On April 14, 1988, the USO club in Naples, Italy was the target of a terrorist attack, which killed a U.S. Navy sailor and four Italian civilians. Several others were injured.
While Junzo Okudaira was convicted in absentia in the U.S. for the attack, he’s never been captured.
In late December 2020, Giovanni Melillo, the chief prosecutor for Naples, declared Okudaira as fugitive number one. Melillo referred to the attack as the Italian equivalent of the “forgotten massacre” – he made it known he has not forgotten and wants justice.
There will also be a commemorative ceremony next month in Naples.
The U.S. Navy sailor killed in the USO bombing was RM2 Angela Santos – she was promoted posthumously. Santos was stationed at the Naval Communication Area Master Station Mediterranean (NAVCAMS Med), located at the Headquarters Allied Forces Southern Europe (AFSOUTH) in Naples.
I was also a radioman and also stationed at NAVCAMS Med at AFSOUTH – Angela asked me to go to the party. I was tired and declined.
The USS Paul and the USS Capodanno were in Naples when the terrorist attack happened. The party at the USO was because those ships were in port and I’ve been told Angela helped plan it. She was so excited about the party and about leaving work to go to it – the last two people she saw as she walked out of NAVCAMS were me and the Marine guard.
On the 30th anniversary of the bombing, I wrote a blog post titled, “30 years later – the terrorist that time forgot.”
I shared that blog post on Navy and Naples-related Facebook groups. And several people connected who had never connected before – there were crewmembers from both ships, including some who had been injured in the attack, some who remembered giving statements to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and some who didn’t go to the party, but weren’t far away. Some of us connected with Jenny Cruz, the sister of Santos.
One of the interesting memories I’ve heard came from Brian Waggoner, who was stationed on the USS Capodanno.
Waggoner remembers meeting a Japanese man at a party, held at the apartment of “Philippine bar girls,” the night before the terrorist attack. Waggoner recounted how the man told him that he was gay and had a boyfriend who was a Marine guard at the base. Waggoner said the man, “bragged that he could come and go from the base any time his boyfriend was on guard.”
Waggoner told me he was uncomfortable talking with the man and left right away.
The next night, Waggoner was at the USO – he spoke to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) in the hours after the terrorist attack.
“I also mentioned to them about seeing a Japanese Gay Guy at some Party who was bragging about having a Marine Boyfriend who was letting him on Base,” Waggoner wrote to me. “You should have seen the NCIS Guys eyes light up at that! Toward the end of the interview, I told them that I saw Angela walk out the front door just as the blast went off. That’s when they told me the details of exactly how she was killed by the blast. I slumped back into my chair, and squinched my eyes shut and rubbed my wounded forehead, but surprisingly, did not cry. They just confirmed what I already knew, only in greater detail.”
Whether or not that Japanese gay man was Okudaira is unknown. Regardless, there would’ve been no way of knowing this man was a terrorist or just someone making up stories.
I’m sharing this, in part, so you understand the memories and pain some of us have dealt with. I’m sharing it also because none of us know why the terrorist responsible has never been found and many of us have questions.
Did NCIS share information with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)? I asked the FBI if they’re sharing resources with Melillo.
The FBI’s response was: “The FBI remains dedicated to investigating the 1988 attack on the United Services Organization building in Naples, Italy. Since the conviction of Junzo Okudaira in absentia in 1993, the U.S. Government has utilized various national resources to locate him, to include the announcement of a $5 million Rewards for Justice campaign for information relating to the attack.“
Okudaira is not mentioned anywhere on the FBI’s website – not even on the agency’s most wanted terrorist list.
The terrorist attack in Naples happened one day short of the two year anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Libya. In Naples, we weren’t told to be on alert for possible retaliation. Some of us had no idea this was the anniversary – security levels weren’t heightened to my knowledge.
In the days after the attack, news reports mentioned the idea that it might’ve been retaliation, but there was little else. Security was definitely heightened after the attack.
Here’s an interesting fact I didn’t learn until recently – the USS Paul and the USS Capodanno were in the battle group that bombed Libya and both ships, I’m told by a sailor, who was there, “played an active role in that bombing.”
Two years later, on April 14, 1988, the ships were together in Naples – personnel from both ships were at the USO party.
The sailor told me, “Choosing those two ships at the same time could not have been an accident.”
I’ve heard from more than a few of these sailors who’ve blamed themselves for what happened at the USO that night in Naples. They still blame themselves 33 years later. They’ve said things like, “if only I had … ”
Many of us have wounds – not all of those wounds are visible. In 1988, no one was talking about post traumatic stress or survivor’s guilt. I don’t remember any counseling offered to those of us at NAVCAMS Med.
