By Anne O’Connor
AYER — When the City of Birmingham, a steam passenger ship, was sunk by two torpedoes from a German U-boat, Ernie Blasetti lived to tell the tale.
On that July 1, 1942, he was working as a civilian employee on the ship, traveling to Bermuda.
“I was down in the kitchen and it threw me off the chair,” he said. He scrambled upstairs and found a seat in a crowded, leaky lifeboat.
The ship sunk within 10 minutes and survivors were picked up by the Coast Guard.
On August 7, Blasetti turned 100. He and his friend of 35 years, Alice Langford, talked about some of the things he has seen over the past century.
Bermuda was just the beginning of his time spent on the ocean during World War II.
While his wife was pregnant with their first child, he was drafted. He did not meet his daughter Tam until she was around three.
Blasetti said he does not remember everything, but his recollection of the time he spent in the Navy as a first-class water tender is vivid: the training in Virginia and Mississippi, waiting in California near Los Angeles to ship out, the journey to “Frisco” to board a freighter.
That freighter carried between 4,000 and 5,000 troops. “We were lucky to make it,” he said. “All day long I looked for subs.”
Danger was just part of the hardship on the journey west to Talugi from San Francisco. The ship had no bathrooms, just two trenches, one on each side of the vessel.
Troops got two meals, breakfast then a sandwich and a piece of fruit. Later, stationed on a Coast Guard ship, things improved for Blasetti. There, they ate like kings.
One of the biggest dangers he faced in the Pacific was the weather. “Storms, storms all the time,” he said.
One storm was so strong, tents were getting blown everywhere. He sheltered under construction equipment all day and part of the night before it was safe to come out.
One other hardship confronted the U.S. troops. “There were no girls on the island,” he said. He helped construct housing for the few female nurses when they did arrive.
Langford, who helped draw Blasetti’s remembrances out, laughed.
When one of the ships he was on broke down on its way to Okinawa, it was diverted to another port, Ulithi. There, he bumped into Clayton Guthrie who used to work in the post office. “The only Ayer boy I ever saw in the service,” Blasetti said.
The family man made it back safely from the war, well after the atom bombs were dropped in Japan. Before he left the Pacific it was still dangerous. Japanese soldiers hiding in the hills did not know the war was over and continued to fire on the Americans, he said.
His trip home left him with another memory. Shipped to Washington state, he traveled east on a train pulled by a steam engine.
The train had to stop and replenish water and fuel along the way. People came out and gave the soldiers presents of food and beverages.
After the war, Blasetti and his wife had three more daughters: Cala, Tina and Joanna. His family has grown to include eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
Twins run in the family. His parents had nine children, including one set of twins. There are two sets of twins among his grandchildren.
After the war, the son of Italian immigrants settled into a job driving a bus and working as a mechanic for the Fitchburg and Leominster Street Railway, retiring after 30 years, around 1981.
The oldest resident of Ayer, Blasetti holds the Boston Post Cane. As a child, he delivered newspapers, including the Public Spirit, the predecessor of the Nashoba Valley Voice. It came out on Friday and cost a nickel.
He came of age during the Great Depression. While in Ayer High School and after he graduated in 1934, he worked for Montouri’s, service stations in Littleton and Fitchburg. “I’d bum a ride down,” he said. His father picked him up.
Before joining the Navy, Blasetti worked many places. He was employed by the tannery for a year, but the owners closed it after the workers unionized, he said.
At the 100-year mark, Blasetti keeps in shape, partially because there is no elevator for his third-floor apartment where he lives on his own.
Until a year or two ago, he rode his bicycle down to Sandy Pond to go fishing then back up the hill where he lives.
His daughters all live in New England and other relatives live across the street and next door. “They’re there for him,” Langford said.
She is the designated driver. The days of spending the winter in Florida are over, but the couple recently took a trip to Vermont. They used to like to go dancing, but there is no local dance hall.
The town’s oldest veteran is a regular in the Fourth of July parade. Now, instead of marching, he rides in a World War II-era Jeep. Last year, he was the grand marshal.
Blasetti does not seem bothered by turning 100. “I don’t even know the difference,” he said. “I’m just living day-to-day.”
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