Name: John Culotta
Date of Birth: April 27, 1920
Birth Place: Melrose Park, IL
War: World War II
Dates of Service: 1943 – 1946
Prisoner of War: No
Okay, today we’re speaking with John Culotta. John was born in Melrose Park, IL on April 27, 1920 and he’s lived in Melrose Park his entire life. John served with the United States Coast Guard during WWII from the years 1943 through 1946 and he achieved the rank of Seaman First Class. Today is November 9, 2007 and this is Fidencio Marbella at the Melrose Park Public Library. We’re also with Heidi Krug, a Reference Librarian at the Melrose Park Public Library. This interview is being conducted for the Veteran’s History Project at the Library of Congress. Okay, let’s go ahead and get started. John, why don’t you tell us when and where you were born.
I was born in Melrose Park on 24th Avenue between Lake and Main, 1920, April 27.
Tell us about your parents, what was their occupation and can you tell us a little about your siblings?
My mother was born in Louisiana and my dad came from Sicily, Cefalu. I believe my dad came here in 1913 or maybe a little bit earlier and he was in Mississippi, he had a store in Mississippi that didn’t pan out to good and he came out to Melrose looking for a job. He had a reference from other people that had been here, that work was abundant in Chicago. He had worked for the Northwestern Railroad, Northern Gas and finally wound up in Oak Park for twenty-nine and a half years with the, I’ll say, the village maintenance crew. Mother was a housewife and I had two brothers and two sisters.
Okay, why don’t you tell us how you ended up joining the Coast Guard? What made you decide to join that branch of the armed services?
I didn’t decide on joining the Coast Guard. I went to join the Navy but my weight didn’t make the grade. I only weighed about 110 pounds and I finally, from the Navy recruiting station they sent me to the Army station where I was rejected and I was rejected by the Marine Corps, but I guess they needed help in the Coast Guard, so I finally ended up in the Coast Guard. I didn’t volunteer. The first time when I went to volunteer my weight kept me down and finally when I got my orders to go I was taken away, I was about 112 pounds at that time.
Now, once you joined the Coast Guard, where did you first end up going for training?
When I entered the Coast Guard I wound up at Manhattan Beach, NY. I stayed there for boot training. I think it was about three and a half months and then I was shipped to Fort Robinson, NE and I spent four months there training dogs.
What was the deal with dogs for the Coast Guard?
Dogs were mainly trained to ferret out people coming across or sneaking in the country and also we guarded water stations, ammunition dumps, airports, air bases, radio stations, whatever.
I want to go back a little bit to Camp Manhattan in NY. What was boot camp like? How did you adapt to that?
Well, it was a whole new experience for me; I had never been away from home. We’re up at four o’clock in the morning, went about a block away to get a shower, get ready. Six o’clock we mustered, then we went for breakfast and at eight o’clock we went for different training for school and whatnot.
What was your schooling like? What kind of classes did they have for you?
We had classes in fire protection, which was, they really indulged in that part of the education as far as fire. I guess in preparation for being onboard ship.
Did you have any kind of favorite classes or favorite things that you learned when you were in Manhattan?
At Manhattan? Not really, it was routine. Up every morning at four o’clock. Six o’clock muster, breakfast and classes, and then also training, army training.
What was the army training like?
Oh, marching, saluting, preparation for occasions such as Fourth of July and whatnot.
So you mentioned you went from Manhattan, NY to Robinson, NE.
Did they ship you by train?
How long a ride was that? What was that like? Traveling across the country like that?
At that time it took three days. We went by train and then from the train we were in a cattle truck. We were transported from the train station to the fort in a cattle truck.
How come they used a cattle truck? Was there no other transportation?
It was a semi.
Did you at least have a place to sit down?
How long a ride was it?
About an hour ride.
So in Nebraska, you trained the guard dogs.
And how long were you in Fort Robinson?
Once you were finished with your training of the dogs where were you assigned after that?
From Fort Robinson we went to Jacksonville, FL and from Jacksonville, FL they took us to an airbase and I was at the airbase and I had two dogs and finally gave up one. I had a Doberman pinscher and a brindle bull. I kept the bulldog.
Now these were the guard dogs for providing security?
These were attack dogs.
What were their names? Do you remember?
The pinscher was Buster and I kept Starchy, the bulldog.
Were you actually assigned then to base security with the dogs or was it more training for you?
We had, the Coast Guard was mainly there for protection. That’s where we guarded the radio stations, the water stations – municipal – ammunition dumps. Most of the time we were in the boondocks. At that time Florida was not very well developed. I’m talking about going to swamp areas where they had a radio station set up in the swamp area and we’d stay. Get there in the morning and stay for a day or two and then we’d be relieved every second day. At the ammunition dump it was right on the airbase, at the end of the airbase and we’d be there a whole day or a whole night.
Now when you weren’t on duty what did you do in Florida? Was there anything to do?
