By: Basil M. Russo, ISDA President
Veterans Day is a time to remember the courageous, yet unheralded men and women who have defended our country, often with the sacrifice of their lives.
We take pride in the fact that America is the greatest country on earth, and the bastion of world democracy, but it would not be so, except for those who have answered the call to serve.
Italian Americans have been among the most loyal and patriotic Americans from the very inception of our country to the present day. Their record of military service and heroism is one we can all be proud of.
Here is their story:
Revolutionary War — The story of Italian and Italian American military service begins with the War of Independence when three Italian regiments, consisting of 1,500 soldiers and officers, fought and died with the colonists to secure our country’s independence.
Civil War — During the Civil War, 7,000 Italian Americans served as both soldiers and officers with the majority fighting on the side of the Union Army. Edward Ferrero and Francis B. Spinola both served as Union generals. The Garibaldi Guard also recruited volunteers from Italy to form the 39th New York Infantry. Six Italian Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroic service to our country, including Luigi Palma di Cesnola, who went on to become the first Director of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
World War I — During WWI the Italian American community dramatically exhibited its patriotism. Over 300,000 Italian Americans, and Italian nationals, including the future mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia, enlisted to defend the U.S. They accounted for 12% of the American military servicemen, which was a highly disproportionate number. Michael Valente was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic service, and another 103 Italian Americans were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second highest honor.
World War II — The war to end all wars, more than any other event in U.S. history, exhibited the love, loyalty and patriotism Italian Americans held in their hearts for America, and they did so in an extraordinary way. Italian Americans rushed to enlist to defend our country. Estimates place the number of Italian Americans who served in WWII at 1.2 million.
Italian Americans served our country with great distinction and 14 of them were awarded the Medal of Honor. The stories of three Italian American servicemen are among the most heroic stories of WWII.
- Sgt. John Basilone, who Gen. MacArthur called “a one-man army” was the only American marine to be awarded both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross, our country’s two highest awards for military bravery. During the battle of Henderson Field in Guadalcanal, Basilone, with only his machine gun, pistol and machete, held off a Japanese regiment of 3,000 soldiers for nearly two days until reinforcements arrived.
- Col. Henry Mucci, a West Point graduate, led a group of 121 U.S. Army Rangers on a mission which rescued 500 American prisoners during the infamous Bataan Death March, who were being held captive by 8,000 Japanese soldiers.
- Maj. Don Gentile, who shot down 30 Nazi fighter planes, earned the distinction of being the most deadly fighter pilot in American military history.
- At home, Rose Bonavita, who worked as an aircraft riveter, became the model upon which “Rosie the Riveter” was conceived to symbolize the millions of American women factory workers who supported the war effort.
Post World War II — Italian Americans continued to serve our country with distinction with four Medal of Honor recipients in the Korean War, and 11 more in the Vietnam War.
In the past 2 decades, several Italian Americans have served as top ranking generals. They include Anthony Zinni, Raymond Odierno, Carl Vuono and Peter Pace.
It is also of importance to note that Army Maj. Marie Therese Rossi was America’s first female fighter pilot.
Conclusion — Italian Americans, despite being subjected to a long history of prejudice, intolerance and discrimination, have displayed their patriotism, loyalty and love of country to America time and time again, from the Revolutionary War to our sons and daughters who proudly serve us in the U.S. Armed Forces today.
God bless them, and all the brave troops and service members who have answered the call for our country.