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Rich Acritelli

By Rich Acritelli

Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi once said: “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.”

Former Port Jefferson Station teacher and coach Tom Hespos holds the words of Lombardi near and dear to him, even reciting them to his former business class students at Comsewogue High School. A three-sport athlete, Hespos had the honor of playing for Lombardi in 1964 before being cut from the Packers’ training team.

Tom Hespos playing for C.W. Post. Photo from Rich Acritelli

Raised in North Bergen, New Jersey, the quarterback and linebacker gained local success for more than his skills on the gridiron. He played baseball and basketball and was coached in the Babe Ruth League by his father, who was also a noted semiprofessional pitcher for the Jersey Blue Sox. Hespos’ mother was known for playing competitive softball.

During his senior year at St. Joseph of the Palisades High School, he captained his football team and performed well, but didn’t see as much time behind two of northern New Jersey’s top quarterbacks. Hespos turned down the chance to toss his mean curveball for the Boston Red Sox and headed to what was then called C.W. Post on scholarship where he played football and majored in business administration.

As a freshman, Hespos blossomed to 6’2’’, 205 pounds and quickly found the Pioneers wanted to take advantage of his passing skills. He took over as starting quarterback his sophomore year and was known for his 80-yard passes downfield.

During a 1964 contest, C.W. Post upset Northeastern University, defeating them 31-10. It was in that game Hespos, then a senior, made history, becoming the first quarterback in school history to reach 400 passing yards in a single game. He completed 22 of 30 passes and threw four touchdowns in the win. By the end of his collegiate career, he also amassed more than 2,000 passing yards, also a first. That year he was selected to the All-Eastern College Athletic Conference Small College Team and the Little All-America Team. He was named the team’s Most Valuable Player in 1963 and 1964 and was captain in 1964. Hespos was the first quarterback to lead C.W. Post to a victory over arch-rival Hofstra University in 1963.

Hespos was said to inspire his team to achieve the Hofstra win, but he credited his teammates.

“They made few mistakes, accepted a team-first mentality,” he said. “I appreciated the big linemen that the coaches placed on the offensive line to adequately protect me.”

For years, Hespos held all of the quarterback records for the Pioneers, that is, until Glen Cove-native Gary
Wichard entered the picture. Wichard was a two-time All-American, professional quarterback for the Baltimore Colts and  was a famous sports agent, who was said to be the inspiration for the main character in the movie Jerry Maguire. 

“They call it coaching, but it is teaching. You do not just tell them … you show them the reasons.”

— Vince Lombardi

Following his senior season, Hespos received letters from professional American and Canadian football organizations inquiring about signing him to a free agent deal. He ended up choosing the Packers, and signed with a modest bonus before being invited to training camp.

Lombardi, a Brooklyn native and former member of the Fordham University football team coached football and basketball at St. Cecilia High School, where he also taught Latin and physics, not far from Hespos’ roots in North Bergen. The coach attended every meeting between the offensive coaches and the quarterbacks, and Hespos recalled the stature of this respected teacher, noting he was “demanding,” and that he expected all his players to “produce.”  

“He had an agile memory that knew everything about every player that was on the field,” Hespos said.

The Port Jefferson Station teacher threw passes next to future Hall of Famer Bart Starr. One of seven quarterbacks invited to train, he was ultimately cut behind Starr’s backup Zeke Bratkowski.

After he left Green Bay, Hespos played for a minor league football organization within the Atlantic Coast League. He was signed by the Jersey City Jets, which had former players that also had professional experience in United States and Canada.

Like at C.W. Post, Hespos was a key member of his squad and helped it win a league championship.  After injuring his shoulder for a second time, Hespos was forced to put his football career behind him. By 1969, he began working at John F. Kennedy High School on Jane Boulevard in Port Jefferson Station. Well before this school received the name Comsewogue Warriors, Hespos coached the Spartans in football, baseball and basketball. In the early 1970s, he was hired to coach football in Sea Cliff for North Shore High School. While this was a long distance from his regular job, this position allowed Hespos the opportunity to coach with his teammates from C.W. Post, who he’d also formed with in a doo-wop group called Spider and the Webs. The group performed in the same venues that also featured The Times and The Duprees. In 1965, they sang at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller recognized the spirit of the group with a certificate.

During Hespos’ three years with North Shore, he helped lead the team to three league titles and a county championship.

Tom Hespos wearing his old Spiders & Webs T-shirt. Photo from Rich Acritelli

In 1975, Hespos began coaching Comsewogue’s varsity baseball team, which instantly became one of the most competitive teams in the county. By 1982, his program reached the pinnacle of excellence with a 27-4 record and winning the state title. Over seven years, Hespos’ teams, which won five league titles, a county title ad Long Island crown before the state nod, regularly won more than 80 percent of its games.

Following the state win, Hespos left coaching to begin Greenway Lawn Sprinklers, which serviced homes from Port Jefferson Station to Montauk and Orient Point.

