Andy Estrema, a decorated former Marine Corps sergeant who lost his toes to the cold in the Korean War, and nearly lost his life because of bullet wounds that temporarily paralyzed him during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, died Wednesday at Stony Brook University Hospital.
Estrema, who earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, was among several dozen residents of a retirement community in Ridge whose stories were captured in “Proudly We Served,” a self-published book by fellow resident Mary Ann Fox.
The former longtime resident of Port Jefferson and Copiague had been in declining health, said members of his family, who were with him when he passed.
Estrema, a Marine Corps volunteer, was weeks from being discharged in June 1950, and was looking forward to being married to Rosemarie Caserta, when North Korean soldiers poured over the border with South Korea.
With America in armed conflict for the second time in less than five years, Estrema put the wedding on hold and shipped out for the mountainous battlefield just south of Manchuria.
He held out hope that he would be home for Christmas. But a week after Thanksgiving, bullets riddled his back and shattered his plans.
There had been a lull in the fighting as his machine gun unit — Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment — was encamped atop a snow-choked hilltop in temperatures that had fallen lower than minus 30 degrees. Estrema was so confident the American forces would prevail that he had taken off his boots in hopes of warming his feet in his sleeping bag.
“Then, suddenly, all hell broke loose,” Estrema told Fox during an interview years later at his home.
In an essay that was published in Fox’s book, Estrema wrote of spraying a column of advancing soldiers with machine-gun fire before gunshot wounds to his back left him unable to feel or move his legs. He said a vision of the Virgin Mary bolstered his resolve to live as he slipped in and out of consciousness. He spent the next year recovering in a string of military hospitals.
After he and Rosemarie were married in Brooklyn’s Our Lady of Loretto Catholic Church on July 1, 1951, the couple moved to Copiague in the mid-1950s, where they raised two daughters.
His wife recalled that in the days before the wedding, his feet were so bloated from his wounds that he could not put on his shoes. Doctors, who allowed him to attend his wedding on the condition that he return to a hospital bed the next day, placed him in traction to reduce the swelling. Estrema not only made the wedding in shoes, but was able to stand and embrace his wife during a celebratory dance.
He cobbled together a living by working various jobs. Shoe distributor employee. Door-to-door Bible salesman. Inventor. He retired about 20 years ago as an administrator in the real estate division of IT&T, based in Glen Cove.
The couple moved to Port Jefferson in the 1980s and to Leisure Glen in Ridge in 2007.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughters, Joanne Cipollino of Port Jefferson and Debora Werner of Mountain Top, Pennsylvania, and three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A wake is scheduled Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. at O.B. Davis Funeral Home in Miller Place, N.Y.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Monday at St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Church in Shoreham, N.Y.. He will be buried in Pinelawn Memorial Cemetery in East Farmingdale, on what would have been his and his wife’s 68th wedding anniversary.
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