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.

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