches of memories from growing up next door to him:

  • How the air compressor in his shop thrummed when it kicked on and powered up;
  • Seeing him with his old buddies on folding chairs at the shop for Sunday chats;
  • The time he told me that a dog lifting its leg to pee was “putting it into gear”;
  • A little speech he gave me on the virtues of Hamburger Helper;
  • Watching him drive past our house in his blue-gray Volkswagen pickup truck, never in a hurry.

Just before Uncle Walter died, Mom and I visited him at a nursing home in Honey Brook. He was ninety-eight years old, but still clear-headed. When we left the room, I turned back to look at him lying on his bed.

He had that crinkly grin.

Years before sailor heads to Alaska, a tragedy in the air

Second of three parts

Early aviation buffs (from left) Ralph Hannum, Cliff Young, J. Edwin “Eddie” Mendenhall and Walter Hannum in the mid-1920s at Cliff’s home near Marshallton, Pennsylvania. Ralph was Walter’s uncle, but they were the same age and thought of each other as brothers. Eddie was Walter’s cousin, Ralph’s nephew.

Walter Hannum was just a toddler when his mother died. She was in her late twenties and had taught in Chester County public schools. A newspaper story said she had been ill for six weeks with typhoid fever. It described her as “an estimable woman … of a high Christian character and greatly esteemed by all who knew her.”

Obituary for Walter’s mom, who died June 28, 1915

Until his dad remarried several years later, Walter lived on his grandparents’ dairy farm in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. His father had a young brother named Ralph, who was the same age as Walter.

“He was my uncle, but he was only three months older than myself. So we were raised together, and he was more like a brother.”

They would grow up to share an interest in motorcycles and airplanes. But early on, they did chores on the eighteen-acre farm, where the Hannums had three horses and twelve to fourteen cows.

“You went out and hoed corn and picked the bugs off the vines. You kept busy. Ralph and I didn’t get in on the milking back then, but there was a hand pump to pump water. Up in the attic was a big wooden tank, and every evening we had to fill that tank. And this pump, Ralph and I couldn’t work the handle ourselves, so we had to team up to pump this water. And of course, where they watered the cattle, that trough had to be filled. So that was our job every day.”

Initially, Granddad Hannum resisted new technology.

“A way back, the horses were used in the field to plow and pull the wagons, mowers, hay rakes, everything. Dad got to talking about a Fordson tractor. Granddad said no, that they weren’t good for the ground because they packed it down from the weight, when you plowed or harrowed with them.”

He gave in after a big farm nearby got a Fordson.

The Hannums’ 1917 Fordson tractor

“Ralph and I used to go up and run it, like for crops, because they liked a kid on there, because they used the men for the heavy work. Ralph and I would get to fighting over whose turn it was to drive it.”

Walter’s dad bought a 1917 Fordson at an auction for $90. It had iron wheels. The entire differential unit was lying on the ground when he made his bid, and he didn’t know what, if anything, was wrong with it. He took the part home and installed it. The tractor ran fine. Walter and Ralph later improved it with rubber tires.

Walter was a lanky lad with a crinkly grin. Sometimes his granddad had him smarting and scratching his head.

“He had these leather slippers with elastic inside. And you talk about a man with a fast draw! He could whip one of them off and crack you across the back before you knew what. Times I stood there and wondered, well, what was this for? Something I did. I wasn’t always sure.”

Walter Hannum

In time, he thought highly of farm life.

“I look back, and I think it was a good way to be brought up.”

Still, his eyes were on flying machines. As kids, he and Ralph would stand out in the field and gawk at the old Jennys flying overhead. The Jenny biplanes were cheap and available after the First World War. Then once, there was a big, old LWF biplane at the far end of the field.

“Ralph and I had been fussing so much about flying, Grandmother Hannum got in her sugar bowl and she got out $12 for us. It was $6 apiece for a ride. The thing held four. Ralph and I had to face the back. Two people faced the front. We had a ride, and Grandmother figured that would quiet us down. But it didn’t. That was it.”

