Salem Township man given WWII medals 66 years late
Pastor Jeff Bingman stood before his congregation on Sunday in New Beginnings Baptist Church in Forbes Road, Salem Township, and said he wanted to right a wrong that has lasted 66 years.
"There's a veteran among us who was never properly thanked for his service," he said.
That veteran is 87-year-old Domenick Piccinini, who served during World War II in the jungles of Burma, now known as Myanmar.
Earlier this year, Bingman learned that Piccinini, who lives near the church, never received combat medals for his military service, including a Bronze Star for valor.
"We recognize — as a congregation, as your friends and family — what you sacrificed so we could have the freedom to worship," Bingman said.
Piccinini joined the Army in 1943 and became a sniper hunter in the 5307th Composite Unit (provisional), known as Merrill's Marauders after Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill.
The unit was formed when President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for volunteers from other units to disrupt Japanese supply and communication lines.
About 3,000 men trained in India before they marched over the outlying ranges of the Himalayan Mountains into Burma. Through dense jungles, the soldiers fought in five major battles and captured Myitkyina Airfield before the unit was disbanded in August 1944. It later became a part of the elite Army Rangers.
Piccinini, who was working as a coal miner when he enlisted, said he had seen the jungle only in the movies before the war.
"I saw the jungles of Tarzan, but when you get there, it's a different story," he said.
Once when crossing a river, Piccinini said, he was with a group of 12 that was hit with machine gun fire. Only four survived, he said.
"We lost a lot of good men, and it hurts when you have to let them behind," he said.
Troops would survive in the jungle on 3,000-calorie K-rations dropped from cargo planes -- most often with only three days' worth of food to last five days, said Robert Passanisi, historian of the Merrill's Marauders Association.
"It was a very tough grind of endurance," he said. "In many cases, the mules died from the exhaustion and the men carried on."
Passanisi, 87, who served as a Marauder, estimates that 100 to 200 men from the unit are alive today.
"I think the recognition of deeds well done is very important and points out the contribution that this person made to the world," he said.
Five members of the Jeannette Combined Veterans presented Piccinini with the Bronze Star and a Combat Infantry Badge during the church service and saluted the veteran, who was surprised by the honors.
"Some people, they just take it into their own hands when something needs to be done. ... That's what makes heroes out of them," said veterans member Emory Elliot.
More than 20 members of Piccinini's family attended the service and were part of the congregation that gave him a standing ovation.
Piccinini's niece, Rose Marie Brooks of Forbes Road, worked with Bingman to assemble the family for the presentation.
"I'm very grateful. He's the last one to tell us all these stories. Once he's gone, they're gone," she said with tears in her eyes.
Piccinini said he just wished his wife of 54 years — Rose Bayura Piccinini, who died Oct. 14 at age 84 — had been there to share the moment with him.
"I was shocked. I never expected to get anything like that," he said. "I wish she was here. She was a part of me."
Piccinini, his family and Bingman were unsure why he never received his medals, but believe a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in 1973, which destroyed 80 percent of Army discharge records from 1912 through 1960, might have been to blame.
Through the Merrill's Marauders Association, Passanisi was able to send Bingman the medals and expedite a process that otherwise could have taken as many as five years.
"We just wanted to do something for him to make him feel better," Bingman said of Piccinini's losing his wife. "I respect what those guys did; they saved the world."