Dedicated to My Father, Uncles, and Their Fellows

Who Defended and Preserved This Freedom

in World War II

 

Staff Sergeant John T. Dempsey (15th Air Force), flew 58 combat missions in a B-24 Liberator wearing this flight-suit shoulder-patch

 

          World War II was ten years gone in my birth-year 1955. Our family shared in all the civic and other honors for men of a small American town who fought it. The mailman was a survivor of the Bataan Death March. Yet, in all the stories that I asked for in growing up, what I came to admire most in my veteran father and uncles was their reticence.

When they told World War II stories, they talked about the friends—from brothers in combat to officers and support-teams—friends with whom they had somehow come through the worst. There was never more of themselves in their stories than about the friends who did not live to come back home with them. And in the rest of their peacetime lives, they saw to those comrades’ continuing honor.

Their remembrances, in turn, carried back into World War I. One of the brothers of my Italian grandfather, new as they were to America, volunteered for service in The American Expeditionary Forces. As a young immigrant in his 20s, my grand-uncle---whose name (Frank), as you'll see, was passed down the family's generations---found himself fighting in France, in and between the German and Allied trenches of that nightmare war. One day, in the aftermath of a heavy engagement, grand-uncle Frank somehow found himself stranded among many dead bodies of both sides, far out in No Man's Land. As German soldiers emerged and, in common practice, began spraying bullets into the bodies all around him, Frank dug himself in under a dead horse---and lived to come home and describe those bullets tearing through it as it lay on top of him.

Coming forward to stand for a cause. Courage, presence of mind when it counts, and gratitude just to be alive: those are some of the values I hope to share from these extraordinary people (whose common trait was that they claimed to be no one extraordinary). I hope these stories and artifacts from one family's service inspire you to seek out the stories from members of their generations around you—and, that they pass on to you their dedication to democracy and to The Constitution of The United States of America.

***
   

    

Technical Sergeant Joseph Benjamin Geremonte, second-oldest of my mother's three brothers; and below, with his B-25 crew


   

On each side of our Italian (Geremonte) and Irish (Dempsey) family, there were three brothers—on the Geremonte side, Alfred the oldest, Joseph (or Josie), and Frank. With their little sister Irene (my mother), they grew up on a small beautiful farm on Spring Lane in Stoneham, Massachusetts, where our family’s first Italian-immigrant elders raised and sold vegetables, fruits and chickens. Little Frankie was already the type to do song-and-dance numbers in front of the farm-stand and collect his dimes while bringing in the customers.

Their grandmother (my great-grandmother) Philomena was a tiny but multi-skilled woman who kept the young ones in line well-into her eighties---climbing the fruit-trees when necessary, handing out the farm-chores like a sergeant, and each day walking a couple of miles to church before dawn, where sometimes she pounded on the rectory door to wake up the priests for saying mass. Philomena managed more family income by taking in “roomers” from among those times’ many day-labor immigrants. And, she turned out huge tubs-full of spaghetti-sauce to feed the relatives and friends who, once a month, converged on Spring Lane for a lively night of card-games and impromptu music.

A phrase in Alfred’s high school yearbook summed up these Geremonte brothers: Always a line. “Josie”---fond of writing, artistic drawing and music---studied his way through Suffolk Law School. Passing the bar in 1939, he became Stoneham’s first Italian-American attorney, and the respect for his achievement turned out a full-scale testimonial dinner at the town hall to his bright future. Family had made him a strong believer in the duties of American citizenship. Joe wrote a book called Social Law and taught classes from it at the Stoneham Evening School. Just as WWII broke out in Europe, a traveling pro-Mussolini speaker addressed the local Sons Of Italy meeting, and Joe stood up and walked out on his fascist nonsense.

Joe enlisted three months after Pearl Harbor, and soon he was training with the Third Air Force’s “Air Apaches” or 345th Bombardment Group. While I have an old folder-full of Joe’s flight-navigation charts, tables, transparencies and workbooks, his exact role as a flight-crewman remains uncertain, for the news-account below calls him “radioman.”

Their 500th Squadron was called The Rough Raiders---flying the twin-engine B-25 Mitchell, whose combat-roles included low-level bombing-swoops and “runs” that poured heavy strafing-fire into their targets. By July 1943, Joe flew his first missions out of Australia’s Port Moresby against Japanese shipping and South Pacific strongholds. As their American bases expanded into the islands, this direct account appeared in a Stoneham newspaper:

Sgt. Geremonte Escapes As Bomber Hits Tree

An Advanced Bomber Base in New Guinea (Delayed). (AP), --- Hedge-hopping in the line of duty is an old story to the crews of New Guinea’s low-flying Mitchell bombers, but doing the job with one or two engines shot out still is the unique accomplishment of 1st Lt. Raymond E. Geer of Amarillo, Texas, and Technical Sergeant Joseph B. Geremonte of 321 Main Street [Stoneham, Massachusetts].

