OAKLEY -- Even after 65 years, the dream still jars Enrico Cinquini awake. ¶ The Japanese Zero fighter swoops down, so close to the ground that he can see the pilot's teeth. The plane's machine gun points toward Cinquini and his fellow Marines on Okinawa, site of the final, and bloodiest, battle of the Pacific during World War II.
It wasn't a dream the first time.
"I thought I was dead," Cinquini says.
But instead of firing, the pilot lands at a nearby airfield, having mistaken Cpl. Cinquini's unit for Japanese soldiers, and is quickly captured. Devastated to be taken alive, he points again and again at Cinquini's knife, pleading to kill himself.
It was one of many days during the war in the Pacific when Cinquini thought his father's prediction would come true. When Orlando Cinquini learned that his 17-year-old son -- an only child -- had joined the Marines in 1942, he turned to his wife, Argia, in their San Francisco home and spoke two words in Italian: "È morto."
Enrico's mother broke into tears.
Orlando Cinquini had been wounded in the Argonne Forest during World War I, nearly losing a leg, but never revealed the horrors of war to his family.
And neither would Enrico in the decades that followed his own terrible journey.
Not with his wife or two daughters. Not with the people in the tiny Delta farming town of Oakley that he would help build into a city of 35,000, becoming its unofficial mayor.
"I wanted to put it all behind me when I came back," Cinquini said. "The hardest part is you make friends and lose them."
Today is the 65th anniversary of the Japanese surrender that ended World War II. Though Cinquini has rarely spoken about his memories and dreams, the war remains fresh in the mind of the 86-year-old ex-Marine.
There were the two cups of coffee that may have saved his life. The parakeet nicknamed Beat'em he adopted on Cape Gloucester that became the 1st Marines' unofficial mascot, complete with its own service record book (its eye color was listed as "honey bear brown").
The friendly fire from Navy Hellcats on Okinawa that mistook his unit for Japanese, killing several Marines. The dentist who relieved his toothache by wiping a pair of pliers on his pants before thrusting them in Cinquini's mouth.
Japanese soldiers and civilians leaping off cliffs to their deaths. The bout with malaria in China shortly after the war when he dodged a typhoon aboard a sampan boat.
And the bloodbath on Peleliu, where he served alongside the most decorated Marine ever, Col. Lewis "Chesty" Puller (five Navy Crosses), and had a chance encounter with a photographer who a few months later would snap an iconic image of the war: the flag raising on Iwo Jima.
'Four Star Cinquini'
They called him "Four Star Cinquini" for the four landings he survived: New Guinea, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu and Okinawa, where he was in a foxhole when the combat mail service delivered his diploma from San Francisco's Galileo High School.
"After your second battle and going into your third battle, you figure you're never going to make it. By the fourth battle, you dig holes a lot deeper," he said. "I think some of my holes you needed a ladder to get out of them."
In many of those holes, Cinquini remembered, and followed, his father's instruction that when he found himself in a trench under fire, he should pound his fist against his chest and repeat to himself, "Colpa mia" ("My fault").
It was impossible to dig foxholes on Peleliu, a coral island where the temperature reached 112 degrees. Ordered back to the beach nine days after landing, 250 men remained of the 1,500 who had gone ashore with him.
Cinquini can still see himself lying on the beach frantically trying to unjam his sand-clogged rifle. Japanese shells were blowing apart the landing craft, propelling bodies into the air. Marines on Peleliu suffered their highest casualty rate of any battle in the Pacific.
But there was a moment for a memorable photo. Cinquini and others under mortar fire were sheltered in a ditch at the side of the road when a man with a camera crouched beside them.
"Anyone here from San Francisco?" he asked.
"I think this guy is nuts," Cinquini said. But he piped up.
Joe Rosenthal asked Cinquini and fellow San Franciscan Dave Bacher to pose with a captured Japanese flag. He got his shot, then darted back to the beach. The photo later appeared in a San Francisco newspaper.
After the war, when Rosenthal was known across the nation for the flag-raising shot on Iwo Jima that would inspire war bond drives, movies and a national memorial, Cinquini called him and asked whether he remembered a photo he took on Peleliu.
"Peleliu!" Rosenthal shouted into the phone. "God, all you guys were getting killed." He sent Cinquini a signed print.
Cinquini was sure he would die on the island, and he may have if not for that first cup of joe. He was hunkered under a poncho in pouring rain when a friend suggested he grab some coffee. Cinquini declined but gave in to the prodding; moments later, a shell fragment pierced the poncho he had left on the ground.
A coffee break saved him again on Okinawa when he bent down to take a cup from a fellow Marine seconds before a shell fragment shot past him. The Marine who handed him the cup was hit but survived.
Reno Pisani, who grew up in San Francisco with Cinquini and also joined the Marines during the war, is still amazed that his lifelong friend made it home, considering the action he saw as a runner for Puller.
"(Puller) was one of the gung-ho guys, fixed bayonets and charge," Pisani said. "I don't know how (Cinquini) made it, but he did. That's a guy who should have got a medal. He went through hell."
Cinquini's only wounds were a "scratch on the hand" and the time Beat'em the parakeet bit him. The bird had fallen from a coconut tree on Cape Gloucester, and Cinquini wanted to shoot it, but a buddy talked him out of it. Beat'em stayed with Cinquini for the rest of the war, often perched on his shoulder, and answered to his whistles.
"Everybody loved that bird," he said.
Because regulations prohibited pets aboard ship, Cinquini tried to hide the bird in his gas mask, but Beat'em would not stop singing out with the wolf whistle he had learned.
Cinquini and his buddies solved the problem by whistling in unison as they made their way up the gangplank, drawing strange looks but no suspicion. Beat'em made it to the end of the war but met his end in Tientsin, China, when, according to a newspaper story about him, he tore into a "VD-preventative tube" and expired in the ship's sick bay.
Cinquini returned home in 1945, and was reunited with Beat'em (the bird was stuffed). He had escaped physical wounds but was filled with emotional scars.
"You could drop dead in front of me, and I wouldn't shed a tear," he said. "You see so much death in front of you, and you become immune."
The emotions, and tears, would return in time, largely the result of a woman from Oakley named Rose he had briefly met before the war and to whom he wrote from the Pacific. They married in 1947 and settled in Oakley, where Cinquini opened a drugstore, became a successful Realtor, and a town leader fighting for resources from the county.
He helped lead Oakley's successful drive to cityhood and received the city's first "pioneer" award.
They also raised two daughters; Cinquini had told his mother that he didn't want a son for fear that he would follow him and his own father on a path to war.
In November, Rose died in the home they had shared on O'Hara Avenue since 1955. He speaks of his loneliness, and attends a support group with others who have lost a spouse.
"We talk and we cry a lot," he said.
And the awful reminders of war remain. As Cinquini looks back on the bloodshed he witnessed more than a half-century ago, his thoughts turn to the men and women fighting today's wars.
"The American people don't know what they're going through," he said of the service members. "The people coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq will live with it the rest of their lives."