Valley Stream World War II veteran recalls North African, European invasions

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First of two parts.

Having grown up in Brooklyn in the 1920s and ’30s as the middle child of nine, with Italian immigrant parents, Valley Stream resident and retired Army Private First Class Pat Albarella described his idyllic, family-oriented life there — with frequent visits by aunts, uncles and cousins — as “beautiful.”

All of that was shattered, however, when the United States entered World War II in 1941, and he and his two brothers were drafted to fight in Europe, from which his beloved younger brother, Frank, would never return.

“He was buried in southern France,” Albarella said solemnly. “He never quite made it out of his teens.”

Seventy-four years later, sitting in the kitchen of his two-story North Valley Stream home, Albarella quickly brushed off mention of the tragedy to say how he was gearing up for an entirely different challenge.

“I’m in training — would you believe that?” he joked. Above him floated a Mylar balloon sporting the words “Happy Birthday.” He had just celebrated his 98th the week before, and was describing his regimen in the lead-up to marching in next week’s New York City Veterans Day parade.

It will be the fifth time he has marched in the parade, and in preparation, he said, he walks a mile a day, and occasionally two, the distance from his house, where he lives alone, to the Hendrickson Park pool.

Albarella said he’ll march for as long as his body allows, refusing to sit on the float set aside for fellow WWII veterans. “I’m gonna try for one more,” he said. “If I can’t walk it, I’m not going.”

He’s spry for his age, attributing his longevity to his retirement in 2014 — at 94 — from the steel fabrication contracting business he founded in 1960 in New Hyde Park. He has lived in Valley Stream since 1945, first on Haven Avenue, where he said his house number changed twice as the Long Island suburbs expanded to meet the demands of the post-war era. He moved to his current home in 1952.

In Brooklyn, he had attended Boise High School where he discovered a love for math and met his future wife, Peggy Stango. The two dated for years afterward.

Albarella’s high school career was cut short, however, when at 16 he came down with rheumatic fever, which left him in unable to walk for two years, he said, and nearly killed him. “I was one of the lucky ones,” he said of surviving the disease. He never graduated.

In the meantime, war was on the horizon.

In 1940, the U.S. had reinstated the draft after the outbreak of conflict in Europe and the Pacific. It would join the war in December 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By the summer of 1942, after Albarella’s recovery, he said, “Sure enough, I got a letter to report to a doctor. I was being drafted.”

When the Army doctor told the then 22-year-old to point to a chart indicating what ailments he had previously suffered from, he revealed his history with rheumatic fever, prompting a further examination.

“It’s touched your heart,” the doctor reported, disqualifying him from service with a red F stamped on his physical report. Now determined to serve, however, Albarella sought out the recruitment office at 99 Whitehall St., at the southern tip of Manhattan. There, another Army doctor presented him with the same chart, at which point, he said, “I thought I’d trick him,” and didn’t mention his brush with rheumatism.

He was cleared for service, and on Oct. 15, 1942, Albarella recalled, he reported for duty at Grand Central Station. From there he was transported to Fort Dix, N.J., and then Camp Edwards, Mass., where he was assigned to an anti-aircraft battery in the Fifth Army.

While there, as his class of newly trained cadets sat down to enjoy lunch at the kickoff of a weekend of leave time, an officer mounted a nearby stage to announce that they had been put on alert.

“What’s he talking about?” Albararella remembered asking the officer standing next to him, who replied, “Kid, you’re going overseas.”

The next day, Albarella received a notice. “There’s a Peggy Stango here,” a messenger told him. He recalled thinking, “What the hell is she doing here?”

He told his girlfriend about the alert, and she quickly asked if he would marry her. “OK,” he said. The pair found a chaplain, were married that day and had one night together before Pat shipped off.