Walter’s dad, Bill Hannum, remarried in 1921, and the family moved to a house up the hill, across from Northwood Cemetery. Bill and the former Clara Pierce had met at a square-dance. They went on to have two daughters, my Aunt Hilda and my mom, Elizabeth.

Walter’s dad, my grandfather Bill Hannum

During his first and only year of high school, Walter helped an older friend, Cliff Young, build a little biplane. Walter made ribs for the wings instead of studying at night. When he quit school, he signed on as an apprentice in the pattern shop at Downingtown Manufacturing, and stayed with it until Cliff drew him away to a dream job working on airplanes.

Cliff had gotten a job in the experimental department at the Bellanca aircraft factory in New Castle, Delaware. He brought Walter, now about eighteen, into the company. Walter moved into Cliff’s farmhouse near Marshallton, a village about four miles from Downingtown.

“Then I got short on clothes. Cliff brought me home in the Model T. I got the clothes, and my dad gave me the devil.”

Bill told his son, “Those airplanes are no good. You can’t use them for a thing. It’s just some guys fooling around, and you’ll never amount to a damn if you follow that job. You go back and learn your trade – pattern-making.”

Walter did as he was told.

 “It was just as well. The Depression hit, and airplane factories closed up. At least at Downingtown, we were making parts for paper machinery three days a week or three days every other week.”

He kept tinkering with planes and going aloft in them, but not always safely. Once, he and Cliff crashed through a post-and-rail fence during takeoff when a headwind kept them from clearing a stone house. Neither was hurt, but the propeller was broken and the landing gear and bottom wing were damaged.

And then about 11 a.m. on August 9, 1931, the unthinkable happened.

“Cliff had got ahold of a real nice, modern biplane, not a world war surplus. It had a big V-8 water-cooled engine with ninety horsepower, and could haul three people.

“So one Sunday morning, I’m goin’ down the road in my hot ’29 Chevy roadster, and I stopped at Granddad’s, and young Eddie Mendenhall come out. Now he was a cousin, he was just fifteen at the time, and he wanted to go with me over to Cliff’s to fly. He was interested in aviation too.

Fifteen-year-old Eddie Mendenhall of Downingtown and the wrecked biplane, as shown in the Daily Local News of West Chester. The crash on August 9, 1931, killed Eddie and seriously injured Walter Hannum and pilot Cliff Young. The newspaper described Eddie as “one of the town’s promising young lads.” He played football at Downingtown High School.

“Cliff  had his plane there in the field by the barn. Eddie and I got in the front seat, side by side and facing forward. Cliff fired her up and we went flying. Half an hour later, when we came back to land, the engine quit at around 300 feet, and the plane went into a spin. A spin is very simple: If you get that airplane too slow to stay in the air, one side will quit flying first.”

The plane, a Challenger, spiraled into a field, hitting on its nose.

Four men, two of them Cliff’s relatives, hurried to the wreck. So did a friend of Walter’s, who sped there in Walter’s roadster, crashing through farmers’ fences. He found Walter sticking out between the plane’s firewall and gas tank. The engine had smashed back into the forward seats.

Eddie was the worst off. He had broken bones in both legs and both feet, and a fractured skull. He died four hours later in the Homeopathic Hospital of West Chester, where the three fliers had been taken by car.

Cliff, at the controls, had been seated behind Eddie and Walter. When the plane hit the ground, his head snapped forward, and the safety belt knocked out all of his teeth, Walter said.

With no sensitivity, an Associated Press story the next day said Cliff, who was thirty-eight, “suffered many broken bones and shock from which he is expected to die.” But he hung on, and during eight months in Abington Memorial Hospital, he underwent three surgeries.

Gawkers at the crash site near the village of Marshallton

“He never did recover,” Walter said. “Four years later, he died.”

Walter’s injuries included lacerations on his face, bone fractures in his left foot and right ankle, and a broken jaw. He believed he survived because Eddie, seated beside him, cushioned him on impact.

