November 27, 2010

The Patriotic Gangster: Charles “Lucky” Luciano, One of the "Founding Fathers" of Modern Organized Crime

America’s Original "Dapper Don": Charles “Lucky” Luciano
 By Niccolò Graffio
“Let me remember, when I find myself inclined to pity a criminal, that there is likewise a pity due to the country.” – Matthew Hale: History of the Pleas of the Crown, 1736
For as long as men have walked the earth there have been those who, in the evolutionary competition for this planet’s finite resources, proven themselves superior to those around them in the acquisition and hoarding of said resources. In the beginning, this competition was for such basic, mundane things as food and shelter. According to evolutionary psychologists, this was/is done with an eye on attracting mates, thus insuring the survival of the competitor’s genes. This behavior is widely observed as well in the rest of the Animal Kingdom. 

Later, with the rise of civilization, ambitious types turned their attention to amassing symbols of wealth like land, money and power. Though the rules of the game seem to have changed, the underlying motive, the acquiring of mates, remains, at least according to evolutionary psychologists.

Such a tacit system invariably resulted in a marked disequilibrium in the distribution of resources (and mates) among mankind. For purposes of expounding on his theories of class struggle, 19th century German-Jewish philosopher and political economist Karl Marx simplistically divided the competitive masses of mankind into two main groups: the “haves” and the “have nots”. 

Society has been called a compact between individuals to respect each other’s rights and property. Those that violate that compact do so at their own risk. It is a truism the bulk of humans, in any society at any time, most assuredly earn their bread through honest labor. It is just as true there have always been those willing to go outside established societal norms in the never-ending quest for acquiring and hoarding resources. For purposes of classification, civilized societies usually (but not always) lump the latter under the title of “criminals”. 

As with honest, hard-working folk, among criminals there are those who, due to superior ambition and intelligence, outdo their peers in illegally amassing wealth. Of all the various types of criminals (burglars, muggers, con artists, etc) involved in this pursuit the most infamous example is the gangster. 

The gangster is distinguished from other types of common criminals in a number of ways. Whereas burglars and muggers can be and are frequently solitary figures, the gangster by his very title and nature is part of a group. Low-level gangsters can and often engage in the same activities as burglars and muggers; this is often the case with youthful street gangs. High-level gangsters, on the other hand, have long since "graduated" to more immensely profitable endeavors like narcotics trafficking and prostitution on a large scale. Members of criminal organizations now generically named "mafias" fall into this category.

Of all the various sorts of criminals, it is these members (or mobsters) who exert the most pernicious influence on modern human societies, pedophiles and serial killers notwithstanding. One need only do a cursory reading of some of the vast archives of America’s eternal war on organized crime to see what I mean. For example, the presence on American streets of illicit drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, ‘crack’ cocaine, etc is directly due to the activities of mobsters. How many hundreds of thousands of lives have been ruined, directly or indirectly, by these drugs is incalculable! 

In spite of all their evil, incredibly, mobsters are frequently glorified by both the American media and public! John Gotti, “The Dapper Don”, was a great recent example in history of this phenomenon. As capo or head of the Gambino crime "family", Gotti had his filthy hands in everything including prostitution, loan sharking, murder for hire, weapons dealing, drug trafficking, etc. Yet the adulation bestowed upon this parasite by both press and people was something one would think more fitting for a popular entertainer!

This fascination with underworld figures is nothing new; rather, it has its roots in early American history. It can be seen, among other places, in the pages of the old Western dime novels that glorified the criminal exploits of vicious bandits like Jesse James and Cole Younger. It is also seen in the literature romanticizing murderous pirates like Henry Morgan (rum, anyone?) and Bartholomew Roberts.

One curious aspect of America’s fascination with organized crime is the mistaken belief (again, perpetuated by the mass media) that organized crime is the product of “others” (i.e. immigrants). According to this myth, it was these immigrants (invariably Sicilians) who brought this pestilence to these previously pristine shores. A number of problems exist with this myth.

For starters, historians have clearly established the fact organized crime was up and running here before the first waves of immigrants from places like Naples and Sicily started hitting these shores in the late 1880s. The loose confederation of ethnocentric gangs collectively known as the Irish mob was active in cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and even, ironically, New Orleans as early as near the beginning of the 19th century. 

In all fairness to the Irish, city archives from Philadelphia show a short-lived but vicious criminal organization known as the Dolan Gang terrorized that city in the 1790s. This gang, composed entirely of Anglos, engaged in robberies, burglaries, prostitution, murders, etc until state authorities stepped in and through a series of arrests, incarcerations…and hangings(!), brought the gang’s activities to a welcome end. The lesson of the Dolan Gang is abundantly clear. In places where government policing is strong (and the level of corruption is low), gang activity is usually weak.

