Humble hero saved hundreds during attack on Pearl Harbor
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, 20-year-old Sylvester Puccio was talking with friends aboard the USS West Virginia when he heard the ship's bugler pipe a "fire and rescue" call.
Another ship must be in trouble, they thought.
Although Puccio didn't have his hat on, he said he felt compelled to step outside to see what was going on.
"It was a rule I'm glad I broke," he said Thursday during an event held to honor him at the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum.
"I'm watching, and I think it's the Army Air Force mock raid," the native of Rome, N.Y., continued.
But as the plane neared the open channel, Puccio said he watched a torpedo drop from its belly and took note of the rising sun emblems.
He recalled having just enough time to shout down to his fellow shipfitters that they were under attack before the first of nine blasts rocked the USS West Virginia.
"That torpedo I saw land, or drop, hit our ship," he said.
Without direct orders, the shipfitters jumped into action and decided the ship needed to be counterflooded to prevent it from capsizing.
The locker that contained the handles to operate the counterflow valves, however, was locked. And nobody had the key.
Puccio admitted he almost fell to his knees when he heard the grave news.
"I knew I couldn't break the lock, you'd have to burn it off," he said.
In a matter of moments Puccio, a trained welder, realized a weak spot on the locker: its hinges.
He grabbed a steel crank from a spool of cable and started swinging. He said he doesn't remember how many blows it took because fear, anxiety and a sense of having to do something, anything, consumed him.
Once the locker busted open, "you didn't even have to tell me which shelf, I knew," he said.
Counterflooding began quickly, and the ship slowly started to correct its 28-degree listleaving hundreds of sailors still on board enough time to escape before it settled upright on the ocean floor. Of roughly 1,500 men stationed on board the USS West Virginia that morning, only slightly more than 100 died.
"Whether I was slamming at that locker door or just waiting for the ship to come back, I was scared," Puccio said. "I didn't realize what I did; I did what anybody else would doI did what I had to do."
Despite remaining silent about his heroic action to friends and family for most of his life, Puccio, now 91 years old, was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal earlier this year and attended the national Navy League convention held in Honolulu June 19-24 as an honored guest.
"I've known him for a week, and this is the most energetic I've seen him," Bob McDermott, executive director of the Honolulu Navy League, said after Thursday's event.
"If you looked, you could almost see the 20-year-old inside him."
After the attack, Puccio said he continued to work as a welder repairing damaged submarines and participating in other salvage, rebuilding and modification activities. He went on to serve another six years in the Navy, for a total of eight years, and said he enjoyed every minute of it.
"There were bad times, there were good times," he said. "But I only remember the good times."
Still, he kept his war stories to himselfhis three children didn't even know he served in the military until his oldest daughter, 14 years old at the time, came home from school talking about World War II and his wife mentioned that her dad was a sailor during the war, he said.
His son, John Puccio, said his dad started to open up more about his experiences when he joined the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association in the early 1970s.
"I was never much of a public speaker," Syl Puccio said. "All I knew in my lifetime was reading blueprints and fabricating something."
Around the late 1980s, though, he remembers starting to speak about opening the locker at grade schools, American Legion posts and Rotary clubs.
IN 2006 ONE of his daughters contacted Roger Hare, an author and USS West Virginia historian, because she wanted to know more about her father and thought Hare might be able to fill in some of the gaps in his story.
Hare said she only could tell him that her father was a shipfitter and "broke open some locker"but it was all he needed to make an astounding connection.
Coincidentally, he had grown up hearing his father, who was also stationed on the USS West Virginia during the attack, tell stories about the USS West Virginia and how the ship, along with his life, was saved by unknown shipfitters.
Hare had finally identified the elusive locker-breaker as Syl Puccio, and he began poring over military documents until he found written proof, which landed Puccio the medal.
"Without that quick action, the USS West Virginia would have gone over," Hare said after Thursday's event. "It was amazing that I found his story after all this time."
Puccio's son agreed with Hare, adding that he plans to return to Hawaii next year with the rest of his family to show his son where his grandfather was on that fateful day.
"I'll hold my little boy's hand, and I'll say to him, ‘Right there is where your grandfather stood when he saw those planes cross, and I know because he told me so,'" John Puccio said as his voice began to crack.
He paused, staring in Syl Puccio's direction, for a moment of reflection.
"I'm in awe of my father," he came to say, his eyes glistening with emotion. "What a blessing it is for me to be his son and to even be here."
Distributed by MCT Information Services