WWII vets honored with quilts as thank you for service

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Domenick Tutalo and Anthony Piccoline were just 18 years old when they enlisted in the U.S. military during World War II. Neither knew at the time that they would soon participate in two of the most significant battles in history — Tutalo at Iwo Jima and Piccoline at Normandy. And after the fighting was over, they certainly never expected praise for their service.

In fact, even after having years to reflect on his contribution to his country, Tutalo, 91, said he has never really thought about his place in history.

“You had a job to do, and you just did it,” Tutalo told the West Orange Chronicle. “My sergeant used to always say the medals he got and I got were two arms, two legs and a head.”

But the two friends’ loved ones knew that they deserved to be recognized for risking their lives for their nation. So when Tutalo’s sister-in-law sent their names to the Quilts of Valor Foundation, a nonprofit organization for which volunteers sew quilts for veterans and active-duty soldiers as a symbol of gratitude, their families and friends thought it would be a great opportunity to do something in their honor. They gathered at the Elks Lodge No. 1590 on April 10, to see the quilts be formally presented to the two men as an overdue tribute for their heroism.

Piccoline, also 91, said he appreciated being the recipient of such a distinction, saying humbly that it is important for veterans in general to be honored to let them know their service was not in vain.

“A lot of people forget about the vets,” Piccoline, who traveled from his home in Scotch Plains for the ceremony, told the Chronicle just prior to receiving his quilt. “A lot of young people today don’t know what’s going on.”

Yet if any young person asked Piccoline about his tenure as a pharmacist mate striker aboard the USS Texas, he would have a remarkable story to tell. Upon enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1943, the veteran recalled that he was supposed to receive 10 to 12 weeks of training, but only received fewer than five. That meant he learned basically everything at sea, he said.

In addition, his second trip aboard the Texas turned out to be the invasion of Normandy, where he stayed for the duration of the battle. While going into combat after just a few weeks of training would send anyone into a panic, Piccoline said he was not too worried. He explained that his inexperience ended up saving him a lot of stress.

“When you’re 18 years old, you go along with the flow,” Piccoline said with a big smile. “You’re scared, but you don’t know what’s coming.”

As a pharmacist mate striker, it was Piccoline’s job to help care for the wounded, which he had the opportunity to do on the Texas. He said the battleship was hit twice while he was aboard, including one time when a German shell caused part of a fire control periscope to fall and the pilot house deck to collapse, killing one and injuring 10. Despite the fact that the hospital corpsmen were always told to keep the pathways in their quarters cleared so that servicemen could be carried to the sick bay, Piccoline remembered that, at that moment, the paths ended up being pretty crowded. But they still managed to make out OK, he said.

Even with that frightening time, plus the fact that the Texas was quite overcrowded — Piccoline said the ship was only supposed to hold 500 to 600 men but actually took on more than 2,000 during wartime — the veteran said he views his WWII experience as a relatively good one. Having had a friendly unit, tasty food and even the chance to see Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower — though the soldiers were made to wait in the rain to do so, he recalled — the former pharmacist mate striker said he cannot complain. Anyone in the military who fights overseas experiences “hell,” he said, but things could have been a lot worse for him.

“All of us 18-year-olds could’ve been dead at 18,” Piccoline said. “We were very lucky.”

Tutalo also judged himself as lucky — lucky to survive the war and lucky that he was able to serve in the same outfit as two of his cousins, whom he followed into the U.S. Marine Corps. in 1943. Being with them made the experience better, he said, though of course the battlefield is never pleasant. He knows this firsthand; his cousin, Jimmy Zarilla, was killed at Roi-Namur, and was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

Tutalo could have just as easily suffered the same fate fighting throughout the entire duration of Iwo Jima, where he was sent right after turning 20 years old. There he saw action as a flamethrower and demolition man, either igniting or blasting caves using a 70-pound flamethrower or satchel charges whenever he was called to help out a platoon that was pinned down.

For his efforts, the veteran risked death constantly. In the book “Iwo Jima: World War II Veterans Remember the Greatest Battle of the Pacific,” by Larry Smith — one of several books in which Tutalo is featured — Tutalo recalled one engagement that saw a sniper kill nine of his fellow soldiers as they all were coming up the right flank at Iwo Jima. He managed to escape with Sgt. Harlan C. Jeffery by running to a cliff where they could not be hit, staying there the whole night.

Yet in speaking with the Chronicle, Tutalo said he remembers being numb to the horrors he was seeing, more than he was terrified.

“You don’t feel anything,” the more than 60-year West Orange resident said. “Nothing fazes you.”

As part of the 4th Marine Division, Tutalo served with future Hollywood icon Lee Marvin, though he said he never really got to know any of the men in his outfit during the harrows of battle. During the past 40 years of attending reunions, however, he said he has become close with many of them. But their topics of conversation might be different from what one would expect.

“We mostly talk about how they’re raising their family or what job they’re doing,” Tutalo said. “Very seldom do we talk about (the war).”

That was true at home as well, according to Tutalo’s daughter, Linda Dillon. Dillon, who helped organize the awards ceremony, told the Chronicle that she does not remember her father ever speaking about his experiences at Iwo Jima while she was growing up. Indeed, she said the only way she has really been able to learn what he did was reading the books in which he has been featured.

Because he is so humble, Dillon said she was very happy to see Tutalo and his friend Piccoline recognized. And she wishes more people would similarly honor those who have served this nation.

“It doesn’t hurt to say ‘thank you,’” Dillon told the Chronicle in an April 8 phone interview. “It’s not an easy thing that (the veterans) have done.”

That is why Dillon said she has great respect for the mission of Quilts of Valor, which has given 135,369 quilts to soldiers since launching in 2003 and currently has volunteers in all 50 states plus a few countries. Nancy Thomson, QOV’s New Jersey coordinator, is one such volunteer who called it a “privilege” to sew quilts for active servicemen and veterans — including her own son.

While a quilt may seem like an unusual gift for a soldier, Thomson told the Chronicle it really is nice sign of appreciation for those who keep this nation safe.

“A quilt is definitely a labor of love,” Thomson said in an April 7 phone interview, saying that a typical Quilt of Valor takes three to four months to make and often passes between several volunteers, who stitch the different pieces together. “It’s a tactile reminder of how much we value our veterans. A quilt provides warmth and comfort to anyone. To give it to a veteran is a reminder of the love and appreciation we feel for what they’ve done for us.”

New Jersey currently has approximately 100 sewing volunteers, but Thomson said QOV is always looking for more. Since the quilts can be of any design — though they commonly involve the colors red, white and blue — she said one only has to have a passion for quilting and a willingness to donate time and materials to join. After all, she said, there are plenty of opportunities to sew now and in the future.

“There are millions of veterans,” Thomson said. “Our generation can’t handle them all.”

Photos by Sean Quinn