Hespos’ athletic prowess was further awarded when he was inducted into six halls of fame, including the Hudson County, New Jersey and C.W. Post athletic halls of fame. His 1982 baseball team is also recognized on the Comsewogue Wall of Honor.

“They call it coaching, but it is teaching,” Hespos said recalling the words of Lombardi. “You do not just tell them … you show them the reasons.”

He said even before meeting his acclaimed Packers coach he was moved to become a teacher from some of his former ones.

“I will always remember the coaches and the mentors I had back then,” he said. “The coaches I had at St. Joseph challenged me, motivated me and inspired me.”

Hespos moved to Wading River before heading down to Port St. Lucie, Florida, where he still lives. He is a father of two and grandfather of six, and enjoys fishing, playing golf and watching the New York Mets at their minor league baseball complex.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

Veterans Dan Guida, Gary Suzik and Joseph Cognitore during a visit to Rocky Point High School to commemorate Veterans Day. Photo by Rich Acritelli

By Rich Acritelli

This week marks the 63rd anniversary of the first Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 1954, as declared by President Eisenhower, an annual remembrance of national service.

“On that day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom,” Eisenhower said.

Many North Shore residents have served at home and abroad to protect the freedom of the United States. Just recently, proud veterans from VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point were interviewed by members of the Rocky Point High School History Honor Society about their years in uniform.

The first veteran to be interviewed was Gary Suzik, who is a resident of Rocky Point. The native of Michigan’s upper peninsula grew up playing football, hockey and downhill skiing and still has a touch of his Mid-western accent. He served in the U.S. Navy for four years and was stationed on the USS LaSalle, where he helped guide the landing craft. As it turned out, this was one of the last ships to be built locally at the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard. Suzik said he is immensely proud of his duty on a vessel that saw naval missions for more than 40 years in every corner of the world. The ship and crew even helped retrieve the Gemini capsule, a spacecraft carrying two astronauts, after it landed from an early space mission.

Suzik participated in operations in the Mediterranean Sea, where he visited ports in Italy and France. He was also deployed to Cuba and the Caribbean during the Dominican Civil War in 1965. It was common for this ship to carry about 400 sailors and 500 to 600 Marines who  utilized landing crafts to assault enemy forces in hot spots around the globe. Suzik mentioned how the ship had the honor of carrying Admiral John McCain Jr., who is the father of senator, noted Vietnam veteran and prisoner of war John McCain (R-Arizona). Veterans Day is a special moment for Suzik as he recalls not only his memories, but that of his father who fought during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and other family members who were also in the military.

Dan Guida grew up in Nassau County and currently lives in Wading River. His mother had nine brothers, of which seven served in the military during World War II. Since his youth, Guida said he learned the importance of national service from stories that were presented to him by his uncle. After high school, Guida was granted a temporary military deferment in order to attend St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens, but a short time later, he decided to leave school and was drafted into the Army. With some college behind him, Guida was accepted into the Army Officer Candidate School and became a second lieutenant. Today around the post, many of the VFW members cheerfully refer to him as “Lieutenant Dan,” a reference to the film “Forrest Gump.”

From 1967 to 1968, Guida served in Vietnam with the I Corps. As an officer, he was responsible to direct tanks, armored personnel carriers and the trucks that operated within the northern areas of South Vietnam, not too far from Da Nang and the demilitarized zone. Guida recalled the tanks didn’t function well within the terrain of Vietnam through the heavy rains that saturated the grounds and made it difficult for American armor to gain enough traction in the mud. He shared interesting insights into the buildup to the war with the students.

Later, Guida utilized the GI Bill to attend Nassau Community College and Hofstra University, where he majored in accounting. He held a job as an accountant for a good part of his life and he still happily holds financial responsibilities today for Post 6249. The Wading River resident said Veterans Day is a moment that our citizens should be thankful for the sacrifices that past, present and future veterans have made toward the security of this nation. Guida said he saw that gratitude as he entered the high school before the interview. He had a big smile on his face when a younger Rocky Point student personally thanked him for his service.

Rocky Point resident and local commander of VFW Post 6249, Joseph Cognitore was also asked about his time in the service by the students. While Guida saw the earlier part of the war, Cognitore, who was drafted into the Army, endured the latter phase of fighting in Vietnam. From 1969 to 1970, he was a platoon sergeant that served in the air cavalry that transported soldiers by helicopters into various areas of the country. 

Cognitore was tasked to conduct “search and destroy” missions against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army who were situated in caves, tunnels, jungles and mountains. He also fought in Cambodia against an enemy that utilized the strength of the Ho Chi Minh trail to move troops and materials through the country to attack American and South Vietnamese forces.

Cognitore said it took a long time to put the war behind him. During the Gulf War in the early ’90s, he joined the VFW and rose to be its commander and to hold prominent leadership positions within the local, state and national levels of the organization. He said he is constantly reminded of his combat tours through injuries to his legs that have left him hobbling for years.

