2014 Grand Marshall
WWII Army Veteran Gene Moretti
The Grand Marshall of the 2014 John Basilone Memorial Parade is World War II army veteran Gene Moretti. During the war he participated in the first three U.S. invasions onto enemy territory. With the army he would journey over a thousand miles across North Africa into Italy fighting the Germans along the way. On that trek he would see famous places. In combat he saw men die - and he rescued injured men. He would experience personal tragedy when his brother, who was serving in the Navy, was killed off Okinawa. At the end of the war he would find romance - meeting his future wife. Simply said, Gene Moretti has a vast and amazing story!
Gene was born in Raritan in 1917 residing at 7 Doughty Street. As a young boy, he attended the Raritan Public Schools which were on the property where the Municipal building is today. He attended St. Ann’s church where he served as an altar boy. On hot summer days (in the decades before Raritan had any kiddie pools) he swam in the Raritan River.
In 1929, when he was eleven, his family who had been sharing the house on Doughty Street with relatives, moved out to their own house on South Bridge Street in Somerville.
Basilone's Death inspired Herb to serve his Country
With the start of World War II, both Gene and his brother Joseph volunteered to serve in their country. His brother Joseph joined the Navy, Gene the Army. After a sendoff dinner at Orlando’s Restaurant in Raritan, he was sent to Fort McClellan for training.
In November of 1942 his unit took part in the first U.S. invasion of enemy territory (known as Operation Torch) when they landed at Casablanca, Morocco. Here Gene saw the mass confusion that plagued the U.S. Army in the early part of the war. After they established a position off the beach, they spent several days with no supplies and were given no direction from officers on what the next step was. Fortunately, after a few days, leadership emerged and the troops were re-supplied and begin a long trek across northern Africa battling the Germans.
Along the way, Gene took many photographs with a camera he had packed. An advanced photographer for his era, he knew how to develop the photos himself and even trained others to do so. His scrapbook today contains over 300 photographs from his war time journey.
At this time, Gene was assigned to an armored division. He rode along with the convoy of tanks in a truck that contained supplies for the tanks. Gene was assigned to a mounted machine gun that was in the front passenger side of the supply truck. That weapon would need to be fired many times at the enemy. While he personally was never hit, the tanks in his outfit were often hit. The tanks used gasoline for fuel and as a result, burst into flames when hit. He, along with others, had to try and get the severely injured and often badly burnt men out of the tank to give them a chance of surviving. This was one of the toughest things he had to do during the war.
After taking North Africa from the Germans, they would participate in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 (Sicily is an island off mainland Italy.) The Germans held Sicily and they were not about to give it up. They had thousands of troops and fortifications to try to prevent the Americans from landing. To keep losses to a minimum, Gene recalls that only ten men from any one unit could be in any one boat that was the land at the hostile beachhead. The U.S. commanders could not afford to lose an entire outfit. After Sicily was secured, the Army would next invade southern Italy in December 1943. The Germans fiercely defended the beachhead, but the U.S., after sustaining many casualties, were eventually able to bring their army into Italy. The Italian campaign moved Northward slowly over the next 15 months encountering heavy German resistance and rough terrain. The soldiers seldom slept inside. Their shelter was sometimes a pup tent, but other times they just slept under a truck.
The Belle Mead Army Depot had an
incredible amount of supplies
On June 5th 1944, the U.S. Army had advanced to the outskirts of Rome. Here the U.S. outnumbered the Germans, thus the Germans decided to abandon the city without a fight. Gene recalled that when they drove into Rome, the Germans just 200 yards away, were driving out. Neither side fired on one another as an unofficial temporary cease fire agreement seemed to have arisen between the two opposing sides.
With all the insanity of war, the peak of insanity may have been due to an act of nature. In March 1944 while they were around the Naples area, the previously dormant volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted. Lava and smoke filled the landscape for miles around. A U.S. airfield was hit by hot lava resulting in 80 planes being destroyed.
The eruption lasted for 5 days. The resulting smoke obstructed vision and thus it dictated the battle conditions which the Germans used to their advantage. Gene Moretti’s scrapbook has several pictures that he took of the Mount Vesuvius eruption.
Along the journey, the U.S. Army at times stopped to rest and regroup. When they did, the soldiers often got to know the civilian population. The U.S. were liberators, thus for the most part they were warmly welcomed. Gene said that while the other soldiers spent a lot of their free time drinking in any tavern they could find, he choose to spend a lot of his time socializing with the local people.
Gene became good friends with some families. His scrapbook has many photos of families that he become friends with. After the war, he would stay in contact with two of the families writing letters for several years. Both of these families had children who could still be alive today. Currently this author is helping Gene to locate any surviving family members.
At a lot of the people that he met had suffered the deprivations of war and thus had very little. So when he received packages from home filled that were with various snacks he donated it to local orphanages or to the poor.
While Gene would survive the war, he did not escape without an injury. One day when he had duty on a “Liberty Ship” the USS Lewis Morris a shell burst very close to the boat. While it did not damage the boat the resulting blast caused him to permanently lose the hearing in one ear.
One day toward the end of the war two special purpose military personnel visited their location. Gene knew what their main duty was – to deliver bad news to someone. But he did not think that someone would be him. Sadly they informed Gene that his brother Joseph had been killed while serving on the USS Bunker Hill off the coast of Okinawa. Gene would later learn that Joseph had bravely stayed at his post when the battle situation would have allowed him to flee. In that battle, three Japanese kamikazes planes hit the ship resulting in 300 dead American Sailors.
Germany would surrender at the beginning of May 1945. That would end the fighting portion of the war in Europe. At this point Gene’s unit was in the town of Livorno, Italy. He would remain there and be assigned to at a desk job in a temporary U.S. Headquarters building.
Working in that office was a young local Italian girl named Maria who spoke English. He found her charming and he would begin to see her outside of work. However, in November 1945, he was given orders to return home. Maria said to Gene before he left “You are coming back for me.” He asked her “How can you be sure?” Maria responded “Because I have your heart.” She was indeed correct as in 1947 Gene, after keeping in touch with her for 18 months, returned to Italy to marry her. They then came back to the U.S. where a party was held in their honor.
They were married for 66 years. Sadly, Maria passed away in 2014.
They had 2 daughters, 4 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren.
The John Basilone Parade Committee is honored to have Gene Moretti as the Grand Marshall this year.