Required Reading for
The People, The History, The Culture
The News & Views
Italian Americans in World War II
(Chicago, Arcadia: 128 pages, 2001)
During the Gulf War, I served as United States Army Inspector General in the Southwest Asia area of operations. Once the shooting was over and things had calmed down a bit, I decided to interview Italian American soldiers to find out if they felt that they were treated differently in any way because of their "ethnicity." Given the nature of my job I had an opportunity to travel widely and meet many soldiers. I gave up on the project after a few weeks and a couple of dozen conversations because it became obvious that the very question made no sense to them. Without exception, they stated that they were American soldiers doing their duty as Americans. Some did feel pride in their Italian heritage, but just as many seemed to feel no particular awareness of their "Italianity." Had I persevered, one person I might have interviewed was then United States Air Force Captain Peter L. Belmonte. While he was flying combat missions, apparently he was pondering similar questions.
Fortunately for us, however, Belmonte asked a different question and did not surrender so easily. His question to several dozen Italian American veterans was, "what was your experience of World War II, from life before the war through the present?" The answers he obtained are contained in a brief, readable book that should be of interest to any American.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must state at the outset that, as an undergraduate at Purdue University, Peter Belmonte was an Italian student of mine. We lost contact after he graduated and received his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. Some years later, thanks to the internet, he tracked me down again and began telling me about his growing interest in things Italian American and in particular in Italian American World War II veterans. I encouraged him to pursue this research.
I must confess that I was surprised to discover that Belmonte, who had since been promoted to Major, had actually written a book on the subject. It was particularly surprising considering that he did it while still serving on active duty in the Air Force.
Belmonte was moved to begin to collect the histories of Italian Americans in World War II not just because of his interest in Italian American history and military history, but by the realization that we have virtually no record of the experiences of the 300,000 to 400,000 Italian Americans who served in World War I. Belmonte felt it was imperative to begin to interview the World War II veterans before it was no longer possible to talk to the estimated 500,000 to 1,500,000 Italian American who served during that conflict. Belmonte's book does not presume to be a programmatic history of all Italian Americans in World War II, nor does it claim to be a sociological study. The author does not attempt any generalizations about the meaning of this experience for those soldiers or for future generations.
Rather, he allows those veterans to speak for themselves and thus pays tribute to their patriotism and courage.
The book is divided into seven chapters (Pre-War Civilian Life; Entry Into the Armed Forces, Training and Stateside Duty, Overseas, Combat, Victory,
Occupation, and Returning Home, Postwar), is preceded by an introduction, acknowledgments, and followed by two appendices, sources, and a bibliography. I found the book's organization somewhat unusual, but once I became accustomed to it, I found it an effective means of telling this story. Rather than follow one individual, one unit, or one group of soldiers from beginning to end, as we proceed through the various phases of the conflict, in Europe and in the Pacific, we encounter the testimony of random soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines. Some we meet repeatedly; others seem to appear more rarely. Frequently we will find, side-by-side, statements by individuals who served continents apart, connected only by the fact that they are dealing with analogous experiences.
Given my own research during the Gulf War, I was quite interested in what Belmonte had found, particularly because Italian citizens living in the United States at the outset of World War II were classified as "enemy aliens," and because it was quite possible that Italian Americans would have to fight against their own relatives in Italy. Frankly, I expected to find some sense of resentment, some sense that these soldiers felt that they were treated differently. For the most part, however, what I found were responses that, in this sense, were virtually identical to those of their descendants who fought in the Gulf War. These Italian Americans considered themselves fully American. Al Miletta, "an aircraft armorer with the 81st Fighter Group, recalled that they never considered themselves Italian; rather 'we were American soldiers doing a nasty job, and we did it proudly'" (101).
Hal Cenedella, a Navy diver, "recalled that 'there were no Italian Americans, French Americans, or German Americans; were just plain Americans.
There was no animosity toward anyone'" (102). Tony Pilutti was an Italian citizen when he enlisted in the United States Army and became a member of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Because he was an "enemy alien," he was briefly detained before being shipped overseas. He "parachuted into combat . . . behind Utah Beach in Normandy in the early morning hours of D-Day, June 6, 1944." When his unit came off the firing line on July 16, 1944, he discovered that United States servicemen who were not American citizens could obtain U.S. citizenship. Pilutti joined 22 or 23 other non-citizen soldiers and took the oath of allegiance at the American Consulate in Lichfiedl, England. "It was one of the proudest moments of my life," according to Pilutti (45). Thus it was that Pilutti was an American citizen when, in September he jumped into Holland near Nijmegen during Operation Market-Garden. He was wounded as he descended, but after receiving medical aid he continued his duties until he was relieved and evacuated.
Belmonte does note that "some men did experience harassment because of their Italian ancestry." In this context he cites the experiences of one soldier, Armand Castelli. The latter told him that, while "he was treated fairly by the training officers and NCOs . . .' the others in the company kept on making remarks about the Italians being lousy soldiers, especially the way the Italian army fought,' and that he took all this talk as an insult"(102).
