By ANN BELCHER
Special to the OBSERVER
When news anchor Tom Brokaw coined the term "The Greatest Generation," he was referring to the men and women who sacrificed and gave their all for their country because it was the right thing to do. A particular group of men from Chautauqua County are a part of "The Greatest Generation," who bravely served in battles that would change the face of history.
Distinguished World War II veterans gathered recently at the Brocton American Legion Post to recount their service time and define what makes them part of what is known as 'The Greatest Generation.' Seated in front: Angelo A. Zanghi. From left, in back: William Norris; Frank Nichols; Joseph Gatto; Frank Nicosia; Ferris Woleben; Edward Sunday and Vincent Calarco.
Earlier this year, several World War II veterans departed the John W. Dill American Legion Post 434 in Brocton, for a trip to Conneaut, Ohio, to relive a war era bridge battle between Allied Forces and German troops.
"Every year for Memorial Day, I send everyone a thank you card," Brocton Legion Post Commander Henry Link said. "I've been Commander here for the past two-plus years, and if it wasn't for this group of men here, we wouldn't have an American Legion club, so I keep looking for things to get them involved with as a way to say thank you."
Gathered with the distinguished group were a total of 43 others from Ripley to Falconer, who experienced the D-Day Ohio re-enactment.
"I approached the board with the idea, and my goal was to get five WWII vets," Link said. "If I would've had five, I would've thought 'great,' but we ended up having nine go."
The gentlemen agreed, the hospitality they experienced was excellent, and the war action re-created was true to life. Across a beach setting, the men witnessed a recreation of a battle between French and German forces over a bridge.
Below are true life accounts from some of the veterans, of their living and breathing experiences serving their country during WWII.
Angelo A. Zanghi
With his wife Patricia by his side, Zanghi recalls his service time seamlessly. Shipping off from Newport, R.I., on a newly commissioned Fletcher class destroyer, he recalls that new ships normally would allow their sailors 12 weeks of acclimating and training. Due to the heavy need for reinforcements in 1942, he and his fellow officers, commanders and sailors would have only three. The vessel's skipper was "combat anxious" as Zanghi puts it, and the crew departed with only half of their supplies. After leaving the ship's commissioning harbor in Boston, their destroyer would make stops along the way to combat to pick up supplies. After refueling in New Caledonia, Zanghi would be bound for Guadalcanal to pick up planes on their way to reinforce a Marine Air group.
Zanghi would be part of a formidable attack while convoying supplies through the Solomon Islands. On Nov. 12, 1942, the O'Bannon sighted and fired on a visible enemy submarine holding it down long enough for the rest of the reinforcement supply convoy to pass. On Nov. 13, the heavily outnumbered ship went head to head with Japanese air support, enemy battleships, cruisers and destroyers who were poised to destroy U.S. forces. O'Bannon engaged so closely, that the Japanese ship being fired upon couldn't depress its weaponry enough to fire back.
That fierce battle at Guadalcanal, Zanghi notes, changed the course of the war.
"That first battle was the biggest," he said. "And it changed the course of war in the South Pacific. If we hadn't won at Guadalcanal, Australia and New Zealand would've been next in line, and the Allies would've had a hard time getting out."
The veteran recounts the O'Bannon's famous "Potato Story."
Upon sighting a Japanese submarine, the O'Bannon attempted to ram the submarine, but at last thought decided that it may be carrying explosives to be immediately deployed, and turned so that it was side by side.
As Japanese sailors scrambled to man their deck guns, the unarmed flank of the O'Bannon's sailors grabbed the first thing visible - a bin of potatoes. As O'Bannon's crew began hurling the potatoes at the Japanese enemy, they were startled to see their enemies scrambling to make a get-away. The enemy fighters were unaware of what was being hurled in their direction they thought hand grenades were being thrown. The mix-up gave the O'Bannon enough time to reposition and fire, causing the enemy sub to finally be sunk.
