World War II veteran Mary Occhiogrosso was born on July 16, 1921 to Vincenzo “Jimmy” Occhiogrosso and Angelica “Jenny” Occhiogrosso, owners of V. Grosso & Son fruit and vegetable store in Maspeth. Mary lived above the family store at 70-30 Grand Avenue since she was two along with her brothers Nunzio, Onofrio (Freddy), and Angelo and her parents. She attended P.S. 73, a tiny school that once occupied what is now the Maspeth Town Hall building, and went on to graduate from Newtown High School at only 16 years old. Mary lived in Maspeth until 1976 when she moved to Huntington, Long Island, and had two children in the 1950s; Billy and Mary Anne White. But it was in 1941, while Mary was in nurse’s training at Flushing Hospital, that the United States entered World War II, and that her life was on the verge of great change.
The idea of serving as a nurse in the army interested Mary, so she enlisted. She soon got cold feet as the thought of leaving her nursing job at Flushing Hospital and shipping out with the army seemed more and more real. What finally gave Mary that little extra push to help her continue with her plan? “My mother,” Mary says with a smile. Her mother, Jenny, encouraged her to enter the service because of her son. Freddy, Mary’s brother, was already in the service stationed in North Africa as part of the 8th Army Air Force. If Mary entered, it meant there was one more nurse made available to take care of Freddy in case he was injured in the war. It was a sealed deal. Once Mary earned her nursing degree, she entered the service in 1944.
In February of 1944, Mary was stationed at the McCloskey Amputee Center in Texas until, in the middle of the night, she was called upon to go to Seattle, Washington. In Seattle, Mary and her fellow nurses boarded a ship that was heading to Hawaii where she would endure basic training. Mary proved braver than the soldiers during this time as they had actually refused to board the ship the night before. Once the nurses had boarded, however, the men were forced on the boat by gunpoint and were shamed into boarding as young women had boarded before them. With the boat finally full, it was full steam ahead to Hawaii.
Seasickness grabbed a hold of Mary on the journey to Hawaii. She was so sick she “prayed the ship would go down,” and welcomed basic training as it was on land; land she had to get to by climbing down a rope to disembark from the ship, and jumping into a moving rowboat with a backpack full of supplies. During basic training Mary learned how to clean, take apart and shoot a gun, cliff-jumping and wall-scaling, basic defensive moves and some hand-to-hand combat.
Hawaii to Saipan to Iwo Jima
From Hawaii, Mary was transferred to the island of Saipan in the Pacific Ocean where she worked in a tent hospital. Mary described Saipan fondly, “everything was green and beautiful, there were shiny leaves all around. Everything was tropical.” Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to stay on Saipan long, and was soon transferred to Iwo Jima where the war really came alive.
The black sulfur sand and gray skies of the island were a stark contrast to the beauty of Saipan. Sirens sounding, Mary and the other nurses on the island would scatter themselves across the beach; duck and cover, cling to their army-issued rosary beads and pray the bomb didn’t drop by them. “I remember sitting on the beach while the sirens sounded, rain drops constantly falling, watching the daisy bombs drop into the sand and shoot off in the shape of an umbrella,” recalls Mary. As ugly as the island itself was, it was nowhere near as ugly as what awaited Mary in the Quonset hut hospital.
The Horrors of War
One night during rounds, Mary, who was in charge of head and neck injuries at the 232nd General Hospital, encountered a young soldier with a fractured jaw who complained about his tongue hurting. When Mary examined his injury, she discovered worms had made the soldier’s mouth their home. Another soldier was covered in nitrogen burns from head to toe, and Mary diligently wrapped him in bandages and waited for the maggots to come and eat the dead tissue. Once the maggots did their job; she wrapped him again and waited for the maggots to eat the soldier’s dead flesh yet again, and the cycle continued. One of Mary’s more unfortunate patients was also one of her favorites. The soldier lost his jaw and lower palette due to a gunshot wound. His tongue remained intact, but a weight hung from it so he wouldn’t swallow it. His head was always covered in bandages, and he was always drooling, but it didn’t stop him from having a fantastic attitude, and you needed that more than anything to survive on Iwo Jima.
In 1945, Mary got another surprise in the middle of the night. The American prisoners of war from the St. Thomas Prison in the Philippines were brought to Iwo Jima; starved, beaten and angry. Nuns who had been held captive wore home-made bracelets emblazoned with the monogram “BBOB,” battling bastards of Bataan, to signify their survival of the Bataan Death March. With the arrival of these prisoners of war came the unfortunate fact that there weren’t enough resources for everyone.
Whenever there was an air raid, the nurses were only able to take some patients into the caves for safety; usually the ones that were transferred most easily, and it was sad that they all weren’t able to go. In order to survive, you had to try to keep a healthy, positive attitude, and Mary was an integral part of not only helping soldiers survive physically, but mentally too.
