Craig veteran bears witness to D-Day
October 23, 2011
In May 1944, Craig resident Severino "Nic" Nicoletto found himself in Wales recovering from battle fatigue.
He and his shipmates had returned from the Soviet Union and were scheduled to board the RMS Queen Elizabeth for a luxury steam back to the U.S. for shore leave.
Instead, Nicoletto and the rest of his crew found themselves serving in a support role for the largest land, sea and air invasion in the history of modern warfare.
The date was June 6, 1944.
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The place was the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Normandy, France. The invasion is known as D-Day.
But, Nicoletto was not aboard a battleship, cruiser or landing barge. He and his unit had been spread out among three wooden, Mississippi-style showboats.
"I don't know what the purpose of having those boats out there was, maybe to show force in numbers," Nicoletto said. "I thought it was funnier than hell because we were supposed to board the Queen Elizabeth to go home and ended up on an old rickety showboat.
"I guess we were expendable."
The three showboats had been modified by the military with a coal-powered propeller, a 20-millimeter gun situated on the top deck, and one anti-aircraft balloon.
Their mission was to patrol the rear of the invasion and help protect Allied warships from German fighters.
"We couldn't really see what was going on," Nicoletto said of the invasion. "Everywhere you looked all you could see was ships. It was one hell of a big armada."
Although Nicoletto and his comrades couldn't see what was happening, they could hear the damage Allied battleships were inflicting on German targets.
"We could hear our destroyers pumping shell after shell at German locations," Nicoletto said. "They were the unsung heroes of the invasion because they allowed soldiers to land."
Once Allied soldiers broke through German defenses and made their way inland, Nicoletto returned to Wales and boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth bound for Needle Beach, N.Y. Awaiting Nicoletto in the states was a 30-day shore pass, his first wartime break in more than two years.
Nicoletto was born in 1922 in Joffre, Pa., with polio in his left leg and almost no sight in his left eye. The son of Italian immigrants, Nicoletto was a first generation American raised during The Great Depression.
His parents were farmers, which Nicoletto said had its advantages, particularly during the time.
"We raised pigs, chickens and some cows," Nicoletto said. "There really wasn't a shortage for food, but we did struggle with other things."
While Nicoletto's parents succeeded in keeping their son fed, keeping him clothed was more difficult.
In the summer of 1936, before his first year at Union High School in neighboring Burgettstown, Nicoletto's parents took him shopping. He returned home with a new pair of boots two sizes too big, and two pairs of pants that were the same color, one that fit and another pair to grow into.
"Things were so bad," Nicoletto said. "That's just the way it was, that's what we did.
"Those boots did last me all four years of high school though."
Upon receiving his high school diploma in 1940, Nicoletto said college wasn't even on the radar. He joined the Civilian Conservation Corps instead.
The Three Cs, as it was known, was created under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal" to provide young men struggling to find a job during the Great Depression with a variety of skills.
Camps were set up all over the country, including Montana where Nicoletto was sent.
It was during this time that Nicoletto received his education in culinary arts and excelled in cooking and baking classes.
Nicoletto spent about two years with the Three Cs. The camps were ultimately abandoned on Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
"All I remember thinking after Pearl Harbor was we were probably going to war," Nicoletto said. "And we did."
Nicoletto hopped a troop train back to Pennsylvania and took a job with his brother at the Fort Pitt Hotel in Pittsburgh. Considering his own physical limitations, Nicoletto didn't think he would be allowed to enlist in the military, but decided to give it a shot June 7, 1942.
"I went to the Navy office first," Nicoletto said. "I thought I was saving my own butt, but the Navy put me right to work."
Given his cooking experience in the Three Cs, Nicoletto said the enlistment officer offered him a rank as cook third class, and guaranteed him two years of shore duty.
Nicoletto passed on the second part of the deal.
"I told him I wanted to see the world," Nicoletto said.
And see the world he did.
During his years with the Navy, Nicoletto served on four different vessels, rose through the ranks to Chief Commissary Steward, the highest position for a Navy man with his background, and earned distinctions as a "Shellback" for sailing across the Equator and as a "Polar Bear" for participating in an Arctic convoy.
"I guess you could say I got around," Nicoletto said.
Nicoletto spent six months on each ship he served, the first being the USS Terror.
The USS Terror was a minelayer that participated in the U.S. invasion at Casablanca in November 1942.
Nicoletto said boot camp was conducted aboard the ship while it was docked at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. His training lasted all but a few minutes.
The Commissary Steward pulled Nicoletto out of line and brought him down to the kitchen. He began showing Nicoletto the equipment and asking him questions.
"You know your stuff," Nicoletto remembers his commanding officer saying. "See you at 4:30 a.m."
"That was that," Nicoletto said.
After Casablanca, Nicoletto was assigned to the USS PC-1226, a sub chaser.
The USS PC-1226 served as an escort in the North Atlantic and is credited with sinking a German U-Boat during Nicoletto's time on board.
"We never lost a ship in six months," Nicoletto said. "When we came upon the submarine, we dropped a pattern on it (with depth charges) and sank it."
Nicoletto also served aboard the USS Milwaukee, a light cruiser, which was loaned to the Soviet Union's Northern Fleet on April 20, 1944.
It was in the Soviet Union that Nicoletto received his most prized souvenir from the war.
"Chief came up to me and asked if there was anything I wanted," Nicoletto said. "I looked up at the American flag and asked, ‘Can I have that?'"
Nicoletto's final tour took place aboard the USS Donald W. Wolf after the Japanese surrendered in August 1945. It spent most of its time sailing along the Chinese mainland.
Although the USS Wolf never saw action, it did participate in one of the final U.S. operations of the war, the occupation of Korea.
Nicoletto's service ended Nov. 11, 1945, when the USS Wolf docked in San Diego.
He built upon the skills he learned in the Navy and spent his peace time years working in the food industry. He moved to Craig in 1977 to open Village Inn, where he served as head chef until his retirement in 2000.
Nicoletto said he has seen and experienced a lot in his 88 years. Today's hard economic times remind him of hardships experienced when he was young.
"What we're dealing with now is no different from what folks dealt with during the Depression," Nicoletto said. "This is not the time to be proud. Things need to be fixed now just like back then and we put people to work."
Nicoletto believes a resurgence in work relief programs, such as the Three Cs that cemented his career in the culinary industry, could help rebuild today's economy.
"There's nothing wrong with copying what someone else has done in the past," Nicoletto said.