Cognitore views every day as Veterans Day. Each day he answers countless emails and telephone calls to help men and women that have served at home and abroad. Recently, Cognitore helped spearhead a golf outing that has raised over $200,000 to help the Wounded Warriors. One of the most important qualities the students were treated to during the interview was the camaraderie the veterans have toward each other, a dynamic likely strengthened by Post 6249’s daily mission of helping every veteran.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

Image by Mike Sheinkopf

By Rich Acritelli

“Your success is now our country’s success.”

George H.W. Bush (R) who lost a hotly contested election to Bill Clinton (D) in 1992, passed on this message to the incoming president. Bush lost a difficult campaign to Clinton, but wanted a smooth transition of power to the newly elected leader. Both men were opponents who were completely opposite from each other. Bush was a fighter pilot who flew off aircraft carriers in the Pacific during World War II, and Clinton was decisively against the United States involvement during the Vietnam War. Bush was a conservative president and vice president living in Texas who served under Ronald Reagan (R) for eight years, and Clinton was a liberal governor from Arkansas. While their political views often clashed, since both men left office, they have grown to become good friends. These one-time executive adversaries are immensely close, and Clinton now regards Bush’s wife, Barbara, as a second mother.

Little-known Vice President Harry S. Truman (D) from Missouri gained power after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) April 12, 1945. Right away Truman felt the immense burden of responsibility after learning about the tragic death of Roosevelt. When he asked the late president’s wife, Eleanor, what he could do to help her family, she asked, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”

Truman presided over the end of World War II, the start of the Cold War, a fledgling postwar economy, and a difficult re-election against New York Gov. Thomas Dewey (R). Although Truman is remembered as an extremely capable president, he had the difficulties of serving after the trusted four-term leadership of Roosevelt and before the “General of the Armies” Dwight D. Eisenhower (R).

During World War II, Eisenhower was rapidly promoted and given an immense amount of authority by Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall, a highly regarded officer who became the architect of victory against Hitler in Europe. Outside of attaining a stellar record in the Army, Eisenhower’s only key blemish was his World War II affair with his driver Kay Summersby. After the war, he approached Marshall about the desire to divorce his wife and bring back his love interest to the U.S. Marshall took a heavy interest within Eisenhower’s career and he was seen as a second father to the future president. When the disciplinarian-minded Marshall learned that Eisenhower wanted to send for Summersby, he told his subordinate that he would run him “out of the Army” and make it impossible for him ever to “draw a peaceful breath.”

Marshall later wrote a scathing report about Eisenhower’s infidelities that was destroyed by Truman before he left office. Although Eisenhower and Truman did not have a warm relationship, Eisenhower stressed to Truman he could not believe how relentless the media was about his relationship with Summersby. Truman bluntly responded that if these were the only attacks against him by reporters, Eisenhower was immensely fortunate. Before he left office, Truman told the new leader he did not shred Marshall’s letter about Summersby to personally protect Eisenhower. His outgoing priority was to preserve the honor of the executive branch and its new leader, President-elect Eisenhower.

Currently, some of the cabinet nominations of President-elect Donald Trump (R) are facing scrutiny by Congress. Many previous presidents have endured political obstacles during this process. Clinton found it a chore to fulfill the attorney general position, as the first two candidates withdrew from being considered. George H.W. Bush watched as John Tower, his pick for secretary of defense in 1989 was not approved for the job. Personal allegations apart, the U.S. Senate did not like Tower’s connections to the national defense industry because they said it was a conflict of interest that could not be overlooked. It was the first time in 30 years the Senate refused to confirm a presidential cabinet appointment.

In 1980, Reagan faced scrutiny over Jackie Presser, later president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who was believed to have ties to organized crime. Presser was a labor adviser to Reagan’s transitional team, and the Democrats were outraged by possible connections of corruption. The choice of Jimmy Carter (D) for the Central Intelligence Agency, Theodore Sorensen, withdrew his own name in 1977 due to the onslaught of resentment waged against the former World War II conscientious objector. Many members of the intelligence and military communities were concerned that he was too much of an outsider who wanted to reform the CIA’s overall mission of gathering vital information during the height of the Cold War.

Historically speaking, the time between the election and inauguration, a period of uncertainty, has impacted every leader since the days of George Washington. These triumphs and failures are realistic issues that must be accepted by our leaders before they enter the Oval Office. This will be no different for Trump when he is sworn in Friday in front of the nation by Chief Justice John Roberts during an inauguration that will be watched by the world.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College. Research for this story was contributed by the Rocky Point High School History Honor Society.

Americans lost on Pearl Harbor are honored during a previous remembrance in Port Jeff. File photo

By Rich Acritelli

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with terrible resolve.”

