After their capture by the Chinese, Gene Salay and Dick Annunziata were joined by dozens of other Korean War prisoners and marched north in fierce heat. They were given no food or water.
One morning, Gene told Dick he couldn’t go on. His left leg, which he’d injured while playing high school football, was swollen and causing him excruciating pain.
“If you don’t get up and march, they’ll shoot you,” Dick said.
“Let ’em shoot me.”
Dick wasn’t going to let that happen. He half dragged, half carried Gene until he could limp on his own.
The prisoners slept in a cave one night, on dirt covered in several inches of water. The next day, they were taken out one by one. After each was led away, gunfire followed. When it was Gene’s turn, he made the sign of the cross. The Army radio operator, twenty-one years old, expected to die.
A guard escorted him to a tent, where an English-speaking Chinese officer interrogated him. Another officer burst in and slapped Gene several times. He asked Gene where he lived. Gene pointed to Pennsylvania on a map. Asked what his parents do, Gene said his mother worked in a Bethlehem Steel blast furnace and his father on a farm. He was lying. His father worked at the steelmaker, and his mother was a secretary in the English department at Lehigh University.
A guard grabbed Gene by the arm and led him out of the tent. Gene made the sign of the cross again. Turning a corner, he saw the guys who had preceded him out of the cave. They were alive. As Gene neared them, a Chinese soldier fired his burp gun into a dirt bank.
It had all been a game to scare the captives.
Farther on, as they rode in rickety trucks on a dirt road, two American fighter jets strafed them. No one was hit. The next day, they were strafed again.
By the time the prisoners reached Camp 5 north of Pyongyang, the truce that ended the fighting had already been signed. They didn’t know it, but the Chinese did. They kept their captives in crude structures that resembled chicken coops. The men had to crouch inside them and sleep on dirt atop one another. For nourishment, they got a cup of tea in the morning and a cup of rice at night. There were work details, but Gene and the other wounded men were excused from them. He was glad he didn’t have to clean out the foul pit where the prisoners relieved themselves.
A few times, they were marched to a dirt amphitheater to see Chinese propaganda films. North Korean villagers spat on them, punched and clubbed them on the path as they walked single file. When a teen whacked Gene hard, he punched him in the face. There could have been more trouble for Gene, but the guards rescued him.
One day, the POWs were trucked away from camp, not knowing their destination, and brought to Panmunjom. It was where the truce talks had been held and where the Americans from Camp 5 were set free almost a month after the armistice. Gene and the others got a hearty handshake from General Mark Clark, the commander of U.N. forces. They were going home.
My presentation of Gene’s account ran in The Morning Call of Allentown on July 27, 2003, the fiftieth anniversary of the Korean War armistice. The story appeared in his own words under the headline, “So this is what it feels like to die.” Local historian Ed Root called it “moving, frightening and uplifting.”
As an editor at the newspaper, I had occasional, brief phone contact with Gene in the 1990s, when he was Lehigh County’s director of veterans affairs.
The first time we had a real conversation, I called to ask him how I could get records about my cousin Nicky, an Army helicopter pilot who was killed in Vietnam. I remember the call distinctly, not because of what Gene told me, but because of his manner. I hung up and thought: What a good guy! Helpful, patient, friendly. We’d never met face to face, but still he called me buddy. “Hey, buddy.”
The attack on July 13, 1953, followed more than three hours of incessant shelling. Bugles blared in the night. Flares lit up South Korea’s Kumhwa Valley, just below the North Korean border. Thousands of Chinese troops surged forward.
From the barren hillside where he was posted with about fifty other American and South Korean troops, Private First Class Gene Salay thought the enemy looked like a multitude of ants feverishly at work.
Gene and the men with him could hardly believe what was happening. They hollered and fired their M-1 rifles from the hip. In no time at all, the Chinese were upon them. The fighting turned hand to hand. An enemy soldier grabbed Gene’s rifle at the muzzle end. Gene, who was six feet tall and played football in high school, shook the M-1 free and clubbed him with it, sending him to the ground.
Something, probably a gun butt, hit Gene in the head, and he went down. He couldn’t move his left side and didn’t realize he’d been shot below the shoulder.
