Nicholas Cancilla entered the world on December 6, 1924. He was the second son of Frank and Maria (Arcordia) Cancilla, born two years after his brother, Frank Junior.
Though their parents were Italian immigrants, the Cancilla boys grew up all-American in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Nick was particularly outgoing, and was well known to the residents of his Polk Avenue neighborhood. Frank recalled his younger brother as “a jolly fellow [who] didn’t have a care.” He led the busy life of a typical teenager: football practice with the Keith Junior High Rams, out-of-town wrestling meets, and bugle performances with the local American Legion Junior Drum Corps. Sunday mornings were reserved for services at Mount Carmel Catholic Church – but the rest of the weekend was spent at the center of a social circle which, increasingly, included girls attracted to Nick’s charming personality and athletic stature.
Nick was still a student when the news of Pearl Harbor reached Altoona. Young men scrambled to enlist; Frank Junior thought about the Navy, and Frank Senior might have dusted off the cavalryman’s uniform he wore in 1917. Neither of these paths appealed to young Nick. “He was going to be a glorified Marine,” remembered Frank. So “gung ho” was Nick that he dropped out of school – over his parents’ protests – and walked into the Pittsburgh recruiting station on October 7, 1942. Two days later, he was at Parris Island. His youth, strength, and enthusiasm would serve him well in the months to come.
After a mere six weeks of boot training, Private Cancilla was presented with the coveted Eagle, Globe and Anchor insignia of a US Marine. Evidently mechanically minded, he learned the job of a motor vehicle operator at New River, North Carolina, earning his operator’s license and the single stripe of a private first class into the bargain. He was shipped overseas to join the veteran Second Marine Division, where his specialized training landed him in motor transport. Driving a heavy truck around New Zealand was hardly the place for a “gung ho” eighteen year old Cancilla, and after only a month of this duty he managed the unusual feat of securing a transfer to a rifle outfit: Baker Company, First Battalion, Second Marines.
For the next two months, Cancilla learned the ways of amphibious combat alongside new replacements and veterans of Tulagi and Guadalcanal. How to climb down a net into a bobbing landing craft, how to get off the beach and find one’s objective, and how to fight the Japanese and win. Nick must have heard the veterans’ stories with a mix of wonder, apprehension, and excitement as he trained and waited for his chance to follow in their footsteps.
On 12 November 1942, Frank and Maria received a letter from Nick. His unit was on the move, he said, but they weren’t to worry about him – he was well, in good spirits, and had even heard from Frank Junior, now in the Navy. Ten days later, the Altoona Tribune blared “YANKS INVADE JAP ISLANDS” and credited the Second Marine Division. It was the first time the Cancilla family heard the word “Tarawa.” In the weeks that followed, the full extent of Marine casualties gradually became known – and there was no further word from Nick.
The telegram arrived at 1525 Polk Avenue in January 1944. A mimeographed message informed Frank and Maria that their son, Private First Class Nicholas John Cancilla, had been killed in action. Much later, they would learn he had died at Tarawa on November 20, 1943. The family and community mourned their loss: a solemn mass was said, a commemorative plaque was inscribed, and a memorial headstone emplaced at Calvary Cemetery. Frank Junior named his first son Nicholas. And, in accordance with Maria’s wishes, Nick Cancilla remained where he fell for sixty-eight years.
In June of 2011, a non-governmental organization named History Flight located a long-forgotten burial site on Betio – a site they believed to contain the remains of several Marines killed in action. The following year, JPAC (now DPAA) excavated the site and recovered three sets of remains.
Two years later, Frank Cancilla’s phone rang. A genealogist working on behalf of the United States Marine Corps informed him that one set of remains located on Betio might belong to Nicholas. Although initially hesitant – still mindful of his mother’s wishes long ago – Mr. Cancilla submitted a DNA sample, hoping it would help to bring his little brother home. Tragically, Frank Cancilla did not live to hear the news that “mitochondrial DNA analysis, which matched a brother, as well as circumstantial evidence and laboratory analysis, to include dental comparisons and anthropological analysis” confirmed the identity of Nicholas Cancilla in October 2016.
On November 7, 2016, Nick Cancilla will be laid to rest in Calvary Cemetery with full military honors – reunited with his parents, big brother Frank, and his nephew and namesake Nicholas, killed in action in Vietnam. He is survived by his niece, Darlene Johnson and her husband, Frank, of Midlothian, Va.; great-nephew, Travis; great-niece, Marissa, and his brother’s widow, Mary (Cannamucio) Cancilla.
Public reinterment services for Nicholas Cancilla will take place at:
2417 Pleasant Valley Blvd, Altoona PA 16602
Arrangements handled by:
SANTILLA Funeral Home
1106 Eighth Avenue
Altoona, PA 16602
Note: This obituary was written at the request of History Flight, with information and assistance by Jennifer Morrison. Leading photograph of Cancilla provided by the family.