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Rich Acritelli

The barracks of the 124th Illinois Infantry in Vicksburg, Miss. Photo in the public domain

By Rich Acritelli

Independence Day commemorates the birth of our nation as well as a day when the Union Army notched a huge victory during the Civil War. It was a July 4 more than 150 years ago that saw some of the most serious fighting ever to take place on U.S. soil.

President Abraham Lincoln wanted desperately to end the Civil War and preserve the Union. By mid-1863, the only way to accomplish that goal was to destroy the southern will to fight. Lincoln’s most important leader was Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who in 1861 was a shop clerk in his family’s store in Illinois. Nobody, including Grant, could have foreseen his quick rise from obscurity to one of the best fighting figures the nation ever produced.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant poses in Virginia in 1864. Photo in the public domain
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant poses in Virginia in 1864. Photo in the public domain

During the war, Lincoln grew increasingly bitter toward the officers tasked with attacking the South. He detested Gen. George B. McClellan and later fired him for his unwillingness to crush the rebellion in Northern Virginia. For two years, the Army of the Potomac became a revolving door for other officers who failed to defeat Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Lincoln had a limited military background, serving as a captain during the Black Hawk War between the U.S. and Native Americans three decades earlier, but took his job as commander-in-chief seriously. One of his most important decisions was keeping Grant as the head of the Army of the Tennessee after the 1862 Battle of Shiloh and in the face of rumors that Grant was an alcoholic and unable to carry out his duties.

Grant’s rise to commanding general began during the Battle of Vicksburg.

Vicksburg was known as the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy” and the “citadel” on the Mississippi River. Early in the Civil War, Grant understood taking that location would divide the Confederacy, open the river to Union naval and commerce shipping and prevent resources from reaching Lee in Northern Virginia. Grant was determined to destroy it.

In April 1863, he saw he would only gain a victory by moving his army south and attacking Vicksburg on the same side of the Mississippi held by the enemy. This was a risky decision — one that could win or lose the war in the West. The campaign involved Grant cutting off his own supply and communication lines, with he and his men living off the land using the lessons he learned while fighting in the Mexican-American War. If he and his fellow soldiers could survive in the deserts and heat of Mexico, the Civil War fighters could do the same with the hearty agriculture, cattle and poultry resources in Mississippi.

On April 16, with his wife and youngest son Frederick next to him, Grant ordered a naval flotilla of gunboats and barges to make the perilous journey south. The Confederacy opened up its vast armaments but failed to destroy the ships, and Grant turned his gamble into a string of victories that led to the demise of Vicksburg.

Through July 4, Lincoln watched in amazement as the general decisively drove against the enemy. When one politician suggested the operation was a failure and that Grant was again drinking too much, Lincoln retorted that Grant was engaged in some of the most serious and successful fighting the world had ever known.

It was a cunning campaign to operate within the Confederacy. Southern Gens. Joseph E. Johnston and John C. Pemberton both commanded larger forces but under the attack of Grant’s Union Army were unable to combine their forces in battle. In Washington, D.C., Lincoln watched Grant take Jackson, Miss., the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, thereby cutting off the supply, communication and transportation links that supported Vicksburg.

In late May 1863, Grant began a 48-day siege that trapped Pemberton, a native of Pennsylvania, and his forces on the Mississippi River. By July 4, Pemberton’s men were starving and had lost their morale; they surrendered. On our nation’s birthday, Grant took 31,000 Confederate soldiers as prisoners of war, and seized 172 cannons and 60,000 rifles.

Church bells rang out in northern cities to celebrate the Army of the Tennessee’s efforts to finally take Vicksburg in one of the most vital campaigns of the war, on the road to reuniting America.

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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Long Island residents hold a rally to call for justice for crime victims in the Huntington area, most of them Hispanic. File photo by Rohma Abbas

By Rich Acritelli

Our nation has lately been rocked by protests that are springing up around the country in response to perceived unequal treatment, mostly at the hands of law enforcement. But these sorts of movements are nothing new — Americans of all colors and creeds have a history of protesting the government and bringing about positive change.

Since the first European explorers and settlers made their way to this continent, Native Americans have experienced some of the greatest hardships. While there are some positive stories in American history, like that of Sioux runner Billy Mills winning the gold medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for the 10,000-meter race, such stories were rare. The reservation system was built on poverty and has historically had high rates of suicide, depression, alcoholism and drug abuse. During the 1970s, major tribal groups banded together to protest for enhanced rights from the government. From briefly occupying Alcatraz Island in San Francisco to taking over the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., it was their goal to work with the government to better the lives of Native Americans.

After Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the fearful U.S. government removed Japanese-Americans from their daily lives on the West Coast. Loyal people who paid taxes, were productive citizens and had their children learn about the Constitution were viewed as enemy combatants. More than 110,000 citizens were forced into internment camps from California to Arkansas. From 1942 to 1946, the Japanese were imprisoned and had all of their rights stripped from them. Ironically, some of the most valiant U.S. soldiers who had served in the bloody fighting in Italy’s mountainous terrain during World War II were Japanese-Americans. With their loved ones imprisoned at home, the soldiers were highly decorated and even wounded fighting against the Nazis.

But unlike other historic groups that fought back against injustice, the Japanese Americans did not mount any movement of criticism against their internment, and there was no public or political sympathy for them. It was some 40 years later when Congress finally listened to several weeks of testimony that described the horrors of internment. In 1988, the government formally apologized for the wrongdoing and compensated affected citizens with reparations.

Once World War II ended, black soldiers who defended their country arrived home to a government that was still unwilling to fully grant equal rights to them. Some African Americans who fought with distinction in the European and Pacific theaters were lynched in their uniforms when they returned home, a report that sickened President Harry S. Truman. In 1948, he desegregated the armed forces. But racism was not over — since the end of the Civil War, black citizens had to contend with unfair treatment, such as  poll taxes to keep them from voting and the resentment and violence of the Ku Klux Klan. Black Americans responded fully during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, including with the civil disobedience under Martin Luther King Jr.

As a young man, Cesar Chavez realized that massive inequalities plagued the Latino pickers in the California fields. After spending two years in the military, Chavez began his life’s mission to help the migrant workers, who had little voice in their society. His earliest efforts of aiding others were to ensure that Hispanic people had support dealing with police discrimination, violence, tax problems and immigration issues. Chavez’s social work was also geared toward gaining respect from the California government to help the thousands of workers who strenuously labored in the fields. He extensively traveled in that state to gauge the needs of the workers. During the 1960s, his labor movement reached the impoverished vegetable and fruit pickers. Through nonviolent protests, Chavez and his followers asked Americans not to buy the products that they were harvesting in order to put pressure on the large businesses and farms to be fairer with their wages and labor practices. At various points during the movement, Chavez fasted several times to bring attention to the economic, social and political needs of the workers and citizens he represented. By the 1970s, the pickers’ movement achieved success, with many of the farmhands gaining union contracts. The United Farm Workers Union earned the right to collectively bargain.

It is an American right to protest unfair treatment at the hands of the local, state and federal government. While many inequalities still exist in our society, past movements have demonstrated that peaceful protests for change do work. Change has and always will come to this nation, but it cannot be positive if won through violence against people or property.

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.

Vietnam veteran Thomas Semkow, from Post 6249 Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars, poses with members of the A-Team in 1968. Photo from Semkow

‘Many veterans of Vietnam still serve in the Armed Forces, work in our offices, on our farms, and in our factories. Most have kept their experiences private, but most have been strengthened by their call to duty. A grateful nation opens her heart today in gratitude for their sacrifice, for their courage, and for their noble service.’ — President Ronald Reagan, Memorial Day Speech, May 28, 1984

By Rich Acritelli

Today Vietnam veterans comprise the largest group of Americans who have fought for this country. Nearly three million citizens were deployed to Southeast Asia during the longest war in our history. For the next couple of decades, they will also be the most prominent group of veterans in this nation.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Bald Hill in Farmingville reaches into the sky. File photo
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Bald Hill in Farmingville reaches into the sky. File photo

Locally, the Suffolk County Chapter of Vietnam Veterans and the VFW Fischer/Hewins Post 6249 of Rocky Point are two groups that strenuously work to welcome home all members of the armed forces who have protected this nation during the war on terror. These organizations are headed by two men who are driven to help every veteran.

Richard Kitson, from Port Jefferson Station, is the longtime president of the Suffolk County Chapter of Vietnam Veterans. Members of this chapter all point to Kitson’s dedication: He organizes members to speak in the schools, march in parades, welcome home veterans, help their families and assist veterans who have fallen on hard times. Both groups have been a fixture at the Rocky Point High School Veterans Day program and have been guest speakers at the Vietnam War history classes that are taught at Ward Melville High School in E. Setauket.

Kitson grew up in Levittown and served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a mortar man in Dong Ha, situated near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. The war had especially hit home for Kitson as he not only lost many friends from his hometown but his brother was killed fighting in Vietnam in 1969. It is families like Kitson’s who have completely sacrificed for this nation.

Instead of returning home to a grateful country, these veterans were degraded for their efforts to serve in the military. For several years the government did not recognize those who fought in Vietnam, and because of this policy, these veterans were not properly recognized for their service. It was not until 1978 that the Vietnam Veterans of America was granted the same rights to function as a charter as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.

