The Impact of World War I and World War II on Italian Americans in Oswego, New York: A Preliminary View

Strategically situated on the Oswego River where it empties into Lake Ontario, the city of Oswego, New York was originally a small, frontier community that often was a battleground as the French and English forces fought to control the fur trade in colonial days. The port community provided the most economical route to and from New York City, connecting by water, the vast regions drained by the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. So important was it that even after the United States won its independence the British were slow to leave the area until 1796. Oswego was then able to proceed with its commercial development, though interrupted briefly by the War of 1812. The community’s economic growth boomed in the 1820s and 1830s. It was helped along by the building of a number of canals which facilitated water transportation. By 1836, businessmen had built four mills to take care of the grain coming in from Ohio and Michigan and grain had become Oswego’s most important traffic. Shipyards sprung up in the harbor to turn out vessels to ply the Great Lakes commerce. A relatively small city, Oswego’s growth rivaled that of much larger cities like Cleveland and Buffalo. The movement of the grain fields farther and farther into America’s heartland signaled Oswego’s commerce was about to peak. It was saved temporarily by a reciprocity trade between Canada and the United States as Canadian lumber became Oswego’s number one import in 1870. By then, signs of change were everywhere. Railroads and manufacturing had come of age. Kingsford Starch Company which had come to the city in 1848 became Oswego’s biggest and most important manufacturing industry. Oswego’s population in this golden age of commerce and the beginnings of industry totaled about 25,000.

Immigration had been an important factor in the City of Oswego’s economic development from the start. Irish immigrants predominated (today Oswego is still mainly an “Irish” city as their descendants carry on), but there were also significant numbers of French-Canadians, Germans, and English. As the city passed from commercial to industrial activities, these immigrants provided many willing laborers who took the place of those who had left Oswego for other parts of the country. But, the newcomers were hardly enough to meet the enormous demands of Oswego’s burgeoning growth in the light and heavy industries. As more and more factories were built, the door was thrown open to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, mainly Polish and Italian. They helped to stabilize the population of the city between 18,000 and 22,000 to the present day.

Italians first came to Oswego in 1880s when a small trickle began to seep in from the area around Naples. By the early 1900s, they worked mainly in factories, especially, the Diamond Match Company, as agricultural workers, and on the many railroads which ran in and out of Oswego. As World War I approached over 1200 Italians, mostly Sicilians, but also Romans and Neapolitans and others resided in the city. Close to 100 of them traveled to Italy each winter and returned in the spring with families or new brides or simply alone and refreshed, ready to begin work again.

Italians had come a long way socially by 1917, but they were not yet accepted fully in Oswego. They had problems with the English language, their schooling was not considered up to par, and the stereotype of Mafia, Black Hand, and criminality hung over their heads. This negatively affected even the children of the immigrants. The local press was alarmed that the registration for military service revealed so many aliens living in the city. The press offered that through education and the immigrants’ acceptance of Americanism, this was not the age of diversity to be sure; the immigrants might become an asset.

As it turned out, the war presented Italian immigrants with an unprecedented opportunity to expand their horizons in Oswego and take a giant step toward full acceptance.

One big happening, World War I, brought them closer to that goal. Two related events boosted their chances. First, Italy entered the war on the allied side in 1915. Though the United States was to be neutral in thought as well as in word, no one doubted that President Woodrow Wilson’s sympathies were with Great Britain. Italian immigrants now had a brotherhood with many of Oswego’s people.

Second, when the United States entered the war in 1917, Italians did their share of fighting and their record stamped them as proud Americans.

Unlike their backbreaking labor and personal sacrifices which were largely taken for granted or ignored, the Italians’ efforts in World War I were too significant to cast aside. They were mixed in with all the draftees whose names were published in the local press. They were conspicuous in the lists of soldiers going off to war. They were found among the wounded and the dead. And, they had their share of heroes. No longer could they be relegated to a back page. They were an integral part of the war effort on both the home and the war fronts.

Oswegonians were reading of war and learning that when it came to fighting for the United States there was very little difference between natural born citizens, naturalized citizens, and aliens.

