Joe Salerno
Joe Salerno
Joe Salerno

Joe Salerno

Battle of Guadalcanal Resident recalls experiences with Marines during WWII

By Mary Kay Gominger

August 7 marks the 66nd anniversary of the landing of the Marines on Guadalcanal. Much has been written over the years about the Battle of Guadalcanal, as it was the first major offensive launched by Allied Forces against the Empire of Japan. The victory the Allied Forces gained at Guadalcanal is often referred to as a turning point in the war. AFRH resident Gesidio (Joe) Solerno is not interested in reading about the battle of Guadalcanal…he doesn’t have to, Uncle Sam gave him a front row ticket and the opportunity to experience it first hand.

Joe joined the Marines in 1940 at the age of 19. Life changes fast, as the saying goes, and in 1942 Joe found himself one day digging his way out of the barracks through four feet of snow in Iceland to the next day bound for the sunny skies and coral beaches in islands of the Pacific. Joe was a member of the 1st Marine Division.

“I went over about November and spent eight or nine months there,” Joe said. “The main thing I remember is being told when we shoved off is that if I was still alive in three years they would send me back home. I was and they did, after participating in other battles in the Pacific,” Joe said with a laugh.

Life on Guadalcanal was wretched Joe recalls, just dealing with sweltering heat and humidity, an abundance of rodents, dysentery and disease not to mention dodging bullets, bloodshed and death. He does have a favorite memory of some late afternoons when he got a chance to slip away to the grassy fields beside the Henderson Field airstrip and watch the fighter pilots coming in from battle.

“If the pilot shot down a Japanese aircraft they would do a barrel role as they came in,” Joe recalled. “Oh I used to love to watch them as they came in. If the pilot shot down two, he would do two rolls. Some Rear Admiral eventually stopped the show but boy it was sure fun to watch while I could.” Joe survived his time on Guadalcanal picking through k-rations that the rats hadn’t gotten into with an occasional feast of canned tangerines and rice salvaged from abandoned Japanese camps. When it was time to leave the island, Joe didn’t have to worry about packing. He had only the clothes on his back.

“It was so hot and humid that our clothes would just rot,” Joe said. “I was stick thin when I got back to the states. The first thing they did was issue us new uniforms and feed us…steak, chicken, ice cream…anything to fatten us up.”

Joe did six years in the Marine Corps and the New York native returned to his home state where he was hired as a traffic control inspector for New York City. His service to country wasn’t over yet though but it did take a turn into the field of aviation and the Department of the Navy.

“I always loved aviation, even as a kid,” Joe said. “When the Korean War broke out, at a friends’ encouragement, I joined the Naval Air Reserve and did 20 years. It was my dream come true.”

His time in the Naval Air Reserve included eight trips to Vietnam with a Transport Squadron. He heard about the U.S. Naval Home at a retiree seminar and decided, in 1988, to join his comrades in retirement. He lived in Gulfport until 2005 when he moved to the AFRH in Washington, D.C., as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

Joe will be 88 years old in September. His eyesight is failing due to macular degenerative eye disease but he is determined not to let that stop him from enjoying walking everyday and participating in the many activities and trips Rec Services offers each month and traveling. He eagerly awaits his return to Gulfport.

“I’m blind in one eye and don’t see very well out of the other but I’m not going to let that stop me,” Joe said. “I love the beach so about once a month I board a greyhound bus and go to Myrtle Beach or St. Petersburg…anywhere to see the water,” Joe said. “That will have to do until Gulfport reopens and I can return to my home by the sea.”