“I think his body protected me when we went in.”

My mom, who was just shy of three years old, says that seeing her brother all bandaged up frightened her.

So, why did the plane’s engine quit? Walter knew the answer.

“It was carburetor ice. In them days, they knew nothing about it. It was in August, and who would’ve thought you’d have ice in the carburetor in August?”

In the Homeopathic Hospital, Walter met student nurse Emma Collier, a 1928 graduate of Radnor High School. “Emma is a girl who, no matter what happens, is always ready to laugh” and has a “musical giggle,” according to the yearbook blurb alongside her photo. She was an athlete, with a letter in track. “In jumping, she cannot be excelled,” the blurb’s writer said.

Emma Collier (standing, second from left) as a student nurse at the Homeopathic Hospital of West Chester

Walter had a couple of dates with Emma after he got into shape. He courted her with his Chevy roadster, taking her to movies at the Warner Theater in West Chester. But there was a hurdle: She had a boyfriend. Walter talked with him one night about automobiles and soon had him out of the picture.

“I kind of overcome him. He lost out,” he said with that crinkly grin.

Often, Walter didn’t have enough gas money for his car, so he rode his Harley to see Emma.

“Her parents lived down back of Paoli, so I’d bum a quarter off my dad – I could buy a lot of gasoline with a quarter back then for a motorcycle – so I’d go down to see her on the motorcycle. So then her parents, they made me park it out on the main road and walk in, because I guess they didn’t want the neighbors to know that Emma went with a lowlife that rode a motorcycle.”

In 1932, the year after the plane crash, Walter was riding his Harley on Baltimore Pike one Sunday morning when someone in a Buick roadster pulled out from a stop sign and hit him. That was the end of the motorcycle. Walter was banged up, too, and landed in the hospital again.

Emma and Walter on the Fourth of July 1934, three months after their wedding

He and Emma were married on April 12, 1934, but on the sly because she was still a student nurse and would have been canned if word got out. The students’ house mother knew about the nuptials but covered for Emma.

Walter told his dad about getting hitched and had a moment of dismay.

“Well, there’s no use in telling you anything,” Bill told his son in disgust, and walked away. Then he turned to come back and said, “Well, she seems like a nice girl. I think you’ll be all right.”

The couple lived for a few years in an apartment above a garage on Downingtown’s Brandywine Avenue, then rented a bungalow along Route 113 owned by Walter’s Aunt Marie for $20 a month.

Walter was still working at Downingtown Manufacturing, where on March 7, 1931, he had completed four years’ pattern apprenticeship and the vice president wrote, “We cheerfully recommend him as trustworthy and competent.”

When his “brother” Ralph bought a plane, a Taylor J-2 Cub, while working in Ohio, Walter and a pal became part owners for $200 apiece. Ralph brought the Cub to the Main Line Airport in Malvern, where Walter took flying lessons. In 1941, he got his pilot’s license.

Four years later, with Walter in the Navy and World War II almost won, he left Washington state’s Whidbey Island for Adak in the Aleutians. He found out what “further transfer” meant.

He was going to Attu.

Part 3 coming Friday, August 13

From deferment to duty: a motor-minded sailor’s journey

First of three parts

My Uncle Walter liked to say that if he’d kept his mouth shut, he wouldn’t have landed in the Navy and ended up at one of the most desolate, unforgiving outposts of World War II.

Walter Hannum and his wife, Emma, in 1944 or ’45.

Walter Leroy Hannum was my mom’s older brother, born in 1910 to a southeastern Pennsylvania farmer and his schoolteacher wife. In his youth, he crafted wooden patterns for machinery, rode motorcycles, built biplanes and learned to fly. As a thirty-something sailor in the North Pacific, he specialized in aircraft ammo and bombs bound for Japan. Back home, he used the GI Bill to earn a commercial pilot’s license.

