Phillip T. Paonessa Sr., 95
Hometown: Niagara Falls
War zone: Europe
Years of service: 1942-45
Rank: Private first class
Most prominent honors: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with seven campaign ribbons
By Lou Michel
News Staff Reporter
After graduating from Trott Vocational High School in the late 1930s, a young Phillip T. Paonessa worked in Niagara Falls during a time when jobs were plentiful.
Later, when he returned home from World War II, one of those jobs put him in the same taxi with a woman who had sent him a “Dear John” letter while he was overseas. But there are a lot of miles to cover before getting to that story.
Paonessa’s first job after high school was at International Paper Co. on Buffalo Avenue, earning 49 cents an hour. Always ambitious, he quit the paper mill to take a better paying job at Oldbury Chemical Co., also on Buffalo Avenue, where he earned 69 cents an hour.
Then, in 1942, Uncle Sam put a hold on his career advancement, summoning him to serve in Europe.
It took 13 days in a massive convoy to cross the Atlantic. The rocking of his ship in the ocean’s swells, he said, wreaked havoc on his, well, digestive abilities. But there were bigger worries to be concerned about when they cruised into the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa and their first port, in Algeria.
“The German planes were strafing us a lot in Oran. We had all these air bags floating above the port to fend off the Germans from dive bombing us,” the 95-year-old Paonessa recalls. “It was kind of shaky. We had buildings with deep cellars where we took cover.”
No one he knew died in the attacks, he says, “but a lot of the civilian population was killed.”
Soon, the 301st Quartermaster Company was sailing to Italy.
“It took us three days to get across the Mediterranean,” he says, “and I remember that there were Arabs fighting with us, and they had brought their goats onto the boats to make cheese with the goat milk.”
After landing in Naples, the quartermaster company immediately started transporting ammunition and food to the front lines.
“We were mostly afraid of being strafed by German planes, and a couple of times, it happened,” he says. “I remember jumping off a truck, and my foot caught a strapping that was across the back of the truck, and I fell on my knee. I was put in a field hospital for a couple days and then returned to my company.”
After the Germans gave up Rome, Paonessa and his fellow troops headed by boat to southern France for that invasion.
“We got through Marseille safely and headed all the way up to Paris, which had already been liberated,” he recalls. “Then we went into Germany. That was a little rough. I was in Cologne, and it had been blown all to hell. All I recall is a church steeple standing. The rest of the city was rubble.”
He also served in the German cities of Stuttgart and Frankfurt.
“That’s when the war ended; it felt pretty damn good,” he says. “We all felt that way at the time.”
Returning to his hometown, he soon married Mary A. Sofia, and they raised four children.
For 13 years, Paonessa supported his family as a bus driver with Niagara Frontier Transit, driving various routes in the Falls. In 1962, he changed careers, serving as a state park police officer for 26 years before retiring in 1988.
Oh, and what about the woman to whom he’d given his heart, only to be jilted after going off for war?
Always looking to get ahead, Paonessa also worked a part-time job as a cabdriver when he first returned to civilian life, says his son, Phil Jr.
Paonessa’s first fare, the son says, was to pick up a woman at a small grocery store downtown.
“When he looked up at the fare, it happened to be Ellen. She started crying and told him how sorry she was,” the son says. “I told Dad that years ago, a man called Harry Chapin wrote a song that reminded me of what happened to him. Ellen is now deceased.”
The song, of course, is “Taxi,” and its most famous line is “Harry, keep the change.”
So did Paonessa’s former fiancée tell him to keep the change? Phil Jr. says, “I asked Dad if she said, ‘Keep the change,’ and he said he couldn’t remember.”