The men laughed remembering that the potato growers in the originating State of Mainewere given an official proclamation and tribute from the officers and crew of the O'Bannon.
Upon returning home, Zanghi noted he remained restless and had to be "moving all the time." He recounts that it was difficult for his mother, and subsequently his wife Patricia to cook for him, as he suffered a duodenal ulcer, which eventually cost him most of his stomach.
While he reports that he spent almost "a year of hell" in the service, he boasts several prestigious honors and that in seven major engagements, his crew never lost one man.
A husband, father and long time Italian restaurant owner, Vincent Calarco has a sobering account of his war time experience, one that some only pause to consider on anniversaries or holidays.
While in service under General Patton's 3rd Army division, Calarco was able to liberate Ohrdruf Concentration Camp.
"Regardless of what we go through, there's no way to express what they did to humanity," Calarco stated stoically, with his wife Charlotte at his side. "Nothing you ever go through in life, it will never get you over the smell of deceased bodies, 8 to 10 feet high. It stays with you forever. Of all of the things you ever went through over there, that will stay in my memory, all of these people lying everywhere. I didn't realize it at the time, but General Patton took more prisoners than anyone in war history. Our blood, and his guts were able to liberate those prisoners. If we had a man like General Patton today, I doubt we would be in the position we're in now. I was proud to serve under him he was a great General, but you had better have prepared to be a soldier with him."
Calarco does hold some fond memories of his service time. Good friendships that were formed have stuck in his memory, and the fondness and appreciation of simple things like familiar buildings and pieces of American life, which he hadn't appreciated until his return home are warm memories that he holds dear.
Calarco has a written account of his experiences liberating prisoners of Ohrdruf, which is estimated to have held at least 12,000 prisoners captive.
Brocton native and United States Navy Veteran Joe Gatto carries his testimonies of his service time with an inexorable sense of pride, much as he probably did as a young man leaving farming behind and heading for world war.
The announcement that Pearl Harbor was attacked interrupted Gatto's Sunday afternoon senior play practice at Brocton Central School.
He recounts that it "was shocking to think that any country would dare to attack a possession of the United States, and the realization that this was another war and that we young people of a perfect age would soon be called to defend our country just didn't sink in."
After graduating high school in 1942, and after resisting his last six month deferment suggested by his farming family who needed his able hands, Gatto reported to the Buffalo Induction Center and was assigned to the United States Navy.
After boarding the Battleship Missouri from Brooklyn's Naval Yard, Gatto forged ahead with the Navy into battle. Stopping in Guam, Admiral Halsey came aboard and signaled that the Missouri would be the flag ship of the entire Pacific fleet.
Aboard a massive ship, which was awarded three Battle Stars, shot down a total of 18 enemy planes, and survived a crash landing of a Japanese suicide bomber airplane, Gatto was present to hear the announcement of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.
When the Japanese accepted the surrender terms, the soldier was on board to witness the lowering of the commissioning pennant, and the raising of the Admiral's pennant the crew were now part of a peace-time Navy.
Since the Missouri was christened by Margaret Truman, daughter of then-President Harry S. Truman, the surrender ceremony took place aboard Gatto's ship.
"The Missouri dropped anchor for the first time in 58 days ... Mount Fugiama's snow capped peaks stood tall and majestic and as far as the eye can see are factories, docks, railroad cars and buildings very closely concentrated, so close in fact that no open land could be seen for miles," Gatto said. "In my thoughts I thanked God, and President Truman for his decision, as invasion of the Japanese homeland was going to cost many, many American and Japanese lives."
At the surrender ceremony, Gatto watched as the infamous General Douglas McArthur penned his signature to the official surrender document and heard him speak these parting words: "let us pray that peace be now restored to the world and that God will preserve it always."
William Norris was part of an infamous and critical course of Allied forces gaining control of WWII.
