|Highlights of The Tony Orlando Letters|
|During World War II Raritan servicemen fighting overseas wrote hundreds of letters home to Tony Orlando who owned The Centennial Tavern in Raritan. Tony Orlando had formed The Raritan Victory Club which sent hundreds of packages to “Our Boys Overseas”. These packages included cigarettes, candy, nuts, pencils, socks, and countless other much needed supplies which made a soldier’s dreary life just a little more tolerable . The grateful servicemen wrote letters back to Tony Orlando expressing their thanks and sharing their thoughts and experiences on this epic conflict. Because of censorship, which was heavily enforced, they could not say anything specific about their location, weapons, or details of battles fought. But their words expressed their feelings toward “Army Life”, thoughts of home, the destruction they witnessed, and their genuine thanks to Tony for the “swell” packages they received.|
|Copies of the original letters can be found at |
The Raritan Library in The Basilone Museum. There are over 300 letters
There were many common topics in these letters. One of them was getting used to life in the military. While history books today just tell about the battles fought, most time in the military, especially during the first year, was spent taking orders and learning to adhere to the discipline of military service. Even this patriotic bunch we deservingly call “The Greatest Generation” who were fighting “The Good War” had some gripes about boot camp as we can see from the quotes below.
| John Cox (32 Anderson St.)
wrote home from boot camp:
“I don't have much time to myself yet, as I'm too new, and they work us pretty hard. We have to make our beds, wash our clothes, scrub the floor on our hands and knees, etc. When I get back, I'll sure make someone a good wife.”
|Andy Bayus (59 E Somerset St.) |
gave this short analysis of his first day in the service:
“You ought to see the haircut they give you here in camp. You get on the chair and in 10 seconds you are out.”
Joe Navatto Jr. (60 First Ave. - Uncle of today’s Mayor Jo-Ann Liptak), who was older than the other recruits had trouble keeping up with the younger soldiers during training exercises wrote:
“Tony, this is a tough life for an old man like me. About 95% of the boys here average about 22 years of age. … We had our first 10 mile hike today. This is all sand country, you know how hard walking in sand is … We had a full pack, gas-mask, and rifle. Quite a load, but I managed to get back. My feet hurt like hell. Well that's part of the game. Well Tony I have to get some sleep now, 6:30 AM gets here very early.”
*Tom Benvenuti (56 First Ave.) commented that even writing a letter home in boot camp was not that easy:|
“Darn I am sweating like hell while writing - all there is here is sand and some cactus plants.”
At the end of boot camp there was always the uncertainty of where your unit would be heading to next. The service was always full of rumors and anxiety.
This can be seen in Sebastian Conti’s (Canal St.) remark:
“Life here is at a standstill, we are getting nowhere in a hurry. Rumor has it that we will move east but that is just a rumor, remember that.”
Perhaps Benny Barone’s (Tony Orlando’s brother in-law who lived in Bound Brook) comment summed it up for most servicemen: |
“This army life is not so bad after you get used to it, but it is pretty tough at the start.”
When the Raritan guys moved out of boot camp and into the real battle
the comments they made from overseas were much more positive and patriotic.
|Peter Melnyk (524 Bell Ave.) reflected on the changing priorities that he had now taken on:|
“Well Tony baseball season is just around the corner and I guess I will miss it again this year…. I had to hang up my suit just like the other boys did, and play a bigger game. This is one game I am going to win by a big score, a game for Freedom, and we won't lose.”
had a positive spin on the Marine Corp:|
“Mr. Orlando this is a good place for young men in the U. S. Marine Corp because it really makes a good man out of you. I'll have some pictures made of myself when I get home and I'll give you one for the frame.”
Frank Fortenello, Tony Orlando’s nephew, was proud of his fellow soldiers, but seemed to doubt his own skills saying:
“Uncle Tony I don't profess to be a good soldier, for I am not, but I am proud inside to see officers and men about me who are. Men who can take 100 miles of this jungle territory and not get lost, men who are afraid of nothing, but not seeing their folks again.”
Rocco Pomponio wrote:
“Well Tony everything by me is fine, working like hell but I don't mind. It is for a good cause.”
| Devastation of War|
As they fought their way across Europe toward Germany the soldiers witnessed the devastation caused by war.
