By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
DARBY – “Semper Fidelis,” the motto of the United States Marines, means “Always Faithful.” It’s hard to think of anyone who better epitomizes that motto than Master Sergeant Alfred Deserio, U.S.M.C. (Ret.), who served in the Corps for 42 years, from August 1928 to December 1970, initially in the Marine Corps Reserves but mostly on active duty.
Deserio was honored by the Marines during a ceremony at St. Francis Country House on Nov. 25 during the celebration of his 102nd birthday.
That may or may not be his actual birth date, but he’s certain of the year: 1906. “I know how old I am,” he said. “But in those days midwives never wrote things down.”
In any case, he is believed to be the oldest living Marine in the country.
Raised in St. Rita Parish in South Philadelphia, he joined the Corps as a reservist and trained at the former Philadelphia Naval Base.
Marine Corps records from that era are sketchy, but he was placed on active duty about the time World War II broke out, and remained active until his 1970 retirement. In addition to World War II, Deserio served in the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War.
His career was mostly in the supply end of the Corps, but it took him to China, Guam, Korea and Vietnam, with lots of stops in between.
Why did he stay for so many years?
“I figured it was one job I couldn’t get fired from” deadpanned Deserio, who had previously been a lineman with Philadelphia Electric Company.
Deserio has a chest-full of citations including the China Service Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the Vietnamese Service Medal, the Korean Service Medal and no less than eight Good Conduct Medals – for a Marine an achievement in itself. Married in 1952 to the former Marie Conway, he settled in Collingdale.
Four years ago, widowed and in poor health, he entered St. Francis Country House. He has no living relatives.
During the ceremony, which was presided over by Marine Corps Major Jeff Kenney, Deserio was presented with various special citations and mementos, including a flag flown over Iwo Jima and a special coin sent by Marine Corps Commandant General James T. Conway.
“It’s not often I get to talk about someone with this history,” Kenney said.
A letter from Cardinal Justin Rigali was also read during the ceremony.
The Cardinal said, in part, “I join you in thanking God for the many blessings He has given you during the course of your life. Please know that you have special prayerful remembrances on your birthday. May the Lord Jesus bless you with peace.”
St. Francis Country House, where Deserio resides, is the second largest among the nursing homes run by archdiocesan Catholic Health Care Services.
“It feels great, certainly as a community of caregivers and residents to be able to celebrate with Mr. Deserio,” said Michelle Bieszczad, senior administrator at St. Francis. “It’s an honor and it’s certainly a pleasure to see him come alive when people talk about what took up so much of his life.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.