If not for the Second World War, Carmen “Carmine” Vecchiolla would have spent his life within a radius of a few miles of his birthplace, 112 Maple Avenue in Rye. He was born on July 16, 1924, when Rye was still a Village, and moved with his family to 94 Webster Avenue in Harrison where he attended public schools.
By Bob Marrow
If not for the Second World War, Carmen “Carmine” Vecchiolla would have spent his life within a radius of a few miles of his birthplace, 112 Maple Avenue in Rye. He was born on July 16, 1924, when Rye was still a Village, and moved with his family to 94 Webster Avenue in Harrison where he attended public schools. He met his wife, Betty, in Port Chester and they lived with her parents on Purchase Street until they bought a home near Forest Avenue and Playland Parkway where they still live. But something extraordinary happened to Carmen in 1943 that took the Rye teenager to the other side of the world, participating in one of the most incredible feats of military engineering in history.
Carmen’s father, Anthony, had enlisted in the Army during the First World War and never completely recovered from a German gas attack while in the trenches of France. Carmen followed in his father’s courageous footsteps by enlisting in the Army while still a teenager. He was sent to India and then to Burma where he helped to build the Ledo Road, later named The Stilwell Road after General “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell. It was a lifeline to China where our ally, the government of Chiang Kai-shek, was being starved after the Japanese invasion and occupation.
The building of the Stilwell Road linking vital supplies from India with the Burma Road, which ran on to China, was a project of more than 400 miles and a part of a fuel pipeline through uncharted snake and insect-infested jungle. It was constructed by American troops and local workers in temperatures that sometimes reached 120 degrees in the shade, running over part of the Himalayan Mountains and across almost impassable rivers, drenched by monsoons with rainfall as great as anywhere on earth. The fuel transport pipes Carmen and his comrades coupled together were so hot that they could not be touched with bare hands. The torrential rains created mud fields that reached to their hips.
Almost 10% or our men died during the construction of The Stilwell Road and nearly every American was wounded or afflicted with tropical diseases such as malaria, cholera, dysentery, and beriberi. (A Signal Corps documentary made in 1945 and narrated by Ronald Reagan about The Stilwell Road can be seen at www.archive.org/details/TheStilwellRoad.
While building the road under these inhumane conditions, our men were being attacked by entrenched Japanese forces. Carmen was wounded on both arms by a bayonet during hand-to- hand combat with a Japanese soldier. He spent more than four months in a Japanese prison camp in Burma, weighing 130 pounds when captured and only 98 pounds when rescued by a contingent of the British Army dropped into the jungle by glider aircraft. In addition to wounds received in combat, Carmen contracted malaria, the after-effects of which continue to plague him. He was awarded a Purple Heart for the wounds received in combat and three battle stars for serving in the India-Burma-China war zones.
Carmen returned home and was discharged from the Army in 1947. He was a racecar mechanic and a member of Rye’s Auxiliary Police when he joined the Rye Police Department in 1952, placing third in the entrance examination. He served with distinction as part of the Accident Control Squad until he retired in 1979. Carmen received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rye PBA.
Carmen told The Rye Record, “I enjoyed an interesting and sometimes exciting career as a Rye police officer, but nothing compares to helping build The Stilwell Road in the tropical jungles of Burma, a country I didn’t know existed when I enlisted in the Army as a teenager.”