Thomas Calabrese – The Cantino family had a Memorial Day tradition that spanned seven decades and was handed down from one generation to another. It started after World War II. Here’s how it started; Frank, Pete and Tony were brothers who grew up on the family’s farm in Valley Center, California. They enlisted in the Marine Corps on December 8th, one day after Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on the morning of December 7th, 1941. It was a day of infamy and the call to defend the Homeland echoed from coast to coast and thousands of patriotic Americans answered it. At the time, Frank was 22 years-old, Pete was 20 and Anthony had just turned 18 on November 30th.
After completing training, Pete was assigned to Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division and was part of Medal of Honor recipient, Sergeant John Basilone’s machine gun squad. He was sent to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands and on October 24, 1942, during the Battle for Henderson Field, his unit came under attack by a regiment of about 3,000 soldiers from the Japanese Sendai Division. The elite enemy unit used mortars, machine guns and grenades against the Americans. The Marines fought valiantly until only Basilone, Pete and a Corpsman were the only ones still left alive from their unit. Pete eventually died from an infection caused by his wounds while being treated on the USS Crescent City hospital ship.
The Battle of Tarawa was fought on 20–23 November 1943 in the Gilbert Islands and was part of Operation Galvanic. Nearly 6,400 Japanese, Koreans, and Americans died in the fighting, mostly on and around the small island of Betio in the extreme southwest area of Tarawa Atoll. This was the first American offensive into the critical central Pacific region and also the first time that the Marines had faced serious Japanese opposition to an amphibious landing. Previous landings met little or no initial resistance, but on Tarawa the 4,500 Japanese defenders were well-supplied and well-prepared and they fought almost to the last man, exacting a heavy toll on the leathernecks. The losses on Tarawa were incurred within 76 hours and Tony was the second Cantino brother to die in the service to his country.
Frank was the sole surviving brother and could have requested a transfer back to the States, but chose to stay in combat to honor Pete and Tony’s ultimate sacrifice. He was a hardened veteran by now, but there was no way he could have been prepared for what awaited him.
The Battle of Iwo Jima (19 February – 26 March 1945) was a major battle in the South Pacific. The American invasion was designated Operation Detachment and its primary objective was the capture of two airfields: South Field and Central Field. The Japanese Army positions on the island were heavily fortified with a dense network of bunkers, hidden artillery positions and 11 miles of tunnels. The Marines were supported by extensive naval artillery and had complete air supremacy provided by U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviators. The five-week battle saw some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting of the Pacific War.
The Japanese combat deaths numbered three times the number of American deaths, but uniquely among Pacific War Marine battles, the American total casualties on this island invasion (dead and wounded) exceeded those of the Japanese. Of the 21,000 Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima at the beginning of the battle, only 216 were taken prisoner, some of whom were captured only because they had been knocked unconscious or otherwise disabled.
Most of the remainder were killed in action, but it has been estimated that as many as 3,000 continued to resist within the various cave systems for many days afterwards until they eventually succumbed to their injuries or surrendered weeks later.
On the day that his beleaguered and decimated unit was scheduled to leave Iwo Jima after most of the fierce combat had ended, Sergeant Frank Cantino was sitting with his squad near the beach when he saw something out of the corner of his eye. Even though he was mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted and barely able to move, Frank jumped up in an instant and dived at the spider hole where a Japanese soldier was hiding. He fired several rounds from his .45 caliber pistol and the seriously wounded enemy detonated a grenade with his last breath and killed himself and Sergeant Cantino in the process.
The Cantino brothers were buried next to each other at Perpetual Hills Cemetery in Vista, California. As time passed and others members of the Cantino family served in the military during the Korean and Vietnam War, Gulf War and Afghanistan War, some joined their ancestors at the cemetery. Other veterans were also buried at Perpetual Hills and one section of the cemetery soon became known as ‘Warrior Cove’ because it had so many veterans buried under the shade trees and next to the lagoon with the man-made waterfall.
Eleven year-old Johnny Cantino awakened before sunrise and went down to the garage. He opened the storage container that held the small memorial flags and put a hundred of them in his backpack. He wanted to get an early start and would meet his family later. There was hardly any traffic on this sunny Memorial Day and the eighteen mile ride from Valley Center to Vista hardly took any time at all.
The young boy started at one end of ‘Warrior Cove’ and carefully placed a flag next to the tombstone of each veteran then knelt down to say a prayer of gratitude for making the ultimate sacrifice. Johnny repeated this process over and over until he reached Frank, Pete and Tony’s gravesites. There was an intense spiritual connection that could not be explained between the young boy and his ancestors. Johnny closed his eyes and when he opened them again the battle for Henderson Field was raging around him.
John Basilone called out,” Cantino, you’re coming with me!”
Johnny hesitated and Basilone growled, “What’s the matter, do you want to live forever!”
“A couple more hours would be kinda’ nice,” Johnny quipped.
The two Marines fought through hostile ground and numerous close combat encounters to resupply the heavy machine gunners with ammo and supplies.