It is therefore historically baseless to accuse immigrants from Southern Italy (especially Sicily) of being the “serpent in the Garden of Eden”, as far as organized crime in America is concerned. However, it is also wishful thinking in believing our people didn’t have a hand in the genesis of modern American gangsterism. In truth, one of ours wielded a strong hand in making organized crime in America the malignant force it is today. While I disdain those who glorify gangsters (mainly because I despise gangsters), nevertheless, his story must be told, in order that we may understand garbage still stinks, even when it’s in a $10,000 designer suit and tie.

Salvatore Lucania was born in November, 1896 (the exact date is disputed) in the commune of Lercara Friddi on the island of Sicily, Italy. He was the second of five children. In the spring of 1907 his family immigrated to the United States, settling in New York City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was diagnosed with smallpox upon arriving. Though he recovered, he would carry the scars of that disease for life.

Due to a language barrier (he spoke only Sicilian) he was a poor student. Most sources agree he took to a life of crime almost immediately after arriving, running with older boys who taught him how to shoplift, “shoot craps”, pick pockets, among other things.

Meyer Lansky
He eventually formed his own circle who plied their trade picking pockets and mugging their fellow New Yorkers. He also hit upon a novel way to “supplement” his income: he would charge Jewish kids “protection” money to shield them from predatory attacks by other Italian or Irish kids. According to a popular account, one of the Jewish kids he tried to extort money from boldly stood up to him, daring him to come get the cash. Instead of fighting him, young Salvatore wound up respecting and even befriending him. That Jewish kid would later figure prominently in his life. His name was Maier Suchowljansky. History would remember him by his chosen name of Meyer Lansky

By the time he turned 14, Salvatore Lucania was finished with the idea of getting an education. He dropped out of school, getting a job as a shipping clerk for the Goodman Hat Company on Greene Street. He started out making $5 a week which eventually went up to the ‘princely’ sum of $7 weekly. It was here he had the epiphany that would change his life and American history, for young Salvatore Lucania, though amoral and uneducated, was nonetheless a very bright and ambitious kid. He dreamed of one day wearing the expensive clothes and driving the fancy cars he saw displayed by the best-off of his community. More importantly, he saw exactly who it was playing with these toys.

His job with Goodman Hat was merely a cover for his criminal activities. Around the time he first started working at the hat company he acquired his first gun. While proudly showing it to a friend, it went off and scarred his leg; the only time he would ever be shot in his life. When his father found out, the elder Lucania took the gun, pointing it at his son and telling him he would kill him if ever brought disgrace to the family! Salvatore left home shortly afterwards, only returning during the day when he knew his father was working. The rest of the time he lived in the streets, because the streets were now his home.

Salvatore Lucania became acutely aware of the value of the illegal drug trade long before it became the sine qua non of underworld income in America. He began running errands for a local dealer, delivering packages containing heroin and cocaine. On one of these occasions he was caught and arrested by police. Sentenced on June 27, 1916 to eight months in New Hampton Farms Reformatory, he emerged with a reputation as a “stand-up guy” for refusing to implicate his supplier. He also came out with a new name, Charles Lucania. Police records showed he would carry that name for the next 10 years.

January 17th, 1919 would prove to be a watershed date in the history of organized crime in America. On that date, Congress officially ratified the 18th Amendment, banning the manufacture, transportation, distribution and sale (but oddly, not the consumption) of alcoholic beverages in America. The Prohibition movement had largely been led in previous decades by pietistic religious denominations such as the Methodists who believed banning the sale of “demon rum” would go a long way in restoring America’s physical, psychological and spiritual health. Though well-intentioned, these peoples vastly underestimated their fellow Americans’ appetite for the hard stuff!

The ink wasn’t even dry on the 18th Amendment when criminal organizations began bootlegging and smuggling booze to thirsty Americans. Around this time Lucania’s gang was doing jobs for Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein. Like Lansky, Rothstein would later figure prominently in "Charles" life.

Joe Petrosino
In 1920 the rackets in New York City were largely controlled, directly or indirectly, by one Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria. Masseria, another gem of a human being, had earlier fled a murder indictment in his native Sicily, settling in East Harlem and later joining the Morello Gang, an early branch of the Cosa Nostra in America. When the gang’s most prolific killer, Ignazio “Lupo the wolf” Saietta (the same Saietta who once was the recipient of a brutal but well-deserved beating by legendary NYC supercop Joe Petrosino), was jailed, Masseria took control the gang, extending its influence throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn.

On one occasion Lucania’s and Lansky’s gangs clashed with Masseria’s soldiers. Instead of having him killed, Masseria, impressed with Lucania, recruited him as a gunman. He told him, though, to end his friendship with Lansky. Masseria was an old-fashioned Italian Catholic who hated Jews. Lucania, on other hand, paid lip service to his new boss while secretly maintaining his friendship (and criminal ties) with his childhood buddy.

