Nicola Vassallo

“Marine killed in accident with Artillery Gun” Meet Nicola Vassallo,
WW2 Platoon Sergeant U.S. Marine Corps
One of Cranford’s 86

Written by Don Sweeney, Research by Lt. Col. Steve Glazer (ret.), Cranford Historical Society

As our quest continues to tell the story of our 86 hometown heroes we search the internet for the missing pieces of the puzzle that completes the picture that we have committed to paint each month. Sometimes our job is made easier when we get a call from a friend or family member of one of our honorees that has heard about our work. This month we received one of these calls. Maria Vassallo reached out to our parade committee and identified herself as the niece of Nicola (Nick) Vassallo, the 71st on our list of 86. Amazingly she told us that her dad, Nick’s brother, John Vassallo 89 years old, is alive and well and living in Cranford. She went on to also tell me that Nick’s twin sister Anna Shultz (Aunt Dolly) age 96, is living in a care facility in Fanwood, and the family patriarch Daniel (Dan) Vassallo had just celebrated his 100th birthday and is living in Roselle Park, she said he has the mind of a man half his age. I asked if it would be possible to get them all together for a conversation and a chance to reminisce about their memories of their departed brother. She said she would set it up. Maria asked if I had any information yet about her uncle. I shared the information that we had on file at the Cranford Historical Society from The Cranford Chronicle from October 24, 1946. The headline read “Marine dies in auto accident”. I heard Maria relay this information to her dad John, who sat beside her. I could hear his outrage in the background, her tone changed immediately. “My uncle Nick did not die in a car accident”. Their family, you see, had been telling people for 71 years that Uncle Nick died in an accident with artillery. I asked if the family had any document from the Marines that would help us rebut the news clip that we held. She said she would check the family archives and hopefully bring it to our meeting. Two weeks passed as I was on vacation in New Orleans. What I didn’t know about New Orleans was that it was the home of the new National World War II, D-day Museum. It was like my two-day training for a man writing the stories of 57 World War II heroes. After 10 hours of the most powerful museum experience of my life, I found myself energized to return home and complete the stories of our WWII heroes. On Saturday morning I arrived at the Roselle Park home of Dan Vassallo and was introduced to him and his little brother John, age 89, a retired mortgage banker and a Georgetown University graduate. John was going to lead the group as he sat holding a photo album and a couple of yellowed pieces of official looking papers. John was very happy to be holding the hand-written letter that they received from Nick’s commanding officer explaining the nature of the accident that took his brother’s life. He got right down to business. He said “I think you were looking for this letter, this is the explanation of the accident that will clear up any doubt about Nick’s death.” I was so happy to see that. As we chatted the door opened and a woman walked into the living room. I extended my hand and introduced myself and told her I was here to write a story about Nick. She said “I knew him well.” Her niece Maria said laughingly, “she should, she was his twin sister.” We all laughed. Since everyone was there we moved around the dining room table and everyone started sharing their memories of their brother Nick that they grew up with at 93 Winans Ave. Cranford. I asked if they could tell me what they remembered about Nick as a young man. The little brother John took the lead. He said Nick was a very affable young man with many friends. He was a much disciplined, organized and an exceptionally clean young man. Always groomed to the highest level and said by many to have movie star good looks. Aunt Dolly chimed in, “he was immaculate!” Her siblings all agreed and laughed. They said he really looked great in the Marine uniform. He was the first family member to enter the service, soon followed by Dan to the Army and then by the baby brother John to the Marines as well. There were eight children in the Vassallo household, a first generation Italian family. Their father was a hard working machinist at Watson-Stillman, a hydraulic manufacturer in Roselle, the oldest Dan followed in his father’s footsteps. John told me about half the family speaks Italian fluently but all can understand their parents native language. John went on to explain Nick’s passage through the war, up to his death at age 25 on October 15, 1946. After graduation from Cranford High in 1941 he immediately joined the American war effort with the Marine Corps. Shortly after completing boot camp training at Paris Island, South Carolina, and sea school, he was shipped off to the European theater on the USS Savanna, a light cruiser, in the Atlantic fleet. He participated in four battles including amphibious landings in North Africa, Sicily and Salerno. Ironically Salerno was the birthplace of both his parents. In the battle of Salerno on September 11, 1943 his ship was struck by 2 Fritz X radio controlled glider bombs (as seen pictured), the pride of the German’s new technological war tool chest. Of the approximately 850 men on board, 9 officers and 195 marines and seaman perished in the attack. A 30-foot hole was blown into the side of the ship’s #1 gun turret. Amazingly in 2 hours the USS Savanna continued the gun battle. Go to for more history of the battle of Salerno and the strike on the USS Savanna. Nick returned to the states in 1944 and was stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. and served as an instructor at the Officer Candidates School and later enrolled himself into Officers Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia. The school was disbanded 5 months later due to the end of the war. He was shortly after honorably discharged. After only being home for a short time, Nick felt the call to return to service with the Marines and reenlisted in 1945 for a second term and was assigned to the prestigious Marine headquarters in Washington D.C. at 8th and I Street, as a courier. His brother John felt it was because of his professional demeanor and the way he carried and presented himself. While there he was reunited with his platoon and took part in the dedication of the Iwo Jima Memorial. He remained there for 9 months before being shipped to Camp Pendleton, California, and thence to Pearl Harbor, Guam, Japan and finally to Tientsin China the main Marine Base in the far east. Although the official end of the war in the Pacific Theater ended with the surrender by Emperor Hirohito on board the USS Missouri, communist activity in China under Mao Tse-tung and the impending Chinese Civil War drew the attention of the American military in the area. It was while in China that Nick met his end. The letter from the commanding officer that his brother John held in his hand, told of the accident that took his life. While moving an artillery cannon from a storage garage and attaching it to a truck, the gun rolled free and Nick was crushed between it and the truck. Very shortly afterward he died. While I can say I see where they could write that his death came from an auto accident, I certainly thought more of an explanation needed to be written about the incident. In any case, it shouldn’t have been the headline of his obituary. I am happy to write a new headline to Nick’s story today. I’m only sorry it took 71 years to do. An interesting statement from his younger brother John that gave me some perspective was this: “I don’t know if you know this Don, but a platoon Sergeant in the Marines was a big thing then and it’s still a big thing now.” Nick had become a very religious man throughout his time in the Marines. He served as a deacon of sorts and was said to have celebrated mass the morning of his death. John inserted an interesting fact, Commander Francis Don Kelly, director of the Chaplain Corps of the U.S. Marines, who had worked closely with Nick arranged for a very unique preservation of his remains. A vacuum sealed glass tomb was created and prepared that will preserve the body for over 100 years. He was buried in that tomb at St. Gertrude’s Cemetery in Colonia, NJ. Nicola Vassallo was a great American and one of our Cranford86. If you know anyone with information about one of our Cranford86 we encourage you to come forward. The stories come alive with the personal accounts that friends and family bring to light, call or text Don Sweeney at 908-447-6511 or email at See all the stories and the complete list of our hometown heroes on Facebook at cranford86.