U.S. Navy enlistee Joe Iacangelo spent 24 days on the shores of post-war Japan after the United States dropped two atomic bombs in 1945. He bowed his head and his shoulders trembled when he repeated his captain’s words before his ship departed for the hostile Pacific islands.
“Some of you may return. Some of you may not return. None of you may return. But we’re going to war,” his captain said.
Iacangelo, 88, of West Pittston, did return, but nearly four decades later the effects of his exposure to nuclear fallout began to surface in the form of cancer and other illness. Now his battle is with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which Iacangelo said to this day has denied him compensation for his ailments.
Friends lost in battle
During the first invasion of Japan aboard the landing ship LST-126, Iacangelo, a signalman second class, lost many of his friends and shipmates during the three-day Battle of Eniwetok near the Marshall Islands in February 1944.
Iacangelo, a widower whose only daughter lives in New Jersey, clearly remembers helping prepare his friend, Francis Hart, for burial at sea. The company medic, Doc Redig, was stitching up Hart’s sea bag when Iacangelo walked in and threw up his hands.
“Doc, give me that needle. I want to sew it up. Your stitches are too wide. It’ll let in too much water,” Iacangelo told the medic.
“Joe, it’s made of canvas,” Redig said. “Water’s going to get in as soon as it hits the sea.”
Iacangelo finished the stitching anyway, making each stitch tight and ordered.
That single experience inspired Iacangelo to work 45 years for a funeral home in his hometown of Bloomfield, N.J. after his service commitment. He picked up the deceased from hospitals and homes.
In lieu of attending a U.S. Navy training center in Solomons Island, Md., in 1942, Iacangelo, then a skinny 17-year-old, chose to train as a signalman while at sea. Twice from Dravo Shipyard in Pittsburgh, Iacangelo sailed on landing ships down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans.
As part of a skeleton crew, he modified the landing ships for use by the British Navy. One of Iacangelo’s main tasks was applying asbestos insulation to the ship’s pipes.
Aboard a third landing ship, LST-126, from Indiana, Iacangelo traveled down the Mississippi one last time, through the Panama Canal and on to San Francisco, where his crew picked up troops and supplies and readied for war.
On Aug. 6, 1945 the U.S. B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb called “Little Boy,” on Hiroshima. Three days later the bomb dubbed “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki.
Two and a half months later, on Oct. 21 aboard the USS Barnstable, Iacangelo was making berth in the coastal town of Aki Nada, Japan, about 85 miles east of Hiroshima. He was riding in a fleet delivering occupation troops and supplies to Japan. He spent two days in Aki Nada, then a few miles east for four days in the docks of Hiro Wan.
During his time, Iacangelo spent at least one day on shore patrol. He did not wear protective clothing or consume iodine to ward off radiation poisoning.
Iacangelo returned to serve on the sea during the Korean Conflict and the Cold War, but he never saw combat. He was awarded nine medals and 12 Bronze Battle Stars for his service.
Last month, Iacangelo, who is on Medicare, received a pacemaker. He has been diagnosed with colon cancer, lung cancer, asbestosis and emphysema. Doctors have told him his heart condition is likely a symptom of the other ailments.
The life-threatening diagnostics haven’t squeezed out any of the vinegar. He still gets red in the face and stabs his cane in the ground when he shouts about the last three decades-plus he’s spent trying to get compensation for the illnesses he contends are a result of his service time.
For more than 20 years the Veterans Affairs Administration denied Iacangelo even served in Japan. Illegal records disposal might be to blame for the mix-up.
In 1995, Iacangelo received a letter saying a service officer who was responsible for Iacangelo’s compensation claims was charged with illegally tampering with some veterans’ records, and Iacangelo’s might have been altered or destroyed.
In 2003, Iacangelo acquired parts of his official service record that proves he was in Japan two months after the bomb fell. And in September of this year, he received a letter from the VA Philadelphia regional office acknowledging his part in the Hiroshima occupation forces; however, the statute of limitations to appeal his VA-authored medical determination has expired.
Advocate on case
Chuck Storti is a local service officer from the Department of the Disabled American Veterans who began assisting Iacangelo a few months ago in his battle for disability compensation.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans are eligible for three payment types for service:
• Pension: Income based monthly payments to be sure veterans do not fall below the poverty line.
• Insurance: VA supplied health care insurance.
• Disability compensation: Payments made based on a veteran’s level of disability, with those 100-percent disabled to receive $2,769 monthly.
Storti said, given Iacangelo’s diagnoses, he should be considered 80-percent disabled and receive at least $1,478 monthly.
But Iacangelo’s records have clearly marked that his illnesses do not result from his service and he is not eligible for disability compensation. A VA pension and compensation doctor made this determination in 2004 and Iacangelo had one year to appeal from its issue date. That window has closed.
Storti, who is also a veteran, said he can guide Iacangelo on how to appeal, but the war must be waged with the VA regional office in Philadelphia.
VA representatives from Philadelphia did not return a call and email made last week.
Mike Knouse, a veterans advocate from U.S. Rep. Tom Marino’s office, said Iacangelo’s situation is representative of a chronic problem with VA compensation determinations. Veterans often have a hard time proving they served in areas affected by Agent Orange in Vietnam or nuclear fallout from Japan, he said.
Iacangelo’s only option right now is to start from scratch with a new claim.
“The problem is with starting again, you’re at the bottom of the pile,” Knouse said.
There’s a great backlog of new pension, new compensation and appeals cases in Philadelphia right now, Knouse said. The federal government shutdown last month kept the VA running, but a fund set aside to handle these kinds of cases ran dry after the first week and many employees were furloughed for about five days.
The Philadelphia office is sending cases to VA offices around the country. Knouse has been as far as Seattle to meet with service officers to help Pennsylvania veterans win the benefits they were promised upon enlisting, but have had their applications rerouted due to the backlog.
“Philadelphia’s still brokering cases to other states that are also humongously backlogged. The problem is it’s still delayed, it’s just sitting on someone else’s desk. It’s still going to be the same thing. It’s still going to wait.”
Iacangelo’s age and his health status may help expedite his case, Knouse said, but there should be no argument that the old sailor should be getting paid for his service and exposure to radiation.
“It was a nuclear fallout zone, ” Knouse said. “If this guy was there five years after the bomb was dropped, it wouldn’t matter.”