The lure of machines almost cut his life short.  When he was twenty, a biplane he was riding in dived into a field, killing a young cousin and critically injuring the pilot. Walter was seriously hurt, but the accident gave way to good fortune. While laid up in the hospital, he met a student nurse, his future wife. The next year, a motorcycle crash banged him up again.

Undaunted by the plane disaster, he got a private pilot’s license in 1941. When America entered the war that year, he was exempt from the draft because his employer, Downingtown Manufacturing Company, did defense work. In peacetime, the plant built paper-making machinery, for which Walter made patterns for casting. Now it made steam winches to raise anchors and lift cargo onto Liberty ships, and produced the steering mechanism for airplane rudders. Walter once made a pattern to carry the breech mechanism on a submarine’s five-inch deck gun.

Walter with a plane he built, Little Red Shoes, in a photo taken in the early 1950s

He liked the work but bristled over the plant’s personnel manager, who’d come down to the pattern shop and tell Walter, “I got you a deferment. Isn’t that pretty nice?” Walter steamed over it.

“I didn’t like it, and I didn’t like him, and I didn’t like him having me in debt to him,” he told me in 1997, when he was eighty-six.

The manager told Walter again and again: “I got you another deferment. Isn’t that pretty nice?”

Then in 1944, when it got near the time for another one, Walter told his foreman, “It’s about time for that big SOB to come down and tell me I have another deferment and isn’t that pretty nice. I’m goin’ up to Personnel and straighten him out.”

He confronted the manager. “I don’t want no more deferments.”

“Well, if you feel that way, I’ll just take you off of it.”

That was a Wednesday. The following Monday, Walter was on a train to Philadelphia to report for induction into the military. He was married and thirty-three years old.

With his background in aviation, he hoped to get into the Army Air Forces as a mechanic. “If you wanna go in the Air Force,” he was told in Philly, “you gotta go in the Army first.” Walter had a problem with that. He didn’t want to do a lot of marching. The heck with that, he thought.

“I’ll take the Navy,” he said, but with no promise of getting the kind of job he wanted. He was inducted on May 5, 1944, a month before the D-Day invasion of France that doomed Nazi Germany.

“Boy, was I wrong about the Navy!” he said. “I went to Camp Peary in Virginia for boot camp, and we marched from 8 in the morning till noon, and you went and got somethin’ to eat, and you went out and you marched from 1 till 5 in the evening for seven weeks.”

One day, the trainees were tested on math, history, geography. A proctor said, “Anybody that’s interested in an aviation rate can stay for a special test.” Walter didn’t think he could pass it, but took it anyway.

Walter (right) with his dad, Bill Hannum

“I guess I passed because they interviewed me one day about what I wanted to do in the Navy, and they found out I had seventeen years’ pattern experience. They wanted to put me in pattern-making.”

He didn’t want to do that. He wanted to get into aviation.

“No, you can’t,” one of his two interviewers said, noting Walter didn’t have enough education, just one year of high school. But the other said, “Look at his aptitude test,” and with that, he got a green light for schooling.

He was off to Memphis, Tennessee, to the Naval Air Technical Training Center, where right away the trainees had to pass a math test to stay. Walter fretted again, but he passed. He wouldn’t have, if he hadn’t taken an International Correspondence School course some years earlier – a course that opened a life’s worth of work for him.

“If I hadn’t taken that ICS, I never would’ve made nothin’.”

Now, Walter was among twenty-one students in a class studying aviation ordnance – bombs, fuses, ammunition, machine guns, all of the armament for airplanes.

“We had classes all day, and all day Saturday you took tests on what you studied that week. The next week started, you were on an all-new subject. And if you didn’t pass all those subjects, you had to go at night to try to pick up what you failed.”

An officer urged Walter to volunteer for aerial gunnery, but he balked. He’d seen what fighter planes did to a target with six .50-caliber machine guns, and didn’t want anyone shooting at him.

Walter’s Navy portrait

“Are you afraid to fly?”

“No,” Walter said, “I’m a civilian pilot.”