He lay dazed. So this is what it feels like to die, he thought.
Hundreds of Chinese were all around. Many ran over him. The first wave passed, and a mop-up crew was approaching. Gene, a devout Catholic, felt God’s presence and prayed.
Somehow he was spared. He and two other wounded buddies huddled among the dead in a crater, unarmed and bloody, through the night.
At dawn, several Chinese soldiers appeared on the rim of the crater. Gene saw them and heard them talking. There was a South Korean soldier in the pit with the Americans. He must have been afraid of being captured. Armed with a “grease” submachine gun, he got on his knees, bent over forward, put the barrel to his belly and pulled the trigger. Gene saw the bullets coming out of his back. He was dead.
The Chinese hadn’t seen the South Korean and might have thought someone was shooting at them. They fired their “burp” submachine guns into the pit, missing Gene but hitting his already grievously hurt friend Kenny Clough in the gut. Kenny moved when struck, so the Chinese descended into the crater to investigate. They went around kicking the fallen and pulled out Dick Annunziata and Gene, who in turn pulled out Kenny.
“We’re not gonna leave him,” Gene said when the Chinese wanted them to move out. Kenny was turning gray. “Gene, don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’ll be all right.” With that, he died.
Moving on, Dick and Gene saw body parts and corpses everywhere they turned. Blood flowed down the hill into a ditch and ran along a road.
Gene had barely survived the start of the week-long Battle of the Kumsong River Salient, the last communist offensive of the war. On his march to a prison camp, he would come close to death again.
He was revered for his work on behalf of veterans, a former soldier and POW with a bullet lodged near his heart, a man of deep faith in God.
For fourteen years, Gene Salay (pronounced suh-LAY) led the Veterans Affairs office of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. “He always made time for a veteran in need,” a colleague said. Another called him “a soldier’s soldier … very knowledgeable … and 1,000% for the veterans.”
Gene was my friend. After much hesitation, he allowed me to write about his Army experience in the Korean War, though it pained him. The combat he’d faced and how his Chinese captors treated him were a frequent torment.
“When I think about certain of my experiences, I’m a wreck for days,” he told me. “And I think about my experiences every day of my life.”
At some point, he got rid of the honors bestowed on him — his Good Conduct Medal, his POW Medal, his Combat Infantryman Badge, his Purple Heart and the certificate that came with it. A close friend said he had become embittered.
The awards ended up almost halfway across the country in the hands of a financial adviser who collected military memorabilia on the side. He got caught stealing more than $10 million in precious metal coins from investors. Among the valuables that federal agents seized from his home were Gene’s medals.
The keepsakes found their way home in 2013, three years after Gene died. They were placed in the museum of a Pennsylvania National Guard armory near where he had lived.
All was well. Gene’s sacrifice was there to see and would not be forgotten.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Some years later, I got a message from a stranger on the West Coast that jolted me. It was about Gene’s medals.
When you interview military veterans, it’s helpful to create a timeline of their training, assignments and experiences. The information comes from their own memories, training certificates they’ve kept, their discharge papers and other documents. You should go over the stuff with them, because paperwork doesn’t always tell the truth.
Beyond ordering events, the details give you the sweep of their lives and service.
I did that for my story on a Navy veteran of World War II that ran yesterday, Veterans Day, in The Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania, my former longtime employer.
The veteran is Allentown native Jim “Ace” Gallagher, who was a turret gunner on Avenger torpedo bombers in the Pacific. He is ninety-seven. I met him in August at a picnic marking the anniversary of V-J Day. He’d brought a photo album and told me about a training accident that killed his buddy, the radioman on Gallagher’s plane, and how he still grieves for him. I was hooked. The anecdote became the heart of Gallagher’s account, which appeared as part of my War Stories in Their Own Words series.
Here’s the timeline I developed while interviewing Gallagher over several visits:
June 1925: Born in Allentown.
Spring 1942: Graduates from Allentown High School. The yearbook, the Comus, describes him as “enthusiastic and persistent in all he undertakes.”
May 10, 1943: Enters active service in Navy. Boot camp is at the Naval Training Station at Sampson, New York.
