THE LICATAS IN WORLD WAR II (Memoir)
The move to Los Angeles felt like a fresh start. Cheyenne, in retrospect, seemed dark, sad, full of memories of grief and misery. Even though the family settled in different cities around Los Angeles, they still came together on Sunday afternoons for dinner. Sometimes Father Benedetto would join them. After fasting all morning for Mass, everyone came ravenous for dinner and happy to see each other after the week’s absence. Each family had a bit of land where they planted vegetable gardens, and if they room, a fig tree or a grape arbor, and they would tote their week’s produce and homemade wine to whoever was hosting that weekend, either Baldassare’s home, as he was the oldest, or Domenico’s home, as he had most land out there in rural Pomona. They were proud of their homes and hated to leave them as, “Nobody would be watching the house.”
Maria, like most mothers, never thought of herself, always putting everyone else’s needs first. Her one splurge over the years had been the small radio that died back in Cheyenne. After all the tragedies, it just didn’t seem right to listen to music or entertainment, and she let go of that small extravagance. But things felt different now in Los Angeles. Once Baldassare and Maria became settled, Baldassare, in his guilt, purchased her the one item he knew she would enjoy, a Philco radio. Each morning, the first thing she would do upon entering the kitchen was turn on her Philco. She listened to the news, she danced to her opera music as she prepared breakfast and coffee, and she laughed and wept in delight as she tuned in to her soap operas. Now that Gaetana wasn’t close by, she feasted on the company of her radio, making any work at home a delight. The classic stories read aloud captivated her and she relished hearing news from her homeland. She was beginning to feel, as Father Benedetto said, that her limits had been expanded. Perhaps she could move past Jimmy’s death and the death of her other family members in Cheyenne; perhaps she could learn to appreciate Josephine; perhaps she could find happiness in her new circumstances.
After surviving the Great War and the Depression, the Licatas began to settle into their Los Angeles neighborhood. Maria and Gaetana’s children began to move into mainstream society, a bittersweet notion to their parents. They wanted their children to become americani, but often they couldn’t understand their rapid colloquial English and they were still confounded by the values and freedoms that they espoused. While their parents tirelessly worked in small businesses or performed backbreaking manual labor, the children began to make great strides in the workforce. Major labor unions opened their doors to immigrants, and Italians and Italian-Americans moved into a greater variety of professions, including those requiring a college degree. Politicians began to court Italian-Americans not just due to their sheer numbers, but because Italian-Americans began to voice their opinions.
Many Italian-Americans were initially encouraged by the nationalistic policies promoted by the new leader of Italy, Benito Mussolini, believing Italy finally had a leader who could turn their country around. Mussolini, the man of the people, had generated passionate support from Italian-Americans when he encouraged Italians abroad to send him their wedding rings to raise support for the war against Ethiopia. Like most of Europe at the time, Italy was eager to colonize Africa in order to exploit their raw resources. More than one thousand Italian-Americans actually enlisted in the Italian campaign against Ethiopia. When Mussolini began formulating his nationalist credo, Italian immigrants, nostalgic for their homeland, eagerly complied and the Italian Catholic Federation, the Dante Alighieri Society, the Sons of Italy, and the Garibaldina Society flourished. The Italian Hall of Los Angeles, located on the edge of Chinatown, became the main center of Italian culture in Los Angeles, and served the community with countless social events such as weddings, meetings, and concerts. To reach out to the Italian-American population, Mussolini sponsored after school programs in America to teach Italian language and culture, called Dopo scuole, sending monthly stipends to Italian schools, offering free educational materials, paying teachers’ salaries, and doling out prizes, books, and medals and even trips to Italy for outstanding students and teachers.
The Licata family had never seen an outpouring of support for Italian-Americans in Cheyenne. On August 14, 1938, Il Gruppo Giovanile, the Italian youth group, held a twelve hour long fundraiser in the Montebello Stadium to raise money for the Italian community with gymnastic and fencing demonstrations, performances by Italian folk dancers, and humorous events like hurling twenty-five pound rounds of cheese. The cousins had never seen such enthusiasm for their parents’ country and had never seen so many paesani in one place before. For the first time, they actually felt proud to be Italian, and they began to look forward to the after school programs. The Italian programs remained politically neutral until the late 1930s. In September of 1940, when Mussolini allied himself with Germany and Japan, Italian-Americans became filled with concern. At one point, in an effort to impress the Führer, Mussolini recreated Rome to look like a movie set with a cardboard facade, making it, from a distance, appear more modern, wealthy, and powerful than it was. When Mussolini attempted to incorporate the fascist salute into the Italian-American school’s curriculum, teachers protested, and the American government put an abrupt halt to anything political integrated into the curriculum.