But he changed his mind about gunnery when classmates pressed him to join them. The draft for gunnery school was filled, though, meaning he couldn’t go. He was in sick bay with a cold and fever when he got word that a slot had opened up for him.

Others in sick bay razzed him that he’d made a mistake.

“Boy, are you foolish! You have the highest marks in our class, and there were two openings at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.”

That didn’t matter to Walter. He didn’t like the cold and thought he’d be learning aerial gunnery where it was warm, in Florida.

“When they read all the drafts out, it was Whidbey Island. I asked somebody if Whidbey Island was off the coast of Florida. He said no, it’s off the coast of Washington – the state of Washington. Good Lord, that’s up there in the Northwest and this is December!”

But Walter found the weather up in Puget Sound, above Seattle, was pleasant that winter of 1944-45. The place was Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, home of Fleet Air Wing 6, where he studied weapons in a classroom and then went outside to fire them.

“Your platform was moving and what you’re shooting at is moving, and you’re only allowed to fire in bursts of twelve shots, because you had an air-cooled gun. If you fired too long, your gun would get hot and quit.”

Walter inspects the engine of my brand-new Mazda3 in 2005.

He shot at all kinds of targets, instructed to always lead them, and learned to use a turret.

“I liked the hydraulic turrets. I could get that gun right where I wanted it. But the electric turret was kind of uncertain. You moved your control, it went too far. If you tried to move your control to slow up, then it was too slow and your turret was erratic trying to follow a target.”

Walter finished the course and worked as an instructor on the firing range while waiting for reassignment.

“All we had was cotton for our ears. You had four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon of these guns firing. After two weeks, my ears were ringing night and day.”

His chief said he could stay on as an instructor or put in for a draft out of Whidbey Island. Walter opted for the draft, figuring anything was better than the bedlam in his ears. In the meantime, he went on seaman guard at night, keeping watch on the station’s patrol planes.

One Sunday morning, after he and others finished six hours on guard duty and were crossing a field, they came across a petty officer. He told one of the weary sailors to square his crooked hat. The sailor made a disparaging remark and was put on report. That sealed it for Walter.

“I thought, I’m tired of this chicken nonsense around here.”

He asked to leave the island. It was early June 1945. A pal who worked in the station’s draft office told him that an officer saw Walter’s application and said, “We’ll fix him up.”

When Walter’s orders came through, he couldn’t make out where he was headed. His assignment was just a bunch of letters across the top of the page, “alphabetical soup,” he called it. He went to the post office to get his address changed, and the clerk asked, “You know where you’re goin’?” Walter hadn’t the slightest idea. “You’re going to Adak for further transfer.”

“Where’s Adak?”

“That’s up in the Aleutian Islands.”

Walter went to the library to look at a map and saw that Adak is about midway out the Aleutian chain from mainland Alaska.  

Good Lord! he thought. Alaska! He worried about the “further transfer.” Where would it take him?

Part 2 coming Wednesday, August 11

Dark war memories of a fun-loving uncle

Uncle Louie was a rascal and a jokester.

“He was kind of a character, wasn’t he?” his older brother Frank said. “He was a fun person, always out for a good time.”

Uncle Louie works the grill and his hips in this snippet from a June 1969 home movie.

Yes, he was great for laughs, but I saw another side of him.

Louie, Frank and their brothers Sam and Carmine, my dad, all went to war against Germany and Japan. They’re on the Honor Roll of Malvern, Pennsylvania, for their service in World War II. Frank was an Army medic in Panama and at a Long Island psychiatric hospital run by the War Department. Sam was in the Army Coast Artillery in the South Pacific. My dad was a Coast Guard radio operator on patrol frigates in the North Atlantic.

Louis Charles Venditti was born in Lewistown, in the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians of central Pennsylvania, and went to school only as far as eighth grade.

Louis Charles Venditti

(When my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island from Italy, his name was recorded as Venditta instead of Venditti. Louie and an older brother, Tony, reclaimed the original spelling. My dad and the other siblings – there were a dozen children in all — did not.)

