Veteran of Guadalcanal finally tells his story of WWII battle

  • Mon Aug 6th, 2012 9:59pm
  • News

By Gale Fiege Herald Writer

MONROE — A group of World War II veterans are convening today in Washington, D.C., on the 70th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Guadalcanal. They plan to tour the national memorial that commemorates their service and share their recollections.

Paul Castiglione, 91, of Monroe is among them.

“Probably more children of those veterans will be on hand than the guys I served with,” Castiglione said last week. “Fewer and fewer of us are around.”

Three years before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, U.S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia to seize an airfield from the Japanese.

Castiglione, the son of Italian immigrants, was raised in a large family on a farm outside of Detroit. He left his new job with General Motors in Pontiac, Mich., to sign up with the Marines. He was 21 when he was assigned to the Guadalcanal campaign.

“I was just out of boot camp and had never been far from home,” he said. “Most of us were very young. Before I shipped out of San Diego I had a photo taken of me in my uniform to send home to my mother.”

At the airfield on Guadalcanal, Castiglione worked as a mechanic, keeping the allied planes in the air.

Castiglione and his fellow Marines, in tents on the edge of the jungle, withstood nightly bombings from the Japanese. They named their nocturnal harassers Bed Check Charlie or Washing Machine Charlie owing to the sound of the Japanese aircraft engines.

“We were told never to fire on Charlie because that would give away the location of our camp,” Castiglione said. “Yes, we were scared, but there was nothing we could do.”

Castiglione recalls once diving into a ravine to avoid a bombing, only to realize he was face down in an old latrine.

It’s been just recently that the veteran has told his children the stories of his life during World War II. Castiglione lives with daughter Pat Castiglione, 60. His son, Bob Castiglione, lives nearby in Snohomish and his other daughter, Sue Scott, lives in the San Francisco Bay area. He has four grandsons, most of whom live in the area.

Their favorite story involves what Castiglione says is “the reason my kids are even here.”

One day Castiglione was selected to move gear and equipment over to a cargo ship from a destroyer that had run aground.

“We worked all day and night. I had nothing to eat. They handed out ham sandwiches,” he recalled. “I had to go to the bathroom, but I didn’t want to miss out taking another sandwich. That’s when they dropped a bomb. Had I gone to the head (toilet) I would not have made it.”

“We like ham sandwiches,” Pat Castiglione said.

After a few months, Paul Castiglione returned to San Diego, only to be sent back to Guadalcanal the next year.

“I was afraid that if they sent me out a third time, I wouldn’t come back,” he said.

Discharged at the war’s end, Marine Corps Sgt. Paul Castiglione was given $157 to pay for his trip from Florida back to Michigan.

“The discharge officer made me promise I would use the GI Bill to go to college,” he said. “I’m glad I did. It changed the course of my life.”

Back in Michigan, Castiglione got married and earned his engineering degree at Michigan State. After graduation in 1952 and a couple of engineering jobs in Michigan, he and his wife, Caroline, moved their family to Los Angeles. There he got the job with Rockwell that eventually led to his work for North American Rockwell on the Apollo space missions.

“This was the big part of my career,” he said.

Castiglione was part of the team that designed the launch umbilical tower for the Saturn V booster rocket, which sent Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969. He was responsible for the electrical, fuel and oxygen lines in the umbilical arms that connected the tower to the rocket before lift off.

The family moved to Cape Canaveral, Fla.

“We could stand in our back yard and watch the launches. It was so exciting,” Pat Castiglione said. “When I was an exchange student in Brazil during high school, most people there did not believe our space program was real. They thought it was a propaganda hoax.”

For her father, the program was very real. Castiglione received numerous federal commendations for his work, which included designs through Rockwell International in California for the space shuttle.

“After the astronauts first landed on the moon, we went over to a restaurant called Bernard’s Surf to celebrate,” he said. “Somebody said the drinks were on Rockwell. The next day we found out it wasn’t true and we had to pay up. It didn’t matter. Those were good times.”

At his home in Monroe, Castiglione enjoys looking through his portfolio of memorabilia from the space program and World War II.

“I’m slowing down now, but I’ve had a good life,” said Castiglione. “I had three good children. You don’t realize how good it was until you look back.”

One regret is that he didn’t share much about Guadalcanal.

“I realize now that I should have talked about the war with my family, but it was a gruesome time and I did not want to think about it. Maybe that’s why I drank my share, too,” Castiglione said. “And talking about the war also involved cussing and I did not want to cuss around my family. But really the next generation should know.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.