On Sunday, December 7, 1942, as Maria was preparing breakfast for her family, the radio crackled to life when the news burst through the airwaves that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
“Pearl Harbor? Is that in Long Beach?” Jimmy asked.
“No,” Charlie explained, “It’s part of Hawaii, a U S territory in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.”
The family brushed it off as a joke. What did that have to do with them? And why would the Japanese bomb an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Yet when the boys left the house after breakfast, however, it was all anyone spoke about. Much confusion prevailed among the neighbors. No one quite knew what to think. Some said that now America would enter the war and they would fight Italy. They wondered if it were true, but hoped it wasn’t.
When the children went to school the next day, the students filed into the assembly hall to listen to President Roosevelt’s speech on the radio. When they heard the president clear his throat, the room was so quiet they could hear the birds chirping outside. The children dutifully remained silent while the president explained that he would ask Congress to declare war against the Axis powers. Confused by what that meant, they looked to their teachers. Everyone remained silent until a handful of teachers began to clap. In their fervor to support their country, the teachers encouraged the young people to serve their country in whatever way the president asked them. Teenagers, stirred by patriotic ardor, rushed down to the army recruiting station to enlist, until they realized that most of them were too young. The Licata boys discussed it with their parents. For them, along with anger and amazement that America had been attacked, came the unbelievable realization that Italy—their homeland—was suddenly the enemy. They agreed that it was awful that America was going to war with Italy, but that Italy was wrong and they must fight her in loyalty to their own country. Overnight, the land his parents remembered fondly from their youth—and where they still had family—couldn’t be talked about without risking treason.
The Licata boys eighteen and older enlisted. Of Baldassare and Maria’s children, that included Charlie and John, who already registered in October of 1940, two years before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Mike followed less than a year later. Joseph was only twenty years old and he enlisted just a few months after that. Finally, in 1944, when the war was almost over, Tony, feeling pressured to do his part, enlisted. Each of Baldassare’s brothers’ children did the same, foregoing their ambitions and offering themselves to the cause of the war. Baldassare and his brothers believed that when they left Sicily, they left misery behind. But then Brooklyn became a misery, and then Cheyenne. Having four sons fighting in war was the worst misery yet. It was one thing to endure personal hardship; it was another to see one’s children naively run off to the wretchedness of war. Maria sadly, yet proudly, hung the red-bordered service flag in the front window of their small Los Angeles home, announcing to all the neighbors that four of her six sons had gone to do their duty for their country. As she sewed her blue stars one by one onto the flag, she prayed that she would never exchange any of these blue stars for the dreaded gold stars of those who had lost their son to war, some with pride, others with bitterness.
“Have I raised my American sons just to send them off to Italy with guns in their hands?” she shook her head in bewilderment.
Nearly one million Italian-Americans served their country in the armed forces, amounting to five percent of the Italian American population, and many more served in war industries. Rose Bonavita, an Italian-American, served as the inspiration for the World War II icon, Rosie the Riveter. Through war, ultimately, Italian-Americans gained more social mobility, more access to education, and more respect from mainstream society.
The army sent Joseph, the sixth living son of Baldassare and Maria, to the University of Utah at Salt Lake City. The University of Utah was a land-grant university required to train militia and to provide an continuous flow of high grade technicians and specialists to help the war effort and offset the ROTC enrollment. Many on the west coast feared an amphibious Japanese invasion, and an accelerated need for officers arose. Joseph’s superior grades had earned him a coveted spot on the ASTP, the Army Specialized Training Program. This pilot program, established in the spring of 1943, taught basic engineering, languages, medicine, and dentistry to about 1100 recruits, and about 140,000 young men nationwide were enrolled in the same ASTP program. To get in, Joe had to complete basic training, be at least eighteen, and earn a minimum score of 115 on an IQ test. Having fulfilled the requirements and having shown excellence in his aptitude for languages, Joseph earned a place, commencing in the fall of 1943. While training, Joe and his cohorts began their day at five in the morning on active duty, in uniform, under military discipline, receiving regular pay. They spent twenty-four hours a week doing classroom and lab work and the same amount of required study of Italian and Spanish, six hours of physical instruction, and five of military instruction.
