Outfitted for war
In honor of Veterans Day, Franklin museum features uniforms evoking a century of service
A nthony Molinaro was just out of high school, not yet 18, when he volunteered to fight with the Navy in World War II. He was trained and eventually assigned to the USS Quincy, a heavy cruiser bound for battle in France.
Molinaro and his shipmates fired at German troops in Normandy, and swept Cherbourg Harbor for mines. Eventually, the ship returned to the Bethlehem Steel Co. yard in Quincy, where the sailors were sworn to secrecy about construction on board. First, workers installed an elevator and a ramp. Then, an armor-plated Lincoln was lowered onto the ship’s deck and guarded around the clock.
“We went down to Newport News, Virginia, and who came aboard but President Roosevelt,’’ said Molinaro, 86, who lives in Franklin. The men had already begun to guess at the reason behind the modifications to the ship. “We knew he was coming. Who else would they put in an elevator for?’’
The Quincy delivered the president to Malta, where he met British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The two men then headed to the Yalta Conference for talks with Russia’s leader, Joseph Stalin, on how Europe would be reorganized after the war.
Now, more than 60 years after Molinaro returned home, one of his Navy uniforms hangs in a new exhibition at the Franklin Historical Museum, in the center of town at 80 West Central St. The display, which will officially open this weekend, tells the story of a century’s worth of wars through 17 uniforms of local veterans and other memorabilia.
Every branch of the military is represented; the oldest uniform is from World War I.
“It’s Veterans Day,’’ said Deborah Pellegri, who is chairwoman of the town’s Historical Commission, which oversees the museum, as well as town clerk. “We wanted to show the support of the town.’’
Pellegri noted that she had gotten to know many local veterans while heading up Franklin’s Fourth of July celebrations for a quarter-century.
She said one of the most poignant stories in the display is represented by an Army uniform that belonged to Staff Sergeant Robert R. Pirelli, who was killed in Iraq in 2007.
Pirelli graduated from Franklin High School in 1996, and went on to get a criminal justice degree from Northeastern University, hoping to some day work in the Secret Service. He joined the Army in 2003 and became a Green Beret.
He was a member of the Army Special Forces unit when he was killed during combat operations in Iraq. He was 29.
After his death, an annual comedy show was organized to raise money for the SSG Robert Ryan Pirelli Scholarship Fund for Franklin High School students, said his aunt, Jodi A. Pirelli. His sister, Stacey, and his brother, Shawn, present the scholarships each spring.
This year, the SSG Pirelli Foundation was created in his honor to raise money for troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Robby was a person of strong belief and proud service,” his aunt wrote in an e-mail. “Our family is proud of him, and always remembers him in everything we do.”
Another uniform on exhibit belongs to Howard Crawford, who volunteered for service after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. But he had poor vision in one eye and was turned away. Less than two years later, he was drafted into the Army.
He was sent to basic training and later was taught how to operate large artillery. His outfit sailed across the Atlantic and landed in Scotland. They eventually made their way to Rouen, France, so close to the Battle of Normandy that the soldiers could hear the fighting.
Crawford, 88, still has a handwritten list, in a small notebook he had during the war, of the 13 battles he fought. One of his most frightening moments came during the Battle of the Ruhr Pocket in Germany, near the end of the war.
He was stationed with the artillery on top of a mountain, firing at German soldiers who were lobbing back shells. Then the American soldiers had to creep closer.
“When we got down so that we could hit those guns - those shells, I bet they weren’t a foot over us,’’ he said. “We could feel the wind of it. I tell you, I was a nervous wreck in that one.’’
The Battle of the Ruhr Pocket was an important victory for the Allies, and more than 300,000 German troops were taken prisoner. Crawford and his division received a Presidential Unit Citation for their work.
Crawford was injured just once during World War II, when he was traveling in a convoy.
“A shell came in and it hit me flat, right on the neck,’’ he said. “It was a pretty good piece of shrapnel, knocked me out of the truck. But it hit flat and all it did was burn me.’’
Two of Crawford’s brothers also served in the military during the war, and the wall of his living room holds pictures of the three of them in uniform. His younger brother lied about his age, and fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima when he was 15. Crawford met up with his older brother in Germany, after his brother was hospitalized with meningitis.
Crawford also fought in the Korean War, but after 10 months, a piece of shrapnel landed in his eye. He was sent to an air base in Japan for surgery, and later released from the Army.
Molinaro left the Navy more than six decades ago, but he can still rattle off, without hesitation, how long he served: two years, eight months and 15 days.
He was trained in steam plant operation, which became his livelihood once the war ended. At age 27, he was appointed Franklin’s water and sewer superintendent. Later, he sold pumps and air compressors and hydraulic equipment.
When Molinaro had first told his parents he wanted to enlist, his mother suggested that he wait until he was drafted. His father agreed that he could join the Navy, and sent him off with some advice.
“He said, ‘I want to tell you two things: Try to stay out of trouble, and get all you can out of it,’ ’’ Molinaro recalls. “And I did.’’
Kathleen Burge can be reached at email@example.com.