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A family's military service, framed

Union Leader Correspondent

November 09. 2017 9:30PM
Charles “Chuck” Estano, was a bombardier and gunner aboard a B-24 Liberator during World War II. After his discharge he worked as an assistant herdsman, a woodworking instructor, and as an occupational therapist. He retired as the chief investigator for the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office. (Bea Lewis/Union Leader Correspondent)

MOULTONBOROUGH -- In a gilded wooden frame, a red-bordered white rectangle adorned with eight blue stars attests to the courage and strength of Chuck Estano and his family.

Estano, 93, and seven of his brothers all served in the military during World War II; all survived and came home to start families of their own.

His mother, Minnie, made the blue-star banner and proudly hung it in the window of the family’s Roxbury, Mass., home. While its colors are now faded, the memories it evokes remain as fresh for Estano as when his mother stitched it.

“I can still see my parents waving goodbye to me. I walked down the block, turned around and waved back before turning the corner. The same path taken by my brothers,” Estano recounted.

Estano’s wife of 63 years, Gail, recalls visiting his parents’ home when all 12 of his siblings were there.

“It was bedlam. I’d leave with a headache,” she laughed.

Their paternal grandmother came from Castlecomer, Ireland. Widowed, she had gone to work at a bakery and lost her arm in a commercial mixer. Her prosthesis was carved wood, jointless and affixed at the shoulder with a parachute harness.

If the brood of boys became too unruly, Estano said, a few well-timed swings of the wooden arm quickly restored order.

“We called her the enforcer. She was a widow and always wore black,” Estano said.

Stanley, the oldest, was first to enlist, joining the Army before the war broke out. John and Albert followed, joining the Navy. John survived the attack at Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Helena, which was at the center of three major battles during the Solomon Islands campaign in the Pacific Theater.

Brothers Richard and Charles also enlisted in the Army, while William, Frederick and George chose the Navy.

“I was still in high school when they attacked Pearl Harbor. If you had passing grades and enlisted, they’d give you a diploma,” said Estano, who signed up just before his 18th birthday.

Less than a month after the U.S. entered World War II, he was sent to Fort Devens, Mass., for induction. He ended up in Miami Beach, where he trained as a gunner and bombardier in the Army Air Corps.

He was soon assigned to a crew of a B-24 Liberator, an aircraft that was so heavy and hard to fly they quickly earned the nickname “flying coffins.”

While her boys were at war, Mrs. Estano worked at a laundry.

In a letter she sent to Stanley, firstborn in a string of nine consecutive sons, she enclosed a $5 bill. He signed the bill, dated it and sent it on to John, in the Aleutian Islands.

John forwarded the bill to Al, who was serving as a medic aboard a ship, who mailed it to Dick, who was an anti-aircraft gunner then stationed in Boston.

It eventually made its way to Chuck — who kept it.

When the war ended, the Estano siblings all came home and shared a day-long reunion on Sept. 28, 1945. They each pledged not to tell war stories to each other or to their mother, and Estano said all kept their word.

It marked the last time they were all together with their parents, he said.

When their mother died at age 91, she was buried with the $5 bill that her sons had signed.

“I can only imagine how long she worked to make that much money,” Estano said.

His father, Frederick, who emigrated to the United States from Nova Scotia, wrote weekly letters to his sons while they served their country. He died at age 96.

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