Some 70 years ago in the South Pacific, an enemy sniper spied a group of American soldiers and suddenly opened fire.
The sound of the machine gun tore through the silence and Revere’s Albert Pierni hit the dirt.
A bullet whizzed just above his head, narrowly missing him, but hitting the man right behind him.
The man fell down dead.
Pierni had watched it all.
“The sniper started firing from a tree,” he recalled during an interview on Monday. “I hit the dirt. The guy behind me took the bullet. I don’t know if that means anything, but I was definitely lucky to get home alive.”
It was a memory that Pierni, 95, hadn’t spoken about for years, if ever, but one that quickly came back after taking an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., last Sunday for a one-day, all expenses paid visit to the new World War II Memorial.
Pierni’s flight was part of the organization Honor Flight New England, and was arranged by his niece, Nancy Casey, and her husband, Bob. Honor Flight New England is an organization whose goal is primarily to get World War II veterans to the new memorial before they pass away. However, they also sponsor veterans of any war for the flights.
“Through generous donations we transport our heroes to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at the memorials at no cost to the veteran,” read a pamphlet from the organization. “Our veteran heroes are not asking for recognition. It is our position that they deserve it. Please help us get these heroes to the memorial that was built in their honor. For some it is closure.”
Pierni said he was completely surprised by the flight, and hadn’t known about it until recently. However, he said it was worth every minute.
“The best description for it was that it was awesome,” he said. “That was the emotion I felt. It kind of brought back memories of the real heroes who are still there and never came home.”
Pierni’s family goes way back in Revere, as his grandfather built a house on Revere Street that was used for the first St. Anthony’s Church mass in 1905. His family had been one of the most influential families in the quest for an Italian speaking church in Revere, and so much so that the first services were in his grandfather’s living room.
He grew up in that same house with four brothers and three sisters, graduating from Revere High School in 1934.
On March 6, 1941, he was drafted into the Army, and he recalled that more than 90 young men from Revere gathered at the old Police Station on Pleasant Street in order to leave for training.
It was supposed to be a one-year stint in the service, but history would have it a different way for Pierni.
“We had been doing maneuvers in North Carolina and the day after we got back from those maneuvers, Pearl Harbor came up,” he said. “We were upset and were hoping to get a furlough to go home. We all knew that wasn’t happening. That’s all we were looking for – a furlough. We knew that wasn’t going to happen after Pearl Harbor.”
Pierni’s division – a newly formed and still active Americal Division – was one of the first to ship out, spending 34 days on a ship headed to New Caledonia. It was expected that there might be trouble on the French Colony, but it turned out things were fine.
He arrived at Guadalcanal on the day of Nov. 11, 1942 – the day that major fighting ensued on the island in the Pacific Ocean.
Pierni also served on the island of Bougainville and other islands before finally coming home after four years and four months off at war – a man who had basically seen the conflict from beginning to end.
“I was just lucky to come home alive,” he said.
When he returned home, he returned into the grocery business with his three brothers – continuing work in the family’s United Supermarket on Revere Street where the Fleetwood Building now stands. He and his brothers kept the market in Revere until 1960, when they moved to the Lynnway in Lynn so that they could have more parking.
“We started that business during the Great Depression, not the Great Recession that we have now,” he said. “Those were horrible times. Very tough times for everyone and hard to be in business. They would give them the welfare slips and they would bring that in.”
Now, with so many memories so far off in time – especially those of the war – Pierni said he was able to refresh those memories during his trip on Sunday.
Though it was just one day in the nation’s capitol, it was a day that won’t soon be forgotten by Pierni.
“The reception and the patriotism of the people we met – even children coming up to shake hands with you – was amazing to me,” he said. “People care in this country. It’s not the government. It’s the people. I’m proud to be an American – that’s automatic. And this was just a memorable time.”
Pierni’s siblings include Jean LeDonne and Ernest Pierni, as well as the late Arthur, Carl, Teddy, Rose and Caroline.
Albert Pierni, 95, of Seaview Towers, was able to go on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. last Sunday as part of a special program that honors World War II veterans with a one-day trip to the World War II Memorial. Pierni served throughout the entire war in the South Pacific, and said the trip brought back a lot of old memories.
Albert Pierni, left, in a photo with Army buddies in Feb. 1942 – not long after the fighting in Guadalcanal had subsided.