CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
William A. Bocchino
WWII Era / Korean War Oral History Interview
US Navy / US Army
Date: February 15, 2018
Interviewer: Carol Fowler, Kristine Galassi
Summarizer: Kristine Galassi
William A. Bocchino was born in January 1927 in the Bronx borough of New York City. His father had emigrated to the United States following World War I, during which he had been badly wounded in one of his legs while serving in the Italian army artillery.
Bocchino grew up in an ethnic Italian neighborhood in the South Bronx and described himself, in retrospect, as a “troubled kid.” He attended several public high schools and was asked to leave each one due to disciplinary problems. Eventually, a local judge ordered him to attend Spofford School for “difficult young people.”
Bocchino’s mother appealed to the local Catholic pastor and asked him to intercede to grant her son admission to Cardinal Hayes High School, which accepted him. Bocchino said his time in a structured environment at Cardinal Hayes, while wearing a jacket and tie and sporting a good haircut, “changed my life.” While a senior at the school, he took a United States Navy electronics test and was one of only six students who passed.
It was 1944, and World War II was still ongoing when Bocchino graduated and joined the navy. He was sent to Great Lakes Naval Training School for eighteen weeks, and then to Texas A & M for a three-month class in electrical engineering, after which he was classified as an aviation electronic technician third class. Bocchino was assigned to Love Field, Texas, where he trained on torpedo and dive bombers’ IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) radar systems. He took every opportunity to fly on airplanes with experienced pilots, to gain as much information about aircraft and flying as he could; and, he recalled that he loved being in the air.
Bocchino completed his naval instruction at New York’s Floyd Bennet Field, which he considered an invaluable experience. Training as a radio man and gunner, he received lessons from hardened veteran pilots and aircrewmen who had flown many missions in the Pacific during World War II. “It was the best training I could possibly have had,” he recalled.
His training complete, Bocchino was assigned to the crew of the heavy cruiser USS Macon, which sailed out of Norfolk, Virginia, on April 19, 1946 to the Caribbean and then on to the Mediterranean. On approaching Italy, the Macon’s captain informed his crew that, if any sailor had relatives in the country, he could be granted a week’s leave to visit them, with the stipulation that since the ship docked in Livorno, individuals would be responsible for finding their own way to their destination and then back one week later to board ship. Bocchino had Italian relatives and decided to take advantage of the opportunity.
Since Italian was the first language spoken in his home and hence he was able to converse in it reasonably well, Bocchino was able to communicate with the locals. He encountered a man travelling to his father’s hometown of San Giorgio del Sannio, who invited him to stay with his family. Bocchino remembered that it was truly a memorable visit and a wonderful experience, as he met many relatives from both his mother’s and father’s sides of the family.
On a train ride north to Rome while returning to Livorno, Bocchino met Father Taddeo, an English-speaking Monsignor, and the clergyman kindly offered him a car ride to the port, as he was headed in that direction. Bocchino chuckled and recalled that: “I gratefully accepted, and soon found out that this Monsignor knew extraordinary people; and, the ride was a real adventure! They treated him like royalty; and, I was just the kid from the South Bronx along for the ride.”
The improbable duo arrived in Livorno, and Bocchino returned to his ship. He recalled that, on the night before departure, there was an announcement instructing “Petty Officer Bocchino report to the bridge!” When Bocchino arrived, he found Monsignor Taddeo there to embrace him and to bid him farewell. Among the group of crewmen who witnessed the event, he heard murmurs of, “who the hell is Bocchino?” Bocchino added that, when he returned to Italy with his wife a half century later, he was reunited with Monsignor Taddeo in San Giorgio del Sannio, and he had never forgotten the clergyman’s kindness.
Following his discharge from the Navy in 1948, Bocchino took advantage of the G.I. Bill and attended New York University, where he majored in electrical engineering. He joined the Army Reserve Officers Training (ROTC) Program. Bocchino was accepted by Harvard University for graduate school; and, although he received a scholarship, he also supported himself with odd jobs, including delivering the New York Times, running a used furniture exchange and working on the Harvard Calendar.
Bocchino was commissioned as an infantry second lieutenant through the ROTC program upon his graduation from NYU. In the summer of 1951, he volunteered for airborne training, which was conducted at Fort Benning, Georgia. Bocchino received active duty pay, “jump pay”, and per diem expenses during the course, which amounted to around $3,000. After returning to Harvard and graduating with his MBA degree in June 1952, during the Korean War, he was ordered to active duty and assigned to Korea. There Bocchino became a platoon leader in the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA) program; and, in that position led South Korean troops assigned to the American military. He was stationed some thirty miles away from the nearest American troops. As a World War II-era veteran, Bocchino could have asked for release at any time during his Korean deployment; but, he did not, as he felt he had a duty to serve.
