Properly honoring their role in D-Day

The crew of the `Achernar' sets the record straight about the ship's name.

June 05, 2005|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

A June 1944 issue of Life magazine featured Ike on its cover, and, inside, an account of D-Day from a ship loaded with communications equipment to help choreograph the massive invasion.

In the article, the ship is called the USS Acamar. But it wasn't.

Yesterday, a group of nine veterans of Normandy gathered in Baltimore County, holding citations that commended the ship's role as one of four command vessels for the mission -- and recognizing it by its actual name.

While the Achernar's existence is well-documented in naval records, until now, there's been no cross-reference to the fact that the Acamar and the Achernar are one in the same, said Phil Gentilcore, a Hyattsville resident who served as a gunner's mate on the ship.

"I've been trying since the war was over to get the ship recognized properly," said Gentilcore, 82.

The Life war correspondent noted in his article that he was using a "false name" for the ship and later explained that this was to protect the secretive nature of its mission. But that created frustration for the veterans.

One of Gentilcore's relatives had notified Rep. Chris Van Hollen about the issues surrounding the ship's name. The Montgomery County Democrat called the Naval Historical Center in Washington and said he "confirmed that it did indeed play a very important role in the invasion."

He, state Sen. Robert J. Garagiola and Del. Brian J. Feldman, also Montgomery County Democrats, drew up citations acknowledging the ship and its crew, in time for the veterans' reunion in Timonium yesterday and for the 61st anniversary of D-Day tomorrow.

"This is an opportunity to express our gratitude to them for their service to our country," Van Hollen said. "It's also important that future generations know what role this ship played. It's very important that we pass along World War II stories to our children and grandchildren."

The stories are sometimes dramatic but are often funny.

Stush Genser, 81, who repaired landing craft, remembers how he and his crewmates would smile when word spread that "onion" -- code for U.S. aircraft -- was overhead, protecting the airspace above them.

Gentilcore recalls how glad he felt to see the first medical tent go up on Omaha Beach, knowing that the Allied forces were making progress and that the wounded could be treated.

But he also laughs as he tells how all the servicemen on the destroyers wanted to come aboard because the Achernar was one of the few ships with an ice cream maker.

The men don't like to talk about the bloodshed when they get together each year.

Mostly, just as they did during their weeks and months at sea together, they like to tease one another.

Bill O'Keefe, an engineering officer who became a teacher after the Navy, got his seat in the hospitality suite at the Holiday Inn Select in Timonium yesterday when one of his former crew mates decided the 83-year-old New Jersey native was more "senior."

O'Keefe told stories about a crewman who kept a monkey on the ship, saying the pet once got loose and climbed, with greasy feet, onto the shoulder of a captain.

Tony Ursi, an 80-year-old retired Pennsylvania state trooper who was radio operator in the Navy, finally revealed yesterday that his first name, though he never uses it, is Antonio.

"I can't believe it," said Tom Ruggiero, 82, from the Bronx, N.Y., one of the first from the ship to land on the beach in Normandy, as he laughed.

Robert Lauriguet, a radio operator in the Navy and later a salesman in Mattituck, N.Y., kept the group chuckling with a story of a soldier who fell off a dock and broke his leg as he craned his head looking at a group of pretty nurses.

Lauriguet said that man was given a Purple Heart, basically for "looking at some nurses."

Their adventures were numerous, the veterans said.

The ship, which could carry about 400 people, was passing through the Panama Canal on Christmas in 1944, just as the revolution in Panama was starting, said Gentilcore, who remembers singing Christmas carols as they passed through the canal.

In 1946, off the coast of Okinawa, a suicide bomber hit the ship, starting an extensive fire aboard and causing water to begin seeping in, the veterans said. Five people were killed, according to military records.

Otto Reifeis, 80, from Indiana, a signalman aboard the Achernar, remembers a captain being asked whether he was going to abandon ship, as the crew worked quickly to douse the flames.

But O'Keefe said if the ship had been hit by a solid bomb, not a fragment bomb, they would have all likely been killed.

In all, the Achernar received three battle stars for World War II service, according to military records, and three battle stars for Korean War service. The ship was scrapped in 1982.

That was the year the veterans of the ship -- from World War II and the Korean War -- started getting together for annual reunions.

George Rateike, 79, a motor mechanic on the ship during World War II from Arlington Heights, Ill., keeps the group together, serving as president of the USS Achernar Association. Each year, one of the former crewmen volunteers to hold the reunion.

"We were a close-knit group," said O'Keefe. "We had a lot of fabulous people."

But this year, the gathering was particularly important because of the recognition the ship and its crew were receiving for their D-Day duty, said Gentilcore, adding: "I think about the guys who never got to see this happen."

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