November 20, 1943: Completes aviation ordnanceman course at Naval Air Technical Training Center in Memphis, Tennessee.
January 15, 1944: Completes Naval Air Gunners School in Hollywood, Florida.
January 16, 1944: Starts operational training at Opa-Locka, Florida, one of three fields at Naval Air Station Miami. (The others were Miami Municipal and Master Field.) Goes on first plane ride, in a twin-engine Beechcraft.
April 17, 1944: Completes operational training at Opa-Locka, winning combat aircrewman wings.
June 1944: Turns nineteen.
October 5, 1944: Night Carrier Air Group 91 is formed at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. Gallagher is assigned to a night torpedo squadron there, VT(N)-91, which flies Avengers.
Late 1944 into 1945: Trains at Naval Base Key West at Boca Chica, Florida. On a night practice mission where radioman Eddie Fisher flies in Gallagher’s place, Avenger crashes into the sea and Fisher is killed. After training, Gallagher is sent to San Diego.
February 27, 1945: Night Torpedo Squadron 91 sails for Hawaii on the seaplane tender USS Norton Sound.
March 6, 1945: Norton Sound arrives at Oahu. Gallagher reports to Naval Air Station Barbers Point.
May 22, 1945: Night Torpedo Squadron 91 boards Essex-class carrier USS Bon Homme Richard. Within a month, Gallagher’s pilot is kicked off squadron. Gallagher’s Avenger crew takes United Fruit liner to Saipan, joins Carrier Aircraft Service Unit 7 to support naval aircraft operations.
June 1945: Gallagher turns twenty.
August 14, 1945: Japan surrenders.
April 1, 1946: Gallagher is honorably discharged from the Navy at Bremerton, Washington, as an aviation ordnanceman third class.
Clarence Smoyer came from coal country, went to war in a tank and became a hero on the urban battleground of Cologne, Germany.
On Friday, September 30, he died at his home in Allentown, Pennsylvania, at the age of ninety-nine.
I met Clarence in 2019 while he was giving talks about his World War II experiences as a gunner in the 3rd Armored Division. His story was chronicled that year in the bestselling book Spearhead by Adam Makos.
A World War II sailor told me about the goofy rite of passage he went through when he crossed the Equator on his way to fight the Japanese. His name is Mathias F. Gutman, and he’s ninety-seven years old.
“Matt” was aboard a landing ship, tank (LST) and was coxswain on one of its two Higgins boats. My interview with him about landing troops on enemy-held islands appeared a few days ago, on September 4, in The Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Matt said that after leaving Pearl Harbor, his ship sailed southwest to parts unknown. Days passed, and then the skipper announced to all hands:
“Within two days, we are going to cross the Equator. Most of you crew members have never done that. You are known as pollywogs, the slime and the scum of the sea. Now you are going to enter the realm of King Neptune and the mysteries of the deep, and you’re going to be initiated to become a shellback.”
The day before the crossing, each pollywog received a written summons of trumped-up charges from King Neptune that read:
USS LST-553 on entering Domain of Neptunus Rex Notice and Listen Ye Landlubber
I order and command you to appear before me and my court on the morrow to be initiated in the mysteries of my Empire. If not, you shall be given as food for sharks, whales, pollywogs, frogs, and all living things of the sea, who will devour your head, body and soul, as a warning to all Landlubbers entering my domain without warrant.
Matt’s summons charged him with being associated with boatswain mates and getting pie-eyed in San Diego. It was read aloud to Davy Jones and his court. Of course, like everyone else, Matt was found guilty and had to undergo the ritual.
The next day, July 25, 1944, the ship crossed both the International Date Line and the Equator, which meant the sailors would be “golden shellbacks” because of their simultaneous entry into the realm of the Golden Dragon. On board, the skull-and-crossbones flag was raised, and the initiation began. It was carried out by sailors who were already shellbacks.
Matt was nineteen at the time. He laughed about the ritual as he told how it went.
“In the first stage, you had to walk through a paddle line where the guys slammed your butt. If you ran through, you had to come back again, and they really gave it to you. The second stage was the dentist. He politely sat us down in the chair and said, ‘Open your mouth wide. I want to check your teeth, your gums.’ And while we had our heads way back, he squirted some bitter solution into our mouths. It stayed with us most of the day.
