State 08: New York
New York, New York, U.S.A. | October 09, 2017
Video by: Brian Petchers
“Fuhgetaboutit, I won’t join,” William Busciolano said about when he attempted to enlist in 1941 but was turned away by the Navy because he bit his fingernails.
I didn’t know which one was more exciting: a New Yorker saying “fuhgetaboutit” or that he was turned away for a foolish little habit. Regardless, William — AKA “Uncle Willy” or “Bill” — found himself in the unusual predicament of being turned away when the U.S. had declared a state of war after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Entering the National September 11 Memorial & Museum on a gloomy Fall day, the thought of the attack on Pearl Harbor lingered in the air for a moment.
Uncle Willy, his great-nephew designer Jon Contino, Jon’s parents, and two of Bill’s daughters entered though security at the main entrance. All New Yorkers, some of whom worked just blocks from the buildings, were all visiting for the first time.
After moments of silence and reflection, two tables were pulled together as conversations started over coffee and baked goods from the cafe upstairs on the second floor.
Bill started, “In January of ‘43, I received a greetings letter from President Roosevelt which stated I must go to the draft board when I become eighteen years old.” With only a month left of high school in Brooklyn, he requested a deferment to finish. This time, his fate included the military, regardless of his nail-biting.
In the summer of 1943, Bill kissed his parents goodbye at Penn Station and boarded the train. In proceeding months he bounced from camp to camp for training including Camp Upton in New York, Indian Town Gap in Pennsylvania, Fort McKay in Boston, and Myles Standish in Massachusetts. Eventually, it was time for his outfit to move out. William sailed over the Atlantic on the S.S. Argentina for 19 days until they reached Scotland.
After some time together upstairs to get acquainted, the entire crew transitioned downstairs underneath where the reflecting pools memorialize the 2,977 people killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks. For the rest of the afternoon, the family settles into the education room that the 9/11 Memorial & Museum uses for educational programs and class field trips.
Uncle Willy started right where he left off. Sitting at the head of the long, rectangular table, he would begin shouting when excited, raising his arms enthusiastically while he described his many travels, kitchen police (KP) duties, and women he met along the way. Occasionally, Jon would try to interject to ask a question, but Uncle Willy had his own agenda.
“Don’t push, don’t push!” he responded as he signaled Jon to slow down with his hands.
A round of laughter filled the room. Familiar with Uncle Willy’s mannerisms and stories, the Busciolano and Contino family knew what to expect. Nevertheless, they would laugh and react each time Bill delivered.
Arriving in Scotland, it was Bill’s first time seeing prisoners of war (POWs) who were walking around within the American camp, a “PW” marking differentiating them from the rest. “They were walking around like they own the joint!” Uncle Willy exclaimed. While in Scotland, Bill and his buddies got a pass to visit the city of Glasgow before passes were halted and his unit was woken up in the missile of the night without a clue as to where they were going. They packed up their things and headed to Plymouth, England, where they watched the bombing of Portsmouth in awe, off in the distance. Something was happening, they could all sense it but had no idea as to what.
“They never told us anything!” Uncle Willy recalled. “We were told to keep six feet away from the fence because they didn’t want us talking to anyone.” Not long after, they were woken up again in the middle of the night, told to pack their things, and packed into trucks. Two hours later, they had arrived in Wales and an additional couple hours later, they were in Cardiff, Wales. It wasn’t much longer that he found himself boarding another truck.
“We didn’t know where we were. They never told us where our destination was,” Bill would further emphasize. “They took us to the waterfront and we boarded a cargo ship. Something big was definitely happening. “The seas were rough. We still didn’t know where we were going or what type of cargo the ship was carrying.” In all of the unknown, Bill would always manage to find a moment to relish. “My buddy and I were laying down looking up at the American flag flying in front of a light blue sky… It was just beautiful, it gave us chills.”
Five days later, we woke up and ran to the side of the ship. They had crossed the channel and were witnessing the beginning of the D-Day, the invasion against the Germans.
“We were a block away from a battleship who was firing their guns into the shores. Invasion was on,” Uncle Willy told Jon. An event that seems so long ago and far away, it was incredibly moving to hear Bill’s first-hand experience.