Leaving Chesapeake Bay, Md., in 1943, Norris probably didn't know that he would be part of the United States Navy transport efforts to deliver Sherman tanks to Omaha Beach, helping Allied forces to gain control of a German-occupied France.
The transport ship he sailed on headed to England, and was so massive, that it was carried in three parts. Assembling a complete transport ship took approximately two weeks, Norris explains. Norris helped deliver tanks that were used in the first wave of attacks on German forces at Omaha Beach, reaching just short of 1,000 feet from the shore.
After delivering the tanks, Norris assisted in transporting soldiers off of the battle lines, and ushering in necessary supplies to the Allied Forces.
"Sometimes we would be stranded for up to eight hours at a time after delivering supplies, until the beach was secure," he said. "We had to make sure the beach was secure before we could move, and it would be looked over and investigated before we went anywhere."
Six months after the invasion at Normandy, Norris would proceed to Bermuda, where he spent a year and a half. Norris' world traveling didn't end with his experiences seeing war up close and personal. He smiled as he stated, "I just got back from China two weeks ago."
Few people in this lifetime can say they've literally been through the eye of a hurricane.
Ed Sunday graduated from Air Force basic training just in time for the war to come to an end. Among the group of fighter pilots who were trained at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Miss., were two that Sunday recalls made a bet whether or not they could fly through a hurricane.
"They did, twice that day, and they were named the Hurricane Hunters, and that's what they did ever since," Sunday explained.
As part of the 403rd Wing's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, or "Hurricane Hunters," Sunday noted that there were times "I didn't know how the planes were even being kept up."
Originally activated as the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, the unit's founding flights on July 27, 1943, were considered the first airborne attempts to obtain data for use in plotting the position of a tropical cyclone as it approached land. According to official U.S. Air Force publications, the Hurricane Hunters mission is to recruit, organize and train assigned personnel to perform aerial weather reconnaissance. During the hurricane season, June 1 to Nov. 30, they provide surveillance of tropical disturbances in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico for the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla., as well as the Central Pacific Hurricane Center in Honolulu.
As Sunday matter-of-factly described his flights into the dead center of a hurricane in B17's and B25's, the rest of the men listened in awe, some asking "Is it really calm in the center of a hurricane?"
Sunday, one of few that can lay claim to that testimony, answered, "It really is, and it's really remarkably beautiful."
"At the close of WWII, I was too young to go in," states Nichols.
After leaving school in Brocton, Nichols got to the draft board a little late due to a visit to Oil City, Pa. He filled out his draft questionnaire anyways and dropped it in the mail. With a draft card in hand, Nichols walked boldly into the nearest recruiting office. Showing his draft card he was inducted into the United States Army from Pittsburgh, Pa.
"I called my mom and dad, and told them 'I'm in the Army.' And my parents said, 'Get back here,'" Nichols joked.
Trained in heavy equipment in South Carolina, Nichols moved onto to Fort Knox where he was part of the Army's 522nd Engineer Company.
Modestly describing his service time, Nichols eventually returned to New York State and finished school, and had careers in the railroad industry and serving 21 years with a different type of army, the New York State Police.
Ferris Woleben began his service time in the United States Army.
"But I'm not very big, and I didn't want to carry around a 60 lb. pack. I had just got my shots and uniform, and just came right out and said to the commanding officer, 'I want to go into the Air Force.'"
The officer granted Woleben an induction into the Air Force on the spot, and allowed him to return home long enough for him to sell two pieces of farm equipment.
"We were attacked once by a fighter plane, I remember I heard the cannon before I saw the shells being fired at us," Woleben described. "We knew if they hit us, we'd be on fire. The enemy pilot did everything wrong. First of all, he was all by himself, he kept gradually settling until he was below us, close enough to see the iron cross and the Swastika on the plane. I could see that he was busy looking at his instrument panel."
He emotionally told how he engaged fire onto the enemy pilot, making a direct hit. As the enemy aircraft faded, and Woleben lost sight of the plane, he remembers "feeling so guilty that some German mother just lost her son."
