Dennis Cassinelli: A World War II story about three Nevadans
The following story was told to me by Robert Laxalt shortly before he passed away several years ago. Robert’s brother, Paul Laxalt, also passed away Aug. 6. He was a former governor of Nevada from 1967 to 1971 and a U.S. senator from 1974 to 1987.
At the time, I was doing some irrigation work for Robert Laxalt and his wife, Joyce, at their home in Washoe Valley. Joyce came out and told me Robert wanted to meet with me, since he knew I had written some books and he was always interested in meeting other writers. He was one of Nevada’s most prolific writers and I was honored he wanted to talk to me. Robert was ill at the time but we had a delightful conversation. Robert passed away on March 23, 2001.
Robert asked if I was related to Bill Cassinelli. I told him Bill was a cousin of my father, Raymond. He then told me Bill Cassinelli, Paul Laxalt and another fellow I knew named Leon Etchemendy had all served in World War II together. The three of them were stationed in the Aleutian Islands where they met and were surprised to meet other people from western Nevada there on the battlefield. The three soldiers became close friends and fought in several battles with the Japanese.
In the Battle of the Aleutian Islands (June 1942-August 1943) during World War II, U.S. troops fought to remove Japanese garrisons established on a pair of U.S.-owned islands west of Alaska. In June 1942, Japan had seized the remote, sparsely inhabited islands of Attu and Kiska, in the Aleutian Islands. It was the only U.S. soil Japan would claim during the war in the Pacific. The maneuver was possibly designed to divert U.S. forces during Japan’s attack on Midway Island (June 4-7, 1942) in the central Pacific. It’s also possible the Japanese believed holding the two islands could prevent the U.S. from invading Japan via the Aleutians. Either way, the Japanese occupation was a blow to American morale. In May 1943, U.S. troops retook Attu and three months later reclaimed Kiska, and in the process gained experience that helped them prepare for the long “island-hopping” battles to come as World War II raged across the Pacific Ocean.
The time came when Bill Cassinelli took a hit from a Japanese shell that hit him in the leg. With the assistance of Paul Laxalt and Leon Etchemendy, Bill Cassinelli was taken out to a medical facility where the medics were able to save Bill’s life, but not the leg. Without the help of his two friends, Bill would surely have died.
After the war, Bill married and moved to California. He and his wife, Clara and son Steven, often came to the ranch where I lived on Glendale road in Sparks to visit relatives and attend baseball games with his old team at Threckle’s ball field in Reno where he had been an avid baseball player before the war. There was a huge welcome home benefit game held in his honor when he returned from the war.
The times I visited with Bill, when he came to the ranch, he was reluctant to talk about his war experience. Likewise, I had worked with Leon Etchemendy for several years at NDOT, and he seemed to be especially friendly to me, but he never told me he had been with Bill Cassinelli in the Aleutian Islands. I knew nothing about the story until it was told to me by Robert Laxalt.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.