86-year-old Marine Corps legend John Fasulo, 'Dr. Demo,' is set to retire
WASHINGTON — Growing up in pre-war New York City, John Fasulo was fascinated by the fireworks that revelers set off at the end of neighborhood festivals.
The dazzling displays of light, the sharp crack of gunpowder, the awe-inspiring science behind it all – things most people think about only for Independence Day -- sparked a lifelong interest for Fasulo in all things explosive.
“I spent a lot of time in Brooklyn. Every summer the Italians have feasts, and at the end of the feasts they would have these fireworks,” he said. “I took an interest in watching the fireworks and helping the guys out with them.”
That curiosity formed the backbone of a decades-long Marine Corps career that took him to the frozen forests of Korea and the sweltering jungles of Vietnam. He pulled a thankful Ted Williams out of a river in Korea – a bitter pill for a lifelong Yankees fan – and befriended Medal of Honor recipients who say they’re honored to know him.
And now, after a career that spanned the greater part of a century, the Marine nicknamed “Dr. Demo” and “Boom Boom” is ready to retire.
Eager to serve
His career almost didn’t get off the ground.
“I was too small for the Marine Corps,” Fasulo said. That’s what a recruiter at the station (“346 Broadway,” Fasulo recalled, 67 years after the fact) told him. It was the beginning of the Korean War, and the recruiting station was full of men eager to serve. Standing just a hair over 5 feet tall, Fasulo must have been easy to overlook.
A higher-ranking officer, Maj. Louis Wilson, took a chance on him and approved his waiver. Wilson was a Medal of Honor recipient from World War II and would go on to become the 26th commandant of the Marine Corps.
“He goes over to the window and says, ‘Come here,’” Fasulo recalled. “You’re going to wish you’d jumped out of this window tonight when they get through with you at boot camp.”
That didn’t dissuade him: “I wanted to be a Marine.”
Fasulo enlisted in October 1950. Despite Wilson’s warning, Fasulo said he managed recruit training just fine. “Boot camp was tough, but my father was tougher,” he said.
He didn’t get to Korea until 1952. During his deployment, which lasted more than a year, Fasulo spent a lot of time driving trucks. While far from what would come to define his career, it was a job that had its perks.
One day, he was ordered to help two men in a Jeep cross a river. The driver, ignoring Fasulo’s offer, attempted to cross.
“About 10 to 15 feet from the bank, the water submerged them. It was rough,” Fasulo said. “I turned my truck around and backed up. We pulled them out.”
The driver was New York Yankee Jerry Coleman. The passenger was Ted Williams, who had been recalled to active duty after flying in World War II. Williams, the Red Sox legend, thanked Fasulo. Coleman did not.
“Of all the people,” Fasulo said. “Ted Williams.”
After the armistice in 1953, Fasulo was often called upon to train South Korean marines. He met a young waitress named Si Kyung at the local mess hall.
“She was the prettiest thing,” he recalled. “She was 18 years old, and I was an old 24-year-old.” They married in 1956 and are still together.
They have two sons and a daughter, thanks to that chance meeting.
After the end of the fighting in Korea, Fasulo went to combat engineer school at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He trained Marines and soldiers in the years leading up to the Vietnam War, earning the rank of master sergeant.
He received his commission in 1966, and the next year, he was leading combat engineers in support of the 1st and 7th Marine Regiment.
“When I got to Vietnam, I really worried more about my troops than I would myself,” he said. “I didn’t want any office job … I couldn’t wait until I got a platoon.”
The Marines put him to work clearing mines and creating landing zones out of jungle thicket. At night, the Viet Cong would place mines. In the morning, Fasulo and his men would go out and find them. It was dangerous work, but Fasulo considers himself one of the lucky ones.
“This one kid, he was going to leave country in a couple of weeks. He didn’t have to go out but he volunteered come out with my people,” Fasulo said. “He puts his radio up and he’s helping, all of the sudden, ‘Boom,’ he hits a mine. All we saw was his rifle stock.”
Fasulo retired soon after the end of the Vietnam War, leaving as a major with 27 years of service under his belt. As a combat engineer, he had made a career out of teaching the art of bomb-making and diffusion.
The next chapter
After retiring from active duty, Fasulo continued to work for more than 40 years. He’s largely settled down now, spending his time at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, teaching new generations of warfighters vitally important skills. He became one the premiere authorities on demolitions. When something needed to be blown up, “Dr. Demo” was the one to call. That included a water tower that had sat at Quantico’s Camp Goettge for decades. When contractors couldn’t bring it down, Fasulo did, using the mission as a moment of instruction for his class.
“Yeah, he taught engineering and he taught explosives, but he also taught people a lot of things about life,” retired Medal of Honor recipient Col. Harvey C. Barnum Jr. told Stars and Stripes. “He will be a role model for a long time. I admire the guy.”
Fasulo and Barnum taught demolition and weapon instruction, respectively, to new troops at The Basic School at Quantico.
“His name preceded him. The thing was, when the major talked, you listened,” Barnum said. “He had so much in that little frame it goes to show you don’t have to be 6-foot-4, 250 pounds to be a Marine leader.”
Fasulo, now 86, is now long removed from the boy whose face was illuminated by sparks in the Brooklyn night sky.
Over the years, he’s contemplated retiring for good, always pushing it back to “next year.” But after more than 60 years, Fasulo is retiring at the end of the year. He said he’s leaving because he simply can’t give anything less than his best to the troops he trains.
A career full of memories are behind him, but his most cherished accomplishment, he said: “I was a Marine.”