Category Archives: Veterans' Histories

‘Pollywogs, the slime and the scum of the sea’

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.

Mathias F. ‘Matt’ Gutman, a son of Yugoslavian immigrants, left Allentown High School in 1943 to join the Navy.

“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.

Gutman’s boot camp portrait at Sampson, New York

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 LST-553 had two Higgins boats. Gutman was the coxswain on one of them and landed troops on six Japanese-held islands, starting with Peleliu on September 15, 1944.

“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, Carmine J. Venditta (left), in the North Atlantic on a Coast Guard patrol frigate, either the USS Sheboygan or the USS Abilene

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.

How press cooed over Lost Battalion’s hero pigeon

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, his right leg gone, as he appeared May 25, 1919, in the Evening Star of Washington, D.C. The caption said the ‘hero pigeon’ was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross for delivering a message from the Lost Battalion. He didn’t receive that award.

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.”

The bird met his moment in October 1918 with the 77th Infantry Division northwest of Verdun. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was underway. Hundreds of men under Major Charles W. Whittlesey advanced into the Argonne Forest and got ahead of units on their flanks. They took up positions on a slope of a ravine and were surrounded by the Germans, who let loose with rifle fire, grenades, trench mortars and machine guns.

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 press coverage
New York Herald headlines from April 17, 1919

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.

Carney & Cher Ami in Pgh
Captain John L. Carney of the Army Signal Corps’ Pigeon Service introduces Cher Ami to his wife and daughters in Pittsburgh. This photo ran May 3, 1919, in the Pittsburgh Daily Post. The Smithsonian Institution ended more than a hundred years of uncertainty over Cher Ami’s sex in 2021. Tissue samples from the bird, who is on display at the National Museum of American History, were used for DNA analysis. The results confirmed he was a male.

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.”

The black check pigeon was a year old at the time. He’d been bred in eastern England and was among hundreds of English birds pressed into service with the American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front.

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.”

Whittlesey clip
The New York Herald of November 29, 1921, reports on the suicide of Lost Battalion commander Charles W. Whittlesey.

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. 

Carney & Cher Ami
Captain Carney with Cher Ami. The accompanying story in the Harrisburg Telegraph of Pennsylvania said the bird was going to Washington, D.C., to live out his days with unlimited rations. The picture and story ran April 30, 1919.

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

A great ballgame, an agonized cry in the night

Last of four parts

Sam and Ruth Venditta with baby Nancy, 1946. Though he got a disability discharge from the Army in 1943, Sam continued to wear his uniform.

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.”

Before he shipped out to the South Pacific

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?”

His obituary in the Daily Local News of West Chester

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 Venditta

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.

Felled by mysterious seizures on Bora Bora

Third of four parts

Sam Venditta

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.”

Gathered after Sam and Ruth’s wedding June 5, 1943, in Malvern, Pennsylvania, are (standing from left) Sam’s sister Josie; Benny Dragone, husband of Sam’s sister Mary; Sam; Ruth; and Ruth’s sister, Helen Russell. In front are Sam’s brothers (from left) Carmine, my dad; Tony; and Louie.

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.” 

A letter Sam wrote to the VA

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 ad in the Pottstown Mercury

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.

Sam with his nephew Nicky, about 1950 in Malvern

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.

COMING NEXT: After a ballgame, one last seizure

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-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.

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 1916.

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.

Elder 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 eldest 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. He quit to tend the grounds at a cemetery, Philadelphia Memorial Park in Frazer, and drive a truck for his brother Tony, who had a limestone quarry.

Their eldest 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.