CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Alfred Vaccacio was born in Brooklyn, New York in December 1920. By the time war broke out in 1941, he had acquired two years of college education in biology and chemistry and was working at a milk pasteurization plant in upstate New York. Vaccacio enlisted in the US Army Medical Corps on February 3, 1942 and was processed into the military at Fort Dix, New Jersey. From there he was sent to Fort Lee, Virginia for six weeks of basic training. At Fort Lee, Vaccacio learned the basics of military life, including obeying orders and other basic soldier tasks, participating in long marches, and performing unglamorous army jobs like “kitchen police” (KP) and latrine duty. He recalled that his twelve years in the Boy Scouts, where he acquired outdoor skills including land navigation using a compass and the position of the sun, facilitated his adjustment to military life.
Following basic training, Vaccacio had two weeks of home leave, after which he joined the Thirty-seventh Infantry Division at Camp Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. The division, originally an Ohio National Guard unit, soon traveled from Pennsylvania to San Francisco, California. While in San Francisco, he was quartered in the International Harvester factory building and was able to do some sightseeing before embarking on a troopship for the Pacific Theater of War. While on board the ship, he made daily entries in a diary he maintained throughout his military service. The division landed in New Zealand after seventeen days at sea, the first U.S. troops to arrive in that country. Initially, Vaccacio had trouble with the local wartime postal regulations. He was advised that using a New Zealand stamp on a letter to the United States violated “location security,” and that his mail home had to be routed through the local YMCA. Mail from New Zealand took six weeks to arrive to the United States, and responses another six weeks to return.
The Thirty-seventh Division soon left New Zealand, arriving in the Fiji Islands in June 1942 and, after further training, moving on to Guadalcanal in April 1943 and participating in the invasion of New Georgia in July 1943. The division subsequently fought on Bougainville beginning in November 1943 and then landed on Luzon in the Philippines in January 1945. Vaccacio, detailed as a combat medic, wore a red cross insignia on his sleeve, but he was also armed. He was initially issued a Springfield Model 1903 Rifle, which was later replaced with a Model 1911A1 .45 caliber automatic pistol. The job of a combat medic was dangerous work. Vaccacio was assigned to temporary hospitals located just behind the front lines and often attached to infantry units, and he worked under air raids and enemy mortar fire. Although a private, Vaccacio was occasionally called on to perform minor surgery, and to triage casualties in places beyond the reach of an ambulance. He recalled that on one occasion, he and another medic were carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher when a Japanese sniper wounded the other medic and the patient, then actually hit Vaccacio’s canteen with a bullet. His thigh, where the canteen had rested, was black and blue for months.
In addition to dealing with the Japanese army, Vaccacio and his comrades had to endure swarms of flies, mud and high humidity while living in foxholes and tents in the jungle. Changes of clothing were infrequent. American soldiers obtained drinking water from local streams, using chemical tablets to render it potable. Perhaps surprisingly, snakes were not commonplace; Vaccacio recalled seeing only one during the thirty-six months he served in the Pacific. Venomous centipedes often bit soldiers’ toes, however. Large land crabs were the most common island wildlife.
Vaccacio remembered that disease was endemic during the Pacific island campaigns, and included a host of ailments including malaria, black water fever and amoebic dysentery. Soldiers were issued Atabrine tablets as a prophylactic against malaria. As the war progressed, sulfa drugs and penicillin were used to fight infections, saving many lives. Eventually, due to his academic science background, Vaccacio was assigned to a medical laboratory. He wrote home to his pharmacist uncle for an appropriate instruction manual, which arrived twelve weeks later. Vaccacio recalled that the manual provided much useful information, enabling him to gain a degree of expertise in treating malaria and dysentery. As a result, his commanding officer assigned other personnel to him for training, and he eventually received a bronze star for his efforts.
Vaccacio remembered that, following the invasion of the Philippines, he saw General Douglas MacArthur riding in a jeep in Manila with shells bursting all around. While on Luzon he also saw a number of wounded Japanese prisoners, who had been advised that U.S. soldiers were monsters. He treated the prisoners’ wounds and offered them cigarettes, causing them to doubt the truth of what they had been told. In striking contrast, military and civilian prisoners captured by the Japanese were treated very badly and were found to be severely emaciated when liberated. During the battle of Manila, Japanese soldiers used flamethrowers on shelters crowded with people attempting to escape the fighting, killing a number of civilians, including many children. Vaccacio treated two girls, aged thirteen and three, who suffered from shrapnel wounds, and he distributed food to starving people. He had other, more pleasant, contacts with Filipino civilians. Once, on the road to Manila, he and his comrades stopped in a small town with a large church. As the heavily armed soldiers, much larger men than the local civilians, entered the church for Mass, the people seemed startled, but soon recovered and were delighted that the soldiers had liberated them. At the time of his interview, so many years later, Vaccacio remained emotionally touched as he retold the story.
After he was wounded by a piece of shrapnel in the Philippines, Vaccacio was returned to the United States and treated at a hospital in Pennsylvania, While at the hospital he learned of the atomic bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was discharged on Oct. 27, 1945 and subsequently worked in a medical laboratory, where he met and married his wife, to whom he has been married for 51 years as of the date of the interview. He was later employed as a Toms River, New Jersey agent for the New York Life Insurance Company. Alfred Vaccacio received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Asiatic-Pacific, Philippines Liberation, WWII Victory and Good Conduct Medals.
Alfred J. Vaccacio passed away on April 11, 2004.