Alfred Piscitello’s speech
Gloucester, MA Memorial Day Ceremony
Speech given by Alfred Piscitello
May 25th, 2009
Distinguished guests, citizens of Gloucester, fellow veterans, I am deeply touched and honored to have been asked to say a few words today in honor of our fallen military heroes.
Today we remember the more than one million Americans who have lost their lives to acts of war or terrorism, spanning from the Revolutionary War to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Life as we know it would not be the same without the servicemen and women who gave their lives for our country, as well as those who returned to make our nation the greatest on earth.
I’d like to speak about why Memorial Day is a sacred holiday to me. When I was 22 years old, I served thirty-two months in WWII’s Pacific Theater of Operations, as a medic in the 121st Medical Battalion of the famous Americal Division. I was attached to the 164th Infantry Regiment, a North Dakota National Guard, and we made our first offensive landing at Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, to reinforce the 1st Marine Division. We landed on Friday, November 13th, 1942, in the midst of a great Naval battle.
I drove one of the ambulances off the landing craft and onto the beach, where we met the Marines at a coconut grove in the foreground of a dense jungle. One of the Marines in charge came up to me and said, “That Red Cross makes a great target for the Japs! Take those crosses off the ambulances, and rip those armbands off your arms.” So, we hid the ambulances among the trees and covered them with palm leaves, coconut leaves, and whatever else we could find. There were no roads on the island yet, so we couldn’t use the ambulances anyway.
As a medic, treating and evacuating wounded soldiers from the front lines to medical aid stations, I was in a unique position to see just how many lives were lost in those battles. I got used to eating my K-rations with other people’s blood on my hands.
After the Japanese had evacuated and Guadalcanal was declared secure, we took satisfaction in a battle won, but we knew the war was not over. It was just the beginning.
The 164th Infantry moved to the island of Fiji, to train replacements and regain our health. In addition to the dead and wounded, most of our guys had contracted malaria or other tropical diseases. While on Fiji, my Company was transferred to the 182nd Infantry Regiment, Massachusetts National Guard.
In December 1943, we left Fiji for Bougainville, in the northernmost part of the Solomon Islands, where the Japs were well-established. It was our job to take the island away from them.
On December 24th, Christmas Eve, we landed at Empress Augusta Bay, in Bougainville. The U.S. Marine 3rd Division was already there and they had established a good beachhead at Cape Torokina, at the north end of the Bay, so we weren’t in immediate trouble when we arrived.
We landed with Higgins boats again, but this time we knew what we were doing. No armbands, no Red Crosses; we were dressed like the rest of the others. It was a little scarier than the first time at Guadalcanal, though, because now we knew what we were getting into.
Our orders were to take control of Hill 260. We had a lot of casualties before we even reached the hill. It was a terrible battle. One of my best buddies, another medic from my Company, was killed during the fighting. To lose my best friend like that….it made me take the war personally. I stayed out there twenty-four hours straight, denying orders, evacuating casualties from the front line to the aid station. I felt a great responsibility for the fact that I was alive while Joe was dead.
That feeling came back to me sharply at the dedication of the National WWII Memorial in Washington, DC in May of 2004. Thousands upon thousands of people swarmed the site in a massive tribute to the war in which we fought over the future of the world. At that time, as an 85-year-old veteran I was fortunate to be there with my children and grandchildren, but I noticed sadly that many families came without their veterans. Even though it’s obvious that many of my fellow WWII vets are dying of old age, there were also over 400,000 who didn’t make it home from the war. That point was made perfectly clear by the wall of gold stars at the memorial.
As I sat in the sun, one of many in row upon row of folding chairs, listening to the distinguished speakers and enjoying the marvelous singers and dancers, I thought of how tragic it would be to have a loved one not come home. I thought of how difficult it was to lose a buddy to enemy fire. I thought of all the ones who didn’t make it. And when I stood to sing the National Anthem, it was their voices I heard in my head.
So I thank you all for taking time today to pay tribute to those who marched off to war and didn’t return. May we always remember. God Bless them, God Bless America, and God Bless us all.