A controversy exists among writers and historians over when exactly Charles Luciano gained the moniker “Lucky”. Some say it was surviving a near-successful attempt on his life.  Others say it was pinned on him during his youth, running from the police. Whatever the case may be, it followed him to his grave, and probably deservedly so, for more than once he avoided the fate of many of his peers…an early grave.

As “Joe the Boss” Masseria’s power grew in the New York underworld, so did Charles Lucania’s influence with Masseria. While publicly acknowledging Masseria’s supremacy, however, privately Lucania chafed at the Old World ways of his boss, who he saw as a buffoon and an impediment to his own plans to one day become head of the New York underworld.

Of all the mobsters active in America at that time, few were as powerful or feared as Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein. Rothstein differed from Lucania in a number of ways. For starters, he was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan into the family of a fairly wealthy textile manufacturer, Abraham Rothstein. Unlike Lucania, Rothstein was an excellent student who was especially skilled at mathematics. He came from a family of pious Jews (his older brother had studied to become a rabbi). Those were the essential differences between the two men.

If Abraham Rothstein had any hope of his son following his footsteps into the family business, they were quickly dashed. Like Lucania, Rothstein had no interest in legitimate business, even though he obviously possessed the acumen for it. Arnold’s interest quickly turned to the underworld, and by the age of 28 he was running a highly profitable (though illegal) gambling casino in the Tenderloin district of Manhattan. Adept at running illicit gambling operations, by the age of 30 he was already a dollar millionaire. Though it was never proven, many to this day believe it was Arnold Rothstein who “fixed” the 1919 MLB World Series, precipitating the so-called “Black Sox Scandal”.

The advent of Prohibition saw Rothstein branch out his business dealings into bootlegging and brought him into contact with Lucania. Charles Lucania was in awe of Arnold Rothstein, his wealth, power and upper-class demeanor. Rothstein, in turn, took a liking to the bright, pragmatic Lucania and mentored him in the fine arts of living…and the dark arts of gangsterism. Years later Lucania would say of Rothstein, “He taught me how to dress.”

Concurrent in New York’s underworld with the rising prominence of “Joe the Boss” Masseria was the growing power of one Salvatore Maranzano. Maranzano was born in the town of Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily. In his youth he dreamed of becoming a priest and even studied for a time to become one. Eventually, though, he abandoned that for a career in the Cosa Nostra. He arrived in New York sometime after the end of WW1. A tall figure with a commanding, charismatic presence, Maranzano was the veritable “man of respect” in the underworld. He was known to have a strange fascination with the subjects of Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire and often enjoyed talking about these subjects with his less-educated counterparts.

Giuseppe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano were what were popularly known as “Moustache Petes”, immigrant Sicilian gangsters who sought to bring Old World ways to their new domains in America. They distrusted other, non-Sicilian, Southern Italian gangsters and disdained doing any business with Irish or Jewish ones. They also insisted on running a “tight ship” with themselves wielding absolute power in their respective organizations. It was inevitable these two would clash. That clash came to be known as the Castellammarese War.

The “war” supposedly began sometime around February, 1930 with the murder of one Gaetano Reina, an ally of Masseria, presumably on orders from Masseria himself! Masseria is believed by some to have ordered Reina killed to protect secret allies who were at odds with Reina. The plan backfired, however, when Reina’s family, infuriated at this treachery, switched their allegiances to Maranzano.

In the beginning things went well for Masseria. Fortunes changed, however, on October 23rd, 1930 beginning with the assassination of Giuseppe Aiello, a key Masseria ally in Chicago. Lucania and Vito Genovese, another Masseria ally, read the handwriting on the wall and soon clandestinely contacted Maranzano, agreeing to betray Masseria if Maranzano would end the war. On April 15th, 1931 “Joe the Boss” Masseria was gunned down while eating dinner at Nuova Villa Tammaro, a restaurant in Brooklyn. 

With his main rival out of the way, Salvatore Maranzano now dreamed of becoming the Julius Caesar of organized crime in America. Lucania and Genovese, however, had other plans, for they now set their sights on taking down Maranzano as well. Maranzano was no fool, though. Though Lucania was now his “number two man” in New York, he realized he could not be trusted. He hired a loose cannon by the name of Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll to assassinate Lucania and Genovese.

Unfortunately for Maranzano, he had not acted quickly enough. Lucania, with the aid of his longtime friend Meyer Lansky, set Maranzano up and had him murdered by Lansky’s men in Maranzano’s office on September 10th, 1931. With Maranzano’s demise, Charles “Lucky” Luciano (as he now called himself) was undisputed head of the “Five Families” of the Cosa Nostra in New York.

Luciano wasted no time in remaking the American Mafia in his own image. An ardent pragmatist, he dispensed with the ethnocentric practices of his predecessors, doing business with Irish and Jewish gangs as long as there was money to be made. To reduce the likelihood of any further gang wars (which might attract the attention of the Feds, bad for business), he helped to establish what came to be known as “The Commission”, the governing body of the criminal organization known as the American Mafia. 

