Carl Russo: Loading bombs, cheering gunners

Graduating from high school at 17, having to wait a year to be eligible for the draft, and not knowing when, or if, the draft would call, Carl Russo took his service in World War II into his own hands.

When he turned 18, he went to the draft board. “I told them I wanted to go in the service right away, instead of waiting for my number to come up,” he said.

Russo was one of four children of Carl and Frances Russo. In addition to a brother, Anthony, Russo had two sisters, Adeline and Mary Anne. Born in Warren, Russo said “my Dad had a grocery store on Third and Conewango… That was a nice store.” He said, in addition to groceries, it featured a meat market and soda fountain.

But the Great Depression left its mark on the family business. “In those days people used to charge their groceries,” he said, explaining that his father continued that practice after the Depression hit. “He kept letting them charge,” he said.

Russo said, though, that once the war came on, little changed. He recalled gas rationing and other purchasing limitations but said it “wasn’t really bad.”

His parents “didn’t say much” about his decision to jump into the military. “I was surprised,” he said. “I would have went anyways. I respected them but I sure wanted to get in there. They were good about it.”

With war knowledge coming from “just what you read in the papers,” Russo got his way.

After registering for the draft in May 1943, Russo volunteered.

“They called it a selective volunteer,” he explained. “I had my choice between the Navy, Marines, Army and Air Force and I asked for the Coast Guard. (There) weren’t any openings in the Coast Guard. I took the Navy. I like being on the water. I can’t picture myself in the Army shooting people and slogging through the mud and dirt. I really liked the Navy.”

And he would wind his way to an aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Cabot.

Russo was first sent to Great Lakes, Illinois for boot camp but “never did get training for what I did on the carrier.”

He was first assigned to electrical school. “I hated it,” he said.

So the Navy responded by sending him to advanced electrical school and then to mine detection school.

“I didn’t like the idea of being on the minesweeper,” he noted.

He was eventually given the option to go to officers training, after completing four years worth of college in 18 months, at Union College in Schenectady, NY.

“That was pretty tough,” he said, explaining that when he was in high school he studied a business track, never thinking he would go to college.

When that didn’t work out, he went back into the regular Navy.

“I ended up in Treasure Island, California,” he said, “where I left on a Henry Kaiser ‘Liberty Ship.’ We stopped in Honolulu Hawaii then continued to a staging area called Ulithi (in the South Pacific).

“I then went aboard the U.S.S. Cabot,” he explained, “a medium-sized aircraft carrier. I became an aviation ordnanceman. We loaded the bombs, torpedoes, and rockets on the ships’ planes for attacking the Japanese.”

Russo said it was work that was done early in the morning, before sunrise, but came with one benefit.

“One advantage we had was being allowed to go to the head of the ‘chow line,'” he noted.

And the work itself didn’t bother him.

“I didn’t mind that at all,” he said. “After the planes took off we didn’t have anything to do. We had real good gunners on our ship, accurate, they shot down a lot of Jap planes. (We) felt sort of safe. We’d stand on the after end of the ship because we didn’t have anything to do (and) watch them shoot the (Japanese) planes down… cheering and yelling like at a ball game or something. When you’re young, you’re not too serious.”

The Cabot had “a hanger deck, elevator deck, (and we) had movies and boxing matches on the hanger deck. We didn’t say it was too bad. We had guard duty, too, on the ship. We had it pretty good, I think.”

The Cabot carried a crew of 1,200, significantly smaller than the 3,000 man crew on the larger aircraft carriers, he explained. “We sailed in a fleet of other carriers, cruisers and destroyers and battleships.”

The Cabot cruised throughout the South Pacific, supporting bombing initiatives at Nansei Shoto, Honshu and Kyushu on the Japanese mainland and in support of battles at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Bonin Islands, including ChiChi Jima, among others.

But while he was kept off the combat line and somewhat removed from the Pacific islands where the war raged, it didn’t mean he was completely safe.

“The biggest danger we had was Japanese suicide bombers (also called Kamikazes). When they left Japan, they had enough fuel for a one way trip… We had some close calls. We actually had one hit our ship. I wasn’t on board when that happened. A few guys got killed.”

“One night we were sitting on the hanger deck watching a movie (at a) place where we were anchored (that) was considered a safe place,” he said. A Japanese plane flew over their heads, passed over a few other ships and “flew into an ammunition ship.”

As the war went on, the Kamikaze attacks intensified.

“It was getting worse because Japan was getting desperate,” said Russo.

Submarine activity was also a threat.

“We were hit once by a torpedo that didn’t explode,” he recalled. “(A) very lucky ship we had. They called her the ‘Iron Woman.'”

The “Iron Woman” name was referenced in a story written by famed War Correspondent Ernie Pyle, who was, just days before his death, on board the Cabot. Russo commented on how Pyle interviewed enlisted men, asking where they were from.

“I think we were a pretty lucky ship,” Russo said.

Everyone knew that an invasion of Japan itself was inevitable if the war was ever going to end.

“Near the fall of 1945,” Russo said, “we were on our way to Japan when the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs on (Nagasaki) and Hiroshima and the Japanese surrendered.”

“Everyone was yelling” when they found out the war was over. “Then we had it pretty easy after that… didn’t have anything to do.”

So they came home.

“It was a beautiful sight to see the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco when we sailed under it,” Russo remembered. After a stop in San Diego, the Cabot sailed through the Panama Canal up the East Coast, docking at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

“I had to stay in a little longer,” Russo said. The Navy “wanted people to decommission the ship.”

He was discharged in June of 1946.

A Greyhound bus brought him right back to Warren.

And life went on.

“I’ve had so many jobs I can’t remember (them) all,” he said. But he worked at the post office in Warren and retired after 25 years. “That was my last job,” he said.

Calling himself a “rover,” Russo said “I didn’t get married until I was 48 years old.”

“I met my wife and that was it.”

He met Aurelia, who goes by Bobbi, when she worked at a stationary store on Liberty Street and she brought the mail to him at the post office one day. He said he thought, “there’s a good looking girl.” At the Allegheny Hotel one night, he asked her to dance.

“We clicked right a way,” he said. “She was from Germany… married an American GI. His family was from Warren. After her kids got out of high school, she divorced him.”

Through that, Russo gained a family.

“She had three kids and they really love me,” he said. “They’re just like my kids.

His wife now lives at the Rouse Home and he lives in the Rouse Suites.

“She knows me and we have good visits,” he said. “It could be worse, you know. That’s why I decided to stay here. I go see her every day.”

But through all the years, his feelings about his service haven’t changed.

“I would have been very disappointed to not do this,” he said. “I was proud to have been able to serve my country. I still feel proud.”