Joe’s first meal upon his arrival was steak, potatoes, beans, milk, and coffee. At first Joe couldn’t stomach the bland American diet, but then he became accustomed to the sheer quantities of meat presented at each meal. He loved his mamma’s cooking but meat had always been in short supply. He received letters from his brothers and his cousins who were training all over the country, comparing their experiences, some having already been sent overseas. His cousin Dominic, Zia Ida and Zio Dominic’s son, just a year younger than Joe, was stationed in Miami. Dominic wrote Joe a letter about the movie star Preston Foster, who was a rookie in the same regiment as him. He recounted an amusing story about their being assigned KP duty one morning. Preston Foster was very determined not do KP duty. The PFC said, “Are you sure you don’t want to do KP?” He said he was sure he did not, and the PFC said, “Fine.” They proceeded to sent him outside to scrub the sidewalk. When he had finished scrubbing the seven-foot by fifty-foot long sidewalk with a hand brush and some GI soap, they told him to report back when he was done. When they asked him again if he’d report to KP duty, he didn’t hesitate.
From Miami, Dominic was sent to northern Africa, and then Italy. Other Licata cousins and brothers trained in Colorado, Virginia, and North Carolina, learning how to handle weapons, hike with heavy packs, jump off bridges, and use jujitsu and judo for hand-to-hand combat. Once they completed their basic training, they were put on standby with their bags packed, obligated to check the bulletin board daily to see if they made the shipping list. When ordered to clothe themselves in olive drabs, they began the guessing game of where they were to go. Which continent? Europe or Asia? Would they fight in the Atlantic or the Pacific theater?
Once they shipped, the trip over was nerve-wracking. Meals were served two times a day and by the time a soldier got through the line, it was time to get in line again. Many were unable to keep food down and experimented with whatever would stay down: oatmeal, candy bars, apples, whatever worked for each soldier, while the uncertainty of the future loomed large before them. While his brothers and cousins shipped off to various parts of Europe, Joe, in his fourteen months in Salt Lake, became fluent in standard Italian and Spanish, traveling back to Los Angeles to await his orders and provide consolation to his lonely mother.
While on standby, yet still on active duty, Joe would go to the USO Hollywood Canteen each night and spend time with the other soldiers awaiting their assignments, on leave, or passing through Los Angeles. Joe would take the trolley up to Cahuenga Boulevard, to the the club dreamed up by Hollywood stars Bette Davis and John Garfield to liven up the spirits of the servicemen and women. Many young soldiers and the young people who came to keep them company mingled with the most famous movie stars of the era who entertained, served coffee, or danced with the servicemen. Enlisted men and women from the allied countries as well as soldiers in all branches of service socialized at the USO. A servicemen’s entrance ticket was his uniform and everything was free of charge. It was there that a brown-eyed beauty with a wide animated smile caught Joe’s attention. A friend he had worked with, Betty Gilmore, said that the young lady was the sister of her beau, Dave Lynch, who was also in the military, and she introduced the two. Her name was Mary, and Joseph loved her animated demeanor and enthusiasm. To her this Italian attractive serviceman was the quintessential tall, dark, and handsome soldier, but she never became too enthused, knowing that each of these men would soon be leaving for the front, and she’d probably never see them again.
When Joe received his discharge papers, he was extremely disappointed. He wanted to do his part for his great country, like his brothers and cousins, and his training generated a desire to put his new skills into practice. He dreamed about traveling to Italy and even seeing his parents’ town, Camporeale, of which he had heard so much. But it wasn’t meant to be. He knew that back in Salt Lake they had classified him as flat-footed, but he didn’t think that would be enough to keep him from his duty. When his commanding officer handed him his final status, Joe, who tended to be quiet and compliant, mustered enough courage to ask his commanding officer why a translator couldn’t have flat feet.
“Chronic pain,” the supervisor stated, as he stamped Joe’s papers. “We can’t send you all the way to Europe and then hear you complain about the chronic pain in your feet. Next!”
Joseph never thought he wouldn’t be leaving like his brothers and cousins, and he suddenly felt purposeless. Part of him really looked forward to the excitement of the front, but another part of him feared it, as he knew it really wasn’t as idealized as the movies and posters had led the public to believe. He had read his brothers’ and cousins’ letters speaking of the horrific scenes they had witnessed, losing regiment brothers right before their eyes, others returning without limbs, and others with severe burns, or not quite right in the head. Furthermore, Joe was worried about his mother. Ever since they moved from Wyoming, she had increasingly been wasting away. The Maria that sang and danced to opera, now worked quietly and steadily in the background, still efficiently preparing her home-cooked meals, but not with the determined enthusiasm of the past. The deaths of his brother Jimmy and his cousins Johnny and Billy, not to mention losing his grandparents, left a heavy cloud of sadness over the whole family. He knew his uncle Nick was involved in something shady and that his mother was deeply disappointed when his father accepted Nick’s help with his business. His father seemed to spend each spare moment at the liquor store. She never said a word to the children, but Joe could tell that she quietly disapproved. He had always thought of his mother as a strong woman, the woman who quietly ruled the house, whose moral and spiritual strength led them to be better people.
