I don’t think I’ve ever met an old GI that I couldn’t see the young man he used to be peering out from his eyes.
There’s often a glint of pride and mischief in WWII warriors who helped free the world, something that seems eternally young inside of them, even as they grow very old.
Maybe it’s because they were raised in the era of John Wayne and Frank Sinatra, but many of the veterans I’ve met have a boyish swagger even though they are great grandfathers now and their knees are failing.
The other day I arranged to meet up with three of them, each in their 90s, each with their own story which I decided I would tell in my column today — the day we celebrate America’s independence.
Here are their stories:
Vito Alongi, 93, Lewiston
Vito Alongi came to my attention because of a “War Book” he was asked to sign by the son of a RAF pilot. The English pilot’s son sent it to Alongi, who is 93, after reading a story about him online that detailed how he served on the USS Missouri and witnessed the Japanese surrender which ended WWII in September of 1945.
The pilot’s son, Nicholas Devaux, now living in St. Lucia, created the “War Book” from his dad’s flight journal, sending it around the world to be signed by those whose war stories need remembering. Today, the “War Book” contains 63 signatures, including Vito Alongi’s.
I stopped to see Alongi on Tuesday to meet him and his wife, Adeline.
I was lucky to catch them at home. Vito is a very busy man. He volunteers regularly at Mount St. Mary’s Hospital. He also runs a poker game for his 90-something-year-old buddies twice a month. He met Adeline, his second wife, at the old Alps Restaurant on Second Street. They’ve been married for 44 years and have four sons between them, as well as six grandchildren and eight grandchildren.
Vito was drafted in 1944 and was assigned as a Navy man to the USS Missouri. He served in the Pacific and still recalls the day his ship was attacked by a Kamikaze pilot whose plane crashed on board. He told me, “If he hadn’t dropped his bomb before he hit us, he would have blown that ship up.” He said that officers on board did the right things when they wrapped the pilot in a Japanese flag and gave him a burial at sea, though some on board didn’t feel respectful.
Vito pointed himself out to me in a photo published in a Time Magazine special publication that depicted the Japanese surrender. He was sitting on a crowded upper deck overlooking the historic, unforgettable scene.
When I asked him what he and his fellow crewmen were thinking he said, “We thanked God. We got hit by kamikazes, we survived the war and we were going home.”
Vito took me out to his garage, where one wall holds photos and mementos of his life, including his medals and photos of the USS Missouri. There’s also a giant poster of Frank Sinatra, and an admiring letter from one of his grandson’s who wrote a letter about his granddad for an elementary school project.
Vito who, with his brother, Steve, took over Alongi Motors on Pine Avenue from his father, retired after 65 years. It was amazing to see the vigor in which Vito and his wife are living. Their apartment is on the second floor and they take the steps up and down, several times a day.
“We feel it’s exercise,” Adeline told me. “If you lie down, you’re gone.”
Jim Vaccarella, 93, Town of Niagara
Later, I visited the home of WWII veteran Jim Vaccarella, who was heading out to play in his bocci ball league after we chatted in his Town of Niagara family room.
Vaccarella was written about last year in another local paper for a visit he made to Niagara Falls High School where students lined the hallway to cheer him. He spoke to them about his war experiences, including his role as a medic and how he helped to liberate a Nazi concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria. When he saw the piles of dead bodies, he started checking for pulses and found one guy alive. With the help of some fellow soldiers, they were able to pull the man out from beneath the dead and save his life.
Jim has hair-raising war stories, including taking fire from the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge where he alerted his superiors to a Nazi medic who was pointing out to German soldiers the locations of the Americans. Because of Vaccarella’s sharp eyes, the man was quickly fired upon and killed.
Jim has PTSD from what he saw in the concentration camps, but he says the Veterans Administration takes care of that and all his health needs.
“They keep me alive,” he said of the VA. “I’m the healthiest guy you’ll ever meet.”
Though his bum knee has ruined his golf swing, he still plays with a modified swing that involves a circular motion with his wrists which he demonstrated to me.
“If I didn’t have this problem here,” he said, raising his pant to show a knee brace,” I’d be dancing in the streets.”
He says his years as a medic taught him a lot about good health.
“I’m a bricklayer by trade, but I’m a pretty good doctor,” he joked.
He watches what he eats and takes vitamins every day.
Even bum knees don’t seem to slow Vaccarella, who turns 94 on Sunday. The top of his bookcase is filled with trophies he won from various sports, and the facing wall is hung with his framed medals at the center, including the French Legion of Honor and photos of his family, including his wife, Margaret, which whom he had 62 good years before she died of lung cancer in 2008. Since then, he’s concentrated on his family and friends. He brings out a couple of sentimental greeting cards with sweet messages from his girlfriend, who is a hostess at the Como Restaurant at the Airport.
“I’ve lived a fantastic life,” he said to me.
He tells his kids and grandkids, “If you don’t need me, then I’ve succeeded.”
Nunzio Spacone, 98, Niagara Falls
Nunzio Spaccone has slowed down a bit lately. He’s gotten a little forgetful and says wistfully that he sometimes feels a little lost. But the young man inside comes to life as his wife tells how they met — when a neighbor sent him to the appliance store her family owned under the ruse of having him buy a toaster when they really hoped he would meet Carolyn.
He grins to tease his wife of 67 years as he says with boyish vigor that, after they met, “She chased me all over.”
His body is surrendering to time. He can’t work in the garden anymore, where he used to raise beautiful vegetables and he can’t go to church at Prince of Peace where he used to usher. But he’s still a community hero. When he and his wife drive around the city, people who spot the WWII veteran tag on their red Dodge Intrepid often pay their respects.
“So many people have walked up and said ‘Thank you for your service,’” his wife said.
Nunzio Spaccone enlisted when he was just 16, shortly after he arrived in America from Italy. His story is documented in a couple of local history books, including “Niagara Falls in World War II,” by Lewiston Librarian Michelle Kratts, which tells how, when he enlisted, he was asked if he could shoot his father or relatives still living in Italy because America had just declared war against Italy. As the book notes, he said “Of course not!” and was sent to the Pacific front where there would be no issues regarding his sympathies.
The book also recounts that, while on patrol, he once spotted a group of Japanese soldiers so close by he could see they were cooking rice. He ran for his life to warn the American troops and received a medal for his quick and brave response.
Nunzio, who opened Pee Wee’s Pizza with a friend when he returned home from the war, is grateful to have seen a lot of the world because of his time in the service, including Japan, New Guinea, the Philippines and Hawaii.
When asked about their life together, which among many other blessings has reaped two children and five grandchildren, Carolyn says, “I’m lucky. I got a good mate.”
Nunzio nods and says quietly, “I did my best.”
It was quite a day, meeting those three veterans. They are among so many men and women from WWII and the wars since who deserve our thanks and whose stories we must remember so their efforts don’t disappear into dusty history books.
And as long as they’re walking upon this free land, I hope they can always connect to the young warrior inside whose eyes still gleam with pride for having helped to make it so.
Contact Michele DeLuca by calling 282-2311, ext. 2263 or emailing email@example.com.