However, Castelli went on to add that, after he "was one of the few men to qualify as a Marksman with the M1 rilfe, 'the insulting remarks about the Italians ceased'"(102).
While some veterans did reflect on the unpleasant possibility of having to fight against Italian relatives, overwhelmingly those who spoke and corresponded with Belmonte apparently felt little or no compunction about fighting against Italy. Dom Porcaro, who was born near Naples in 1922, came to the States in 1931, and was inducted into the Navy in 1943, stated: "I was happy that I was sent to the Pacific Islands instead of Europe) because he didn't relish the possibility of fighting against Italians (100). Armand Castelli "stated that his feelings were mixed 'at the thought of having to possibly kill my own blood . . . maybe my own relatives . . . but we were Americans above all.'" Mike Ingrisano reasoned that "like the German Nazi, the only 'bad' Italians were the Fascists"(101). Warren Sorrentino, an infantryman, told Belmonte, "I had a strong desire to survive; regardless who the enemy was, I would shoot to kill. It was a matter of survival. So I had no qualms about fighting the Italians"(101). Jim Caruso, a combat medic "summed up the thoughts of many Italian-American servicemen regarding fighting against Italy: 'They were the enemy against my country.'"
Given that Belmonte does not tell us what his criteria were in selecting the veterans with whom he spoke and corresponded, it is difficult to ascertain how representative the experiences he describes are. Given my almost 30 years of military service, active and reserve, I am tempted to say that the men with whom he spoke were absolutely ordinary Americans. They came from all walks of life. To the extent that they risked their lives for our country, they were all heroes. A considerable number of those interviewed by Belmonte were also deemed to be heroes by the United States' armed forces. Several were awarded Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, Air Medals, Purple Hearts, the Combat Infantry Badge, and other lesser decorations.
For some the experience was as mundane as wartime service can be. Salvatore DeBenedetto, for example, became a driver for Major General Herman F. Kramer, commander of the 66th Infantry Division, because of his skills as mechanic. Frank Carnaggio, served as a United States Army Air Force mechanic. He was part of a team whose job it was to travel around to downed airplanes and attempt to repair them. According to him, this "wasn't bad duty. We wandered all over our zone of operations and got to see a lot of the countryside that we wouldn't have been able to see if we had been assigned to just one airplane" (70). The majority, however, participated in combat in one form or another. Some were active in the most daring missions of the war, ranging from virtually suicidal bombing runs over Europe to combat parachute jumps into occupied Europe. Sam Mastrogiacomo, to cite only one of dozens of such stories, served as a B-24 tailgunner. On February 24, 1944, he was part of a flight of 25 planes that set out to bomb the aircraft factories at Gotha, Germany. The group was "engaged in the longest aerial battle to date, two hours and twenty-five minutes. Mastrogiacomo's airplane was one of the 13 to make it back to base," (72) but not before Mastrogiacomo had personally shot down two enemy aircraft, with a third probable. His group received the Presidential Unit Citation for this action.
As Belmonte puts it, "during wartime, promotions could be maddeningly slow or alarmingly swift." This was also true for Italian-American servicemen. Ed Imparato who had the most impressive career of those interviewed by Belmonte, "enlisted in the Army Air Corps Reserve as a private and then was commissioned a second lieutenant, received regular promotions while holding important leadership positions in the 374th Troop Carrier Group in the South Pacific. In November 1943, at the age of 26, he became the youngest lieutenant colonel in the theater. On December 11, 1944, at the age of 27, Imparato was promoted to colonel"(107).
Some Italian Americans remained in the military after the war. Ed Imparato retired as a colonel in 1963, after 25 years of service. Sam Lombardo went on to serve in the Korean and Vietnam Wars before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. Tony Pilutti, the wounded participant in two combat jumps (D-Day and into Holland), left the military. Years later he joined a National Guard Special Forces unit and jumped again, 18 years after his last combat jump into Holland in 1944. He eventually retired as a Command Sergeant Major, with a total of 105 parachute jumps. "He was proud of his service during the ar, and he felt that all able-bodied men should have served"(117).
However, like other veterans, the overwhelming majority of these men returned to civilian life as soon as possible. A considerable number have had very distinguished civilian careers. Vince Carnaggio, who dropped out of high school and joined the Navy at the age of 16, completed high school, college, and medical school. "Deeply affected by his experience dealing with wounded and dying Marines at Tarawa, he became a successful pediatrician in an effort to help others (120)." Paul DeCicco, "who performed demolition work with the 125th Armored Engineer Battalion, earned a bachelor's and graduate degrees in civil engineering after the war. He became a full professor of civil engineering at Polytechnic University of New York and was editor of the Journal of Applied Fire Science"(120).
As much as I enjoyed this book, I do have one recommendation for future editions. Please create an index of the names. Particularly given the organization of this book, it is essential to be able to track individuals as they move over time and space. This quibble to the contrary notwithstanding, this is a work that anyone interested in American oral history and military history will want to read, and which definitely belongs in any Italian/American library.
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