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For son of immigrants, hardship on homefront serves as prelude to war in Pacific

Eugene A. Piccione’s early life was filled with hard times. It was a fight just to survive.

His parents had come to America from Italy in search of a better life. But when the Great Depression hit, Samuel Piccione lost his job in the coal mines of New Castle, Pa.

Eugene, the second-youngest of the family’s 10 children, left school to work at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Sheffield, Pa.

“I was 15 at the time, and we did everything there. We helped build roads, plant trees and we even built a fish hatchery,” the 91-year-old veteran recalls. Almost all of the money he earned was sent home to help his parents pay the bills.

Two of Piccione’s older sisters married and moved to Buffalo, sending word back to New Castle that there was work here. That was all the family needed to hear. Most of them soon relocated to the West Side, eager for employment.

But the jobs did not pay all that much, and Eugene decided to pass on high school, choosing to be in the trenches of the work world helping his loved ones and supporting the homefront effort in World War II.

He worked a night job operating a lathe at Curtiss-Wright’s aircraft factory on Kenmore Avenue. And it just so happened his girlfriend, Carmela Guzzino, worked the day shift there, serving in the iconic role of a Rosie the Riveter.

After Piccione turned 18, he realized that his battle for survival would demand more than just earning money. America was fighting for its own survival on two fronts – Europe and Asia. Toughened by his experiences of standing up to life’s challenges, Piccione decided to enlist. He wanted to serve in the Navy, an unlikely option if he waited to be drafted. Charlie Genovese, his friend and neighbor, also was not keen on serving in the Army, and so after a little encouragement from Piccione, the buddies joined the Navy and were on their way to the Pacific.

“Charlie was stationed on an aircraft carrier and would go up in the planes and take photographs. I was assigned to the USS Leedstown and served as a gunner for one of its LCMs that were used to land troops on the islands we were invading,” Piccione says, referring to the landing craft, mechanized. “The troops would climb down rope ladders from the bigger ship into LCMs. When we dropped off one load of troops, we went back and got another load.”

This type of operation could go on for days, depending on how long it took to secure the island. Participating in these invasions is something not easily forgotten by Piccione, even with the passage of seven decades.

Piccione remembers them all – the Marshall Islands campaign, the invasion of Guam, the invasion of Peleliu; and in the Philippines, the invasions of Leyte and Luzon. Then there was the massive invasion of Iwo Jima. After that, the Leedstown served as a backup for the invasion of Okinawa.

“I saw a lot of death, Americans and Japanese,” he said.

But the saddest involved his friend Charlie Genovese. Piccione learned of it during a short leave back in the States while the Leedstown was docked in California for repairs. Details were few, but there was no question: Charlie had been killed in the Pacific.

“I felt bad. I had talked Charlie into joining with me,” Piccione says.

Receiving the news back home, he says, was worse than if he had gotten it on a ship in the of middle combat “when death was all around you.”

But the war in the Pacific soon ended after the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. For a time, the Leedstown delivered occupation troops to Japan. At the end of Piccione’s enlistment, he was diagnosed with a hernia believed to have been caused by loading ships. He was sent to Sampson Naval Base at Seneca Lake for surgery, before being honorably discharged in March 1946. And that November, he married Carmela, who had continued to work at Curtiss-Wright throughout the war.

Piccione made a career of working at the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna before retiring after 35 years of service. He and his wife raised two children, and have six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

To him, World War II affected not only those on the front lines, but the folks back home.

“They stopped making cars. Sugar, butter and gasoline were rationed. They stopped making refrigerators. Everything went towards the war,” Piccione recalls. “The wars now aren’t any easier on the troops fighting them, but they are easier on the people back home.”

Eugene A. Piccione, 91

Hometown: New Castle, Pa.

Residence: Town of Tonawanda, formerly of Buffalo’s West Side

Branch: Navy

Rank: Coxswain

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1942-46

Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with six battle stars, World War II Victory Medal

Specialties: Gunner, landing craft operator