Many people tend to overuse the word amazing, but in the case of this week’s Veterans Spotlight feature, it is entirely appropriate.
Narcheeso “Cheeso” Massaconi served his country admirably in the US Army from 1942 to 1945. My interview with Mr. Massaconi took place in his own man cave (his garage). “We didn’t have much, but we made the most of what we had,” the 97-year-old veteran said. “I asked my father for a nickel to get some ice cream once…he looked at me and said, ‘You wanna eat supper tonight, don’t you?’ True story.”
He had two brothers who also served in the Army: Mike, who was at the Battle of The Bulge; and Pete.
Drafted right after Christmas in 1942, the then-18-year-old Massaconi was sent to Fort Eustis in Richmond, Virginia, then to the Pacific Theater. His assignments would include Pearl Harbor (before the Japanese bombing), the Battle of Saipan and Iwo Jima, which he described as “hell on Earth.”
I asked him about Iwo Jima and it brought back many memories, most of them not good. “The Japanese had big guns in the tunnels on Mount Sirabachi that came out on tracks. They unloaded on us…we were sittin’ ducks,” he recalled. I asked him if he was ever scared and he didn’t hold back: “I was no hero…too goddamn scared to even eat…we worried about staying alive.…If you wanted to die, get out of your foxhole at night.”
Was it tough being away during Christmas, I asked? “It was kind of sad. I just wanted to get the war over with and get back home and go to work,” he said.
Corporal Massaconi shared a powerful story about his time at Iwo Jima. “We had to dig foxholes…there was a black unit with us that they put in tents instead of foxholes…we warned them how dangerous it was…the Japanese staged a sneak attack one night and went right down the line, throwing grenades into the tents…one by one…killed everyone,” he said, shaking his head.
He continued, “I’ll tell ya one thing, whoever trained our goddamn German shepherd dogs did a helluva job. When the Japanese killed a dog, we buried ’em just like we would one of our soldiers…boy, they were good dogs.…Iwo Jima…there wasn’t a battle like it. In Europe, you always knew where the enemy was and who you were fighting…not at Iwo Jima…you never knew where the goddamn enemy was…Japanese attacked when you were the most vulnerable.”
Corporal Massaconi also said the evils of war bring out the worst in people. “We had this dentist…he would sneak out at night and pull the teeth of the dead Japanese to get the gold fillings...bodies were decaying…maggots all over ’em…the commander finally told him to knock it off or he was going to be in big trouble…we had no sterilization at Iwo…those same damn pliers, he was using on us,” he said.
The Battle of Saipan brought out equally horrifying memories for Corporal Massaconi. “I was on radar patrol tracking enemy planes. Our planes would take off with bombs to hit Japan…they’d rise up slow, then drop close to the water, shudder, then go back up…never forget a plane coming back from a mission…dropped right in the water and exploded…oil and gas burned for two hours…lost 12 young guys,” he said.
I asked him if he had a mentor overseas or looked up to anyone. “The only guy I ever looked up to was Joe Dimaggio,” he said with a smile.
His thoughts on his service? “I loved my country and wanted to do what’s right…think we did okay…still can see my mother crying, saying, ‘You no go…stay home and help the family,’” he remembered.
This remarkable soon-to-be-98 years old man still works in his gardens. This past year he went out and enjoyed his passion for deer, rabbit and pheasant hunting. Corporal Massaconi is also a distinguished member of the National UNICO Baseball and Softball Hall of Fame.
Cheeso Massaconi, thank for your service to our country.