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Cutchogue veteran headed to reunion of WWII battleship Indiana

04/13/2017 6:00 AM |

Mountainous waves crashed down on the battleship U.S.S. Indiana as it sailed with the 3rd Fleet off the coast of Japan in early June 1945. A powerful storm, which had grown stronger after separating from a previous typhoon, had rapidly advanced northeast toward the fleet. Multiple attempts to change course couldn’t alter the ship’s fate: a typhoon, with w inds whipping at 80 knots, landed directly above the 680-foot war vessel.

Aboard the ship that day was signalman Albert Vicarelli, a teenager from College Point, Queens. He had joined the U.S. Navy at age 17 during the height of World War II.

The ship came to a standstill as water flooded the engine room; a catapult-launched plane called a Kingfisher snapped off and disappeared into the water. Mr. Vicarelli had been assigned the top of six bunks in the sleeping quarters; he couldn’t sleep for two days. The young sailors on the ship could only pray.

At one point, the ship tilted to almost 26 degrees, dangerously close to capsizing and imperiling the lives of more than 2,000 sailors. Mr. Vicarelli had never imagined the ship might overturn until that moment.

“I’ll never forget it,” he recalled in an interview. “We almost turned over.”

By the time the typhoon passed, 36 ships had been damaged, including the Indiana. But the ship survived, just as it had withstood kamikaze strikes and multiple battles since it was launched Nov. 21, 1941, just 16 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Later this month, Mr. Vicarelli, now 90, will travel to Newport News, Va., for the 2017 reunion of the U.S.S. Indiana. Only a few men remain who served aboard the ship, which was decommissioned in September 1947. Mr. Vicarelli, who has spent close to six decades of his life in Cutchogue, said his son-in-law, Arthur Connolly of Mattituck, will join him on the journey. This year’s reunion, the first in a few years, will coincide with another momentous occasion: the christening of a new U.S.S. Indiana.

The Virginia class submarine will be the third ship to be named after the 19th state. The nuclear powered sub’s christening on April 29 at Newport News Shipbuilding will continue a tradition that dates back to 1797 with the U.S.S. Constitution in Boston, according to the Indiana Commissioning Committee.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Mr. Vicarelli said. “There’s a few guys I’ll be glad to see.”

The U.S.S. Indiana bombarding Kamaishi, Japan on July 14, 1995. (Credit: U.S. Navy)

Mr. Vicarelli, the son of Italian immigrants, spent the majority of his time in the Navy as a signalman, which meant specializing in visual communication. The ships would rely on the signalman to relay key messages. After the war he became a member of the Marine Corps, serving as a master sergeant. His military career spanned nearly three decades, he said.

He and his wife, Joan, married in 1952 and had two children, Kenny and Lorraine. Mr. Vicarelli said he splits his time now between the North Fork and Connecticut, where his one grandson lives.

Mr. Connolly, who recently retired from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said he always looks forward to hearing Mr. Vicarelli share stories from his time during the war.

“I’m sure [the trip] is going to trigger some memories from Al about the old Indiana,” he said.

Mr. Connolly said it’s vital to remember the sacrifices made by the servicemen and to understand just how devastating the war was.

“Every war is horrible,” he said, “but that was truly a world war and I don’t think people realize the significance of it.”

Mr. Vicarelli remains spry; he still drives and remembers vivid details of his time aboard the Indiana. For example, there was the time he dove down into an air duct as a Japanese plane dropped a torpedo toward the ship. Somehow, the torpedo didn’t go off and left only a dent in the side of the ship. The kamikazes were always a threat, he said, estimating that the ship shot down at least 25 kamikaze planes.

The Indiana, which had a top cruising speed of just under 28 knots, was equipped with a bevy of weapons. As planes approached, they were met with quad 40 mm Bofors guns. The deck would fill with shells as the weapon rapid-fired. The next layer of defense were the 20 mm Oerlikon cannons. One plane that had been shot down came crashing down so close to the ship, Mr. Vicarelli said, that he could see the pilot, who appeared to already be dead.

At 8:05 a.m. on Aug. 15, 1945, the Indiana’s crew received word of the Japanese surrender.

“I knew it was over because we had the largest armada of aircraft,” he said. “There was over 1,000 planes going in to bomb Japan. They hadn’t surrendered yet. Then they got up in front of the ship and they dropped the bombs all in the water. I started a rumor, the war must be over.”

As he stood on the bridge a short time later — the war now confirmed as over — his chief signalman told him to report to the sergeant in charge of the marine detachment. He was being transferred to the 4th Reinforced Combat Regiment of the 6th Marine Division.

His mission was to join a team that would make up the landing force at Yokosuka. As part of the agreement with the Japanese, white flags were placed at every gun emplacement.

“There must have been 1,000 flags,” said Mr. Vicarelli, who was among the first Americans on Japanese soil after the war.

Mr. Vicarelli shows one of his logs, which is open to the page for March 21, 1945. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

He teamed up with a Marine named Teddy Styrzo and part of their job was to damage or dismantle the guns. At one point, they stumbled across a large building that contained hundreds of miniature submarines, which were like torpedoes guided by one or two men. They later encountered three Japanese soldiers, who raised their arms in surrender. It was beginning to get late and the two didn’t know what to do with the soldiers. They spent the night awake, keeping an eye on them. The next morning, they found a squad of Marines with a lieutenant. They left the prisoners with the Marines and continued on their mission.

“They were walking along and he said, ‘We just kept walking and walking and they kept eating our food,’ ” Mr. Connolly said. “He said, “Finally, we run into these big pile of Marines, and we say, they’re all yours!’ ”

All these years later, Mr. Vicarelli still has mementos from his time in Japan and aboard the Indiana: a small Japanese flag, the weaponry shells, a rifle and logs from the ship that documented details about day-to-day activities. His uniform from the Marines remains pressed as if ready to be worn at a moment’s notice.

As he approaches the upcoming reunion, Mr. Vicarelli acknowledged that while he still feels great, his time may be short. The stories of the U.S.S. Indiana are left to a select few.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said.

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Mr. Vicarelli holds a Japanese flag he recovered in Japan shortly after World War II ended. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

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