Robert Casoli the Hero Few Knew about: Helped save 2,200 Refugees in Daring Korean War Mission

March 28, 2014
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The late Robert Casoli in his Navy uniform shortly after signing up as a seaman at the age of 17. Casoli, whose 84th birthday would have been last Friday, was part of a small crew that rescued 2,200 North Korean refugees behind enemy lines in 1950.

The late Robert Casoli in his Navy uniform shortly after signing up as a seaman at the age of 17. Casoli, whose 84th birthday would have been last Friday, was part of a small crew that rescued 2,200 North Korean refugees behind enemy lines in 1950.

There are some people who never shy away from the spotlight in any situation, and then there are those like the late Robert Casoli – who, when the spotlight was turned in his direction for good reason, turned and walked the other way.

Casoli, who would have been 84 last Friday, passed away in January, and was remembered by his family (including Revere’s Mickey ‘Say No to Drugs’ Casoli) and friends who came far and wide for his funeral.

The “Quiet Man,” as Robert was known, had numerous memories shared about him at that gathering.

However, one memory that few knew about – and that he downplayed most of his life – was his heroic efforts in saving 2,200 North Koreans behind enemy lines during the Korean War. Serving on the Navy transport ship USS Okanogan, Casoli was part of a small crew that in the winter of 1950 took on the daring and noble task and came back with success. By most accounts, they were heroes, but Casoli would have been the first to correct any such notions.

“It wasn’t a big deal,” he told the Journal in a 1994 interview. “Look, when you’re 20 years old, nothing’s a big deal.”

Others, however, would disagree.

The story began when Casoli signed up for the Navy in 1948, a 17-year-old just out of Revere High School. After some training, he took his place on the Okanogan (named for a city in Washington state) as a Navy firefighter. The amphibious vehicle was part of the Pacific Fleet and was charged with delivering troops, equipment and supplies to a beach landing site on the west coast of Korea, near Inchon.

Casoli recalled in the 1994 interview that such landings were tricky because it all came down to timing the tides. If the crew wasn’t on time or didn’t work fast enough in unloading the cargo, then the transport risked getting stuck in deep mudflats. It was that kind of precision that likely prepared them for the improbable rescue far behind enemy lines in December 1950.

It was that month that American forces near Inchon got word of 2,200 North Korean civilians that were trapped 80 miles behind enemy lines at Chinampo – a location that was no easy place to get to. The original ship charged with the rescue was not able to respond, so Casoli and the Okanogan (which also held Revere natives Joseph Lantini and Frank Walsh) took the job.

It was not a safe job.

Likely, there were few who wanted it.

The rescue had to be completed at night, meaning they had to operate down a mine-filled river in pitch black so that the North Korean soldiers wouldn’t be able to see them.

A mine sweeping vessel travelled ahead of them to clear the path, but the threat of being detected lived in their minds. Casoli said in 1994 that they weren’t sure if they would make it, if some of their crew would be lost or just how long it might last.

When they arrived, Casoli was stationed as a guard on the beach while the refugees were ferried to safety. Casoli said in 1994 that the North Korean Army was in hot pursuit of the refugees and would have killed them all on the spot if they had been found before the Okanogan arrived.

“I was the furthest one from the group and I was watching down this road,” he said in 1994. “The North Korean soldiers were looking for them. Most of them were educated; businessmen and lawyers. The refugees wanted no part of that communism, so they were all going to be liquidated. They killed people like nothing over there.

“Some people, they were wounded; they were sick. They had babies, and kids and they were hungry.”

One of the women, he recalled, actually gave birth while on the transport – not long after being rescued.

After several tense hours, the ship arrived safely at Pusan, where the refugees were unloaded and treated by doctors.

In the end, the Navy did not even recognize the crew for their heroism because their captain became ill shortly after the rescue and was unable to file for any accolades within the three-year time limit.

Such a thing was fitting for Casoli, who probably wouldn’t have trumpeted any such award even if he had received it.

“It was just a job,” he said in the 1994 interview. “We had a job to do and we did it. What’s the big deal?”

To others, like Robert’s brother Mickey, it was a big deal. And Mickey Casoli said he will always remember his brother – who after his service worked at the Charlestown Navy Yard and lived on Malden Street – for his quiet leadership.

“Anyone would be proud to have him as a brother, a husband or a father,” said Mickey. “He deserves to be remembered for these things he did, even if he didn’t want to talk about them when he was alive.”

Former Revere Journal reporter Dave Procopio contributed material in this story.

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