My grandfather was a reluctant soldier..
He didn’t really want to go to war. Really, who did? He was drafted in April of 1941 – he’d joke it was the only lottery he “won”. He went AWOL twice in 1941 – for good reasons. Once because his mother was dying, and shortly after that on Pearl Harbor Day, when they knew war was now imminent, to go back home to fix things between his new wife and his new in-laws, so she could stay with them during the war. Grandma had called him crying after Pearl Harbor was bombed.
“Don’t worry, I’m coming home.”
He spoke of being based in Southern California, where they would stand on the beaches for days on end, looking for Japanese subs. Until one day, he and a buddy got tired, hitched a ride into town, and ended up at the Hollywood USO, where Benny Goodman was playing. They got showers while their uniforms were cleaned and a hot meal to eat. There were girls he could have danced with, but he refused to – the only girl he wanted to dance with was my grandmother. Instead, he just enjoyed the music for a bit, then they hitchhiked back to the beach.
“A soldier could get a lift easy in those days, because everyone either was getting drafted themselves, or had a family member drafted.”
On the ship crossing over, there was a man they called “Pops” because he was in his 40’s – the small town he came from had to fill a draft quota, and lucky him, he made the cut. Pops wore dentures, and so when the ship’s dentist insisted he needed to see everyone, Pops said “Well, he only needs to see these.” He gave my grandfather his dentures. When Pops name was called out, my grandfather raised his hand, presenting the dentures, and yelled “Here!”
“Yeah, I got in trouble for that one.”
He always laughed when he talked of the time our grandmother sent him a record she made for him, of her singing “I’ll Be Loving You Always”. My grandmother can not sing. He found a local woman in Casablanca who had a record player, and asked if he could listen to it. She let him. And as my grandmother’s voice warbled out of tune, the woman’s children started laughing. The horrified mother started swatting at them, shooing them out, and my grandfather was laughing.
“Lady, it’s alright, she really is awful!”
When in Italy, he became an unofficial translator between the army and the locals, as he was Italian himself and spoke the language. This meant he befriended some locals. He snuck food from the Army kitchens to help out an Italian family. He’d tell us kids it was just unwanted stuff, like orange marmalade. My mother laughed and said “It was more like a 40 pound sack of flour he was trying to sneak out!” Everyone knew what he was doing. One night, the MP’s saw him and said “Hey Rizzuto, fyi, we’re supposed to keep an eye on you.” He thanked them for the head’s up.
Nothing went missing that night.
He talked of the wise people of Naples, who would come out every night to sleep in the subways – he asked one of them one night “Why don’t you use the bomb shelters instead?” The reply – “If the shelter gets hit, we could get trapped, only one way out. If the subway gets hit, we can just walk along the line until we find an exit.”
And there were the kids at the fence of the army base yelling “Hey Joe, got chocolate?” and how they’d throw their candy over the fence to these kids.
Then there was the infamous time when he got slapped by the Bishop of Marseille – which was NOT his fault, his Confirmation sponsor kept making him laugh through the ceremony. When it was his turn to be confirmed, instead of tapping each cheek – thwack! thwack!
He talked a lot about his time in North Africa and Italy, less about France, and never about his short time in Germany. He never talked about how hard it was to drive young soldiers to the front lines by train. The guys working in the railroad battalion learned not to talk to these boys, because then they got attached. And then they’d find them on the list of corpses they’d bring back from the front lines. No, it was better to just not look them in the eye. The idea of having to drive so many young men to their deaths haunted him. As did the sight of bodies of women and children, left on the side of the road by the Nazis outside of Naples.
“Didn’t even have the grace to bury them, just left them there to rot.” he said once, when I was older.
But only once. I think he wanted to protect us from the horrors of the war. He only ever told the funny stories. So to us, World War II – while awful, yes – always had this warmer, funny, human side to it. Tales of army buddies and North African women and Italian children. He managed to go through four years of war with his faith and humor in tact.
We still have the telegram he sent from New York, letting my grandmother know he was back in the states and would be home soon.
And he would tell of how his Italian skin soaked up the suns of North Africa and Italy, that when he arrived on his in-laws doorstep and said “Hi!” to his mother-in-law who answered the door – she screamed and slammed the door in his face. She didn’t recognize him, he was so tanned.
“Imagine, finally getting home from the war, and having the door slammed in your face!” he’d say with a laugh.
After my mother read this, she had this to say – “He was also at Monte Casino (Italy). I didn’t realize until I watched the Ken Burns PBS special how fortunate he was to have survived. Even more interesting he had no war injuries. Army discharge doctor said that after his childhood what was a war?” My grandfather, as a child, tried to hop onto a moving train and was sucked under, was unconscious for three days before making a full recovery. Hence the doctor’s comments. He was a man who lived a charmed life, and was truly charming!