WWII veteran, firefighter, mechanic, car salesman, Earnhardt fan (both Sr and Jr) and master of technology, Michael Campanella is above all else a family man. The son of Italian immigrants, his mother’s first husband died in the coal mines in Scranton, Pa. She remarried Michael’s father and the family relocated Michael and his eight brothers and sisters to NJ.
When Michael was only 17, he enlisted in the Navy early to join the war effort. He received permission from the high school since he’d accumulated enough points to earn his diploma. But by the time graduation rolled around, he was already in Seattle preparing to ship out for the Pacific aboard the USS Goshen. Because of his mechanical skills, Michael was assigned to the engine room where he manned the throttles among other jobs. On his first day, the chief informed him if the order was given to abandon ship, they would be the last two to leave because they had to stop the ship’s propellers from spinning so as to not kill the other sailors entering the water. The chief told him once that job was complete, he’d better move fast because otherwise, he was going to end up with boot prints on his back. Once in the Pacific Theater, his fellow sailors discovered he was small enough to fit through the porthole into the officer’s mess hall and thus get at the fresh milk that was far superior to the powdered milk served to the enlisted men. A wise officer stopped him on deck one day and said, “Campanella, if you’re going to keep stealing our milk, at least leave us a quart to drink.” His convoy was attacked twice and the Goshen
had to make many late night runs to islands in enemy patrolled waters to deliver men and materiel. Since it was only one ship, the Navy couldn’t spare a destroyer to escort them so they often braved the darkness alone. His ship was the first US Navy vessel to enter the port of Tokyo following the Japanese surrender. Concerned about leftover Japanese mines, the Admiral called for the minesweeping craft to be sent in first. Upon learning there were no minesweepers in the fleet, the Goshen was chosen to lead the pack. As with many WWII vets that were not involved in some of bloodier battles, Michael felt very fortunate he entered the war close enough to victory that he did not witness the carnage unlike so many who went before him.
Upon returning home, Michael went back to the car dealership working on cars just like he’d done in high school. Once, a coworker set him up on a blind date with a nice, young lady named Veronica. The daughter of a Czech father and 1st generation American mother with Russian parents, she was named for the actress Veronica Lake. Michael said he knew after the first date that she was the one so he called it off with another girl whom he’d dated briefly. And she wasn’t just cut out of his life figuratively. Veronica surprised me when she told the story about cutting the ex-girlfriend out of a photo of the former couple and replacing it with her own. Her movie star looks and Eastern European accent never fading, Veronica stated matter-of-factly, “Well, it was a good photo of him.” Veronica‘s surreptitious scissor skills did not end there. Never a fan of two wheeled transportation, she once cut up Michael’s motorcycle license renewal notice from the DMV and disposed of it while he was at work.
When an old illness from his time in the Pacific made turning wrenches difficult, he began selling life insurance door to door. A local businessman offered to buy a policy if Michael agreed to join one of the town’s volunteer fire departments. Thus began a lifelong love affair with all things red and fast and loud. Michael served the America Hose and Engine Co of Bound Brook, NJ for over half a century, most of those as the Chief Engineer. You can immediately sense Michael’s passion for the fire service as he shows you all his service awards adorning the walls in his home. He even timelines the delivery of new pieces of apparatus with the births of his daughters and granddaughter. His days of driving the engine over, he still routinely gets on conference calls to help his department navigate the difficult waters all volunteer fire departments face these days.
Michael and Veronica had two children, both daughters, Janis and Joan. Joan, the youngest, inherited her father’s love of the automotive world. When tasked with helping out around the house, she would tell Veronica, “I think I hear Dad calling me from the garage. He must need my help out there with the car.” Janis would stay in the house with Veronica while Joan learned to change power steering pumps. Joan also loved the firehouse and would spend many calls there awaiting the return of the rigs so she could help get all the equipment back in service. In addition to the two daughters, the couple have three grandchildren, Heather, Justin and Stephanie and three great grandchildren, Alexa, Ava and Dillon.
These days Michael enjoys his retirement here in Delaware with family. A few years ago, concerned about her father’s changing health, Joan told her parents she wanted them to move closer to her family. Veronica agreed; Michael was not so easy to convince. But eventually he left Bound Brook and the America Hose and Engine Co and settled in the First State. Granddaughter Heather Cruz soon followed. They all live in the same development just north of Dover. Still an auto aficionado, but no longer driving, Michael now relies on his lifted golf cart to speed him around the block to visit family. He and his wife have a standing appointment at Heather’s house every Thursday night for family dinner.
Michael’s health may have slowed the physical, but the mental is...well...he’s never missed a software update. Cruising the ‘hood in his electric chariot, I asked Michael about his love of all things technical. “I’ve always tinkered with gadgets. It’s fun to figure these things out.” And figure them out he has. Better than me, I’m embarrassed to say. “I told them I wanted the garage door to open and the lights to come on automatically when I got near the house.” he said, “They told me there wasn’t a way to do it. So I fooled around until I figured out how to make it work.” He delighted in showing me his smartphone’s live feed from the Ring doorbell. “I saw you walking up before you got to the door.” I stand there in stunned silence as he turns lights on and off throughout the house with a tap on his phone screen. The man, born in the Great Depression, has embraced the technological revolution better than most half his age.
But his greatest accomplishment is neither technology, firefighting nor war fighting. After a couple of hours recalling the stories of his life, I asked what his happiest moment was. Without hesitation Michael pointed over to couch with three generations of Campanella women and said, “Them right there.” I asked if it’s the thing he’s most proud of and he replied, “Oh absolutely.” And suddenly, there was not a dry eye on that side of the room.
We’d like to extend our gratitude to Michael, Veronica, Joan and Heather for inviting us into your home and your lives to share your stories.
If you’d like to send Mike a postcard, address it to Michael Campanella, 246 Osbourne Ln, Dover, De 19904.