Veteran's Day

A battle at every corner

WWII vet recalls time in the Italian Campaign, France invasion

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Alfonso Caggiano, 93, began his stint in the U.S. Army during World War II in 1943, at only 18 years old.
Alfonso Caggiano, 93, began his stint in the U.S. Army during World War II in 1943, at only 18 years old.
Stephany Reyes/Herald

Eighteen-year-old Alfonso Caggiano watched as another American soldier walked down a road in Velletri, Italy, in May 1944, at the height of the Italian Campaign of World War II. He crouched behind a wall, wishing the soldier would do the same. 

A bullet from behind enemy lines struck the soldier. Caggiano watched in horror as a medic rushed to his side. While his comrades shouted at the pair to take cover, Caggiano watched as a German tank aimed its barrel toward them. 

“The German tank blew them up to pieces,” Caggiano recalled. Now at 93, he grew emotional. “Nobody ever did that before to a medic,” he continued. “It was just awful.” 

Their captain, enraged, ordered the men to shoot the enemy. “He yelled, ‘Take no prisoners!’” Caggiano said.

Drafted at 18

Caggiano, who lives in East Meadow, was born in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in August 1924. He grew up around the corner from a Vincent’s Clam Bar — the smell of clams still entices him today — where he spent hours with friends after school. He graduated at 16, and for two years, he worked at a machine shop, crafting generator parts. 

He was drafted by the Army at 18 in 1943, and sent to Fort McClellan, in Alabama, for basic training. He was then sent to Virginia for training missions on vessels. In late September, Caggiano was deployed to Casablanca, Morocco, with the 36th Infantry Division, where he boarded a ship whose destination was unknown. 

“I was scared,” Caggiano said. “Mainly because we didn’t know where we would be sent off to next. Nobody told us anything.”

On Oct. 1, 1943, Caggiano’s unit landed in Naples, Italy, at the beginning of the Italian Campaign. He was assigned a machine gunner, and practiced a few times before marching toward Rome. With a machine gun at hand, Caggiano — who was almost always stationed on the front lines — raided territories surrounding the German-occupied city. For months, Caggiano fought alongside comrades in the Battles of Monte Cassino, watching them fall. 

“There was a battle at every corner,” he said. “Everywhere we turned, there was a battle.”

The nine-month campaign was an attempt by the Allied forces to liberate Rome. In late January 1944, Caggiano landed in Anzio, southwest of Rome, while German troops occupied Cassino, roughly 90 miles west. On Feb. 3, German troops stormed Anzio. 

“We were getting slaughtered for weeks,” Caggiano said. To retaliate, the Allied troops bombed the monastery at Monte Cassino, a move that proved unsuccessful as German forces continued to counter-attack. Throughout the battles, Caggiano fired hundreds of thousands of rounds. His outfit conquered nearby villages as they made their way to Rome. The men would rummage through homes in search of food or clothes. As Caggiano browsed through kitchen drawers, he found a small silver spoon. Because utensils were both scarce and brittle, he carried the small silver spoon in his pack across Italy as his outfit helped liberate Rome in June. 

Caggiano continued to fight on the front lines as his outfit traveled about 10 miles north of Rome before retreating back to a vessel in Naples. He vividly remembers a woman’s voice with a distinct German accent blasting through loudspeakers, who taunted the soldiers as she played American music, and suggested they leave the Allied forces and join the German troops. 

“We called her the German bitch,” Caggiano laughed. “Boy, was she a pest to listen to!” Phyllis placed Caggiano’s medals in a display case more than 50 years ago, including a small silver spoon Caggiano found in a kitchen drawer in Italy, which he carried throughout his time in Europe.

In August 1944, Caggiano was shipped to France, where he was one of thousands of soldiers to fight in Operation Dragoon, an invasion of Southern France on Aug. 15. He crammed in a small boat with 10 to 15 other soldiers. Caggiano said that carrying a machine gun with a comrade was no easy task as they struggled to complete a first landing on the French beach. His outfit fought its way through France, marching north toward the Germany-France border, facing battle after battle. 

After walking hundreds of miles for three months, Caggiano reached the German border, but on Thanksgiving his captain ordered him to return to Marseille. “He told me, ‘Now don’t get any big ideas. You’re not going home,’” Caggiano said. The captain said that because he had been fighting on the front lines for more than a year and a half without a break, he would complete his deployment there. 

“We all had something wrong with us,” he said. “The captain didn’t want me going crazy, so he took me out of battle.” 

Caggiano was discharged in 1946, and was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism in Italy. He received France’s National Order of the Legion of Honour medal, the highest French order of merit for military or civil conduct, last year. 

A missed first date but a long marriage 

When Caggiano returned to the United States, he worked at a jewelry shop in Manhattan where his brother was a manager. He became a jewelry designer and, in 1951, he met courted by 17-year-old Phyllis Riccardi, who is now his wife. 

“All my friends told me to leave him alone because they thought he was married,” Phyllis recalled. She worked at a clothing factory across the street. “They thought it was funny when I sewed a button on my finger because I was flirting with him.” 

When Caggiano learned that Phyllis asked a co-worker about him, he asked her on a date. But she stood him up when her ex-boyfriend unexpectedly checked up on her and her mother after her father’s death a year earlier. Feeling uneasy about the visit, Phyllis stayed home and missed her date with Caggiano.

“When I saw him at work the next day, although he was furious at being stood up, he wanted to take me on a proper date and insisted he meet my mother,” Phyllis said.

Caggiano drove Phyllis to a waterfront restaurant called Happy’s in Brooklyn. Phyllis said she grew worried when he turned off the parkway into a desolate road. But once she spotted the restaurant’s neon sign, her anxiety eased. Caggiano then took Phyllis on a boat ride, and the pair spent almost every day together since.

They were married on June 7, 1952 and had four children: Anthony, Ralph, Gregory and Marianne. Phyllis, who is president of the Salisbury-East Meadow Senior Center, and Alfonso have called East Meadow their home for decades. He is a member of East Meadow’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2736, and Phyllis coordinates several events for veterans at the senior center throughout the year. 

To commemorate his achievements, Phyllis placed her husband’s medals, honors and a photo of an 18-year-old Alfonso in a glass case and presented it to him more than 50 years ago. The small silver spoon that he carried through many battles lies at the base of the case. 

“I’m very proud of him,” Phyllis said. “He’s my hero.”

“I did what I had to do,” her husband replied.