Even “Greatest Generation” Big Boys DO Cry

Friends, this is the 20th story that I am posting on “ColonelsKernals” and through this experience I am seeing a thread that I hadn’t thought about before. Although it should be “intuitively obvious to the casual observer”, this thread didn’t present itself to me until recently. (By the way the phrase “intuitively obvious to the casual observer” appeared in our West Point plebe year calculus textbook, usually at a time when it was assumed that we understood the concept, but rarely did!). Similar to then, it took me a while to grasp this thread.

What I am learning through all of this is that life is a series of choices and that those choices matter.  More specifically, I have found that volunteering, or even the simple act of getting involved, reaching out, sharing, you name it, INTERACTING and COMMUNICATING with other people can make all the difference in the world to others and yourself.

Which brings me to the first part of today’s story. The setting is West Orange, NJ back in the Spring of 1999. I was working full time as the Rutgers University Director of Telecommunications and as a reserve officer for the West Point Office of Admissions. I had plenty to do to keep myself busy, especially as project director of the then-largest capital project in Rutgers history, the $98.3 million telecommunications infrastructure project known as RUNet2000. One evening, I received a call from a neighbor and Vietnam vet, Gary Englert, asking to meet with me to discuss a possible role for me with the Office of the Mayor of the Township of West Orange. He said on the phone that it would be honoring West Orange veterans, so I felt I had to listen. I met with Gary and before I knew it I was one of a select few volunteers on the “West Orange Veterans’ Recognition Committee”.

I was very happy to hear Gary tell me about our young up and coming mayor, John F. McKeon, who had been inspired by his recent visit to Normandy, France.

Former West Orange, NJ Mayor McKeon at his desk “back in the day”

Mayor McKeon was looking for volunteers to call on our military war vets, interview them, and write up a one-page summary about each veteran’s service time. The summaries would be combined into a short book that would be displayed at the West Orange Public Library along with other service artifacts. I, in fact, donated my West Point cadet uniform for the display. West Orange was going to have a Memorial Day Parade and each veteran would be awarded the New Jersey Distinguished Service Medal.

New Jersey Distinguished Service Medal

After the awards ceremony and parade, all were to be treated to an exquisite lunch at the West Orange Manor, a top-notch restaurant.

Manor Restaurant, West Orange New Jersey

It seemed like a no brainer to me, I was excited to be involved in such a noble cause!

There were 30+ veterans to be interviewed of which I was responsible for 10. That was the easy part (being assigned the 10).

One thing about those who are/were a part of the Greatest Generation is that they are humble. They are/were often heard saying “we were all just doing our job”. They didn’t like to talk about what they did, partially because they were just humble, and partially because of the horrific experiences they endured. So, it should have been no surprise to me (even though it was) that getting a live, one-on-one interview with these war heroes was not going to be easy. It often took three or more phone calls to get through and be allowed to visit each veteran in their home. Let’s face it, they didn’t know me personally and didn’t want to share info with strangers. So, I finally resorted to telling them that I was a lieutenant colonel who had served on active duty, had graduated from West Point, and that it would be an honor for me to be able to shake their hand. That was the game changer. The tone of the conversation changed immediately and before you know it I was hearing words like, “Sir, I would be honored to have you over to my home, we can have a beer together!” (I swear that having a beer was not part of the thread to my other stories (many of them talk about alcohol), although I can see that you might interpret it that way LOL!)

So, I met my first WWII veteran interviewee at his home at 7 pm one weekday evening. I was welcomed by this crusty veteran, 30 years my senior, with a sharp salute and a “Welcome to my home, sir!.” I returned the salute to Specialist Fasulo with my own “Thank YOU, Sir”.

He invited me in, the beer began to flow, and my pen and paper were ready…..

Like many young men of the “Greatest Generation”, Richard Fasulo wanted to serve in the US army before he was legally old enough to do so. It was common for the US army to turn away eager volunteers because of their age during World War II.

One afternoon in the Spring of 1943 the industrious Fasulo and his altar boy buddy found a way to obtain a blank copy of a baptism certificate. Fasulo falsified a new baptism certificate for himself, representing that his baptism occurred in 1925 (which was before he was born)!  Confident that the army would let him enlist, Fasulo marched proudly into the army enlistment station. However, the army did not buy his story.  Richard was told to bring a birth certificate or bring his mother with him next time for verification. Fasulo knew his mother wanted no part of sending her son to war, let alone prematurely, so he had to find another way to serve the army and his country.

A month or so later, after learning that one of his high school buddies had been killed in action, a desperate Fasulo told his friends that he was going to the army enlistment station to enlist one way or another! Fasulo, still 17 years old, marched into the enlistment officestation was accepted without proof of birth! Overjoyed, he was scheduled for a medical exam before he realized that the toughest entry hurdle lied ahead: obtaining the approval of his mother! The decision of how to tell his mom about his actions soon became a moot point as a neighbor reading about Richard’s enlistment in the newspaper quickly reported to Mrs Fasulo while Richard was sitting in his high school classroom. Mrs. Fasulo quickly went into action, reprimanding the army and her elected officials for allowing her baby to enlist prior to his 18th birthday!  However, to avoid criminal charges for falsifying an official document (his enlistment papers had a false birthday), Mrs. Fasulo reluctantly agreed to drop her pursuit and her son was “in the army now”.