I think it’s difficult to understand the amount of human effort and work it takes to accomplish a military effort such as an invasion. Every person had a role. Actually, every person had multiple roles. In the next week on the water, Bill’s roles included working in the hull of the cargo ship, moving ammunition, and loading the “duck” boats, among a variety of other responsibilities. Attempting to cause any damage they could, the Germans would aim a series of rounds of cannon fire at the cargo ship, coming up short and fortunately failing.
Eventually, he and his unit were loaded onto a landing craft infantry (LCI) where they headed to the beaches. “When we hit the shore, the gangplank dropped, everyone was running out of the landing craft,” Uncle Willy was telling Jon. “Everyone hit the ground but me. I hit a hole and went down about six to eight feet in the water. My buddy pulled me out. I was soaking wet!” The family laughed playfully at his uncle’s rough landing.
Most surprising to Jon was the story of when Uncle Willy seemed to have drawn the short straw of his crew. “When we were all on the beach the Sergeant came around and wanted all of our ammunition. These were the orders from headquarters. That night, I was picked for guard duty on the beach, without any ammunition, but all went well,” he shared in disbelief.
“Pulling guard duty on the beach in the middle of the night with no ammunition, what does that feel like?” Jon asks.
“Fuhgetaboutit. It was something,” Uncle Willy responds waiving it off.
One to seize any opportunity of an experience or fun he could get, Bill and his friend hitch hiked to Sainte Mere Eglise when they had a moment of down time. While traveling the little town in the countryside of Normandy, Bill and his friend came upon the hedge groves American gliders had crashed into. The planes played an crucial role in the liberation of the town from the Germans. They carried the famous paratroopers and infantry that fought to free the city. Bill and his friend walked around, soaking in the history, the culture, and the experience. “We met a farmer who was very said. He told us that his wife was killed. He had his little daughter with him,” Uncle Willy recalled.
Bill was on the beaches of Normandy for three weeks until the U.S.A. had taken the city of Cherbourg. Once the town was captured, he was given a new role of crane operator on the docks within the town. Surprisingly enough, he was working along German POWs who were also working on the docks; one of them handmade a knife, which has since become a letter-opener, for him.
The next destination was La Harve, France, where he was assigned the responsibility of dispatching jeeps. During a week of rest, Bill and a buddy got a three-day pass to Paris where they hit up the nightclubs at Pigalle. The next day, they jumped at the chance to go to Brussels, Belgium.
A week or so later, Bill and his formation were transported to Compiegne, on the other side of Paris. This is where he and his friend met two girls, one Spanish and the other Italian. “I was no Casanova!” Uncle Willy insists to Jon. He got the chance to meet the girls’ families who welcomed him to spend Easter with the family.
“That night I went to the Italian’s house. All of a sudden, we heard screaming and hollering that the war was over. The Germans surrendered,” Uncle Willy explains. “The next day the truck came and picked us up to go to the train station. From there we went back to La Harve where we stayed in France for about a week or two. The way you were sent home was through points. I had 42 points. The 82nd Air Borne, parachute division came home ahead of us so they could march down Fifth Ave.”
After once again crossing the Atlantic, Bill landed in Staten Island and boarded a train that took him to Pennsylvania where he got out and kissed the American soil beneath him. Although he had a whirl-wind of an experience overseas, he was grateful to be back in the United States. Once he received his discharge papers in Fort Dix, Bill jumped back on a train to take him to Penn Station and then home to Brooklyn.
“As I was walking home, my brother Paul sees me coming down Marcy Ave. He ran down to me, hugging and kissing me. He grabbed my duffel bag. That was it, I was home,” Uncle Willy puts simply. “That was the end of a good time. Vacation was over!”
“You talk about your experience over there and it’s not what people would think because you had a good time,” Jon responds. “You didn’t see some of the bad stuff some of the other guys saw.”
“I wouldn’t want to even want to talk to an infantry guy and have him hear that I had a good time. He’d shoot me! Because he had it worse than me. He had a fox hole, I went to bed every night,” Bill reflects. He understands how unbelievably different each person’s experience can be in the military. It’s just the cards you are dealt. And when Bill saw and understood his cards, he knew he was going to make the most of being a part of such a historical event.
