BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. Of the hundreds of articles I have authored about heroes I think this is only the third one I have written about a living hero. Castagnetti is not only a hero in the traditional sense, he is a hero in a commercial sense. Struggling against opposition at all levels he has turned a veterans cemetery into a major tourist attraction. More on that later.
Over the many years I have known Castagnetti I learned that the sense of duty he has always displayed since I have known him was the result of four generations of Castagnettis who served in the Marines. Castagnetti spent 28 years in the Marine Corps, this included two tours of duty in Vietnam where he was awarded the Silver Star for his actions as a young Captain in a rifle company.
On 9 June 1969, Castagnetti then the Commanding Officer of Company B First Battalion, Fifth Marines, FIRST Marine Division (Rein.), FMF, was participating in a combat operations when near the village of An Bang, one of Castagnetti’s Marines saw several NVA soldiers at the entrance to a bunker. The Marine opened fire on the NVA soldiers. Within in couple of seconds Castagnetti’s company came under a heavy volume of small arms and automatic weapons fire. It is thought that Castagnetti had come in contact with a battalion of well concealed NVA regulars. Responding quickly, Castagnetti ordered an assault upon the village and surrounding fortifications. Castagnetti’s rapid and persistent action resulted in his Marines being able to overrun the objective and drive the enemy from the defensive complex.
After serving 28 years in the Marines, Castagnetti finished his career as the base commander at Camp Smith, in Honolulu. Camp Smith is the home and headquarters of a dozen or so Generals and Flag Officers. This facility was and is a major defense facility in the Pacific. Castagnetti once told me one of the hardest parts of the job was convincing these senior officers that he was in fact the commander at Camp Smith, not them. This experience undoubtedly prepared him for his next challenge as the director of the National Cemetery Of the Pacific.
He has been the director since 1990. In 1949, the 111.5-acre site overlooking Honolulu was dedicated as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. It has symbolized a different kind of sacrifice, serving as the final resting place for nearly 54,000 U.S. veterans and family members and as a solemn shrine to American ideals.
The challenge that Castagnetti has had to deal with is to maintain an overall sense of dignity at the cemetery. It is not only the final resting place for over 50,000 veterans and their families but it also, due to the work and commitment of Castagnetti, one of the major tourist attractions in Honolulu. The second challenge Castagnetti had to face was dealing with his superiors in the VA National Cemetery Administration who are into micro-managing.
Castagnetti has regularly hosted dignitaries and politicians from around the world, including three U.S. presidents (the first President Bush and President Clinton, plus President Obama), the emperor and empress of Japan, two presidents of Korea, the president of the Philippines, the prime minister of Australia, the Governor General of Australia, the prime minister of Japan and many other foreign dignitaries. Quite a hoot for an Italian kid from Needham Massachusetts.
Castagnetti has now retired from public service, leaving a legacy that I doubt will be matched, and some shoes that are going to be very difficult to fill. The Colonel can and should be proud of what he has accomplished as a Marine and as the director of a National Shrine.
Whilst the search begins for a new director, Mr. Jim Taft from the National Cemetery Administration will be the acting director.
Awarded for actions during the Vietnam War
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Captain Gene E. Castagnetti (MCSN: 0-31285536), United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving as Commanding Officer of Company B, First Battalion, Fifth Marines, FIRST Marine Division (Rein.), FMF, in connection with combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam. On 9 June 1969, Company B was participating in a combat operations when near the village of An Bang, one of the Marines observed four North Vietnamese Army soldiers at the entrance to a bunker and opened fire upon the men. Immediately the company came under a heavy volume of small arms and automatic weapons fire from an estimated hostile battalion occupying well-concealed emplacements. Reacting instantly, Captain Castagnetti initiated an aggressive assault upon the village and its surrounding fortifications and undaunted by the enemy rounds impacting about him, exhorted his men to greater efforts as he skillfully maneuvered them toward the North Vietnamese emplacements. Throughout the ensuing fierce engagement, Captain Castagnetti completely disregarded his own safety to direct the fire of his men as they inflicted numerous casualties upon the hostile force and wore down its resistance. With seemingly tireless persistence, he fearlessly pressed the advance until his men were able to overrun the objective and drive the enemy from the defensive complex. Determined to exploit the hostile contact to the maximum, he then directed fire from gunships overhead upon the exposed enemy soldiers, forcing them into a disorganized rout and effectively preventing a counter-attack. His heroic and bold efforts inspired all who observed him and resulted in eighty North Vietnamese soldiers kill in addition to the seizure of numerous weapons and documents containing information of intelligence value, while sustaining only minimal Marine casualties. By his courage, dynamic leadership and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of grave personal danger, Captain Castagnetti contributed significantly to the accomplishment of his unit’s mission and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.
Mr. “C” in your well-earned retirement I wish you fair seas and following winds. Semper Fi
The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.