MONTVILLE, NJ – Residents gathered at the Montville Township Public Library on Nov. 9 to hear the stories of veterans from VFW Post 5481, a rare treat for even fellow members of the post, one post member said.
Gerry Gemian, who served in the Pacific in World War II and was a Staff Sergeant in the Army, wanted to explain about the Pacific theater.
“I saw action in the Marshall Islands, the Marianas, and Palau,” Gemian said. “Many people do not know about the activities in the Central Pacific, which was under the command of the Navy’s Admiral Nimitz because of Pearl Harbor.” MacArthur commanded the SW Pacific theater, Gemian explained.
Because of the Atlantic Charter that Roosevelt agreed to with Churchill, Gemian explained, most resources went towards the war in Europe, but that didn’t sit too well with the Navy, which wanted the Pacific battles to have more soldiers and backing due to Pearl Harbor, he said.
Gemian also talked about the internment of the Japanese on the west coast.
“It was a reflection of Americans’ anger about Pearl Harbor,” Gemian said.
He said Americans were afraid of the Japanese taking over the west coast and the government thought at that time it was the right thing to do because the military bases were severely understaffed and underarmed.
“On the east coast, German subs were signaling ships off the coast of Point Pleasant, Atlantic City, and every day, two or three transports were going down,” he said. Italian and German immigrants were sent to internment camps too, he said.
“People were afraid, and we had nothing in California to stop them,” Gemian said. “We had no Army in 1941, the Navy was sunk, no Air Force, and no Marine Corps. That’s why we took a beating in 1942. But then guys enlisted and we started building strength. We owe a lot to those Marines at Guadalcanal, our first assault against the Japanese.”
Read Gemian’s profile by TAPinto Montville here: Gemian
Chas Palminteri, who was an Army Private First Class in the Korean War, pointed out that the Korean War never really ended – no armistice was ever signed – only a treaty to curtail the fighting was signed.
Palminteri was drafted right out of high school and trained to be a forward observer, which is a soldier who reports from the front line on where the enemy is positioned, where they are firing from, and where they are moving to.
“We were the eyes and ears of the artillery, tanks, rocket launchers, and the aircraft,” he said. “We reported to the troops in the rear where to fire. We would do this as a three-man team. We were on four hours a day and then off eight hours, seven days a week.”
The job is so dangerous, he said, because of the constant threat of sniper fire, plus artillery and mortar fire.
“The life expectancy of the forward observer is three days,” he said. “Since we were on the front line for so much time, I was able to rotate out of Korea in nine months instead of a year and a half.”
Two days after he left, the hill they were on was overrun by the communists. “My lieutenant and sergeant were killed, and my bunkmate was killed,” he said. When he came home, he was promoted to corporal and put in charge of a radar installation in Youngstown, NY.
Read Palminteri’s profile by TAPinto Montville here: Chas Palminteri
Joe Coll grew up in Navasink and remembers playing soldier with his friend Danny Smith. One day when they were young, they discovered a two-man WWII Japanese sub in a cove and reported it to the police.
Fast forward to just after his graduation from Seton Hall, he was drafted into the Army and went to boot camp in Washington state. Coll was trained as a medic, and half his class was sent to Germany, and his half was sent to Vietnam. As Coll’s transport landed in Vietnam, he was immediately put to work, as he found himself in the middle of a firefight.
“We treated guys, got them bandaged up and on stretchers from the get-go,” he said.
After a month, he was sent to the 44th Medical Brigade, 236th Medical Detachment, where he was a medic attached to a helicopter unit. For about six months, he flew four or five sorties per week, picking up the wounded, getting them to field hospitals and then getting them sent to Tokyo. He spent most of his time at Tan Son Nhut airport, he said.
“It was one of the first wars with a strong helicopter force, and that’s where we came in,” he said.
Every Friday was “bag duty,” when the medics rotated who identified bodies on battlefields and tried to discover who might still be alive. Coll was sent to a field not far from Da Nang and there were 16 troops who were shot and killed and had to be picked up. The helicopter had trouble landing because it came under fire, but finally they landed. Coll took one half of the field and a colleague took the other half.
“I went up to the first body, which was laying face down with three or four bullet wounds in his back, and I knew he was dead,” Coll said. “I turned him over, and it was my best friend Danny Smith.”
Coll, visibly shaken as he spoke, said he was torn up. He asked his commanding officer if he could accompany the body back to New Jersey and was given permission.
“His parents were very grateful I had done that,” he said. “It was one of the worst parts of my entire time in the service, but very meaningful. To this day I still think about it.”
Coll said the helicopter pilots and co-pilots were the real heroes. He told the story of how the pilot during one of his flights was shot from directly underneath by an AK47; the bullets tore up the pilot’s leg but the pilot continued to fly.
“I tried to tie up his leg,” Coll said. “He got us home and then passed out from loss of blood. How he got us home – I don’t know. He was a real hero in my mind.”
Coll spent about two years in Vietnam, plus time in Japan recuperating from a small fragment wound in his leg.
Coll is thankful for the VFW and said, “It helps to talk to other vets. Thank God for the VFW.”
Dick Gamsby was a sergeant in the Army in the 101st Airborne in Vietnam for two years. He grew up in Montville and had pleasant memories of the farmland in town.
He said he was drafted and “we did what we could – we did what they asked us to do.”
Gamsby served in the northern section of Vietnam as an engineer, building and repairing roads and bridges.
“It was my obligation to serve as a loyal American,” Gamsby said.
Sergeant Hjalmar Johansson was just 19 when his first mission as a nose gunner on a B-24 bomber was to bomb a German oil refinery. His plane was shot down and he had to parachute out, although he had never practiced the maneuver.
“The Army told us practicing was too dangerous,” he told the audience with irony.
Johansson said that when people ask him if he was scared to jump, he tells them with certainty, “I was scared not to jump.”
Johansson spent six months as a POW until a clandestine radio his bunkmates listened to alerted them the Russians were going to liberate them. When they did, and offered him vodka as a celebratory drink, he demurred, lest his now 40-pound-lighter body become gravely ill.
He was so relieved to come home, and upon seeing the Statue of Liberty’s torch, “realized what freedom really meant.”
“You never understand what liberty is until you lose it,” he said. “And I don’t think I’ll ever get over that.”
Read Johansson’s profile by TAPinto Montville here: Hjalmar Johansson
TAPinto Montville has profiled several of Montville’s veterans:
To watch a video of the lecture, click: