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 email@example.com. Visit his website at aveteransstory.us.
Staff Sergeant Peter Jay Mecca.