Looking for Dad in the War

I saw the flyer on India Street, where they were neatly displayed in various storefronts. (It is unlikely that you would ever see handbills tumbling freely down the street in Little Italy.) I grabbed one from a stack on the counter of a coffee shop, Caffe Italia, I believe. The flyer read, “Serata al Cinema (A Night at the Movies) 5,000 MILES FROM HOME: The Untold Story of Chicago’s Italian Americans and World War II, Saturday, April 16th, 7:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. Amici Park Amphitheater (Corner of State & W. Date Streets) There is No Charge to View this Film.”

The copy was set against photos of wartime GIs in the 1940s, mostly airmen, and a black-and-white shot (like the others with that historical amber tint) of a U.S. bomber (B-26? My childhood model-plane knowledge stalled here) taken from above and leaving an explosion, spreading destruction below it. Presumably the GIs pictured were all Italian-American. Aside from the “No Charge” notation on the ad, my interest was piqued by the fact that my father was a corporal in the Army Air Corps (later to become simply the U.S. Air Force) stationed in, of all places, Las Vegas, which he joked about, and then the Philippines, which he never said much about. I decided to attend.

I knew the park, of course, and was always curious about how that little amphitheater area might be used. I always thought of small rock concerts, but considering the residential nature of the area, you would have to have some juice with the Little Italy Association and or UNICO, a kind of united Italian chamber of commerce in the area (Unity, Neighborliness, Integrity, Charity, Opportunity). Both organizations were responsible for the screening of that night’s film and are in negotiations with backers for a summer film festival — Saturday nights, June through August.

I brought my digital recorder intending to tape sample bits from the film, but yet again, digital technology defeated me like a 70-year-old on the internet or trying to microwave a can of peas. I, apparently, recorded nothing. Still, it was a slick enough documentary, similar to something one might see on the History Channel or PBS, even, once upon a time, CBS, with Walter Cronkite narrating.

Here on screen were men, all around 80, laughing a little with 1940s-style wisecracking American humor only to go suddenly quiet, remembering Moltosanto’s wounds in the belly turret. The narrator honors his long-ago fallen comrade with silence and only occasionally evidence of a tear. “I was young,” one survivor looks past the camera lens and shakes his head. “Hell, we were all young.” At that moment, I realized that little has changed over the millennia. It is still a matter of teenagers given all the destructive potential a society can muster in order to eliminate vast numbers of teenagers from another culture with their own diabolically contrived weapons.

Of course, I was looking for my father in those frames dealing with Italian-Americans in the Pacific. What he did there remains an untold story, unless you buy his own account: “I was protecting the Manila Envelope Factory in Manila from the Japs.”

This non-account of my father’s activity in a theater of war gave inspiration to my brother and me. The family had moved to a suburb of Chicago and among the stuff left behind by the vacating family (a cache of nudist magazines under the floorboards in the attic among them) was a WWI-vintage carbine with a cracked stock and without a bolt. We were allowed to play with this but not the nudie mags. We would crawl through cubbyholes intended for storage areas in the attic and transform them into caves and tunnels in the Philippines. We garbled history hopelessly as we dragged that rifle (it seemed to weigh 50 pounds — it was maybe 15) across floorboards and ceiling beams.

Over a series of weekends, we liberated American POWs and guerrilla resisters from bamboo and barbed-wire enclosures, made two-man search-and-destroy missions on enemy-infested caves (inhabited now and then by giant bats, probably from Mars), and befriended the local children and the brave nuns who stayed behind when MacArthur left. The children softened our grizzled GI hearts as we pretended to smoke cigar butts like Sergeant Rock in the comics. When MacArthur returned one time, we turned over a nun to him as a Japanese spy. Our dad wrote it up as a headline in Stars & Stripes.

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