88-year-old Mike De Cesare of Madera, CA appears on episode #431 of Hometown Heroes, debuting August 5, 2016. A native of New Jersey, Mike was one of eight children, but never had the opportunity to live with his siblings. His 25-year-old mother died the day after he was born, and his siblings were sent to assorted Catholic homes and convents. Mike was taken in by his grandparents, who already had six children of their own. As a nine-year-old, he would head straight from school to the blacksmith shop, where he worked long hours to help the family.
When relatives from California came out to visit, an opportunity arose for Mike to follow them to the west coast. The nine-year-old was soon crossing the country, alone, on a train. You’ll hear him recall the orchards, vineyards, and fields that would become his new workplace, living on a farm owned by a Japanese-American family.
That dynamic left Mike with some very vivid memories of December 7, 1941, which you’ll hear him share on Hometown Heroes. The 13-year-old would learn later that two brothers he had never had the chance to know, twins Victor and Vito, were both killed at Oahu’s Hickam Field during the attack. Listen to the program to find out how Mike lied about his age to get into the military, only to be found out after boot camp. He would enlist in the Navy, legally this time, in 1944, and volunteer for submarine service. Volunteering and qualifying were two different things, and you’ll hear Mike share an intense memory of a test exercise that felt all too real for most of the prospective submariners.
An electrician’s mate aboard the USS Sennet (SS-408), he participated in all of that boat’s war patrols in the Pacific in 1945. 52 American submarines were lost during World War II, and records of the Sennet reflect close encounters with enemy forces. “I knew it was dangerous,” you’ll hear Mike remember about his time in submarines. “But anything was dangerous.” After the war, the chance to become part of the Navy’s fledgling salvage diver program brought him to the original crew of the USS Recovery (ARS-43). Listen to Hometown Heroes for Mike’s description of the primitive diving equipment he used, as well as some of the ever-present dangers the divers of that era faced. You’ll learn a diver’s understanding of the terms “spread eagle” and “the bends,” and find out why you never want to experience either. One of the most memorable salvage operations occurred in March 1946 off the coast of Ecuador. The SS Royal Oak, a T-2 tanker carrying a load of fuel, had run aground and was listing badly.
“You can imagine, climbing on that ship that’s on a 32-degree list,” Mike remembers. “You’re pulling yourself up, that’s what you’re doing.” Upset with the situation, crew members had threatened the Royal Oak’s captain, who had to be kept under guard on the USS Recovery to protect him from the angry mob. Mike and other divers went under the surface, cutting sheet metal patches for the damaged portions of the ship. They were able to get the tanker righted, and safely into port. Decades later, an insurance case Mike was working on led him to the grandson of the Royal Oak’s captain. Listen to Hometown Heroes for the details of that encounter, and the cherished gift Mike received as a result. Salvage operations were fulfilling for De Cesare, but his time on the Recovery also nearly claimed his life. When another sailor was uneasy about climbing the ship’s mast to replace a light, Mike scrambled up, enduring the steady rolls back and forth, produced by windy seas, and safely replaced the defective light. Then, 42 feet above the deck, it appeared that his climb would turn tragic.
“A weld broke,” De Cesare explains about the moment that left him hanging by his snagged jacket, high above the deck. “They’re coming up to get me, but the jacket tears. I fell 42 feet. I broke my neck, my wrist, my left hip.”
It also split his skull, and left him unconscious for 11 days. After he finally woke up, doctors told him he was likely to remain hospitalized for 18 months. Instead, he was back on the ship, performing light duty, in less than six months. Mike says his faith sustained him throughout his recovery, and he thanks God for 70 years and counting of borrowed time. “He was with me,” you’ll hear him say. You’ll also hear about a man Mike considers “a real hero,” and about the efforts De Cesare took to make sure Martin Medellin received the Purple Heart he deserved, 69 years after he was wounded in Europe. Mike says he is driven by a desire to serve others, whether fellow veterans like Medellin, his college-aged grandchildren, or the policyholders he interacts with in the insurance industry.
“It’s just the feeling and the satisfaction I get from helping people,” De Cesare says.
Are you wondering why he’s still working at age 88? Listen to Hometown Heroes for the answer, and why one lawyer came to regret asking that very question in court. Mike is very thankful for the things he learned in the Navy, and for the educational opportunities his service opened up for him. He encourages young people today to consider the possibilities the military presents, and he urges all of us to pray for those who are serving in uniform today.