“The third stage was the barber. He sat us down and said, ‘How would you like to have your hair? A regular cut? A trim?’ Before you could answer him, he grabbed these big sheet-metal shears and cut chunks out of your hair. He said, ‘Now you have to have a shampoo.’ He had a big GI can full of dehydrated eggs mixed up with saltwater. It was really gooey. He grabbed a big wad of that with both hands and plunked it down on your head and massaged it in there, and all this was dripping down your face and the back of your neck.
“The fourth was the water tank about four foot deep. It had three steps going up to the top with a landing, where they had a folding metal chair. They sat us on that chair with our backs to the water tank. The shellbacks asked us a lot of nautical questions. When we gave the wrong answer, they gave us a shock. That chair was wired to a battery under the platform.
“Then they tilted the chair backwards, and we fell back into the tank. Two shellbacks with hoses sprayed us with saltwater. Two other guys dunked us in the water and said, ‘What are you?’ We didn’t know. They kept doing that. Then finally one guy said, ‘Tell them that you’re a shellback.’ And we hollered ‘Shellback!’ And that’s when they stopped. And that’s when the ceremony ended.
“It was entered into our records that we were golden shellbacks.”
My dad was in the Coast Guard in World War II, a radio operator on patrol frigates in the North Atlantic. He was nineteen. The two ships he served aboard collected weather data and could be called on to rescue fliers whose planes had ditched or crashed.
Like Matt’s skipper and many others, the commanding officer on the USS Sheboygan had some fun with his crew. At one point while Dad was at sea in 1945-46, he got a “certificate of rugged duty” that reads in part:
Know all you present that Venditta, Carmine has completely knocked himself out on at least two Weather Patrols aboard the USS Sheboygan. He was there, and he went back. Upon presentation of this Certificate, he is hereby entitled to discuss the weather at length.
Dad died in 2004. He had kept the original certificate among his Coast Guard records, a reminder of camaraderie at sea when the world was in flames.
The sentiment is the same for that onetime pollywog, Matt Gutman.
If you picked up a newspaper anywhere across the country in the spring of 1919, you’d see the amazing story of Cher Ami.
Cher Ami, or “dear friend,” was the First World War homing pigeon hailed for saving the U.S. doughboys of the Lost Battalion. He had come home from battle-scarred France minus a leg and with a deep wound in his chest. In newsrooms everywhere, gleeful writers pecking at their typewriters celebrated the “dear friend of liberty.”
“Where in the annal[s] of warfare can a stouter-hearted little hero be found than Cher Ami?” crowed the Whittier News in California. “Just a handful of muscles, feathers and nerve, Cher Ami, as lovable a pet as ever bred, knew only the path of duty.”
Then on the afternoon of October 4, to the horror of the Americans in the “pocket,” U.S. artillery in the rear began raining shells on them — friendly fire that resulted from jumbled coordinates. Germans joined in the carnage.
Cher Ami, the last of Whittlesey’s eight pigeons, was sent aloft with a plea from the commander: “We are along the road parallel 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it.” The paper message had to reach the American lines, the men believed, or their fate was sealed. A private remembered, “We knew without a doubt this was our last chance. If that one lonely, scared pigeon failed to find its loft, our fate was sealed. We would go just like the others who were being mangled and blown to pieces.”
The bird circled, flew downhill a bit and landed in a tree. The men yelled at it, and threw rocks and sticks to get him going, but he moved to a higher branch. Whittlesey’s “pigeoneer” raced down the hill amid the torrent of gunfire, shimmied up the tree and shook the branch until Cher Ami took off. The bird circled again. Germans shot at him. A shell hit beneath him, sending him fluttering to the ground. But somehow, half dead, he took flight again and made it back to the lines, the capsuled message hanging on what remained of his right leg. The shelling stopped soon afterward.
On the evening of October 7, after Whittlesey’s beleaguered command had been cut off for five days, an American patrol reached them. The Germans had withdrawn. Of the more than 600 soldiers who had ventured into the ravine, only 194 walked out unaided.