The next few weeks involved a journey of thousands of miles, all shrouded in secrecy, Albarella recalled, as the troops were moved under the cover of night, first to the Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, then by train to New Jersey, and then by ferry to Pier 90 in Hell’s Kitchen, where he boarded the Queen Mary, a British ocean liner converted in wartime to a troop transport ship capable of carrying nearly 16,000 soldiers.

The ship had earned the grim distinction, a few months earlier, of slicing through one of its escort ships while maneuvering to avoid German submarines, cutting the cruiser in half and killing 239 of its crew of 338. But for Albarella, what struck him about the Queen Mary was its cavernous interior, lined with thousands of hammocks.

Each night of the seven-day trip across the Atlantic, Albarella noted that the British crewmen would seal the bulkheads on each of the troops’ 11 sleeping compartments, including his on D deck, four decks below sea level. He later asked one of the crew the reason for this, and was told that it was done in the event that a section was hit with a torpedo, in which case, “It was no luck for those guys” sleeping in the compartment.

On Dec. 7, 1942, the ship landed in Scotland, and Albarella soon ended up in Liverpool, England, where he spent his first Christmas away from home sleeping on a hammock in a stable at a racetrack converted for wartime use. “That was a hard feeling,” he recalled.

From there, he boarded another ship, this time as part of a “tremendous” convoy, he said, with word that they were headed through the Strait of Gibralter. He landed in Oran, Algeria, supporting troops that had landed there that November as part of Operation Torch, the first major American involvement in the war, attempting to repel German Gen. Erwin Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps.

It was there that Albarella got his first taste of combat, manning a radar relay at the center of a four-gun battery emplacement of 90mm remote-controlled antiaircraft flak cannons. His job was to target the guns according to information relayed from nearby radar stations, and while repelling a German air attack, bombs came within 500 feet of his position. He assumed his battery was the target of the assault, but, he said, “I think they dropped their bombs a little too soon.”

After a string of humiliating defeats against Rommel, Gen. George Patton took command of the Fifth Army, as evidenced to Albarella by that fact that despite temperatures well over 100 degrees, he and his fellow troops were now required to wear ties with their uniforms. It was part of Patton’s philosophy that a soldier’s uniform instilled discipline.

In North Africa, Albarella contracted malaria, and because of a quinine-pill shortage due to the Japanese capture of the Philippines, addaprine, an anti-inflammatory agent, was prescribed as an alternative. But because of the stomach problems the drug caused, he and his fellow soldiers, he said, “decided to take our chances” without the tablets.  

After Rommel’s defeat in May, 1943, and the occupation of Tunis, Tunisia, the Fifth Army was redirected to assist with the amphibious invasion of Salerno, Italy, that September. While Albarella was not directly involved in the invasion, as support infantry, he remained behind the front lines as Allied forces pushed north.

He recalled the struggle after the Fifth Army had secured its beachhead, noting that when it approached Naples, a few miles north, “we were bogged down.”

“The Germans had the upper hand,” he said. “They had the high ground.”

During a quiet moment in the operation, while his unit was stationed on an olive garden stair, Albarella saw a blinding flash of light — he is still unsure whether it was an incendiary round that had gone off prematurely or enemy fire — and when he looked down, his legs were on fire.

“They boys, they smothered me,” he said, “and when the medics came, the first thing they did was give me a morphine shot.”

The next thing he remembered was being carried off a plane in Sicily, which had been liberated the previous month. Through his pain-induced haze, Albarella could have sworn he saw a Messerschmitt 109 fighter plan make a run to strafe the airfield, only to flap its wings from side to side and pull back at the last moment.

He spent a night at the field hospital for treatment, where the medics worked to remove his pants, which had stuck to his charred legs. By the time he was transported to a hospital in North Africa, Army doctors informed him that his injuries had become infected, and that they would need to operate.

He begged them to save his legs, but they offered him no guarantees. After drifting off to sleep and then awakening, he looked down and screamed.

Next week: Pat Albarella recounts his life in Valley Stream after the war.