Mary the Entertainer
Mary was a performer. She entertained the soldiers with her beautiful singing. “I sang the entire time I was in service. I sang whenever I had a chance; I loved it,” Mary says with a smile a mile wide on her face. She loved keeping morale high by performing for the troops, and the troops loved her right back. Affectionately known as “Archie” during her time in service, Mary received thank you letters from chaplains expressing their gratitude and love of her performances.
“On behalf of my men I’d like to put into writing the fact that we appreciated to no end your singing for us last Thursday evening. Of course, that does not need to be said because the applause, whistles, and calls for more spoke greater volume to you that evening. I am still hearing appreciative comments from my men, one of whom expressed it well when he said, ‘That Archie gal is the number one morale booster of the 31st Battalion.” Would you like to join our outfit?” reads a letter to Mary from Chaplain Kermit Gregory.
Mary’s favorite song to perform was “Melancholy Baby” as it was the song she performed most often. Singing to soldiers on Saipan, under an arch created with the names of the soldiers killed in battle behind her, was one of Mary’s favorite experiences. A bugle sounded and played taps in the distance, and Mary followed by singing “My Buddy;” it was a night she would always remember as moving.
Another fond memory Mary has of performing is singing, accompanied by a piano, in a submarine outside of Saipan. Mary laughs as she recalls that performance. “It was the biggest joke of the war; there were bullets flying everywhere and then there were the doctors unloading a piano in the water!” Her face grows more serious, matter-of-fact, and breaks into a little smile as she states, “I don’t think Frank Sinatra ever sang in a submarine. But I sang in a submarine.”
Aside from being a performer herself, Mary also met some famous Hollywood performers who came out to entertain the troops. She had the gusto to chat up Joe E. Brown, a native of Astoria, who was a talented singer, dancer and comedian. She met Betty Hutton, a famous singer, who refused to be housed with the nurses during her stay, and was shuttled back and forth from her ship to the island. She also met Gene Autry and Mary Parker, but one of the most memorable experiences she had was with Gene Kelly.
Mary was briefly stationed in Atlantic City at the very start of her enlistment. All the hotels on the boardwalk were converted into hospitals, and Mary was a nurse at one. She was doing rounds one day when she noticed a man, not a soldier, definitely not hurt, just sleeping on a hospital bed. “Excuse me, but civilians aren’t allowed here, you’ll have to leave,” Mary said to the sleeping man. Another nurse came by, nudged Mary, and said, “Shhh you can’t say that! That’s Gene Kelly!” To which Mary replied, “I don’t care who he is, he can’t stay here!”
Speaking of Hollywood, Mary certainly left her mark on one of the most famous war stories of all time; South Pacific. While working at Horace Harding Hospital after the war, a fellow nurse at the hospital asked Mary if she had any funny stories from the war she could tell her because her friends were writing a musical about the war. Mary told the nurse about how on Iwo Jima the Quonset huts where the nurses stayed were down low in a valley, and the outfit stayed up on the hill. One night while up on the hill, Mary discovered a telescope that was pointed straight down into the room where the nurses showered. The writers then used Mary’s anecdote and adapted it to their musical, South Pacific.
A Grateful Nation
While in the service, Mary not only healed soldiers physically, but emotionally as well. To acknowledge her physical services, Mary was awarded the bronze star for being on Iwo Jima, the American Campaign Medal, the WWII Victory Medal, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal and a Meritorious Service Unit plaque. There is also a digital monument in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the women of the military, and Mary Occhiogrosso is included in it. To acknowledge her morale boosting services, Mary has her letters expressing gratitude and awe, and above all; her memories.
Mary was released from her nursing duties in the army once Iwo Jima was deemed an unfit place for women. Although Iwo Jima had undoubtedly been unfit all along, it wasn’t until the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima that this “discovery” came about. Mary also revealed that there had been a third atomic bomb buried under Iwo Jima all along; ready to be used in case Japan decided to retaliate.
Once she was back home in Maspeth, Mary resumed her nursing career at Horace Harding during the 1950s, left nursing to help with the family business during the 60s, and resumed nursing in 1970 at French Polyclinic Hospital as the operating room supervisor. While at French Polyclinic, Mary invented a type of blood dialysis system that involved retrieving blood during surgery, sterilizing it, and putting it back in the patient’s veins. It was an effective method, but proved too expensive, so it never had the chance to catch on. In 1977 she began working at the Huntington Hospital and was in charge of orthopedics following her move to Huntington. After spending nine and half years at Huntington Hospital, she transferred to Birchwood Health Care Center as a nursing supervisor, and stayed there until she retired at the age of 80.
After listening to Mary tell stories of her days as a performer and meeting the
Hollywood heavyweights of the time, Mary’s son, Billy, jokes that she is “the only person I know who had fun on Iwo.” Mary laughs and shakes her head. “You have to remember the fun times. There was a lot of bad that happened, but you have to focus on the good.”