Joe was only three when Jimmy died, but he was seven when Johnny drowned. And he saw the whole thing. He continued to suffer nightmares about the horror of seeing little Johnny swallowed up by the dark water in that filthy pond, his heart pounding as he watched the firefighters dredge the tank and finally come up with body. He would never forget the horror of seeing the firefighters pulling out Johnny’s lifeless little form, covered with the muck of the pond, laying quietly on the edge of the tank while the firefighters strapped him onto the stretcher, preparing to take him to the morgue. Johnny had been his special buddy, his blood brother, they were only a year apart, and they spent all their waking hours together. He didn’t really understand at the time, he was so young, but the trauma of seeing his little cousin drown never left him. The family never talked about it. They all knew that Zio Dominic had tried to get money from the city and that he was very angry. When Billy died of appendicitis, it was just too much misery, overwhelming, for one family. Joe had always looked up to his older cousin Billy, and, as a kid, Joe hoped he would get a job with the railroad just like Billy. But then Billy was gone too. He thought back to those months of visits in the hospital, Billy looking yellow and wan, his Zia Gaetana bringing Billy’s favorite home cooked meals to his bed, and Billy not touching them. Joe thought how Billy wasted away in those two months, from a strong handsome young man to a jaundiced hull of who he had been. Maria never to cried in front of her children, but Joe had seen her several times through the crack of her bedroom door, sobbing silently. He was only sixteen when they left Wyoming but he felt like he had already experienced a lifetime of grief and sadness. He almost felt like an old man when he left Cheyenne.
The two other children remaining at home, Jimmy, who at fourteen talked about the day he would enlist, and Tony, who really didn’t want to go but felt pressured to do so, spent most of their time outside the home. The exception was Vita, who wasn’t quite right, but always cheerful, and always at her mother’s side. In that sense, Joe was glad to stay home, to console his mother and encourage her, to attend Mass with her and give her a reason to cook meals and keep the house clean.
Joe continued to receive hastily written, though heartfelt letters from his cousins and his brothers. His brother Charlie wrote about moving from place to place: he was in Casablanca in northern Africa; Charlie was in Tunisia; Charlie was ill because the Brits only gave them lamb,—lamb for breakfast, lamb for lunch, and lamb for supper; Charlie told about how they slept six men in pyramid-type tents in the freezing cold desert nights in Tunisia, but the minute the sun came up, he said, it was scorching hot. He called the Tunisians Arabs and he told how the army had secured their wood from them. On his first night in Tunisia, four German planes bombed their food storage warehouse, and they were left eating their C rations for weeks. C rations were the “Plan B” of meals, designed for short term use, but supposedly a palatable, nutritionally balanced canned meal that offered three options: meat and beans, meat and potato hash, or meat and vegetable stew. Opening the C rations with the attached little key, meal after meal, got old fast, according to Charlie.
His brother John wrote the family and told them that General Patton was invading Sicily near the area of Licata. He had been advised to report to the squadron headquarters and he couldn’t imagine why. His commanding officers asked if he had any relatives in Licata, Sicily and if he had a conflict of interest participating in the offensive. John told them that he didn’t think so, but he called home wanting to make sure. Joe asked his papà, who said that he thought his nonno Baldassare had been born in Licata, but as far as he knew, no one close to the family lived in Licata. And was Camporeale near Licata since Zia Vincenza was in Camporeale with their cousins? No, according to Father Benedetto, Camporeale was miles from Licata. They gave John her address so he could stop by and give her their saluti.
John’s commanding officers told him that if he wanted to fly that day he could, but he didn’t have to. In the end, he decided to go. The mission was completed in one day. John was later to find out that fifteen percent of American forces invading Sicily were Sicilian or Sicilian American. Like the many Sicilian invasions throughout history, the Allies retraced the steps of past conquerors, and the Sicilians half-heartedly resisted, but quickly gave up.
John couldn’t get out of his head that he was bombing his own people. It could have been his mother or father or zii. When John had called, his parents told him that most of the relatives in Camporeale were starving and that Mussolini had forgotten them. John couldn’t overlook that his own people, enemies or not, needed food. John had seen truckloads upon truckloads of food and medicine at the base. He knew there was plenty for the troops and one less truckload wouldn’t be missed. After he completed his mission, he snuck away in the middle of the night with a truck full of rations and, with a map and a brave friend, drove them to Camporeale for his Zia Vincenza and her neighbors. John would forever be recognized as a hero in his parents’ small town.
