There were eyes that filled with tears at Guido's restaurant in Spring Hill last week as former U. S. Marine Peter Sowa received the Purple Heart. It was an honor long delayed, and Sowa could hardly believe it was happening after all these years. "This was all done by my "black-shoe buddies,'
" Sowa said, referring to the Navy Seabee Veterans of America.
The Marines often called Navy men by that name because they wore black shoes, and the Seabees worked hand and glove with the Marines as they built roads, bridges and airstrips during World War II.
Sowa was a member of the 3rd Division of Marines during WWII and is now a member of the Marine League of Spring Hill.
"The Seabees also made me an honorary member, and eventually I became master at arms," he said.
When former Seabee Ray Landino discovered that Sowa never had received the medal he deserved, he again was inspired by the Seabee motto, "Can Do," and went to work to solve the problem.
"If there's a job to be done," Landino said, "the Seabees do it."
It took about three months of work _ filling out forms, asking questions and behind-the-scenes maneuvering _ to present the surprise ceremony at Guido's on Oct. 20.
There was no question that Sowa deserved the Purple Heart, a decoration awarded to members of the armed forces wounded or killed in action by or against an enemy. Sowa continues to carry some fierce-looking scars as a result of hand-to-hand combat with a knife-wielding Japanese soldier that he killed on the island of Bougainville. Sowa also suffered severe shrapnel wounds in an artillery barrage on the island of Guam.
"I almost lost my leg that time," Sowa said. But even though surgeons weren't able to remove all the shrapnel, they did keep him from becoming an amputee.
"I was in four different hospitals," Sowa said, and his records were sent from one place to another. They never quite caught up with him, and Sowa never received the Purple Heart. He shrugs his shoulders and says, "Things happen, you know, and then so much time passes, you say, "To heck with it.'
Well, his friends in the Seabees weren't about to say "to heck with it." Landino tells how he kept getting little bits and pieces of information from what Sowa thought were just casual conversations. When he finally had enough information, Landino contacted the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which helped him with forms and inquiries to track down Sowa's records.
When Sowa arrived at Guido's for the monthly luncheon of the local Seabees organization, he wondered why Cmdr. Fred Beake appeared so annoyed because Sowa wasn't in uniform. Beake was so annoyed, in fact, that he demanded that Sowa go home and change. After all, Sowa was the master at arms, and the state commander of the Florida Seabees, Eugene Owens, was there as a guest that afternoon.
"You just can't imagine what veterans of WWII will do for one another," said Sowa as he described how all this was kept a secret from him by his black-shoe buddies. Even Sowa's wife, Muriel, didn't know about the honor to be bestowed upon her husband.
When Sowa arrived back at the meeting in uniform, he heard Beake call out in the sternest possible voice: "Will the master at arms please report to the podium." When Sowa heard him, he said to himself, "Now what did I do?"
Well, it appeared he did quite a lot in 1945. When the citation was read by Landino, and the medal pinned on Sowa's uniform by Jim O'Leary, a long-delayed honor was paid at last to a Marine who fought hard for his country. No wonder there were so many eyes that suddenly filled with tears.
There's a bond between these men, covered over with layers of humor and camaraderie that's heartwarming. As Sowa, Landino and Beake talked with me, it wasn't hard to tell how proud they were of the men in their outfits in WWII. They have memories to share that haunt their dreams.
"People who have never been in combat cannot possibly realize what it's like," Landino said. "The noise of battle, the screaming of the wounded and dying men and the shelling overhead make a sound like nothing else."
Landino was with the Seabees in Europe and in the invasion of the Philippines.
Beake said the sound of artillery shells is like a freight train going over your head. As a Seabee, he was with the Marines in the battles for the Solomon Islands and in the blood bath on Okinawa that began on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945. Beake also served in the Korean War.
The various chapters of the Seabee Veterans of Florida are called islands. The Spring Hill chapter, Island X-6, meets at Guido's on the third Saturday of every month. Their wives, the Honeybees, play an active part in the organization as well. Any Seabees interested can contact Beake at 596-1692.