Esio “Big Joe” Bertoncini fought in the European front and was wounded three times in action – the last time with a near fatal wound that shattered his jaw. What follows are excerpts from a chronological account of Joe’s wartime service that he dictated in the 1980s. Read a sampling of his many letters home to Carmela and infant daughter, “Cookie," which are posted below.
I was born April 5, 1922, in a small town called Burgettstown, Pa., 30 miles west of Pittsburgh. We moved to Pittsburgh in 1926. At that time, we had no electricity, very few cars and most roads were dirt. We used outdoor toilets and well water. We burned coal in the kitchen for heating and cooking and used railroads for transportation. … I started working at age 12 in a bakery with my father. All bread was made by hand. ... When I was 19, I met Carmela at her dad’s home in Bloomfield, Pa. This was the summer of 1941. I knew right away she was the girl for me. … Time went by and we saw each other often, but we didn’t really go out on dates. Her dad didn’t allow her to go on dates. I proposed to her on the outside steps of the house.
We got married January 31, 1942. We didn’t have a big-time wedding. A justice of the peace married us and that was it. At the time, I had a job at the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P) in Homewood, Pa. I brought a bottle of wine and four roses to the bakery and celebrated my marriage with co-workers. Carmela and I lived behind the store, which Carmela’s father owned. All we had was a bedroom, a small kitchen and a tiny bathroom with only a toilet in it. That’s how we started our married life. Carmela got pregnant right away and was due in November 1942. I had enlisted for the military draft, but had no idea at the time when I would be called for duty. Our daughter Marie was born on November 3, 1942, and shortly after I was sworn into the service. It was less than two weeks that I had to spend as a dad. Too soon, the day came that I had to leave Carmela and Marie “Cookie” not knowing if I’d ever see them again. At that time, I was 5’11” and 175 pounds, with a size 11 shoe. By age 22, I was 6’2”, 220, with a size 14 shoe, which is why my army buddies called me “Big Joe.”
... When our training ended we headed to Camp Shanks in New York to pick up our clothes, arms and equipment before boarding a ship at Staten Island. It was September 1944. … Our trip was slow and we didn’t know our destination. The invasion of France had already started. We were escorted by the Navy and aircraft because the German subs were still around. Finally we were told that our outfit would participate in the southern invasion of France to push the Germans back. We unloaded, hearing the bombs and machine gun fire in the background. We saw the first dead German soldier and some of our dead troops on the back of a truck. That puts a chill up your spine.
Our movement was all on foot. So far, the German troops were on the run north. We slept outdoors with the weather being just like Pittsburgh’s in October. We needed a rest after that first eight miles. All of it was uphill. We got very little rest from then on. Forget about showers and change of underwear.
The next day, I was assigned a half-track for our mortar squad. … We left for Nice, France. … After going through Nice, we started northward into the mountains. … The streets in the towns and villages were so narrow, I had to be careful not to hit homes on each side with my half-track. The further we got into the mountains, we had to be aware of hairpin curves. …
We finally reached our destination of Sospel, France. The Germans had a spotter that could direct shells to a certain portion of a road near Sospel. It being so hilly, no one could find him. We unloaded and had to be trucked to a more secluded spot. We then had to climb up a winding trail around the peak to relieve some other soldiers, so they could go return to their outfit. The trail was two to three feet wide and one slip could mean “Arreviderci.” We used Frenchmen with donkeys to bring our supplies to us. To our surprise, there were four dead Germans in uniform at the top of that peak. We were told not to touch them or they could be booby-trapped. The bodies were all bloated and ants were crawling into their noses. I was crazy enough to take a gold ring from one of their fingers. I wore that ring all through the war and brought it home after the war. I later sold it when the price of gold was high in the 1960s.
This peak was the border of Italy and France. We had to hold this peak at all costs. Patrols were sent below, so that we would not be surprised by the Germans and Italians. It was so quiet at the peak you could hear the voices of the enemy below. Every couple of hours I had to be a lookout and it was as dark as hell up there. Everyone had to know our password, and if it wasn’t given, our orders were to shoot to kill. Trying to sleep the first night was very scary. Who could sleep with four dead Germans near us? Anyway, as the war went on we became more used to seeing dead Germans. From then on we said the only good German was a dead one. All during the night salvos of artillery could be heard for miles. It was like an echo chamber throughout the hills.
We returned to Sospel and loaded up our halftracks and started towards Nice again. We finally arrived at a rail yard with our half-tracks and loaded them on flatbeds. None of our men in our company were wounded or killed as yet. I slept in my half-track for the train trip north. We needed to catch up on the battle action.