In his late teens, Louie worked at chemical company Foote Mineral, operating a furnace. He joined the Army Air Forces early in 1943 and arrived in England that November, a week after turning twenty. He was a private first class, a ground crewman with the 8th Air Force. What kind of unit? “Pursuit!” he told me, and said of the hotshots who flew the P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs, “Oh, those guys were sharp.”

Louie was assigned to the 77th Station Complement Squadron at Wattisham in East Anglia. His specialty was running heavy-duty automotive equipment. “Hauled personnel, supplies, and equipment,” his Army separation papers say. “Drove fire truck, answering emergency calls to extinguish fires caused by aircraft accidents. Made minor repairs to vehicles.”

Louie was a ground crewman on a fighter base in England.

Wattisham Station 377, about sixty miles northeast of London, was the base for the 479th Fighter Group, known as “Riddle’s Raiders.” It had three fighter squadrons that used P-38s and P-51s for ground attack and bomber escort.

One day was seared into Louie’s memory. He told me about it in the spring of 1995, as the family gathered after the funeral of his sister Josie.

A crippled P-38 was returning to the base from Nazi-occupied Europe. Its pilot might have been injured. He had to crash-land the twin-engine fighter, and when it hit the ground, it flipped over and caught fire. Louie rushed to the scene in a firetruck, but the plane had turned into a fireball. There was little that Louie and the other responders could do. Through the flames, Louie saw the pilot upside down in the cockpit, banging on the bubble canopy with his fist. He could not be saved.

“That really got me,” Louie told me, and then he looked away and his voice trailed off. “It got me for a long time.”

He left England in February 1946 and was honorably discharged a few weeks later at Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, pocketing a Good Conduct Medal for three years of active duty. He and his brothers made it through the war unharmed, except for Sam. A noncombat brain injury on Bora Bora Island in French Polynesia got him a disability discharge in the spring of 1943. Blackouts dogged him for seven more years, until he had one and never came to.

Louie with son Nicky in June 1969, just before Nicky left for Vietnam.

As Uncle Louie and I talked after his sister’s funeral, he nodded toward Ernie Beam, Josie’s husband. Uncle Ernie was a bear-size man who served in North Africa during the war as an Army military policeman. He was chatting with mourners outside his home and making sure there was plenty to eat and drink.

“Look at him,” Louie said. “He’s all right now, surrounded by all these people, keeping busy. But just wait until tonight when he’s alone in the dark and thinking on his pillow. That’s when it’ll really hit him.”

He turned to me, his eyes moistening.

“I know what that’s like. I’ve known that ever since I lost my son.”

Nicky Venditti, twenty years old, was an Army helicopter pilot. He died July 15, 1969, his eleventh day in Vietnam, as a result of a training accident involving a grenade. His dad’s anecdote about the doomed fighter pilot is in my book about Nicky and the accident, Tragedy at Chu Lai.

Louie’s heart failed in 1996. He lies at the foot of Nicky’s grave.

My dad, Carmine, with his older brother Louie, who’s holding their nephew Frankie. The little girl in front is Frankie’s sister Anna. The other girls are Rita (left) and Patty, my dad and Louie’s sisters. Frankie and Anna are my Uncle Tony and Aunt Laura’s children. The photo was taken in the early 1940s in Malvern.

Slip of paper 186 years old reveals error on Alamo defenders list

You might remember my blog about an ancestor of mine, James Hannum, a fighter in the Texas Revolution who’s on the official list of Alamo defenders.

Seven months after the post, I now have solid evidence he didn’t sacrifice his life in the fabled stand against Mexican troops near San Antonio. The truth is that he died almost three months earlier, a hundred miles from the old Spanish fortress.

The proof is an 1835 document recently uncovered in Austin, Texas.

The Battle of the Alamo lasted 13 days, culminating on March 6, 1836, when thousands of Mexican troops overwhelmed about 200 Texan volunteer soldiers at an old Franciscan mission near San Antonio, Texas. My ancestor James Hannum, who joined the fight for Texas’ independence, is incorrectly listed as an Alamo defender.

