A Passyunk Square product has gained distinction as the oldest Italian-American Marine.
Though he confessed his knees would hamper his efficiency, Samuel J. Bonanno again would serve his country if it were to call upon him.
The 88-year-old native of the 1300 block of South Warnock Street sees nothing extraordinary about his attitude, deeming it a byproduct of his allegiance to the U.S. Marine Corps’ motto “Semper Fi,” always faithful. With the same extreme pride that helped him to defend his land during two wars, Bonanno beamed in November 2010 when his former employer acknowledged him as the oldest living Italian-American Marine.
“Personnel researched matters and determined I was the one,” the Huntingdon Valley resident said last month of the ceremony at Northeast Philly’s Naval Inventory Control Point, which helped the Marine Corps to celebrate its 235th anniversary. “I hadn’t given much thought to my longevity, but I appreciate the recognition.”
Bonanno found himself engaging in role reversal for the event, replacing praising the armed forces branch for its work in shaping his life with accepting its gratitude for his commitment to its causes. Sixty-one years after completing his tenure with the body, he remains an advocate of personal sacrifice for his nation’s gain.
“If I could go back in time, I would still honor our flag,” the octogenarian said. “Even today, morale is missing among our soldiers. Our military is troubled.”
The collective defenders faced similar woes in 1942, having entered World War II the year before because of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. One month before his 18th birthday, Bonanno, having grown too accustomed to reading accounts of the conflict, chose to see if he could speed it along, leaving Southeast Catholic High School, formerly Seventh and Christian streets, now Ss. Neumann-Goretti High School, 1736 S. 10th St. His superiors attached him to the 3rd Marine Division, 12th Regiment, 2nd Battalion Artillery Detachment following boot camp in South Carolina, and he eventually became a participant in the nearly four-year-long Asia-Pacific portion of the struggle. He made amphibious landings on the islands of Bougainville and Guadalcanal, Guam and Japan, the last as part of the bloody Battle of Iwo Jima.
“I had no fear when wearing my uniform,” Bonanno, who received furlough in May ’45, four months before the war’s conclusion, said. “I’d have given my life for my country and still would give it today.”
The patriotic figure returned to duty five years later during the Korean War’s early stages. Instead of venturing overseas again, he served as a military police officer in North Carolina, with his discharge as a corporal occurring in ’52. For his valor, he received The American Theater, Korean Service, National Defense, Presidential Unit Commendation and World War II Victory medals, along with The Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with four battle stars and the Navy Unit Commendation with one star.
“What a critical stage in history that was,” Bonanno, whom Maj. Gen. Anthony C. Zinni promoted to the rank of sergeant at a ’96 Union League ceremony, said of his military career. “I had such civic pride and wanted only to back up my belief that this is the best country in the world.”
Just as he had followed his heart in deciding to enlist, the Passyunk Square native sought to secure safety as an officer with the Pennsylvania Highway Patrol, beginning an eight-year stint soon after his discharge. Living with wife Rose on the 3100 block of South 13th Street, Bonanno, eager for education, used the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, commonly called the G.I. Bill, to enhance his standing. He secured a dayshift to take evening classes at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating from the Ivy League institution with a criminal justice degree in ’59.
“I wanted to establish myself as a provider and to use as much of whatever talent I had,” Bonanno said of returning to school. “I knew what I had in my heart and wanted to see what I had in my head.”
He aligned himself with the Atlantic Richfield Co. in ’60, gaining ownership of two auto repair shops. The automotive field occupied Bonanno, who left South Philly for Fox Chase before settling in Huntingdon Valley, for 24 years, with the then-60-year-old securing a claims supervisor position with a Center City law firm in ’84.
“It’s always given me a thrill to be productive, no matter my age,” he said. “Being active always beats the alternative.”
He remained with the firm until 2003, retiring to become the caretaker for his bride, who passed the next year. Rather than let sadness envelop him, Bonanno engrossed himself in building his friendships, especially his unions with buddies in the Northeast Philly-based Lombardi/Alessandroni/Michelangelo Lodge of the Sons of Italy, for whom he has served numerous duties, including several terms as its president.
“I’ve been involved with the Sons of Italy for almost 60 years,” the proud Sicilian said. “To help communities, I’ve also been with the American Legion for the same amount of time.”
The latter, a veterans organization only five years older than Bonanno, has led him to advance its commitment to mentoring youths and to sponsoring communal programs. He has used his involvement to complement what he considers a rich life, an existence that gained a great ally five years ago when he wed a second time.
“Gilda has been great to me,” he said of his partner, whom he met through her friendship with his first wife. “I feel even more blessed and vivacious because of her.”
He has traveled a few times to spend time with his two Florida-based stepchildren and loves what he can share with his family, especially recollections of his time abroad and the acknowledgment of his successors’ admiration for his 88 years.
“I really didn’t do much aside from aging, but any honor from the Marine Corps is one any man or woman should cherish,” he said.
A few blocks of Oregon Avenue were blocked off Sunday, with Cookie’s Tavern, 2654 S. Alder St., seated at the heart of the event as hundreds of Marines marked their birthday. Beer flowed into yellow plastic mugs, with attendees smoking cigars and consuming hot dogs en masse, and a marching and rock band entertaining in the early afternoon chill.
On February 3, 1943, 902 men were aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester when an enemy torpedo struck the starboard side. As people scrambled to leave the sinking vessel plunging into icy Atlantic waters, four chaplains remained, handing their life jackets to those without and preaching courage as they calmly and altruistically faced imminent death.