The Germans were retreating fast and our company was rushed toward the front line. We headed for Hatten, France, and fought our way through small towns. From then on, I couldn’t remember all the fronts I’d been engaged. As I fired my rifle, one can never know who killed who, for the bullets are flying everywhere. The tanks firing were most devastating. During one firefight, I got hit by shrapnel through the right nostril. I must have swallowed it. It tore the inside of my nose. Medics took me to a field hospital where I was treated. I healed quickly and was sent back to the front lines. I still to this day have nosebleeds when I sneeze, so I have to be careful.
After taking Hatten, we took a rest to prepare for the next battle. I had my first shower since setting foot in France. I wrote to Carm whenever possible. Our next battle came very soon. I drove to an area near a deep forest. The Germans had a machine gun nest dug in near woods. We knocked them back into the woods. I jumped in the same hole where the machine gun had been. All of a sudden we were getting a barrage of mortar hitting all around. One mortar shell hit seven of us. No one was killed, but I got the worst injury. A piece of shrapnel hit my helmet and put a hole as large as a quarter into my forehead. I was knocked out for some time. When I came to, I was in an ambulance receiving first aid. I was bleeding so much, I didn’t know where I was hit. It took two weeks to heal that wound before I was then sent back to our troops. The doctors said the shrapnel lodged in my forehead, but hadn’t penetrated my brain. I received my second Purple Heart.
Our squad was still intact, but while I was healing, the Germans had retaken Hatten. It was up to our Company B to retake the town. This poor town was getting bombed left and right. There was house to house fighting, tank fire, grenades thrown and prisoners taken. The people who lived in these homes had nothing to go back to. …
After taking Hatten, we entered another front line battle. Our Company B parked all five half-tracks. With all our weapons with us, we marched alongside a dirt road towards the action. I saw a soldier walking back toward our frontline. His arm was all wrapped up and he was looking for a medic. All of a sudden I heard a shell coming and dove for a gully. There was a loud boom very close to me and plenty of dirt coming down. When it cleared, I got up and saw where the 88 shell hit. It hit at the same spot where the injured solider was. The blast took his head off. What a terrible sight. We had to leave him there to be picked up later. We had our orders to keep moving. As we got near the battle zone, we were told to move back and get to our half-tracks. To our surprise, our half-tracks were gone. The Nazis had stolen them because we had left the keys in the ignition. We found a house with other U.S. troops and waited for trucks to pick us up to get us back to our outfit. As I entered, some of the soldiers were cleaning their guns. As I walked by one of them I got the scare of my life. His gun went off and I could hear the bullet go past my ear! To this day I never found out what happened to those half-tracks. It took two days to get back to our battalion. …
We reached Wissonberg, France, on December 24, 1944. Here we found the Maginot Line. It’s a line of concrete columns five feet high so that no mechanized army could penetrate it. We were told to dig a slit trench and hold at all costs. The nights were very long and cold. We had no blankets to keep warm, only the dirty clothes we had on for several weeks. There was no counter-attack on Christmas Eve, and Christmas morning when I was relieved, I couldn’t stand up, because both my feet were frostbitten due to wet socks. I had no feeling in both feet. The medics picked me up and with my arms around their shoulders, they bounced me up and down to restore the blood circulation through those big feet of mine. ...
[After we crossed into Germany] a lot of the advancing was done at night and the driver must watch the vehicle ahead. We couldn’t use headlights, only little purple reflector lights, front and rear. I never knew where I was in this part of the war. I was so tired. Sleep was a thing of the past. We continued all night and I remember we came to a large town in the morning named Lohr. … We were told that the war would end soon in Germany. The 14th Armored division was alerted that we were going to fight the war against Japan. What a kick in the ass for all of us. Some men who had 80 points total could go home, while the rest would soon leave for the Pacific.
It was the middle of April 1945 and I missed Carmella and Cookie. My birthday went by. I was 23, and I had completely forgotten. I was notified that I was selected to have a week off and could tour Paris soon.