Japanese Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, the architect of the attacks on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago, supposedly uttered these words as he assessed the immediate aftermath of Dec. 7, 1941. Up until Japan attacked, most Americans still subscribed to the popular sentiment of remaining out of the conflict, inspired by the words of Charles Lindbergh — “America first.” The America First Committee openly resented any notion that the United States should prepare for war. Even the first peacetime draft conducted in 1940 that expanded the military forces received stiff anti-war congressional opposition. While German tanks easily invaded France and later pushed through the Soviet Union, officers like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley and George S. Patton still saw the cavalry play a major role within the mobility of the Army. All of this changed when Japanese fighter planes swarmed into Hawaii and attacked the air, naval and Army bases that manned the “jewel” of our forces in the Pacific Ocean.

When word of the attack spread to Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Cordell Hull was in the midst of negotiating with his Japanese counterpart. After a couple of choice words for the diplomat, the nation was rapidly placed on track for war. Within seconds, Americans were on lines blocks long to enter the service. President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation with his “Day of Infamy” speech that was adopted as a rallying cry by American citizens to defeat the Axis powers. Unlike the political gridlock seen today, Roosevelt’s words were accepted without reservation, and supporters and opponents of the president’s New Deal listened to the beloved leader. The “sleeping giant” of productivity, strength and endurance was awakened to defeat a global enemy. Prominent baseball players like Yogi Berra, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg and Yankee Manager Ralph Houk hung up their uniforms during the prime of their careers to support the war effort. By the end of 1942, the size of the U.S. armed forces had doubled from the previous year. The enthusiasm could be traced to a commitment to avenge Pearl Harbor and defeat Hitler and the Nazis.

Americans today do not realize how close the Allies came to losing the war. Although the U.S. government was fully committed to fighting and helping its allies, America had a steep learning curve in teaching its young men the ways of modern warfare. The Japanese crippled America’s naval forces and Hitler looked unstoppable in Europe, but Roosevelt promised armed forces would be fighting the enemy in the Pacific and in North Africa before the close of 1942.  Americans were drafted so quickly into the military that there were not enough uniforms, weapons, tanks or trucks for them to utilize for their training. Longtime Wading River resident Michael O’Shea, who passed away in 2009, was a navigator in a B-17 Flying Fortress and experienced the earliest aspects of the war efforts.

The New York City kid watched Yankee games and attended Stuyvesant High School. Like other young men, O’Shea was horrified by the attack on Pearl Harbor and wanted to forgo his senior year to enter the military. His parents were adamant that he finish high school before enlisting. As a young recruit into the Army Air Force, O’Shea for a brief time was stationed in Atlantic City, N.J. He was not issued a uniform, did not have many knowledgeable instructors, and the lack of heat in the military housing made people sick. The local resident flew 24 combat missions and had the rare experience of being shot down twice over Europe. He was later imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, the same camp depicted in the film “The Great Escape.”  In the spring of 1945, Patton’s Third Army liberated O’Shea. He was present to see the noted armored general speak to all of the freed Americans. O’Shea was a good friend to Rocky Point High School, where he was a proud representative of the “Greatest Generation” and spoke about his crusade against totalitarian powers.

It was 75 years ago that America was propelled into a war it did not choose, but the people worked together and completely sacrificed for the safety and security of a thankful nation. Citizens like O’Shea, without hesitation, risked their lives for the well-being of the country. On this Pearl Harbor anniversary, may we never forget those men and women who were lost and wounded in the defense of this nation and continue to do so today at home and abroad.

Joseph Lalota of the Rocky Point History Honor Society contributed to this story.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

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Joe Cognitore, commander of VFW Post 6249, dedicates much of his time to helping veterans and his local community. File photo

“He’s a gentle giant.”

That’s what Rocky Point High School social studies teacher Rich Acritelli had to say about Rocky Point’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Fischer-Hewins Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore.

“He’s always got the community at his heart,” said Acritelli, who first met Cognitore in 2005 when he asked the post to come down and do a color guard for one of his programs. “He’s such a gentleman, a good guy and he has a good combination of common sense, leadership and also humor.”

Cognitore, who has lived in Rocky Point since 1983, served in Vietnam from April 1969 through March 1971, where he held the ranks of acting platoon sergeant and acting platoon leader. He earned the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantry Badge, as well as the National Defense, Vietnam Service, Vietnam Campaign, and Air medals.

He first became active in the VFW in 1991, where he sent packages to troops overseas.

Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) first met Cognitore right after Sept. 11, 2001, when she was working with the North Shore Beach Property Owners’ Association on a planned blood drive. She said he donated cases of water and soda to the event.

“He’s one of the nicest men that I’ve ever met in my whole entire life,” she said. “He’s a very active participant in all things that make Rocky Point great, but he’s also a really big asset to us in Brookhaven. Joe’s always my first phone call for anything veteran-related.”