Help for mental health has come a long way since the late 1980s and I hope this is lesson for the Department of Defense and/or civilian organizations about bringing people together after traumatic events like this. This happened well before the internet, before we could all connect – connections that do help healing. We were just sent on our way.
While connecting with so many of these men feels like I found a community that really understands the feelings I’ve had for so many years, the terrorist is still out there.
When Chief Prosecutor Melillo made his announcement in December, I couldn’t believe it. The terrorist attack wasn’t just being remembered, Melillo wants justice.
In January 2021, I emailed Melillo and thanked him. I didn’t hear back from him and I wasn’t expecting to.
In March 2021, I received an email from a Karen Schinnerer, public affairs officer for the U.S. Consulate in Naples, which reads:
“We are working with local city officials, including Chief Prosecutor Melillo, and the U.S. Navy based at Capodichino on a commemorative event on April 14, 2021 to honor the victims of the USO car bombing that took place in Naples on April 14, 1988. Four Neapolitan civilians and one U.S. servicewoman were killed as well as 15 others wounded. The commemorative event will also note the ongoing efforts to continue to seek justice for the terrorist that was tried, but remains at large.
I understand that you have a personal connection to the incident having served in the U.S. Navy at the time of the bombing and may have known the U.S. servicewoman.
Therefore, I am reaching out to see if you would be interested in providing a brief message to honor the victims that could be read during the ceremony or, if you prefer, you could send us a short video message (we suggest 30-60 second, no more than a minute) that could be shared during the ceremony.
Please let me know if this would be of interest to you.”
I was stunned by the email. A commemorative event means people are remembering. I reached out to Angela’s sister, Jenny Cruz, to find out if she knew about the ceremony. She didn’t.
I replied to Schinnerer that I wanted to let the others know and I’d like them to have priority over me with messages. Schinnerer responded that they’d welcome those messages.
I put Jenny in contact with Schinnerer. I put word out on the USS Capodanno and the USS Paul Facebook groups to let people know if they wanted to send a message for the ceremony, they could. I didn’t hear back from many and that surprised me.
Then John Nichols, who was stationed on the USS Paul, who was at the USO that night and who I’d corresponded with before, replied to an email from me asking him if he’d consider sending a message. He made me understand something I hadn’t considered. For me, writing has always been cathartic – but it’s not that way for everyone.
“Hi Donna, thank you so much for thinking about me when this came up. As a professional writer with an emotional connection to this I think is important that you write something to be read. Many of us have feelings about it but lack the skills to accurately share them. I know you have talked to a lot of us survivors and you have a pretty good idea about how we feel and how you feel being so directly connected. There are a lot of sailors who have been suffering in silence for decades over this. If you wrote something or spoke you would give a voice to all of them that who might not be able to, myself included. You cannot imagine the guilt I feel being so close to that child and not being able to protect her.”
For 33 years, I’ve continued to wonder what would’ve been had I accepted that invitation. Would Angela be alive? Would I be dead? For 33 years, others have been left in pain and have struggled. One doesn’t just simply get over a terrorist attack. It’s traumatizing.
So many of us have been left to question whether we could’ve changed the course of history. Whether we could’ve saved lives. Imagine how that must feel with a terrorist attack that seemed to have been forgotten by so many and with a terrorist responsible for it still on the loose.
On the power of connecting with others, Nichols emailed me: “Donna, I have been in touch with Jenny Cruz thanks to you. Making that happen might be one of the kindest things you have ever done without even knowing it. After decades of PTSD and survivor’s guilt it feels like just being able to share my feelings with Angela’s sister is more therapeutic than the years of therapy I have already endured trying to make some of the pain and guilt go away.”
I’m writing a message for the ceremony next month. I’ve asked a friend to help put my message on video – I think it’ll be more personal coming from me rather than someone else reading my words. I’ll be trying to speak for all of those I’ve heard from that are connected to this terrorist attack.
I know so many of us have survivor’s guilt, post traumatic stress or both, and I can’t change that – I wished so much I could. None of us are responsible for what happened. I hope at some point, beyond the pandemic, we can get together for another commemorative event – maybe in the U.S., maybe at Angela’s grave or maybe in Italy.
For now, though, the USO terrorist attack is being remembered and Chief Prosecutor Melillo is looking for justice. That means so much to so many of us.
Also, if you know the whereabouts of Junzo Okudaira, please contact 1-800-877-3927 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.