Ital­ian and proud of it


Peter’s fa­ther, Leonardo, was born on March 13, 1863. Leonardo’s fu­ture wife Anna Maria, was born on June 29, 1868. Both of Peter’s par­ents came from the small poverty-stricken moun­tain top vil­lage iden­ti­fied as Avigliano, Italy. Seek­ing a bet­ter op­por­tu­nity for them­selves and the 11 chil­dren Leonardo and Anna Maria would pro­cre­ate, they sailed on a boat to the United States of Amer­ica. The baby of the fam­ily, Peter, was born on Feb. 27, 1907 in a coal min­ing com­mu­nity on the out­skirts of Scran­ton, Pa., a lit­tle town called Dun­more.

Bilin­gual, Peter spoke flu­ent Ital­ian and English, but Leonardo con­stantly told his youngest off­spring, “You’re an Amer­i­can, so you speak only English.” Leonardo de­manded the same of all his chil­dren: “speak only English,” although Leonardo never learned to speak the new lan­guage.

Peter grew up in this new world sur­rounded by a large fam­ily with neph­ews and nieces, cousins and aunt and un­cles from his mother’s clan, the Var­ras­tros, and brother-in-law Dan’s clan, the Coluc­cis. Pa­tri­otic and hard-work­ing, the Ital­ians in the Scran­ton/Dun­more vicin­ity were not rich; but be­ing Ital­ian, there was al­ways food on the ta­ble, es­pe­cially a big bowl of spaghetti. Any­one was wel­comed to a plate of pasta or per­haps a cou­ple of pan-fried Rain­bow Trout caught from an ice cold Po­cono Moun­tain stream.

Houses were heated by coal; deep snow was no hin­drance. Break­neck speeds on a sled dart­ing down “The Hill” in Dun­more broke many a young bone, but it sure was fun. The lo­cal base­ball field be­came A Field of Dreams for many a young­ster want­ing to fol­low in the cleat-prints of beloved New York Yan­kees like Ruth and DiMag­gio, Berra and Man­tle, a few of them ac­tu­ally ful­filled the dream.

Peter was a ball player, a trout fish­er­man, a sharp­shooter of a hunter, and in time made a liv­ing as an elec­tri­cian. Like many Ital­ian men in pre-World War II days, Peter was still liv­ing at home with his ex­tended fam­ily when the bul­letins on Pearl Har­bor hit the air­waves. Amer­ica was at war. On Jan. 19, 1942, Peter en­listed to serve his coun­try in the Army Air Corp.

Des­ig­nated for O.C.S. (Of­fi­cer Can­di­date School), his train­ing was ter­mi­nated af­ter the Army found out his civil­ian oc­cu­pa­tion was that of elec­tri­cian. Told to sew on sergeant’s stripes, Peter re­ceived in­oc­u­la­tions for small pox, yel­low fever, tetanus, cholera, ty­phus, ty­phoid and one that told vol­umes of his next port-of-call: In­dian Ty­phoid. Peter was headed for CBI, the China-Burma-In­dia the­ater of op­er­a­tions.

Trans­ferred to the 100th Trans­porta­tion Squadron, 1st Fer­ry­ing Group, the pre­cise lo­ca­tion of his base is de­bat­able, con­ceiv­ably Mo­han­bari or Sook­er­at­ing, but most likely Chabua. All three air­bases were cut from Bri­tish tea plan­ta­tions, and all three bases sup­ported the boys fly­ing the ‘Hump” — the per­ilous Hi­malayan Moun­tain Range.

Records in­di­cate Peter ‘strung wire’ all over the CBI re­gion, tele­phone lines and equip­ment, wired build­ings and power sys­tems, re­paired switch boxes, out­lets and pull boxes. He su­per­vised 9 other men in req­ui­si­tion­ing, bet­ter de­scribed as ‘le­gal­ized pil­fer­ing.’ Peter also dodged straf­ing Ja­panese fight­ers and bombers. Dur­ing one bomb raid he re­ceived a neck in­jury when an­other sol­dier landed on his neck jump­ing into the same fox­hole. Neck pain plagued Peter for the rest of his life. But he did ob­tain com­pen­sa­tion from the government: 60 per­cent dis­abil­ity and a check for $69 a month.

He told the story of Photo Joe (Foto Jo) many times. “Our re­con­nais­sance plane (most likely a P-38 Light­ning) would play tag with the Jap re­con plane, as if they were both armed with some­thing other than a cam­era. One day, the Jap got a bit too ag­gres­sive and our re­con pi­lot was an­gry as hell. He landed, told the ground crew to rip out the cam­era and in­stall the .50 cal­ibers, and was wait­ing on Photo Joe the next morn­ing. Well, they played tag again above our base but this time it turned out to be a one-sided dog­fight. The Jap went down in flames. We saw the whole thing.”

Peter au­tho­rized monthly Class B Al­lot­ments of $18.75 for the pur­chase of War Sav­ings Bonds, Se­ries E, to be sent to his sis­ter Mrs. Grace Colucci. He told of his heart­sick­ness upon see­ing the hor­ri­ble poverty and liv­ing con­di­tions of se­lected peo­ples in the un­der­class of In­dia. Peter flew the “Hump” in­ter­mit­tently on C-47 Gooney Birds and C-46 Com­man­dos, but sel­dom dis­cussed the flights, other than men­tion­ing how the moun­tains were lit­tered with the wreck­age of Amer­i­can air­craft. Ja­panese fight­ers rou­tinely in­ter­cepted the vul­ner­a­ble cargo air­craft, call­ing it “Tsuji-gin,” mean­ing “Cut­ting down a ca­su­ally-met stranger.” Records in­di­cate Peter qual­i­fied with the M-1 Car­bine as an ‘ex­pert marks­man’ on many oc­ca­sions, never miss­ing the tar­get. His son would re­peat ‘ex­pert marks­man­ship’ us­ing the same weapon with the same per­fect score in ba­sic train­ing be­fore his two tours in Viet­nam.

Other de­tails of Peter’s war ex­pe­ri­ences are too sketchy or passed-down hearsay from fam­ily mem­bers to ac­cu­rately por­tray an hon­est nar­ra­tive, but af­ter 2 years of war the records in­di­cate he was sent to Camp Luna, N.M., be­fore his last mil­i­tary as­sign­ment at the Mem­phis Army De­pot on Jack­son Av­enue in Mem­phis, Tenn.

There, in Mem­phis, the Ital­ian from Dun­more, Pa., fell in love with a South­ern belle named Lu­cille and mar­ried the beau­ti­ful lady af­ter a 6 week courtship. Peter was hon­or­ably dis­charged on Oct. 23, 1945. He re­mained in Mem­phis with his lovely bride and earned a life­long pay­check as an elec­tri­cal su­per­vi­sor for a hard­wood floor­ing com­pany, work­ing 6 and 7 days a week to pro­vide mid­dle-class hous­ing and a good ed­u­ca­tion for his only son.

Staff Sergeant Peter Jay Mecca Sr. passed from this life on Dec. 27, 1981. I still miss him. This story is for you, Dad.

Pete Mecca is Viet­nam veteran, colum­nist and free­lance writer. Con­tact Pete at avet­er­ Visit his web­site at avet­er­

Staff Sergeant Peter Jay Mecca.

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