Woleben's unit was picked to be the first air fleet to fly over D-Day, in an effort to "keep the German's heads down."
"I had some hellish trips, but thank God I'm here."
Woleben also has fond memories, which he shared with the group. His ability to save his money while abroad allowed him to purchase his family's farm upon returning to the Brocton/Portland area, which he farmed for over 50 years.
Drafted Aug. 13, 1941 under Selective Service, Frank Nicosia was part of the US Army's 361st Quartermaster outfit.
Commonly known as "Nick," Nicosia's tenacity and ingenuity allowed him to be routinely promoted.
On Dec. 7, 1941, he recalls "walking into a hornet's nest." He remained in battle in that "hornet's nest" for three months, and then moved on to become a carpenter. August 1942, found he and his unit on the Clyde River in Helensburg, Scotland where they first stayed in a chicken coop, due to lack of accommodations. In November of that year, he would be bound for Africa aboard the LST Derbyshire.
It was in Africa that the United States military took their motor vehicle transportation away, and replaced them with what were referred to as "DUCKs (DUCKW)." "DUCKS" were an amphibious vehicle, which Nicosia recalls being skeptical of.
"I remember looking at it and thinking 'Why are they here?'"
The vehicles started out reliable, but would soon burn out making them ill-equipped for battle use. Nicosia's persistence and know-how would prove him knowledgeable above his superiors. He kept at the job until he figured out the problem. The saltwater of their surroundings were clogging the transmission, and burning up the vehicle's components. A large supply of fresh air would need to be vented in to keep the components from disintegrating. A commander of Nicosia's had a visit from President Eisenhower, Charles DeGaulle, General Patton and the then general manager of General Motors, who inquired, "What is it with these DUCK's?" After learning what Nicosia discovered as the solution, executive exclaimed, "We made them for fresh water!"
His reward would be another promotion.
"Until I saw that what happened, they were being condemned. Afterwards, they shined inside, and we only lost about two of the original fleet of 479 for lack of maintenance."
The veteran's call of duty would allow for him to train soldiers to storm Utah Beach, and eventually assist with supply runs to Omaha Beach, where he described the water in the channel as "blood red."
For men whom are able to recall their name, rank and serial numbers effortlessly, and recount personal relationships with famous war time leaders of the country and all branches of the military, none are boastful, bitter or sorry for their time spent in defense of God and country.
Most acknowledged war time efforts at home such as womens' entrance into the workforce to build necessary aircraft, and communication from home to the country's success in WWII. Ironically, several of them served with siblings, or other family members and friends and had routine contact with one another during their service time. Zanghi and Nicosia are cousins. Calarco was an eyewitness to a crash landing that Woleben was in. Gatto recalls that "Brocton had a lot of Navy men," and Zanghi's brother Sam visited with him, whenever it was possible.
The group would like to see U.S. troops worldwide be able to return. However, Nichols added "I hate to see them walk away, just like advertising our troops will be leaving may be the worst thing we can do."
"There are a lot of places we shouldn't be," added Sunday.
"We don't really know what to offer as advice to men and women serving today, we don't really know what they're going through or what type of war they're fighting now. It was a different time, entirely for us," stated Woleben.
When asked if he were ever scared in battle situations, Calarco offered, "Just once. All of the time."
He, as many others do, attempts to educate school students about WWII, which all agreed is not nearly as complete as it should be.
"We don't teach our kids enough about WWII," Calarco said. "About a week before I was scheduled to speak at Ripley School, I tried to think, 'What would I tell them?' I took in a picture of me from before I was enlisted to show them. I stood there and looked at these kids and said 'I didn't always look like I do now. And you won't always look the way all of you look now. The time will come in your lives when you want this or that, and this is what happens in life. Sometimes you have to do a job, back then it was our turn to do that job, someday it will be your turn.'"
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