Cpl. Don Vicalvi fought on Bougainville and the Philippines in WW II

Cpl. John Vicalvi of Port Charlotte, Fla. holds a Thompson sub-machine gun. The picture was taken in August 1944 on Bougainville in the South Pacific during World War II. Photo provided

John Vicalvi’s discharge notes he received two Bronze Service Arrowheads and two Bronze Battle Stars on his Asiatic-Pacific Theater Campaign Ribbon for two landings and two major battles: Bougainville and the Philippines.

The 89-year-old Port Charlotte, Fla. man was drafted at 21 in February 1943 and ended up as a replacement soldier with the 6th Field Artillery attached to the 37th Infantry Division that was part of the 14th Corps in the South Pacific.

His unit took part in the Allied invasion of the 250 square mile island. Together with the 3rd Marine Division the 37th took a six square mile area of the island away from the 25,000 Japanese defenders. It included the island’s best deep water port and enough real estate to build a major runway for B-29 bombers that would eventually devastate Japan.

“We invaded Bougainville in November 1943. Thanks to Gen. Douglas MacArthur we took a beach in front of a swamp where the Japs didn’t expect us to land,” the old soldier said. “They were waiting for us on the other side of the island and by the time they came over the mountains after us we were entrenched and well prepared for them.

“We established a beach head and built a fighter base in the swamp with steel mats in 30 days with the help of the Seabees. I was assigned to a forward observation group. My job was to keep communications working between our front lines and our artillery battalion,” he said.

Vicalvi and a couple of buddies were in charge of stringing telephone wire on the ground from headquarters through the jungle to the front lines. When communications were interrupted during the fighting it was their job to repair the break and reestablish communications as quickly as possible.

In a five page after-action report yellowed-with-age Vicalvi wrote about what happened to a lone American patrol on Bougainville.

“It was 0800 (8 a.m.) Feb. 16, 1944 and I left base camp for Observation Post 7. With me were Cpl. Charles B. Chadd of Davenport, Iowa and Pfc. Riley G. Ingold of Greensboro, N.C. We took a command car and proceeded up the Buna Buta Trail under very muddy conditions. We arrived at Observation Post 7 about 9:30 a.m. There we awaited the next patrol to leave for the forward outpost,” he wrote.

“We left at 10 a.m. crossing the Laruma River…and proceeded up the trail where we met a patrol coming from the opposite direction comprising Lt. Col. Howard F. Haines of Columbus, Ohio, Col. John A. Frederick of Springfield, Ill. We were told to wait for the Fijian Scouts who reported Japanese activity 400 yards ahead.

“About that time word came down that casualties were being brought down the trail. We stepped off the trail to let the litter bearers with their wounded pass. This was perhaps the most awe-inspiring occasion I have every witnessed. Men were quietly accepting the bitter pain of tragic wounds while sweating litter bearers did a phenomenal job under the most trying conditions.

“We finally reached the jeep road and plenty of transportation. It was 2130 (9:30 p.m.) and the litter bearers had been on their feet carrying the wounded for over nine hours,” Vicalvi wrote. “I shall never forget the persistent efforts of the medics on that day northeast of Out Post 7.”

They left Bougainville for the Philippines with a fleet of 800 ships. On Oct. 23, 1944 the 37th Division and his 6th Artillery Battalion were part of the American 6th Army that took part in the decisive victory at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. During the three day battle the American fleet destroyed what was left of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the area.

“After establishing a beach-head at Leyte we headed toward Manila 120 miles away,” Vicalvi said. “We reached Clark Field outside Manila and set up our 105 Howitzers in the middle of the field which was a mistake. The Japanese fired on our position from the mountains and we had to move our cannons in a hurry.

“Manila is split in the middle by the Pasig River. Everything on one side of the river was practically annihilated. On the other side was the old walled city with its 20 foot wide walls. There was no way we could get into the city and the Japanese without blasting a hole in the wall big enough for our infantry to get in,” he said.

“Shortly after we took Manila I got sick with malaria. I was in a hospital there when it came over the radio that the war was over,” Vicalvi said. “Some of the able people in the hospital went to Manila and bought all the booze they could and brought it back to the hospital. We got plastered.”

After his recovery he was sent home from the Philippines aboard a troop ship with hundreds of other servicemen.

“It was Christmas day 1945 when I was discharged from the Army. My parents didn’t know I was coming home. When I got back to Worcester, Mass. there was plenty of snow on the ground. My teenage sister spotted me coming down the hill in my uniform and alerted the whole family,” he said.

At that point no one in the family knew where Vicalvi’s oldest brother, James, was. He had been a gunner in a B-17 bomber. His plane was shot down over Germany, he was captured and held in a stalag until war’s end. Larry, his youngest brother, ran off to Canada and joined the Norwegian Merchant Marines. He spent the war sailing aboard cargo ships in the North Atlantic.

Vicalvi got a job working as an insurance salesman with Boston Mutual Life Insurance for 10 years. The last 18 years of his career he worked for an outfit that made thermostats for heating and cooling equipment.

He and his wife, Ann, moved to Port Charlotte and bought a home in 1987. They have two children: Stephen and Jack and four grandchildren.

Thinking about his three years of service in the Army Vicalvi said the other day, “I was the only guy in my unit who wasn’t injured or killed. I could run like hell.”

This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Aug. 1, 2011 and is republished with permission.

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