Since his start at the post, his role in the VFW and in the community has only continued to grow. The commander also raises money for the Joseph P. Dwyer peer-to-peer group and helped fund the building of two houses for returning veterans in Sound Beach.

Bea Ruberto, president of the Sound Beach Civic Association, met Cognitore five years ago, when she reached out to him for help with the hamlet’s Veteran’s Memorial Park. Ruberto said the plans stalled because of a loss of funding.

“He sat down with us and spoke for hours,” she said. “He’s great. He’s very, very generous with his time. Had it not been for his input I’m not sure we would’ve gone in the direction we did and got the funding for the park.”

Cognitore also worked with Acritelli on the 9/11 memorial at the Diamond in the Pines Park in Coram, helping raise more than $40,000. The two are also working on helping to plan the ninth annual Wounded Warriors golf outing.

“We raised a lot of money for local guys,” Acritelli said. “Joe personifies everything that a citizen should be. He is always working for the betterment of his community. He’s going to be a tough guy to replace at the VFW post and in the state because he does so much.”

Cognitore said he was passionate about not only doing what he can for veterans but the community at large. He has used Post 6249 to host several other events including senior, Cub Scout and Girl Scout meetings, local soup kitchens, and to raise money for local families in need of assistance and for scholarships at Rocky Point and Shoreham-Wading River high schools.

“It’s contagious,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of time and a lot of effort, and we’re all volunteers here at the post.”

This dedication earned him induction into the New York State Senate Veteran’s Hall of Fame in 2005. He received this honor from New York State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson).

“I was floored,” he said of the nomination. “It was nice, and a great feeling. It recognized a veteran for their service and being a veteran, but also, for what you’ve done outside the veteran realm, and we help the community. The post is opened to mostly everybody.”

Frank Tepedino, of Saint James, who is a former MLB player for the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves, has worked with Cognitore on several fundraisers and spoke with him at different events.

“It’s unbelievable the work that he does,” he said. “A man that takes that much time to ensure that nobody is left behind — he’s always out there to help any cause. He knows a lot of people and he’s surrounded himself with good people and he can get a lot done because of it.”

Ruberto said Cognitore opened her eyes to the countless returning veterans that struggle, realizing that helping returning vets should be more of a concern that honoring fallen soldiers.

“He made me aware of the number of homeless vets that are out there, or the home in Yaphank that feeds and houses vets, so it’s because of those conversations with him that made a light go off,” she said. “He’s very passionate about doing whatever he can for veterans.”

Cognitore said he gets so much enjoyment out of what he does that it doesn’t matter how much time he puts into it, as long as the final outcome is helping someone in need.

“It’s like a full time job,” he said. “Getting everything set up and running around takes a lot of time, but it’s well worth it.”

A scene from ‘The Finest Hours.’ Photo from Walt Disney Pictures

By Rich Acritelli

Last week Walt Disney Pictures released “The Finest Hours,” a film based on the story of four Coast Guard members that braved a nor’easter that caused havoc off the coast of Cape Cod in 1952. From the beginning, you will notice an impressive cast that works well together to bring this story to light. Directed by Craig Gillespie, the film stars Chris Pine (Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernard “Bernie” Webber), Casey Affleck (Robert Sybert), Holliday Grainger (Miriam Pentinen), Ben Foster (Seaman Richard Livesey) and Eric Bana (Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff). 

Gillespie depicts the simple life of the 1950s with the customs of enjoying a nice drink, meal and the chance to attend a town dance. This film starts by showing Coast Guard service member Webber as an easy going and hard-working man who goes on a blind date with Miriam Petinen. While they are opposites, they fall in love with each other.  The movie depicts a different kind of love with Miriam asking the cautiously mannered Bernie to marry her. After an awkward moment, he states that they will get married, but only after he receives permission from his commanding officer.  As Webber works on getting approval from Chief Cluff, a terrible storm hits the shores of Cape Cod. 

Gillespie does a good job in casting Bana who is a proven actor who could handle the rigors of military films (“Black Hawk Down,” “Munich,” and “Lone Survivor”). Before Webber can ask for approval, Cluff is faced with anxiety from two different fronts.  First, he understands that a rescue operation for the SS Pendelton is being conducted from the headquarters in Boston, but he is unsure how his men fit into the rescue endeavor. Second, he is a southern officer who has not yet gained the respect of these northern men who openly doubt his professional abilities.

As rescue efforts are mounted, Webber is ordered to take three Coast Guardsmen to search for the Pendleton.  It is believed that this is a suicide mission that will only lead to the death of these men. Webber has to maneuver through hazardous waters in a vessel that is too small to handle the fury of these poor maritime conditions. 

The film does a masterful job of showing the strains that are placed on these men to locate this ship. They display a comradeship that never losses focus of their objective to locate the Pendleton.

With Webber organizing the rescue efforts, the Pendleton and its crew is commanded  by Sybert played by Affleck who is masterful in showing a man who is conflicted by his superior knowledge of this ship, but a man who is deemed to be a loner.

