By EMMALEE C. TORISK
For Lou Mamula, a kid from a little village, joining the Marines meant a way out of poverty, an escape from the ravages of the Great Depression.
“I never ate so well, or dressed so well,” said Mamula, who enlisted at 18, just months after his 1940 graduation from Lowellville High School. “Then, the war came.”
Mamula, now 92, can still recall the cold morning at the Brooklyn Naval Yard when he learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. That moment — a “surprise to everybody,” he said — signified his entry into World War II, during which he would fight in both the months-long Battle of Guadalcanal and in the three-day-long Battle of Tarawa.
As one of very few remaining veterans of the latter battle, Mamula will be featured on an episode of “Against the Odds,” a new documentary series on the American Heroes Channel. The episode, titled “The Heroes of Tarawa,” will premiere at 10 p.m. Monday.
The six-part series blends archival war footage and first-person interviews with veterans to tell the stories of those “who exhibited unparalleled bravery, solidarity and endurance on the battlefield to come out on top in a fight against impossible odds.”
Mamula knows a thing or two about impossibility.
Tarawa, a tiny atoll situated in the Pacific Ocean, was thought to be insurmountable, having been fortified by the Japanese with bunkers, barbed wire and cannons.
The resulting fight — between Nov. 20 and Nov. 23, 1943 — produced nearly 3,000 American casualties, and ranks among the bloodiest battles in 20th-century American history.
It’s something that stuck with Mamula, who entered that battle as part of a “rubber boat battalion” after the first regiment had paved the way, long after he left the military in September 1945.
“I came home, I started a family, but I never forgot those people who died on them beaches,” he said. “The only reason I could get on that island was because those people died. I often wondered why it wasn’t me.”
He settled in Lowellville with his wife, Novella, whom he married Aug. 13, 1942. Together, in the village where he’d lived since the age of 10, the couple raised six children: Dan Mamula of Struthers; Tom Mamula of Ellsworth; Louis Mamula, Nicholas Mamula and Lori DelSignore, all of Lowellville; and Linda Slaven of San Marcos, Calif. He also boasts nine grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.
Through it all, Mamula has kept busy, even writing a memoir titled “Vagabond Memories” that he distributed to his children and adult grandchildren. It contains stories from as far back he can remember, Mamula said, adding that he’s hopeful he’ll have a few more years so he can finish it.
For almost 30 years, Mamula was employed by the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. as a steel worker, and also, at various points, sold Bibles, worked at a furniture store, and painted houses, among other odd jobs.
Even after he had technically retired, Mamula worked as a custodian and a crossing guard for Lowellville Local Schools for several years. It was during his time as a crossing guard that he began to dress up in costumes relevant to each holiday — beginning with his old Marines uniform, with the seams let out and the buttons adjusted, one Veterans Day. Other notable costumes include the Easter Bunny, Abe Lincoln and a leprechaun.
Over the years, Mamula has spoken to a number of classes in Lowellville, filled with students who wanted to know about his experiences in World War II.
Even now, when describing his time spent in the Marines, he mentions his adventures under the Northern Lights in Iceland, the Big Dipper in the U.S., and the Southern Cross in New Zealand and the Pacific.
“The world opened up to me,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Last week, he attended the world-premiere screening of “Against the Odds” at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. This week, he’ll fly to Boise, Idaho, to be the guest of honor at a special advance screening hosted by one of the American Heroes Channel’s cable affiliates
“What surprises me is I’m able to,” Mamula said. “It’s all right with me. The good Lord knows what he’s doing with me — I have no idea.”