Not many veterans of that global conflict are still with us. To commemorate the sacrifices they made to preserve our freedom, the Express will publish the stories of a few of the men and women in our community who served the nation in a time of great peril.
By Jim Marquardt
Bill Connelie from Brooklyn had volunteered as an aviation cadet in January 1942. The war wrenched him and hundreds of thousands of other young Americans from peaceful lives into dangerous adventures in places they never heard of.
After the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, Japan’s forces thrust across the South Pacific and occupied Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. From an airfield under construction there, the Japanese planned to attack Australia and the New Hebrides. In August 1942, in America’s first offensive action, U.S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal and began a long bloody battle to hold it against repeated assaults.
The Marines were still fighting Japanese hold-outs when Bill Connelie arrived on Guadalcanal in March 1943 with the U.S. Army Air force. Barely a year after he enlisted, the 21-year old was navigator on a B-17 Flying Fortress operating from the island’s patched up airfield. Bill and his crew hunted enemy submarines and bombed Japan’s bases on Bougainville, Munda and other strongholds. On most of his 60 missions, Bill’s plane was attacked by Zeros, the famous Japanese fighter planes. He thanks the rugged B-17 for getting them safely back to base though full of holes from machine-gun fire. Every night the Japanese bombed the airfield to keep the Americans on edge.
In January 1944, the Air Force ordered Bill back to the States to train navigators on the new, long-range B-29 Superfortress. Practice flights from Puerto Rico to Norfolk, Virginia, roughly simulated the distance and direction the B-29s would fly from the Mariana Islands to Tokyo. During his military service, Bill rose from second lieutenant to major. After the war, he spent 30 years with the New York City Police, reaching the rank of Assistant Chief of Department. He later became Superintendent of the New York State Police. Retired in 1983, Bill moved to Wickatuck Hills in Noyac. Now 89 years old, he recently pinned pilot’s wings on one of his grandsons at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi.
Carmine Martino left his home in the Bronx at age 18, joining the Army Air Force in October 1943. He always had been fascinated by planes, built models as a youngster and hoped to become a fighter pilot. The Air Force sent him to Gulfboro, North Carolina, where he was devastated to discover his eyesight couldn’t make the grade. Instead he was sent to Army schools to learn engine mechanics and airplane instrumentation.
He began working on B-24 bombers at Kessler field in Mississippi before being transferred to Selfridge Field, Michigan, where he serviced P-47 Thunderbolts, powerful, new fighter-bombers built by Republic Aviation. Carmine helped train Free French pilots who came to Selfridge Field to check out the new planes, then flew them to Europe to fight the Luftwaffe. At one point in the war years, the famous African-American Tuskegee airmen took instrument training at Selfridge.
At war’s end, after serving nearly three years, Carmine went back to his father’s butcher shop in the Bronx while studying on the GI bill at NYU and CCNY for a teaching certificate. He concentrated on special education and later instructed teachers in that discipline in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Now living on Noyac Road. Carmine will be 85 this year.
Andy Neidnig lived a quiet life before World War II, thinking only of finishing college and getting a job. A few years later he was fighting to survive, coming close to being killed battling the German army in Europe. Andy grew up in Ozone Park and graduated from Manhattan College in 1941. At that time, young men were required to serve a year in the military and Andy wanted to get it over with so he could move on with a career. He didn’t know the Army would take five years of his life. Once the global war was underway, he was promoted to corporal and sergeant, then was sent to Officer’s Candidate School at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Eager for action he was shipped to an infantry unit in the Second Armored Division that was advancing into Germany in 1944. He no sooner joined the division than the Battle of the Bulge erupted and his unit raced into position to block the German advance.
They confronted elite Panzer divisions in Belgium in bloody fights with the outcome in doubt for over a month. On Christmas morning, 1944, Andy had hitched a ride on a Sherman tank when a shell hit the tank and sent him flying. A little later while talking to another officer he heard a sniper bullet zip by his head. They captured the sniper and found he was wearing American Army boots, probably from a fallen soldier. His closest brush with death was near a small Belgian village. He was walking alongside a Sherman tank when it was hit on the other side by a rocket from a “panzerschrek”, the German version of our bazooka. A huge red flash knocked out the Sherman tank and killed his captain. Out of his company of 60 men, 48 were killed or wounded. In the fiercest winter of the war, men who fell froze in position. Andy jokes that while he was sleeping on icy ground, Army regulations took $30 room and board from his lieutenant’s salary of $175 a month. The Bulge broke German resistance and the European war ended a few months later. He and his buddies waited fearfully for orders to the Pacific for the invasion of Japan, but the A-bomb ended the war.
Andy remembers his homecoming as a quiet reunion with his family, without fanfare. He says he thinks frequently about his experiences so many years ago when his only hope was to survive. He and his wife moved permanently to their home on Glover Street in 1982. He will be 91 on July 3rd.
Marty Trunzo, whose real first name is Mario, was born in Calabria, Italy, and arrived in the U.S. at age 11. He didn’t realize he’d get a free trip back not many years later, courtesy of the U.S. Army. Marty’s Barber Shop opened on Main Street in 1930 where he groomed Sag Harbor men until he was drafted in April, 1942. After boot camp at Ft. Dix, Marty joined the 389th Port Battalion attached to the 36th Infantry Division.
“I asked an officer why they had us climbing up and down rope nets. He said just to keep you in shape. Next thing I knew we were invading North Africa. That wasn’t so bad. It really got ugly when we landed at Anzio in Italy. The Germans had a huge railroad gun we called the Anzio Express, and they pinned us down for months, inflicting terrible casualties. When I got ashore an Italian Army captain said ‘Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you.’”
As the war neared its end, Marty, then a sergeant, was put in charge of the Hotel Picha Cusa on Ischia, an island near Capri that the Americans had taken over as a rehab center. When he was told that an American general was arriving for inspection, Marty commandeered a weapons carrier and sped to a fishing village where he exchanged GI rations for fresh seafood. After a delicious dinner, the general asked Marty how he was able to turn out such a splendid meal. Marty confessed his bartering excursion. The general said, “Well okay, just don’t get caught.”
Marty’s worst experience came after the shooting stopped. A little Italian boy playing in the rubble picked up a German mini-bomb. It exploded and he was bleeding profusely. Marty rushed him to a hospital where they were able to save his life, but the boy lost his hand. Marty still shakes his head in sadness when he tells the story.