In Memory of Vito D’Alessandro
1921 – 2010
by Linda Grisolia, Fra Noi Newspaper
Vito D’Alessandro was born and raised in the Chicago neighborhood of Ohio and Ogden Avenue. He was one of nine children of Nick and Rose (Lieggi) D’Alessandro.
As a teen, he was a seminary student studying to become a priest. D’Alessandro’s parents were experiencing hard times financially, so he left the seminary and found a job with International Harvester.
D’Alessandro made parts for Army tanks, a position which, as a government job, deferred him from active duty. However, D’Alessandro said, “I wanted excitement” and joined the Army in 1943.
After completing basic training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, D’Alessandro transferred to Camp Howze, Texas, for further training. He was assigned to the 778th Tank Battalion, Company B, where he was a gunner on the Sherman medium heavy tank.
From Texas, D’Alessandro boarded a train for a brief stay at Camp Myles Standish, Mass., for the final preparations before disembarking overseas. Here, he heard lectures, underwent inspections and learned the correct method of abandoning ship and living in a lifeboat.
In early September 1944, D’Alessandro headed to the port where he, along with thousands of other soldiers, boarded the SS Monticello. They traveled in a convoy for the nine-day voyage across the ocean. There were many alerts and, D’Alessandro said, “I wondered if I would ever come back alive.”
The Monticello landed in Normandy amidst the sunken ships and floating debris of the June 6 invasion. D’Alessandro spent the first night in a muddy field and got his tank the next day. His unit was the leading tank battalion for Gen. Patton, and the men fought their way over 3,000 miles from the Normandy beaches to Czechoslovakia. The tanks made the breakthrough and the infantry followed.
The battalion had five companies, and each had five tanks. Each tank carried five men, and they all knew each other’s job. D’Alessandro was a gunner in the top turret, where he manned the 76mm cannon.
D’Alessandro’s tank advanced through France, Germany, Luxemburg, Austria and Czechoslovakia, going from town to town capturing them. Prisoners were turned over to the Military Police. The tanks left when the infantry arrived for occupation. “We were just the fighters,” D’Alessandro said.
When night fell, the tanks would take shelter in a captured town and the men took turns guarding the tank and sleeping in a house. They sometimes had eggs and fresh food. If there was no town nearby, depending on the situation, the tanks kept moving, day and night. D’Alessandro said, “We were always looking through the peep holes, ready to fire.”
D’Alessandro spent most of the time in the tank, through all kinds of weather, fighting, eating and sleeping. He said, “You freeze in the winter and perspire in summer.” Once, when the tank was parked and the artillery sounded off in the distance, D’Alessandro tried to get some sleep and one of his buddies asked, “How the hell could you sleep on the floor with all that artillery?” D’Alessandro responded, “If it’s going to hit you, it’s going to hit you.”
D’Alessandro remembered fighting in the town of Fulda, Germany. He said, “We bombed the hell out of them.” He took the German flag down from the pole, and that flag is now displayed in the Italian American Veterans Museum and Library in Stone Park.
The worst battle was in Metz, France, in November 1944. D’Alessandro said that is where they faced the most opposition. Forty-three forts with 128 artillery pieces surrounded the city. The tanks attacked the forts one by one and closed in and surrounded Metz. They lost one day, waiting for gas, but then they plowed in to capture the city. D’Alessandro said, “The Germans caught a beating. We chased them out and went after them.”
D’Alessandro spent Christmas Eve driving from Luxembourg to the Battle of the Bulge. The fighting was hard and the weather was cold and snowy, but D’Alessandro said it was worse for the soldiers on foot.
He remembers approaching a town where a white flag flew and the tanks rolled in. All of a sudden, artillery came in at them. D’Alessandro got orders to shoot the tower of the church because it was thought someone was up there spying on them. He took careful aim and shot at the tower, knocking it down. The tanks advanced and captured the town without further incident.
D’Alessandro discovered the church was filled with people; no one was injured. The church had not been hit, only the tower. D’Alessandro said, “That was my best shot. It was Easter Sunday.”
In the 3,000 miles he covered, D’Alessandro’s tank was hit twice. The first time, the tank was going downhill when the enemy attacked. The men escaped the fiery tank and were “scratched” from shrapnel. D’Alessandro never reported it. He said, “That was my mistake. I was afraid they’d send me back to the States.”
The second time, a fireball exploded in the tank and the men escaped through the hatch underneath. D’Alessandro’s right eye was injured and he lost some sight, which worsened over the years. Again, D’Alessandro did not say anything. He said, “We were in the front lines … who were you going to report it to?”
Both times his tank was hit, D’Alessandro said, “You just get the hell out of it.” He remembered blowing up German tanks. D’Alessandro said, “You don’t think of anything. It’s war, there’s no time to think.” He saw death and destruction and said, “I’ve seen things that it’s hard to believe.”
Cpl. D’Alessandro was in Czechoslovakia when the war ended, and was able to take a leave to visit relatives in Italy, a welcome relief for him. He was discharged in 1946. Among his awards are three Battle Stars. D’Alessandro returned home to Chicago and joined the Active Reserves. He worked in ordnance supply, where he trained men for regular duty and was called to active duty in 1961 because of the Berlin Crisis.
D’Alessandro twice received the Chicago Tribune Outstanding Achievement Award, which was given to deserving reservists. He retired in 1981 as Sergeant Major.
A devout Catholic, D’Alessandro carried his prayer book and rosary with him at all times during the war, along with a small statue of the Madonna which he found in the first captured town. Reflecting on the war, D’Alessandro said, “There was good and bad; I made the best of it. I was an Army man and I was proud to serve. The Lord’s been good to me.”
In his civilian life, he worked at a leather goods company and married Lillian Calomino and had two children, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
He was an active member of the Italian American War Veterans Post #1 and the Italian American Executives of Transportation. He held several offices and chaired several committees for the IAET, earning the organization’s President’s Award in 1998 and the organization’s first Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
The IAET greatly misses his leadership, and great friendship.