NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — At 17, Tony Nesta had a plan to serve his country in World War II but stay out of the infantry: He'd enlist in the Navy.
"It was September 1944, and I didn't want to go into the Army. I told my Dad, and he finally consented to sign for me at 17," recalled Nesta, now 87 and living in New Britain. "But it didn't turn out that way. I ended up on Okinawa for nine months — helmet, rifle, pack."
Nesta had no idea when he enlisted that by the next spring, he'd be among 183,000 American soldiers, sailors and Marines who took part in one of the longest and deadliest battles of the war.
After boot camp in upstate New York, Nesta was sent to Williamsburg, Va., for training in logistical support jobs such as operating bulldozers and unloading cargo ships with winches. But he was assigned to a group that also underwent combat training, and they were sent to San Bruno, Calif., for more. Nesta began to realize they wouldn't just be doing the work of an ordinary support unit.
He estimated that more than 3,000 men were put aboard a freighter converted to a troop transport, part of a 10-ship convoy that headed across the Pacific. More convoys were headed the same way from other bases.
"My ship was the Santa Monica, and it was terrible. Early on we hit these big swells, all these guys got seasick the first night. When you've got 3,000 guys getting sick — it was awful," he said.
As the weeks went on, Nesta and his friends realized the ships were no longer heading anywhere, but were waiting out at sea in late March. They saw other convoys in the distance; troops aboard the Santa Monica didn't know, but on Easter 1945, tens of thousands of men would be storming the island.
"The Japanese were really reinforced there, this was the last stronghold. There were kamikazes — we didn't even know what they were. One came down right between our ship and another one. It hit the water and missed both of us," Nesta said.
On the day of the attack, rope ladders and nets were thrown over the sides of the ships, with men scrambling down to reach small landing craft in the water that would take them to the shore.
"The guy I was with was good, he put us right up on the beach. I didn't even get my feet wet," Nesta said.
Compared to other mass invasions of the war, Okinawa was far less horrific in the first hours. Where the Santa Monica's men went ashore, a section dubbed Yellow Beach 3, the attack went off quickly, he recalled.
"We saw no enemy. When their planes started coming, we ran like hell to find somewhere to hide, but everything was up in the air. The sky was black with the flak," he said.
The battle intensified after the landing and raged on for more than 80 days.
"The Japanese were in caves. They knew we were coming — they had mortars, snipers. We took a beating, a lot of men were killed," Nesta said. "When you see all this happening, you do a little praying — actually, a lot of praying.
"I heard one sniper shot go right by me. You can't do anything — you hear it, and that's it. You're thankful it wasn't you," he said. "I'll tell you the truth, I never thought I was coming home. To this day I don't know why I'm here."