WWII Vet and crew pursued Japanese fleet at Battle of Midway Island

Frank Arcidiacono was the radio operation aboard a U.S. Navy seaplane assigned to find Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s armada. The huge Japanese fleet was steaming toward Midway Island in the North Pacific on its way to attack what was left of the much smaller American battle group during the pivotal days of June 1942.

On June 3, Arcidiacono and his eight-man PBY crew–the acronym–“Patrol Bomber,” with the Y standing for the name of the company that built it, “Consolidated Aircraft” –flew 1,200 miles from Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to Midway. That was the day before the air-sea battle in the Pacific that put the United States on the offensive and the Japanese on the defensive.

After the decisive engagement the enemy’s westward advance was halted. It began pulling back. The Japanese pullback would end Sept., 2, 1945 on the deck of the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay where the surrender document was signed, ending World War II.

Arcidiacono, 80, his wife, Mary, and their four children and 12 grandchildren will be among the honored guests at the first memorial luncheon in Sarasota marking the Battle of Midway’s 60th anniversary on Friday. The couple, who have lived in Winer Park, Fla. for more than three decades, will join 450 mostly retired Naval aviators and brass expected to pack Michael’s on East restaurant for the occasion.

“By the time we arrived at Midway they had already located the enemy fleet,” Arcidiacono said. “We flew to the island with four 500 pound depth bombs under our wings.

“When we flew out that evening, headed for the Japanese fleet, they had taken our bombs off and substituted them with a single 2,0000-pound torpedo under one wing. We were instructed to go after the carriers,” he said.

PBYs, also known as “Catalina Flying Boats,” cruised about 110 mph. They were primarily patrol planes. Because of their slowness, they were sitting ducks for enemy fighters.

The only thing Arcidiacono and his crew had going for them was that they flew at night and they had radar. This made them a bit less vulnerable.

About 6 p.m. on the night of June 3, 1942, they departed Midway on a compass course of 320 degrees, headed for the enemy carriers. They were approximately 150 miles off shore–less than 90 minutes flying time.

As strange as it may seem, PBY patrol planes like this, which cruised at about 110 mph, were used to good advantage as night bombers in the Paciific during World War II. Photo provided

As strange as it may seem, PBY patrol planes like this, which cruised at about 110 mph, were used to good advantage as night bombers in the Paciific during World War II. Photo provided

“Four PBYs took off at the same time. We had trouble getting our boarding ladder off the side of the plane. We got separated from the other three planes and never saw them again,” Arcidiacono recalled. “We searched all night, but didn’t find the Japanese fleet either. By the time it got light we decided we weren’t going to attack the Japanese carriers. We began searching for other enemy ships. We found nothing.”

They were just about out of fuel and knew they couldn’t make it back to base without refueling. Along their route refueling boats had been stationed ahead of them for just such an emergency. They spotted one of these fuel vessels.

“I signaled them, but they signaled back that they were already out of fuel,” he said. “We had to keep flying. We were flying on fumes. A while later, a second fuel ship was located. It signaled it had fuel.

“As we were landing, both our engines quit. We had run out of gas,” be said. “They had to send out a launch to tow us to the fuel ship. It took our crew all day to refuel our plane by hand.”

It was dark again by the time they finished. They decided to spend the night there. They tied up along side the fuel barge. It wasn’t long before a second PBY flew in an started the refueling process. After a while, a third PBY landed an wanted to refuel and anchored off the fuel ship for the night, too.

The ship’s skipper wouldn’t hear of it. He told the pilot of the third PBY he would have to figure out something else because the covey of airplanes clustered around his ship was too tempting a target for the enemy.

“Because the pilot of the last ‘Flying Boat’ lost his anchor, he had to spend the night taxing back and forth. Some time during the night he fell asleep at the wheel and ran his PBY into the side of the fuel barge,” Arcidiacono said. “It stoved in the whole bow of the plane and it sank next to the ship.”

Before the unlucky search plane went down, it drifted into the PBY Arcidiacono was in. It tore off one of the wing floats and the air speed indicator, a thin metal probe on the front of his plane.

“The next morning my pilot told me to radio Peal Harbor and find out what they wanted us to do,” he said. “They said that the two remaining PBYs should each take half the crew from the plane that sank and fly back to Pearl. When we arrived, all the enlisted men were promoted one rating and the pilots received medals.

During the battle for Guadalcanal, Ancidiacono’s PBY operated from the sea plane tender USS Curtis anchored at Espiritu Santo Island in the New Hebrides.

The U.S. Marines on Guadalcanal were being shelled almost every night by a Japanese cruiser. Adm. “Bull” Halsey, commander of Task Force 58, ordered three PBYs to attack the enemy cruiser at night. Arcidiacono’s plane was one of the three.

“Again we flew out at night with four 500-pound depth bombs under our wings,” he said. “We spotted a wake in the water and determined it was the Japanese cruiser.”

“The pilot of his PBY told him to climb back to the tail of the airplane and be his spotter. He was going to fly the PBY at 1,000 feet and Arcidiacono would tell him when to drop the bombs instead of using the bomb site.

“Our first bomb was a miss and our second was a near miss. So we came around again and dropped two more,” he said. “One of them hit the ship. It stopped dead in the water and started burning. We decided to get out of there.

“We had a deal that if we hit anything we could call in the PT boats and they would finish it off,” Arcidiacono explained. “That’s what happened.”

