Remembering a time when soldiers were called heroes
BALTIMORE — The nation now arrives at a strange Veteran’s Day holiday when two decorated soldiers, William Taylor and Alexander Vindman, find themselves targeted for slander by America’s commander in chief, Donald Trump, the famous wartime hero of the Battle of Bone Spurs.
Taylor and Vindman prepare to tell the entire country, in open congressional hearings, how this president tried to sell out an entire war-torn country, Ukraine, in order to gain fraudulent political edge. The timing’s unfortunate for marking a date of national remembrance.
So maybe we should celebrate this year’s Veteran’s Day with memories of an earlier conflict, World War II, when those who served in combat were treated like heroes instead of slandered as traitors.
On this Veteran’s Day, I’m remembering three kids out of this city, John Pica and Joe Pizza and John Vicchio, and a kid out of The Bronx named Lionel Olesker, who was my father.
They’re all gone now, but their stories, three-quarters of a century old, still stir the heart.
Pica was one of Maryland’s most decorated soldiers. He won a Silver Star for “heroic gallantry in action” and the Bronze Star for “bravery and valor.”
“It was nothing,” he used to joke. “Every time I ran for my life, they gave me another medal.”
He served with the 34th Infantry Division near Mount Paniano, and volunteered for a hazardous duty mission scouting German defense positions, crossing flat terrain under enemy fire with no trees or rocks to hide behind. He was 20 years old.
As he scrambled back to his own troops, Pica heard a man moaning. It was an American officer who had wandered into a minefield, set off an explosion, and lost his eyesight and one of his legs. Through bursting shells, an exhausted Pica carried the officer for six hours until they reached safety.
Then there was Joe Pizza, barely out of his teens, who landed at Normandy on D-Day. “Terrified, like everybody else,” he used to say. “And never imagined I’d ever see home again.”
So terrified, in fact, that when he waded ashore under heavy shelling, he realized he’d left his rifle back on the landing craft. So he turned to the nearest soldier, lying lifeless on the beach, and grabbed that man’s weapon and moved on.
And there was John Vicchio, who was a high school kid watching the old Pathe News at the Parkway Theater at North Avenue and Charles Street one day during the war.
On the movie screen, American infantrymen were charging along hedgerows. It was a full, dead-on shot into their faces – and one of the faces was Nick Balzano’s, from Vicchio’s neighborhood around 23rd Street.
Then came a scream from the theater balcony. Decades later, Vicchio’s voice still trembled as he told the story. It was Nick Balzano’s teenage sister Annie, stunned and screaming at the big-screen sight of her brother heading straight into hell.
Vicchio was 16 that day in the theater. A few months later, he dropped out of school, lied about his age, and went off to the fighting.
Like so many veterans, my father was always reluctant to talk about his war. At 18, he joined the Army Air Force the day after Pearl Harbor. On his first combat mission, somewhere over Eastern Europe, shrapnel burst all around his plane.
It blew off his co-pilot’s head. In the next seat, the pilot was knocked out by the blast. In the level above, the engineer, looking down, lost control and screamed into the plane’s radio so shrilly that it came out as incomprehensible static. In the back of the plane, men scrambled about as shrapnel burst through walls near them.
My father was a gunner. When I finally got him to talk a little about his war, and that awful first flight, he said he could still picture sunlight streaming through all the holes in the plane where shrapnel had hit.
The morning after that mission, he and his crew were off on another bomb run.
We remember such men as the nation marks Veterans Day. They served their country, the same as William Taylor and Alexander Vindman. They came home to families grateful they had survived. Some were called heroes. Back then, nobody dared call such men traitors – especially not their commander in chief.
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.
One thought on “Remembering a time when soldiers were called heroes”
Great article. I read about a vet who cried himself to sleep every night. His doctor said his patient was 87.