A Sad End, But Perhaps Closure?

Luca Conte, circa 1945.

Luca Conte, circa 1945.

I may know a little more about the circumstances of Babe’s death.

Nearly 19 years ago, I first wrote about Babe. I wrote then that I knew the cause of Babe’s death. I knew it from a handful of official documents recovered from my grandmother’s collection, and from the few additional documents I could get from the federal government.

As I said then, the cause of his death is very different from the circumstances of his death. His vehicle went into a canal. He drowned. Those two facts are corroborated in two separate documents. One of those documents noted that the death was “non-combat.” But how it happened has eluded me.

On the afternoon of Jan. 25, I received a Facebook chat message from a woman named Pia Conte. Babe had grown up with a man named Luca Conte in their hometown of Mount Kisco, N.Y., and likely sailed to Europe on the same ship with him. About two years ago, I emailed the only Contes I knew in Mount Kisco: The owners of Conte’s fish market, where my family used to visit when I was kid.

One thing led to another and I was soon connected with Pia and her line of the Conte family. Pia’s father Luca was the brother of Benjamin, who started the fish market. I also corresponded with one of Pia’s brothers, also named Luca, who shared a great deal of information about their father’s time in the service. Eventually, our correspondence tailed off. Until Jan. 25.

“Hi, Kurt. My brother told me something about your uncle I did not know. It’s rather sad. Do you want to hear it?” Pia wrote in her Facebook chat. I did, of course. This news came from another one of Pia’s seven siblings, John Conte. It took several weeks, but we finally got a chance to speak on the phone on Feb. 28.

John recalled a conversation with his father Luca in the early 1990s, while he was visiting Mount Kisco to see his parents. For whatever reason, they had been talking about his father’s service in Italy in World War II. At some point, John said, they talked a bit about the Mauros, who had been close friends of the family. Luca mentioned that my grandmother, Florence, had lost a son in the war.

John asked about it. He had known my Uncle Bob, Babe’s younger brother. He knew Babe had a brother named Vince, and a baby sister (my mother). But John never knew about the son my grandmother lost at the end of World War II.

“What he said was the war had just ended and Babe was very jubilant,” John told me. “Somehow or other, he took a jeep out and they were taking something of a joy ride, celebrating. They lost control…”

“It’s a tragic story when you think he survived everything else,” John said.

And that was it.

It certainly could have happened that way. The Germans surrendered in Italy on April 29, 1945, at the Palace of Caserta. On May 2, the surrender officially went into effect. For Babe, for Luca, and for the rest of the Fifth Army, the war was over. There would have been reason to celebrate.

John, who lives now in Hellertown, Pa., and works for the insurance industry in New York City, said it was an off-hand, five-minute aside in a longer conversation from many years ago. I asked whether there was any more to it. John didn’t know how his father had come across the information; Luca and Babe were not stationed together. Luca died 10 days after 9/11.

Was Babe drunk? “He didn’t mention being drunk or anything,” John said. “He mentioned it as ‘jubilation.’”

That is the “rather sad” information surrounding the death of my Uncle Babe on May 4, 1945, four days before V-E Day. It may be the best information I’ll ever get on the subject. And yes, I wanted to hear it.

A New Resource for Casualty Info, But Not Much Help in Babe’s Case

This is from a document housed at the Iowa Gold Star Museum in Des Moines.

This is from a document housed at the Iowa Gold Star Museum in Des Moines.

The last letter I transcribed is one of those that includes a certain poignancy, knowing that he’s not going to make it out of the war. There are several like this, in which he makes reference to plans, ambitions or conversations he intends to have after the war.

“It isn’t a long time,” he says of the year he’s spent overseas, “but it is well spent time and I have gained valuable experience though it — experience I hope to use to advantage some day.”

These are the lines that keep me pushing to try and figure out what really happened beyond the clinical references I have in one official document, noting that Babe’s cause of death was drowning after  “the vehicle in which he was riding (was) forced into canal.”

I’m grateful to have heard from Jeff Brown, curator of the website 34thinfantry.com, who has done research at the Gold Star Museum in Des Moines, where he got copies of a museum’s “casualty death biographies” from the 34th Infantry Division in World War II. The bios are paragraph-long explanations of how the circumstances of each soldier’s death.

“My understanding is that a man put this together over years of reunions and meeting with vets,” Brown wrote to me in an email exchange. “At one time, the lists were posted in full online, later amended to just the rolls as the details might have been a little much for the public. The Iowa Gold Star Museum, home of the 34th in Ames, Iowa, has a hard copy of the entire work which I was able to scan in its entirety.”

