My Veterans Spotlight feature subject this week is quite an amazing man. He’s a violinist, sings in his church choir, has performed with the Cape Cod Symphony, and is in “Guinness World Records” as the world’s oldest active curler. The key word is “active.”
Ralph Vaccaro is as unique as they come. The former staff sergeant-medic served his country in World War II from 1943 to 1946 in the US Marines and Army. He was in the Marines for four months and 18 days before his Army duties (at the time the Army was looking for people with a medical background, and Mr. Vaccaro had a master’s degree in public health from MIT).
Staff Sergeant Vaccaro’s memory is knife-edge sharp. I found this out after asking him his military serial number, which he rattled off with ease.
Staff Sergeant Vaccaro attended basic training in Alabama. He was then shipped off to England, France, Belgium and Germany. Being overseas at 23 didn’t really bother him during the holidays. “I wrote letters, communicated and had really good friends,” he said.
He did share a frightening experience he had while at the Battle of The Bulge. “Three Jeeps came up to the dispensary,” he said. “They all had mounted 50-caliber machine guns which pointed north and south. Only one spoke. I invited them in for coffee but they declined. It turned out they were German spies in Belgian uniforms. They were caught later that day and shot.”
I asked Staff Sergeant Vaccaro what his schedule was like during the Battle of the Bulge, and he didn’t hesitate one second. “Get up at 6 AM, go on and stay on,” he said. He also conveyed that the medic team was a very close unit. “We had new kids that came up as replacements. They always wanted to know what it was like,” he recalled.
He experienced the horrors of war one day while walking with his company in cold weather. He looked on the ground and saw a glove. When he picked it up he found a hand inside.
Staff Sergeant Vaccaro recalled some bright spots during the war. “Our unit in France was adopted by a woman named Madame Rochette. We spent a lot of time at her house. She fed us and took care of us,” he said. He was also befriended by another French woman and stayed in touch with her. “She had a friend send me the birth announcement of her grandchild,” he said proudly. In what little spare time he had, Staff Sergeant Vaccaro read “whatever he could find” to keep up with the news. “I might have played a little poker, too,” he said with a sly smile.
His wife, Martha, shared a powerful story about when she and her husband went back to visit their son Peter many years ago, when he was stationed in Germany with the Army. As they were driving through a small town Staff Sergeant Vaccaro got very quiet. When his wife asked him what was wrong he said, “It smells of death here.”
When the war ended he was in Germany. “I was just so happy to be going home,” he recalled of that day.
In 1957 Staff Sergeant Vaccaro was called by the government to do work for the Atomic Energy Commission in Utah. He also worked for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (and later for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for 36 years), and was a reserve officer in the public health service. He and Martha have been married for 64 years.
Of his overall military experience he said, “I’ve nothing bad to report. I was a lucky guy and had some adventure.”
Staff Sergeant Vaccaro was involved in the the Rhineland Campaign, and the Ardennes Campaign for the Battle of The Bulge during World War II. His awards include the Good Conduct Medal, Victory Medal, American Theater Campaign Ribbon and The European African Middle Eastern Theater Campaign Ribbon.
Staff Sargent Ralph Vaccaro, thank you for your service to our great country.