Pittsburgh, World War II:
Norman Richard Aguzzoli and Anthony M. Reto
Through a Child's Eyes.
World War II:
The Blue-Collar Burden.
interviewed by Anthony S. Reto.
Norman Richard Aguzzoli: Through a Child's Eyes.
Children usually have a unique view of the world. It is often worthwhile to examine a child's perspective on certain key events because there is a certain naivete and innocence, free from adult prejudices and opinions, about their accounts. It was this unique perspective I was hoping to obtain by interviewing Norman Richard Aguzzoli, ten years old in 1942, about his childhood memories of Pittsburgh during World War II.
Norman was born the oldest of three children. He has a younger sister named Joanne and a younger brother named Paul. Their family life was very typical and was not torn apart by the war. However, Norman did have two uncles who volunteered for military duty. One uncle went into the Army, and the other went into the Marines. His father, Joseph, worked as a machinist for Westinghouse. He was not drafted to the Army because his job skills on the home front were vital to the war effort. His mother, Vera, stayed at home and had the task of raising the three children.
Norman's family spent the war years living in Oakland. Their immediate neighborhood was predominantly Italian, but his family lived on a border near Irish and German communities. He recalls his parents being friends with a few of the German and German-Jewish families who lived down the street. He also remembers these neighbors having conversations on their front porch, prior to America's entry into the war, about Hitler's activities and their concerns for relatives still living in Germany. As the war, and these talks, continued, Norman recalls the horror, disgust and disappointment some of these German families felt toward their old homeland.
With Norman being a child of Italian heritage, I could not help but ask him how the other children he associated with, or their parents, treated him. He said he was not treated differently at all. However, he does remember that their usual game of 'Cowboys and Indians' changed to 'the US against the Nazis and Mussolini', where, all of a sudden, he always ended up being one of the 'bad guys.'
Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Norman and his family were kept informed of events taking place in Europe by news items on the radio and newsreels shown before movies at the theatres. Even at this time his family, and their close friends, believed that the United States needed to enter into this conflict. They were very concerned about the growing German menace and believed that Hitler needed to be dealt with immediately.
Between the years 1940-1942, Norman remembers there being a general fear of a German invasion of the United States. This was especially so after they heard the news of Germany's bombing of Britain. So, it is perhaps needless to say that he can vividly recall when he first heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was in the car with his Aunt and Uncle driving home from church when the radio program they were listening to was interrupted by a bulletin containing the incredible news. His Uncle pulled the car off to the side of the road to finish listening to the news flash. Norman was sitting in the back seat of the car, and remembers seeing his aunt and uncle just staring at each other as the news came over the radio waves. He knew big things were about to happen.
After hearing the news about Pearl Harbor, his family had feelings of shock, of being violated, and one of quiet determination. There may have been a feeling of relief as well. Many people wanted United States involvement in the war. They figured we would go in and clean up the mess. People were going to buckle down and do what needed to be done for America's honor. They thought it was the right thing to do, and the long enlisting lines proved it.
The good old neighborhood rallied together and helped in any way possible. Not one to be left out, young Norman was very active in volunteer efforts. He became a member of a group called the Junior Commandos. Membership to the group was voluntary, and their main activities involved going door to door and collecting materials such as scrap metal, paper and rubber for the war effort. The Junior Commandos supplied their members with armbands and helmets, which the young kids found very appealing. It was like having their own military uniform. Norman found that the children involved in this organization took their volunteer work very seriously, and he also found that the grown-ups began showing them a certain amount of respect. He was always very proud of the fact that he, and his family, had done a great deal for the war effort.
This spirit of pulling together for a cause was also apparent in Norman's school. He attended Holy Rosary Grade School in the Homewood area of Pittsburgh. At Holy Rosary school, the faculty made efforts to foster the desire for volunteer work by preaching the benefits of self-sacrifice. The church had always held their own types of volunteer drives, but Norman recalls a special 'contest' the church held to reward children who donated the most money for war bonds. The church had acquired pieces of a downed Japanese Zero, and was giving these pieces away as prizes. He wanted to have a piece of that plane, so he saved and collected every dime and penny he could. He never did receive a piece of that plane, but the excitement surrounding that 'contest' still remains fresh.
