Nick Vitale in Waikiki, circa mid-1930s
June 15, 2012 - Nick, who came from a large mixed Italian family
in Connecticut was the oldest brother and, planning to marry my
mother, was told that when he was ready, he would be able to save
part of his salary while working in local company. Nick's real
mother had died during the influenza that struck the U.S. and he was
put into a Catholic orphanage because his widowed father, who spoke
only the Italian language, was not able to care for him and his
younger siblings, and also work.
For a while Nick, being the oldest brother of the family in the
orphanage, was responsible not only for his younger siblings,
receiving personal punishment for their misgivings but also, as a
learner, became a sought-after
altar boy, serving Mass to the Catholic
bishop whenever he visited the orphanage. In this way he learned the
Latin mass and
knew those prayers well, even as he got older. Ultimately, though he
slept at the orphanage in the evening, he became a delivery boy for
one of the finest hat designers in Connecticut.
When Nick's father remarried a widow with smaller
children, whose husband had also died during the influenza
outbreak, Nick was released from the orphanage and went to
live with his father and new stepmother, and a mixture of
nine brothers, sisters, half-brothers, half-sisters. And he
became a primary breadwinner along with his father. The
promise to him by his parents was that when he met a girl he
wanted to marry, he would be able to save part of his
paycheck for his upcoming marriage. Anna, his potential
marriage partner was to be to my future mother. Until then,
Nick had turned in an unopened pay envelope in support of
his younger sisters and brothers. Time passed, weeks led to
months, but there was always a family emergency. Ultimately
there was no possibility to save any money at all.
This is when Nick, totally discouraged and broke, decided to
leave the life he knew by enlisting in the U.S. Army. He
told no one of course! Not his father! Not his stepmother.
Not his sisters and brothers. And not even his bride-to-be!
Essentially he ran away to a new adventure. He enlisted in
the U.S. Army and basically said, “Send me where you need
me, as far away as possible!” And, of course, they did. And
he told no one what he had done, including his future wife.
Ultimately, he was sent to Oahu, the island of Pearl
Harbor. Long before December 7, 1941! And he was long gone
by that date, back to the United States.
time Nick came back from Oahu and hit San Francisco, the
prison at Alcatraz became the Army's first long-term prison
and it was already beginning to build its reputation as a
tough detention facility by exposing inmates to harsh
confinement conditions and ironhanded discipline. Often, the
prisoners who disobeyed these rules faced strict
disciplinary measures were assigned punishments that
included working on hard labor details, wearing a heavy ball
and ankle chain, with possible solitary lock-downs and
restricted bread and water. It wasn't easy. Nick was
assigned as a rifle-bearing guard daily overseeing two or
three prisoners during this period. The age for
law-offending soldiers was in their early twenties, and most
of his prisoners were probably serving short-term sentences
for lesser crimes. The guards sometimes suffered as much as
Ultimately, Nick returned to
Connecticut and married my mother. That's where I was born
in 1933. But he did not lose his interest in military life.
After getting a job in the laundry business, because of his
military experience, he became the First Sergeant of the
118th Medical Regiment of the 43rd U.S Infantry Division. I
have several pictures of Nick standing in front of hundreds
of men in which he is the leading non-commissioned officer.
And, of course, many of the enlisted men he trained
themselves became heroes in World War II embarking from some
of those same places where my Dad had ridden his motorbike.
Many of my father's brothers, both real and through his
father's second marriage, served in the U.S. Armed Forces in
World War II. His stepbrother James was killed in Italy
during the invasion of Anzio, Italy at the age of eighteen
years and is still buried there, the first and the last time
he ever saw Italy the original homeland of his father. His
younger brother Sal also served in the U.S. Army. His
handsome brother-in-law, Al, had the bottom part of his face
blown off in France, the lone man to survive an exploding
enemy mortar shell in a foxhole, and he spent the rest of
his painful life undergoing literally hundreds of facial
operations until his death at an unreasonably early age.
The blood I inherited from my father led me into the
U.S. Air Force for four years, where among other places, I
served with pride in NakNek, Alaska during the Korean War.
At a later point in my life I was lucky enough to visit
Oahu for a couple of weeks with my wife and, while I enjoyed
my stay there, I drove all over that island trying to
revisit some of those sights that my Dad himself might have
lived through. On another trip I also visited Alcatraz to
see what it was like. It was another way to reconnect with
my Dad. To experience some of the sights that he saw and
Yes, Nick was a hero! So, to all the
“heroes” out there, both sons and fathers, Happy Father's
By Joe Vitale
Department of Veterans Affairs - Vantage Point
About Author: Joe Vitale is a U.S. Air Force Veteran and
part-time Statistical Program Analyst. He resides in West Haven, CT.
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