An eager American press had kept on top of the unfolding drama. A United Press editor sent a telegram to his reporter, “Send more on Lost Battalion,” and the name stuck. The editor didn’t mean they were lost because no one knew where they were, but that they had been given up for dead.
When the Lost Battalion was saved, newspapers cast a false light on its struggle: “Though it had encountered terrific opposition, it was found to be almost intact, few of its members being killed or wounded.”
Whittlesey came home from “over there” a national hero, receiving the Medal of Honor at the end of 1918. A fawning public also embraced Cher Ami, who arrived in the States the following April.
Captain John L. Carney, in charge of breeding and mobile lofts for the Army Signal Corps’ Pigeon Service, brought Cher Ami home on the transport Ohioan. He kept the bird in his cabin during the trip across the Atlantic. Other pigeons that had distinguished themselves were aboard, as well. When the ship docked at Hoboken, New Jersey, reporters wanted to know which bird saved the Lost Battalion. Carney said it was Cher Ami, and the newshounds were off and running.
“Cher Ami is her name, and that she proved herself truly a dear friend of liberty is attested by the circumstances that she left a leg in the Argonne; that across her dauntless breast there is a ghastly scar that marks the trail of a German bullet that spilled her blood but failed to chill her spirit, and that she wears the symbol of her homeland’s gratitude for her brave and able service – the Distinguished Service Cross, conferred upon her by Gen. Pershing himself.”
That’s how the New York Herald helped feed the winged courier’s fame. But the paper understandably got his sex wrong, assumed a bullet caused his chest wound when it might have been a shell fragment, and gave him a prestigious medal he didn’t have. Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for bravery in combat.
Carney, who had once trained homing pigeons as a hobby, took Cher Ami and three other hero pigeons – President Wilson, The Mocker and Lord Adelaide – in a wicker basket to Washington and his hometown of Pittsburgh on a public relations tour.
“I nursed this bird like a baby clear across the ocean,” he told the Pittsburgh Daily Post, holding Cher Ami in his hands a few days before a Press Club banquet. “Even before we started, it was doubtful if the bird would ever reach this side alive, so I took a taxidermist with me if he died. He has lost so much flesh, though, that I doubt if he can live much longer.”
Reporters wrote that Cher Ami was severely wounded while carrying a message that informed headquarters of the Lost Battalion’s desperate plight, leading to its rescue. But the fact the pigeon’s mission came during a friendly-fire artillery barrage didn’t appear in any accounts.
I asked Finding the Lost Battalion author Robert J. Laplander about that. “From an Army point of view,” he emailed, “the fact that thirty were likely killed in the Charlevaux Ravine by U.S. fire was enough to keep a lid on things. … Slowly through the years, it came to be known the barrage was American, and especially as the war got further into the past, people were more willing to accept that tragic things happened and it wasn’t anyone’s fault.”
As for Cher Ami, gushing reporters turned him into an anthropomorphic avian preening with patriotism. “Cher Ami was one of the most faithful servants of the USA when everything was in turmoil,” the Buffalo Morning Express reported. “In all the wonderful work in which Cher Ami served, he never shirked for a minute, never complained or talked back to his associates or superiors. It has never been told whether he was compelled to salute the officers – but the odds are he didn’t.”
Laplander dismisses talk of Cher Ami’s bravery as postwar hero-building by the press: “The bird did what the bird was taught — he flew where the food was. It had a brain the size of a bottle cap which did not have empathy toward those men, the situation, or anything else. It was a bird who did not love ‘his guys’ or hate the Germans; he only did bird stuff. When he was released, he flew up in a tree, scared by the noise and flying junk, which was a very bird-like thing to do. When he was wounded, he got up and kept on going, not out of some sense of duty, but toward the food.”
What’s more, Cher Ami didn’t actually save the Lost Battalion. By other means, the American artillery unit had already learned its shells were landing on the doughboys in the pocket. Several minutes before the bird arrived at the mobile loft with Whittlesey’s urgent message, the shelling stopped.
Still, that doesn’t take away from the maimed pigeon’s extraordinary feat — flying twenty-five miles in less than half an hour. And, Laplander says, you couldn’t tell anyone who’d been with the Lost Battalion that it wasn’t Cher Ami who saved them.
