Our attic was full of treasures. As kids, my sisters and I used to go up to our attic to play. Elaborate dresses from the 1940's were lined up in a long row, hanging from a metal bar. Each one of us would choose a dress and slip it on. As I rummaged through the boxes, I looked for the perfect pair of shoes to match. Then, as we made our way back to the attic ladder, each of us selected a pair of gloves with tiny pearl beads and grabbed the closest fur wraps. That day, like countless others, we enjoyed parading through the neighborhood. Although we stumbled on our high heels, we managed to wave confidently to the few neighbors who happen to be working in their yards. One rainy afternoon, as I explored another part of the attic, I found my dad's WWII naval uniform. It was dark blue with white trim and had a tie. In the back, there were white stars on either side of the extended collar flap and some badges were sewn to the arms.
The material was heavier than it looked and it was kind of itchy. First, I slipped on the pants. It was hard to keep them up, so I just bunched them up. Then, I pulled the top over my head. I was surprised that the uniform almost fit. I tilted the white sailor hat on my head because that's how my dad wore it in his old navy pictures. I walked around the attic for a while in the uniform, then took it off and neatly folded it back into the box.
Years later, my mom showed me my dad's navy ribbons and metals. We shuffled through a few pictures and came across a newspaper article titled, "Local Gob Meets Movie Queen". That's when my dad was leaving for the Pacific and was fortunate enough to bump into Fay Wray, the screaming vixen in the 1933 movie blockbuster, King Kong. In the article, there was a picture of the two of them together. My dad was in his uniform and his smile extended from ear to ear. That article made him famous in the neighborhood; however, his real fame was becoming a true WWII veteran.
Dad was in the middle of the Pacific and participated in the bloody Battle of Santa Cruz, the notorious Battle of Midway Island and many other conflicts. He was an engineer water tender 2nd class and a gunner. He served on the destroyer, USS Russell and the cruiser, USS Houston (CL-81), which was torpedoed by the Japanese on October 14, 1944 and again on October 16. My Dad was on board.
When you go online and read about these battles, the real stuff--the human suffering--is not found. Sure, you can find all of the battle strategies and the play-by-play events, but you don't find any information about what it was like to be on a ship that just got torpedoed. You don't read about how the service men felt as they spent months at sea, away from their families. You can't find anything about how they felt when they saw their best buddies die right in front of them. You don't read about the hideously loud sounds of Japanese Zero bombers or the blinding light of the explosions. No one, but these veterans, can tell you about the fear, the sense of duty and the hardships of battle.
My father experienced temporary blindness and hearing loss from massive gunfire while fighting air wars from the decks of the USS Russell. Later, Dad was working in the fire/boiler room on the USS Houston, when he was transferred to the armored deck above the boiler room to help with another job. A few months later, as they were cruising the Pacific waters, the Japanese torpedoed the ship. It was about midnight when the fire/boiler room was hit. Dad was working on the armored deck above the fire/boiler room when he was thrown off his feet and hit his head on the bulkhead from the force of the blast. There was smoke and fire everywhere. He helped open an escape hatch and pulled desperate men out of the burning boiler room below. Most of my father's friends below weren't so lucky. The ship was severely damaged, but did not sink from the blast. Blindly, he had to feel his way up to a higher deck. A tug was ordered to tow the ship. The next day, as they were being towed, the Japanese torpedoed the rear of the ship. Dad was able to run to the other side of the ship with many other men to escape the blast. Later, a rescue ship, the USS North Hampton, came to pick up the men. Most of the men, including my dad, were ordered to abandon ship.
My dad looked over the side and was shocked at the height of the jump. It was about 40 feet high. He threw his life jacket in the water first and jumped overboard. The jump wasn't as bad as how far down he plunged into the water. He feared he would never stop descending. He barely had enough air in his lungs when he reached the surface. Later, he joined up with the USS Houston, which was being towed to Virginia for repairs. Dad traveled with the ship through the Panama Canal and was hospitalized in Virginia. As soon as he was well enough, he was sent to fight in the battle of Midway.
I'm very proud of my father for his courage and dedication to serve our country. He experienced the best and the worst that defending your country can offer. He made friends and lost friends. He traveled the world, yet longed to be home. The fighting happened 66 years ago, yet the memories are still fresh in his mind.
My father, Rocco Joseph Sgrillo (better known as Rick), is 92 years old and a proud veteran. He resides in Lakeland, Florida with his wife Mary. He has six children who adore him and are all very proud of him. We salute you, Dad.
After reading this tribute, Fox 13 News interviewed my father, Rick Sgrillo, and aired the spot on Veterans Day (the video is no longer available online).
In May 2012, my son joined the U.S. Navy. His desired position in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal division was not available, so he took the first opening the Navy offered. Ironically, my son is now a mechanic engineer working in the boiler room¬the same job my father held in WWII. When my son was assigned a ship, he was informed that it was the USS Russell, the same ship that my father was assigned 69 years ago. In September 2013, the Navy officials at the San Diego Naval Base invited my father to speak at the Navy base. When I asked my father if he would go, he said he can't walk very well anymore. I told him that I would bring him in a wheelchair, but he refused. Everyone around him knows that he is a great person and a cherished American¬everyone except the humble man I am lucky enough to call Dad.
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