There’s a Pearl Harbor story in my family. It came from my uncle Frank Venditta, one of my dad’s older brothers.
In 1941, Frank was drafted into the Army and hustled into a medical battalion. He got training as a medic and went to Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he worked in a hospital and lived in a tent.
On Sunday, Dec. 7, he was home in Malvern, Pennsylvania, on leave and due back at Fort Dix that night. He had become engaged to a newly graduated nurse named Pauline Edwards, and they were cruising around West Chester in his 1935 Chevy. He wasn’t wearing his uniform and didn’t have a radio in his car. When he took Pauline to where she was staying, someone commented about joining the Army in light of what had happened.
“Join the Army!” Frank said. “I’m in the Army. What happened?”
The Japanese attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
He went home and got into his uniform. Rushing through Philadelphia, he ran a red light and a cop stopped him and asked, “Where are you going in a hurry?”
“I’ve got to get to Fort Dix!” Frank said, and the officer saw his uniform and waved him on.
The last night Frank was home after the war started, his brother Louie and friend George Beam drove him back to Dix.
“There was a bunch of guys from around Pittsburgh, another bunch from the New York area, another bunch from the Pocono area, and some from around here, all living in tents.
“Jesus Christ, you never saw such parties going on. I had brought a lot of stuff from home — wine and pizzas. In those days, no one knew what pizza was except Italians. Other people would look at you when you ate the goddamn thing. Kids from New York brought salamis and shit like that. Christ we had a helluva ball that night.
“Next day we were shipping out. So George and Louie, they joined the party. Then when they went home, they ran out of gas the other side of Paoli. They couldn’t get gas, so they put kerosene in that car. God, those guys were something.”
From Fort Dix in early January 1942, the troops went by rail to New Orleans, where they boarded a ship. “They packed us in, under the water line, and threw the bulkheads down at nighttime. We didn’t know where the hell we were going. There were [German] submarines where you went out from the Mississippi. It was all murky out there.
“The next morning, I was out on deck, cruising, man I was cruising and thinking, oh, this was great. In about thirty minutes, I was sick. You never saw a sicker person in all your life. Somebody stole some oranges for me, and no sooner did I eat them than I threw up. Oh, Jesus Christ!”
After twenty-two days, they arrived at the Panama Canal Zone. Washington was concerned that the enemy would try to bomb the canal.
Frank spent twenty-eight months in Panama. He came home in the spring of 1944 and was reassigned to Mason General Hospital on Long Island, a surgical-medical-psychiatric center where patients included German and Italian prisoners of war with mental problems.
What became of his engagement to the nurse, Pauline Edwards?
“She went to England, I got a ‘Dear Frank’ letter from her, and she came home impregnated.”
Uncle Frank told me this story in 1998. He died four years later at age 83.