about heroes' hearts
The legend and legacy of Mae and Sam, two ordinary Americans.
An incredible story told by their son, Gordon Richiusa
The true beauty of my father and mother, and the story contained herein, is that they were just ordinary Americans. They had flaws, problems, made mistakes, but when the time came to prioritize their most important, life and death values, they both met the challenges with style and courage. These qualities of unquestioned loyalty, and a willingness to sacrifice everything for the others, as we know is the common thread for those who were part of what has become to be called The Greatest Generation. It is also a requirement for every good parent and person of service.
As a journalist who has interviewed hundreds of people over the years, I can say with certainty that every human has a fascinating story to tell. It is perhaps my failing that I did not know the importance of my parents’ story while they were alive. I will do my best, now that I’ve uncovered the facts to some degree, to do their collective story justice.
My father was a Pearl Harbor Survivor, a Marine (until the day he died, like all Marines). However, until the end of his life, these facts were incidental to the things he held most dear: His wife, family, and core ethical values, not the least of which was demonstrated in the desire to be his own best example. He was a proud American, a life long Democrat, a union man, a lover of science, facts, and baseball, dyslexic, an inventor with a wry sense of humor, one of the first heart bypass patients in the U.S., one of eight children of two Sicilian Immigrants, and a pretty great father to five children. My grandfather, Frank Richiusa (My middle name is Frank and my surname means literally, “Re-Close”) was destined to be a priest, but when a visiting cardinal ordered my grandfather to pour unused holy oil down the drain instead of giving it to the poor (as was his habit apparently), my grandfather protested by quitting the priesthood.
My mother was a typical Italian mother who had been at least verbally abused by an over bearing father and even more typical Italian mother (also both immigrants); one of four children my mother overcame obstacles from the very first day of her life as she was thought to be dead at birth, wrapped in blankets and left on the floor behind a couch (some versions say “behind a stove” but it doesn’t really matter). Small and malformed, she was born without a hip on the right side and only because her grandmother could hear muffled sounds coming from inside the blankets did my mother ever make it to the second day of life. So, it was something of a miracle that my father and mother were even born, let alone ever met and got married.
Sadly, I did not know the significance to the story of my parent’s life until after they had both passed. Luckily, like most parents, they made every sacrifice to insure that I’d make good decisions in my life, paying for my schooling, and setting a good example for me to become the person I am today. When I made a mistake, my father would say something like, “Serves you right” or “That’s not how I would have done it.”
One of the significant details of my life is that I am a journalist, and in 2002 I was allowed to travel to Oahu for the 60th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor. I really didn’t have any idea what that meant, because my father (again, like most veterans) never talked about his service. I remember going to my dad and telling him I was going to publish a story in the Los Angeles Daily news about him and his story. He seemed mildly pleased, so I asked if it would be alright to video tape an interview…to make sure what I wrote would be accurate. He agreed and so my journey began. What he told me was so incredible, that I just had to share it.
For now, let me say that I was very impressed, but even after the interview I didn’t really understand the full impact and importance of his story. At Pearl Harbor my dad was a Sicilian-American engineer who had enlisted in the Marines and whose crew built the barracks at Hickam Field. According to my father’s recorded testimony, just like in the movie Pearl Harbor, when the shooting started, his crew had to break into the armory and get ammunition as well as weapons. As engineers, they were not issued any combat weapons. So, they mounted guns on their trucks, skip loaders, and tractors. After the shooting stopped, the Marines were a big part of the mop up. Some planes had crashed on land and they had to check to see if there were any survivors.
The first plane they came across was near a pineapple field. My dad said that a “native” came to the truck they were in and handed a knife, which the native said he’d killed the pilot with, claiming that the knife had been taken from the still living pilot.
My dad indicated that he did not look into any of the details of the story, but that he took the knife and passed it along later to one of my cousins. At another downed Japanese plane, two more “trophies” were taken, two pieces of aluminum from the cockpit of a plane where the pilot was already dead.
One piece (a small red one) was placed inside my dad’s logbook and forgotten until two years ago. Another larger piece he made into a bracelet for his wife-to-be, my mother Flora Mae Villani.