Yes, they had a swimming pool. At that time I was able to swim the length of the pool fourteen times and mostly the fellows played cards. We played double-deck pinochle, sometimes twenty-four hours without a break.
Now, what was the unit you were actually assigned to?
Just the Coast Guard unit.
Didn’t have a unit number like the army does?
No. We were a separate unit and mainly at the beginning when we first got there we were under the jurisdiction of the Marines and after about three weeks we had our own separate barracks and our own unit.
Now did they give you any kind of firearms training, weapons training?
Yes, we went on training as far as machine guns, Thompson machine gun, .45 caliber handguns and I mainly carried on duty, I carried a .38 revolver.
So you were basically the Coast Guard’s police force?
So you were in Florida then. How long were you there?
I was in Florida for two years.
Now was this pretty much throughout the state or just certain parts of Florida?
No, I was at the airbase for two years.
This is the one in Jacksonville?
No, this was at Green Coast Springs.
Did you have any incidents happen there while you were on guard duty?
Well, I was in one hurricane. I was out in the airbase on the field when we had a hurricane and my dog was jittery. We watched the palm trees flying through the air and it was kind of scary, the first time I had ever was in a hurricane, but we didn’t get very much damage. Also on the airbase I watched planes come in at night, during the nighttime watched some of them come in without wheels and skid along the runway, just like the Fourth of July. Luckily none of them burst into flames while I was there.
Were these like training accidents?
Yeah, all training.
Do you remember what kind of planes they were that flew out of these bases, were they all Navy, Coast Guard maybe?
All Navy planes. Now I can’t think of the name.
Green Coast Springs was mainly a naval training base for pilots to go overseas?
Did you ever meet any of the fliers?
What were they like?
On one of my days off we had an opportunity to take a plane ride, that was in a B, well it was a bomber. I forgot what type of bomber, it was a small bomber and we flew over the coast. We went from Green Coast Springs, we went to a base in I believe it was North Carolina. We just stopped for some reason, I don’t know what particular reason they had for stopping there, we took off and came back to the airbase. Just something different for the day, that’s all.
Was that the first time you ever flew in a plane or had you flown previously?
No, that’s the first time I was ever in an airplane.
What was that like for you?
Well, it wasn’t too bad except the hatch to get in with the machine gunner in the belly or the rear tail gunner was in a plastic bubble and it was kind of scary for me flying for the first time and see the guys sitting there with a machine gun.
Did you have fun though, did you enjoy the ride?
Yeah, the ride didn’t bother me except for going down into those glass bubbles, I had, you know it didn’t seem too safe to me.
So then you were in Florida for two years, what happened after that?
From Florida I was shipped to, they figured there was no need to have much security at the base, they had army personnel there also doing guard duty so the whole unit was shipped to Norfolk and from Norfolk I was shipped to Berkeley, I believe it’s all in Maryland. I was stationed at Maryland for a few months. I went on leave for ten days and when I came back my unit had been transferred and most of the guys were on ships already. I was put into a barracks where they mostly were hardened sea guys and it was kind of rough for a greenhorn seaman, but one of the guys kind of befriended me and took me and we went to Southampton I believe it was for one of the evenings. Getting around was kind of bad in Norfolk so I mainly spent my time at the base.
Was this Virginia, Norfolk, Virginia?
I believe that’s it, yeah.
You mentioned earlier about going on leave for ten days. Did you come back home when you were on leave?
I came home, yes. I came home and spent ten days at home and like I said when I came back my unit was busted up and they all had shipped out. I had, for about a month I was put in charge of waking up personnel for duty for the day and we served in the what we would call a galley but at this, there was just a, like a large restaurant where we worked in the back, cleaning shrimp and whatever. Messy job!
So you had KP for a little while?
Yes, I was in charge of seven guys and I had to wake them up in the morning and make sure they all got there on time and then they gave us instructions as to what to do. We worked until noon and then we had lunch and we helped serve food and whatnot and we worked until 4:30 and after 4:30 we were on our own.
That’s a pretty long day.
So what would you do when you were off duty?
I went out one time when I was in Norfolk We went down the main street and we started to go on a side street and the security came up and told us we’re not allowed to go off the main street so we went back on the main street and stopped in a tavern and had a few drinks and then we stopped in a restaurant to have a bite to eat and we sat there for about a half hour and the attendant that was there didn’t want to serve us so we had to leave.
Why was that?
They didn’t want you around.
Were you the wrong branch of the service?
No. No, that’s the way it was. There were so many servicemen there and they had so much, I would say they had difficulty with some of the guys that became intoxicated and they had the MPs there to keep you on the main road and keep you moving.
Doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.
No, they didn’t want you there. They didn’t want you there, they wouldn’t serve you.
So this was about what, 1945 by then?
Right. The middle of ’45. No wait a minute, early ’45. From, I went back one time and they sent this, a group of us to this office where we got instructions and I went on board ship.
What ship was this, do you remember?
Destroyer Escort 325, the name was Lowe, L-O-W-E.
