By: Sam Concemi, Paul Concemi & Paul Salafia
World War II was the greatest tragedy in the history of mankind. Violence spread over all the inhabited continents, nearly every nation was involved, either as a combatant or as a victim. It is estimated that at least 35 million people perished, the exact number may be 70 million or more, it is impossible to have an exact number as mass graves, crematoriums, drownings at sea, or indescribable bodily injuries masked the exact number.
The USA, relatively fortunate, lost “only” 440,000 soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, nurses, medics, and other military personnel; the Merrimack Valley had over 2,000 deaths. The City of Lawrence alone had 352. Paul Bongiorno was one of those from Lawrence.
Who was Paul Bongiorno? From what the family knows today he was a free spirit, full of life, lovable, sometimes a bit of a knave, but just a good person. Paul’s parents, Gaetano Bongiorno and Angelina (Augeri) Bongiorno were born in Melilli, Sicily, a small town near Siracusa in the southwest region of Sicily. They came separately to Lawrence, young and penniless, but full of hope for a better life than what was available to them in Sicily. Paul, born in 1920, was their fourth child, and from the beginning was a genuine character.
Paul grew up on Common Street, attended Lawrence public schools, graduated from Lawrence High School. He loved his motorcycle, the wind in his face, his moustache and rich Italian food, he was a gifted artist not inclined to real work, he was young and spoiled by his older brother and sisters.
Paul gave no thought to the violence in Europe, Asia, or Africa, living for the present, the war was someone else’s problem. Then Pearl Harbor.
Like thousands of young men Paul enlisted right away, anxious to rid the world of the “Yellow Terror.” Into the Army he went. Basic training was at Fort Dix, then off to infantry training. After infantry school Paul was assigned to the US Army First Infantry Division, the “Big Red One,” as a private in the 26th Infantry Regiment, the “Blue Spades”. Most of the soldiers enlisted to fight the Japanese but the Allies had a “Europe First” plan to defeat the Nazis then deal with the Japanese. Paul and the Blue Spaders were put on a ship, then dodging German U-boats, raced to North Africa.
Paul went ashore on the first Allied Amphibious assault in WWII where he encountered Vichy French resistance and then after the Vichy surrendered, he engaged the Afrika Korps of Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox.” Hot, dusty, dry, and dangerous, North Africa in 1942 proved to be the US Army’s crucible of fire.
The Americans were totally unprepared for desert warfare and the tactics of Erwin Rommel, but the young US soldiers rapidly learned to fight hard, smart, and lethal. Paul was in all the major battles in North Africa. After North Africa was won the Allies had 250,000 German and Italian prisoners and the Nazis would not have the Libyan oil they needed. Paul and the other GI’s thought they would be going back home. The Brass had other plans.
Paul and the Blue Spades went ashore in Sicily. The Italian Army was in chaos as the Italian soldiers found their homeland being destroyed before their eyes.
The Italians surrendered but the Germans fought all the harder in a desperate effort to get Wehrmacht to the Strait of Messina for an escape to mainland Italy. Under the command of Omar Bradley, Paul and the Americans pursued the Germans through the center of Sicily. It was a slow, bloody, sometimes indecisive running battle against a motivated and dangerous enemy.
Then just outside the Town of Troina in a skirmish before the major assault on the city, Paul was severely wounded; he died of his wounds on July 25, 1943, just another statistic, he was 23 years old.
hen the telegram from the War Department came to Common Street, Paul’s parents were in Middletown, Connecticut, visiting Paul’s uncle; Paul’s cousin, Joseph, had been wounded at Guadalcanal. Misery was everywhere.
When a family’s loved one (son, husband, brother, sister) was in military service the War Department sent the family a flag with a blue star to be placed in your window. Common Street, Union Street, Ames Street, Cambridge Street had hundreds of blue star flags, nearly every home sported a flag.
Then the bad news started. Your loved ones would not be coming home, you would never see them again, their dreams never to be. So, the families received a flag with a gold star to put in their window, a sign of loss. Gold stars became commonplace, eventually they lost the significance of despair. The Nation became hardened to its losses, individuals were replaced by numbers. Dehumanization, the subtle evil of war, had nearly triumphed. But to families only their lost loved ones counted.
So what made Paul Bongiorno different, unique, important? Nothing. He was just a kid from a dirty mill town. He could have been from the Bronx, Seattle, Houston, or Chicago. He could have been an ally from London, Paris, Oslo, Moscow, Warsaw, or the enemy from Tokyo or Berlin. In fact, he was all of them, they all were him, symbols of International youth lost.
But, more than anything, Paul was an American soldier, perhaps not wanting to give his life, but like all of them prepared to do so to preserve and protect their loved ones, their way of life, the freedoms, however flawed, that define our nation. We, the readers, and the beneficiaries owe them and must honor them. Paul and the thousands of others from Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Everywhere Else only want to be appreciated and remembered.
This writing is only a small part of our obligation.
Authors’ note: Paul Bongiorno was our uncle, he only met one of his many nieces and nephews before he went to war, but his legacy has endured for the 80 years since his passing. His family has 4 Pauls to honor him. We felt it appropriate to remember and recognize the 80th anniversary of his passing.