Medal awarded after 57 years

Arnold man, 79, was wounded during World War II

May 26, 1999|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Charles A. Cusumano told his children of the hardships he experienced during World War II, but he had never called himself a war hero until now.

More than half a century ago, Cusumano spent three months repairing war planes in New Guinea, suffering a lack of food, bouts of malaria and dengue fever, and an enemy attack that left him with three fractured vertebrae.

Yesterday, Cusumano received the Bronze Star his war buddies there got in 1944.

Wearing a light blue sportcoat and a tie decorated with the stars and stripes, Cusumano stood at attention before a battery of flags in the office of Col. John D. Frketic, garrison commander at Fort Meade.

"I don't deserve all that," the 79-year-old Arnold resident said, his bottom lip quivering and his eyes welling with tears as Frketic presented the award certificate and other gifts. "I'm speechless."

Cusumano was a staff sergeant in the 8th Pursuit Group, 36th

Pursuit Squadron of the Army Air Forces in 1942 when his unit was shipped to Brisbane, Australia, then to Port Moresby in Papua, New Guinea.

They were the first Americans to fight in New Guinea, a group of aircraft mechanics, armament men and pilots sent to relieve an Australian fighter group. They left home so fast that he barely got a chance to say goodbye to his wife, who was five months' pregnant with their son.

"We just were thrown into New Guinea with hardly any leadership," Cusumano said. "I didn't think anybody knew where we were for the first few months."

50-pound weight loss

From April to June, Cusumano assembled A-24 Dauntless attack aircraft and helped repair P-39 Airacobra pursuit planes. Food was scarce, and he lost 50 pounds in less than three months.

Soon after his squadron arrived, the Australian fighter planes were destroyed, and replacement P-39s were delayed by a storm. The planes finally arrived at the beginning of May, just in time for the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first naval battle in which opposing ships never saw each other, historians say. Carrier-based planes were the mode of attack.

"I was praying for only one thing," Cusumano said: "God, please don't let me get killed until I know my son is born."

Bombing by the Japanese was constant during the day, and that made keeping up with repairs difficult, Cusumano said.

He was among a group of soldiers who volunteered to work night shifts to get the planes back into the air. The plan worked until the Japanese began bombing at night, using the lights the mechanics worked under as targets.

One of those bombs came close to Cusumano. He didn't make it to a foxhole and was knocked unconscious by the blast, he said. Cusumano said three of his vertebrae were fractured but that he continued working at his job because he didn't want to be reassigned.

His unit was moved back and forth between Australia and New Guinea for the next year, until Cusumano was ordered to return to the United States in 1943.

In 1944, the men who had worked with Cusumano were awarded Bronze Stars. By that time, Cusumano had been assigned to Luke Field in Arizona and was overlooked.

But it wasn't until February, when a wartime buddy pestered him to tell Sen. Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, that he had been overlooked, that Cusumano had a glimmer of hope that he would be recognized. He also asked about a Purple Heart but hasn't heard whether he will be granted one.

"I never expected this in all my days," Cusumano said. "I got two good-conduct awards, and I figured anybody could get those. I knew I had something coming to me, but I never expected this."

The Bronze Star is awarded for meritorious service in connection with military operations against an armed enemy.

The medal comes with a red and blue striped lapel pin. Frketic also threw in an old copy of "Bloody Buna," a book about the battle to retake a New Guinea town, another book about World War II, a commander's coin and a pen.

"We can't say thank you enough for your service," Frketic said. "Sir, this is my great pleasure and honor."

Members of the Cusumano family dabbed their eyes during the short ceremony.

`It's really nice'

"I've known for a long time what my Dad had gone through," said Lisa Dubiansky, the eighth of 10 Cusumano children. "It's really nice to see him finally getting what is due to him. They've gone through a lot for all of us, and I'm glad it's his turn to get something in return."

Tom Cusumano, the eldest son, who flew in from San Francisco for the ceremony, said, "I was wondering how he was going to make it through," he said. "I'm sure he's extremely proud to be recognized after all these years."

Cusumano beamed as his family and soldiers formed a line to shake his hand.

"God bless all you people," he said to the camouflage-wearing soldiers. "I love the Army again."

Pub Date: 5/26/99

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