By: John Cuddy – Feb. 2020
Raised in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Ronald Santagati is now living in Salem, New Hampshire with his wife (and high school sweetheart) Joan, to whom he has been married to for nearly sixty-five years. During our Saturday morning meeting over coffee and Tripoli cookies in his kitchen, we started with a lively conversation over who had the best fish and chips in Lawrence. Some members of his family believe it was a market known as the Five Star, near the current Hancock Housing Project in Lawrence, while I, and some of Ronald’s other family members are backing Langford’s Fish Market on South Union Street in Lawrence.
Both of us grew up in Lawrence, and both of us are now retired from the US Military. On a Saturday morning we also formed a bond reminiscing over seeing movies at the Warner Theater and bowling at the Lawrence Recreation Bowling Alley. Major Santagati attended St. Patrick’s Grammar School, which was down the street from the family home and later graduated from Central Catholic High School with the Class of 1951. While at Central, Major Santagati played football, basketball, and baseball. He proudly showed me a team photo on the wall in his den, with him in his football uniform as a 150lb fullback and linebacker.
He led his team as captain as the first unbeaten-untied football team at Central. Later joking with me that today’s high school football players are so big, that, if he played now, he would probably not be starting at 150lbs!
His first job as a youth, was delivering groceries for Gallant’s Market, on Parker street, across from where he attended St. Patrick’s Grammar School, (in his words) as the “only Italian kid in the school”. Typical of the many bright, blue collar, young men and women, who, once given the opportunity to compete on the level playing field that is provided by the US Military, he excelled in the service. Earning a BA in History from South East Oklahoma University, a BS in Electrical Engineering from Oklahoma State University, and finally earning his MBA from USC, all while serving on active duty.
During his second year at Merrimack College, (the college his younger brother Richard Santagati would later lead as the school’s President for more than a decade) he received his draft notice. Rather than waiting to be drafted by the US Army, he joined the Air Force as an Aviation Cadet.
He was selected for Officer Training by the Air Force, and as a newly minted Second Lieutenant became an Air Force navigator. Major Santagati served from September of 1953 to September of 1973, defending our nation during his military career, which began near the end of the Korean conflict, and ended during President Nixon’s withdrawal of US Troops from Vietnam in 1973. While serving in Vietnam, Major Santagati was exposed to Agent Orange which left him and many others with severe disabilities. Major Santagati often jokes that he served in three wars – the Korean War, the Cold War “when it wasn’t cold”, and the Vietnam War.
First serving as a navigator on US Air Force Transport planes, his den has great photos of the aircraft he served on. These pictures capture the spirit of the C-119, the “Flying Boxcar”, the C-130 “Hercules”, and the KC-135 “Stratotanker” in aerial flight.
Later in his career, he switched gears, and changed from a navigator to an Air Force engineer. This brought him to Southeast Asia, serving in Thailand and Vietnam, and in the skies over Laos and Cambodia. He started to tear up, while talking of the nearly five hundred unaccounted for US Servicemen, who are still missing in action in Laos.
Only nine of those shot down over Laos, were returned to the United States after the war. Nearly all the American forces missing in action in Laos are air crewmen. Only a handful were ground troops, and those were all Special Operations soldiers. Laos returned none after the war, and the few that made it back home were all men captured by the North Vietnamese Army in Laos.
Major Santagati’s brush with death, did not occur in Southeast Asia. It occurred during a flight out of Charleston, South Carolina stateside. On a C-119 mission, he was slated for an aircraft tail numbered 165, but at the last minute, he was switched to a C-119 tail numbered 164. The C-119 with the tail number of 165 crashed shortly after departing the airstrip with no survivors.
His best friend was navigating this plane, and Major Santagati later escorted his friend’s body home. Having interviewed these heroes in our midst, for over two years for the Valley Patriot, this incident reminded me of a similar story told to me by a World War II submariner. That man, due to an illness, was switched to a different boat (what Navy men call their submarines). His second boat (and him) survived the war, his original boat is still missing in action, the fate of the crew is unknown to this day.
Major Santagati then talked about his two brothers, Chuck, who played the piano professionally and was the leader of “The Sandsmen” performing in the Merrimack Valley, Greater Boston and Salisbury Beach and also worked as a schoolteacher. Richard, who later became President of Merrimack College, and his sister Nina MacDonald, now retired from the insurance industry. Major Santagati and his wife Joan had a son, Kevin and they have a daughter Kimberly. During the interview, I had the pleasure of meeting his daughter and her husband John, who served in the Army and the Navy.r. Ronald and Joan have seven grandchildren, eight great grandchildren, and a lovable, nearly blind dog, named “Buddy”.
After leaving the military service, in his second career, he worked in contracts for companies such as Raytheon. But it was a memento from his last career, I spotted hanging on the wall of his den that moved me the most. After completing his third career as a teacher at Pelham High School, he was presented a picture, now on his wall, signed by the entire Senior class of his last year teaching, with each student sharing a memory of his service as a teacher.
More than once, he praised all the work and services the Veteran’s Administration has provided him, well earned, considering what he has done for all of us. One of the younger members of the Greatest Generation, his age group is often called, the Silent Generation, but I think his last service to our nation, at Pelham High, speaks very loudly to us all.
The Dracut American Legion ask all World War II and Korean War Veterans to call 603-518-5368 and sign up for an Honor Flight to the Memorials in Washington DC!
Please join me at the Dracut American Legion on Saturday February 15th at 7pm for a Salute to US Marines Phil and Don Everly with a free concert by the Neverly Brothers, playing the music of the Everly Brothers.
John Cuddy served in the US Navy’s Construction Battalions (also known as the Seabees) after retiring from the Navy; he earned a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in economics from the University of Massachusetts on the Lowell Campus. He has been employed in Logistics at FedEx for the last 22 years. If you know a World War II veteran who would like their story told, please email him at John.Cuddy@Yahoo.com. ◊