‘No complaints because he’s lived in hell’
With Victory Day coming up Monday, World War II veteran Dewey Turilli, 89, decided he wanted to share his experience with Warwick Beacon readers.
Victory Day, originally celebrated as Victory over Japan Day, is an annual state holiday celebrated on the second Monday in August in Rhode Island.
Turilli is one of the surviving veterans who fought at Iwo Jima in the South Pacific where the Allies took the small island after a 36-day battle in 1945. There were more than 26,000 American casualties, including 6,800 dead.
“It was not the best backyard to be in,” said Turilli, who was drafted in 1942 at the age of 19 for the Army Air Force, as it was called back then. He served three years, or one hitch, as a radio operator and was honorably discharged as a sergeant.
As a radio operator, his mission was to keep the planes in the air. Turilli and his crew were the only one in their squadron to make 15 consecutive missions above the Japanese Empire from its Iwo Jima base without a mechanical failure in a P-51 Mustang fighter plane. The Mustang also completed three missions to the Bonin Islands. He has an official document issued by the Air Force to prove it, which he keeps framed in his home. It’s dated August 28, 1945.
“It is my pride and joy,” he said of the letter that was sent to his parents while he was overseas.
Turilli said the trip to the island was a battle in itself, as the ship he was on was caught in a typhoon. The conditions were so extreme that operators bet they wouldn’t make it.
“We had a couple of submarine attacks and the weather was so bad that we came within seven degrees of listing, so a little more and we would have gone over,” he said. “There would have been 2,500 servicemen in the middle of the Pacific.”
With the storm taking hold, the order was given for all hands to go below deck. But Turilli had another idea.
“I hung onto the life raft cables and sweat it out on deck,” he said.
He also remembers another near-death experience vividly. While he and other U.S. soldiers were on Chichi-jima, an island approximately 150 miles north of Iwo Jima, an enemy plane began bombing them.
“This young fellow and I were out in the open and ran hand-in-hand for quite a while to avoid the plane and get to our foxhole,” Turilli said.
When Japanese soldiers were in need of water, they’d ambush U.S. troops as they slept at night in pop-up tents to capture their water. Turilli and his buddies built headboards for their bunks, as the Japanese slashed open tents and stabbed at soldiers.
“If they did come to slash and stab, they would hit the board,” Turilli said. “We used to joke, ‘Leave us a note and we’ll leave you some water.’ But we were fearless because we were young. We didn’t think of the dangers.”
Turilli endured training in what he described as “horrible” conditions. Guard duty wasn’t much better.
“They’d put us on a ledge that was 30 feet high and we’d shoot flares if we thought someone was coming,” he said.
He also recalled Tokyo Rose, a generic name U.S. troops gave English-speaking female broadcasters of Japanese propaganda. Tokyo Rose thrived on filling the minds of American soldiers with fear, intent on crushing morale. Her predictions were frequently and unnervingly precise.
“They knew everything; they even knew when we had just arrived,” he said. “We hadn’t even pitched our pop tents yet or dug our latrine ditches and she said, ‘You new men on Iwo – in three days, we are going to blow you off the map.’ Sure enough, three days later they set fire to our ammunition.”
Turilli was also present when six U.S. soldiers raised the flag on Mount Suribachi. That scene marked what was supposed to be the end of the war, as well as the most reproduced photograph in history, “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” which was taken by Joe Rosenthal on Feb. 23, 1945. Interestingly enough, Feb. 23 is also Turilli’s birthday.
“The entire island cheered,” Turilli said. “I am extremely proud of the fact that the flag on Iwo Jima was raised on my birthday.”
Despite his accomplishments, he remains humble.
“I’m not a hero – we’re not heroes – we did our job and we’re proud. I’m proud of what I did,” said Turilli.
But his son-in-law, David Walker, who owns and operates Gold’s Gym at 200 Bald Hill Road, said Turilli made the ultimate sacrifice by serving in WWII. He is proud of his father-in-law and is floored by him.
“His story is pretty heart-rendering,” Walker said. “His place in history is unique – far more than he thinks. There are so few people that are left who experienced what he did.”
While Walker said Turilli never used to talk about WWII, he began to open up as the years went by. Eventually, he started to show his loved ones memorabilia and photos from his days at war.
In 2007 Walker accompanied Turilli on a trip to Columbus, Ohio to attend an air show that featured a tribute to WWII veterans and aircraft used in the war called “The Last Great Round Up.” More than 200,000 people were at the event.
“They took all the WWII aircraft that could still fly and did a flyover,” said Walker. “It was very emotional and they treated all the veterans like heroes. It was a wonderful experience.”
At the air show, Turilli got the rare opportunity to relive a moment in time when he climbed on the wing of a P-51 Mustang. A photo was taken of him on the wing and it almost mirrors a picture shot 62 years earlier.
A year later, Turilli visited the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, D.C. The experience, he said, was “very emotional.”
“Ninety percent of what is there was brought from Iwo Jima,” he said. “Every night, Marines change the flag, and we happened to go while they were doing that. I approached them and told them I served there. We had a good cry.”
Despite the heartache of WWII, Turilli ironically met the love of his life, Tina, due to the war. According to Turilli, it was destiny.
“I was inducted with a young fellow and two years to the day we met back home by chance,” said Turilli. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come to my house? We’re having a party?’ There, I met my girl. I asked her if I could write to her while I was overseas, and I did. Naturally, I was very anxious to get home.”
After being discharged, Turilli married Tina in 1947 and began working at his father’s furniture-making company, Nicholas Turilli and Sons, with his brother, Michael. In fact, they crafted a desk for former President Lyndon Johnson.
Born in Sangiovanni Lipioni, Italy, Turilli came to the United States with his family when he was six years old. At first, they lived in New York before moving to Rhode Island seven years later. Since then, he’s lived in Providence, Cranston and now Warwick. These days, he’s retired and enjoys taking care of his home, as well as spending time with Tina, their five children, 15 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. He likes golfing and is a recreational painter, often creating works of art for his loved ones. Additionally, he’s in the process of writing the story of his life.
“I’ve got 500 pages so far,” he said. “I freehanded it first and then typed it on a typewriter, not a computer. The main purpose is to give one to each of my children.”
What he may not mention in the book, said Walker, are all his decorations and attributes, as Turilli has a Pacific Theater Medal, a sharp shooters medal, knows Morse code and speaks four languages, including English, Italian, Spanish and Latin.
And while Turilli is a retired woodcarver, Walker said he hasn’t lost the talent.
“He could look at you and carve your face in wood,” said Walker.
Walker’s praise for Turilli doesn’t end there.
“He values the smaller things in life and lives a very full life,” Walker said. “He doesn’t believe in sitting around, he believes in being active. He doesn’t complain about anything because he’s already lived in hell.”
Turilli, the gentleman that he is, said he is grateful to Walker.
“This guy did all this for me,” Dewey said. “He’s unbelievable.”