The tale of the world’s most famous pigeon is still evolving more than a hundred years after his iconic flight. A new chapter was brought to light in 2021 by the curator of military history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
Mining archival records, Frank A. Blazich, Jr. found no proof that Cher Ami was the key messenger for the Lost Battalion. The bird was severely injured carrying a message, Blazich wrote in the Journal of Military History, but the records are muddled as to when and where that happened. He says the Army identified Cher Ami as a Lost Battalion luminary to promote the Pigeon Service.
Laplander, the leading authority on the Lost Battalion, believes it was Cher Ami who flew Whittlesey’s plea to the American lines.
“There is documentation that says it was indeed the bird known as Cher Ami, and there is some contradictory documentation that says it wasn’t,” he told me. “Do I think that the particular bird known as Cher Ami and now stuffed and on display at the Smithsonian was the bird that carried the message out? Yes I do, as documentation shows the bird that carried the message was wounded in the chest and lost a leg, and that bird there has those same wounds.”
Other “bits and pieces of info,” Laplander added, also point to Cher Ami.
Despite the best care available, Cher Ami died of his wounds June 13, 1919, at a loft called the Hall of Honor of the American Pigeon Service in Potomac Park, Washington, D.C.
“Cher Ami, Pigeon Hero of World War, Has Joined His Comrades in Great Beyond,” headlines read. The Lexington Leader in Kentucky solemnly marked his passing, mistaking him for a hen: “No more will her white wings bear her thru the shrapnel rain, over No Man’s Land, over camouflaged artillery that wise Cher Ami knew so well, thru the smoke and din of battle, never swerving until the goal was reached.”
My sources for this blog:
Newspapers.com, including all images
Finding the Lost Battalion: Beyond the Rumors, Myths and Legends of America’s Famous WWI Epic, by Robert J. Laplander; second edition, January 2007; presented by The American Expeditionary Foundation, Waterford, Wisconsin; printed by Lulu Press
Notre Cher Ami: The Enduring Myth and Memory of a Humble Pigeon, by Frank A. Blazich, Jr., Journal of Military History 85:3 (July 2021): 646-77
Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Great War’s Lost Battalion, by Edward G. Lengel, 2018, Da Capo Press, New York
The game was a thriller. The Philadelphia Athletics erupted for seven runs in the fifth inning, almost blew their lead but held on to beat the Cleveland Indians, 9-8. My Uncle Sam was delighted. He and his brother-in-law cheered from the bleachers at North Philly’s Shibe Park. When they got home to Malvern that Tuesday evening, Sam gushed over the great game they’d seen.
He had promised to take his daughter to see the A’s, but four-year-old Nancy wasn’t feeling well that day. Her tummy hurt. She was glad to see him back after the game and asked, “Dad, can I have a kitten?” He said, “Yes, I’ll get you a kitten tomorrow.”
That night, as she sometimes did, Nancy slept in a small bed in Sam and Ruth’s bedroom on the first floor of their East King Street home. Ruth’s sister and brother-in-law and her parents also lived in the house, which was right next door to Sam’s parents.
About forty-five minutes past midnight, Sam shrieked in his sleep, thrust out an arm and clenched a pillow. Nancy awoke in the darkness, trembling from fright. Her mother left Sam’s side and hurried Nancy out of the room and upstairs to her grandparents’ bedroom. Ruth rushed down the stairs, saw her husband motionless in bed and tried to rouse him. He didn’t stir. He wasn’t breathing. Ruth screamed over and over. Sam was dead.
The attack, like the others that hit him, came out of nowhere. He seemed fine the day before, driving his truck for his lime-spreading business. Now he was gone. Nancy didn’t understand what happened to him. She kept asking her mom, “When’s Dad coming back?”
Sam’s death early on May 10, 1950, resulted from a cerebral hemorrhage due to epilepsy and a blast injury during war service, according to his death certificate. He was thirty-three. His family buried him in the East Brandywine Baptist Church Cemetery.
Seizures had afflicted him for almost eight years, since his days with the 198th Coast Artillery on Bora Bora. His fear that he would never get better, which he communicated to his doctors, had come true.
