For the past couple decades, over glasses of wine or the occasional margarita, Joe Giocomarra has regaled his pal Tom Caulfield with tales of his fascinating, improbable life.
Giocomarra, one of only about 558,000 World War II veterans still living, turned 100 on Memorial Day.
“I have the privilege of reaching 100,” Giocomarra said. “That’s a privilege a lot of people don’t [have]. And, I don’t know, I really shouldn’t be here.”
Giocomarra retains vivid memories of the war, when he served with the U.S. Merchant Marine, a collection of ships populated by civilian volunteers transporting materials, supplies, equipment and troops to help fight and win World War II.
He’s shared accounts of his experiences throughout the years with appreciative friends and, last week, over coffee with a reporter and a couple of pals in his La Cañada Flintridge home of 45 years, where an American flag flaps out front.
The longtime machinist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory testified to having been aboard three ships that were sunk, twice by torpedo and once by a mine. He’s shared stories of being one of only four survivors from a crew of 65 when their ship was hit by a torpedo off the coast of South Africa and enduring 33 days in a lifeboat, surviving on rations, rainwater and, he said, faith.
“He’s led an incredible and full life,” Caulfield said. “Just talking about the experiences he’s had, it’s like you’re opening a history book.”
That history book would read like an adventure story.
Born to Italian immigrants on May 28, 1918, in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Giocomarra lost his mother to flu when he was just 9. Raised mostly by his sister, he came of age during the Great Depression and spent six months in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp before, at 17, making his way to San Francisco by hopping trains: “I became a regular hobo,” Giocomarra said. “It was pretty interesting.”
After finding work at a lumberyard in California, he talked his way onto a lumber ship as a utility man, apt preparation for his tenure with the Merchant Marine, during which he saw combat in the Pacific War Zone, the Mediterranean Middle East War Zone and the Atlantic War Zone.
“The way it worked, you had a home base, and if you stayed on that one ship, that one ship would go on the same trip,” Giocomarra said. “I kind of liked to see the world, and you could sign back on the same ship or you could sign on to another, and that’s what I did, and that’s the reason I was on several ships.”
He sailed on six altogether. One of them, the Alcoa, was torpedoed as it left Guantanamo Bay but was able to return to port, he said. Another, the Sea Porpoise, struck a mine and sank in shallow water in Normandy after carrying troops to the battlefield (Giocomarra said he was pleasantly surprised to receive an award from the French government in 2001, for his service during the Normandy Invasion.)
He’s also reported that he was one of only four survivors on the Malabar, which he said was torpedoed after leaving Johannesburg. Giocomarra said he’d just gotten off watch duty on a lovely moonlit night when the torpedo struck its target.
“There was a lookout fellow up on the bow and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll go up and talk to him a little before I hit the sack,’” Giocomarra said. “That’s when the torpedo hit, right mid-ship, and it blew everything up. There was a big fire and I couldn’t get back there to where the lifeboats were.
“There was a fellow with me and we sat there and I told him, ‘Well, we need to get off this thing because it will suck us down with it.’
“All through the ship, there were boxes that had life jackets in there. I got two life jackets, and there was a shank of a rope, and I picked that up and we just jumped in the water and tethered ourselves together and said, ‘Well, we’ll go down together if need be.’”
They jumped off the ship together at about 9 p.m., Giocomarra said, and spent all night in the water.
“At about 5 in the morning, it got daylight and I saw an object down a ways and said, ‘We’ve got to make our way down there; it looks like something that we can get up and out of this water.’ It was this lifeboat and there were two guys in there, and they were in such shock, they didn’t know how they got in that boat.”
Giocomarra was just 21 at the time, he said, but as the eldest of the survivors he took charge.
“And how’d you live?” asked Joe Wallace, another LCF friend who often attends Santa Anita A’s car club meetings with Giocomarra.
“These other fellows were first-trippers and they really didn’t know much about life and all that, so I took over,” Giocomarra said. “First thing was to see what was in the boat to survive and then figure out how to ration those things. There was stuff called Pemmican, you used to make pies out of it, and then we had biscuits, square and rock hard, you’d have to soak them to eat them, but it was enough to keep feeling full — and then flying fish, we survived on them pretty much.
“And rainwater, it rained about every day, so we threw the old water out and caught the fresh water.”
What Giocomarra described as monsoon-like conditions meant he and his fellow mariners were never dry. They never were free from danger, either.
“There was always a certain amount of water down in the boat, and this fellow dropped a cup down there and then he reached over there to rinse it out and a shark got him and took his hand off and shredded his arm,” Giocomarra said.
The crewmen succumbed to his injuries.
“It was over 100 degrees and it didn’t take very long for him to start decaying, so we figured, well, there were two anchors on the ship, one on each end, and we’d use one of them to tie to his feet and hope that it would take him down instead of just throwing him over the side and leaving floating around with the sharks.”
That plan worked, Giocomarra said.
“And then,” he added, “there were the three of us.”
Giocomarra said it took 33 days — none of which he or his fellow merchant mariners were paid for, he notes — until they were rescued. He remembers the final three days, after a plane flew by and signaled that they’d been spotted, as the most difficult.
“You have to keep the faith,” Giocomarra said. “That was the main thing.”
According to the U.S.N. Armed Guard World War II Veterans Association, there aren’t exact statistics regarding U.S. Merchant Marine losses. Estimates indicate that between 1,554 and 1,700 merchant vessels were sunk during World War II, that between 5,662 and 8,300 merchant seamen and officers died or went missing, and that as many as 12,000 were wounded, while more than 600 became prisoners of war.
None of them received the recognition or benefits that uniformed military service members did until after the United States granted them veteran status in 1988.
After his tenure with the merchant marine ended on June 6, 1945, Giocomarra — who married his childhood sweetheart before the war began but received a letter filing for separation prior to its end — moved to Glendale.
He got gigs as an extra in movies before he called on skills he gained during the war to launch his career as a machinist, first at General Controls for 25 years and then at Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 22.
Since retiring 30 years ago, he’s been busy restoring old cars — and one old ship, the SS Lane Victory, an American Victory-class cargo ship based in San Pedro that was used in World War II.
“I like old things,” joked Giocomarra, who recently renewed his driver’s license.
This past Saturday, he drove his 1931 Model A to the annual Fiesta Days community breakfast, where Mayor Terry Walker happened to sit at his table and was astounded to learn of the local centenarian-to-be with the extraordinary life story.
And on Monday, Giocomarra celebrated his birthday by participating for the first time in LCF’s annual Memorial Ceremony honoring those who served and sacrificed in military combat. Afterward, a line of well-wishers formed to meet and take photos with him.
Looking on, Caulfield was moved by the scene.
“I have so many feelings,” said Caulfield, who’s expecting more than 50 people for a big birthday “whoop-de-do,” as Giocomarra called it.
“You guys are making too big of a thing out of this,” Giocomarra said, good naturedly.
Caulfield changed the subject, spurring on the most interesting man he knows with another question: “And you’ve met a lot of interesting people through your life, haven’t you, Joe?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Giocomarra, fetching another gem from his memory bank. “I met Mahatma Gandhi.”