Though in theory membership was originally limited to seven Italian-American “families”, in practice Jewish mobsters such as Meyer Lansky (who served as Luciano’s advisor) and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter were allowed to participate. Luciano was nominally “Chairman of the Board” but in practice he soon wielded as much power as a de facto "capo di tutti capi" (“Boss of all bosses”).

One of the first orders of business of the Commission was to see to it its directives were obeyed. Towards that end an enforcement arm was created. This arm, dubbed ”Murder Inc.” by the press, consisted of mob assassins recruited from both Italian and Jewish gangs. Though nominally headed by one Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia, it was in fact run by Meyer Lansky along with his cohort and friend, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. Murder Inc. answered directly to The Commission (and Charles Luciano).

Many enemies of the Mob fell to Murder Inc. over the ensuing years. Perhaps the most well-known was Arthur Flegenheimer (aka "Dutch" Schultz), a New York City-area Jewish-American gangster. "Dutch", an opponent of Luciano’s, had asked the Commission for permission to assassinate Thomas Edmund Dewey, a U.S. Attorney and redoubtable anti-mafia crusader. Dewey and then-New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had set their sights on Schultz’s operations and Schultz himself.

Initially some members of the Commission were supportive of the proposal, but Luciano argued forcefully that to murder such a high-profile figure as Dewey would be to invite the wrath of the entire Justice Dept. of the United States Federal Government on their heads! The idea was canned. Schultz accused the Commission members of betraying him and stormed out of the room. The Commission heads then voted to "take out" Schultz to prevent him from killing Dewey and the order was shortly carried out.

Ironically, it would be Thomas Dewey who would prove to be Luciano’s undoing. Raiding dozens of brothels and arresting hundreds of prostitutes and their “madams”, Dewey’s office finally was able to locate three women who were willing to implicate Luciano as head of the prostitution rackets in New York City. In the greatest victory of his career, Dewey brought 62 charges of coerced prostitution against Luciano. Convicted, he was sentenced to 30-50 years in prison.

While in prison he was examined by a psychologist who noted his high IQ and excellent organizational skills. The therapist lamented that had Luciano pursued a career in honest business he would have undoubtedly been a success at whatever he did.

That might have been the end of “Lucky” Luciano but thanks to the machinations of a man named Adolf Hitler, Fortune would soon smile on him again.

During WW2 the Allies prepared to invade Italy through the island of Sicily. Though criminal organizations in Italy like the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Neapolitan Camorra had been severely persecuted by the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, they had managed to survive. American authorities knew that Luciano had maintained good ties with these groups. In exchange for intelligence provided by these groups to insure the success of military endeavors like Operation Avalanche, and to prevent dockworker strikes, the authorities agreed to allow Luciano to run his criminal empire unfettered from his cell. To defeat Satan, America’s government made a pact with the Devil!

After the war the Feds paroled Luciano (no doubt as part of their agreement) but he was deported back to his native Sicily. To further reward Luciano and his cohorts for their cooperation, American military authorities in Sicily had allowed Mafia thugs to retake control of the island. It has suffered under the yoke of their parasitism ever since.

Though he never became an American citizen, by all accounts Luciano was deeply hurt at being deported from America, a country he had curiously come to love, even while he was preying on it. In his depraved criminal mind he saw nothing wrong with being a patriot while simultaneously helping to suck the life out of the very country he claimed as his own! Numerous photos have turned up over the years showing him in Italy posing with U.S. servicemen and tourists. It was said he enjoyed being recognized by Americans and never hesitated to sign autographs.

Extreme controversy exists over Luciano’s activities after he was booted from the United States. Official history states he continued to run his drug and racketeering empires while in exile. Writer Tim Newark, however, makes a cogent if not entirely convincing argument that after his deportation, Luciano was made a bogeyman by U.S. Federal law enforcement officials to justify their respective agencies’ budgets. 

While this writer acknowledges that many of the anecdotes concerning Luciano are more fantasy than fact, he finds it hard to believe such an ambitious and amoral man would be merely content to “rest on his laurels”. Many of the sources concerning Luciano’s activities after he left America are unreliable, most of all Luciano himself! A notorious liar, anything he said concerning himself would have to be taken with a grain of salt.

Whatever the truth, what is known is that shortly after arriving in Italy he took up with a young dancer named Igea Lissoni. Though they apparently never married, theirs seems to have been a happy union. After her death from breast cancer he is said to have withdrawn from society and probably suffered from what today is called clinical depression. On January 26th, 1962 he suffered a massive heart attack and died at Naples Airport while waiting for a movie producer who wished to do a story on his life. In death, American authorities granted him what they denied him in life. He was allowed to be buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Queens, New York City.

Almost 50 years after his death, the controversy surrounding his legacy remains. To far too many people, he was Charles “Lucky” Luciano, romanticized gangland figure and misguided, tragic patriot. In a twisted homage, Time Magazine included him as a “criminal mastermind” among the top 20 builders and titans of the 20th century.

