Poring over a table filled with family photos, 90-year-old Salvador Perino shares his family’s journey to New Orleans and his service as a World War II Navy pilot.
His grandfather left Sicily in 1880, traveling to America as a young man and working as a farm hand chopping sugar cane. Eventually, he settled down in the Carrollton area, bought some property and raised a family of three boys and four girls.
“It was nothing but a cypress swamp; he got the land real cheap,” Perino explained. “He took down trees and farmed; they used the wood for roads and then for pirogues.”
All three sons worked on the farm, including Perino’s father until he married and opened a grocery on Carrollton Avenue. He bought a home and things were going good for the family of five until the Great Depression hit.
“They took everything we had, a nice Studebaker, a truck and our home, put us on the street,” said Perino, who was less than 10 years old. “We moved into a house my grandfather owned on Seventh Street in the Irish Channel.”
When Perino entered Fortier High School, he began working after school at a fruit stand at Claiborne and Carrollton.
“My daddy bought me a Western Flyer bicycle from Western Auto. I would leave school peddling from the Irish Channel to my cousin’s house for a snack, and then to the fruit stand,” he said. “I would come home at 11 o’clock at night, seven days a week and made $4 a week.”
He graduated in 1941, and after working at Higgins on the Industrial Canal, he set his sights for the military as WWII had begun. At the time, the army offered $20 a month as a foot soldier, but then Perino heard the Navy was looking for pilots.
“You had to have good grades in school, and they paid $75 a month for cadets,” he said. “So I went down to the Custom House on Canal Street and passed the examination.”
He attended Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now University of Louisiana at Lafayette) for three months, then Northwestern State University in Natchitoches for more schooling, and finished up at the University of Georgia for his preflight school.
Inside his office, the walls are lined with bookcases and his collection of military memories. Perino shuffled through pictures of his plane, the Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat; his ship, the USS Makassar Strait; and a small prayer book given to the pilots.
He served in the Pacific and part of the intense battle of Okinawa. Each of his four medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, honored his bravery flying in combat under enemy fire.
“Got hit, but never got shot down, just got lucky,” Perino said with a smile. “I was scared one time when our ship was hit by a typhoon and we nearly turned over.”
Looking over some photos of his Navy buddies, he explained they were a tight-knight group, and told to always stay together in flight.
“We didn’t have all that fancy electronics — simple but efficient way of navigation,” he explained, adding that radar was in its infancy and they followed ship’s radio signals. “Compared to today, our ships were like Model-T Fords.”
Flying under fire in 60 to 65 missions was dangerous enough, but Perino admitted landing on the ship’s 300-foot landing strip was a mission in itself. He flipped through black-and-white photographs of crushed planes littered on the ship.
“I was lucky, boy I’ll tell you,” he said, shaking his head while sifting through more pictures. “It’s not that easy to land the plane. The water gets rough and the ship is bouncing up and down.”
He continued to drift through the pictures, studying photos of friends lost in the war.
“This was one of my good friends right here, William Frank Waters, shot down three times and died June 15, 1945,” he said pointing at the picture, then turning the page to another friend, Thomas Jerome Connelly.
Perino explained Connelly was returning from a mission and they were watching him landing on the ship. Just as he approached the ship, the plane sank into the water.
“He told me, ‘If I get killed, I have some liquor in my bag and I want you to have a toast,’ ” Perino said with his head down looking at the picture. “We did, and everyone cried.”
Deborah Burst writes about people behind the scenes of organizations and events in St. Tammany Parish. To reach her, email email@example.com.