After 9 Year Quest Receives Posthumous Silver Star
By Reverend Thomas D. Nicastro
Back on May 27, 2010, the Italian Tribune published an article I wrote about my father’s military service in the United States Army during the 1950s. The article’s focus was on my father’s service as a medic in the 17th Infantry, Seventh Division in Medical Company. He served as an “Angel of Mercy,” as they were called and attended the wounded and dying in the fierce April Battle of Pork Chop Hill near Sokkogae Korea, on April 18, 1953.
As I reflect back on his bravery, heroic achievement and gallantry in action, my thoughts turn firstly to Memorial Day, which we commemorate once again this year on May 28th. 2018 marks the 9th anniversary of my father’s passing and it is especially appropriate for my family to celebrate Memorial Day this year. We received joyous news that after nine years, my intense journey, project and odyssey has finally come to a fruitful ending. The Army Review Boards Agency has rendered a decision to grant my family’s request to upgrade my father’s medal, a Bronze Star with Valor to the distinguished Silver Star Medal, the 3rd highest medal granted by the United States Army. The only other two medals higher are the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross. The Silver Star honors service personnel who display exceptional valor while engaged in military combat operations against enemy force. As Memorial Day is celebrated, my thoughts turn toward all those brave men and women who have honored our country.
The following was written in the General Order 272 from the Seventh Infantry Division “…Private Gaetano P. Nicastro, US Army Medical Service, a member of Medical Company, 17th Infantry, distinguished himself by heroic achievement near Sokkagae, Korea on April 18, 1953, after an intensive battle, Private Nicastro immediately began to administer first aid to the wounded. The enemy was still in the area and Private Nicastro was subjected to enemy grenade and small arm fire. Disregarding his personal safety, Private Nicastro continued to move from place to place through the trenches and over the top of the ground treating the wounded, until all were evacuated. Shortly thereafter, the enemy began shelling the area and Private Nicastro, once again exposed himself to aid the casualties until all the wounded were evacuated to safety. The heroic action of Private Nicastro reflects great credit on himself and the military service, entered the Federal Service from New Jersey.”
By Command of Major General Trudeau, Official: Thomas J. Elder, Lt. Col. G’s Acting Chief of Staff.
After completing his service with the medical company, my father was honorably discharged. In addition to the Bronze Star with the Valor device, he was also awarded two Purple Hearts and other service-related medals pertaining to the Korean War. During my years of research, many who were present on Pork Chop Hill, especially medics, have told me, that my father deserved more than just a Bronze Star with Valor. One officer told me, “Your father was an amazing person to come off of Pork Chop Hill alive, receiving Purple Hearts and Bronze Star with Valor.”
Throughout these years, I interviewed several of the men who survived the conflict – the brave men of 17th Infantry. I owe them a debt of gratitude. I found out that Major General Arthur Trudeau was not permitted to award anything higher than a Bronze Star with Valor and that he presented the awards on the battlefield. I read there was a change in the 8th Army’s Command Decision. Division Commanders were complaining they were not permitted to award Silver Stars. I began to wonder whether if it could be that many awarded the Bronze Star during the April Battle deserved a higher honor, but were prevented by policy from receiving such an acknowledgement.
After nine years of research, reflection, roadblocks and frustrating circumstances, including the “famous fire” that destroyed many records, it was very difficult to find first-hand eyewitnesses. I had found two second-hand witnesses who were medics on Pork Chop Hill and testified to the horrendous situation on those days of the battle and how fierce the fighting was. I am grateful to Mr. Tom Nightingale and Mr. Maxwell for their testimonies.
The following are just a few of the things I did during my years of research. In 2010, I wrote an article for the Italian Tribune. I mailed out letters all over the U.S. and conducted phone interviews with numerous Korean War veterans. Unfortunately, my father never spoke of his time in Korea. He never sought praise or attention for his heroic actions in saving countless lives as a medic. Unfortunately, there was only one person I was able to meet whose life had been saved by my father on Pork Chop Hill, yet that first-hand account was important. While conducting my research, I found an article about a Marine who received a Silver Star without testimony from any eyewitness.
