SLEEPY HOLLOW, N.Y. – Armando “Chick” Galella has lived 99 Decembers, but the one seared in his memory, the one that has come to define his life, came when he was just 20: when he witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Galella is part of a rapidly declining fraternity; he’s among the last remaining Pearl Harbor survivors. He has made remembering what happened on that date his cause, representing the 2,403 Americans who perished in the surprise attack that thrust America into World War II.
“I will never forgive and I will never forget,” the 99-year-old says.
Galella plans to honor the fallen on Monday, the 79th anniversary of the attack, at The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City — during an annual service greatly curtailed this year by coronavirus concerns.
The self-effacing veteran — whose 100th birthday is New Year’s Day 2021 — would have you believe he’s just “a little Italian boy from Barnhardt Avenue” in Sleepy Hollow, New York.
He witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor and on nearby Hickam Field, where he was stationed, but Galella insists he’s no hero. The heroes, he says, are “the boys under the flags,” the ones who didn’t come home.
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Seventy-nine Decembers after the attack, Galella’s memories of that sunny Sunday are indelible.
In his dining room chock full of keepsakes and honors that he calls his “memory room,” Galella holds forth — bearing witness to the horror of war, to those who served, and to those who died.
His eyes flash as he speaks, recalling names and events, sights and sounds.
There is laughter, when he remembers finding his neighbor John Horan in Honolulu. And there are tears: when he thinks of his widowed mother worrying at home, having sent three boys to war; and of losing Horan, who was killed in the Dec. 7 attack.
He stands most of the time as he unfurls his remarkable memory, jutting a finger out for emphasis, his voice rising. He remembers it all — less than a month before his 100th birthday.
He remembers wave after wave of Japanese planes, the confusion. The bureaucratic mindlessness of a sergeant who wouldn’t unlock the ammunition supply without orders, despite the base being under attack, still gets his blood boiling.
And the noise. The thud of bombs hitting Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor, which was obstructed from his view, and then Hickam Field, which he could see all too clearly.
“We had no more chance than a snowball has in hell,” he said.
In the confusion, he remembers separating from Air Force mechanic Horan, his friend and neighbor.
He remembers, as the smoke cleared, asking about Horan, only to learn he had fallen. It was Galella who later told Margaret Horan how her son died.
Galella wears his most precious medal pinned to his Pearl Harbor survivor hat: the Bronze star awarded for his service on Okinawa. It is the one that declares, despite his protests to the contrary, that Galella is a hero, bestowed for “heroic or meritorious achievement or service.”
Gold Star mothers
Galella’s thoughts are never far from those who were left behind in war — the fallen. But these days he’s thinking of those left behind on the homefront, to the mothers who waited anxiously for word from Europe and the Pacific. And later, from Korea and Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tears fill his eyes when he thinks of women like his widowed mother, Theodora, who sent sons Alfred and Frank to Europe and her baby, Armando, to the Pacific — half a world away.
His bites his index finger to gather himself as his voice catches, thinking of her sleepless nights on Barnhardt Avenue, sick with worry.
“My mom was left alone,” he says. “A mother prays forever… They pray for their son to come home. We all came home, three brothers, and my mother died four months later.”
Galella’s latest project is to honor Gold Star Mothers, those who lost children in military service.
Through the Gold Star Mothers Committee of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, New York, in connection with the local Historical Society, Galella has led an effort to create a life-size bronze statue, by sculptor Andrew Chernak, on Horan’s Landing.
The Margaret Horan Memorial will be of a mother who casts her worried eyes skyward, leaning against a small spindle table on which sits a framed photo of her military son.
The image in the frame will resemble John Horan.
Getting in, coming home
The youngest of Theodora Galella’s three boys grew up skinny.
“I couldn’t cast a shadow when I was younger,” he said. “I used to go to the beach (and they’d say) ‘Here comes chicken legs.’” A nickname, “Chick,” was born. Decades later, it’s still how he introduces himself.
That Galella got into the Army at all was thanks to water and bananas. In the late summer of 1940, when he went to enlist, he weighed 108 lbs, two pounds short of the Army minimum.
“They said: ‘Go down the street, get some water and bananas,'” he remembers. “I ate two bananas and drank water. And I was in.”
In August 1945, when Galella came home, the battalion sergeant major in the 53rd Signal Corps had served five years in the Army, nearly four of them at war. He learned of the Japanese surrender as his transport ship steamed under the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco.
Galella was 24 then, happy to be home bound, but forever marked by what he saw at age 20 — on that bright Sunday morning just after breakfast in Hawaii.
Family, friends and a long life
Galella came home and has lived a long life. He married Leda, his wife of 67 years (she died in 2015), sold cars for a living and raised two sons, Michael and Armando Jr. He’s a grandfather and great-grandfather.
He has had copies of his medals made, so generations of Galellas will know that he served and what he did when the world went to war.
He is weeks from his 100th birthday, which, due to the coronavirus, will likely be a diminished affair despite marking a momentous occasion. His friends and family are planning a drive-by parade for the centennial date: Jan. 1, 2021.
Michael, his son, wants to mark the milestone by lining up little glasses of wine to toast his father, who still likes to gather a knot of friends around him most afternoons to tell stories and drink wine he pours from a giant jug.
Befitting that “little Italian boy from Barnhardt Avenue,” the brand is Carlo Rossi Paisano table wine.
Follow Peter D. Kramer on Twitter at @PeterKramer.