There are few left from Maine’s “Greatest Generation,” called upon to serve in the fight against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Most are well into their 90s, and there may soon be a time when no World War II veterans remain.
But on Thursday in Orono, three of Maine’s remaining veterans from that era were able to share their reflections on their service and how it changed them. They had gathered at the campus of the University of Maine for the unveiling of a plaque honoring the more than 16 million Americans who fought in World War II.
Carmine Pecorelli is 96 but doesn’t show it. The Belfast resident still has a firm handshake, and he displayed a broad smile Thursday as he worked the gathered crowd of more than 70. Pecorelli served as a petty officer in the Navy on a minesweeper in the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign of the war.
The war wasn’t easy, but Pecorelli said he and other Americans were confident the tides of history were on their side.
“We knew we would win,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
In eighth grade in the late 1930s, Pecorelli said he felt he was a “loser,” but he drew inspiration from the work of Booker T. Washington, a Black educator whose work focused on self-help. The proudly Italian-American Pecorelli noted that Washington’s middle initial stood for “Taliaferro,” a variation of the Italian word for iron cutter.
Referencing Roman statesman Cicero, he said that one of humanity’s central attributes was gratitude. Just a few short years after he gained strength from Washington, Pecorelli was defending his country against threats it saw as existential.
Don Gallupe, 97, born in Brewer, was a gunner on a warplane (Northrop P-61 Black Widow) in the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the U.S. Air Force. He became a unit commander in 1943 at the young age of 18.
He had been drafted earlier that year while a student at Bangor High School, where he was in the ROTC. He credits that program with helping him prepare for military life.
Gallupe landed in Australia and went up through New Guinea and some of the surrounding islands. He recalled his service on Wakde, an island group in present-day Indonesia.
Adapting to military life wasn’t difficult for Gallupe. He came from a military family, and three of his siblings also served in World War II. One of them, Capt. Arthur D. Gallupe, was a Pearl Harbor survivor who perished in southern France shortly before Allied forces liberated it from German control.
“I was over in New Guinea at the time I got the message,” Gallupe said. “Very, very tough.”
Speaking to the Bangor Daily News in 2013, Gallupe said he had thought a lot about how the war had changed him.
“We all have our moments of wondering how we got back,” Gallupe said at the time.
George Newhall, 93, who grew up in Bangor, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1946 and was stationed in the Washington, D.C., area for five years. More recently, he served as a troop greeter to returning soldiers who flew into Bangor International Airport.
Newhall enlisted after the war ended with the surrender of Japan on Sept. 2, 1945, though he still is technically a World War II veteran. For the purpose of federal benefits, a World War II veteran is anyone who served in the U.S. military from Sept. 16, 1940 to July 24, 1947.
He has trouble remembering his phone number, but still clearly recalls his service number: 594056. It’s something that never really goes away, even after a long life.
“It brings back memories, doesn’t it,” Newhall asked.
Pecorelli also served in the Korean War and Vietnam War. Though he never got called up to Vietnam, he trained special forces at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
World War II, Pecorelli said, was a defensive war against aggressive powers. The Japanese had killed more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers at Pearl Harbor, and the Germans had acted aggressively toward U.S. ships, military and otherwise, during the Battle of the Atlantic in which he served.
But Vietnam was a political battle, Pecorelli said.
“They’re beautiful people,” Pecorelli said of the Vietnamese, noting the strong economic relations the Republic of Vietnam has had with the U.S. since ties were normalized in 1995. “It was a bad political move.”
About 400,000 of those who served the U.S. in World War II were killed, including more than 3,000 Mainers who died or went missing, according to the Congressional Research Service. Those 3,000 included 2,156 in the Army or Army Air Corps and 967 in the Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard.
There are about 326,000 American World War II veterans alive today, according to federal data from earlier this year, a small fraction of the 16 million Americans who served during the conflict.
There were an estimated 2,400 World War II veterans in Maine, according to 2019 U.S. Census data, though that number is likely lower two years later. Only 154 were in Penobscot County.
Other notable living World War II veterans from or connected to Maine include children’s book writer and illustrator Ashley Bryan, Penobscot Nation tribal elder Charles Shay — the only military veteran to attend a recent D-Day commemoration earlier this month in Normandy, France, where he now lives — and painter Harold Garde.
Asked how it felt being one of the last World War II veterans, Newhall equivocated. “I’m just happy to be here,” he said.
Pecorelli was more abstract.
“I feel grateful, and I’ll carry the memory with me,” he said. “The body will go, but not the spirit.”