Geer’s feat came as the denouement of an armed reconnaissance along the south coast of New Britain by a group of three Mitchells from the Rough Raider unit, specialists in treetop strafing and bombing.

Over Jacquinot Bay, between Gasmata and Rabaul, Geer’s ship made contact with a single Japanese 20-millimeter anti-aircraft gun, a Deadeye Dick that shot up the right engine and punctured 45 other holes in the plane.

Although the bomber was crippled, Geer immediately turned, dived low and poured a stream of machine gun bullets into the ground gun, halting its fire. That’s when the water grew really hot. The Mitchell swept into a tree, its left propeller chewing and its left engine digesting most of the upper branches.

The treetop bent double under the left wing, then sprang erect again and snapped against the side of the plane, directly outside the compartment occupied by Sgt. Geremonte, the radioman. It scraped along the fuselage, leaving a deep groove, brushed before the startled eyes of the tail-gunner, Sgt. Charles W. Brown of Belmont, North Carolina, and disappeared in the distance, a battered wreck.

Now there remained the problem of clearing a ridge immediately ahead and getting out to sea.

“It was lucky for us that the tree struck the left engine instead of the damaged one on the right,” Geer said, “because I was having a hard enough time already keeping the right wing up.”

Geer credited his co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Hobart R. Rankin of Springfield [“O” for Oklahoma or Oregon], with the action that finally saved the ship. The pilot said he’d been about to feather the shattered engine [turning the propeller-blades to reduce drag] when Rankin stopped him, calling to his attention that it still had some power left.

As a result, the plane managed to hurdle the ridge and stagger out over the water.

 

  

            In October 1943, Joe was awarded the Air Medal for his part in a mission whose harrowing details come from Warpath, the Squadron’s history (pp. 168-9). “Nine of our planes were to bomb shipping in Vunapope Harbor in the Rabaul area, as part of a very large coordinated strike….Captain Anacker’s flight dropped five 1,000-pound bombs on a freight transport, lifting it out of the water. Then things got rough. Japanese ‘Zeek’ fighters dove to the attack,” strafing one plane that had been forced to ditch in the sea, and the battle went on for another 70 minutes “at wave-top level,” between Cape Gazelle and Cape Dampier on the New Britain south coast. Though several B-25’s were badly damaged and had wounded crew, the Rough Raiders claimed 14 Japanese planes that day besides its targets, and Joe’s medal was one of several citations, Silver Stars and Distinguished Flying Crosses.
  

     

            These pictures all come from the album Joe kept of his missions and adventures. Almost before he knew it, Joe had flown his 50 required missions and was scheduled to rotate home for awhile. Unfortunately, on July 2, 1944, he and a few fellows volunteered for “one more,” and it cost them their lives.
  


  

            “It was while we were staging at Hollandia from Nadzab that the tragic bomb explosion on the landing strip occurred” (p. 172). Returning from this successful mission with one wounded man aboard, Joe’s pilot was unaware that there were still two live bombs (or parademos) still in the bomb-bay—perhaps an indicator-light malfunctioned. On approach, they fired a flare to signal for an ambulance, which came out to meet the airplane. But, when the B-25 stopped and opened its bomb-bay doors, the parademos fell out and exploded, killing Joe and three other fliers, plus eight more men of the ambulance and ground crew.
  

      

       

Through all this time, Joe’s brother Alfred, a Sergeant in the U.S. Army, had become part of the famous AMERICAL Division, and reached Guadalcanal during the secondary battles to control that crucial South Pacific island. Slightly wounded there, Alfred told of Japanese air-raids in which “you could hear and feel their bombs ‘walking up the road’ toward camp, while everybody dove for a hole in the ground.” But Alfred—educated, strong, always light-hearted —was never the same after brother Joe’s death, and could not bear their hometown full of memories. He moved to Asheville, North Carolina, became Sports Editor for the Sunday Asheville Times, and on visits there, introduced me to more than one veteran friend who, as he remembered, “would fight a buzz-saw.”
  


 

            Joe’s and Alfred’s brother, uncle Frank Geremonte served in the U.S. Navy aboard the Destroyer Escort U.S.S. Tatum. As the youngest, Frank reached the war last. The Tatum (launched in 1943) had already seen action from the Caribbean to the English Channel, where it sunk a German submarine. Frank, a Signalman, was aboard when the Tatum served as Flag Ship in the 1944 invasion of southern France (my father was overhead in a B-24 during that operation, more below). Before Frank knew it, they were sailing toward Okinawa, passing through “monstrous” Pacific typhoons that tossed the ship as it carried “shock troops and demolition units” toward the war’s final front. Frank, like Alfred, was all the more determined to see the war through for the loss of their oldest brother Joe.
  