Although Holy Rosary school and church became involved in the war bond effort, they did not take an official stand on the issue of America's involvement in the war. Norman recalls the prevailing attitude to be one of "praying for peace". In the classroom, the children still saw the newsreel footage of the war before every movie they watched, but the teachers never allowed much discussion about it.
Possibly because of his youth, Norman does not recall having any real concerns during this period, nor did he ever have any question about the outcome of the war. There was no doubt that the United States would be victorious. He attributes part of this feeling of confidence to the successful propaganda campaign. He remembers seeing all the posters of Uncle Sam everywhere and thought about how glamorous it all appeared. He and his friends would always sit in awe while the newsreels were playing before the movies. How could a child not be impressed? He saw lines of shining tanks rolling across the screen and watched lines of well-dressed soldiers marching in tight formations. He sometimes wished he were older so he could go off to fight too.
Norman also had a very child-like view of the food rationing; he believed it to be some type of game. You had to collect all these stamps, and if you collected enough you could buy what you wanted. Going to the grocery store was a different story though. Meat, butter, milk and cheese were always in high demand and always in low supply. On Tuesdays, the grocery stores would donate that day's 'supply' of meat to the military. They called it 'meatless Tuesday'. He also said that, occasionally, his mother, and sometimes himself, would get into shoving matches with the other customers to be able get the groceries they wanted. Barring these minor fisticuffs, Norman doesn't remember the food rationing making any difference in how, and how much, he and his siblings ate. He cannot be certain if his parents went without for their benefit, but he believes that was the case since his father's position did not incur any special food or gasoline benefits.
Norman also had a youthful fascination with the air raid drills. There was some excitement mingled with the fear that more bombs could drop on the United States. It was a precise drill and everything had to be done correctly. The first siren meant you had to go indoors and find shelter, the second siren meant the drill was over. Even passers-by were taken into people's homes. Norman found all of this to be very exciting.
In each community there were block wardens who came around to make sure everyone was following the proper procedures. If they were not, the block wardens were allowed to issue fines. Norman cannot recall anyone ever being fined by a block warden; after all they were all from the same neighborhood.
Norman looks back upon this time with warm memories. Not because the idea of war was exciting to a child, or because his family escaped the sadness of a lost loved one (one of his uncles died during the battle for Iwo Jima). He has fond memories of this time because of the communal spirit and the generosity of so many people rallying together for such a great cause. It was these fond memories that eventually compelled him to rush into the volunteer lines, in 1950, at the outbreak of the Korean War.
Anthony M. Reto: The Blue-Collar Burden.
In trying to achieve a balanced view of Pittsburgh during World War II, I chose for my next subject someone who was in their mid-twenties during the 1940's. Anthony M. Reto was a working man and father in Pittsburgh at that time. I was curious to gain some insight about wartime Pittsburgh from the blue-collar perspective.
Anthony was born in Avalon, PA on October 10, 1915. He was the oldest of four brothers, himself, John, Milo and Joe. Anthony was a graduate of Westinghouse High School and had spent a few years in a technical school learning electronics and machinist skills. Anthony's passion was working with his hands. He loved to fix and tinker with any and all bits of machinery. He affectionately called himself a "jack of all trades", and it was because of his variety of skills that he remained on the home front.
In 1939, Anthony was 24 years old, about to be married to Cecilia DeNardo, and on the way to becoming a proud father for the first time. Even though Anthony was out of the house by the time the United States entered the war, events concerning his immediate family still weighed heavy on his mind. Almost immediately after the United States declared war, two of his younger brothers, John and Milo, were drafted into the armed services. John was sent to serve in Europe while Milo was sent to serve in India. His brothers had left so quickly that Anthony never had a chance to speak with them before they left. Although they eventually both returned home safely, at the time it had bothered him that he did not get a chance to say goodbye, or to see them off. Along with this familial concern for his brothers, he also recalls feeling extremely proud of them both. They were both willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
In 1940, Anthony, with his new wife and daughter, moved into a house on Larimer Avenue in East Liberty. As with most communities of that era, his was very tight knit. What may have been out of the ordinary was the fact that it was a very mixed community. The neighborhood consisted of Italian, Irish, German and Jewish families. He believed the reason everyone got along so well was because they were all in the same boat together, so to speak. They were all middle class, blue collar families just trying to make ends meet.