One of the reasons the Licatas, like many other Sicilian Americans, had initially supported Il Duce, Mussolini, was due to his iron-fisted intolerance for the mafia. Baldassare and Calogero personally experienced the clawing grip of the mafia’s power, and when Mussolini instructed Cesare Mori to eradicate the Sicilian mafia, Sicilians like the Licatas held their breath in hope. To a certain extent More had success, driving the mafia underground, the indigenous murder rate and violence drastically decreasing. The main reason Sicilians surrendered so easily during the Allied Sicilian offensive was that the Americans unknowingly had breathed new life into the dormant mafia, and Sicilians knew that once the mafia gained power, the situation became helpless. The jailed mafia boss in America, Lucky Luciano and other mafiosi cooperated with the U.S. military and established contacts with the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, who prepared the Allied landings in Sicily.
As a token of gratitude, Americans released incarcerated mafiosi and gave them influential posts in the Sicilian war government. Organized crime, corruption, and politics repressed by Mussolini now enjoyed the full support of American dollars. Sixty percent of food unloaded by the Allies in Sicily went not to the starving masses of Sicily, but directly to the mafia-controlled black market. Development in Palermo in the post war period would create fertile ground for a whole new generation of Sicilian mafia, who now possessed World War II innovations such as machine guns. After the war, construction, property development, and real estate would become the main business ventures for the Sicilian mafia, who began to earn so much money, they couldn’t launder it fast enough. For decades, Italy would consume more concrete than any other country in world as the mafia built cheap, substandard buildings that they sold at a premium. An atmosphere of fear and terror once again took over the western half of Sicily, where people were murdered once again for no reason at all.
Mike Licata, another of Joseph’s brothers, had been stationed in Foggia, Italy, at the Italian Air Force base. Mike enjoyed his job as pilot, and every time he flew a new plane, he looked under the control panels for the names and addresses of the women who built the planes. Many men would write letters to these women; his friend Danny Morice wrote one particular young lady each week. Mike wondered if they would end up getting married. After flying eleven missions, Mike became ill with jaundice. The military doctors told him it was due to lack of eggs, vegetables, and milk in his diet and they hospitalized him in Bari, Italy, for about two months. After his illness, they gave him a physical and informed him he wouldn’t fly anymore. He had been looking forward to completing his twenty-five missions so he could return home, but instead they put him to work as an armorer, loading bombs, repairing machine guns, fixing turrets. He told Joe not to read the next part out loud so mamma wouldn’t worry, but he was pretty lucky because the crew to which he had originally been assigned was shot down about a week after he left the hospital. Mike thought that perhaps there really was a God up there. As a Catholic, he felt especially distressed after the Allies bombed Monte Cassino. But, as his commanding officer said, war was war; sometimes we have to sacrifice things that are important in a battle in order to win the war.
Tony, Joe’s last brother eligible to fight, enlisted in March of 1944. He felt there was no reason to stay back now. He fought for just over a year when the war ended on May 8, 1945. Tony wrote home and told the family that when the soldiers heard the news, they partied all night. And don’t read this to papà, but that he drank so much that he woke up the next morning lying half on a mound of dirt and half in a trench of water around the tents. He would never get drunk again. Tony, like the rest of the Licatas boys around the world, was assigned to rest camps after the war ended and he was able to see Rome, the catacombs, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s, and even Pope Pius XII. Tony remarked that Venice was not the place he thought it would be. There were many pretty churches and the city squares like St. Mark’s, but the horrific smells going through the canals ruined the experience. So much for Italian gondolas and romance, he wrote. He was intrigued by the tents on the beaches that Italians used to change into their swimming suits. Bologna and Florence were very beautiful and reminded him of southern California. In Naples, Tony met a company of Nisei. He had thought they were all Japanese, but he found out there were Hawaiians and Chinese in their company too. They were one of the most decorated battalions in the whole US Army; nearly every one of them wore a Purple Heart ribbon. Like the Italians, the Japanese had family members that suffered in concentration camps and they were concerned how they would be treated when they got back home.
Even so, they still felt certain they had done the right thing.
Anne Licata-Solaas is currently writing a biographical fiction novel based on her grandparents’ journey to the United States entitled 1897: A Sicilian Journey Across America. Her father’s parents came from Camporeale, Sicily. Anne holds a MA in Comparative Literature and a PhD in Spanish American Literature from UC Irvine. She currently teaches at Biola University in La Mirada, CA and lives with her husband and four children.