Nancy is still hurting. She was robbed of getting to know her dad as she grew up. “I’ve always felt cheated,” she said.
For me, Uncle Sam is not even a memory. He died several years before I was born. With the help of my extended family and records from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, I got to know him as best I could. He was a good, kind, civic-minded person. Despite struggling with a chronic brain disease, he volunteered with the Malvern Fire Company. The year before he died, he was among the firefighters who raced to the scene of a heartrending accident — the drowning of two boys who’d been fishing in the Malvern Prep pond.
In World War II, Sam happened to serve on a tiny Pacific island far from the action. Still, the Bobcat Force on Bora Bora contributed to the Allied cause in a big way. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, Charles R. Shrader, summed up the expedition in a 1989 issue of Military Review. “Despite the insignificant role that the Bora Bora installation actually played in the war,” he wrote, “the experience gained in Operation Bobcat proved immensely valuable as American forces fought their way across the Pacific to the Japanese home islands.”
My Uncle Sam was part of that. I won’t ever forget his sacrifice.
The Japanese Imperial Navy posed a threat to the U.S. presence on Bora Bora for several months in 1942. That ended in June with the American victory at Midway. Coastal defense and antiaircraft guns on the Polynesian island would remain silent. For my Uncle Sam and the rest of the Bobcat Force, life settled into a stifling routine.
Sam was a tech corporal, or technician fifth grade, in Battery F of the 198th Coast Artillery. He worked with a demolition squad, blasting coral sixteen to eighteen hours a day in the tropical heat. As the job dragged on, with explosions coming one after another, he felt more and more tense.
At the worksite on August 12, something in him snapped. Sam passed out, foamed at the mouth, shouted and convulsed with seizures. Hurried to Bora Bora’s Army hospital, he remained unconscious until the next morning.
What felled him wasn’t clear. After ten days in the 8th Station Hospital with no further trouble, Sam went back to work. His schedule was lightened somewhat, and he felt fairly well – until another attack less than two months later. This time he passed out after taking a shower and lying down. Fellow soldiers saw him wracked with seizures. When he woke up in the hospital, he was drowsy and had a searing headache.
Hospital staff did a complete workup – history, lab work, a physical – and concluded Sam might have epilepsy and should be considered for transfer back to the States. The symptoms weren’t definite, though, and after two weeks he returned to duty again.
A third attack came a few days into 1943. Sam blacked out and shook violently all over. Again, he woke up in the hospital with pain in his head.
Was it epilepsy? Not so fast, doctors said. No medical personnel had seen him suffer a true epileptic seizure. Instead, they thought Sam had a mental disorder, psychoneurosis. He complained of tiring easily, a poor appetite, and trouble falling asleep. “He was preoccupied with these complaints,” a doctor wrote, “and manifested the fact that he was very nervous and could not control the trembling of his arms and legs.”
A three-member Board of Medical Officers recommended Sam be transferred to a general hospital stateside for “special study and differentiation.”
In February, after a year on Bora Bora, the artillerymen of the 198th moved to a support base in the New Hebrides islands, more than 2,300 miles away. Sam wasn’t with them, but on a ship headed for home. He must have felt relief at the prospect, and yet it could not have lasted long. On the journey, seizures gripped him again.
Disembarking at San Francisco, Sam spent a few days at Letterman General Hospital. Then he was off to Kentucky for further observation and study “with regard to his neurotic trends.” At Nichols General Hospital in Louisville, he told his Army doctors there was no family history of mental disease, alcoholism or epilepsy.
A Medical Corps doctor wrote to Sam’s mother in Malvern, Pennsylvania, asking about him. Mary Venditta responded that Sam was never ill before, has no unusual traits, doesn’t drink, has friends, and is engaged to a woman he’s been seeing for years. He is, she added, “more or less of the quiet-type person.”
Nichols General made this final diagnosis: “Psychoneurosis, anxiety state, chronic, severe, cause undetermined, manifested by feelings of inadequacy, anxiety over physical condition, anorexia, insomnia, with marked trembling of upper and lower extremities without organic basis.”
With that, the Army gave up on Sam. He got a disability discharge on May 29.