Richard Kitson and Frank D’Aversa served in Vietnam. Photo from Jennifer Pohl
Richard Kitson and Frank D’Aversa served in Vietnam. Photo from Jennifer Pohl

After the war, Kitson went to college, married, started a family and worked for the post office. It was not until the 1980s that he began to fight for greater rights for the veterans who fought in that war. His devotion helped build the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial at Bald Hill in Farmingville and his chapter will read the names of all those residents of Suffolk County who were lost during that conflict at the site on Memorial Day at 5 p.m.

This weekend marks an important date for Kitson for not only thanking our veterans who served in the military but also to recall the memory of his brother. Kitson and his members are always visible to ensure that our local veterans are properly thanked for their past, present and future service.

Joseph A. Cognitore is the commander of Post 6249 Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars. A former football and track standout from Farmingdale, he went to college in South Dakota and after graduation joined the U.S. Army. Cognitore fought in Vietnam in 1970 and had the unique experience of operating inside of Cambodia. A platoon sergeant, he was part of the air cavalry that flew dangerous missions into territory that was held by the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. Cognitore was a combat veteran who was always looking out for the safety and security of his soldiers.

For almost two decades, Cognitore tried to put the war behind him by taking care of his family and working for the Coca-Cola Company. It was not until the first Gulf War that Cognitore became an active participant at Post 6249 in Rocky Point. He wanted to ensure that the men and women who were serving overseas were properly cared for at home and abroad.

Currently, Cognitore runs one of the most productive VFW posts on Long Island and is the legislative chair for the Department of New York Veterans of Foreign Wars. Retired from his job, Cognitore puts in a tremendous number of volunteer hours running this post. He has helped run a Wounded Warrior Golf Outing, has participated in the creation of a 9/11 Memorial and is always present in our local schools. This weekend presents a somber moment for Cognitore to reflect on all of his comrades who were killed in Vietnam.

Both Kitson and Cognitore state how fortunate they are to have soldiers that still give back to their communities. One of these veterans is Bay Shore resident Ralph Zanchelli. After graduating from high school in 1962, Zanchelli immediately enlisted into the U.S. Naval Reserves. With the war escalating in Vietnam, he was deployed to the USS Bennington CVS 20, which operated in the South China Sea. This aircraft carrier guarded against the North Vietnamese torpedo boats that attacked American shipping off the coast of this communist nation.

From left, Richard Kitson, Clarence Simpson, Barry Gochman, Jimmy O’ Donnell and Bill Fuchs. Photo from Jennifer Pohl
From left, Richard Kitson, Clarence Simpson, Barry Gochman, Jimmy O’ Donnell and Bill Fuchs. Photo from Jennifer Pohl

Zanchelli was a Hot Case-man gunner who caught the rounds as they were fired. This job ensured that discharged armaments would not start any fires within the ship during combat operations. The carrier served 30-day intervals off the coast of North Vietnam, and Zanchelli observed the earliest moments of this war. For Memorial Day, he would like everyone to say a short prayer for those currently protecting this nation.

Gill Jenkins from Post 6249 is another local citizen who goes about his business in a quiet and friendly manner. He lives by the credo that all veterans, regardless of when they served, must be respected. During the height of the Tet offensive in 1968, Jenkins was a plumber and handyman on the USS Intrepid, which operated off the coast of South Vietnam.

This naval veteran served for four years, and he vividly recalled the launch and recovery efforts of this historic carrier to attack the enemy and to locate those airmen that were shot down. During his naval years, Jenkins traveled around the world on the Intrepid. He recalled how the vessel was hit by a typhoon as it was traveling around the tip of the Cape of Good Hope.

One of the nearly 600,000 armed forces members who were sent to Vietnam in 1968 was Tom Semkow from Center Moriches. Currently the main photographer for Post 6249, Semkow was a Special Forces medic in the Mekong Delta for 10 months. During the height of Tet, he remembered how the enemy made their presence felt by firing mortars and attacking the American military squads that operated in the area. He recalled operating in the flooded areas of this country and receiving air boat rides from Chinese operators who transported them into combat areas. Semkow enjoys the camaraderie of this post and likes to attend the Memorial Day services at Calverton National Cemetery each year.

Memorial Day is a moment when our nation welcomes the warm weather, watches a ball game and barbeques. But we Americans need to take a brief time-out of our schedules to honor and recall those Americans who have protected us during every conflict in our history. Thank you to all those service members, especially to the Vietnam Veterans we “Welcome Home” on this national day of remembrance.

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.