That’s a pretty small ship then, destroyer escorts.
It was, yeah, it was one of the smaller, three hundred footer I think it was.
How long were you on the Lowe?
Seven months. I was onboard ship for seven months and we went up and down the coast. We went around Cape Hatteras and Christmas Eve we never thought we were going to make it. There was a storm brewing and we went though a hurricane and we had to have our lifeline and tie ourselves down when we were on duty outside.
To avoid getting washed overboard?
What were the ship’s responsibilities at this time? Was it mainly to detect submarines?
Well, thinking of it today it seemed foolish, but at that time we had to watch out for other ships and there came an incident one time in the peaceful, we were up around New York and one of the fellows hollered “Submarine!” and he thought it was a periscope and we come to find out it was a mop somebody had thrown over. But you never know so they just called an alert.
So the Lowe basically protected the east coast against submarine threats?
Was it ever assigned to convoy duty? The Lowe?
No. I was lucky. I got out in the ocean and I actually, I don’t believe that I, this one time I got a little sick, seasick from land swells, but we never encountered anything as far as our ship was concerned while I was on but they gave us a movie and showed us what had happened to our sister ship that had been blown all to pieces, fellows laying on the deck all mangled and everything. That’s about it. That’s about the worst I’ve seen as far as getting into actual battle. I was very lucky.
So how did you like being on a ship for seven months?
Well, it wasn’t bad. I was fortunate. I got to be an attendant for the chiefs. There were eight chiefs and it was my duty to make sure the coffeepot was full at all times, the refrigerator was full and kept the place clean. It was very good duty. I was on from six until four and after four I was on my own unless something came up where they had a meeting or something and I had to go down and make coffee and make sure, but I was pre-warned that there was something doing.
Did you have other assignments on the ship? Like what was your post during battle stations?
No, like I said I was fortunate. The first month aboard ship I was chipping and scraping and painting and after that after I got assigned to the chief’s quarters, why I had it very easy.
What were your shipmates like?
Well we had one fellow, a little Polish fellow about, I would say 5’6” and very stocky that was a real comedian and he kept the guys going and the worse the weather was, the happier he was, singing and clowning around.
So he kept you all pretty much relaxed?
Oh yeah, he was a nice guy.
Now were you at sea when you found out about the end of the war in Europe or were you on land by then?
I was aboard the ship but towards the end what we did was train officers. And we came in, I think the last month that I was aboard ship we came into port and we had orders to stay in port and we’d have these officers come aboard and they’d be in various parts of the ship learning what to do if they had to go out on sea duty. And the last month we went in and out of the port everyday. We’d go out. They’d have training maneuvers and then we’d go back in. Let’s see, I was here and we finally wound up taking the ship to, back to Green Coast Springs to be decommissioned. I got out on points. I had enough points. Had to wait my turn but I got out early.
So were you there? Did they have some kind of decommissioning ceremony for the ship?
No I wasn’t there for that.
You were gone already?
We just brought the ship back to Green Coast Springs and they had them all tied up side by side.
Now you were discharged in ’46? 1946?
Right, April of ’46.
How did you get home from Florida?
From Florida I went by train and I was shipped to Detroit, MI and from Detroit, MI I was separated and came home on a train. I came home to Chicago and found my way back to Melrose Park.
Did your family know that you were coming?
Yeah, I had sent a letter ahead of time, that I had enough points but I just had to wait for my turn.
So what was it like coming home? When you actually got to your house was your whole family there? Friends, was anybody there to greet you?
My, yeah, the whole, my brother and sisters, my brother had been discharged ahead of me and he was at home and my mother was the happiest one. Dad just took it in stride.
Now how was it like for you to readjust to life outside of the military? Was it difficult? Did you have any problem with the transition?
No, I was used to working. I started working when I was seven. You might not believe this but I actually had a paper route when I was seven years old. By the time I was eight I was out selling perfume, ten cents a bottle. I earned money to buy my first toy, which was a wooden wagon and I just kept busy. I always had a job. I’d stayed home for about two and a half months after I got out of the service I didn’t go to work, I just bummed around with some of my friends, got together and had a little fun. That’s about it. We walked everywhere we went.
So after the two and a half months you decided, okay it’s time to get back to work.
After two and a half months I went back to my old job, yeah.
What was your old job?
Well, I was a, had been an apprentice in a tool shop. I was a machinist and I went back to work and we decided on wages, but after a month I learned that what I was making would never be enough so I had to find a different job and I went to work for Solar-Sturges which was in the town next to Melrose Park in Bellwood and I worked there for almost ten years. I got married in the meantime. I was on my own.
Okay, just to wrap it up, serving in the military, had that affected your life in the future, after you served? Did it somehow affect your outlook on life?
Well, at the present time we’re at war with Iraq and it kind of gets me when I go to the VA and I see the veterans not as fortunate as I was and it kind of bothers me quite a bit. It’s something that you see and you can’t forget. Especially when I visit the VA once in a while and I just can’t go back.