Italians and Italian-Americans served as combatants in three ways. When Italy first entered the war, a handful of them returned to serve in the Italian army. Newspapers in Oswego carried the names of ten such individuals. Undoubtedly, there were more. About an equal number joined the New York National Guard, Company D, which was activated for the war. An additional 80 were drafted. Approximately 10 percent of the land forces that came out of Oswego were Italian. This is consistent with what one would epect from looking at the population figures for the city. No Italians appear to have joined the U. S. Navy though some were listed as having been drafted into that branch of service.

Fatal casualties included Sam Fabrizio, who died in France, and Sam Furnari, who contacted pneumonia and died in Oswego.

TWO Oswego soldiers received decorations for valor on the battlefield. One was I Edward Campbell, from a well-known mercantile family in town, the other was an Italian American, Dominic Spataro, Spataro, who later became a muck farmer despite losing one of his legs in the war, “broke up an enemy machine gun nest with hand grenades, and took four prisoners without assistance. He also volunteered as a stretcher bearer for a period of twenty-six hours and performed valiant service until severely wounded.” He was saved by Campbell. Both received the Distinguished Service Cross and Spataro was decorated with the Croix de Guerre.

Such acts of heroism were not taken lightly. Witness this excerpt from a letter of Lt. Dinsmore Ely to his parents shortly before he was killed in May, 1918: “If anything should happen to me, let’s have no mourning in spirit or in dress. Like a Liberty Bond, it is an investment, not a loss, when a man dies for his country.”

There were other, more subtle, signs of the growing acceptance of Italians. World War I brought forth a major community effort of which Italians were a part. The Liberty Loan committee included Joseph Cosentino, a prosperous fruit and produce dealer, known early as one of the wealthiest Italians in town. The War Savings Stamp Committee included the well-known Sara D’Angelo and a Miss J.

Sereno. Catherine Brancato was cited for her volunteer work with the Red Cross. The popular Alfred D’Amico, barber, union leader, and staunch Democrat, and his counterpart in the Republican camp, John Lapetino, served on the prestigious Legal Advisory Board, established to furnish services to those serving in the National Guard or entering the Federal Service.

When the war ended, it marked the beginning of a new era for Italian immigrants. They no longer could be considered by many Oswegonians simply as “birds of passage,” common day laborers, or dangerous aliens. But, prejudice die hards, and they were not fully accepted as Americans. Spataro played no little role in making Italians more acceptable. Until his death in 1959, Spataro’s acts of heroism were a constant source of pride and honor for the American Italian community in Oswego. He and Campbell, a highly respected Oswegonian, were frequently honored side by side at veterans’ affairs, a constant emotional and visual reminder of World War I and the closing of ranks between the immigrant and native communities which the war occasioned and facilitated upward economic and social mobility.

As World War II approached Italian Americans had still not found unqualified acceptance. The tough economic times of the depression found many people out of work. If any jobs became available, Italians were not the first to be hired. More than a few of them joined the military reserves which gave them a sense of being productive citizens and helped soothe their pride which had been wounded by the cruelties of the world-wide depression. But, this action was like a double-edged sword which hampered their job searches since employers were unwilling to hire a “foreigner” and reservist who might be called to active duty after the company spent many hours and money training a new hire, Thus, Italian Americans were in a Catch-22 situation. While not experiencing the severe degree of bias of their prior generation, their ethnicity and their vulnerability to military service usually worked to put them at the end of the hiring list.

But, the Italian Americans’ devotion to their country helped them overcome the prejudice of years gone by. By the time Spataro had passed from the scene World War II and the Korean War had come and gone and the wartime exploits of the sons and daughters of the early Italian immigrants, which facilitated their upward economic and social mobility, had earned them equality among Oswego’s population.

When World War II broke out, Italian Americans were quickly to come to the defense of their country. Those in the reserves were called up and credited their reserve training as being crucial in helping them serve with distinction especially educating the new recruits and the “90 day wonders” who served as first lieutenants in the hurriedly put-together army. One seaman related how inexperienced gunners were loading an anti-aircraft gun when attacked by enemy aircraft. When he realized they were putting the charge in backwards and were about to blow up their station and kill all the men in it, he quickly jumped in and corrected the situation. Not wanting to wait to be drafted, a number of Italians, often three of four buddies from the same neighborhood enlisted. But, the greatest majority were drafted and these included many enlistees’ brothers of those who stayed home trying to help keep the family together by working at jobs that were now quickly opening up. Oswego was noted for its boiler manufacturing and one company in particular made boilers which were in great demand by naval and maritime vessels.