We had captured a small village of several hundred people. The mayor of this village had everyone put a white flag out to let everyone know they were not to be fired upon. We got in OK, but an SS Trooper shot and killed the mayor. I still can’t find this town on the map, but I believe it was Rasch, Germany. All patrols were posted high upon the hill, day and night. … On the morning of April 19, 1945, I was thinking of my trip to Paris. To my dismay, we heard all kinds of machine gun fire and mortar shells coming into the village from atop the hill. The Germans were counter-attacking us. We got orders to get the half-track up to the corner and stop any attack coming down the road into town. I got into position and had the 50-caliber machine gun ready to fire. I didn’t know if I had been spotted from above. Then mortar shells began hitting all around the half-track. Then Germans came down the road, about 30 in all, in a crouching position. I waited until they were about 150 to 200 feet away and then all hell broke loose. They began shooting at me and I returned the fire as fast as my machine gun would fire. I could see the enemy I hit, for nobody moves after a 50 caliber bullet hits them. It tears your body apart. Then a mortar shell hit my half-track on the back end, causing smoke and fire. I had to get out quickly because of all the ammunition I carried. …
All of a sudden, we were ambushed by machine gun fire. We saw a house several hundred feet ahead of us. … [We} made it to the house. After a breather I said, “Let’s get the hell out of here before they blast us with tank fire.” There was a patch of woods 75 feet above us and we could hide there until we made a decision on what to do. The first men took off running. They reached the woods with no gunfire. I was number three.
I made it 30 feet from the house when I got hit by machine gun fire. I felt no pain, and I got up and stumbled back to the house. My buddies put gauze and bandages under my chin and over and around my head. My chin was broken in four places. The bullet went through my neck, my right tonsil, hit my jaw bone, split my tongue in half, put a hole in my upper mouth and then came out my lower lip. All I could hear was, “Stay here and we’ll send medics back to you,” and they took off for the woods.
The longer I lay there, I realized that I would surely bleed to death. I don’t know how long it was before I decided to give myself up to the Germans. I found a stick and a sheet from the house and started to walk towards a small bridge to surrender. As I approached the bridge, there was a house nearby and I could hear voices. I walked to the door, knocked, and all I could hear was “Nix American.” I was so weak by then, I could hardly walk. I again headed for the bridge to surrender, but then I thought that if I go across I could be killed. I decided to avoid the bridge and go back where I came from. That was the wrong move because I came under machine gun fire. I dove into a dry gully on a sloped hill. I knew the Germans were watching me. As I crawled on all fours up the gully, machine gun fire hit all around me each time I raised my head. I finally reached the tree line and tried to get over a wooden fence. That’s when I passed out. What happened after this was told to me when the war was over and I had a visit to my home from a Sgt. Dodd who lived in Pittsburgh and who I knew from another platoon. Sgt. Dodd is part of the reason I’m alive today.
Sgt. Dodd was about 300 feet from me and spotted me on the fence through field glasses. He thought it looked like one of our men and sent two men to check me out. I could hear voices, but couldn’t open my eyes or move. I heard, “Medic, medic!” And the next voice I heard was Sgt. Dodd’s. He said “Holy Hell, it’s Big Joe!” I was given morphine and began to choke because my throat was swelling up from the bullet wound. A medic cut into my throat so that I could breathe and they took me away to a field hospital where I was operated on.
I was unconscious for three days and when I woke up, I was in England. I looked like the Mummy, with bandages completely covering my head, except for my eyes, nostrils and mouth. I didn’t know what to expect from the condition I was in and I still didn’t know where I was hit. When the bandages came off, they gave me a mirror. I looked horrible, but I couldn’t say a word or scream. As the doctors talked to me, I answered by a nod of my head. I had the biggest headache in the world and felt like I wanted to die after seeing my face. He proceeded to tell me what injuries I had. The first was that I had had a tracheotomy in my throat and I had to breathe through it. My throat was closed because of the mouth injuries. The bullet had missed my jugular vein by a hair; otherwise, I wouldn’t have survived. The bullet entered the back of my neck, went through my tonsil, hitting my right jaw bone and becoming a compound fracture. Eleven of my teeth were sheared off, my tongue was split and then the bullet finally came out through my right lower lip. I had fifty-five stitches and what teeth I had left were wired together so my jaw could heal. …
As I became stronger in England, they decided to send me back to the States. … It was a rough flight to Philadelphia. From there I went to Valley Forge Hospital in Paoli, Pa. In July, the wires were taken out of my jaw. I had to exercise it very carefully. I finally brushed my teeth VERY carefully for my mouth was sore as hell. Now I was ready to go home. I had to beg the doctors. I said I knew I looked terrible, but I wanted to see my family. I was desperate, so they finally paid my train fare to Pittsburgh. Once there, I got on the street car and headed for Bloomfield. I could feel everyone looking at me, but my thoughts were what Carm and Cookie would think of me.
The test finally came when I knocked on the back door and a little girl opened it. I asked where her mommy was and she said she was at the store. I felt like a stranger and I didn’t want to scare her. I asked her if she knew who I was and her answer was so sweet. ”You are my Daddy.” The sweetest words I had been waiting to hear for three years. …