      

            The Tatum became part of the vast Allied fleet that supported the early 1945 invasion of Okinawa. All of them were heavily strafed, bombed and smashed-into by the Japanese Empire’s last false hope, their “Divine Wind” or kamikaze fighter-pilots. While one of the three brothers on our family’s Irish side—U.S. Marine Robert “Bobby” Dempsey—took part in the landings and combat there (at age 17!), Frank and his shipmates were sometimes allowed to look through the Tatum’s heavy lenses toward shore. They could literally see Marines and Japanese soldiers fighting for every foot across the island’s bare shell-blasted hills. Flashes of guns, cross-fired streams of tracers, puffs of hand grenades, bursts of flame-throwers, shells from ships, bombs: men charging, falling back, dying hand to hand or by a foe they never saw.
   

       
   

Frank, at his duties high up on the Tatum, dropped flat to the deck as he heard the tak-tak-tak of bullets rip through the ship. One fighter strafed so low that it almost sheared off the mast. Frank, half-frozen in amazement at the ferocity of what was going on for miles around him, saw the bomb fall from a second plane’s belly. As he hit the deck, he felt it smash right through the Tatum’s superstructure and tear a hole through the ship’s Ward Room. He never could say thanks enough to the men who had to go down there and discover that it was a dud. So Frank and the Tatum survived. Later, voyaging homeward, Frank saw the charred hulk of another Destroyer Escort in tow, without a single gun or other feature left standing on its deck. But nothing could have prepared the Tatum crew for the aftermath of an atomic bomb.

These are Frank’s own, never-published photographs of Nagasaki, where the Tatum put in just after Japan’s surrender—a destruction beyond the word total.
   

Original, never-published photos of Nagasaki, Japan,
weeks after its August 1945 devastation by an atomic bomb
(taken by Frank M. Geremonte, USS Tatum).

     


  

            When Frank came home, he became an attorney very much in the footsteps of his oldest brother Joe, serving as a Town Selectman among other respected roles. A flyweight boxer, full-blown comedian, pool shark and State Senior Am golf champion, Frank paid one more price of this cursed war. He and Alfred, born to be fathers, had each contracted Cerebral Malaria in their service, and so neither had any children. It made them all the more amazing fathers to my sisters Barbara and Janice, to our late brother Joe and myself.

   

  

            Louis Geremonte was a cousin to Joe, Alfred and Frank—the son of my grandfather Antonio’s brother. The son of a man who himself had fought with the American Expeditionary Force in World War I France; who, stranded one day in No Man’s Land, crawled under a dead horse while German soldiers ranged the area, shooting anybody left alive.

            Some of Louis’s story was told in his Boston Globe obituary on Tuesday December 20, 1994, by Kevin Cullen (excerpt):

            Louis I. Geremonte, a D-Day veteran who fought his way across Europe before being seriously wounded, then returned to Boston and became a chef, died at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Jamaica Plain after a long illness. He was 69.

            Louis Geremonte was 19 years old when he jumped into the surf off Omaha Beach in Normandy. Last June 6, while many attended ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day, he watched televised coverage of the festivities.

            Speaking to a Globe reporter at the time, Mr. Geremonte said the anniversary was bittersweet because he remembered all his comrades who died during the great invasion of Europe. He was part of K Company, 29th Division, 175th Infantry of the U.S. Army. Of 500 men in his company, only about a third survived the initial assault at Normandy.

            [Uncle Louis recalled to me the same horrific struggle under fire that we see in Saving Private Ryan’s first moments, just to get out of the Higgins Boat and onto Omaha Beach. Louis was carrying a 30-pound demolition bomb and had to throw it away to keep from drowning. ‘The hell with that,’ he said. ‘They were trying to kill me.’]

            Known as Gerry to his friends, Louis Geremonte saw 128 consecutive days of combat. He was awarded the Bronze Star for valor in Brest, where he was pinned down for three days by enemy fire. He received a Purple Heart after being shot in the shoulder in Germany.

            Asked if he remembered the day he got hit, Mr. Geremonte replied, “October 3, 1944, 8:32 a.m. There was a guy from Dedham [MA] in the foxhole with me. The Germans opened up on us. After they stopped shooting, the guy from Dedham says, ‘Boy, that was close, huh Gerry?’ And I said, ‘Close? Look at my arm, you fool. I’m hit.’

            Louis Geremonte never regained full use of his right arm, but upon returning home, launched a successful career as a chef. He spent more than 20 years at Giro’s in the North End, where he was known as The King of Garlic. ‘You could smell his dishes all the way down Hanover Street,’ his son Dana remembers.

            Mr. Geremonte was active in several veterans’ groups. But like many veterans of his era, he was modest about his service. ‘What would I tell my twelve grandchildren?’ he said. ‘I’m nothing special. I’m just a regular guy.’

***

  

My Father’s Story:   Staff Sergeant John T. Dempsey

Nose-Turret Gunner on a B-24 Liberator Bomber

(Fifteenth Army Air Force,

464th  Bomb Group, 776th Bomb Squadron),

   
and

featuring an interview with his original crewmate

Staff Sgt./Flight Engineer Clarence W. "Red" Eudaily

      

. . .

 

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