James Sorace was born in 1924 at the original Somerset Medical Center. (It was then just a small house on Main Street in Somerville)
As a child his family lived at 35 Thompson Street in Raritan. His parents were both born in Italy.
They came to this country as part of the great Italian immigration that took part in the first half of the twentieth century.
His father entered the country in 1914 at age 15.
A hard worker, by the time he was 16, James was a licensed barber. When he was 17, on one cold Sunday afternoon he went to New York City to see one of the big bands at the Strand Theatre. In the middle of the concert, the music stopped and an announcer said that the U.S had just been attacked by the Japanese. Service personal from a Navy ship that had been docked in New York Harbor were told to report back to their ship immediately. The band then resumed playing to the stunned crowd. The day was December 7th, 1941. James realized that his life and those around him would no longer be the same. Less than a year later, when he turned 18, James joined the Navy to defend his country. He remembered the day he enlisted. Himself and three other guys went to enlist together. For Raritan boys to join the service, the first stop was the Somerville Post Office, which staffed recruiters on particular days. From Somerville they were put on a bus to New Brunswick—and from there a train took them to New York City. He recalled that one of his friends was rejected from joining the service as he was not born in the U.S.
When the Navy asked James what his skills were, he told them that he was a licensed barber, however, that was not what he joined for. But, when the officers gave him the assignment as a barber on a navy ship, he gladly accepted it. After basic training, he was shipped to San Francisco. From there they sailed out to the War in the Pacific. The ship’s name was The USS Oakland. While it was classified as a “light” cruiser, it packed a tremendous punch, as the ship was able to bomb islands from miles away with it’s many large guns. Aboard there were 800 men serving. It required 3 barbers to service all the men.
The USS Oakland has a place in the history of World War II in that it saw action at so many islands that are still remembered today. They include Guam, Okinawa, Truk, Leyte Gulf, Gilbert Islands, Formosa, and the Marshall Islands. During the bombing, the barber shop closed. James’s duty was then changed to an ammunition passer. When firing away, the sounds of the guns was deafening. Today James wears hearing aids. He attributes the need for them to have been caused by these bombardments.
The most significant historic event that James and the crew were present at was a peaceful event. For the U.S.S. Oakland was anchored next to The U.S.S. Missouri on September 2nd, 1945 for the historic signing of the peace treaty which ended the war. Many famous photographs were taken at this event which was overseen by General Douglas McArthur. After the signing of the peace agreement, James along with thousands of other military personal were assigned duty in the occupation of Japan. James recalled how devastated Japan was. The airplane bombing had flattened the city of Tokyo. A surprise to the soldiers was that the Japanese people were very friendly. Was this the race that had fought so savagely in battle ?
After a short stay in Japan, James received orders to return home. He decided to surprise his family. His ship let him off in San Francisco and then the long journey back to Raritan started with a 3 day train ride to New York City. From there he took trains to Raritan. He remembers walking from the train station to their home which was now at 24 Doughty Street. He walked in to two very surprised, overjoyed, and proud parents. James had returned home after three years defending freedom. He had served his country well, brought home several medals, and had many stories to tell. James would open his own barber shop on Somerset Street in Raritan in 1947—The J&J Barbershop. It is still open today, with his son James Jr. managing the business.
Now, in 2006, James Sorace proudly serves as the Grand Marshall of this year’s 25th annual John Basilone Memorial Parade.
How James knew John Basilone
As for John Basilone, James knew the family well, but only John in passing. He knew John’s brother George very well. James first learned of the heroics of John Basilone when he went to the movies with other sailors and saw a newsreel that told of John Basilone’s heroics. The newsreel showed footage of the welcome home parade for Basilone that was held in Raritan in September of 1943. James in his amazement and pride for his town told his fellow sailors that he knew Basilone and that was his hometown shown in the newsreel. His buddies however found that a bit unbelievable. It was a year and a half later that James once again got word about Basilone. This time it was sad news. In February of 1945, a newsletter at sea informed the navy personal that the hero of Guadalcanal, John Basilone, had been killed at Iwo Jima.