Editor’s note: This is the seventh essay in a 12-part Father’s Day series entitled, Honoring Fathers Who Serve. In May, we asked readers to submit essays about the men who have served our country.
Nick, who came from a large mixed Italian family in Connecticut was the oldest brother and, planning to marry my mother, was told that when he was ready, he would be able to save part of his salary while working in local company. Nick’s real mother had died during the influenza that struck the U.S. and he was put into a Catholic orphanage because his widowed father, who spoke only the Italian language, was not able to care for him and his younger siblings, and also work. For a while Nick, being the oldest brother of the family in the orphanage, was responsible not only for his younger siblings, receiving personal punishment for their misgivings but also, as a learner, became a sought-after altar boy, serving Mass to the Catholic bishop whenever he visited the orphanage. In this way he learned the Latin mass and knew those prayers well, even as he got older. Ultimately, though he slept at the orphanage in the evening, he became a delivery boy for one of the finest hat designers in Connecticut.
When Nick’s father remarried a widow with smaller children, whose husband had also died during the influenza outbreak, Nick was released from the orphanage and went to live with his father and new stepmother, and a mixture of nine brothers, sisters, half-brothers, half-sisters. And he became a primary breadwinner along with his father. The promise to him by his parents was that when he met a girl he wanted to marry, he would be able to save part of his paycheck for his upcoming marriage. Anna, his potential marriage partner was to be to my future mother. Until then, Nick had turned in an unopened pay envelope in support of his younger sisters and brothers. Time passed, weeks led to months, but there was always a family emergency. Ultimately there was no possibility to save any money at all.
This is when Nick, totally discouraged and broke, decided to leave the life he knew by enlisting in the U.S. Army. He told no one of course! Not his father! Not his stepmother. Not his sisters and brothers. And not even his bride-to-be! Essentially he ran away to a new adventure. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and basically said, “Send me where you need me, as far away as possible!” And, of course, they did. And he told no one what he had done, including his future wife.
Ultimately, he was sent to Oahu, the island of Pearl Harbor. Long before December 7, 1941! And he was long gone by that date, back to the United States.
Around the time Nick came back from Oahu and hit San Francisco, the prison at Alcatraz became the Army’s first long-term prison and it was already beginning to build its reputation as a tough detention facility by exposing inmates to harsh confinement conditions and ironhanded discipline. Often, the prisoners who disobeyed these rules faced strict disciplinary measures were assigned punishments that included working on hard labor details, wearing a heavy ball and ankle chain, with possible solitary lock-downs and restricted bread and water. It wasn’t easy. Nick was assigned as a rifle-bearing guard daily overseeing two or three prisoners during this period. The age for law-offending soldiers was in their early twenties, and most of his prisoners were probably serving short-term sentences for lesser crimes. The guards sometimes suffered as much as the prisoners.
Ultimately, Nick returned to Connecticut and married my mother. That’s where I was born in 1933. But he did not lose his interest in military life. After getting a job in the laundry business, because of his military experience, he became the First Sergeant of the 118th Medical Regiment of the 43rd U.S Infantry Division. I have several pictures of Nick standing in front of hundreds of men in which he is the leading non-commissioned officer. And, of course, many of the enlisted men he trained themselves became heroes in World War II embarking from some of those same places where my Dad had ridden his motorbike.
Many of my father’s brothers, both real and through his father’s second marriage, served in the U.S. Armed Forces in World War II. His stepbrother James was killed in Italy during the invasion of Anzio, Italy at the age of eighteen years and is still buried there, the first and the last time he ever saw Italy the original homeland of his father. His younger brother Sal also served in the U.S. Army. His handsome brother-in-law, Al, had the bottom part of his face blown off in France, the lone man to survive an exploding enemy mortar shell in a foxhole, and he spent the rest of his painful life undergoing literally hundreds of facial operations until his death at an unreasonably early age.
The blood I inherited from my father led me into the U.S. Air Force for four years, where among other places, I served with pride in NakNek, Alaska during the Korean War.
At a later point in my life I was lucky enough to visit Oahu for a couple of weeks with my wife and, while I enjoyed my stay there, I drove all over that island trying to revisit some of those sights that my Dad himself might have lived through. On another trip I also visited Alcatraz to see what it was like. It was another way to reconnect with my Dad. To experience some of the sights that he saw and survived.
Yes, Nick was a hero! So, to all the “heroes” out there, both sons and fathers, Happy Father’s Day!
Joe Vitale is a U.S. Air Force Veteran and part-time Statistical Program Analyst. He resides in West Haven, CT.