ENCINITAS — Two residents at the senior community Belmont Village in Cardiff-by-the-Sea were honored recently for their contributions to World War II and the Korean War.
Local veterans, Ret. Coast Guard Lt. Amy Fike, and Ret. Army Maj. Alfred “Coke” Cocumelli were selected amongst a pool of veteran candidates by the staff at Belmont Village to tell their war stories for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Fike was a recruiter and administrator in the Southern U.S. and Hawaii for the Coast Guard during World War II. Cocumelli served as a covert operations soldier, fighting behind enemy lines in the Philippines and North Korea.
Alongside nationally recognized photographer Thomas Sanders, Belmont Village said it has worked to preserve the stories of veterans who reside in its communities through its American Heroes: Portraits of Service project.
The senior living communities have captured the experiences of more than 900 of their veterans across their 29 locations nationwide.
Fike was born in 1919 in Union Springs, Alabama, and has a classic southern drawl. She was part of a highly secretive LORAN operation in Hawaii during World War II and turned 100 years old this April.
“Everyone knew that there had to be an invasion, but nobody knew when or where,” said Fike regarding the Invasion of Normandy which began on June 6, 1944.
Cocumelli entered World War II in 1942 as a private and left as a captain. He later returned to Korea to fight again for his country in 1950 and is now 96 years old.
“It lasted so long… There was a general, pervasive sadness,” said Fike about World War II.
Before fighting broke out, Fike was a teacher, but thought she would get a summer war-time job. She took a civil service test and was assigned to the Coast Guard as a civil clerk.
“At the academy I had qualified to go into the intelligence part, but I didn’t really want to do that because I wanted some (administrative) experience to help me when I got out of the service,” said Fike.
She was a strong candidate for Coast Guard officer and decided to go through the “90-day wonder” program in New London, Connecticut, which expedited her training.
She was among the earliest women to join the Coast Guard and was even the first model for women’s uniforms in her branch of the military.
The veteran’s job first placed her in charge of staff recruiting in the South of the United States.
“I traveled a great deal, I made speeches about the Coast Guard and I interviewed candidates,” said Fike. “I was the recruiting officer for the Sixth Naval District for the Coast Guard and enlisting both men and women.”
The lieutenant later applied for reassignment to Hawaii during the latter half of World War II where she worked in personnel for a highly secretive operation at the LORAN station in Honolulu.
She examined old files and ordered the return of many soldiers who had spent two years or longer on remote islands, forgotten about by others.
Diligence with filing helped save countless lives.
“I was no heroine,” said Fike. “I had some life-changing experiences, but doesn’t everybody?”
When Operation Overlord was set into action on D-Day, Fike recalls “hovering over the radio,” she said. “It was exciting but also sickening because we knew boys facing that gunfire didn’t stand a chance.”
Neither Fike or Cocumelli were directly involved in D-Day, but Cocumeli vividly recalls his mutiple calls to duty.
“Every night some different family would bury me underneath their house and the Filipinos saw to it that (the Japanese soldiers) never found me,” said Cocumelli.
In Leyte, Philippines, Cocumelli recalls the houses being raised on small platforms which allowed for a space to hide underneath, “They put a rubber breathing tube from where I was to outside (of the dirt) so that I could breathe.”
Cocumelli was sent into the Philippines to gather 400 Philippine Scouts who were hiding in the mountains, behind enemy lines, as the Japanese forces were occupying the urban areas in the country.
“I just want to forget,” said the two-time war veteran. “I don’t want to remember anything.”
He received two bronze stars from the U.S. Army and even a rare bronze star from the Navy as an Army major for his time served.
After receiving airdrops from the U.S., he trained the Filipino men to use their weapons and came down from the hills to flank Japanese occupants as U.S. General MacArthur entered from the sea.
“General MacArthur was my immediate boss. He was the greatest military commander that ever lived,” said Cocumelli. “I’ll argue with anybody that doesn’t agree with me.”
The major is thankful for the kindness of the families that helped hide him during World War II, “I love the Filipino people, they kept me alive,” said Cocumelli.
He later returned to the Korean War to work behind enemy lines once again where he asked for his story to be kept confidential.
Not one for the spotlight, Cocumelli said, “When I came back from Korea there was an outfit in Los Angeles that tried to get to go on a speaking tour. I went on one and after that one I refused to go on any more.”
Fike was a trailblazer for women in the Coast Guard while Cocumelli worked directly under General MacArthur and is one of the few survivors who fought behind enemy lines in the Korean War.
Although the two veterans were in different branches of the military, Fike and Cocumelli share the fact that they are among the few surviving veterans from World War II who experienced the recent 75th anniversary of D-Day.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics recorded that only 496,777 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were still alive in 2018, with roughly 348 dying each day.