War History online proudly presents this Guest Piece from Jeremy P. Ämick, who is a military historian and writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
As a young man coming of age in a quaint Massachusetts community during the early stages of World War II, James “George” Marcantonio left high school in 1942 to help support his family by going to work alongside his mother at a local manufacturer building equipment used by the United States Navy.
“I was making 60 cents and hour, which was a pretty good wage back then,” he grinned.
Prior to this, Marcantonio explained, he became involved with a group known as the Sea Scouts—a department of the Boy Scouts of America that provided seamanship training for the country’s interested youth.
“That’s where I first acquired my interest in the Navy,” said Marcantonio. “To join the Navy, I would have to be 17 and have my parents’ signature,” he continued, “so I told them I intended to join when I was finally of age.”
Abiding by his earlier promise and with the support of his parents, the aspiring seaman left his job and enlisted in the Navy on October 29, 1943—the day he turned 17 years old. Several days later, he reported to Newport, R.I., and remained six weeks at the location that served as one of the training sites for naval recruits during the war.
When he completed his initial training, the young sailor was assigned to the Navy’s Fargo Building located in South Boston, spending several weeks on a work crew performing such duties as security for the facility. However, in March 1943, Marcantonio’s adventure began in earnest when he was sent to school for PT boats (Patrol Torpedo) at the training station in Melville, R.I.
“That was the melting pot for guys that would serve on the PT boats,” said Marcantonio. “They trained men for torpedoes, radar, machinists, gunner’s mates quartermaster … just about every specialty,” he added.
As he recalled, the PT boats were rather fragile in construction since the hulls were built from a type of “plywood”; nearly 80 feet in length; carried limited armament such as torpedoes, small cannons and machine guns; and often had a crew complement of a dozen or more sailors.
The boats, Marcantonio clarified, used their speed to engage and sink various types of enemy watercraft. While training at Melville, he and the crews of the PT boats would conduct nightly maneuvers in the Atlantic Ocean in preparation for later overseas engagements.
The young sailor and a group of other recently trained PT boat crewmembers boarded a troopship bound for England on May 20, 1944. Then, on June 7, 1944 (the day after the D-Day Invasion), he and the crew of PT-520 were stationed 3-1/2 miles off the coast of France, dwarfed by several large battleships.
“We were basically floating next to the USS Texas,” Marcantonio said. “At that point, one of our missions was the retrieval of personnel from the water—sometimes Americans or French pilots, other times Germans,” he said.
The following day (June 8, 1944), an event unfolded that remains seared in the former sailor’s memory—the date the USS Rich (a Buckley-class destroyer escort) sank after detonating mines off the Normandy Coast.
“The Rich had a crew of 215; 27 of them were killed; 52 were missing (almost all of whom were drowned or incinerated), and 73 were wounded,” noted John C. McManus in the book “The Americans at Normandy.”
“We were nearby and rescued some of the survivors and retrieved some of the dead,” Marcantonio somberly recalled. “It’s just one of those memories that I can’t erase and I wish those that lost their lives would have been able to live to celebrate the end of the war.”
In the days and months following the invasion, the men of PT-520 completed many missions, some of which included transporting high-ranking officers and journalists. They also conducted operations with groups of American and English PT boats along the Seine River in France, using their speed and armament to intercept and sink German boats.
“The Germans fired back at us but we were quicker,” he affirmed. “If they had hit us where we stored the torpedoes … that would have been it for us; luckily, that never happened.” He added, “On one occasion, they hit the antenna on our boat and the shrapnel damaged our (American) flag,” which, he noted, is now on display at the Yellow Moon Antique Mall in Jefferson City, Mo.
Toward the latter part of December 1944, Marcantonio returned to the United States and, after a brief period of leave, was transferred to operations as part of the Seventh Fleet in the Philippines aboard the smaller boat, PT-250.
“To be honest with you, we kind of just fell into a regular routine for some time, traveling from base to base around the different islands,” he said. “Our presence was more for goodwill purposes because there weren’t any battles we were involved in; we were essentially waiting for the invasion of Japan.
In early summer 1945, the sailor was transferred to PC-1241 (Patrol Craft), where he served as a boatswain’s mate while snipers aboard the ship targeted, shot and detonated floating mines that posed deadly hazards to the U.S. fleet.
The war ended with the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, and the following spring, Marcantonio received his discharge and returned home to Massachusetts. He eventually moved to Missouri to attend Central Methodist University in Fayette, Mo., and then met Fern Wood, whom he married in 1952.
In later years, the WWII veteran and his wife raised three children and settled in Jefferson City; he went on to retire from the former Jefferson City Correctional Center. As Marcantonio has come to realize, the most intense memories of his life center on his days in the military and the time spent alongside a group of men whose contributions have often gone unnoticed.
“The PT boats were an important part of the war,” Marcantonio affirmed, “and it was a type of duty that a person had to volunteer for because you didn’t have that much protection in combat, and you were almost always in a dangerous environment.”
He added, “And when you were on those boats and realized that they were made out of wood and what could happen if you were hit,” he paused, chuckling, “you just had to be a little crazy to want of be a part of it. We were a different breed.”