WWII veteran and longtime American Legion member donates piece of history, recalls his own
By Melissa Komar
World War II U.S. Navy veteran Albert Gannotta remembers landing on beaches during battle like is was yesterday, recalling dates and locations as if reciting from a history book.
The landings took place in the early 1940s.
And, “Al” will celebrate his 100th birthday on Aug. 29.
“I was born during the flu epidemic, maybe that’s why I lasted so long,” said Gannotta, laughing. “I’m the last of 11 kids. And, I have three children, 10 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.”
“I never regretted a day in the service,” he said.
Time has done nothing to erode his memories serving as a Marine or his dedication to the armed forces.
The Kensington native has been a member of the American Legion for more than 63 years and was recognized for his long-term commitment on Thursday, June 14, on the USS New Jersey battleship.
And, while the ceremony celebrated Gannotta, it was also a special day for the ship: It was Flag Day, and Gannotta presented and donated a 48-star flag, a relic he has stored for years from former American Legion Post 839, where he was sergeant at arms.
“I didn’t want it to be destroyed,” he said. “Now, I know where it is. I wanted it to go somewhere where it would be appreciated. But, I doubt many people have a 48-star flag in their house.”
Gannotta asked fellow Post 821 member Joe Gunkel what could be done with the flag; Gunkel reached out to staff at the USS New Jersey Battleship, who were delighted by the idea.
“It was a real experience,” Gannotta said of the ceremony. “It meant a lot. It was something I’ll never forget. It was an honor.”
Long before Gannotta presented the flag and stood with family, friends and fellow Post 821 members to be honored, he was boarding the USS Harry Lee APA-10.
The Kensington native enlisted in the Navy in November 1942 and returned home in January 1946.
At the time, Gannotta worked at a defense plant, which was considered necessary work and wasn’t required to enlist.
“I couldn’t get in because our jobs required us to be there,” he said. “Finally, all my friends started to go and I told my boss, I had to go. My boss said I was crazy. I was released from my job, and two days later the draft board came after me, and I was sworn in and gone in a week.”
He traveled from Bainbridge, Maryland, to Little Quick, Virginia, to Fort Pierce in Florida, which included all amphibious training and then got aboard the USS Harry Lee APA-10 in September 1943.
“We took 36-foot landing crafts and we took the soldiers or Marines in and then came back to the boat,” Gannotta said, sitting unassuming at a round table in American Legion Post 821 in Bridesburg. “In other words, no one was getting on the beach unless we took them in.”
The ship housed 15 of the 36-foot landing crafts and two 50-foot landing crafts, and was armed to the gills with twin 40 millimeter forward, a canon, and 20-millimeter guns all over the ship, according to Gannotta.
Gannota landed at Tarawa in November 1943, the Marshall Islands in January 1944, two landings in New Guinea in April 1944, Guam in summer 1944, the Philippines and Hiroshima in 1945.
“We hit the beaches and dropped the front of the boat,” he said. “And, we had 36 soldiers and when we hit the beach, the flap went down and they had to go. That first invasion in Tarawa was really rough.”
He still has his original U.S. Navy identification card, money from the Philippines and a flag that flew over the USS Arizona.
His awards, the Asiatic-Pacific ribbon with one silver star and one bronze star and the Philippine Liberation ribbon with one bronze star, are typed on the back, except his Good Conduct ribbon.
He gave his uniform, which was custom-made, to another man joining the armed forces, years ago.
“When I went into the service, they issued everything and I always was a guy who liked to be well-dressed,” he said. “And, I had my uniform tailor-made. And, we weren’t supposed to wear them. But, I did and I kept the other blues. After the war was over, another gentleman, a kid, was signing up, and he saw it and loved it, so I sold it to him.”
Fast forward to more than six decades later, and Gannotta is firing a cannon on the USS New Jersey to honor his years as an American Legion member, another memory to add to a lifetime as a Marine.
And, he was elected this year to serve as commander of Post 821, where he has been a member for more than 20 years.
On the cusp of becoming a centenarian, Gannotta attributes a long life to simple living.
“I believe in faith,” said Gannotta, who is a longtime parishioner at St. Anne’s Parish. “I consider myself very lucky. I’ve had some bad times, some good times, some really rotten times. But, I’ve lived a good life. If you eat good, and drink moderately, and don’t party too much, you can go a long way.”