To those who know better, he was Salvatore Lucania: thief, bully, pimp, drug pusher, murderer and above all, parasite. He was blessed with abilities most of us are denied. Instead of utilizing those abilities to make an honest name for himself while serving the public weal, he squandered them by following a baser path. For that alone he is more deserving of reproach than admiration or sympathy.

Further reading:
  • Tim Newkirk: Lucky Luciano: The Real and the Fake Gangster; Thomas Dunne Books, 2010
  • Costanzo, Ezio. The Mafia and the Allies: The Invasion of Sicily in 1943 and the Return of the Mafia, New York: Enigma Books, 2008
  • Rich Cohen: Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams; Vintage Books, 1999

November 20, 2010

The Palio Del Viccio of the town of Palo Del Colle in Puglia

Banners of the various rione of Palo del Colle
By John Stavola

A "Palio" is a competition between different neighborhoods of a town often commemorating an historical event. The competition can involve horse racing, jousting, or archery with the competitors dressed in the attire of the Middle Ages. The Palio of Siena is the most well known and publicized. These events, however, take place throughout Italy. The Palio del Viccio of Palo del Colle developed into the present form in the fifteenth century.

In Italian Palio means banner or racing silk. The various neighborhoods of a town each have their own colorful and symbolic banner. In Palo del Colle there are ten rione, or districts represented. Each rione would select a horseman to participate. The participants carry long poles while standing on horseback and attempt to pierce a leather bag of water suspended high in the air over the street. A plump turkey called viccio in the local dialect was the original prize.

The Palio del Viccio presently takes place twice a year. The winter event takes place on the last day of Carnival, or Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday in February. The summer event is held on the last Sunday in July and is a recent addition to attract tourists.

The original object of the race was a suspended live rooster which the horsemen had to decapitate in order to win. This may seem a bit gory to our modern sensibilities; the reason why a water bag has been substituted. This tradition is very ancient however, and has its roots in our agrarian past. Our forefathers saw everything in the natural world as imbued with a spirit, a living entity which had to be dealt with in order to survive. The rooster represented the spirit of the grain. It was sacrificed in order to insure a plentiful harvest after the planting which took place soon after the season of the present Palio. Over time the sacrifice of the rooster was allied with the importance of horse raising for military defense, and the turkey was substituted for the rooster after it was introduced from the New World.

(Reprinted with permission from Southern Italian History, Culture, and Genealogy Blog)

November 18, 2010

Campisi and La Barbera at Fat Baby

John T. La Barbera and Laura Campisi

Last night Fat Baby Lounge was, for a moment, transported to the Via dei Candelai in Palermo. Normally a venue for rock-and-roll acts, singer-songwriter, Laura Campisi, and guitarist, John La Barbera, took to the stage in this multi-level bar (located in Manhattan's Lower East Side) and dazzled us with their brilliant brand of Sicilian folk-jazz.

As noted in my review of their recent performance at Bleu, this was not a show I wanted to miss. It's not every day one gets to see two premier, award-winning Southern-Italian musicians perform live in New York City anymore. The duo performed a wonderful selection of songs from their extensive repertoire. Highlights included traditional Sicilian classics like Buttana di to mà (forever immortalized by Rosa Balistreri) and original masterpieces like Cuorefisarmonica. Needless to say I was not disappointed.

The duo's passion for music is obvious. While passion is important in performers, it's not always enough. Their great skill and talent synergized with their passion to make these two artists very special. Music lovers will understand when I say listening to them gave me the chills.

Afterward, we spent the evening getting to know one another, discussing a variety of topics. I was impressed by the number of people who approached our table to tell Laura how much they enjoyed the show and inquired about her CD's. I was most interested in her experiences here in the States and, unfortunately, discovered some were less than flattering. Overall, I think, she had an enjoyable visit and made many new friends and contacts. She certainly has a new fan base. Soon Laura will be returning to Sicily; however, having to go visit Palermo to see her again doesn't sound like a bad thing.