On July 23rd, 1943, Richard joined the army and later saw fierce combat action as a member of the 91st infantry division. He served as a combat medic and was awarded the bronze star for heroic achievement in combat action on October 4th, 1944 in Italy. Proud of his service (and after sharing a few beers with me), Richard excused himself and returned with his divisional yearbook. It was bound in green, was about an inch thick, and it memorialized the Division’s action in WWII. He went through that yearbook, page by page with me. After three hours of sharing, it was time for me to say farewell for that evening. I am thankful to this day that Specialist Fasullo shared those memories with me.

And now, the rest of the story…..

About a week after interviewing Richard Fasulo, I was able to crack the invitation code with another American hero, Private First-Class Vincent J. Andriola. Once again, I went straight to the line that got me access to Richard Fasulo’s home, (former active duty, West Point grad). I was welcomed into PFC Andriola’s home with similar courtesy as I had received from Fasulo.

Vincent J Andriola first saw combat as a machine gunner in Company A, 143rd BN, 36th infantry division. He fought throughout Italy and was wounded in the leg while crossing the Rapido River. After 45 days in the hospital he rejoined his unit and fought northward toward Rome. During tough fighting, Vincent was wounded again, this time in the chin. After a short nine-day recuperation, Andriola rejoined his company again on the front lines where he was placed in charge of a machine gun section. When the unit entered Germany, Vincent contracted frozen feet which forced him to a hospital in England for two months. After recuperating, Vincent was assigned to the 9th Air Force before being discharged in November of 1945.

After hearing PFC Andriola’s story, I spotted what looked like the same “yearbook” that I had seen at Specialist Fasulo’s home!  I asked him about the book, and he showed it to me.  It was the same book. Not only that, PFC Andriola had been wounded in Italy in the same area where Fasulo had served as a medic. I asked him if he knew Fasulo, but he said that he did not. (remember, it had been over 50 years wince WWII at this point). I made a mental note and said good evening to the gracious PFC Andriola (after one more beer).

In preparation for the West Orange Memorial Day 1999 Observance, our committee met several times to ensure a flawless celebration. (see May 4, 1999 meeting agenda below)

Memorial Day was May 31, 1999. It could not have been a more beautiful day for a celebration. The day was quite warm as the sun shone brightly. There was an inspiring welcome by Mayor McKeon, a beautiful parade, and awards ceremony. We all then proceeded to drive to the two or so miles to the West Orange Manor.

I was looking forward to a great meal, but more importantly, to introducing PFC Andriola and Specialist Fasulo to each other. I thought it my duty and honor to bring the two together after over fifty years of their “quiet suffering” after the war. It was then that I witnessed a scene that I never thought that I would ever see…

I spotted PFC Andriola and walked up to him in the reception area at the Manor. True to form, he came to attention and greeted me with a “good afternoon Colonel”. I replied with a big sheepish smile, “Good afternoon Private Andriola!”.   It had been over a month since I had met him, and we gave each other a firm handshake. I escorted PFC Andriola towards the area where Specialist Fasulo stood. As I began to introduce the two of them to each other, they both “broke ranks” and hobbled towards each other and began hugging each other and crying!  They obviously remembered each other from the war in Italy and hadn’t known that, for over 50 years, that they had lived within 5 miles of each other! Years of solitude with few people remaining that understood what is was to be a part of the Greatest Generation. And yes, I repeat, Big Boys DO Cry. The heroes sat together at the luncheon and you could say “a good time was had by all”.

I did not stay in touch with either war hero after that day, but I have no doubt that they did stay in touch with each other. My mission had been accomplished. Thanks to the vision of Mayor McKeon, giving me the opportunity to volunteer on his team, these two old soldiers were recognized for their heroism, and they each got a new lease on life. They had time to “drink that beer!’. I left the Manor that day feeling proud, thankful, and patriotic.

EPILOG:

I did some research and have learned that Vincent J. (Chico) Andriola died on Saturday, April 20, 2013, at his home while Richard Fasulo passed away peacefully surrounded by his family, on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014. Both men were 87 years old when they passed which means that they had well over 10 years of time to chat with each other over a beer and reminisce as Toby Keith sings in “I Love This Bar”, “And the veterans talk about their battle scars”. Both men loved God and their country. “And we know that in all things God works for those who love him, who have been called to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). And I thank God for giving me the honor of meeting these two American heroes.

Finally, I am pleased to say that former West Orange Mayor John F. McKeon moved on to bigger and greater service soon after the 1999 Memorial Day event. He has served in the New Jersey General Assembly since 2002, where he represents the 27th Legislative District. When I logged into his website yesterday, I went to the “Contact Me” portion of his site.  I wrote him a note telling him of this blog posting and was very happy to see on his site a check block which stated, “I want to volunteer”. Thank you John F. McKeon for YOUR honorable service to West Orange, New Jersey, and the United States of America!

Still serving, after all these years, NJ Assemblyman John F. McKeon

2 thoughts on “Even “Greatest Generation” Big Boys DO Cry

  1. Amazing story Joe. You just never know the affect you can have on someone’s life with a simple conversation.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Again, love the pics.

    Like

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