There is no number available presently to indicate how many Italian Americans in Oswego served overall. However, an undated newspaper clipping found in a scrap book listed the names of 102 young men of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church who were then in service. Talks with a number of veterans believe that was probably in 1943. If so, the final count could be considerably higher especially considering that some Italian Catholics attended other churches and there was also a smaller number of Italian Protestants as well as non-church goers.

These military personnel served in all branches of the service: army, navy, marines, and coast guard. They served mainly as infantry, engineers building roads and airfields, seamen on destroyers convoying ships in the Atlantic and Pacific, naval amphibians, anti-aircraft gunners, Seabees, belly gunners on B-1 7s, airmen in the army air force, and instructors in the various specialties of the army and navy. Most of the Italian Americans served as enlisted personnel but they also had their share of commissioned officers.

Just as World War I produced an authentic Italian American hero, so did World War II. The first Italian American casualty was Charles C. Crisafulli, who lost his life in the frigid waters off Newfoundland. A gunner’s mate, he dove into the icy waters trying to save a fellow seaman who had been washed overboard as their ship foundered in the rough seas. Neither of their bodies were ever recovered.

A veteran’s post and a Little League ball field are named after him, a constant reminder of his ultimate sacrifice. And just recently, the United States Navy gave him a posthumous award for his bravery.

There were other casualties. the wounded returned with their purple hearts. The dead often were buried at sea or near the sites of battle in the islands of the Pacific, or in the fields of white tombstones in Anzio or some other devastated battle ground. But, they are not forgotten. A group of Gold Star mothers hung their signs of loss in their windows in Oswego and all across America. In the port city, from one-quarter to 0ne-third of the twenty odd Gold Star mothers were Italian Americans.

Over the years, not many Italian Americans from Oswego have complained about prejudice against them in the military. Those who have, generally, cite a sectional bias. Being northerners, many were stationed in camps based in the south where they were identified as “Yankees” and were treated accordingly by some southern military personnel as well as some of the local population. But, it wasn’t egregious, nor anything that they could not handle. Some veterans complained that they met more serious bias when they returned home and reentered civilian life. One man, in particular, claimed that prejudice against Americans of Italian descent was rampant at the Normal School (today State University College at Oswego) where he was employed. As a member of the maintenance department he often worked in or close to the president’s home or office and, witnessing the favored treatment given to Masons and Protestants, he deduced that the president was strongly biased against Italians and Catholics. By the early 1960s that president was gone and the climate got more hospitable for Americans of Italian descent not only at the college but in the local community.

The best single indicator of on coming equality status is the rate of intermarriage of “Italians” with Irish, who virtually have run the city for a hundred years, as well as the Poles, French-Canadians, and other ethnic peoples as well as non-Catholics. Prior to World War II, the greatest number of marriages in St. Joseph’s Church were Italian to Italian, usually Sicilian to Sicilian, Neapolitan to Neapolitan. It was not unusual to find dispensations to permit close blood relatives to marry. At one point, the in-group marriage rate was 93 percent. After World War II, in the 1960s and 1970s, the inter-ethnic marriage rate was as high as 80 percent in an essentially Italian parish. Post World War II in Oswego has also witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of inter-faith marriages.

Prior to 1930 there were none. During the 1930s, 16 per cent were mixed religious weddings, and after World War II the number climbed to approximately 50 per cent. Obviously many non-Italians saw the Americans of Italian descent in a more favorable light as the 20th century progressed.

There are many social, economic, and psychological reasons which can account for these inter-marriage patterns. But, they lie outside the scope of this paper. More to the point, not the least of the reasons for the growth of intermarriage is the acceptance of “Italians” as Americans in the military whose actions and bravery were indistinguishable from those of the establishment Americans, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who set the criteria for identifying who was an American.

Luciano J. Iorizzo                                                                                                                    Professor Emeritus                                                                                                                    SUNY Oswego, New York

Editors Note:

This paper was given on 4/1/1992 at a conference sponsored in part by the National Italian-American Foundation in the Hall of the Americas, organization of American States Building, Washington, D.C. It was one of a number of presentations under the title of Italian Migration to the Americas: Influence on Receiving Societies.” LJI

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