During those years, NJ Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen was extremely helpful, writing many letters and assisting me in my research. I am deeply indebted to both the Congressman and his staff. I finally reached a point where I agreed with the Congressman’s staff that the time had come to present the findings and research. I was chosen to appear before the Army Review Board’s Agency in October, 2017. I was told to be prepared to present my findings and that I had one hour to present my case. I was sworn in and the presentation took place.
Although I was nervous, I knew I was prepared. I believed the meeting went well, but was told that I would not receive an answer for about five weeks. It seemed like an eternity, but then the packet arrived a few days shy of five weeks. The great day of rejoicing had arrived – my father’s medal was upgraded from a Bronze Star with Valor to a Silver Star, the third highest medal. The first person I spoke to was my mother, who was overwhelmed with joy by the news.
My mind drifted back to my train ride to Washington D.C. I was contemplating the heroism, bravery and gallantry of the medics of Pork Chop Hill. Most medics didn’t carry weapons. Instead, what they did carry was far more powerful than any weapon – medical supplies, a litter, medic’s bag and morphine. They truly were Angels of Mercy. Their men loved, respected and protected them. The infantrymen knew that their lives literally depended on the bravery and commitment of the medics and while the wounded and dying were brought to safety and evacuated, the medics stayed behind. When others sought safety and cover, the medics ran into peril and danger under heavy enemy fire.
I was raised in a very patriotic family. My mother, now knowing the story of Pork Chop Hill, told me that the reason my father came home alive and safe after being part of one of the bloodiest military battles in history was so he could get married and have a family, which is precisely what my father did. Later, my father became the Commander of the local Catholic War Veterans Post in Newark, New Jersey. Each year for Memorial Day and Veterans Day, he showed us the importance of patriotism, love of country, respect for the American Flag and respect for the military and our beloved veterans.
As I spoke to the members of the Board, I wanted them to know that I fully understood about rules and regulations, about following protocol and the significance of their duty as Military Officers to protect the integrity of decorations. I expressed my knowledge of the coveted status of the Silver Star, a medal that’s value and worth should be held in highest esteem. Yet, it should not be denied to someone who justly deserved the medal based upon their heroic and gallant performance in the line of duty.
After watching the movie “Pork Chop Hill,” one gets a feel for the sacrifice these men made. I believe actor Gregory Peck, who starred a Lt. Joe Clemmons, put it best when at the end of the movie he said, “Pork Chop Hill was held, bought and paid for at the same price as such monuments as Bunker Hill and Gettysburg. There are no monuments here. Victory is a fragile thing. History doesn’t linger longer in our land. Those who fought there know what they did! Millions live in freedom because of what they did.” Truly the men of Pork Chop Hill lived and died the words courage, heroism, sacrifice and valor.
The Silver Star Medal will be awarded posthumously on June 14, 2018, Flag Day and the birthday of the U.S. Army. How appropriate that this medal will be presented to my mother, the widow of Private Gaetano “Tom” P. Nicastro.
I am grateful to so many, without whose advice, assistance and prayers, I would never have been able to accomplish this undertaking. In addition to those that I have already mentioned, I would like to thank the members of the 17th Infantry, the Pork Chop Hill survivors, the Korean War Project, Commissioner Steve Rogers and his staff and the Nutley Town Commissioners. A special heartfelt thanks to my friends and family, especially my mother, Phyllis Nicastro, who supported me with love, prayers and encouragement.
Today, as my family remembers our ‘Silent Hero,’ I ask Almighty God to bless our fallen heroes, our living heroes, the veterans of different wars and those currently serving our great nation. May God continue to bless this great nation, the land of the free and home of the brave and may God continue to bless our President of the United States.
Picture 1 (with General receiving Medal)
In Korea, not every medic carried a weapon. They had to rely on their men for protection when attending to the wounded and dying. My father was very much involved in the April Battle and was decorated with the Bronze Star on the battlefield by his commanding officer, Major General Arthur Trudeau.
Picture 2 (Tom Nicastro)
Corporal Tom Nicastro with his medic’s bag.
Picture 3 (Group photograph)
Private Gaetano “Tom” Nicastro (in circle) was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device for Valor, along with other soldiers pictured, who were also honored.