By Michael Schaffer
America’s greatest generation lives on in 87-year-old Centerville native Tony (Neno) Montegna.
Tony (Neno) Montegna was born Jan. 21, 1926 at 1717 S. 16th St. in Centerville. He was the youngest of 17 children born to Gaetano and Josephina Montegna (Mantegna) of Sicily, who came to the United States shortly after the turn of the century.
At the age of 17, Montegna enlisted in the United States Marine Corps to fight in WWII. He was assigned to the 22nd regiment, Sixth Marine Division.
Montegna was a machine gunner, landing in Okinawa April 1, 1945. Montegna had a sharpshooter’s medal and had perfected the ability to fire a single shot from the machine gun.
“Our lieutenant positioned me in an area where the attack could be expected and told me to fire off five or six single shots so the Japanese would think it was just a pistol and not a machine gun,” Montegna said. “He told me to remember Pearl Harbor and keep my finger on the trigger when they attacked, and I did.”
A Japanese bomb ultimately changed his life when he was injured by the explosion on May 24, 1945, which had buried him in debris and left metal shrapnel in his head.
“I had a piece of steel in my head on the front lines and they didn’t know how deep it was so they sent me to Maryland and California to take the piece of steel out of my head,” Montegna said during a telephone interview. “And they took it out and then they said you’re not fit to stay in the Marine Corps so we’re going to give you an honorable discharge.”
Montegna said he can still feel the scar from the shrapnel that entered his head just above his left ear.
Montegna served in the Marine Corps from 1943-1945.
The shrapnel injury Montegna suffered was reported on July 10, 1945 in the Centerville Daily Iowegian & Citizen. The story, according to what Gaetano and Josephina Montegna reported to the paper, was their son Neno “sustained a blast concussion of the head and back in action against the enemy at Okinawa Island, Rukyu Islands.” Montegna arrived in the U.S. from Okinawa June 16, 1945 and was stationed at San Leandro Naval Hospital in San Leandro, Calif. The story reports Montegna was removed for medical treatment May 30, 1945.
Montegna recovered from the shrapnel injury and returned to Centerville. While back home Montegna said he didn’t have a job, lived with his parents but ended up meeting his future wife at a roller skating rink in Centerville, Phyllis Morlan, who was born in Sigourney.
“And I told my friend that I had with me, ‘Boy, she’s a good skater,’” Montegna said. “So I waited until she quit and I asked her if she would go out with me and she said, ‘Yes.’”
Tony and Phyllis dated for two weeks when he asked: “Will you marry me?”
Phyllis said yes but she was just 16 and Tony was 23. It was 1949. So Tony decided it was necessary to ask her father for his daughter’s hand.
“So I asked her father the next day and he said, ‘No,’” Montegna said.
Phyllis’ father, Lorance, was farming 160 acres of corn near Udell for the federal government and he needed her to drive the tractor for the upcoming harvest. Phyllis was the oldest in her family with two younger brothers.
“And I said, ‘Is that why you won’t let me marry her? And he said, ‘Yes.’”
So Tony and Phyllis eloped and got married that very night. That was in July of 1949.
The next day Tony travelled to California to stay with an older sister and find a job, but left Phyllis at home to help her father with the harvest. It wasn’t too much later Phyllis would join him.
One morning about one week after getting married, Phyllis forgot to remove her wedding ring before coming down for breakfast, Tony said. Her father saw it and he asked her, “What’s that?” Phyllis answered that she and Tony had gotten married. Lorance told her that she could go to California to be with Tony.
Tony worked for 50 years in San Jose, Calif. as a glass glazer, window and mirror installer.
Tony and Phyllis were married 57 years. Phyllis passed away in 2007. Tony is currently living in Idaho with his daughter and husband.
Tony Montegna is listed in The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor and in the WWII Memorial.
Information for this article came firsthand from Tony Montegna or was supplied by his family.