They wrote home to Tony Orlando about this.
|Dominic Insana (16 W Somerset St.) saw what the Germans had done in France:
“Well here I am in France and it sure is a dreary place, most of the town is all shot to pieces, all you can see is buildings blown down and the streets are all full of stones, dirt, and bricks. Everywhere you look you see nothing but destruction … it is pretty hard on the people who live here.”
|Andy Bayus when moving through a town in France he observed how destroyed the town was. He was impressed by the cemetery that was made
for those who lost their lives trying to save the town:|
“Went to the town that was here and it’s all shot up - nothing left but the walls of the buildings. Then went to the cemetery where they buried the boys that were killed here and you should see how nice they have it laid out.”
|Art Soriano (Nevius St. – He is the Grandfather of Raritan Councilman Anthony Soriano) in January of 1945 wrote:|
“I spent xmas at sea and New Years in France … and now somewhere in Belgium. They have sure messed up plenty of villages … most of the places we went through got a taste of war. “ As they moved closer to Germany Art Soriano commented again in February 1945 about the destruction, he wanted to tell more, but he knew he would not get it past the military censors who read every letter: “I could write more often, but … what I wanted to write they would censor out, so there is no use trying. We recently moved to Germany, all places look the same to me, all banged up and deserted.”
|Jack Torpey had a simple statement about what he had seen:
“This thing called war is really an awful state of things. Tony there are not many who can know what I mean, who have not been in it. It's really lousy.”
|Henry Matties (13 Anderson St.) as his unit moved into Germany in early 1945 wrote:|
“Every town we have gone through so far is nothing but side walls and a few sticks left in the roof, and if it don't end pretty soon the whole German nation will be living in pup tents.”
|D-Day / France |
Before the Allied invasion of France, which is today known as D-Day, the censors were somewhat lenient
as the pending massive invasion was no secret as it was the main topic of all news reports.
Frank Zanetti (45 Gaston Ave.) wrote home on June 2nd, 1944, just 4 days before the invasion saying:|
“As you know by reading the papers that the biggest show on earth will take place sometime in the near future. I expect to be in that show.”
Just 13 days later another letter from Frank Zanetti dated June 15th, 1944 (9 days after the D-Day invasion) showed that indeed he was in “the biggest show on earth”. This letter gave some idea of what he had seen and been through:
“Well Tony it has finally started and I am in it. There is very little I can say about it right now. I will say that I know now what war is like. I have had several experiences. I have seen ruins which are caused by war and needlessly to say I have seen the dead. In spite of everything Tony it hasn't been too bad for me so far. Am getting used to sleeping on the ground and with my clothes on.”
After D-Day the Allies fought on towards Paris liberating the city. Frank Zanetti was one of the soldiers who went through Paris soon after the U.S. Army had liberated the city away from the Germans. He wrote about the reaction that the French had to the arrival of the Americans:
“Passed through Paris about 2 weeks ago. Boy sure is a nice place. … The people there are sure glad to see us. They would swarm all over you shaking your hand and kissing. And the girls are pretty too.”
|While it was a warm welcome at first for the U.S. troops, as time went on our relationship with the French would degenerate as the comment below shows.|
|John Fascoli (79 Second Ave.) who was in France a couple of months after the war in Europe was over wrote this about our friends in Paris:|
“Paris today is a dull dead lifeless city. The people have no ambition and are lazy as hell. Prices are crazy - $1.50 for a drink of Cognac; the people pay $25 for a pair of wooden shoes. Of course we live and deal only at Army centers, so we are not affected as long as we leave the French market alone - and we do.”
|Comments on Basilone's Medal of Honor |
In 1943 many of the Raritan guys expressed their pride in Basilone being from their hometown.
They were also thrilled by the large welcome home parade that was held for Basilone in September of 1943.
|Rocco Pomponio wrote:
“Well Tony it's sure nice to have a soldier like Basilone that comes from Raritan. He sure put Raritan on top. I hope that we could all do as much and get this war over with. I wish I was at home to see it all. I bet it was a beautiful parade. I also get The Raritan Valley News and I sure got a thrill out of reading all about Basilone.”
Stanley Waida (119 W. Somerset St.) wrote:
“I see by the papers and also in the Life Magazine about Raritan's hero Johnny Basilone. My hats off to him and the many others like him in this war. He sure did a wonderful job.”
John Kraly added: |
“I read about the Basilone fellow in The Raritan Valley News. I know he deserves plenty of credit because I know what he was up against, out here, and it makes me feel glad to know we both came from the same town.”
|Larry Carnevale (31 Gaston Ave.) said:|
“I guess all of the fellows who left Raritan have heard of Johnny Basilone where ever they may be. It's really something to brag about down here. He's a great guy.”
|Humor in The Insanity|
Despite being in life threatening situations some of our Raritan servicemen added humor to their letters.
Frank Kelly (11 Gaston Ave.) in March of 1945 started a letter with a line that sounded like he might be on vacation:
“The island I am now on is not so bad.”