In my blog last July, I wrote about the findings of a former Army military policeman and criminal investigator, Thomas Ricks Lindley, who spent many years researching the Alamo battle. In his 2003 book Alamo Traces: New Evidence and New Conclusions, he made the case that some men on the list of Alamo heroes didn’t die there. Hannum was among them.

Lindley cited a record noting Hannum died December 14, 1835, at a frontier fort in Goliad, Texas, commanded by Captain Philip Dimitt, or Dimmitt. The notation appears on a morning report, a daily accounting of personnel.

Where did Lindley find the report? He gave the source as the Philip Dimitt Papers at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

Eager to see for myself, I emailed the Briscoe Center asking for Dimitt’s morning reports, but it was closed because of COVID-19.

“At this time we are unable to access any of our physical, onsite materials and services, including the Philip Dimitt Papers,” reference intern Marisa Jefferson wrote on June 23. “However, I was able to access a more comprehensive listing of the items in this collection.”

That offered hope, but then she followed up with this: “I do not see any suggestion in this finding aid that the morning reports you are looking for would be in the collection.”

What? Could Lindley, a ferocious fact-hunter, have made a mistake?

Six months passed. Then out of the blue, in mid-December, I got another email from Jefferson. She said the Briscoe Center had reopened to staff on a limited basis. I could put in a request to have materials in the Philip Dimitt collection scanned and emailed. To give her a handle on what to look for, I sent the link to my July 2020 blog.

A breakthrough came in January, when she looked in the designated box of Dimitt papers and, to her surprise, found several morning reports. I wanted to see them all. She arranged it, and a staffer in Duplication Services sent me the scans of two morning reports. Again, no luck. They were from December 24 and 26, 1835, and don’t mention Hannum.

“Nice try, though,” I wrote to Jefferson. “Thank you for that.”

She offered to take another look at the collection. This time, she found the December 14 report mentioning Hannum, just as Lindley had described it in his book. A part of the one-page document labeled “Remarks” says: “DIED – This Morning James Hanum [sic], Private.” The name is underlined.

An image of the barely legible line is below.

This is a detail of a scan from Captain Philip Dimitt’s morning report of December 14, 1835, at Fort Goliad, Texas. It reads: “Remarks DIED — This Morning James Hanum, Private.” (The name, which is underlined on the paper, is misspelled. It’s actually “Hannum.”) The morning report is among documents in the Philip Dimitt Papers at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.

This morning report is definitive, a primary source. It confirms that Hannum, twenty or twenty-one years old, was a soldier in Texas’ struggle for independence, but that he didn’t die with William B. Travis, James Bowie and Davy Crockett at the Alamo on March 6, 1836.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t say how Hannum died.

Also still unanswered is why, eighteen years after Lindley found fault with the list of Alamo defenders, Hannum’s name is still on it.

Since my blog last year, I’ve had email contact with Stephen Harrigan, author of the best-seller The Gates of the Alamo, who wrote the foreword to Lindley’s book.  Harrigan put me in touch with historical consultant Richard B. Winders, former historian at the Alamo.

“The defenders list is an interesting subject,” Winders emailed last September. “The general opinion is it is some certified list kept by some organization or agency, but in reality it is just a list of names that has been printed over and over.”

He said Lindley pressed for a revision of the record, but after his death in 2007, the issue faded away.

Still, while Winders was historian at the Alamo, he assigned a member of the staff to work on the defenders list. “Specifically, I was interested in how many lists there were and what were their origins,” he said. “My hope was that the Alamo and GLO would cooperate in evaluating and establishing the veracity of the list together.”

GLO is the Texas General Land Office, which the Texas Legislature put in charge of the Alamo’s care in 2011.

It’s unclear where the research stands. Winders heard that after he left, the Alamo allowed the staffer to keep working on the list. Winders gave me the email address of the shrine’s curator. I wrote to him but got no response.