When Angelo C. Ianni arrived at Fort Niagara for processing into World War II, the draftee took notice of other 18-year-olds who were crying.
They were homesick, he realized.
“You have to understand that back in those days people never left their own communities. Many of these young men had never been away from home,” said Ianni.
He did not cry then, but he did later for those he watched die horrible deaths.
A hard life in the farming community of Oakfield prepared him for the strenuous work the military expected of him in stringing and repairing communication lines, he said.
“We’d dig holes by hand to put up 35-foot-high poles, climb them and string cables. Once we got the switchboards working and the lines operating, the Army would dismantle everything,” he said. “That’s how they trained us. Poles could snap in battles.”
To appreciate Ianni’s do-whatever-it-takes work ethic, you have to know a bit more of his background. When he was 14, he started working summers at the Haxton Food cannery, sometimes putting in 100-hour weeks for five cents an hour.
“The longest day I ever worked was 21½ hours. That was when I was promoted and ran a line. Farmers brought in their vegetables, say peas, and they were pitchforked onto a conveyer belt into the plant where this incredible machine split open the shells so the peas came out.
“Workers then cleaned out anything that didn’t belong, and the peas were put in cans and cooked. But you couldn’t have them cook too long in the big steam vats. It spoiled them. After that, the cans were cooled in this canal of water and transported to the warehouse where they were boxed,” he said.
Ianni did not mind the long, hard hours of work in preparation for his 18 months in the Pacific Theater.
What he did mind was his 30-day voyage across the Pacific.
“The seas were so rough that the ship was just a mess with vomit and whatever you can imagine. One time we had a Japanese submarine alert, and everyone had to go on deck, but I was too sick to get out of bed. This officer said, ‘Soldier, you have to go up.’ I said, ‘To hell I will. Let the ship go down.’ He said, ‘What did you say.’ I said, ‘To hell I will go up.’ ”
The officer relented and let him stay.
Angelo C. Ianni, 93
Branch: Army Air Force
War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater
Years of service: 1942 – 1945
Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal
Specialty: telephone and telegraph installation/repair
Among the islands he was stationed at was Tinian, an airbase for bombers.
“One morning we had just woken up in our tent and there was a loud explosion. A three-foot by three-foot chunk of smoldering metal hit a bunk that a guy had just gotten out of, a couple bunks down from me.
“We ran out of the tent to a dugout. What happened was one of our planes was trying to take off and had crashed into a pile of excess coral that was used to build runways. The problem was the plane was weighed down by its bomb load and couldn’t clear the pile.
“Those poor crew members were all blown to bits. When we went back to our tent, that chunk of metal turned out to be a piece of the plane’s engines, and it had landed in our tent even though we were about two football fields away.”
Other times he watched from the tarmac as bombers limped home from bombing runs with engines failing, wings and fuselage torn up.
“You’d be amazed at how some planes still managed to fly with half a wing missing and cables hanging.
"Some planes made it safely and others caught fire after crash-landing. I’d help pull the crews out.”
At times, he was moved to prayer when there was nothing else that could be done.
“I remember this guy was so burned up, he looked like he’d been on a charcoal grill, burnt from head to foot,” Ianni recalled and started to weep.
The horror of war also included cliffs where people had leapt to their deaths.
“They were afraid of the Americans. I went and looked along the shore where some of them had jumped and saw skulls and bones,” Ianni said.
And though it was war and he had seen the aftermath of American ships sunk in the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, he said the sight of the bones from innocent civilians troubled him.
“I had learned that there were husband and wives and whole families who had jumped to their deaths. They were civilians. They weren’t the enemy,” he said, explaining that the enemy had spread false stories that if the Americans captured them, they could expect to be brutalized.
Other times, he came across the remains of Japanese soldiers when he and other GIs searched caves where the enemy had died.
“There were skeletons in them, and one time we found Japanese coins and canteens. But when we came out of the cave and were standing in front of it, about six feet off the ground, someone started shooting at us. It turned out it was the Japanese. We jumped down and ran to our weapons truck. We almost got killed.”
But all was not grim.
“On New York’s Day morning, an officer came to our tent and said, ‘Corporals Ashley and Ianni report to my tent.’ I thought here we go. We expected to be put on duty. I was head lineman. So we went to the tent and this officer was with three others.
“He said, ‘I’m glad to get you guys. You guys did a good job for me, and I’ve been saving my bottles of liquor for six months.’ So anyway, he gets a regular drinking glass and fills it to the top. I took one sip and said, ‘Jeez, I can’t drink this on an empty stomach. Do you have a chaser?’
“He gave Ashley the keys to his Jeep and told him to go down to the commissary and get some chaser.
"About an hour later, Ashley comes back. I’d been sipping on the whiskey, and by that time wasn’t interested in a chaser.”
Ianni also witnessed the prelude to one of WWII’s biggest moments. He had been told to check communication lines on one of the runways when he noticed a B-29 parked away from the other planes.
A truck pulled up to the bomber with a ball-shaped object in tow and military police guarding it.
“I asked someone what that was and he told me, ‘That’s a blockbuster.’
“I asked, ‘For Japan?’
“He said, ‘Yes.’
“I asked, ‘Just one?’
“He said, ‘Yes.’ ”
As it turned out, it was the first of two atomic bombs that would be dropped on Japan.
Ianni says the results meant he could return home.
He worked for years at a number of jobs before landing one at the Sylvania plant in Batavia, where his wife, Wilma, also worked.
“I was there for 27 years, and then they moved to Mexico. I lost my job at 58 years old. I went to work with my nephew building homes. It could have been worse. I could have been older,” he said.
“Eventually, I built my own home.”
At 93 years old, Ianni says he is enjoying retirement, though it has its disappointments.
“In the space of 18 months, a little over a year ago, I lost my brother and 11 different friends.”
But one aspect of life that time has not taken from him are his war memories.
“Sometimes at night, they wake me up.”