‘All hell broke loose’ World War II veteran recalls Battle of Okinawa
Stripes Okinawa | .
published: June 21, 2016
BRANFORD — After stepping out of the landing vehicle with a 38-pound radio strapped to his back and a pair of 9-pound battery packs hitched to his waist, Marine Cpl. Tony Pegnataro very nearly became the first casualty of the Battle of Okinawa.
It wasn’t a bullet, or shrapnel, or anything remotely resembling an instrument of war that nearly killed him. His close encounter on April 1, 1945, was due to a shell hole, a chasm in the sand etched out by bombs dropped by Allied Forces in advance of the forthcoming amphibious assault on the Japanese island during World War II. Pegnataro, then 19, fell into the depression and nearly drowned before being rescued by a lieutenant whose name escapes him these days.
“They lowered the stern ramp and as my luck would have it — it was April Fool’s Day — the ramp was sitting on the edge of a shell hole,” Pegnataro said. “I went down. I went into that hole and I thought I was a goner.”
Pegnataro can laugh about it now, 70 years later, enjoying the irony of how close he came to dying on that particular holiday in a hole carved out by an Allied bomb. Pegnataro, who will celebrate his 90th birthday in July, was born and raised in New Haven. He lives in Branford now with his wife, Catherine, whom he’s been married to for 64 years. The couple is celebrating their 65th anniversary on July 12 — the same day as Pegnataro’s birthday.
As a member of the 6th Marine Division, Pegnataro was tasked with establishing radio communications. But instead of working with dials during the first day of the battle, he was spitting out water, hastily taking off the equipment after being rescued. He was one of more than a 200,000 Allied troops who descended on the island located 350 miles south of mainland Japan.
Before their arrival on Okinawa, the Japanese commander there had moved his troops to the southern part of the island, Pegnataro said, as Allied forces met very little resistance on their first day. It took Marines three hours instead of three days to take control of a nearby air field.
“We were lucky enough that there wasn’t a shot fired,” Pegnataro said. That didn’t mean he wasn’t expecting gunfire; he laughed as he recalled a tense moment after a fellow Marine kicked some sort of material — a piece of coral, or a rock, again the details escape him — causing him to yell, ‘I’m hit!’”
Three days after landing, Allied Forces encountered Japanese troops stationed near the northern end of the island. That’s when, “all hell broke loose,” Pegnataro said, and real gunfire and shells flew.
“We were on the island for 87 days. Our division was on the frontlines for 82 days,” Pegnataro said.
Pegnataro said he wasn’t combat ready when he landed on Okinawa, but he knows how fortunate he was that he came back to Connecticut alive when some of his friends did not. More than 70,000 American soldiers lost their lives during the battle, which would last until June 1945.
“I was quite lucky, as I sit here now, and as a Marine, that I never got scratched,” Pegnataro said.
He did get scratched, but Pegnataro doesn’t think of it as an injury. He was struck on his right leg by shrapnel, but he feels it’s insignificant. To him, the injury is just another bad memory, nothing compared to some of the more serious physical injuries suffered by his fellow Marines. His perception of the injury led him to reject his Purple Heart, bestowed upon servicemen and women who suffer combat wounds, after he received the medal for his incident.
“They gave up more than I did,” Pegnataro said. He still stays in contact with some of his fellow veterans, occasionally meeting with them and exchanging letters.
His brother, Donald, also fought in World War II, serving in Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge, Pegnataro said. During the war, he kept in constant communication with his folks back home. One family member in particular made sure Pegnataro would get necessities that were difficult to come by out in the Pacific Ocean. Pegnataro said the family member would send him a rubber tube filled with food like meatballs and ravioli, as well as bottles of booze and cartons of cigarettes.
“He knew what my needs were,” Pegnataro said.
He also sent and received letters from family. He was a popular guy in high school, which is part of the reason he also received letters from a few female acquaintances.
“I use to get a lot of mail from these girls,” Pegnataro said. “One girl just wrote the lyrics of ‘As Time Goes By.’ And I kept that for a long time. But then after I got married, I thought, I better ditch this thing.”
Pegnataro spent 37 months overseas before he was honorably discharged in April 1946. After coming back and studying at the University of Connecticut, he worked for his father’s grocery chain for several years, helping create ad designs that earned him awards. He would marry his wife in 1950, after several failed attempts to take her out on a date. She finally agreed to go out with him during a dance sponsored by his UConn.
Catherine Pegnataro said her husband loves talking about his past. The two call each other, “mom” and “dad,” spending most of their time inside their quaint apartment in Branford, usually calling family members.
“He just loves to bring back all those memories,” she said.
The couple have four children and six grandchildren. Pegnataro said he considered re-enlisting in the Marines after being discharged.
“I did, but not after I married you,” he said, looking backward toward to Catherine.
Catherine smiled and rolled her eyes playfully.
“Oh, here we go,” she said giggling.