Al D’Agostino’s military career began as a Merchant Marine seaman just a few months short of the end of World War II. He graduated from high school in Rochester, New York and had been taking radio theory classes and working toward his 2nd class FCC license. But on his 18th birthday, Al decided to put radio school on hold and join the Merchant Marine. So he headed to Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York for basic training.
Al fell in love with the seaman’s life. He says, “I was so caught up with the lifeboat drills and the gunnery training, and I wanted to go to sea.” He was able to go to sea, but it was discovered that he was color blind and this kept him out of the particular jobs he wanted. So he shipped out in the Steward Department as a “scullion,” or “pot washer.” (Well, someone has to do it.) But the Executive Chef recognized that Al was a very hard working and efficient young man, and he promoted him to 3rd Butcher. Al says, “My monthly pay skyrocketed to $37.50! This was the beginning of the astronomical wages paid to merchant seamen. The guys in the Army and Navy always said we were overpaid.”
Al was aboard the SS Monterey at this time. This was one of the Matson Line’s refitted peacetime luxury ships. The Monterey was configured as a troop ship for the war and their mission was to carry several thousand troops to Manila in the Philippine Islands. These troops were not happy men. They had spent almost two years in combat in Africa, Italy and France and they were to be part of the force that was to invade Japan. But when they arrived at Manila, the war in the Pacific was over. Al remembers that, “Our return to San Francisco was much more joyous because the troops on board were a happy lot. The war was over and they were going home!”
As the war ended the US Government tackled a new problem. The GI’s had acquired brides during their military leaves in Australia and New Zealand while they were at war in the Pacific and they all needed to come to the States to be reunited with their husbands. Some ships had to be converted from troop transports, with six-tiered bunks and no place to sit and eat, to more comfortable accommodations for these brides.
The Monterey was one of these and put in at Hunter’s Point Ship Yard and the merchant seamen were on their own until the task was completed. Al would have to fund his own meals and lodging during this down time, so he decided to board another ship while the retro-fitting took place. He signed on with the Matsonia for a quick, five days across and five days back and three days in port, trip to Honolulu. (Not bad duty – making a paycheck on a visit to Hawaii.)
As the Monterey got underway, it was off to Pago-Pago, American Samoa, Auckland, New Zealand and Sydney, Australia to pick up these war brides. “I really don’t remember how many war brides there were. I would guess several thousand with many squealing infants. My perspective was strictly from the Butcher Shop where we made sure we had baby spring lamb chops and legs of lamb,” Al says. At the end of the first trip, Al remembers the docks in San Francisco as being “extremely crowded with people greeting the new brides and their babies.”
Taking the SS Central Victory from San Francisco, they traveled through the Panama Canal and east to Brooklyn, New York. The east coast longshoremen were on strike and it took long negotiations before they were able to go ashore and make their way through the picket signs and deadly appearing longshoremen hooks. Al was relieved to board the SS Marine Marlin, a ship under charter of the US Government. They would go to fifteen ports in Mexico, South America and Europe to pick up German nationals, who had infiltrated there, and return them to Germany to be tried as war criminals. They reached Bremerhaven, Germany after a three-month trip, unloaded their passengers to the authorities and boarded European refugees, some of which included Holocaust survivors, for the return trip to New York.
Once back in New York, Al needed three months at sea in order to complete his obligation and receive the “Certificate of Substantially Continuous Service in the United States Merchant Marine.” He signed on to the SS Charles H. Lanham in Baltimore. It was a couple more trips across the Atlantic and finally, before he was twenty years old, they docked at Galveston, TX, and Al said his farewell to the sea and returned to Rochester, New York after stopping in Washington, D.C to receive his service ribbons for the Pacific and Atlantic and World War II Victory Medal.
In 1948 the US Congress passed a new Selective Service Act, which did not exclude the Merchant Marine seamen from the draft. “The certificate of continuous service I picked up in Washington was worthless!” (This has been the major contention of the Merchant Marine; not being recognized as veterans of World War II.) In January, 1949 Al answered the call of his draft board and was drafted into the Army. June 1950 saw the start of the Korean War and “in January of 1951 I found myself in Korea. The Army recognized all my time in the galley and put me in the Signal Corp as a radio relay operator.” (Ok, that makes perfect sense in the Army!) But the Army recognized Al’s schooling and talent in the radio field and he would spend his tour in Korea atop a mountain in a radio signal relay station.
Al, his Lieutenant and a small party of the radio relay company they were attached to made their way to one of the highest peaks in South Korea, their destination was the top of Geumosan Mountain with an elevation of 977 meters. There they would determine the best location to install and maintain a radio relay station to connect communication between the 25th Division and 8th Army Headquarters. These radio technicians would receive the transmission, boost it and then send it on to the distant receiver in Daegu, South Korea.
Here they would have protection of seven 50 caliber machine guns, manned by Republic of South Korea soldiers. Al said, “They were not very reliable.” His company would have to walk guard each night to ensure that these Korean troops did not abandon their posts. If any of them were caught sleeping on duty, their commanders would severely beat them the next morning.
They arrived at this location in November and would spend the first six months on top of this mountain in tents. That’s not a cozy situation with the severe, below zero temperatures, in Korea. His detachment eventually built a Quonset hut where Al was able to sleep for the remainder of his time there. Al suffered frost bite and cold weather injury while stationed in South Korea and is a disabled veteran as a result.
Al became very good friends with his interpreter, Joe Byung Ui. They became very close, but sadly after the war, he was unable to locate him. I have included a picture of them and the last letter Al received from Joe in 1951.
Upon leaving the Army, Al took advantage of education afforded by the G.I. Bill. He graduated from Cornell in 1956 with a degree in Hotel Administration. His years of being in the Steward Department of the Merchant Marine provided him the basic skills to launch his career in food service and restaurant management.
Al became the Director of Dining and Commissary Service for Trans World Airlines and eventually would become the Senior Vice President of Operations for Sky Chefs, responsible for all airport restaurants and flight kitchens. Now that ain’t too bad for a guy that started out as a scullion!
Thank you, Al D’Agostino, for your service to our country and for sharing your life story with us.