WWII Vet Calvin Pascetta led an extraordinary life as a Navy sailor – he fought in three wars and survived them all. He recently celebrated his 90th birthday last February 3.
Only a mere 1 million of the 16 million WWII veterans who survived the war remain alive today. And in this number, only a handful served in the conflicts following WWII which included the Korean War and the French Indochina War which was Vietnam War’s forerunner as the soldiers who fought in WWII chose reserve duty while some opted to leave the army altogether putting their soldier years behind.
WWII vet Calvin Pascetta are among those handful who continued on to serve the country, dodging bullets and artillery fire and remarkably, survived to tell the tales. He served the Navy for 22 years which started a month and 11 days before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941.
Calvin Pascetta, a Philadelphian who was trying to emulate his father who was also a career Navy man and fought in WWI, was only 17 when the ship he was assigned in, the USS New Mexico, traveled to Pearl Harbor after the attack. As a response to the said Japanese offensive, the US Navy armed the USS New Mexico with new weapons as well as state-of-the-art radar.
“I wanted to get to the Pacific as quick as I could,” he said as he reflected about WWII during his 90th birthday.
It had been seven decades since that war but what he saw at Pearl Harbor, the impact of the Japanese attack, is engraved in his mind like it was only yesterday.
“It just made me sick,” Calvin Pascetta admitted as he recalled the bodies he saw floating in the water as his ship emerged into Hawaiian Territory waters as well as the oil from the ships sunken due to the assault.
“I was devastated. What did I get myself into? The ships were all sunk. There was oil in the water. It looked like it was almost a foot thick,” he added.
At the South Pacific War, he also served on a landing craft – the USS LST 589. The said craft made seven offensive attacks in Luzon and six other islands in a bid to retake Philippines from the enemy. This said tour involved getting away from torpedoes just so they could deliver extra ammunition to Espiritu Santo and take back the remains of dead soldiers from the beaches the US troops had invaded.
“There were American soldiers, Marines and Japanese. The stench was overbearing. I can never forget it,” he commented.
About a week the atomic bomb hit Nagasaki, Japan – August 1945, he witnessed the beginning of Japan’s surrender when a number of low-ranking Japanese officials docked their Betty bombers on Ie Shima, Okinawa and raised the white flag.
“It was a relief,” he recollected. “I was going to live longer because when we had loaded those troops to go to Japan, I knew we wouldn’t make it back.”
The Other Two Wars
He retired from active duty on December 13, 1963 but before that time, the ships he served had been engaged in volleys of fire at Wonsan Harbor on the Korean peninsula between 1952 and 1953 and fought on at Saigon River when France asked aid for the evacuation of about 25,000 friendly Vietnamese, Chinese citizens and non-communist soldiers in 1955.
At one time, his destroyer, the USS Stoddard couldn’t let of its 5-inch guns due to the rules of engagement.
“The Vietnamese were shooting at us but we couldn’t shoot back,” he pronounced.
But it was during the Korean War where he experienced his “closest encounters with death”.
He was given a Navy commendation for the efforts he exerted on August 10, 1952 as a gunner’s mate first class. The USS Barton was engaged in heavy fire that time in Wonsan Harbor as North Korean troops released 300 rounds against the ship. USS Barton retaliated with 388 rounds; many came from Pascetta’s twin-mount 5-inch guns.
“On his own initiative (he) quickly gathered the crew and … brought the guns into action promptly with telling effect on the enemy batteries. His prompt and decisive action with the ship under heavy fire was of material assistance in silencing the enemy’s guns,” reads the citation given him.
Pascetta recalled that he saw bodies flying through binoculars after his guns hit the target upon the third shot. The Barton remained engaged in fire until the ship ran out of ammo. But as the ship went in motion, it was hit by an enemy round in its stack killing one of the crew members which happened to be the bestfriend of Calvin Pascetta, Dale Gray.
“When I found him, he was still alive, but there was no way to save him.”
The next year, Calvin Pascetta made it to the headlines again; this time, he was on board USS Erwin. The ship was under crossfire again at Wonsan Harbor and Calvin Pascetta, who singlehandedly manned the gun dashed to the ammo room, took a 5-inch shell and powder charge, loaded the gun and set it on automatic before his crew arrived.
“The rest of his 13-man crew were at their stations before it became necessary to load the gun for the second time — much to the relief of the sweating gunner’s mate,” the report about him read.
Happy 90th Birthday, Sir!
Now, Calvin Pascetta is as still as fit as he can be for a war veteran nonagenarian. Both he and his wife, Joanne, had moved to North Las Vegas from Anaheim, California way back in 2009.
For his 90th birthday, they had family members and friends over to celebrate with a cake that had the Navy insignia very much like the decorations and the collectibles around their home.
When asked why he remained in the Navy even after his near-death experiences during the Korean War, now 90-year-old Calvin Pascetta had this answer:
“I was a lifer. This was my job”