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Approaching milestone, three-war vet recalls life of service

By Fran Gonzalez | Jun 25, 2020
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez Pictured here June 11, three-war veteran Carmine Pecorelli holds a World War II postcard dated Oct. 27, 1945, honoring heroes of the U.S. Navy. The postcard depicts the attack on Pearl Harbor and is postmarked with a 3-cent stamp.

Belfast — Asked about his upcoming birthday, three-war veteran Carmine Pecorelli said, “I’m getting a fire permit to light my candles.”

In an interview with The Republican Journal June 11, he said he will be turning 95 June 27, and added, “I can’t believe that.”

Originally from Jersey City, N.J., directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Pecorelli was the firstborn in his family. He remembers being 5 years old when everyone referred to him as “Sonny — like in 'The Godfather.'” Adults would ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he would say, “I want to be a soldier.”

He recalled a story that resonated with him as a young man, and ultimately convinced him to enlist in the Navy.

Four chaplains were on board the USAT Dorchester, a cruise ship converted to military use in World War II for troop transport en route to Greenland. The 368-foot ship carrying 904 men was torpedoed by a German U-boat during the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1943, off Newfoundland in the North Atlantic.

The four U.S. Army chaplains, one Methodist, one Jewish, one Roman Catholic and one a Reformed Church minister, helped other soldiers board lifeboats and gave up their own life jackets when supplies ran out. Ultimately the chaplains went down with the ship.

“This story made such an impact on me,” Pecorelli said. “I enlisted in the Navy on June 26, 1943."

Pecorelli’s father made a good living working at the famous jewelry store Tiffany’s setting diamonds until the Depression hit and the family found themselves living in a cold water flat in New Jersey. His neighborhood growing up was culturally diverse, with many Polish and Black residents, he remembers. In school, Pecorelli said, he was not a good student and had no one to help him with his homework.

After starting high school and “failing  everything,” he dropped out and began working at a movie theater to help his family. He remembers being at the theater when he found out about the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. Pecorelli was just 15 at the time.

At 17 he wanted to enlist, though he found out later the Army and Marines would require him to be drafted first. It was not until he went to the Navy recruiter that he was accepted with his father’s signature.

He spent four years in active service and three years in the reserves during World War II. After his stint in the Navy, he spent 26 years in Army Reserve service during the Korean and Vietnam wars, “in gratitude to my grandparents,” he said.

He considered himself “dumb and with no confidence” before joining the military, where his education began in earnest. “I served on a minesweeper and had to take an exam with five other students,” he said. “I took the test and was the only one to pass.

“Slowly I started getting confidence in myself,” he said. “If I had a question, I would ask. I went everywhere with my books.” Pecorelli was sent to radar school at the Naval Air Station Quonset Point in Rhode Island. “Whenever I took a test, I got good grades,” he said, and his confidence began to bloom.

After his initial Navy service and with his newfound confidence, he decided to go back and earn his high school diploma at age 21. He graduated in 1949 from Scarborough School, a private high school in Westchester County, New York, and then attended The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, the following year. He later attended the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where he traveled across Europe and received a “world education.”

Pecorelli would later continue his education at New York University and then the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

He called his high school English teacher, Hugh Archer Palmer, at Scarborough School a “hero” for turning him on to literary greats such as Shakespeare and Milton. He also told Pecorelli, “Manners make the man, and life is for service” — something on which he has modeled his life.

Pecorelli’s grandparents also played a big role in his life. They came from the Italian cities of Naples and Rome. In the 1800s, he said, water wells were going dry in Manhattan and officials were looking for a water source. They hit upon the idea of building an underground pipeline from upstate to transport water to the city.

They started to dig and soon encountered huge boulders, he said. Earning $1 a day, his grandfather, a stone mason, came to the U.S. to move the large stones for the pipeline. “Grandpa Carmine earned enough to bring Grandma Angelina to America.”

Pecorelli said his grandmother was his mentor. “She couldn’t read or write, but could pray the Rosary, and when she told a story,” he said, “it was like you could envision it” before your eyes.

In her native Italian, she told the story of how the animals gathered around the baby Jesus, keeping him warm by huddling around. “I thought, this wasn’t in the Bible," and figured Grandma must have been a witness, Pecorelli said. “I thought the manger must have been in New Jersey, and the same with the crucifixion.”

Pecorelli said he ended up in Maine because his family enjoyed “tent camping” and visited Pemaquid Point several times. After the fifth year of coming to Maine, his then-wife asked, “What do you say we buy a house in Maine?”

“I wanted a year-round house, I didn’t want a camp,” he said. They found their dream home on Tilden Pond, in Belmont, where the couple retired.

Pecorelli fondly tells the story of how he got involved with the Wreaths Across America organization. “I was in Camden when I saw the trucks coming down the road with their lights on,” he said. “It was the first time I saw the Wreaths Across America trucks. I later met someone in the organization who gave me an introduction to the founders," Morrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Co. of Harrington, and his wife.

Pecorelli has made seven trips with the Wreaths Across America annual caravan from Maine to Arlington National Cemetery to place wreaths on soldiers’ graves and was parade marshal one year. “I’ve become close with the (Worcester) family,” he said.

“I remember I was asked why I was involved with the Wreaths,” Pecorelli said. “I said gratitude,” for all who served and made the ultimate sacrifice.

For over seven years, Pecorelli has also devoted his efforts to greeting troops at the Bangor Airport. He recalled seeing his son, an infantry captain, come home with two Bronze Stars.

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he said proudly. In all, Pecorelli has two daughters, two sons and 11 grandchildren.

His secret to longevity, he said, is red wine. His advice for anyone and everyone: Children should know the importance of an education and that life is for service, along with his motto, "Manners maketh the man."

Carmine Pecorelli shown here with his Navy company in the 1940s. The three-war veteran will be celebrating his 95th birthday June 27. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
A plaque certifies Carmine Pecorelli as "Honorably Discharged" in June 1946. The three-war veteran celebrates his 95th birthday June 27. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Carmine Pecorelli greets former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a Wreaths Across America event held at Ellis Island in 2014. (Courtesy of: Carmine Pecorelli)
Carmine Pecorelli in an undated photograph with Sen. Susan Collins where she writes, "Thanks for your service and support. You're a gem!" (Courtesy of: Carmine Pecorelli)
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