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Former Shipfitter Syl Puccio Awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal

The last Pearl Harbor hero

On Feb. 20, 2012, more than seventy years after the event, a Pearl Harbor veteran will be decorated for his heroism during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Syl Puccio, 91, of Rome N.Y., will receive the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with combat distinguishing device, for his life-saving actions on Dec. 7 1941. Why did it take so long? The answer is contained within the story of the battleship USS West Virginia (BB 48) and an amazing tale of luck, chance and a few brave shipfitters. I am here because of them.

Most know the sad fate of USS Arizona and a few may remember USS Oklahoma, capsized at her mooring. Between these two choice targets was USS West Virginia, and her story of life has always been eclipsed by the death that surrounded her. Hit by seven torpedoes, the dreadnaught started rolling over, with the crew sealed into myriad watertight compartments under “Condition Zed.”

My father was hauled, barely alive, from the third deck by an anonymous shipfitter, so you see, shipfitters always held a special place in my family’s heart. I never thought I would meet the one responsible for saving the ship.

All below deck could do nothing but pray in the dark as the vessel reached a 28 degree list. Mercifully, the list was counterflooded by shipfitters in the nick of time, allowing sailors a chance to escape as West Virginia settled in 40 feet of Pearl Harbor water.

My father was hauled, barely alive, from the third deck by an anonymous shipfitter, so you see, shipfitters always held a special place in my family’s heart. I never thought I would meet the one responsible for saving the ship.

USS West Virginia (BB 48)

USS Tern (AM 31) fighting fires aboard the sunken USS West Virginia (BB 48), on Dec. 7, 1941, immediately after the Japanese raid. Note radar antenna, paravanes and 16″/45 twin gun turrets on the battleship. The USS West Virginia only avoided capsizing thanks to the quick thinking of Syl Puccio. U.S. Navy photo

I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. Every kid in the neighborhood had a World War II dad, so we played “war” with real Japanese swords and German helmets borrowed from our father’s closets. We knew bravery was defined by Omaha Beach; leadership by Gen. George Patton; treachery by Pearl Harbor.

My father, Howard Hare, showed me photos of “WeeVee” as I grew. It was covered in smoke, its wire cage masts jutting into a black and white sky. I was proud of my dad and through the years learned BB 48 almost capsized but for the fast action of a few shipfitters. I also heard rumors that counterflooding almost didn’t happen because needed equipment was in a sealed locker. The rumors intrigued me, as this event saved hundreds of lives and made my family possible.

Old Navy after action reports told the story – sailors shuffled around a padlocked locker, and one pushed all aside to bash open the locker in an adrenaline-fueled flurry of blows with a steel bar. Reports show these shipfitters were stunned by the sudden violence, but regained composure and wildly turned valves with the handles provided by the hero from the breached locker.  Topside, West Virginia‘s Capt. Mervyn Bennion was disemboweled by a bomb blast, but continued to direct rescue operations before he died. He posthumously received the Medal Of Honor. USS Arizona blew up just behind, sending a fireball over WeeVee’s rear quarter-deck. A scene from Dante’s Inferno greeted West Virginia sailors as they emerged from from the sinking vessel. All expressed disbelief the ship had not capsized, because her entire port side seemed to be missing.

I studied Pearl Harbor history and became versed in its details. A few years ago a woman from Georgia wrote me to inquire about BB 48 and her miraculous survival. Her father was aboard this ship, but, typical of that generation, rarely spoke of that day. I asked what she could remember from his few stories and she replied: “He was a shipfitter and he broke open some locker.” I was dumbfounded. Could this be the man? Further inquiries resulted in discovering he was alive and living in Rome N.Y. – one hour from my house! An interview was arranged and I met Syl Puccio, Shipfitter Second Class (SF 2c).

“The real heroes were in the piles of bodies I saw, I was just lucky.”

