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Valentino Cerrini Colombo
Welch Daily News

West Virginia Veterans Memorial

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Valentino Cerrini Colombo
1925-1945

"A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for."

William Shedd

Navy Seaman Second Class Valentino Cerrini Colombo (known by family as “Coney”) was born in Elbert, McDowell County, West Virginia, on April 21, 1925, the son of Pete (“Generale”) and Angeline Demetric Colombo. Pete and Angeline’s grandson James Valentino “Coney” Bales (who inherited his uncle’s given name as well as nickname) offers some insight into the various nicknames and surnames that run through his family. In a July 19, 2013, interview he states that his grandfather was known as “Generale” because family lore has it that Pete’s father was a general in the Italian army. Family history also indicates that Pete was recruited by the Black Hand, but not wanting any part of that, he emigrated to the United States. James says that the family’s Italian surname was Cherini [McDowell County Births lists the last name as Cherina], but when the family passed through Ellis Island, it somehow got translated into Colombo. This is not surprising in an era when immigration workers and census takers wrote down what they thought they heard, and, with the number of immigrants passing through each day, could not take the time to determine a more accurate spelling.

Valentino “Coney” Colombo, then, was born the oldest son in a family that would eventually include four sisters—Rose Mary, Aster, Antoinette, and Marie Grace [Maria]—and three brothers—Carlo and Pete Jr. (“Bobo”), in addition to Valentino. The patriarch of the family was born in Montefiascone, Rome, Italy, in 1896 and came to America in 1919, where in 1921 he married Angeline Demetric, who was born in Bari, Italy. Pete and Angeline spent the early years of their married life in Lynch, Kentucky. Moving across the state border, Pete, a miner, worked at U. S. Steel in Gary for 46 years. (Sources: 1940 Federal Census and Rose Marino’s history, Welch and Its People [Marceline, MO: Walsworth Press, 1985, p. 172].) James “Coney” Bales recalls that his grandfather, highly literate in Italian, learned to read and write only his name in English—so he could sign checks. His grandmother Angeline, however, educated herself, and, according to Marino’s book, the family was heavily involved in community affairs.

Valentino attended Gary High School, and prior to his enlistment in the Navy worked for U. S. Coal and Coke at Gary. Marino’s history states that he entered service in September 1943 and received his boot training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station. He was for a time stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. On January 5, 1944, he left for the West Coast, ultimately participating in four major engagements in the Pacific: the Marianas (where for his wounds he was awarded the Purple Heart), Palau, Philippines, and Formosa campaigns.

S2c Colombo lost his life on March 19, 1945—ironically, so near the end of the war. As a crewman aboard the USS Franklin, his final day is well chronicled in numerous accounts. The following is excerpted from David H. Lippman’s article “USS Franklin: Struck by a Japanese Dive Bomber During World War II,” originally published in World War II magazine (March 1995), and accessed March 14, 2013, from http://www.historynet.com/uss-franklin-struck-by-a-japanese-dive-bomber-during-world-war-ii.htm:

Nicknamed “Big Ben” and commanded by Captain Leslie Gehres, the USS Franklin was one of 24 Essex-class carriers and carried 3,500 crewmen and 100 aircraft. Loaded with ordnance and men, the carrier and 16 others (Task Force 58) were headed for Kyushu, Japan.

Although the morning of March 19 dawned in relatively routine fashion, by 7:05 it was clear that enemy planes were headed toward the Franklin. Two minutes later a Japanese dive bomber unloaded two 500-pound bombs on the carrier. On the decks, five bombers, 14 torpedo bombers, and 12 fighters carried a total 36,000 gallons of gas and 30 tons of bombs and rockets. According to Lippman, “They became an inferno.”

Although the ship was listing and lacked communications, the engine crew was able to keep the boilers running. Some members of Task Force 58 thought the Franklin was “a goner,” but crew members worked hard to maintain the carrier’s integrity while others in the task force chased and shot at the Japanese bombers. Rear Admiral Ralph E. Davison, a “passenger” on the Franklin before he transferred to the destroyer Miller, strongly recommended that Gehres abandon the ship, but the latter had supreme command on the carrier and adamantly refused to give up.

Others in the task force attempted to give aid. Everything happened very quickly. By 10 a.m. the Franklin was dead in the water; the wounded were transferred to the Santa Fe. Without power, it was imperative that the carrier be towed, which the Pittsburgh was ready to do by 11:28. The Japanese were still bombing, and another large bomb just missed the carrier by 200 yards.

With the Franklin under tow, Gehres took stock late in the afternoon: one third of the crew (832 dead and 300 wounded) were lost to the action. Lippman writes: “No ship in history had suffered such losses and remained afloat.” Those who remained carried on, battling fires and stabilizing the carrier. For the next two days, the crew cleared the wreckage, fought fires, searched for bodies, and continued to ward off occasional attacks by air. The Franklin, along with the Santa Fe, was sent to New York for repairs; remarkably, she reached this destination under her own power.

It was amidst this chaotic scene that S2c Colombo perished; according the American Battle Monuments Commission, he was killed in action and buried at sea. He is memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial in addition to the West Virginia Veterans Memorial.
Tablets of the Missing

Tablets of the Missing, Honolulu Memorial, Honolulu, Hawaii. Courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission

While the above account provides context for what happened that fateful day, nothing speaks to the character of the man like the testimony of one who knew him. Writing in the Welch Daily News (October 28, 1988, p. 7), Cathy Patton recounts an interview with Calvin Poff of Bluewell, who met Valentino as the two went off to war. The two boarded the same bus in Welch in September 1943. But they didn’t introduce themselves until they boarded the train for Chicago in Huntington, when Poff noticed Colombo’s “snazzy powder blue jacket and tan pants.” Poff stated, “We hit it off real fast and at the naval training station in Great Lakes, Illinois, we became better friends,” adding, “I don’t think I’ve ever met a more likable person than him.”

As luck would have it, both were assigned to the USS Franklin. Both worked on the flight deck, but Poff considered this assignment extremely dangerous and transferred to the gunnery deck. Valentino, he said, “actually liked the [flight deck] job.”

When a kamikaze pilot attacked the Franklin in September of 1944 (and 77 of the crew perished), the ship went back to Washington state for repairs, and Colombo and Poff spent the holidays that year with their respective families in West Virginia. It would be the last time Valentino’s [Coney’s] family would see him.

Patton writes that Poff explained that Colombo didn’t die in the fire aboard the ship. Instead, the blast knocked him overboard, and he was fished out of the water several hours later, presumably by this time dead or dying. Along with many of his shipmates (883, according to Poff), Valentino was buried at sea. Despite returning home and carrying on his life with family and work, Poff never quite shook the sadness he felt when remembering the events of that day. Through the years he maintained contact with the Colombo family, which he felt a strong connection to.

As of this writing (2014), two of Valentino Colombo’s sisters (Aster Yanesh and Maria Cure) are still living. Today, they remember their brother Coney, along with a host of nieces and nephews, some of whom never had the chance to know him but have had the opportunity to honor him thanks to the carefully preserved memories of a close-knit and caring family.

Family information provided by nephew James “Coney” Bales. Article prepared by Patricia Richards McClure

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Valentino Colombo

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