It becomes apparent that the ship will sink after it is split in half by the storm.  Sybert refuses to accept his crew’s position that they should abandon ship in their small rescue boats. He firmly states that they will be killed from the rough waters. Sybert believes that they have to run the tanker ashore if they are  going to have any chance of seeing their loved ones. At the same time, Webber’s crew is risking their lives to reach the Pendleton: Their compass malfunctions from the multiple times that their ship takes on water from the tenacity of the massive waves.

Unflinchingly, Webber is faithful to his duty to find the Pendleton and save the crew of thirty-two men from drowning.

The film concludes with the residents  of Cape Cod helping Webber bring the men to safety. Members of this community along with Webber’s fiancée figure out the location of the tanker and they travel to a nearby dock where they turn on all of their car lights as beacons of hope to guide the rescuers to safety.  From start to finish, “The Finest Hours” portrays the devotion of the Coast Guard to overcome the gigantic weather strains that are caused by Mother Nature.

‘The Finest Hours,” rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of peril), is now playing in local theaters.

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Gen. George C. Marshall photo in the public domain

By Rich Acritelli

Gen. George C. Marshall photo in the public domain
Gen. George C. Marshall photo in the public domain

It was 74 years ago that the Japanese attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, spurring the nation’s entry into World War II. At the helm of the American military on that deadly day was Gen. George C. Marshall, and it was up to this outspoken man to take a military of 175,000 — which was ranked 17th out of all the industrialized powers — and turn the troops into a tremendous force of 10.4 million to defeat Germany and Japan.

From the moment he entered the Army in 1902, Marshall excelled at every task assigned to him. Unlike many of the West Point officers he commanded during World War II, he graduated from the Virginia Military Institute. His peers thought Marshall’s quiet and firm manner suited him for vital positions of military responsibility, and he held several different jobs in the Army, served in the Philippines and graduated first from the Army staff college in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

During the United States’ earliest moments in France in World War I, Marshall had a famous encounter with American Expeditionary Forces Commander Gen. John J. Pershing. When, upon finding the Army was not prepared for the burden of warfare on the Western Front, Pershing criticized his officers for not doing enough training, Marshall told Pershing that he did not understand the problems his soldiers faced daily and they were doing the best that could be expected of them. At first, Marshall believed he’d be sent home in disgrace; instead Pershing respected his honesty and clarity and eventually made him a main planner of American war operations against the Germans.

Years later, in the late 1930s, Marshall showed his leadership again when he sat in on a meeting with then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt and influential members of both his cabinet and the military. When Roosevelt outlined a plan of adding planes to the Army Air Forces but virtually no other resources to the Army, all of the leaders remained quiet or supported the president. Marshall, on the other hand, angered Roosevelt by vehemently disagreeing with him. But a year later, Marshall, who was a junior to many other officers, was promoted to Army chief of staff.

‘We must have the very best leadership we can possibly give these men and we’ve stopped at nothing to produce that leadership.’
— Gen. George C. Marshall, World War II Army Chief of Staff

Knowing war was a young man’s game, Marshall reassigned, fired or retired older officers who he knew were not able to fight a modern war. One of his most important choices was making one lieutenant colonel, Dwight D. Eisenhower, into an important member of his staff. While he never directly served with this officer, he was constantly informed that Eisenhower was one of the most well-rounded leaders in the military. He saw Eisenhower as a capable officer only interested in completing his duty. Marshall also elevated Gen. Omar N. Bradley to command the ground forces in Europe from D-Day to Germany’s surrender in 1945. It was Marshall’s manner not to dwell on the personal characteristics of his key leaders. This was the case with the erratic but brilliant combat fighter Gen. George S. Patton. Marshall stood by Patton throughout some of his troubles due to the strong belief that Patton would continually earn battlefield victories against the enemy.

From the time he became Army chief of staff, Marshall was determined to prepare his nation for the rigors of war. He drafted, trained, equipped and oversaw the total war efforts of the United States to defeat fascism, conducting all of those efforts in a professional manner, not seeking any credit for his massive contributions in the defense of his country. Marshall should be credited, however, with establishing a new army, command structure and strategy to conduct military operations against Germany and Japan. In a short period of time, he helped the United States attain a victory in an important war.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

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‘We have parts of the plane and we also have the pilot, who is quite alive and kicking. The pilot is in Moscow and so are parts of the plane.’  Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, 1960

By Rich Acritelli

It was a great time to be alive within American society during the 1950s and 1960s. Our nation defeated the fascist powers of Germany and Japan and was the strongest country to emerge from the fighting of World War II. These decades saw the growth of Levittown, Mickey Mantle hitting home runs, massive goods and services being consumed by our citizens and “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Honeymooners” on television.