Bocchino recalled that his experiences in Korea were unanticipated. He stated, “sure, I was viewed like a guest from a strange land; and, my Korean non-coms [non-commissioned officers] often took risks to protect their American leader.” There was a good deal of chaos in the country when Bocchino arrived, with North Korean and Chinese troops fighting United Nations forces to the north, and local bandits raiding and pillaging villages in his assigned area around Sangju City in North Gyeongsang Province. His orders were to “go in and get them out”, and he recalled that “we took no prisoners.”
Due to the mountainous terrain near Sangju it was often necessary to “rope soldiers together” as well as very difficult to extricate wounded men. Bocchino remembered that some wounded Koreans who were too badly wounded to move were “put out of their misery” by their comrades. The Koreans also performed “brutal interrogations” of captured bandits and infiltrating enemy soldiers. Bocchino recalled however the Koreans were “very brave men assisting us”. He noted that his men saved him from some of his own actions that might have had catastrophic outcomes, even to the point of occasionally knocking him down if they thought he was putting his life at risk.
Bocchino was involved in a few complicated and delicate operations. In one instance, the local police and mayor were involved in a corrupt scheme with the national police to steal property and supplies for their own profit. Bocchino was instrumental in secretly taking the ring down and redistributing the stolen material to local people who were in desperate need of supplies to survive. He noted that the local people generally did not trust their own local and national police, but relied more on Korean and United States army personnel, who often assumed police duties, including issuing passes and manning checkpoints.
On another occasion Bocchino was assigned to deliver critical electronic equipment to a remote location; yet, he was given no instructions as to how to accomplish the mission. He and his sergeant drove through villages with no prior knowledge of who controlled the area — enemy or friendly. Bocchino remembered that “there were armed men with no uniforms on, and we did not know who who was, so I would just gun it through and hope for the best.” They eventually had to cross the Han River. He recalled that “earlier vehicles got over on the ice, but ours came later, and when crossing the river, cracked through and got stuck in the ice amidst sporadic sniper fire.” Bocchino managed to walk through the water to shore and back to winch their vehicle out and complete the crossing. The incident had subsequent bad consequences, as his legs and feet had been exposed to extremely frigid water temperatures. After the crossing, he found a MASH unit where he was given dry, warm socks, and he and the sergeant successfully delivered the needed equipment.
As a KATUSA officer, Bocchino received his orders directly from Far East Command in Tokyo, rather than through the normal army chain of command. This occurred due to the uniqueness of his mission, and the need to request specialized goods and equipment that were needed in his area of responsibility. Many of the supplies and instructions he received were not usual issue in American units. Bocchino recalled that, on one occasion, he “had to hand out toothbrushes to the men and teach them how to brush their teeth. They started brushing them in drainage ditches! I collected the brushes. These men also had no idea what the concept of sharing meant either. The cultural mindset when presented with something to share was just not understood.”
Bocchino’s most risky operation took place near Cheju-do Island, now a Korean vacation spot. A Turkish small plane pilot agreed to take Bocchino to the island on a mission, in exchange for two bottles of Scotch whiskey. Shortly after becoming airborne, however, they ran into a terrifying ice storm. The small aircraft was bombarded with ice pellets and bounced out of control. Fortunately, the pilot was able to land the plane safely; and, the two men tied it to the ground. They took refuge in a small shack, where they hunkered down for the night in the freezing cold with no fire. Although they were rescued in the morning, Bocchino had lost feeling in his now twice-frozen legs. He was treated in a hospital for a short time, until he received orders to return to the United States on February 23, 1953.
After he returned home, Bocchino remained in the army reserve until retiring in 1968. Back in civilian life, he worked at Tobyhanna Army Depot, Pennsylvania, a base that specialized in electronic systems, as well as on Governor’s Island, New York, at the time a major Army depot site. His electrical engineering expertise made his transition to civilian employment relatively easy.
Bocchino continued his education and received a Doctoral Degree from New York University. He became a professor at the Rutherford campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University until his retirement.
At age 70, the symptoms of his Korean experience hit him hard, ranging from very weak and rubbery legs to feelings that his feet and legs were encased in concrete. Bocchino applied for and was granted a service-related disability pension.