Negaunee resident served as paratrooper
NEGAUNEE – “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s description of the sacrifice of World War II soldiers seems apt as we celebrate Veterans Day.
World War II veteran John Torreano is one of the “few” who should be honored for his selfless service to his country down to his life’s blood.
Evidence of Torreano’s service can be seen in a glass case filled with service medals, including two purple hearts, and a bronze star for valor, and one solitary photo that sits atop a cabinet in his living room in Negaunee.
Torreano said he enlisted in the army in October 1941 and was discharged in October 1945.
As a soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division 505th parachute infantry regiment, Torreano was a member of the first “jump school” class.
Torreano said being a paratrooper appealed to him because they got paid more than regular infantry.
“That was double pay,” Torreano said. “Which was nothing – $50 extra per month. And we very seldom got paid, because we never had a permanent base, we were always like gypsies – moving.”
Torreano was one of only two men from the Upper Peninsula in the paratroopers the other was Dominic Luca.
“He was a guy from Negaunee that I talked into joining up – because after I enlisted I felt kind of lonely going by myself. I talked him into going down to sign up. He got captured the first jump, he was a prisoner of war over in Germany for two years.”
Torreano’s service overseas started in 1943 when his unit landed in Casablanca, Morocco.
“We walked into the desert about 15-20 miles and we set up a bivouac area. We were there two or three weeks and we went to the invasion of Sicily,” Torreano said. “We were there two or three weeks, and then we went back to Africa.”
Torreano said the missions involved 13 to 15 men jumping out of a plane at a time – a dangerous occupation even in peace time.
“You’re lucky to get out of the plane alive,” Torreano said. “They had a lot of broken legs. And you can’t predict where exactly you are going to land, especially when you’re in combat,”
The soldiers were carrying about 150 pounds of gear on their backs, including weapons and land mines, but very little food.
“We had sea rations, which were really just crackers and dried spam,” Torreano said. “I lost 21 pounds.”
Torreano was a prisoner of war for a short time in the mountains of Italy.
He was in charge of a five-man patrol when he saw a German patrol of about the same size go behind a ridge formation and come out on top of it.
“And I told the guys- ‘boy that’s a dummy move.’ But the reason they did it was to trap us, and I fell right into it,” Torreano said. “I went around with our patrol trying to get behind them, but they were wise to it. When we arrived where they were they said, ‘Comrade, we’ve been waiting for you.'”
Torreano said the Germans took the five American men prisoner for a few fairly uneventful days.
“They were real good. We had no problem – they didn’t really have any real base, they were out quite a ways, just like us,” Torreano said.
Torreano said he and his men were able to escape from the Germans when the U.S. Air Force started strafing – which is the repeated dropping of bombs or heavy machine gun fire from low flying aircraft.
“When they did that, we made a run for it. That’s how we got away,” Torreano said.
In September 1943, part of Torreano’s unit was sent to a rest camp in Ireland.
From there the soldiers went to England where they trained for the invasion of Normandy, Torreano said, and after that he fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Torreano didn’t go into much detail about the two historic battles, but one particular story does give some insight into how harrowing the experiences must have been.
Torreano said his friend Ray Barr was killed in the Normandy, and about two years ago Barr’s wife contacted him.
“This guys wife was a singer for the Tommy Dorsey Band. She wanted to know what happened to him,” Torreano said. “So I told her we were laying down the morning of the invasion of Normandy – I was laying down and he was sitting up next to me. When we got orders to move out, he didn’t move, so I hollered to him. He still didn’t move so I thought he had fell asleep. I went over to shake him and he flopped over, a sniper had got him right through the forehead,” he said.
Torreano said a journalist had snapped a photo of him and other soldiers laying on the ground around Barr, moments before Barr was killed.
“He always used to always tell me, he had a little boy – 2 years old – he told me, he says, there is nothing that is going to keep me from going back to my little boy. Well there was,” Torreano said.
According to Torreano, about half of the men in the 82nd were married, but many of them had been in prison and were promised a commuted sentence if they volunteered to be a paratrooper.
“A great number of them were guys that were in prison and the governor of certain states would give them a blanket pardon if they joined,” Torreano said.
“In fact one of my best friends – he was in prison. His father was a Methodist minister and he went to prison for stealing from the church. We used to call him Reverend. He was a very good friend of mine, we were together all the time – got into nothing but trouble. We were up on the Vulturno River and he got hit by a mortar shell – took his leg off. But he survived. He just died about a year ago. He was from Pennsylvania. I liked him – of course he was wild like me.”
Torreano said one of the hardest parts of the war was watching others struggle, like the elderly English couple he befriended while he was stationed there. They had lost everything.
“They were very friendly, I got to be real close with them,” Torreano said. “I felt so sorry for those people because they really suffered.”
Another difficult time for Torreano was near the end of the war.
“We jumped in Holland,” Torreano said. “Our mission was to take a bridge, to cut off the German retreat.”
The jump took place on a Sunday afternoon, with half of the Torreano’s company becoming isolated from the other soldiers because they landed on the opposite side of the river.
The soldiers could not get across due to the constant gunfire, so they waited until midnight when it was dark and they expected the Germans to be asleep.
“At midnight they brought in some rubber dinghies for the men to come across on. Well, when they got halfway across the river, the Germans had heard about it, they threw some big spotlights on in the river and opened fire.”
All the men trying to cross the river were lost, Torreano said, and he witnessed the onslaught.
“I was on the on the opposite side. Half of my unit got wiped out coming across the river,” Torreano said.
Torreano, who seems humble about his time overseas, mentioned a very personal sacrifice as almost an afterthought.
He said he had malaria five times during his tour of duty, but the army does not have a record of the illnesses.
“We never had a base where they kept records,” Torreano said.
It was during a stay in a hospital in Naples, Italy for one of those bouts of malaria that Torreano was called upon to make another sacrifice.
“They blew up the post office at noon hour when all the people were rushing in and out. And there was a bunch of American soldiers that got hit. So the orderlies were coming around in the hospital asking for volunteers to donate blood,” Torreano said. “So I told them I’ll donate, but I want you to know that I am here for malaria.
‘We don’t care,’ they said, ‘we need the blood,'” Torreano said.
After he had donated, he asked who had received his blood, he was told the person was from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
“Well, it turns out it was a guy from Ishpeming,” Torreano said. “And I saw him dozens of time after, he walked with a cane, he had lost a leg. He was always walking from what they call Jungletown in Ishpeming downtown. And dozens of times I wanted to stop and talk to him and I never did. And when I did decide to talk to him, he died.”
Torreano, the last surviving member of his unit, said he doesn’t regret his time in the service, as hard as it might have been.
“If I had a chance to go back and do it over again, maybe I would have made another choice, if I knew how dangerous it was,” Torreano said. “Then again, I might not. I think I would still do it.”
Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-486-4401.