Glen Ellyn veteran remembers Pearl Harbor attack
At first, Louis Licastro thought the aircraft flying near his base were training on that morning 70 years ago.
"What the hell are they doing dive bombing on a Sunday morning?" Licastro, 93, remembered asking his buddy after breakfast.
Then they spotted the red Japanese insignia on the planes. Licastro, of Glen Ellyn, bolted from the kitchen to his barracks at Hickam Field, a U.S. Army airfield parallel to Pearl Harbor, to grab his helmet and headed for the hangar.
There, he searched for ammo. Licastro spotted a steel bucket on the wall and put it on his friend's head -- just in time for an explosion.
"We both went flying 15 to 20 feet," Licastro said.
Concrete and steel debris sliced through the air. As Licastro recalled one of the worst foreign attacks on U.S. soil on Dec. 7, 1941, the World War II veteran said he could still smell the burning oil from vessels scorching at Pearl Harbor.
"The burning ships made so much black smoke," Licastro said.
He doesn't have much planned for the 70th anniversary of the attack today; probably just a "chicken dinner and some booze."
Licastro, a product of the Depression, enlisted in 1940 because he couldn't find a job. He said he weighed 100 pounds as a private in the Army Air Corps, a precursor of the Air Force. He eventually rose to master sergeant and was discharged in 1945.
Hopping from island to island, Licastro helped prepare aircraft in the Pacific after the attack dragged the United States into World War II.
"You improvised like crazy to get them (the planes) up in the air," he said.
He doesn't mind talking about those days. After retiring from his job in industrial lighting, he's often at the Wheaton VFW Post 2164 attracting a crowd with his stories.
"Louie is like the lucky charm around here," said Vietnam War veteran Sam Maggio, the post's junior vice commander. "Everybody just fusses over him."
Maggio described Licastro as a "magnet," drawing people to his smile and participating in about 80 percent of the post's activities.
"He never worries about anything," Maggio said.
A two-time Purple Heart recipient, Maggio also serves as commander of the Wheaton chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. He said Licastro is the only veteran who witnessed the Pearl Harbor attack in those local veterans organizations.
"That was the worst day we had," Maggio said. "He was there on the front line."
Despite the devastating images from the day, Licastro still colors his memories with humor.
"To me, I'd rather sit and tell jokes," Licastro said. "I think humor will bind you closer together."
He credits his time in the service for that spirit of cohesion.
"Your lives depended on that," Licastro said. "You're all a part. Everyone's important."
Licastro shrugs his shoulders when asked how he survived that morning 70 years ago. He counts four near-death experiences during his military service.
"I don't know how the hell I've made it this far," he said.