Raritan Guys Meet Relatives in Italy During World War II
In mid-1943, the Italian Emperor and the citizens of Italy rose up and overthrew their brutal dictator Benito Mussolini. With Fascism overthrown, the Italian government surrendered and offered to switch sides and fight with the Allies. A strange offer, but understandable as they had initially been forced into an alliance with Germany. Initially their offer to switch sides did not mean much, as the Germans still controlled most of Italy. However, the U.S. had begun the invasion of Italy and were liberating the country, one province at a time. By mid-1944, many regions in Italy had been liberated from German control.

This gave some of the Raritan GIs stationed in Italy a chance to meet relatives, ones they had never met before. In this era, travel overseas (even without a war) was minimal. People who left Italy to come to the U.S. for a better life sometimes never saw their relatives again. They would stay in touch through letters and photos, but never meet again.
Dominick Menci, of 27 Thompson Street, used a break in the war to contact and meet his Italian relatives whom he had never met. He had heard so much about them from his family. Dominick was a mechanic in the Army Air Force. From his base, he was able to make the journey to the Italian village of Ruvo del Monte to meet them. It was quite a trip, first by airplane, then by motorcycle, and the last leg by foot.

He met his maternal grandmother, who still lived in the same home that his mother grew up in. Also, there were two aunts, an uncle, many cousins, and some second (even third) cousins. They were so thrilled to meet their American relative that they held a dinner-dance for him. The main course at this dinner was, of course, home-cooked spaghetti.

Dominick wrote home that the relatives were very jolly and they were all very nice to him. It was like a dream to meet them. He also wrote that they had felt the effects of the war. One of his cousin’s husbands had been killed in the war. They needed clothes, but any new clothes were impossible to get due to the war. When Dominick reluctantly had to return to his base, his Uncle Vito arranged for him to travel by mule for the first 20 miles. His Aunt Carmella gave him some food to be eaten on the journey back. That special dish was a cooked pigeon.
Frank Esola was also able meet his Italian relatives for the first time during the war. He contacted his Uncle Dominick, whom he had never met. They agreed to meet at an Army hospital close by. When Frank saw his uncle arrive at the meeting point, he knew who he was right away, as he looked so much like another of his uncles. After a quick introduction, they drove for an hour to the town of Tonchiati. When they arrived, Frank was amazed by the reception.

He wrote: The people gathered around me like I was God come to help them. They all tried to kiss me. Inside the house, it was jammed with people. They had to lock the door to keep the neighbors out. Grandma was so happy to meet me she started crying. They asked me a billion questions about the folks in Raritan. He would go on to write how the family had not felt the war too badly, stating they still had their home. (In wartime Italy, many Italian homes were destroyed by the Germans.)
A newphew of Tony Orlando, Frank Fontenello, was with the Army Air Force. He was another GI who was able to meet with his Italian relatives. He traveled to the village of Angri in the province of Salerno where his uncle Tony Orlando was born. (Tony had left Angri to come to this country in 1902, when he was 10 years old, with his mother and seven other children. One of them would become Frank Fontenello’s mother.)

In Angri, Frank would meet relatives that he had only heard about and a few relatives he had never heard of. He enjoyed the experience, writing back to Tony, I was thrilled to find someone way over here that used to know your mom and uncle when they were small. In Angri, he met his great uncle Matthew, who was a priest in town. Upon visiting the church of his uncle he wrote, I think the church is really beautiful, there is a small dome where the heads of angels are carved-out real nice. To his surprise, he met the sister of his grand-father, who was still alive in her 80s. He never even knew that his grand-father had a sister.

In one home there was a photo of his grandfather on display. That same photo hung on his wall at home. Frank spent a lot of time with Uncle Matthew, exchanging some old stories and discussed how many children each family member now had.