by Francesca Cumero (great niece)
Angelo was drafted into the army on August 2, 1941. He served in the 25th Infantry Division / 161st Infantry Regiment / Company L in the South Pacific during WWII. The 25th I.D., which was and continues to be based out of Oahu. The 25th I.D. earned the nickname “Tropic Lightning” after their swift actions on Guadalcanal in 1942. They helped break the stalemate between the battle weary 1st Marines and the Japanese. From Guadalcanal, they moved to New Georgia Island to help defend Munda Airfield, then to training for a year in New Caledonia, and then on to the Philippines in 1945 for 165 days of fighting on Luzon in the Battle of Balete Pass alongside Hwy. 5.
Angelo served until 1946. By the time he was discharged, he had attained the rank of Staff Sergeant. For actions that he performed as a Sergeant leading his platoon on April 2, 1945 near Kapintalan. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross [ Read Citation ], Silver Star with 2 oak leaf clusters (meaning he earned it three times over) and the Bronze Star. He was also wounded twice and was awarded two purple hearts.
Aunt Annie had all of his medals framed in a shadow box and I remember looking at them as a child, but not knowing what they really represented. Aunt Annie was very proud of Uncle Angelo for earning those medals and she dug them out of the drawer that Uncle Angelo had put them in and insisted on getting them framed and giving them pride of place in their home.
During my childhood in the late 1970’s to early ‘80’s, Uncle Angelo and his family came to visit us on our ranch in Arroyo Seco, CA to go deer hunting every year. We would also visit them every Easter at their home in Martinez, CA, until my parents divorce in 1988 when we all sort of lost touch and drifted apart.
From the time I was very young, I remember my parents and maternal grandparents telling me that Uncle Angelo was a hero during WWII. The details were fuzzy. Because he rarely talked about his time during the war, all they really knew is that Uncle Angelo had saved a man's life by carrying him through heavy gunfire to safety. They told me he had been awarded several medals and that I should be proud to be his niece because he was a very brave and special man.
I can still recall, almost 30 years later, the first time Uncle Angelo ever talked to me about some of his experiences during WWII. It must have been sometime between 1979-1981. The adults had returned from deer hunting in early afternoon on a clear and sunny autumn day. Uncle Angelo was sitting in a folding chair in the sun taking off his boots and socks. I remember standing there watching him and being shocked when I saw what bad shape his feet were in. Being a curious child, and not knowing that it was rude, I asked him why his feet looked so bad.
He explained in words that a little kid could understand that about 40 years ago, he'd fought in a war in a really hot, tropical place, called the South Pacific, which was very far away from California. He said that what he had on his feet was called "jungle rot" by the soldiers and that he'd gotten it because he had to wade through a lot of mud in the jungle and his feet were always wet, even when he laid down to sleep at night. He said that he and his buddies never felt completely dry the entire time they were over there.
After that, he told me about the huge lizards, rats and snakes that attempted to share their foxholes with them, often with very humorous results. My favorite story was about how the soldiers would throw TNT into lagoons to stun and kill fish in order to relieve the monotony of K-rations, which Uncle Angelo described as barely edible.
After my parents divorce in 1988, we lost touch with Uncle Angelo and his family. Uncle Angelo passed away in 1995 and Aunt Annie passed away in 2002. They are both buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
To my delight, the Washington National Guard State Historical Society, was kind enough to mail me a copy of a little known journal written and published by some of the enlisted men in the 161st. It is called "The History of the 161st Infantry: Golden Gate in Forty Eight". The men who wrote and published the journal are: Pfc. Elson Lowell Matson, Pfc. Jerome N. Eller, S/Sgt. Keith A. Crown, Pfc. Barnard G. Rico, Pvt. Paul R. Shepard. It is thanks to these thoughtful, talented, and enterprising men that I have a rare and honest glimpse of what my Uncle Angelo's day to day life was like as infantryman in the 161st during WWII.
While reading the journal, I came across a story about how the men of the 161st used TNT to "catch" fish! Here is an excerpt from "Golden Gate in '48" about just such an occurrence. It took place at Koli Point on Guadalcanal, February 28, 1942:
"Almost everybody went fishing. A few of Company K fellows by hook or crook secured a Higgins boat and four blocks of TNT. They took the boat some distance from shore to throw out the TNT. Then something happened.
The Higgins boat leaped several feet off the water. Planks went flying through the air. Pvt. Merle F. Johnson's shoes were blown off his feet. First Sergeant Allen L. Becker and Sgt. Richard B. McGinnis (now S Sgt.) sprained their ankles. The motor tore lose and the boat began to take in water in great gulps. The TNT had detonated a mine concealed under the ocean top.
In a minute another boat nearby towed the crippled Higgins boat and its shaken occupants to shore, but in the excitement Company L collected all the fish. Company K wound up with two names on the sick book and a statement of charges for a pair of shoes."
I am convinced that my Uncle Angelo, who was in Company L, was there that day, keeping a cool head as always, collecting that fish. Since he had only been in the service for a little over a year, he was most likely a Private First Class, or a Corporal during this incident. He was later promoted to Sergeant, and then to Staff Sergeant after his heroic actions on April 2, 1945 in Luzon.