But his second sentence brought in the reality of war:
“There are still quite a few japs left and some hard fighting ahead. They have some pretty good equipment and are still full of fight.”
He closed his letter off by using a phase which would just be an expression in peace time, but was all too accurate when he wrote:
“Well Tony it's almost dark and lights have to go out, so it's back to my hole for the night.”
One letter by Angelo Bernabe (5 LaGrange St.) written from Germany was of interest. |
The letter is dated April 18th, 1945, he expressed hope to avoid any more combat:
“I did see a little action and I hope I don’t see any more.”
However, that wish did not come true as just three days later he was injured when his tank was hit. He would wake up in the hospital two weeks later. Sixty-Three years later in 2008 Angelo Bernabe would serve as Grand Marshall of the Basilone Parade.
|Raritan Guys Killed in the War|
Another topic that filled the pages of the letters sent home from overseas was the Raritan guys who were killed in the war.
| Joe Sian (110 W Somerset St.) one of the few letter writers who are still alive today,
wrote from his ship in the Pacific about two of the guys who made the supreme sacrifice:
“I got a letter from my sister saying that Joseph Spatt of Gaston Ave. was killed in action. I was very sorry to hear that. He was only 19 years old too. That makes the 13th one killed in Raritan. That's a lot for a small town like Raritan. I wish this damn war would end soon.”
“My wife wrote and told me that Joe Lamastro is missing in action. I was very sorry to here that. He was out here with me, but I never got a chance to see him. It's a shame because he had a wife and kid.” (Joe Sian served as the Grand Marshall of The Basilone Parade in 2009)
|Anthony Musz (20 Gaston Ave.) while in France just after the war ended in Europe in September of 1945 wrote how he was trying
to get a photo of Peter Petras’s grave – (Petra’s was a Raritan guy that was killed in the war):|
“Well I went up in a plane just a week ago hoping to take some pictures of Peter Petras grave but we couldn't land since the strip was out of operation for two months and the pilot didn't feel like taking a chance so we did some cruising for nearly 3 hours.”
While Anthony Musz initially could not get the picture of Peter Petras grave, a letter written two months later shows that he did succeed in getting to the grave site with a camera. “I sure would like to hear from that Petras family as to how they like those pictures for I still have time to make another trip down to the cemetery before I leave but I'm still carrying the negatives so that they can be reproduced when I bring them home with me.”
Frank Kelly, who like many other soldiers was sent copies of the local papers while overseas, wrote:|
“I get the Raritan Valley News and The Somerset Gazette. It sort of keeps you posted on all the things at home. I was very sorry to read about the Raritan boys that were killed in action. I can understand how their family feels, so Tony lets all of us get on our knees and pray to God to end this terrible war so that no more of our boys will be lost.”
|Quotes About The Death of John Basilone|
After John Basilone was killed on February 19th, 1945, the Raritan guys expressed their feelings to Tony Orlando.
Joe Rita (43 First St.) gave a nice tribute:
“Johnny Basilone's death came as quite a shock. He had plenty of guts and went out as a great champion. They don't come any tougher.”
|Rocco Pomponio added:|
“Well Tony I'm very sorry to hear the bad news about John Basilone. But God may help him and guide the rest of us. And also to make this war come to an end very soon.”
|Jimmy Valeri, (41 First Ave.) had the opportunity to talk to George Basilone, John’s brother who was also serving overseas in the Marines.
He wrote this:
“Mrs. Fox said George Basilone was down there for a few days. I went down to see him. In the afternoon we sat around and talked. George told me all about how Johnny was killed. He was only a short distance away, but it was days before he knew anything about it. Some of the other boys knew it, but were afraid to tell him. The kid looks pretty good for one who has been through so much.”
|Al Gaburo (500 Frelinghuysen Ave.) may have said the most accurate statement, when he closed out his tribute to John Basilone by saying:|
“He will live forever.”
|Thanks to Tony|
The Raritan soldiers overseas expressed their true thanks to Tony Orlando for the packages and letters they received
Rocco Pomponio said this:
“I am very happy to hear of you forming the Raritan Victory Club for us. You said the club was started with ten members and now you have one hundred and ten members. That’s really wonderful. And God bless you, no one will ever forget you because you really doing your share for the boys in the service.”
