Sometimes, it’s better not to remember.
Sometimes, it’s a good thing not to recall their names.
Sometimes, he says, the memories are just too tough to share.
It was the only time a twinge of sadness could be spied in his eyes during an hour-long chat about the men with whom he went to war, those who had came before him, along with those who followed in their own service even decades later.
“I knew lots of ’em … a lot of them didn’t make it back,” said Manuel “Chick” Cicogni, a 99-year-old Navy veteran who served in World War II and will be among the speakers at Monday’s Memorial Day service at Memorial Park in Grass Valley. “I had a lot of friends that didn’t make it.
“But I can’t remember their names. It was easier to take it with a grain of salt … Every day it was happening. You just didn’t think too much about it.”
“It” was the death of his American brothers, which came by the thousands at Iwo Jima.
According to James Bradley’s book “Flag of our Fathers,” over the course of 36 days, the Battle of Iwo Jima claimed 25,851 American casualties, including nearly 7,000 dead.
“You just didn’t think about it,” Cicogni said. “You just did your job.”
For Cicogni (pronounced chi-COE-nee), doing his job meant keeping the USS Idaho (BB42) battleship stocked with supplies. But that was only when he was away from his battle station, a duty regularly required as his ship bombarded the nearby beaches of Iwo Jima. He continued to “just do the job” throughout the battle that provided one of the proudest moments of his own life, one of the pivotal points of World War II and one of the most famous photographs ever captured — the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi.
“My friend, he’s up on the bridge (of the USS Idaho) raising the flags — raising and lowering the flags of various designations — and I was up there with him, and we were secluded there,” Cicogni said. “He says, ‘Chick, they’re raising the flag!’ He had great big, powerful binoculars. He gave me the binoculars, and I looked up and sure it was. It was up there. They were raising the flag.”
Cicogni remembers later running into his brother Carl, who also went by the nickname “Chick,” aboard the USS Idaho. Carl, who died in 2005 at the age of 90, and his crew apparently had orders to provide the battleship with a smokescreen for protection.
“He came aboard my ship to make that smokescreen,” Cicogni said. “We had five kamikazes attack, and we knocked down four of them, but one of them crashed and damaged the ship. I ribbed my brother about that lousy job they did with the smokescreen.”
Today, nearly 70 years later, Cicogni said he’d rather not think much about the epic battle of Iwo Jima or any other wartime stories for that matter. It seems he’d rather keep things lighthearted and enjoy a good joke — especially at the expense of a “young’un” who keeps trying to get him to talk about his service and those with whom he served.
“Let me see your pen,” he says. “Is this a blue ink pen? Does it write blue? OK. Does it write red? I bet you it writes red, too. Wanna bet?”
Getting a naïve nod of the head, he presses pen to paper and writes “RED.”
“See, I told you!” he says with a short grin under his smiling eyes and laughing out loud. Twice more he takes the pen in order to share stories he’d rather not see in newsprint but stories worth sharing all the same.
“That other stuff? Forget it,” he says. “That’s history. It’s gone. Passé.”
But there is reason to share some of those stories, he’s reminded, in memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in their service for the country.
“Oh sure,” he said. “That’s life. Life is precious.”
In this case, Cicogni’s actions speak louder than his words. In his 70 years of affiliation with the American Legion, he has called on countless families and provided plaques to thank them for their service to their country. During his tenure as the American Legion commander, he helped establish Memorial Park’s Vietnam War Memorial, sharing the names of those killed in action on a plaque attached to a gold mine core.
He remembers how he felt when he had the opportunity to visit the Vietnam and Iwo Jima memorials in Washington, D.C.
“Itchy,” he said, scratching the skin beneath his shirt collar. “There’s just so much to it … so much to it.”
Cicogni said he hopes to deliver a single message with his talk at Monday’s Memorial Day ceremony near the tall trees once planted for World War I veterans and the many memorialized names of western Nevada County’s military who made the ultimate sacrifice:
“Love your country,” he said, and then sat back in his wooden chair with a satisfied smile.
“… the point of my quest: to bring these boys back to life, or a kind of life, to let them live again in the country’s memory,” James Bradley wrote in “Flags of our Fathers.” “That’s how we always keep our beloved dead alive, isn’t it? By telling stories about them; true stories.”
But as the sadness that fell over Chick Cicogni’s eyes suggests at the mention of those with whom he served, sometimes the true stories might just be too true and too tough to share.
Contact Managing Editor Brian Hamilton via email at email@example.com or by phone at 530-477-4249.