'You don't forget that': 99-year-old WWII vet recalls time on Iwo Jima
By HANNAH STRONG | The Sun News (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) | Published: May 23, 2018
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (Tribune News Service) — He cussed like a sailor when his draft letter came in the mail.
World War II was a couple years in. Joe Tusa was 25 years old and about to be bound to the Navy for two years. He got paid $30 a month.
"We all expected it," he said. "It was the draft."
Decades later, Tusa, the Myrtle Beach area resident who will celebrate his 100th birthday on July 10, remembers the fear and challenges during his time on Iwo Jima. He didn't have a job at the time, and said he was excited to go.
It was a long, boring trip west for Tusa. He carried one bag with the military-approved essentials.
His biggest concerns, he said, were the Japanese airplanes flying full-force at him, shooting and dropping bombs.
“We had to move fast,” he said. “If you didn’t, those planes came at you pretty fast. When a plane came at you, you ducked. You don’t forget that.”
Tusa was a Navy man without a ship. A third-class medal smith rank, he and his unit didn’t have much to live and work with. He fixed airplanes that were worn out and had bullet holes.
The men bathed in the ocean and lived in tents. They’d repair the planes with aluminum cans or whatever they could get their hands on. And they couldn’t run on the beach because they'd sink in the dark sand and ash mixture from a volcano, Tusa said.
In their spare time, they'd put on "Broadway shows."
"They didn't charge us," he said, laughing.
There was a fear of the unknown – being bombed by Japanese in airplanes or random shots fired at the soldiers at any time.
“We could be across an island held by Japanese and we didn’t know because we didn’t travel,” he said.
And even a fear of the known after finding the Japanese-built “underground city” just below their tents. Those living underground would come up at night and take the American soldiers’ rations, Tusa said.
The Navy men eventually ventured underground to see the life below.
“They built it up,” he said of the city underground. “You looked around and said, ‘Oh my god, look at this.’ They really made it livable.”
Tusa said when they found Japanese underground, the Americans captured them.
"You knew there were Japanese down there," he said. "You didn't know if they were armed. There was always fear."
The biggest lesson he learned during his time in the service – "be a friend to everybody."
'Stay away from whiskey'
Tusa grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan. His father had a bakery and was born in Sicily, Italy. He recalls his mom giving him a nickel to buy sweet potatoes for lunch when he was in school.
After leaving the Navy, Tusa worked making women’s clothing at his shop on 7th Avenue in New York with his late wife. Together, they created patterns for skirts and blouses.
“It was the only job around,” he said of the time after the Navy.
The 99-year-old is a lifetime member of Veterans of Foreign Wars, Sons of Italy and American Legion. He has four children, four grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Tusa has spent the last 15 years in the Myrtle Beach area. He recently threw the first pitch at a Pelican's baseball game and was honored for his time in the service.
He’s been with girlfriend Ellen Cacossa for four years. The couple met at a singles’ club in their neighborhood.
Cacossa, who is about thirty years younger, said Tusa used to dance with all the women during evenings spent at the singles’ club. But one night, he didn’t get to dancing with her.
“He said to me, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t get to dance with you,’” she said. “I told him, ‘Joe, your dance card is full.’”
Not long after, the two went out to lunch.
“From then, I was his only dance partner,” Cacossa said.
Though he spends most of his days in a recliner, he loves to dance, travel and sing Karaoke, especially when it’s to Frank Sinatra.
Tusa’s key to living a long, healthy life is drinking wine and eating pasta.
“Stay away from whiskey,” he said.