One brave neighbor

Chick Serio of Baltimore County has plenty to remember this Memorial Day

May 28, 2012|By Peggy Rowe

Ten years ago, my husband John and I moved into a retirement condo and met our new neighbors. They were a nice, older couple — typical Baltimoreans with a passion for family, Maryland crabs and the Orioles.

I still remember the day my husband rushed in the door with news that would elevate Chick Serio's status from that of "typical Baltimorean" to superhero.

"Chick was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action on Iwo Jima!" John said. "We're living across the hall from a war hero!"

It was the beginning of a special relationship. Not just because my husband had been a history teacher or because he had served in the Korean War. Like many, John has a fascination with World War II and an entire generation of heroes that is slipping away. Chick had rarely spoken of his military years, but now, at the age of 90, he agreed to share his experiences with us.

The first thing we learned was that the term "hero" is reserved for those Marylanders who did not come home, or who returned disabled. During World War II, that was more than 6,000 people.

I was expecting to hear a story about a young man with lofty ideals of saving his country and preserving his family's freedom. Instead, I heard about an innocent, unpretentious young man who had grown up with his own personal hero and best friend — his uncle Joe Marsiglia, just a year or two his senior. When Joe received his notice from the draft board in 1942, Chick, at age 20, didn't want to be left behind. With visions of fighting beside his buddy, he decided to enlist.

His father, John Serio, had encouraged his son to join the Navy. "You'll have a clean bed on a ship," he said, "instead of sleeping in a filthy hole in the ground." But when the two young men saw the long line for the Navy at the recruitment office, they opted for the Marines instead, figuring they needed men more than the Navy. Says Chick: "My father was furious with me when I told him."

Our friend reflected on boot camp at Parris Island, where he was told, "A marine can do anything!" — and believed it. He talked about schooling and training at camp Lejeune and, in time, his promotion to sergeant. Then came the final, intense training on the beaches of Hawaii, where they practiced assault landings and had time to play some baseball. And then that long, unforgettable trip in the crowded, dark hold of a ship, surrounded by the nauseating stench of body odor and vomit.

It was on the deck of that very ship that Sergeant Serio would first hear the words "Iwo Jima" and learn of its strategic importance in the planned invasion of Japan.

Occasionally, Chick speaks of his war experience in the present, as though it's happening now, and it feels like I'm there with him. It's Feb. 19, 1945, and we're watching from the safety of our ship with horror as the first wave of Marines make their landing onto the island. American boys are flying through the air and falling to the sand as enemy mortars explode amongst them.

"The next morning we can't believe our breakfast," Chick tells me. "Steak and eggs! Then they tell us to pack up our gear; it's our turn." He describes enormous swells in a white sea, and the hazardous rope ladders down the sides of the ship, and shakes his head in disbelief. "Some guys never even made it to the beach; they fell into the deep waters between the ship and the landing boat and drowned before they could be rescued. Others broke their legs and were put back on the ship. They didn't even have a chance to fight."

When the boats reached land, the flaps were lowered, and the seasick Marines of the Fifth Pioneer Battalion, Fifth Marine Division joined men from other landing craft running onto the black volcanic sand, littered with debris and Marines — dead and alive.

Chick still awakens from nightmares, 67 years later, reliving the terror of life in a succession of foxholes: Japanese soldiers emerging from caves, running toward you screaming, brandishing guns and bayonets, ready to die; shooting blindly, and knowing that you've killed men — and feeling no remorse; a buddy standing up beside you and being shot dead; four days of intense fighting with no chance to even remove your boots or go to the latrine; using your helmet to soak your sore feet — and as a toilet.

Then came that fateful day on March 26, when his unit was under fierce attack and running out of ammunition. Chick commandeered a jeep and drove through enemy fire to the ammo dump on the beach, shooting four enemy soldiers along the way. At the dump, a sergeant and the major in command refused his request. In desperation, Chick leveled his rifle at their heads and said that men were dying as they spoke. The major and sergeant backed down, and Chick's men loaded the jeep with ammunition.

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