While this nation enjoyed these positive times, the United States was engulfed in the Cold War. These concerns are depicted through Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ production of “Bridge of Spies.” Once again these two Hollywood icons have created a unique film that will not only be well perceived in movie theaters but will be used by future high school and college teachers to describe the impact of this epic conflict.

Directed by Spielberg, this movie does a masterful job of showing how our government functioned during those tumultuous years at home and abroad. Hanks portrays James B. Donovan, a New York insurance lawyer who was part of the prosecuting team that convicted the top Nazis at Nuremberg in 1945. He was also approached in 1957 by the government to provide a capable defense for Soviet spy Rudolph Abel, played by Mark Rylance, who was arrested with American military intelligence.

While he was apprehensive at first to take this case, he understood that even enemies of the state were entitled to due process. Through this part of “Bridge of Spies” Spielberg depicted how Donovan was able to see both sides of the Cold War through the Soviet perspective. This aspect becomes dominant within the film when Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane was shot down over communist territory in 1960. The creators of this movie supremely showed the paranoia that our Central Intelligence Agency held in training its pilots for the dangerous and secret operations that it conducted.   

Powers, played by Austin Stowell, understood the gravity of the Cold War and accepted the risks inherent in taking high-altitude pictures of enemy troop movements and weaponry. When Powers was shot down, it presented a dilemma for our leadership, which did not want our pilot to be executed for espionage.

During and after his defense of Rudolph Abel, Donovan stressed the need for our government not to execute this spy and to treat him with some decency. Although these were humanitarian views, Donovan continued to counsel the government about the need to show fairness out of the fear that eventually one of our own spies would be caught by the enemy. Well, the movie shows how his assessment comes to fruition.   

Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA, played by Peter McRobbie, pushed Donovan to travel to East Berlin to engineer an exchange of the Russian spy for Powers’ release from captivity. From a historical point of view, Spielberg produced the hysteria of the earliest moments when the communists erected the Berlin Wall. “Bridge of Spies” teaches the viewer how the communists tried to isolate the eastern part of Berlin from the western world, the chaos between these powers and the pressure that was placed on Powers to break under imprisonment.

Donovan was tasked with not only getting Powers back but also an American student who was caught behind the wall. With common sense, intelligence and poise, Donovan understood that this incident could have triggered a massive war between these two political and military foes.

The all-star cast also includes Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Billy Magnussen, Michael Gaston, Domenick Lombardozzi and Eve Hewson.

Once again the combination of Spielberg and Hanks has made a film that will be respected by moviegoers that never get tired of watching this type of American history. It is possible that these two men could be one of the best teams to ever make movies of this magnitude. “Bridge of Spies” is a historic thriller that will continually show you how difficult the Cold War was to wage for our government and the serious national threats that were always present against our citizens during and after this time period.

‘Bridge of Spies,’ is now playing in local theaters. Rated PG-13.

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President Dwight D. Eisenhower makes Veterans Day an official holiday. Photo in the public domain

By Rich Acritelli

Veterans Day is a time to remember all of our past, present and future members of the Armed Forces, but it was only about 60 years ago that President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially created the holiday we know today. Much happened on Nov. 11 even before it became a date of remembrance — there were significant losses and gains for our militaries during this month throughout history.

In the fall of 1776, Gen. George Washington was reeling from one loss after another that sent his army retreating from Long Island, Manhattan and across New Jersey toward Pennsylvania. It was a dark moment in the Revolutionary War for Washington to lose ground to the British, though he ultimately led the colonies to victory.

President George H.W. Bush rides in an armored jeep with Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. in Saudi Arabia, Nov. 22, 1990. Photo in the public domain
President George H.W. Bush rides in an armored jeep with Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. in Saudi Arabia, Nov. 22, 1990. Photo in the public domain

During the Civil War, in November 1863, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was summoned to Chattanooga, Tenn., to prevent a total collapse of Union forces against the Confederacy. As Grant headed into the beleaguered city, he saw northern forces terribly hurt from the nearby Battle of Chickamauga. President Abraham Lincoln sent 20,000 soldiers from the Army of the Potomac to aid the defensive and later offensive efforts of Grant to defeat the South in that region, and while the Confederates had been on the verge of gaining a huge victory, Grant opened up the “Cracker Line” to Chattanooga, with additional men, supplies and horses to deter the enemy. Grant’s calm and cool presence helped secure a much-needed victory for a thankful Lincoln, who saw the battle as one of the greatest tests of survival for the Union.