I learned he was topside when the attack commenced. He saw a plane drop the first torpedo at his ship and pull up, strafing #2 turret as it passed. Syl popped his head into the shipfitters’ shop and yelled “Japs are attacking!” His friend, Jimmy Camm, yelled back “You’re full of shhh” – but he hadn’t gotten the word out when the first torpedo exploded against the West Virginia‘s port side. The behemoth rose and crashed back into the harbor. More torpedo hits occurred in a flurry of violence and within seconds the ship started rolling fast.

Without orders, Syl and others ran to “Main Repair 3” to get counter flood handles. When they arrived, SF1c Rucker yelled “Pooch, I forgot the keys to the locker – they’re back in my quarters.” Puccio recalled, “I knew a sledgehammer couldn’t break a Navy padlock, so I took a steel crank from a spool of cable and started bashing the locker door hinges. When they broke, I grabbed the door and peeled it backward.” Puccio tossed a valve handle to Rucker and took a battle lantern for himself. The two ran through the darkened corridors to the first center void and quickly opened the valve. Handle in hand, Rucker then ran back and met with Lt. Claude Ricketts to open remaining valves, and WeeVee slowly reversed her list.

Neighboring USS Oklahoma reached a similar 28 degree list, but kept rolling. BB 48 sailors thought counterflooding was too late. A few seconds more and it would have been, but Syl Puccio had acted in the nick of time. Most of her crew escaped up and out, including my father, who forever held shipfitters in the highest esteem.

I thanked Mr. Puccio, but he waved it off. “I’m no hero,” he said. “The real heroes were in the piles of bodies I saw, I was just lucky.” But I knew in a chain of events, Puccio was the strongest link. Without his action, counter flooding would surely have been too late. This man deserved a medal.

Syl Puccio

Pearl Harbor survivor and USS West Virginia hero Syl Puccio with author Roger Hare. The author wouldn’t be here today without Puccio’s heroism. Photo courtesy of Roger Hare

A problem remained: Who could testify Syl Puccio indeed broke open this locker? 70 years after that Sunday morning, few crew members are left. The Navy wanted witnesses, otherwise this was simply a “story.” Two witnesses would result in the Navy Cross. One witness would get him the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal.

I pored over old Navy after action reports and found one written by Lt. Harold Stark, a WeeVee vet who also survived that day. Buried in his report I found one passage about counter flooding: “Sf2c Puccio broke open the locker containing counterflood handles.” There was the confirmation I needed, and the Navy agreed. With help from Rep. Richard Hanna, submission was accepted by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and the order signed making Syl Puccio an officially recognized hero of Pearl Harbor. One more witness account and his medal will be upgraded to a Navy Cross, but this is unlikely considering few knew this story, let alone wrote it down for posterity. No matter, I am here because of his action. Puccio can look at thousands of West Virginia survivor family members and recognize each one as a medal for his heroism. His efforts will echo through generations.

Think you know all about the deaths at Pearl Harbor? You now know about the lives saved there aboard BB 48 and the brave action of an unassuming old sailor from Rome N.Y.

Think you know all about the deaths at Pearl Harbor? You now know about the lives saved there aboard BB 48 and the brave action of an unassuming old sailor from Rome N.Y. He simply went home after the war and raised his family.  “I just did what needed to be done,” he says. Most World War II veterans are similarly humble and all deserve thanks from grateful Americans. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to thank a sailor who saved my life.

History is not just “what happened”…it’s what happened within the context of “what might have happened.”

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-33462">

    I grew up with the Puccio family in Rome, NY and Syl’s son John was my best friend at that time. You call Syl a “humble old sailor” and after reading this story humble is accurate to a tee. I never new any part of this story until I just read it here.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-40014">
    Molly Milam

    While in Hawaii this June, my family and I were honored to meet Mr. Puccio, along with his son and Mr. Hare, while visiting the USS Arizona Memorial. What a hero! Thanks to Mr. Hare for assuring that this hero was awarded for his brave act and for sharing Mr. Puccio’s story with us all. Our trip is a day our family will never forget. My children (ages 8 and 6) still speak of meeting Mr. Puccio. May God Bless you all!

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-40015">

    It was a privilege to be able to make Syl Puccio’s story available to a wider audience. I envy you the experience of meeting him in person. Thanks for your comment.