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Years Later, War Still on His Mind

September 03, 2000|STEVE CHAWKINS

Pat Colecchio trained his binoculars on the momentous scene: Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and a host of Allied brass standing rigidly on the deck of the Missouri, preparing to sign the document ending World War II.

He didn't cheer. Nobody cheered. Sailors on the dozens of vessels bobbing in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, were as still as their bombers, as silent as their big guns. On the turret of a neighboring battleship 100 yards away, Colecchio handed the binoculars to his buddy and articulated the day's most urgent and immediate message: "Marty, we're going home alive."

Fifty-five years later, the moment lives on. At 19, Colecchio was a scrappy kid from Jersey City who had managed to make it whole through some of the war's fiercest naval battles. He would go on to become a bookie, a boxing reporter, manager of a women's shoe store in Beverly Hills, a theatrical producer, an agent, manager of the rock group the Association and a Hollywood player who invested in race horses with the likes of Walter Matthau and John Forsythe.

These days, he sits in his Ventura apartment, tending to bits of business and tapping out his memoirs. Like many older veterans, he didn't talk much about his war experiences until recently. But then there was "The Greatest Generation" and the flood of belated gratitude for those who served, and ordinary enlisted men such as Colecchio were moved to tell their tales.

That morning in Tokyo Bay, the men on Colecchio's ship--the New Mexico--were manning their battle stations.

"We didn't know what was going to happen," he recalled. "We thought maybe we'd be stabbed in the back."

But nothing--beyond the formal end of the war--happened. While it was an event that would be memorialized in history books, it was a diplomatic nicety--a postscript to bloodshed--for the combat-scarred men witnessing it.

"It was a whole switcheroo," said Colecchio, now 75. "Weeks before we were at Okinawa. We were in hell."

More than 200,000 people--including a third of Okinawa's civilian population--died there. For the Japanese, it was a desperate last stand. Colecchio saw horror upon horror: Frightened sailors jumping overboard to their deaths. Kamikaze planes flying wingtip to wingtip just above the water, through plumes of thick black smoke meant to obscure American ships.

"We could hear them coming but we couldn't see them," Colecchio said. "It was an eerie feeling; we were sitting ducks."

Sprinting from the shower to his battle station after an alarm was sounded, Colecchio yelled to a pal, "Here we go again!" Then a huge explosion shook the ship, hurling Colecchio into a wall. Flames roared around him and blood pooled on the steel deck; in the chaos, he saw his friend's head just a few feet away.

"The last words he heard were mine," Colecchio recalled, stifling a sob.

Fifty-four shipmates were killed that day. A previous kamikaze strike killed 30. Colecchio helped load the dead into their coffins.

After the war, he lived well enough to nearly forget it. From his first day selling shoes to his career as a show-biz schmoozer, he developed a lifelong infatuation with Hollywood. In his retirement, he still gets excited by stories of the stars he befriended through the years.

"At the shoe store, my very first customer was Lana Turner! Lana Turner! I mean, I was from Jersey City! It was like I'd died and gone to California!"

Even so, the war was with him.

When his grandchildren asked him for his war stories, he sent a request to the Department of Defense for the battle stars he had never received.

His scrapbook still holds their reply.

"They told me the government no longer stocks battle stars," he said, still incredulous. "These things cost--like, what, 12 cents apiece? They told me to go buy them in an Army and Navy store. Can you believe it?"


Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at

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