Fudging sign-up age spurred decades of military duty
BUFFALO — At the tender age of 15, Louis R. Palma hornswoggled Navy recruiters into thinking he was old enough to serve.
He showed up at the old Post Office in downtown Buffalo with a birth certificate stating he was 17, along with a forged statement indicating his father’s permission for an early enlistment. The normal enlistment age was 18.
“Believe it or not, I had a brother who was 2 years older than me who was also named Louis, but he died a few days after childbirth, and so I used his birth certificate when I went down to the enlistment center,” the 84-year-old Palma recalls. “My dad would not sign the early enlistment papers, so I had forged his signature.”
When Palma returned to the family’s Derby home and announced that he had managed to get himself enlisted, his father, Henry, let out a few choice words but then gave his blessing to his determined son.
If anyone could understand the 15-year-old’s fervor to fight in World War II, it should have been his dad.
“My father had enlisted at the age of 15 to serve in the Navy in World War I,” Palma says. “My dad never explained how he managed to get himself enlisted.”
Palma’s first stop was the waters off Europe, serving on a small aircraft carrier, the USS Guadalcanal. He then transferred to the Pacific Fleet’s Task Force 58.
“Adm. [William] Halsey was in command of it, and we saw action at the battles of Saipan, Okinawa, Guam and the Philippines,” Palma says. “I actually enjoyed flying on the different missions. Most of the time, we carried bombs and depth charges.”
As the rear gunner on an Avenger torpedo bomber, Palma operated a .50-caliber machine gun, fending off Japanese fighter planes. “We also bombed and strafed the enemy at different battles, providing close air support for the invading forces,” he says.
In August 1945, while on a mission to bomb Japanese shipyards, an order came over the plane’s radio to jettison the bombs and return to the aircraft carrier. “If we encounter enemy planes, we were told to shoot them down in a friendly manner,” Palma remembers. “It was interesting the way they said that. How do you shoot someone down in a friendly way? We learned that the war was over.”
After his service in World War II, Palma attended Canisius College for two years but in 1950 was called back to active duty for the Korean War.
“I was assigned to the USS Philippine Sea, and I was a crewman on an AD Skyraider,” he says. “We flew routine patrol missions. It was the coldest place I’d ever been in my life on that aircraft carrier. We used to have to shovel snow off the flight deck. One of our jet fighter pilots was the first to shoot down a Russian MiG.”
Two years later, Palma returned to Canisius and in 1955 graduated with a business degree. He worked in Erie County government, serving at one point as deputy clerk for finance and later as fiscal manager of the county’s Comprehensive Employment and Training Act programs.
As a reservist at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station in the early 1970s, he had participated in missions to Vietnam. “We delivered planes to the CIA, but I really can’t say more than that,” Palma says. “The planes we flew over there were completely jet black and had no insignia on them.”
In 1982, he accepted the position of business manager for the Lake Shore Central School District, where he worked until his retirement in 1997.
Yet it would be years before he would fully retire from his military role.
He had retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1988, at age 60, but in 2000, he put all his years of military experience to work assisting other veterans by accepting an appointment as Erie County director of veterans services, a post he held until 2009.
“It’s been a great life. This country has been so good to me,” Palma says. “I came from a large family – eight kids – and there was no way I would have gotten a college education without the GI Bill. I’ve been blessed.”