I remember it well. I was a young manager in Chicago for Alitalia, the national airline of Italy. The date was April 5, 1962. An Alitalia DC-7 flew from Rome to Chicago for the company’s inaugural flight.
Mayor Richard J. Daley, city and state officials, the press and a proudly excited Italian-American community waited for touchdown and the unfolding of an historic occasion. On board the DC-7 were six surviving members of the history-making flight of 24 Italian Savoia Marchetti S55 Aircraft that had landed in perfect formation on Lake Michigan during the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress celebration.
The air armada in 1933 was under the command of General Italo Balbo, a renowned Italian aviator and political figure. To commemorate the occasion, Chicago re-named 7th Street near Grant Park as Balbo Drive. In New York, Balbo was fêted with a ticker tape parade, and he received a decoration from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Now in 1962 — 29 years after that famous visit to Chicago — General Balbo and his comrade aviators continued to be a celebrated part of our city’s history.
I was present when Mayor Daley conferred honorary citizenship on the veteran aviators. A military parade honored them, with throngs of citizens cheering in welcome. At a black-tie dinner, a cross-section of prominent religious, civic and ethnic leaders saluted the aviators. The press showered heady words of praise as Chicago paused and remembered with love and respect.
But that was 1962, when America and our school children still honored and praised Christopher Columbus as the discoverer of the New World.
Since then, as in ancient Rome, history has fallen victim to barbarian hordes. “Truth” has been revised, challenged and finally decimated by revisionist, sometimes charlatan, historians. They brought Columbus down from his once lofty pedestal, and now they threaten to sink the Savoia Marchetti and her brave captain.
Since 1933, every Chicago mayor and all the city councils have rejected any and all requests to change the name of Balbo Drive. That includes Mayor Martin Kennelly and certainly former Mayor Richard M. Daley, who never missed a Columbus Day Parade. He also vowed to always acknowledge and celebrate Columbus Day. His father would be proud.
So, to quote the original “happy warrior” from New York, Gov. Alfred E. Smith, “Let’s look at the record.”
Balbo was an officer and aviator. Benito Mussolini originally adopted the word “fascism” from the Italian word “fasci,” which means a bundle of sticks bound together. It was his version of our “e pluribus unum.” The ensuing decades recast the word in an evil context and transformed what was once the political and social platform of a failed dictator. Even the word “communist” has a now less offensive interpretation.
General Balbo publicly displayed his rejection of Mussolini’s anti-Semitic legislation. In fact, he often entertained his Jewish friends in public. He also was firmly opposed to any alliance with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. He was mysteriously shot down over Libya by “friendly fire.” He paid the price for his courage. Even his enemy, the British Royal Air Force, saluted him then as “a leader and gallant aviator.”
Thankfully for humanity, the Italian people and her “fascist” army saved 85 percent of Italian Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust. As the journalist Dorothy Rabinowitz revealed in a Wall Street Journal article in 1993, titled “An Army of Schindlers from Italy,” the Italian army adamantly refused to cooperate with their German allies relative to surrendering Jewish people in the Italian zones of occupation. An Italian superior officer told his Nazi counterpart “this is beneath the dignity of the Italian Army.”
Would that other armies felt the same! Balbo helped inspire that courage and human decency.
But now, after 80 years of Italo Balbo and Chicago being inextricably bound in mutual respect and accurate history, history is mocked. Our community misses the courage and integrity of men such as the late Congressman Frank Annunzio (D-IL) and his colleague Peter Rodino (D-NJ) who wove Columbus Day into the list of national legal holidays along with that of the heroic life and deeds of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We now face the latest ploy of the anti-Balbo, anti-truth brigade. They have suggested the sainted name of Joseph Cardinal Bernadin to replace Balbo Drive. They probably whisper, “How can those guys be against an Italian Cardinal?”
Well, we are not against, but always for the memory of our beloved cardinal. He gave us Our Lady of Pompeii as a permanent shrine. He gave the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans the exclusive right to use his name for our annual Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Humanitarian Award. He was my friend. I bless his memory for the time 23 years ago when he and Monsignor Ken Velo baptized my splendid grandson Pasquale at the cardinal’s residence. What a perfect place for a street sign honoring him there, near the home from which our shepherd lovingly tended to his flock.
To refute another lie about the memory and legacy of Italo Balbo, there are many towns and public places in Italy that still bear his name. Like Chicago, Italy did not forget.
I join many friends, and especially the Italian-American community, who ask with heavy hearts “why would an intelligent legislator and gentleman like Ald. Ed Burke with his ever-present green tie, a nod to his own heritage, become a revisionist historian?” Please, Ed, come home to your roots of fair play and sound judgment. All would be forgiven!
So now we have placed our case before the tribunal of history. No revisions. No false witnesses, but surely before the bar of justice, which calls us all to render a verdict devoid of “alternative facts.” The truth and nothing but the truth. Italo Balbo is not guilty!
Formidable men and women of authority, take your pens and minds out of the poisoned inkwell of revisionist history. Look to the clear, bright sky of “Truth.” Let Balbo fly!
Dominic DiFrisco is president emeritus in Chicago of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans.
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