It was a beautiful design, what I call, “Two Hearts Beating as One,” a linked hearts symbol that represents to me how all heroes’ feel about their chosen path. Anyway, I knew that the bracelet was real, because my mother had been wearing it as long as I could remember. My parents had never told me where it had come from until that interview.
My father came home after Pearl Harbor for a short time, married my mother, gave her the bracelet and was returned to fight in some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Campaign.
I ended my video interview, eyes wide and mouth agape, with the question, “Do you have ANY good memory, whatsoever from your experiences of World War II?” My father answered quickly, “Getting married was a good thing that happened, but my best memory was coming home and meeting my two and a half year old daughter for the first time. My father did not know that my mother was pregnant with my oldest sister Lynda until she was born. She had been conceived during his short visit home after my parents’ elopement.
Fast-forward 72 years later to the memorial after my mother died. It was an emotional ceremony, and later that day my father asked his five children (in order of appearance Lynda, Judy, Gary, Gordon and Cheryl) to take my mother’s possessions and divide them between us. I didn’t really want anything, but at second thought I asked, “Can I have the bracelet?”
My father looked at me and smiled, “I think you should have it,” he said. “Your mother would like that, but I want to give it to you because I now you’re going to do something good with it.”
Naturally I said, “Of course I will,“ not realizing what that was going to mean.
Out of character to his usual “gentle nudge” he took me by the forearms, looked straight into my eyes and said, “No, I mean it. I know you will do something really good with this and that’s why I think you should have it.”
He handed me the bracelet, and announced that he did not want to live in the same house where my mother and he hand lived until her death. He decided to move from Camarillo, California to Irvine (100 or so miles away from my sisters Judy and Cheryl—who had taken good care of both parents until that day).
I was happy, since I lived near Lynda and now I would at least be able to see my father on a regular basis. We played chess every Tuesday for more than two years. It has taken much more time than I expected for this project to be completed, because (as is my habit) when I took responsibility for completing a task my parents had given to me, I did much more than I originally expected because I did the best job possible, as I saw it. That was something I learned from both of my parents.
Anyway, the three of us went to see the movie SELMA, by Ava Duvernay. When we came out, into the lobby after watching that very powerful film (it brought a tear to my eye, I admit) I was astonished to see that my dad had tears rolling down his cheeks. He was crying! That was the first time I’d ever seen him cry! I was stunned a little, but I managed to ask, “What’s going on?” or something like that.
He answered with the most remarkable part of his amazing story. He said, “My whole crew on Oahu was black.”
At the time I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t know that history books had no mention of any black Marines at Pearl Harbor when the attack occurred. But, here was my father telling me that he was in charge a, “all black, no, maybe, I think they were all black…yeah, they were. I was in charge of an all black crew. They knew more about building than I did and I was the superior officer. I remember saying, ‘I’m sorry I’m the superior officer. Just go ahead and tell me what you want me to order you to do.’”
Again, remember I did not know at this time that his comment was so important; so I asked him a follow up question from 14 years previous, “So in your 95 years of life, what is your greatest regret?” or, maybe “Do you have any regrets in your life?” “I’m getting near the end,” he answered quickly, as if he’d been thinking about this for a long time. “And I’ve been trying to rid myself of hate, and forgive even my enemies, but I will never forgive your grandfather Villani for how he treated your mom. I tried when she was alive, for her sake, but I just couldn’t do it. But, my only real regret in my live is that I lost track of my best friend from high school, Floyd Fuji.”
“You mean, when the war broke out?”
“Yes. I tried to find him a few times after the war, but I couldn’t.”
“Why? Did he end up in an internment camp? Manzanar?” I put two and two together in my head, suddenly and realized that maybe this was something my father had been trying to tell me for a long time, but that I’d just not picked up on the cues.
“Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s the one,” he answered. “I’ve always regretted losing touch with Floyd because we were such, good friends.”
“So, why,” I asked him in complete ignorance of the lesson he’d been trying to teach me for a long time, but that I was not sharp enough to comprehend, “Why, haven’t you ever told me about your crew being black, or your best friend being Japanese American?”
“Because I didn’t think ethnicity was important,” he said.