Young and spontaneous, Bill developed an adventurous attitude during the war that he carried with him for the rest of his life. And it’s a good thing he did because, as he put it, “Once it’s over, it’s over.” Off on his own, he had to figure out his own way. After completing high school, Bill went on to work at various print shops through the years.
“I had the most opportunity. I had the cash, with the VA. I could’ve started a pizza shop or whatever, but I had no one to steer me,” he says to Jon.
“How do you feel about some of the younger kids serving?” Asks Jon. “I have a friend that went to Iraq. If you had to talk to him, what would you tell him?”
“Go out and try things out a little bit. See if you like it,” Bill would advise him. “You gotta try first. I should’ve tried this, I should’ve tried that. “You gotta be open minded. Try different things.”
Jon responded, “Uncle Willy, I feel like there’s a theme in your life, moving on, to experience everything. And even though it wasn’t something good that sent you there [to war], you still had a great experience you wouldn’t have had otherwise. You seem to constantly have a good mentality of keep moving forward.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Uncle Willy responds. “Don’t look back. Don’t ever look back.”
“Now my job, is to turn this into something that looks like something,” Jon laughs.
And Jon does his job quick. Within a few minutes of glancing through the metals and patches that Uncle Willy and the family brought in, he gravitated toward the symbolism of an eagle’s gaze found on the Seal of the President on a certificate.
Facing left (the observer’s right), the eagle’s gaze is toward arrows, a symbol for a time of war. When it faces right, (observer’s left), it faces the the olive branch, symbolizing a time of peace.
With enough information, inspiration, and insight for Jon to go back to his home studio to work on the design, we begin to wrap-up and take the humbling walk back through the museum and upstairs to street level.
Leaving the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, the Busciolanos and Continos stop at the reflection pools where the two towers stood.
All together, they briefly talked about that fateful day, their friends lost, and the smell in the air. But then they went on about the communities that came together; of the camaraderie that surfaced in the coming weeks and years after. I recalled something Uncle Willy had said prior in the day when he boarded the first train to bootcamp. Someone had approached him while putting him in a bind, saying, “Let me see what you New Yorkers are made of.” Uncle Willy’s response? Flipping the guy over on his back.
“Resiliency, going up against stuff, then still keep going, trying your best, and not looking back,” Jon responded.
“That’s what you do when you’re a New Yorker.”
A few days later on our way out of New York City, we drove the truck and Airstream about an hour outside of the city to Jon’s home studio where he and his young family recently moved to after living in the city all his life.
Situated in an upstairs office surrounded by design books, a fair share of New York Yankees and Major League Baseball memorabilia, and an eclectic mix of antiquities, inspiration, and vintage goods co-collected, curated, and designed by Jon’s wife, Erin, who runs her own interior design practice, Past Lives NY (@pastlivesny).
It didn’t take long for Jon to get down to what he does best, hand-illustrating with an unteachable amount of character, authenticity, and the perfect amount of imperfection.
Pulling up pictures of Uncle Willy’s patches to reference, he begins sketching away on his iPad as we admire his collections and Kendra asks about his experience designing for The Book of Life film, amongst many other memorable work.
Now knowing his Great Uncle’s part in the largest invasion in human history combined with his adventurous and determined manner, Jon chose the powerful imagery of an eagle to represent his experience in the Army during that era.
The core message is one that all Veterans from all generations, eras, branches, and conflicts could benefit from, and that is to not look back. No one can remain the same person they were before war, so the best thing to do is to accept what has happened without dwelling or re-living it over and over again. Instead, move forward.
Appealing to his playful demeanor, Jon adds cartoonish eyes in the word “look,” a small touch on the design to remind others to delight and enjoy the experience as Uncle Willy did.
With a long drive ahead of us to our next state, Jon and his daughter Fiona walked us out to their driveway, met our cat Noel, and helped us back-up and down and turned around as we set off, leaving New York behind, for now.
OUR JOURNEY – NEW YORK
[WRITTEN BY: KENDRA CLAPP | PHOTOS BY: TYLER WAY]