Eisenhower had his own recollections of this date through his experience leading the Allied Forces during World War II. As a new commanding general, he planned the mid-November 1942 allied landings of Operation Torch against the Germans and the Vichy French in North Africa. From Morocco to Algeria, untested American military troops drove to destroy the war machine of Germany. The chainsmoking Eisenhower eagerly waited in Gibraltar for news that his men had achieved all of their objectives against the enemy. Two years later, in the fall of 1944, Eisenhower looked eastward as his forces operated on a broad front against the Nazis in France. By that time, his armies were nearing the German frontier with the belief that their bitter enemy was about to surrender. Little did he know that Hitler was planning a final December offensive, which would later be called the Battle of the Bulge, to drive a wedge against the Allies on the Western Front.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush led the American efforts to destroy the strength of Saddam Hussein. That dictator had invaded Kuwait and was poised to attack Saudi Arabia, but the U.S. aimed to protect the Saudis through Desert Shield. Two weeks after Veterans Day, Bush was eating Thanksgiving dinner in the desert with the American military forces that eventually led the fighting into Iraq and Kuwait to defeat Hussein’s Republican Guard army.

Over the last 15 years, the United States has been in a constant state of warfare against aggressor and terrorist forces. From the deserts of Iraq to the mountains of Afghanistan, American service members from across the country have tirelessly fought against an enemy bent on hurting our way of life. Currently, this mission has expanded over the skies of Northern Iraq and Syria to limit the growing expansion and influence of ISIS.

Americans should not neglect the “Forgotten War” veterans of the Korean conflict who bitterly fought against the communists during that Cold War battle, nor the Vietnam War veterans who honorably served for a decade in that Southeast Asian country.

May we always remember and honor our veterans from every American conflict, on Veterans Day and throughout the year.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College. He was a staff sergeant in the New York Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton Beach.

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Yogi Berra was an iconic major league baseball catcher for the New York Yankees. Public domain

By Rich Acritelli

Yogi Berra may have grown up playing baseball in Missouri, but when he was a catcher for the Yankees he was Mr. New York.

Yogi Berra was an iconic major league baseball catcher for the New York Yankees. Public domain
Yogi Berra was an iconic major league baseball catcher for the New York Yankees. Public domain

The legend died a few weeks ago at 90 years old, but he will be remembered by Long Island baseball fans for years to come.

Born in 1925, Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra grew up in the Italian section of St. Louis, the son of immigrants who worked many hours to make ends meet for their family. As a kid, Berra discovered his love for baseball and would play at every opportunity, though his equipment was not always very advanced — coming from a poor family, he used old magazines as shin guards.

The Hill neighborhood of St. Louis produced outstanding ball players such as catcher Joe Garagiola, who played against Berra. However, the legend did not get to the major league right away.

Berra’s grades were poor and education was considered a luxury during the Great Depression, so he went to work in a coal mine. But Berra was meant to play baseball — he lost his job because of his habit of leaving work early to play the game with his friends. His parents did not understand or like baseball, but their son excelled and became one of the best players from their neighborhood. In 1942, the New York Yankees brought him into their dugout.

At 17 years old, Berra was away from home for the first time. His career began slowly, and he committed 16 errors in his first season as a catcher, although his hitting was consistent. Times were tough for the young man — he made $90 a month, before taxes were deducted, and there was little leftover after covering his living expenses. There were times Berra was close to starving. At one point, his manager loaned him money to buy cheeseburgers and adoring fans made Italian heroes for him to eat. He sold men’s suits in the winters to get by.

“What you have to remember about Yogi is that all he ever wanted was to be a baseball player.”
— Jerry Coleman, hall of fame broadcaster

Soon into his career, America’s priorities changed. With World War II raging, Uncle Sam started to draft baseball players into the military. Berra joined the U.S. Navy and was in the middle of the action in Europe on one of the most important days for the Allied war effort: June 6, 1944. On D-Day, Berra was on a rocket boat that fired armaments against the German fortifications at Normandy.

That August, the catcher aided landing troops during the amphibious invasion of southern France through Operation Dragoon. After fighting on D-Day, Berra said he was scared to death during those landings, because he realized the Germans could have killed his entire crew due to their proximity to the beaches. Despite his fear, he fought valiantly and went back behind home plate with a Purple Heart.

By 1946, with the war behind him, Berra returned to the ball park. He was one of the toughest and most talented players in the league, a three-time MVP who hit 305 homeruns and earned 10 World Series rings. Don Larsen, who in the 1956 World Series threw a perfect game to Berra, believed the catcher was the best pitch caller in baseball.

Yogi Berra was an iconic major league baseball catcher for the New York Yankees. Public domain
Yogi Berra was an iconic major league baseball catcher for the New York Yankees. Public domain

The all-star was at the center of many historic plays, including when Jackie Robinson famously stole home during the 1955 World Series. Berra, who was catching for pitcher Whitey Ford, attempted to tag out Robinson, but the umpire deemed the runner safe — a call Berra did not agree with.

Once he hung up his catcher’s gear in the 1960s, Berra became a coach and manager for the Yankees, the Mets and later the Houston Astros, among other business ventures.

For a man who did not earn an education past the eighth-grade level, Berra accomplished much during his lifetime, included being known for his creative sayings, commonly known as “Yogi-isms,” such as his famous quotes, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” and “It’s déjà vu all over again.” He was an American and athletic icon who represented the grit and character of his unique nation.

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