The kamikaze bore down on the USS Caperton, and Angelo Recine stood his ground as still-green sailors, some little more than boys, scattered.
Bullets from the Japanese Zero whizzed by his head. The gunner’s mate 3rd class manned the 40 mm gun and took aim. The pilot in the cockpit was close.
“I could see him in the plane,” the 90-year-old Toms River, N.J., man recalled. “He was coming at me just like he was in front of me. I can still see him. He didn’t look scared to me.”
Recine was, he said.
Two years earlier, he was an All-Middlesex County guard for the New Brunswick High School Zebras football team. The son of a bricklayer and a Squibbs factory worker, both Italian immigrants, left school early to join the Navy.
“I wanted to be proud of myself,” he said.
In 1944 in the South Pacific, he had the opportunity.
Recine unloaded round after round at the Japanese Zero while the enemy aircraft strafed his position on the destroyer’s deck.
“It was either he killed me or I killed him,” he said.
The Zero crashed into the sea, about 50 yards from the Caperton, he said.
The citation signed by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal that came with the Bronze Star Medal, reads “Steadfast and courageous, Recine manned his 40mm gun and with resolute determination … coolly disregarded all personal danger…thereby inspiring the inexperienced crew to similar performance.”
With each passing Veteran’s Day, tales like Recine’s are being recalled less and less. The Greatest Generation cast such a large shadow it may have seemed like the men and women who suffered through the Great Depression as children and served during World War II would never fade.
But according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, there are a little more than a million veterans still alive out of the 16 million who served. Five hundred fifty-five die each day. There are about 27,400 living in New Jersey, according to the museum.
Of the 360 men who served with Recine on the Caperton, the veteran believes about 15 are alive. Nine died while he served on board. He saw each man buried at sea.
“I was the guy who would get a 5-inch shell and tie it between their legs. I put them on the stretcher let them go into the water. And down they went,” he said. “There was no place to put them.”
Recine’s three brothers served in the Navy. All survived the war but have since died. One of nine children, he has four living sisters.
Combat for Recine happened on land, too. He killed another Japanese soldier in an armed struggle on one of the Mariana Islands, and he took the man’s sword. He has no regrets, he said.
But he wasn’t without sadness over all the killings. He helped rescue a group of Japanese sailors from the open water, eight or nine of them. They were turned over to U.S. Marines, who shot the unarmed men, Recine said.
After the Navy, Recine played football for the Tennessee Volunteers for a year and had a tryout with the New York Giants, he said. He settled back in New Brunswick where he worked as a bricklayer for more than 40 years for Atlas Concrete, eventually becoming president of the company.
One of his two daughters, Arlene Anderson, said she never knew about her father’s war record until she was an adult with her own family.
“He was never a man to brag about anything,” she said. If people spoke about the war around him, he said nothing, she said.
Recine, who now lives at the Rose Garden Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Toms River and gets around in a wheelchair, also has four grandchildren and one great granddaughter.
“I’ve seen the bad, I’ve seen worse, I’ve seen good,” he said. “Let’s put it this way — it’s been a good life.”