Brown was kind enough to send me a copy of the pages that include Babe’s bio. Unfortunately, it didn’t shed much light beyond what I already knew, or had heard. The last update of the document, according to the footnote, was in 2001, after I wrote about Babe in 1995. The information in the bio seems to come from my own article, some of which isn’t backed up by any documentary evidence. It was speculation from my uncles.

“651 – Mauro, Frank D. – Technician 5th Grade – Anti-Tank Company – Company Headquarters – Radio Operator (Mount Kisco, New York): Frank Mauro was assigned to Anti-Tank Company of the 168th Infantry in the latter part of July or early August, 1943, Technician 5th Grade Frank Mauro was awarded his Combat Infantryman Badge on April 28, 1944. It was May 4, 1945, near Novorro, Italy, when the vehicle (believed to be a jeep in which Mauro was riding) was forced into a canal and Mauro drowned. One story has Mauro’s jeep across a mined bridge and into the water. Another has the jeep being forced into the water by a sniper who wasn’t ready to give up yet.”

This entry did tell me when Babe received his Combat Infantryman’s Badge. And it suggests to me that perhaps the sniper story isn’t plausible, because his death was definitely labeled “non-combat” in the official records. I guess it depends on what is considered “combat,” however.

I did want to be sure to mention the source Jeff Brown shared with me, however, because it might be a resource for others, and I’m truly grateful that he shared it with me.

Well, Happy, Safe, and the Oxford Comma

oxford-commaI hesitated for not a second about what the title of this blog should be. Given that Babe’s use of the “well, happy and safe” line was so ubiquitous in his letters, that had to be part of the title somehow.

What was in some doubt was the use of the Oxford, or “serial,” comma. In my circles, feelings run high about whether to use the trailing comma in a series of items before the conjunction “and.”

Should it have been “well, happy and safe” or “well, happy, and safe”?

Babe doesn’t give us much to go on. He uses both. For all the time he spends chiding his younger brother for his grammar and spelling, Babe isn’t very consistent in his own usage — but perhaps as an infantryman scribing letters from overseas in the midst of a war, he can be forgiven.

As I got into journalism, my professors beat the Oxford comma out of me. It wasn’t the preferred style of the Associated Press, and for consistency’s sake (there’s what word again, the whole reason for a style guide in the first place), I stopped using it.

The Business Insider wrote about the issue of the Oxford comma less than a month ago, noting that its editor-in-chief grew up a fan and now requires it in his publication. The argument put forth in the column, however, is that the Oxford comma is overrated and that its use ought to be limited to those times when its presence really does improve the clarity of a sentence.

The writer puts forth, citing examples, that it can as easily decrease a sentence’s clarity in the right context. The column is worth a read, if you haven’t seen it (and especially if you’re an Oxford comma snob).

You can read more about this epic struggle on this Atlantic Wire article about the latest edition of the AP Stylebook. The release in springtime began the debate anew on Twitter, when the new edition stuck to its guns and reinforced its ruling to forego the Oxford comma.

Timeline of Babe’s Life

I’ve put this together using a Google tool called Timeline JS. I obviously don’t know that many milestones in Babe’s life before his entry into the service in 1943, but I thought this would be a nice way to visualize some of his life and a chance for me to teach myself how to use this timeline tool.

You can mouse over the main window on the right or left to scroll through events, or you can drag the lower timeline around to find specific spots, zoom in on the time scale, etc. Hope you enjoy it.

Thank You to Those Who Posted, Even When I Didn’t

generic-postmarkLook, it’s fairly obvious: I’ve neglected this blog terribly for more than a year.

But in spite of that, readers out there have found it. I’m flattered, astonished and humbled by some of the comments that have been posted on this site by people who have seemingly stumbled upon it. In spite of the dust that’s gathered, they have still felt compelled to leave a note behind.

There was this one from Katheen Fairbrother, posted on one of my earlier items, in which she reminisced about the Bullard Company, where Babe had worked just before enlisting.

“Oh, the memories! I worked at the Bullard Co. for little over a year in 1965-6(?) and loved my job, the people and wouldn’t have left except my husband wanted to return to California,” she wrote. “I don’t know why I was thinking of the Bullard Co. today but it was nice to see someone else is interested in it. Thanks for the photo. I’d forgotten how big it was.”

You’re certainly welcome, Ms. Fairbrother. Read more of this post