Chief Arcidiacomo, right, is presented two Distinguished Flying Crosses. Photo provided

Chief Arcidiacomo, right, is presented two Distinguished Flying Crosses. Photo provided

His PBY crew received a letter of commendation from Halsey for helping sink the enemy cruiser.

During the Battle of Santa Cruz in the Solomon Islands, Halsey sent us out with torpedoes to hit a Japanese carrier,” he said. “We flew out just after sundown and couldn’t find the carrier, but found another cruiser instead. Fifty feet off the water, 300 yards away we dropped our torpedo and pulled up over the ship. We nailed it!”

Again they received a second commendation from Halsey.

“What I’m most proud of is that Halsey sent us to find a missing tugboat and barge full of aviation fuel headed for Guadalcanal. We found the tug. Its American flag was flying upside down (a sign of distress),” Arcidiacono said. “Later we found the barge drifting way away. Nobody was on either the tug or the barge.

“We searched the area and finally located 300 guys floating in the water three or four miles away. The tug and the barge had been protected by a destroyer that was attacked by Japanese torpedo planes and sunk,” Arcidiacono said. “These were the survivors of the attack floating in the water below us.”

His PBY sent a message to the fleet. More destroyers were dispatched to pick up the sailors and collect the barge full of gas and the tug.

“We spotted one guy away from the others in a life jacket. A shark was swimming around him,” he said. “We were afraid to shoot at the shark because we might hit him. Se we dropped smoke bombs on the shark trying to scare it away.”

Trouble is, when the rescue ship arrived they didn’t see the single sailor floating in the water off by himself. The destroyers didn’t pick him up, so they had to radio the PBY and send it back to get him.

“Later on I met this guy that had been swimming by himself off New Caledonia. He told me, “‘I was never so glad to see a PBY.'”

Arcidiacono wrapped up his WW II naval service as a radio operator aboard Adm. Gunther’s B-24 Liberator. He was the forward area air commander under Adm. Halsey. The young radio operator went on to make the Navy a 20-year career. He retired in the mid 1960s as a chief petty officer. Then Arcidiacono continued as a Navy civil servant and an expert in aerospace survival equipment.

“I attended the 50th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Midway in Washington, D.C., a decade ago,” Arcidiacono said. “I was taking to Ensign George Gay, the only survivor of Torpedo Squadron 8 that flew off the Carrier Hornet.

“‘I watched the whole battle under a piece of my airplane while floating in the sea,”‘ he told me.

“I said, ‘Yea, I was out there, too, in a PBY with a torpedo.’

“‘You guys were crazy,’ he added.

“‘We were all crazy then. We were 20 years old and we didn’t know any better,'” Arcidiacono replied.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, June 20, 2002 and is republished with permission.

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‘Frank’ Arcidiacono: Immigrant found calling in U.S. Navy
1 September 1921 – 8 June 2011
June 11, 2011
By Eloísa Ruano González, Orlando Sentinel

Pancrazio “Frank” Arcidiacono was home for the holidays when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He immediately flew back to the naval base in Hawaii, where he had been stationed for about a year, grandson Shawn Richichi recalled.

Japan had pushed the U.S. into World War II. In the years that followed, Arcidiacono flew many missions across the South Pacific in PBY Catalina seaplanes.

A radio operator and gunner, he fought in the Battle of Midway and took part in many other campaigns, including Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Guam and Guadalcanal, his relatives said. He received two Distinguished Flying Cross medals for his role in sinking a couple of Japanese cruisers, Richichi said.

The Winter Park resident died Wednesday from congestive heart failure. He was 89.

Born in Sicily, Arcidiacono had moved to the U.S. when he was about a year old. His family passed through Ellis Island and settled in Fulton, N.Y., where he worked on a relative’s farm. His family later moved to Ohio, where he enlisted in the Navy at 19.

“He wanted to go to college, but his mother said he needed to get a job. So he joined the Navy,” said daughter Andrea Konsler of Fern Park. Arcidiacono’s father also influenced him: The elder man had served in the Italian Navy, Konsler said.

After two decades in the U.S. Navy, Arcidiacono retired as a chief petty officer. He then worked for years at the Naval Training Device Center in Port Washington, N.Y., and later was transferred to the Naval Training Equipment Center in Orlando.

He helped develop a harness device to prevent officers from drowning after they landed on water, his grandson said. Arcidiacono found out many naval officers were dying because they couldn’t quickly unhook themselves from their parachutes, which were dragging them underwater.

“His life was the Navy. When he left the Navy, his life was to help the Navy [officers] stay alive,” said Richichi, who lives in Maitland.

Richichi remembers as a boy taking frequent walks around Winter Park with his grandfather. Richichi said his grandfather loved to tell stories about the war and Navy, as much as he loved to make homemade wine and sing old Italian songs in the house.

“He always told us, ‘You can never take away from a country without giving something back.’ That’s what led me into the Marine Corps, and that’s what led my brother into the Air Force,” Richichi said.

In addition to Konsler and Richichi, survivors include Mary Arcidiacono, his wife of 65 years; son Steve Arcidiacono of Orlando; daughters Eva Fifer of New Smyrna Beach and Tina Bolin of Orlando; 11 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Carey-Hand Cox Parker Funeral Home, Winter Park, is in charge of arrangements.

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