Man saw horrors defending his country in World War II
Eric Petrocco’s mom and dad came from Italy in 1914. Eric grew up in the company-owned mining town of Lime, Colo., and eventually moved to Marble, where he and his father worked in the marble quarry. When World War II broke out Eric, like so many other first generation immigrants, went to defend his newly adopted country. Petrocco joined the Bushmasters, an elite fighting unit with men from nearly two dozen Indian tribes, hundreds of Mexican-Americans and draftees and enlistees from throughout the states. The unit saw heavy action in the Pacific, including campaigns in New Guinea and the Philippines. Petrocco’s assignment as a Bushmaster was to fight his way to Japan. He never expected to come home. Here he talks about one of the first of many suicide missions. Petrocco: Our first day of combat we made an invasion onto this little island of New Britain off the coast of New Guinea. We had been training for this for months, but nothing prepared us for the losses that day. In our company alone we lost 16 men, it was the most unbelievable feeling. I had been through so much with these men and then to lose 16 of them in one day. It was such a terrible feeling. I couldn’t eat. I didn’t want to do anything. It was a terrible feeling. At that time John Wayne was touring with the USO, and he stopped in to visit with us. He had gone to college with our colonel in Arizona. He came to see him and help take our minds off what had happened. He was unbelievable. He was such a great guy. He wanted to go out and join us in combat but the colonel wouldn’t let him, of course. He shook hands with all of us and put on a little show. I thought he was a fantastic guy.Gallacher: Did he help lift your spirits? Petrocco: Yeah, just like he did in the movies. He was a really big strong guy, I guess. We really admired John Wayne. Having him there kinda helped ease the pain. During our time, we got to see a few people who would put on shows for us. And it did help a lot. We would do anything for entertainment. We’d sit out in the pouring rain on our helmets and watch an old movie just for something to do, anything to take our minds off the war.Gallacher: Did you lose friends that day?Petrocco: Oh yeah. I lost close friends that day. It hurts. We were all pretty gung ho after all of our training. But a loss like that changes you in a hurry. You just feel terrible. They put food out for us, but none of us could eat. Everybody was so depressed. It was very bad.But I think the worst experience I had was in New Guinea. Our outfit was supposed to take this place called Samarai. We had a regiment (1,500 to 5,000 soldiers) in there, and we didn’t know who the enemy was at the time, but it turned out to be a division (10,000-16,000 soldiers) of Japanese marines. Of course, we were getting our butts kicked pretty bad.We were supposed to go in and relieve this first battalion that was fighting the division, and there was a river between us and the Japanese marines. So there we were waiting for our orders to go into combat. And while we were waiting there, the litters carrying our guys were coming out of the fight, and they had them stacked up like cordwood. Dead bodies, our American bodies, and we were supposed to go in there. We lost a lot of men.That battle was probably my worst moment of the whole war. The thing I noticed most in combat was their eyes. Those guys coming out of that battle looked so haunted. Everybody had that haunted look almost like an animal. I just can’t describe what that was like. But that is why people don’t talk about it.
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Garfield County libraries will host James Edward Mills in its second event of the spring lecture series for a virtual conversation about changing the faces of the outdoors.