November 16, 2010

Campisi and La Barbera at Bleu

Laura Campisi
One must still have chaos in oneself 
to give birth to a dancing star. ~ Nietzsche
Last Sunday (November 14, 2010) I had the great pleasure of attending, L'A...Merica in Duet Tour, the maiden event of the Sicilian Cultural Institute of America, at Bleu nightclub in Hempstead, Long Island. In addition to promoting Sicily's history and culture, the Sicilian Cultural Institute of America is the only organization outside of Sicily offering Sicilian Language courses. The group did an excellent job in setting up this event and deserves our thanks.
L'A...Merica in Duet was a fantastic show featuring jazz vocalist Laura Campisi, whose wide-ranging voice radiated power and sensuality. In addition to her vocal talent, she has terrific stage presence and is very engaging. Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with her work, but now I understand the excitement of her fans before the show. Her performance was spellbinding and I feel very lucky to have attended.
Ms. Campisi was born in Palermo, Sicily. Among her many impressive achievements are winning first prize in the 2009 Lucca Jazz Donna and the 2010 Premio Bianca d'Aponte in Aversa.
Accompanying Ms. Campisi was guitar virtuoso John T. La Barbera. I've had the pleasure of seeing Mr. La Barbera perform on several occasions, including with the award-winning opera soprano Cristina Fontanelli, I Giullari di Piazza and Alessandra Belloni. I've also attended his fascinating lecture Echoes of Mulberry Street at the Italian American Museum. Mr. La Barbera wrote the film score for Peter Miller's Sacco and Vanzetti documentary, and is both an author and music teacher. I'm amazed at his great versatility and talent.
With only two rehearsals and one live performance prior to Sunday’s show, the duo improvised and performed flawlessly. They had a chemistry that some musicians playing years together never attain. They played samples from Ms. Campisi's extensive oeuvre, which included variations of traditional Neapolitan and Sicilian folk songs as well as Jazz-folk fusion, giving familiar songs a new twist. My personal favorite was their haunting rendition of Buttana di to mà sung to the droning rhythm of the marranzano, or Jew's harp. To the crowd's pleasure they played two masterful sets and an encore.
In addition to the great music there was great food. We were treated to a fine assortment of authentic Sicilian delicacies provided by the Sicilian Cultural Institute of America. On the menu were homemade panelle, caponata, arancini and sfincione. Dubbed "Sicilian pizza," sfincione is a delicious focaccia topped with tomatoes and onions. It was out of this world.
Of course, there was also plenty of wine on hand. Nero d'Avola, one of Sicily's most renowned wines was my beverage of choice and complemented the meal perfectly.
John T. La Barbera and Laura Campisi
I had such a great time at the show I plan on seeing John La Barbera and Laura Campisi perform again this Wednesday (November 17, 2010) at Fat Baby Lounge (112 Rivington St., NY, NY) at 8:00 PM. It's not very often I get to enjoy live Southern Italian music, so I try to take advantage of every opportunity I can. The fact that the collaborating musicians are of such a high caliber makes the event all the more special and it is imperative that I go. I know it's short notice, but if you could make it I highly recommend this show. If it's anything like Sunday night's performance, you won't be disappointed.

November 11, 2010

A Measure of Posterity: Gunnery Sgt. “Manila John” Basilone finally gets his due

Statue of Sgt. John Basilone by Philip Orlando
Raritan, New Jersey (Photo by John Stavola)
By Niccolò Graffio
“A brave man may fall but he cannot yield.”
~ Ancient Roman proverb

Two of the many fond memories I had of my childhood in Corona, Queens: 1) Growing up in a predominantly (Southern) Italian area 2) Playing “War” in the streets with my neighborhood friends. My paisani need no explanation for the former. The sights, sounds and the smells (especially around dinner time) of the old neighborhood provide me with a lifetime of memories. As for the latter? Those days running around, playfully shooting at “the enemy” while covering the backs of my friends were the first lessons I had about friendship, camaraderie and trust.

It seemed every boy in my area had a water pistol, a toy gun, and a G.I. Joe doll. In the latter case I recall it was considered something of a status symbol to have as many accessories for “Joe” as possible. Many of my friends bragged about how they were going to join the military when they grew up, and a number of them did, in fact. In retrospect, it is one of the regrets of my life I never did.

Thinking back to those days, I realize how much things have changed in my time upon this earth. Sadly, Corona no longer has any appreciable numbers of Italians (from any part of Italy) living in it. In my mind it’s not even worth going back to visit the place, anymore. I don’t recognize it or the people living there.

A young Giovanni di Napoli playing soldier
Since “progressives” seized control of our country’s educational system after the end of the Vietnam War, it is no longer considered "politically correct" to allow young boys to run through the streets with toy guns, imitating soldiers (at least here in New York City). Since the atmosphere of fear created by Islamic terrorists on 9/11/2001, it is also no longer advisable.

A good part of a nation’s history is its heroes; men and women who distinguish themselves from their countrymen by their surpassing courage or superior abilities. They inspire awe, admiration and respect in the rest of us. It is these people who are held up by the powers that be for the masses to emulate, especially if they originated from their ranks. You can learn a lot about a society by seeing who is held up as its heroes.

A healthy, virile, patriotic society is one that includes soldiers in its roster of heroes. After all, it is soldiers who form the first and most important line of defense for a country against its enemies. Even in this day and age of push button warfare, soldiers are indispensible to a nation’s defense.