Between the years of 1938-1942, Anthony was working in town as an optician, grinding lenses for glasses. The radio kept him company during his long working days, and that is how he received most of his information concerning European affairs. The more he heard about what was transpiring in Europe, the more he felt that the United States needed to get involved. His faith in American technology and know-how led him to believe that with early US involvement it could have all been taken care of very quickly. Anthony says that this was a common belief. He thought that since most of his neighbors and associates had immigrated to this country, they also had a high opinion of American potential.
As with most people, Anthony clearly remembers receiving the news about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was in his kitchen drinking a cup of coffee when the news bulletin was aired on the radio. At first he was not quite certain if he had understood the message correctly. After all, he believed the United States to be untouchable. When a few of his neighbors rushed into his house speaking excitedly about the bulletin, he realized he had not misunderstood. The United States had been attacked.
Shortly after the United States entered the war, Anthony remembers that the defense industry in Pittsburgh began to explode. There were new shops with the newest equipment using the newest technologies to make war time materiel. What more could a self-proclaimed 'jack of all trades' want? So, in 1942 he answered an advertisement in the paper. A new defense plant was opening up in the Miller Printing Machine Company on the North Side of Pittsburgh and they needed a person to do precision metal grinding on the bolt and trigger mechanisms for a new repeating rifle. Anthony had just the skills they were looking for and was hired immediately. Not only did he now have a good job with good pay, but he was also 'doing his part' by making valuable war time components. He knew his brothers would be proud of him.
Even though he was very busy at the plant, Anthony had found some time to pick up a small part time job at the local butcher shop to aid his family during the food-rationing crunch. The big benefit of that job was not the money, for it paid little, but that he was allowed to take all of the day's scraps home to eat. He remembers eating large amounts of chicken necks and gizzards. In fact, because he had eaten so much chicken during that period, he rarely eats it today.
Anthony also recalls that the staple foods such as bread, milk and cheese were either very expensive or non-existent. He found shopping to be a very frustrating task. It was a completely hit or miss proposition. Because of these food shortages, his wife decided to pitch in. Being a resourceful woman, Cecilia began to grow a small garden in their back yard. They grew lettuce, tomatoes and green beans to supplement whatever groceries they could buy. Her idea had eventually proven so successful that pretty soon everybody on the block had a garden in his or her back yard.
These new jobs kept Anthony very busy. He was unable to contribute much time to volunteer activities. That is not to say he did nothing, he occasionally helped the church during their clothing and food drives, but never joined any of the groups that went house to house collecting goods. Interestingly enough, he also never purchased any war bonds. His reason: for all his faith in America's technological and industrial superiority, he did not believe that the government would pay those bonds off.
Anthony admits to not thinking back on that period of his life often, if at all. After spending several hours discussing some of his memories with me, I asked him, now looking back fifty-five years later, to sum up his feelings of that period. He remembered feeling proud because two of his younger brothers were willing to give the ultimate sacrifice for their country. He remembered feeling proud that his city, and his country, had pulled together as one to get a job done. However, there was another emotion that superceded these feelings of pride. It was frustration. He was frustrated because it seemed that he always had to work so hard to have so little. That is the memory of World War II he carries with him to this day.
I was rewarding getting two very different views of World War II. I was amazed at the almost completely opposite feelings that Norman and Anthony had concerning their everyday lives. Norman saw the war as a great, fascinating adventure where fathers, sons, brothers, and uncles left for foreign shores to become heroes in an epic story. Anthony viewed America's entry into the war as being essential to bringing the European conflict to a successful, and expedient, conclusion. From both accounts, we get a better understanding of the burdens that blue collar America had to shoulder, and of the sacrifices they made to help defend America's honor.
Entered: 28 August 2000.
Last Updated: 21 May 2001.