Pfc. Tony Mercurio goes to Korean War toothless and battles VA for next 60 years

Tony Mercurio of Punta Gorda, Fla., who served in the 24th Infantry Division as a gun-toting, front line rifleman near the end of the Korean War, spent the remainder of his life fighting the Veterans Administration over his teeth or the lack of ’em.

“I was drafted in ’53 and sent to Fort Riley, Kan. for basic training,” the 81-year-old former soldier said. “While in basic I wound up with a mouth infection and lost all my teeth.

“While recovering in the base hospital a full bird colonel told me, ‘Soldier don’t worry about a thing. The government is gonna take care of your mouth for the rest of your life.’ It didn’t happen.

“From Fort Riley I was sent by train across the country to Seattle, Wash. where I was supposed to board a troop ship for Korea. I was still in the Repo Depo three days later and went to see the officer in charge to see when I was going overseas.

“They finally put me on a ship to Japan. Fifteen days later I arrived in Sasabo, Japan but my orders were all mixed up. They didn’t know what to do with me, so they sent me to a chemical, biological and radiological training school.

“Armed with my diploma after graduation I was all fired up to go to Korea and teach the troops what I had learned. I arrived in Pusan, South Korea and was immediately put on a landing boat that sailed for the POW camp run by the Americans at Kobe-Do Island, South Korea. I had been reclassified an MP.

“Armed with a .45 caliber ‘grease-gun’ and a .45 pistol on my belt I guarded the perimeter of a camp that had no POWs. I didn’t mind it a bit because we lived in Quonset huts on base and had a good life.

Mercurio plays John Wayne for the camera with his M-1 rifle. Photo provided

Mercurio plays John Wayne for the camera with his M-1 rifle. Photo provided

“That all changed when the 24th Division was ordered to replace another division serving on the front lines 250 miles to the north. Twenty-four of us took a little convoy of 7 Jeeps, a 3/4-ton truck and a ‘Deuce-and-a-half’ north. It was supposed to be a five-day trip.

“I was in the ‘Deuce-and-a-half that was bringing up the rear of the convoy. By this time it was November or December and cold. It was so cold they issued us two pairs of long underwear and two pairs of fatigues. I had them all on at the same time,” Mercurio recalled.

“The rest of the convoy drove off and left us the second day out. We started up this one-lane road up the side of a mountain and ran out of gas half way up,” he said. “A helicopter was sent up to find out what happened to us. It found us standing in the middle of the road pointing at an empty gas can. Three or four hours later a gasoline tanker truck was dispatched to our rescue.

“Seven days after we started north in the Army truck we arrived in Yan-Gu and found the rest of our convoy.

Pfc. Mercurio (on the right) with a buddy was made an MP overnight and given the task of guarding the a POW camp built to house North Korean POWs on Kobe-Do Island off the coast of South Korea. The camp held no POWs, they had all been released. Photo provided

Pfc. Mercurio (on the right) with a buddy was made an MP overnight and given the task of guarding a POW camp built to house North Korean POWs on Kobe-Do Island off the coast of South Korea. The camp held no POWs, they had all been released. Photo provided

“At this point we began a three or four months deployment to guard the Demilitarized Zone. We didn’t fire a shot, we just walked up and down a barbed wire fence line.

“We slept in seven-man tents heated with a pot-belled kerosene stove. They gave us one gallon of kerosene a day to keep the tent warm. It wasn’t near enough kerosene, considering how cold it was,” he said. “The temperature was below zero.”

At the end of this deployment, Mercurio’s time in the Army was almost up.

“I returned to Pusan and boarded another troop transport that was headed back to Washington state. The voyage back took 29 days because we ran into a bad storm. You ain’t ever seen so many sick people on one ship.”

After arriving stateside he took a slow moving train cross-country to Fort Dix, N.J. where he was discharged.

“I was 23 by then and couldn’t get my job back working for the New York Central Railroad. So I went to work in a body shop for a while. Eventually I opened my own restaurant.

“After a while my dentures needed some work, so I went to the VA to get them replaced in the 1960s. The VA gave me a bunch of red tape that I would have spent the rest of my life figuring out. I needed teeth so I bought my own,” he said.

“In 1989 I returned to the VA hoping to get my dentures replaced by the federal government. I was given a bunch more red tape by the VA. I told them, ‘You guys promised to take care of me because you took out all my teeth when I was in basic.’

“‘Prove it,’ they told me. I had no hard proof and my records were lost in a 1973 fire, according to the government.

“Again I went to my local dentist and had a new pair of dentures made at my expense.”

“By the time it got to be 2010. I was retired and had plenty of time to take on the VA and its red tape. I finally decided, ‘Damn it, the VA is gonna buy me my new teeth!

“The VA would rather spend $1 million dollars so it didn’t have to buy me new dentures. I worked on the VA’s red tape denture project for thee years and I still don’t have a new set of teeth from the government even though I enlisted the help of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.),” he said disgustedly.

Tony and Marian, his wife, moved to Punta Gorda in 1994. The couple has four children: Michael, Cindi, Wayne and Deborah.

Mercurio’s File

Merurio at home in Punta Gorda at 81. Sun photo by Don MooreName: Anthony Joseph Mercurio, Jr.
D.O.B:  3 Aug. 1932
Hometown: Syracuse, Ny.
Currently:  Punta Gorda Fla.
Entered Service:  8 Dec. 1952
Discharged:  5 Nov. 1954
Rank: Private First Class
Unit:  24th Division U.S. Army
Commendations:  Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 and is republished with permission.

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  1. Don,

    My Dad spent the last 5 years of his life in an extremely good VA home in Jackson, LA. He was fortunate in that he had dental insurance and care all of his life. I was appalled at the condition of our veteran’s teeth in the VA home. So many missing teeth, so many rotten teeth. The benefits for veterans did have dental coverage. I wrote and even tried in the community for volunteer dentists. Volunteers I guess here in the states are hesitant to do anything do to their insurance not covering them should there be a problem. I guess they are under a blanket coverage overseas but not here. It is sad to see the care that is lacking for our veterans who should all receive the best care our country has. Very sad situation. Thanks as always for your work and posts. Elaine

  2. Can’t say that was an up-lifting story. Quite sad actually. I was looking for any info on MY FATHER Cpl. Anthony PAUL Mercurio (from So. Philadelphia, PA) who fought on Iwo Jima with the 5th Division Marines and came across your page. Had no idea there were so many of him.

    • Tom – thanks for the comment. It’s a damned shame the way the VA has treated our veterans.

      I hope you find what you’re looking for on the 5th Division. I have written about Iwo on several occasions. Did you see the Dick Honyak story?

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