“Are you up for this?” Basilone asked.
“It’s a little late to be asking me that,” Johnny smiled.
When Johnny got back to the area where Pete was manning a machine, he handed him two ammo boxes of ammunition, Pete sighed, “It sure is good to see you…I thought you were dead.”
“That’s what you get for thinking,” Johnny replied, “I’m living on borrowed time.”
“You remind me of someone,” Pete said as he stared at his fellow Marine.
“Errol Flynn in Captain Blood?” Johnny said and lifted his bloodstained hands.
“No, that’s not it,” Pete said, “I got it, you remind me of me!”
Johnny closed his eyes and he was back at Perpetual Hills Cemetery. He took several steps and placed his right hand on Anthony Cantino’s tombstone and immediately was transported to Tarawa.
A series of fourteen coastal defense guns, including four large Vickers 8-inch guns purchased during the Russo-Japanese War from the British were secured in concrete bunkers around the island to guard the open water approaches. The Japanese thought these big guns would obliterate the Marines landing force if they attacked from the north side. The island also had a total of 500 pillboxes built from logs and sand, many of which were reinforced with cement. Forty artillery pieces were strategically placed around the area and an airfield was cut into the bush straight down the center of the island. Trenches connected all points of the island, which allowed the Japanese to move under cover when necessary to wherever they were needed. Japanese high command believed their coastal guns would protect the approaches into the lagoon so they primarily focused on the open waters of the western and southern beaches. Japanese Rear Admiral Keiji Shibazaki, encouraged his troops by saying, ‘It would take one million men one hundred years to conquer us.’
Colonel David Shoup was the senior officer and assumed command of the Marines upon his arrival on shore. Although wounded by an exploding shell soon after landing on the island, Shoup refused to be medically evacuated. His first order was to clear the pier of Japanese snipers. Afterward he rallied the first wave of Marines who were pinned down behind the limited protection of the sea wall to move inland, “You can die hiding behind a wall or you can die standing on your two feet and moving forward!”
After two days of working without rest and under constant enemy fire, the Marines were struggling to hold ground, let alone capture more. Things were getting more desperate by the minute.
Colonel Shoup turned to Johnny, “I need you to establish a forward observation post. The Japanese are cutting us to pieces with their big guns.”
“Yes sir,” Johnny said, “I’m on my way.”
Tony volunteered, “I’ll go with him, sir.”
The two Marines knew how important it was for them to succeed, the lives of their fellow Marines depended on eliminating the Japanese artillery. Johnny and Tony determined where the highest point on the island with the best view was and fought their way to reach it. Once they arrived, Johnny set up his sniper rifle while Tony used the radio to call in the coordinates for air strikes on Japanese positions. Eventually the tide began to turn as Marine and Naval aviators began eliminating the Japanese artillery emplacements.
Tony turned to his fellow Marine and took a deep breath, “Nothing like being in combat to make you appreciate every breath that God gives you.”
“Amen to that, brother,” Johnny smiled.
At that particular moment, Tony was hit by a bullet from a sniper and looked at the red spot on his shirt and knew his time had come, “I’ll be seeing you.”
Johnny was back at Perpetual Hills Cemetery. He walked over to Frank’s gravesite and in a flash, he was on the island of Iwo Jima. Frank and Johnny saw the Japanese soldier at the same time. Frank pushed Johnny aside and dived at the spider hole and sacrificed his life to protect his fellow Marine.
Johnny ran over to the gravely wounded Frank and cradled him in his arms and said, “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Give my regards to the family,” Frank passed away.
The next tombstone that Johnny came to immediately sent him to Harmid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on 26 August 2021 at 17:45 hours. He was on security with his Marine unit at Abbey Gate. United States officials were checking evacuees; passports, visas and other documentation. Johnny noticed a suspicious individual walking toward his position. The man seemed a bit thick around the middle. Johnny yelled out, “Suicide bomber!” and knocked down the two Marines closest to him and shielded them with his body. He took the full brunt of the explosion that went off at 1750 hours. When the smoke cleared and the body count was completed, 169 Afghan civilians and 13 US service members had been killed.
When Johnny opened his eyes, his entire family was standing there. There wasn’t a dry eye among them. He stared at the tombstone because this grave had the most significance to him…why…because it was his own!
There are some traditions that are so important that even God doesn’t want to change them. One of those is honoring our fallen veterans on this national holiday. Johnny returned to heaven on a ray of sunshine and looked down at his family standing in Warrior Cove. From his celestial perch he watched the day slowly unfold.
A song echoed across the battlegrounds of the world that went like this, “On the breaking waves of the oceans inside our grateful hearts and along the rolling rivers of our treasured memories, you are never forgotten. You ran into harm’s way without hesitation and gave up all your tomorrows for our todays. Bursting bombs and deadly gunfire burned and broke your body, but never to a point where it stopped your noble quest to do your best. On this patriotic day, Americans have tombstones on their minds and more importantly, what lies beneath them.
Happy Memorial Day and please remember those who paid for your liberty and freedom
with their lives.