STAMFORD – Joe D’Ademo was standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific Ocean when out of the clouds came a kamikaze – a Japanese plane, loaded with explosives, on a suicide mission.
D’Ademo, a teenager, had been aboard the USS Lexington one week. He heard the plane careening toward the ship and dove into an opening on deck.
“It’s one of those things I don’t like to think about,” D’Ademo, an aviation mechanic, said 50 years later when asked to recount his World War II experience. “(I) hurt my shoulder, but a guy I was talking to just a moment before was killed instantly.”
Thirty men died that day, D’Ademo said.
“Almost all of them were pilots,” he recalled. “They were in the ready room waiting to make a raid on the Marshall Islands,” site of a Japanese military base.
The stories of D’Ademo and other Stamford men and women who helped the world win the war were captured on audiocassette tapes by former history teacher and high school principal Tony Pavia.
Pavia put the stories in a 1995 book, “An American Town Goes to War,” then gave the cassettes to the Stamford History Center.
Now the history center is looking to digitize the nearly 30-year-old tapes, which may be in danger of disintegrating.
“If we don’t transfer these oral histories to a new medium, eventually we won’t be able to use them. It’s a vexing problem for history centers throughout the world,” said Ron Marcus, librarian at the center. “We don’t dare play them. They might break.”
The tapes are priceless, Marcus said.
“These are people, most of them now deceased, who witnessed a major world event. In the vast majority of cases there are no other recordings of their voices,” Marcus said. “If you were a famous general or admiral, sure, there may be recordings. But if you were an infantryman or a seaman, this is it.”
The tapes offer a chance to hear, from D’Ademo himself, what happened next in that summer of 1944, when he was repairing fighter planes and gassing them up before takeoff.
He witnessed what came to be known as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” As the U.S. Navy moved within striking distance of Japan, the Imperial Japanese Navy sent hundreds of planes after U.S. aircraft carriers to try to stop them at the Marianas Islands.
The turkey shoot “lasted two days and two nights,” D’Ademo told Pavia. “It was impossible to sleep. At night the sky was all lit up like Christmas. Planes were moving in and out … the admiral ordered all of the landing lights to be turned on so the pilots would see where we were.”
The Japanese maneuver failed. The Americans downed nearly 400 of their planes and sank three of their aircraft carriers. The USS Lexington was crucial to the victory.
And the young D’Ademo, who enlisted in the Navy at 17, helped it happen. He would return home to Stamford to work with his father as a mason and then open a gas station.
“I am of the mind that history is made by common people,” Pavia said. “We tend to read history books through the eyes of leaders, and read about battles through the eyes of generals. It’s good to have a look at it from the ground up, from the people who really made history. And much of the time they were not captains, but kids.”
The veterans were in their 70s and 80s when he interviewed them in the 1990s, half a century after World War II, Pavia said, “older guys with gravelly voices, but they were telling stories from the vantage point of a kid. We forget that they were kids.”
D’Ademo fits the bill. He told Pavia how he watched planes from the USS Lexington chase a Japanese Zero, then the best of the world’s carrier-based fighter planes.
“I was on the starboard side of the ship, cheering like I was on the 50-yard line of a football game – ‘go get ‘em! Go get ‘em!’” D’Ademo said. “I got so excited that I jumped and put my foot through the wing of an airplane. I got out of there in a hurry.”
Pavia said he hopes the tapes can be saved because only portions of the veterans’ stories made it into his book.
“The book is just the index. I had to edit the interviews down,” he said. “I would say 30 percent to 60 percent of each interview made it in.”
Marcus said he hopes a few donors will step forward to help cover the $1,000 cost of digitizing the tapes, which is not in the history center’s budget.
The USS Lexington now is legendary. It was awarded 11 Battle Stars and the Presidential Unit Citation for destroying more than 1,000 Japanese planes and sinking 1 million tons of Japanese vessels.
“I wouldn’t give up my experiences for all the money in the world,” D’Ademo told Pavia. “At the time, you were scared, of course, but to see that many Americans, and how they held together, is something I’ll never forget.”
To donate toward the cost of digitizing the tapes, email firstname.lastname@example.org.