By Gail McCarthy
---- — Francis Bruni is among the few remaining World War II veterans who escaped unharmed from a sinking destroyer damaged by a kamikaze pilot during the Battle of Okinawa on June 10, 1945, some two months before the end of the war.
“I didn’t even get my feet wet,” he still marvels, speaking Friday during an interview at his Rockport home.
He served five years active duty in the Navy in both World War II and Korea. And his service especially hits home this weekend, when Americans honor all of our nation’s war dead, but with a special focus on the 60th anniversary of the Korean War.
His homage to his country and fellow service men and women also hits close to home because his older brother, Alfred “Sparky” Bruni was the first Gloucester serviceman to be killed in World War II. Another Gloucester boy, Don MacQuarrie, died not long after at a different battle.
Bruni, now 92, says he has never missed a Memorial Day since he returned from the service. A Gloucester native and graduate of Gloucester High School’s Class of 1938, Bruni recalled that he was part of the Junior ROTC program for three years at the high school, a program he credited for molding him into the person he became.
Of the many coincidences recounted, Bruni noted that both he and Sparky were in North Africa at the same time, but neither knew it. Bruni was in Casablanca at the time his brother was killed in action in the neighboring country of Tunisia.
“He died May 14, 1943,” he said, ”but I didn’t know until I got home,” he related. “After arriving at the Brooklyn Navy yard, I came back here and went to the YMCA in Gloucester.”
A YMCA staffer said to him that he was sorry to hear about Bruni’s brother.
“I said what about my brother, and he replied ‘Jesus, you don’t know? He was killed in action,’“ recounted Bruni who had a third brother, Harold Bruni, who also served in World War II.
That younger brother surprised him when the PT boat he was serving on in the Letye Gulf in the Phillipine Sea got in touch with Francis in 1944.
“We were in the Leyte Gulf. We just drove the Japanese out, and a shipmate asked me if I had a brother on a PT boat,” he related. “He said a PT boat went by last night with the guys waving their arms. The next morning, they came up alongside the destroyer in October 1944 — and there I saw my brother. They probably didn’t take our fourth brother into the service because three of us were already serving.”
Bruni served as an FCO — or gunfire control officer. He volunteered on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. The stunning attack came on a Sunday, he recalled, and he was with a girlfriend babysitting on King Street in Rockport when the news came over the radio about the Pearl Harbor bombings.
He would serve on Navy vessels in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Bruni, who worked 50 years at the Building Center in Gloucester under Charles Heberle, said the first ship he served on in the navy was the USS Eberle — like his later boss’s name “but without the ‘H,’ “ he noted.
But the ship that left a lasting impression with Bruni was the USS William D. Porter -- which he affectionately called “the Willie D. “ -- and which lies hundreds of feet under water off the coast of Japan. He remembers the day it was hit by a suicide bomber.
“It was the only ship that sunk that never had a death in World War II,” he said. “We had come up from the Philippines and the Marianas. The suicide bombers would come at sun up, and that morning we spent two hours waiting for them. Then this plane showed up out of nowhere. It looked like the wing hit the mast.”
Photographs of that sinking, which took about four hours, appeared in Time and Life magazine, he added.
“I was among the last guys off with the captain. My battle station was above the bridge, and I had to wait for the captain to say ‘let’s go,’ “ said Bruni.
He left the sinking ship with two pairs of binoculars — one of which he still has as a reminder.
Back on Cape Ann, Bruni married Elizabeth Johnson of Rockport and had five children. They met on a double date. He attended Northeastern University under the G.I. Bill for 2 1/2 years, but when he started having children, he was unable to complete his studies. He was also called back into the service during the Korean War when he served on the USS C.K. Bronson.
As the nation pauses for Memorial Day on Monday, Bruni plans to be part of Rockport’s annual ceremony; his daughters calculated that he will be 92.7 years old on Monday — Memorial Day 2013.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.