In another letter, Rocco said he wanted to do something special for Tony:
“’I’d like to thank you again for all you are doing for the boys. And just for that I'm going to kill a Jap for you.
|Dan Memoli (11 Doughty St. - father of today’s Raritan Fire Chief Carl Memoli) expressed his surprise at receiving a package from home:
“Yesterday at mail call, I was handed a package. I had not requested a package … so you can realize my surprise when the mail clerk handed me this one. I want to therefore thank you at this time for your thoughtfulness to us men in the service.”
|John Cox (32 Anderson St.), said:
“Many thanks for the card, letter, and Christmas Package. I assure you all three are deeply appreciated. I realize how busy you are writing to the boys from town who are now fighting in all corners of the globe. They realize it too, and will never forget it.”
|Joe Rita had two of his fellow army friends on leave come to Raritan and they received the red carpet treatment on their visit.
He wrote back to express his thanks to Tony:|
“My two friends Moses and Stan haven't stopped talking of the nice treatment they got in Raritan. They say you have a swell place and that you, Joe, and Al are great fellows. They knew all about the Orlando family before coming to Raritan. It didn’t take them long to find out how swell you are the moment they met you. We sure appreciate everything. Thanks a million.”
|Tony Cirello (56 Second Ave.)
“Basilone sends his regards to all in town and especially to you Tony. He told me that you are doing a great job and to keep it up. Tony the fellows in the service will never forget you and all the things you done for them, they will always worship you as if you were a father to them.”
| Larry Carnevale (31 Gaston Ave.) had this to say:|
“I received the swell package you sent me and I can't express in words my appreciation… It isn't only the package that made me feel good, but the feeling behind it. I know you people home are really doing your part and take it from me, you are doing a swell job.”
| John Kraly showed that all Raritan soldiers were on the distribution list for packages not just Tony’s friends:
“Just a few lines to let you know that I received your Christmas Package. It was an unexpected surprise, but most welcome. I don't know just who you are but your thoughtfulness is appreciated.”
|Life During Wartime|
Many glimpses of war life can be seen in the following few excerpts.
Tony’s son Matthew Orlando (19 Wall St.) as his unit was marching toward Germany wrote:
“I am now living in a house. It is really a swell break for us. I expect to take a shower in a couple days. I haven't showered in a couple of months.”
|Anthony Musz (20 Gaston Ave.) echoed some of the shortages experienced in Europe:|
“Things sure are rough here for we sleep with only two blankets, get only four packs of smokes a week and seldom get toothpaste.”
|John Strelko (3 Glaser Ave.)
who was with the U.S. Army that had liberated a war ravaged Belgium told of how grateful the local people were.
“We are in Belgium. The people are very good to us. What little they have they are willing to share with the soldiers.”
|Peter Melnyk (524 Bell Ave.) in 1945 was assigned to the heavily destroyed Philippines. His thoughts were:|
“Well Tony they got me now in the Philippines. I have been here a few months and I saw enough of it.”
|Frank Kelly who identified his location on his letter as “an island with Japs” wrote:|
“Our food consists of rations now, but we hope to get better food soon. Those rations are alright for a few days, but after that, they are terrible.”
|Thoughts of Home|
One never knew how much he appreciated his home town until he was away from it for an extended period of time.
|John Basilone (113 First Ave.) in September of 1944 wrote:
"I'm a married man now, also I am back overseas. Tony Cirello is also down here with me. It sure is nice to have someone from your home town with you. We just got back from seeing a movie together. Well how is everything back in Raritan – Okay? Tony and I are now waiting for Al Gaburo to get down here with us."
|Al Gaburo could picture life back at Raritan in The Centennial Tavern when he wrote:
“Tony its Sunday afternoon and I could just picture the boys at The Centennial. Some busy at the bar, others playing cards, some playing shuffle board, and some just hanging around. I often think about that for it does bring back pleasant memories. However, I am anticipating that this war shall end in the very near future so that I may again join the gang.”
|Sal Barone wrote:
“Someday I and the rest of the boys will be back in the old town and enjoy what we are now fighting for.”
|Rocco Pellechio (17 Raritan Ave.)
“No matter where a fellow goes or what he does there is no better town than the one he has come from, be it big or small.”
|Peter Melnyk (524 Bell Ave.) appreciated the work that the homefront was doing in the local war production plants:
“It is nice to know people back home are doing their part to end this war putting out production.”
|Michael DeCicco (10 Anderson St.) who was serving in the navy on the The USS Houston in 1944 commented:
“The Raritan boys are well represented out here and we are really giving them hell. I hope and pray that it will soon be over so we can all get back home and all the boys get together and really have a good time.” (Michael DeCicco, is one of just two letter writers in this collection that are known to be alive today. In 1941, Michael had been at Pearl Harbor on the day of the famous attack. In 2005, he was the Grand Marshall of The John Basilone Parade)
|Frank Kelly (11 Gaston Ave.) paid a good tribute to his hometown.
