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A Life Built Around Family, God and Country

Helen Yura Petro

Joe Petro with his wife, Helen.

Joseph (Joe) Petro grew up in Fairbank, Pennsylvania, in a family of nine, where his father and uncles worked in the coal mines. After school, Joe helped his mother by picking berries and running errands. As he got older, Joe sold newspapers and animal skins, taking on most any task to earn money for the family. For fun, he took up boxing, competing in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and joined the Boy Scouts.

Joe's brother, George II, joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a voluntary public work program for young men who built roads, bridges and buildings. In 1936, Joe and his brother, John, joined, and cut and loaded chestnut trees killed by the blight. They built cabins, cut sandstone blocks for bridge abutments, planted trees and helped build the Bakersville Dam. They were paid a dollar per day, plus room and board, and lived close to the land in a quasi-military environment.

In the second year, John trained to be a blacksmith, and was transferred to Stafford, Arizona. Joe followed and they were again tasked with planting and watering trees, and laying rock to spread the water flow. Both completed two full years of service. This experience prepared Joe for a career in the Navy.

World War II

In September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and WWII began. Joe felt compelled to serve his country. He was barely 18 when he asked his father for permission to join the Navy. Approval came slowly, and that decision would define the next 30 years of Joe's life.

Joe entered the Navy as an Apprentice Seaman and his first assignment was to the ship's boxing team. He completed boot camp and was assigned to the USS Texas where he rose through the ranks quickly to Petty Officer 3rd Class, Gunner's Mate in Turret #4. His job was to train sailors in the turret on the various jobs and keeping the guns in excellent condition.

The Guadalcanal Campaign

Joe's next ship assignment was aboard the USS George F. Elliott, a transport ship. As the war pressed on, it was used to transport troops. In July 1942, the US learned that the Japanese had begun building an airfield on Guadalcanal. Following a trip to Europe, the Elliott returned to New York City, reloaded, then headed to the Pacific by way of the Panama Canal. It took the Elliott three months to reach the Guadalcanal invasion and the campaign's mission was to stop the Japanese from moving south.

Seven major naval battles were fought during the Guadalcanal campaign with 40-50 ships in the water. The USS George F. Elliott was unloading gasoline drums from the holds on Aug. 8, 1942, when they were attacked by Japanese twin engine bombers dropping torpedoes. "The Japanese were flying low over the water, thinking we wouldn't shoot for fear of hitting other ships, but we shot through each other.

"I was the gun captain on the three-inch antiaircraft gun. A Mitsubishi was coming down and everybody was shooting at him. We were the last ship in the line. The plane was badly shot up—parts of the wings were gone—even the tail was gone. He knew he wasn't going to get back to Japan, or anywhere. He had enough control to dive his plane into the deck of the Elliott creating a high ball of fire. The glass deck lights popped out, the hatches blew open and blazing gasoline poured down on the guys in the engine room.

"I was on the stern of the ship with my gun crew. We looked out on the water and saw the Captain in his boat with other survivors. When it looked as though the Elliott wasn't going to sink or blow up and the fire had settled down, the Captain and surviving crew came back aboard. The Captain requested assistance and a destroyer came alongside and gave us water pressure to put the fire out. Then we got word that another air attack was on the way. The destroyer disconnected and headed out to the open sea. The second attack didn't materialize and we floated alone, drifting in the current, dead in the water.

Have you made a provision to leave a future gift to Old Dominion University? If so, please let us know so we may thank you. Please contact Barbara M. Henley, CFRE at 757-683-6563 or bhenley@odu.edu or Brett A. Smiley, CFRE at 757-683-4735 or bsmiley@odu.edu.

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