Mine was the last generation to have the honor and privilege of learning Western Civilization as a subject in public high school. Part of the curriculum was learning about great soldiers from times past. Names like King Leonidas of Sparta (hero of the Battle of Thermoplyae), Charles Martel (vanquisher of the Moors at the Battle of Tours), and King Jan III Sobieski of Poland (the “Lion of Lechistan”) come to mind, though there are many others. Shortly after I graduated, Jesse Jackson led a nationwide chorus of “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Civ has got to go!” to drive the subject from America’s schools, and unfortunately he and his cohorts succeeded.
King Jan III Sobieski of Poland
Detail of painting at the Vatican (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
Concurrent with this was what could only be described as one of the most unsavory chapters in this country’s modern history: the vilification of Vietnam War veterans by people in both "centers of higher learning" and the mainstream media. In what could only be described as sardonic comedy, men sent overseas to fight in an unpopular war came back to be mistreated by those who in many cases went to great lengths to avoid the draft. Though attempts were eventually made to rectify the situation, the episode left a bad taste in the mouths of many. Whatever your opinion is of the Vietnam War, the treatment of its veterans remains a black mark in America’s history.

A still-common stereotype bantered around is that Italians (especially Southern Italians) make poor soldiers. I must confess that in my youth I felt likewise. It was hard not to, since virtually none of the soldiers (including Americans) we learned about in school were Southerners.

Long before I joined this blog, I learned the ranks of the American Armed Forces were filled with our people during both World Wars. Armed with this realization, I found it hard to believe none of our people distinguished themselves with acts of bravery. Were we really substandard as warriors, or were our heroes merely thought of as being undeserving of adulation, like the legendary Eddie Rickenbacker or Audie Murphy? Could it simply be that America, as a country old before its time, has simply lost sight of many of its real heroes as it settles comfortably into effeteness?

In my research I found, to my surprise, that we did indeed contribute, significantly in fact, to the annals of American military history. Now, approaching Veteran’s Day, I dedicate this article to one of “ours” in particular, and to American veterans in general.

John Basilone was born on November 4th, 1916 in Buffalo, New York. His father, Salvatore Basilone, was a tailor who was born and raised in the province of Napoli in Italy. He left Italy and immigrated to the United States where he met his future wife, Dora Bengivenga, herself of Neapolitan extraction. John was the sixth of ten children, most of them boys; a fact that would have a strong influence on his personality later on in life.

Salvatore Basilone eventually relocated his family to Raritan, New Jersey, where young John attended St. Bernard Parochial School. Like many Southern Italians who immigrated to America, Salvatore forsook his homeland, embracing his adopted country with vigor and raising his children to do likewise. John was a poor student, though, and dropped out of middle school, never earning a high school diploma.

He worked for a time as a golf caddy at the Raritan Valley Country Club before joining the U.S. Army at the age of 18 in 1934. He was shipped off to the Philippines. A pugilist by nature (thanks in part to the fist-fights he would regularly get into with his older brothers), he fought as a light heavyweight in the Army, going undefeated for a total of 19 fights. After completing his required three years in the Army, he received an honorable discharge, returning to America where he worked for a time as a truck driver in Reisterstown, Maryland.

By July, 1940 much of the planet was already fighting World War II. Sensing America’s inevitably being drawn into the conflict, and himself wishing to return to Manila in the Philippines, John Basilone traveled to Baltimore, Maryland where he enlisted in the U.S. Marines Corp. After completing his training, the Corp sent him to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. From there he was eventually shipped off to the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons with the rank of Gunnery Sergeant as a member of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. It was at Guadalcanal his buddies in the Marines pinned the moniker “Manila John” on him due to his stint there in the Army.

Guadalcanal was a hellhole, even by World War II standards! Stiflingly hot, humid and disease-infested, the Japanese-held island came under assault on August 7th, 1942 as the Allies sought to neutralize Japan’s threat to supply routes between America, Australia and New Zealand. Due to Guadalcanal’s strategic importance, both sides poured enormous amounts of manpower and firepower into the campaign.

On October 24th, 1942, during the Battle for Henderson Field, a regiment of soldiers from the Japanese Sendai Division launched a full-frontal assault on Basilone’s command of two sections of heavy machine guns. For the next two days and nights the Japanese came at them almost non-stop in human waves armed with machines guns, hand grenades and mortars. Fatigued and infected with malaria, one by one Basilone’s men dropped before the onslaught until by the end of the second day, out of originally 15 men, only Basilone and two others remained fighting. The rest were all dead.

CMH winner USMC Sgt. John Basilone
(Photo courtesy of
Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone then really went to work! He moved an extra machine gun into position and maintained an almost continuous stream of fire at the enemy. He then repaired and manned another gun until replacements arrived. At one point the number of Japanese bodies had piled up so high in front of him he was forced to reset the height of the gun in order to keep firing!