“Soldier is unfit for military service because severe neurotic traits … render him totally unable to adjust to Army routine. The disability is permanent. Maximum benefit from hospitalization has been attained.”
At home just days later in that spring of 1943, undeterred by his perplexing condition and hoping to get on with his life, Sam married his longtime sweetheart. She was Ruth Vivian Montgomery, who worked in a floral shop. When they first met as teenagers, Sam sang “O sole mio” to her (“My Sunshine”), and it became their song.
The wedding took place June 5 at the manse of the Presbyterian Church. Though no longer a soldier, Sam wore his uniform anyway and looked sharp. His best man was his brother Louie, an Army Air Forces private first class stationed at Green Field, Rhode Island. Sam’s other brother in the service, Frank, couldn’t attend. He was an Army medic in Panama. My dad, Carmine, would be the fourth brother to serve in the war. At the time of the wedding, he was a student at Tredyffrin-Easttown High School. He joined the Coast Guard after graduating in 1944.
The newlyweds lived with Ruth’s sister, brother-in-law and parents. Sam tried to work but couldn’t do anything other than light farming. He felt weak, his hands and legs trembled, he worried continually, noise bothered him, and headaches dogged him. He had insomnia, and when he could sleep, he had terrifying nightmares. A few weeks after the wedding, an attack happened in the middle of the night as he slept. He cried out, fought off his family, tore up everything around him and was unconscious for five hours.
His future looked bleak, but the Veterans Administration gave him a lift. A test at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Philadelphia found abnormal electrical activity in his brain. The evidence came from an electroencephalogram and led to a new diagnosis: epilepsy (encephalitis from heat stroke). Noting the blackout Sam had in 1940, the VA concluded he had epilepsy before joining the Army and it was “aggravated by World War II service.”
One VA doctor wasn’t sold on the diagnosis but let it stand. He described Sam as tense, anxious, worried over his nervous state and afraid he will never get well. “This patient is suffering from a severe tension state. I feel diagnosis is psychoneurosis, anxiety severe. However, diagnosis epilepsy is retained for record purposes.” As a result, Sam was rated fifty percent disabled and would get compensation from the government.
Unable to work for months, he was on relief that provided $10 a week for groceries and a quart of milk a day, received through the local Red Cross. He took a job early in 1945 as a laborer for the Valley Forge Stone and Lime Company, making 90 cents an hour. Then, borrowing money from a friend, he bought a two-ton truck to haul pulverized limestone from the company’s quarry in East Whiteland. He spread the lime on farm fields to condition the soil.
Sam’s blackouts made his driving utterly unsafe. That year, he passed out behind the wheel of a car and wrecked it.
Sometimes he’d be senseless for two days. Doctors treated him with the muscle relaxant atropine and the anti-convulsants phenobarbital and Dilantin. They didn’t seem to help. In 1946, Sam complained to the VA that his $57.50 monthly compensation wasn’t enough. “It costs $5 every time I have a doctor,” he said. “I use up all my pension and then some just for doctors.”
More disappointment came the next year, when the VA cut his disability rating from fifty to thirty percent, reducing his monthly compensation by $16. At least he was working. He drove his heavy truck and, in newspaper ads, offered farmers “fine dry pulverized limestone.”
But there was always the threat that his brain would short-circuit. Even a child could tell when something wasn’t right with him.
He and Ruth had a daughter now, Nancy, who was born in the fall of 1945. Once, Sam took the toddler to a farm where he spread lime, so she could see a cow named Elsie. Standing in the field, she saw her dad’s face go eerily blank. It frightened her. When they got home, Nancy told her mom: “Something’s wrong with Dad.” After that, Ruth wouldn’t let her go anywhere with him unless someone else was with them.
There is a family photo of Sam behind a little boy on a tricycle. The tot is his nephew Nicky, son of his brother Louie. Sam is smiling broadly, and Nicky appears ready to pedal away. Down the road, tragedy lay in wait for both of them. Nicky would go to Vietnam as a twenty-year-old Army helicopter pilot and come home in a body bag. For Sam, the end would come much sooner.
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.
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-four. 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.
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.”
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.