By George Ciampa

I was a nervous little kid. I grew up, until age nine, in Boston in an Italian family. I was exposed to a few wakes as a kid and never forgot them. At one wake for my grandfather, I saw people in the kitchen cry, laugh, eat, drink, tell jokes, and cry again, to the point where I was bewildered. At a funeral for a very young cousin—about six years old—I remember my mother screaming her name— “Theresa!” I became very aware and possessed with the thought of death and dying. I would imagine pains in my chest. At times I thought that I was going to die.

After we moved to California in 1934 when I was nine, I was enrolled in 4th grade in a Catholic school. At this school, we were sometimes required to attend funerals. I couldn’t handle it. I wouldn’t go to school, and ended up dropping out and attending public school.

I tried to enter into the Air Corps in 1943, to join my brother and brother-in-law who were pilots. My eyes were not quite good enough—20-22. I ate carrots again and again to help my sight, but no luck. I was drafted later in ’43 at the age of 18. I weighed about 112 pounds. Shipped to Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the cold of winter. By the time we arrived from California I had a good case of the flu and was taken to a hospital on the base. I stayed in Ward 13, Bed 13, and the guys told me that the patient there before had DIED. I survived.

I reported for duty and was told that I was to be in the 610th Graves Registration Company. What the hell is Graves Registration? That’s what I wanted to know. I didn’t like the word “GRAVES.” When I found out what it was, I was aghast! Graves Registration is a euphemism for gathering the dead on the battlefields and burying them. My God, not me! I can’t do that. How could this happen? People have asked me if I volunteered for that! Of course not! We were told we would live in hotels, but found later that it would mean sleeping in foxholes and freezing our butts off. No beds, no sheets, no regular food. No nothin’.

Thanksgiving Day of 1943 came, and my brother, who was in the Air Corps, came to visit me. When he arrived, he found that I had just returned from a local saloon with my buddies. Wonder how he knew that. The legal age for drinking in Cheyenne was eighteen. So of course I tried it and that was my first indulgence. I was not in the best condition to greet him.

While my brother was visiting, he said, “George, you gotta get the hell out of this outfit before they make an undertaker out of you.” “Yeah,” I said, “Like how?”

One day, an Air Corps recruiting team came on our base. The Air Corps had a base right next to ours, Ft. Francis Warren, I believe. We were at Ft. Francis E. Warren. The eye requirement was dropped for pilots to 20-30 without glasses. That was for me! I signed up without permission from the company commander. Didn’t know I had to do that. This is all new to me, what did I know? I went through all the steps and was ACCEPTED. When my company commander found out what I did, he was irate and sent me home on furlough and reassigned me to the 607th Graves Registration Company, which was immediately going overseas. I was the youngest in my company, 18 years old.