Tony Soria served his country during a time of all-out war and remembers some profoundly scary moments. Still the nearly three years he spent in the U.S. Army and Navy were one of the best times in his life.
The friendships he formed have lasted more than six decades.
The 86-year-old Soria is one of eight grand marshals in today's Veterans Day Parade in downtown Merced. He can still fit in the U.S. Navy dress uniform he shares with his brother and will wear it with pride during the parade along West Main Street in downtown Merced. In 63 years, the 5-foot, 3-inch Soria has maintained his 117-pound military weight.
"I'm honored to be a grand marshal and very humbled," Soria said. "There are so many other fellas who are deserving, too."
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Soria jokingly refers to himself as a "devout coward," but survived several years at sea aboard the USS Algol, a Navy attack cargo ship that at various times carried 8,000 cases of beer, enough high-octane gasoline, weapons and ammunition to blow it to smithereens, along with combat-ready troops destined for action in the Philippines, Okinawa and other Pacific Theater hot spots.
"It (Navy service) was the most memorable time in my life," Soria recalled. "The bottom line is I met friends I still see, and I'm glad I had the experience."
About the beer: The 8,000 cases of Ballantine beer were destined for Saipan. About 7,000 cases arrived at their proper destination and were dutifully unloaded -- but a sizable quantity got waylaid by clever Algol deck personnel. Later, they could be found secreted in laundry bags, mattress covers and lockers. The "diversion" never was discovered by ship's officers, Soria said.
For the last 22 years, Soria has organized annual reunions throughout the country for his USS Algol crewmates. Attendance peaked a few years ago with about 80 sailors and their spouses. This year's reunion two months ago in Memphis attracted 30 people.
Soria said now many of the people are dying, are sick or can't travel anymore. He compiled a mailing list with 200 names on it; now he sends out about 60 to 70 letters to keep in touch with his remaining friends.
At one point Soria's ship was part of a massive convoy headed for the Philippines. The sailors didn't know where they were going, but the 22 landing craft were used to deploy soldiers for the major invasion of Lingayan in the Philippines. Algol sailors also went on maneuvers at Guadalcanal, practicing for upcoming land invasion maneuvers.
"On several instances there were submarines following us," Soria said. "Once there was a Japanese enemy airplane, but it was just conducting surveillance." Soria was one of eight radiomen aboard the Algol, a brand-new merchant ship that was converted to attack status in Portland in early 1944.
One time during his shipboard assignment, a Japanese kamikaze pilot struck the ship moored next to the Algol. The plane hit the side of that vessel above the water line and didn't explode as expected.
The Algol enjoyed a fairly long life, serving in World War II, the Korean War, Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and later in Vietnam. It was mothballed in Virginia and ultimately sunk Nov. 21, 1991, about 16 miles off the Belmar, N.J., coast. It now serves as an artificial reef for fish in the Atlantic Ocean.
Soria and some of his crewmates got to witness the destruction of the Algol, which went down in 13 minutes, thanks to explosives strategically placed throughout the vessel.
"There were a bunch of old poops crying. We all cried," he remembered.
As he did many times during a 40-year career in the Merced Sun-Star's circulation department, Soria put out daily newsletters and bulletins for his shipboard comrades. On V-J Day in April 1945, Soria's newsletter included the menu for a special dinner that would be much better than the usual Salisbury steak rations enlisted men were used to eating.
The special shipboard menu included green olives, cream of tomato soup, mixed sweet pickles, soda crackers, roast tom turkey and giblet gravy, cranberry sauce and sage dressing, snowflake potatoes, buttered fresh peas, apple pie, hot rolls, fresh fruit, butter and bread, iced lemonade, coffee, beer and cigars.
Where did all the food and drink for this welcome respite from tuna and toast come from? Soria learned years later at one of the reunions that the upscale food came from the officers' mess.
Ironically, when Soria originally was drafted in April 1943 he had to spend two months in the Army because the Navy quota was filled when he reached the Fresno enlistment center.
Spurned for his first choice of Navy service, Soria wrote to President Roosevelt appealing his Army deployment. The president had promised servicemen their choice of military branch would be honored. Soria had forgotten about the letter he sent to FDR when a gruff Army sergeant chided him for going outside the chain of command. But he dispatched him to the Navy.
Still the military red tape meant he had to endure three physicals and both Army and Navy boot camp experiences. After he was able to enlist in the Navy, he was sent to radio school at the University of Colorado in Boulder where he spent seven months before being assigned ship duty. Soria spent another seven months in Portland, Ore., waiting for the Algol to be outfitted for its combat supply role.
Three Merced men served on the Algol: Soria and the late Al Enriquez and Gerald "Bud" Sommerville. Soria remembers when they learned the war was over:
"The crew just went crazy, crying and praying. We had been under blackout conditions throughout the war but the skipper ordered all the lights turned on."
When Soria got off the Algol on Feb. 15, 1946, he was put on a train three days later for the Navy separation center at Shoemaker. From there he hitchhiked home and took it easy for a few days until a then-temporary job at the Sun-Star beckoned. It ultimately lasted nearly 40 years. Soria retired in May 1985 as circulation manager.
Soria and his first wife, Wanda, who died of cancer in 1977, have two grown children, Mark and Terri, and three grandchildren. Soria and his second wife, Donna, have been married 25 years, and he has two stepchildren.
For the last 15 years, Soria has opened the doors of St. Patrick's Catholic Church on East Yosemite Avenue at 6 a.m. each Sunday and makes sure altar preparations are completed. He usually serves Communion at the 7 a.m. Mass, but spends most of his Sunday at the church to make sure the other masses run smoothly.
On Fridays and Saturdays, he visits 20 elderly people at local assisted living centers and at their homes, serving them Communion. His 1995 Ford Escort station wagon has posted more than 100,000 miles but gets him to his regular rounds.
"I get pleasure in doing something," Soria said. "I get a good feeling doing something worthy."
Veterans Day parade route:
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