With ammunition now almost gone and his supply lines cut off, Basilone took it upon himself to resupply himself and his remaining men. Tucking a Colt .45 in his belt while cradling a machine gun, Basilone spent the next 24 hours crawling back and forth between boxes of ammo and his men, giving them the will to fight on, fixing machine guns when he wasn’t himself shooting at the enemy. Having gone without food, water and rest for over two days, he fought like a man possessed! At one point he single-handedly stopped a deadly banzai charge, killing 38 soldiers in the process. Some of the enemy literally came within arm’s reach of him!

When it was all over, Basilone and his men had virtually annihilated the Japanese regiment, and Henderson Field remained in American hands. Shortly afterwards he was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest military award presented during wartime. He was officially awarded this medal by General Alexander Vandegrift in May, 1943. No less than General Douglas MacArthur proclaimed him a “one man army!”

After being presented with the Medal of Honor, Basilone was shipped back to the United States. He was greeted at Raritan, NJ on Sunday, September 19th, 1943 by 30,000 people in a homecoming parade that included his beaming parents. The height of the festivities was a gala in his honor on the estate of tobacco heiress Doris Duke. At the age of only 26 John Basilone was a national hero!

The crown of hero, however, did not sit well on his head. While he appreciated the admiration, he felt uncomfortable with all the attention. He yearned to go back to the Pacific to fight at the side of his beloved Marines against the Japanese. His request for a transfer was denied; Marine brass preferred to have him stateside to raise money through the sale of war bonds. He was offered a promotion to 2nd Lieutenant which he declined. “I’m a plain soldier,” he explained, “and I prefer to stay that way.”

For months afterwards he was sent on tours across America, raising monies for the war effort. Publicly smiling for the cameras while being kissed by starlets, he privately chafed at the thought of being slowly turned into what he termed “a museum piece.” In one candid moment he told a reporter, “Doing a stateside tour is tougher than fighting Japs.”
Again requesting a transfer, this time he was approved. He arrived for training at Camp Pendleton, CA in late December, 1943. While there he would meet his future wife, Lena Mae Riggi, who was herself a sergeant in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. They married on July 10, 1944. He requested a return to combat duty shortly afterwards.

Illustration of the hero by Cecil Calvert Beall
He was assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division and sent off to Iwo Jima during the American invasion of that island. Being one of the first to hit the beaches, he noticed the Japanese concentrated their fire at Americans from heavily fortified blockhouses. While his unit was pinned down by enemy fire, Basilone made his way up and around the Japanese lines, eventually crawling to the top of the blockhouse, which he subsequently destroyed with hand grenades and field demolitions. He then made his way under enemy fire towards an American tank that was trapped in a mine field while coming under mortar and artillery fire. He guided the vehicle to safety even though he was being fired upon.
Next seeing a Japanese gun emplacement, he tried to lead a charge against it. “C’mon you guys, we gotta get these guns off the beach” he yelled. According to survivors, those would be his last words. Seconds later, an enemy mortar landed just a few yards from him. The blast killed him and four comrades instantly.

For his valor at Iwo Jima he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest award given to members of the U.S. Marine Corps in combat. He is the only enlisted Marine to be awarded both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross during World War II.

His widow, Lena Mae Basilone, died on June 11th, 1999 at the age of 86. It was reported she never remarried.

After the end of World War II, as many tried to rebuild their shattered lives and families, the memory of those who rose to heroic status began to dim. While some like Audie Murphy continued to enjoy recognition (thanks to a career in Hollywood), most disappeared into the mists of history. Basilone was one of them. Soon, even his name was forgotten by all but the most avid enthusiasts of World War II.

Another look at the Raritan,
NJ monument
(John Stavola)
Veterans Day, which used to be a time for parades and public outings, has likewise suffered from a country whose inhabitants now use the day to indulge in personal freedoms rather than honor the memory of the men (and women) that made those freedoms possible.

In recent years, however, at least one thing has changed. Perhaps as a result of the shame associated with the mistreatment of America’s Vietnam-era veterans, some have taken to rediscovering and honoring this country’s historically great soldiers. John Basilone is one of those being so honored. On November 10th, 2005 the U.S. Postal Service issued the “Distinguished Marines” stamps honoring four giants in Marine Corps history. Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone was numbered with Lt. Gen. John A Lejeune, Sgt Major Daniel J. Daly and Lt. Gen. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller. Several years earlier, Audie Murphy was likewise honored with his own stamp.

This past year, HBO aired a miniseries entitled The Pacific, which followed the exploits of three real-life heroic Marines during World War II. Again, Basilone was one of them. It remains to be seen whether this renewed interest in great soldiers is a trend or merely a fad. One hopes for the former. The ancient Greeks and Romans understood the value of heroic warriors in helping to instill a sense of national consciousness. Americans would do well, likewise.

Further reading:
• Jim Proser (with Jerry Cutter): I’m Staying With My Boys: The Heroic Life of Sgt. John Basilone, USMC; St. Martin’s Press, 2010.
• Chester G. Hearn: Marines: An Illustrated History: The United States Marine Corps from 1775 to the 21st Century; Zenith Press, 2007.