Naples WWII vet recalls Pearl Harbor attack, VE Day

WORLD WAR II VETERAN Larry Balboni recalls hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor. He had just turned 17 years old the month before Dec. 7, 1941. (De Busk Photo)

In December 1941, “the holiday spirit was very quiet. The country was aware of the war. Everyone was concerned about young men going to fight, enemy invasion, and the German submarines on the coast.”  — World War II veteran Larry Balboni

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

NAPLES — Larry Balboni had just exited a movie theater in Massachusetts when he heard the news about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

He cannot remember the title of the movie although that might come to mind later. However, like so many Americans, Balboni can recall details of the day that he learned the American Army and Navy Base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was attacked by the Imperial Japanese.

“I turned 17 that November. The next month, in December, I was at the movies. We came out of the movie and there were news boys on the corner, shouting ‘Japan bombed Pearl Harbor,’ ” he said.

“Everyone was incredulous. Little Japan went to war with the United States. Nobody could believe it,” he said.

“All the way through the war, people were incredulous that the Japanese were doing what they were doing,” he said.

America officially entered into World War II on Dec. 8, 1941. Balboni did not arrive in Europe until the autumn of 1944.

The longtime Naples resident was involved in some of the famous military operations like Operation Market Garden and Battle of the Bulge that have since been made into movies. From his wartime experiences, Balboni earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

“Bronze: it is for service above and beyond the ordinary. The Purple Heart is given to anyone who is wounded in combat. You don’t have to be smart to earn the Purple Heart. It means you didn’t get out of the way. If you were lucky, you didn’t get one,” Balboni said.

He was still recovering in a hospital when WWII ended and that is a date he prefers to remember.

“When the war was over in Europe, there were big celebrations all over the U.S. We celebrated in Atlantic City, N.J. We danced with the ladies, had a few drinks, and had a thoroughly good time,” Balboni said. “I was back in the United States in March 1945, and the war didn’t end until May.”

That was VE Day, Victory in Europe, which is marked on May 8, 1945.

As Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day approaches this year, Balboni recalled how that historical event cast a shadow on Christmas time in America. In the weeks that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans lived with uncertainty and fear, Balboni said. It was definitely more difficult to be merry that year.

As the calendar days counted down to Christmas, “there was a lot of solemnness.”

In his household, there were discussions about whether or not he might end up fighting in the war, which America had just entered.

“It was my senior year at Somerville High School in Massachusetts. I was eligible for the draft in another year. There was discussion about that in the family,” he said.

There were blackouts all over the country, both on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, he said.

“At that time, we were at war with Germany. There were blackouts. People were shading their windows at night, particularly on the coast, because the Germans knew the coastline.”

“The holiday spirit was very quiet,” Balboni said. “The country was aware of the war. Everyone was concerned about young men going to fight, enemy invasion, and the German submarines on the coast.”

Before he could wear a military uniform, Balboni contributed to the war effort by working at a shipyard. He applied for the full-time position prior to getting his high school diploma.

“I graduated in June of ’42. In July, I took a job with the Boston Naval Shipyard as a shipfitter’s helper. We were building destroyers for the Navy,” he said.

The shipyard “needed help because everything had accelerated. America was building ships, guns and tanks,” he said.

“That was one cold winter,” he said, commenting on his shipyard experience.

Balboni was drafted in February 1943. He did not find a good fit with the Army Air Corps and later gravitated toward the paratrooper division.

“I wasn’t able to remain in the Air Corps so I was sent back to an enlisted infantry assignment in Fort Jackson. It was there that I volunteered for the paratroopers,” he said.

More than a year passed between the time he was drafted and when he began training to be a paratrooper at Fort Benning in Georgia. It was the summer of 1944. At Fort Benning, he received his overseas assignment.

“I was assigned to 82nd Airborne Division, 508 Paratroopers. We were in England. The 82nd participated in D-Day (June 6, 1944) but I didn’t get there until later,” he said.

His first exposure to WWII action was jumping out of plane and parachuting into Holland.

“The 82nd jumped into Holland in Sept ’44. The 508 was part of that parachute drop,” he said.

He described what was called Operation Market Garden and was written about in the book, A Bridge Too Far.

Operation Market Garden was a major drive by the British Army to capture the bridges along the Waal River in the Netherlands and the Rhine River in Germany. Market referred to the airborne troops that arrived from above to assist; Garden referred to the troops already on the ground.

“It was a big operation. It was supposed to go off as smooth as silk but it didn’t,” he said.

After the jump in Holland and the bridge-capturing mission, the 82nd Airborne was replaced by Canadian troops and went into reserve in France. When the Airborne Division was not on a mission, the division reverted to reserve status, Balboni said.

“In December of ’44, the Germans broke through the Ardennes forest again. They needed to send all the reserves they had,” he said.

“We didn’t go by parachute this time. We went by truck to the Ardennes forest. We were sent in as reserves to stop the German advance,” he said.

“My job was a rifleman scout. I used to scout behind enemy lines to see where their machines guns were positioned, the strength of their troops, the numbers of their troops, where their troops were positioned,” he said.

“We had a squad of eight to 12 men. I was a good scout. I was one of the leaders of the scouting squad.”

“It was after the Americans had stopped the German advance that we started our own advance,” he said.

“On Jan. 3, 1945, I was leading an American troop to make an attack on the German lines. Two of us were walking by two tanks hidden by groves of trees. The Germans starting shelling the tanks with mortar. As I was walking by, I got hit by a piece of shrapnel in right wrist and was put out of action,” he said.

“You can hear a bullet, but mortar shells do not make noise.

You don’t even know you are being shot at,” he said.

“Then, they sent me to the hospital to have an operation on my wrist to repair the muscles and nerves. After hospitals in Belgium, France and England, I went back to the states where I received further medical work on my arm and hand,” he said.

Balboni said his opinion of the Japanese has changed over the decades.

“We weren’t as tolerant then. The Japanese were looked upon as not as good as Americans,” he said.

“Today and over the years, we have learned how much alike, how similar, people really are all over the world. And, we have become much more tolerant and accepting of the differences that seem to be between us,” he said.

“Things were different in the 1940s as they were in the 1960s.

The country was still recovering from the Depression in the ‘40s. The only thing that brought us out of the Depression was the war,” he said.

Balboni said he belongs to the American Legion Post 155; and he is one of two World War II veterans left. He likes to have the opportunity to talk about his experiences.

Another agreeable topic is family: his son and grandsons.

“Both my grandsons are in college. While they were growing up I was teaching them how to fish, how to shoot, how to ski,” he said. “I got ‘em all skiing. They aren’t as avid as I am.”

“I still ski today. Even at 93, I am able to do downhill skiing,” he said, adding that his favorite slope is Sunday River.

In recent years, he stopped biking. His other outdoor hobbies include astronomy and bird-watching.

“I still hike and walk and exercise daily,” he said.

“I have great-grandchildren to try to keep up with.”

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