“I sure miss all the fellows and the town, the more of this world I see, the more I appreciate Raritan.”
|Fred Lapinsky wrote how he boasted of his hometown while overseas:
I often tell the boys in my company of what a nice little town Raritan is and of the Raritan River where I had a lot of fun when I was a boy. It is a swell town and I hope to be back there soon.”
|V-E Day - Germany Surrenders - But Japan Continues the Fight|
On May 8th, 1945 Germany Surrendered. While it was a cause for celebration, the battle was not fully over as Japan continued to fight on.
Several of the Raritan servicemen wrote about it:
|Jimmy Valeri (41 First Ave.) explained
“V-E Day was officially announced today, but no one here got very excited about it because we know that there is a hard, long struggle before all of us. We will have to wait until Japan is done before we celebrate. … If Japan is wise she will see that theirs is a hopeless case and perhaps she will surrender. From now on we can all expect to be busy out here because no doubt there won't be any time wasted getting men and material out here to finish the job. “
|Art Soriano said|
“Guess you are all celebrating the VE- Day, it’s sure something to celebrate but, here all us boys took the news calmly. We had a few bottles of French wine so we killed that. ... Sure wish I was home for the occasion. Too bad the Pacific is still going on.”
|Rocco Pomponio and his unit luckily found a stash of wine in their trek across Germany:
“Well Tony the Germans really go for wine, we sure found plenty of wine they had put away for their V-E Day, but it happen to be just vice versa. They kept it for us and now us GIs are really going to town on it. And it’s good too.”
|Al Gaburo commented on how it would be difficult to get the Japanese to surrender:
“I hope and pray that we might get some help from the other nations - especially England and Russia. Receiving help from them would help shorten the war and at the same time remove a portion of our burden. But it appears as though it is our war and that we alone must see it through. It will and shall be done. The nips are taking a terrible pounding by air and losing ground consistently. How much longer can they hold out? They know, as well as us, that victory for us is eminent. Yet they hate and fear shame.”
|John Gabinelli, wrote of how the death of Franklin Roosevelt which happened on the eve of victory put a damper on the news:|
“I guess it was sure one happy day for you when the war was over in Germany. But to tell you the truth, no one here seemed to be excited one bit. There was quite a difference between the president dying and the war being over. Everyone talked about what a great guy we lost, but hardly anything was said about Germany falling.”
|V-J Day - Japan Surrenders - World War II Ends|
When the Japanese surrendered on August 14th, 1945, it marked the end of World War II. The town of Raritan had a big spontaneous celebration. News of this celebration was sent to the guys overseas in letters. They wrote back their thoughts about the party in Raritan and the war’s end.
|Al Gaburo wrote a touching letter which stands among the best of the 300 letters written home to Tony Orlando during the war. The highlights are:|
“To us it meant that the horrors of war were a thing of the past. We received the news with a great deal of happiness. We celebrated by cheering and singing. Most of us went to the chapel and gave thanks to the lord. It meant that we would no longer have to trust our luck. It meant we would soon be returned to our loved ones.
From the reports that I get, I rather surmised that you boys had a hell of a good time upon hearing of Japan's surrender. Your letter to me was self-explanatory. I could readily see that you were one happy person … I was happy to note that you made your promise good Tony. I well remember the day when you told me the very words that "your place would be open to everyone when final victory came!" I do admire you for your sincerity … I could just picture the gang parading the streets of Raritan, drunker than hell. I'll bet they even brought their bottles along with them. Lucky Stiffs.”
|Joe Bernabe (5 LaGrange St.) had heard of the celebration that took place in Raritan:
“My folks told me of the wild celebration that took place in town when the official announcement of the war's end was made known. It really must have been something from out of this world with the cheering and noise that filled the air.”
|Michael Musz and his gang in France celebrated the old fashioned way:|
“Many people went wild when the war ended and I think all the boys who fought this war feel the same way … we have to enjoy peace as best we can. I got a good load on by drinking Champagne from France.”
|A few units took a calmer approach to the war’s end. Anthony Orlando, one of Tony’s sons, told of his reaction:|
“Very glad to hear you had a swell time celebrating V-J day. I know what it means to you and Mom and everyone home … When V-J day came we just acted as if it was another day... everyone here is waiting to get home to celebrate.”
|We are missing photos of several of the letter writers|
if anyone has a military photo (or regular photo) of any of the following guys:
Frank Kelly, Frank Fortenello, Henry Matties, Jack Torpey, John Kraly, Mike Troisi, John Baglioni, John Gabinelli, or Fred Lapinsky
Please email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call Bruce Doorly at (908) 581-1917
|Copies of the original letters can be found at |
The Raritan Library in The Basilone Museum. There are over 300 letters