The stories of the life of Alphonse Riccardi and his part in the American story remain fresh and grow better with age.
“He loved his family. He loved the military. He loved his country, and — the big one — he loved God,” Maryanne Cerra said of her father.
Riccardi was part of what longtime NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw termed the Greatest Generation, the youngsters who came of age just before and during World War II and are credited with halting, and ultimately defeating, the tyranny of the Axis Powers.
Riccardi preserved a record of his role, keeping a diary of his time and exploits during the war.
The early years
“My father and mother were first-generation Americans,” Cerra said, noting they were living in New York when they met and married. “My father’s first language was Italian.”
Family patriarch Giovanni Riccardi had emigrated from Italy in the late 19th or early 20th century.
Alphonse was born in 1915, the third of five brothers. He also had three sisters, one of whom died in childhood.
Giovanni Riccardi worked hard as a day laborer in New York, learned English and became a U.S. citizen. He insisted, too, that all those in his family learn and speak English.
The family’s lowly circumstances did not keep Alphonse Riccardi’s imagination and ambitions from soaring high. In 1936, he enlisted in the Army with the hope of entering West Point. He trained at Fort Totten, in the Queens borough.
Coming of age in wartime
Riccardi later returned to civilian life, but not for long. In 1941, before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and brought the U.S. into World War II, he was drafted into the Army.
“He wanted to be a pilot,” Cerra said. “He went in as a private and rose to the rank of major in the Air Force Reserve.”
After completing basic training, Riccardi was sent to Victorville, California, to train as a bombardier. On July 30, 1943, he was given his wings and commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Forces.
Riccardi became part of the crew of a B-24 Liberator bomber.
The B-24 was a heavy long-range bomber that could carry four tons of bombs. The four-engine plane was known among airmen as “the flying coffin,” Cerra said, again remembering what her father had told her.
Riccardi’s crew took the name of “Moo Juice,” and a big cow was painted on the nose of the plane and on the backs of the leather flight jackets worn by Riccardi and his crew mates.
The Moo Juice comrades were part of the 454th Bomb Group that was ordered to fly to Italy. The Americans set up their air base at Cerignola.
The living conditions for the American airmen were primitive and austere, and the winter was cold that year. The bomber crews lived in tents, not barracks.
“He said the latrine was just a hole in the ground,” Cerra recalled her father’s telling her.
The reality of war
The harshness on the ground could not compare with the dangers above.
“They had 50 missions. They were only supposed to do 25, but they were not allowed to go home,” Cerra said. “In the middle of the 50, he wrote, ‘I have lost my fearlessness.’”
Those 50 missions included bombing targets in several European countries, including Italy, Germany, Austria, German-occupied France, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania.
Riccardi described his April 24, 1944, mission over Romania.
“Good bombing creates good morale. And we did good today, hitting the marshalling [sic] yards at Bucharest and part of the industrial area. Real solid feeling is so much company — bombers filling the sky as far as you could see. Good [fighter] escorts all the way of [P-]38, [P-]51 and [P-]47. But we got no fighter opposition. Are we depleting their reserves? The enemy cannot take more brutal beatings as of the past few days. Something has to give. Surely the people we fly over on the way to our primary targets must be demoralized. And thankful that we pass them by to reach more important targets,” he wrote.
Yet, the really difficult target in Romania was Ploesti, a complex of oil fields and refineries vital to the Third Reich and its ability to make war.
Because Ploesti provided Germany with as much as 60 percent of its gasoline, the Germans heavily fortified their air defense with both anti-aircraft guns and fighter planes.
The Americans often suffered heavy losses in men and planes when they struck Ploesti.
On May 5, 1944, Riccardi wrote in his diary, “The third time proved the winner, and we really plastered that Ploesti area. Large fires and huge billows of black oil smoke that towered up to white cumulus at 15,000 [feet]. It was not such an easy mission for other groups who were at lower altitudes. Saw parachutes open for the first time and one [B-]24 burn and explode in air. But all parachuted. That part is good news … ..”
A later mission had the same target.
“Paid another visit to Ploesti,” he wrote in August 1944. “This time was a tragic mission. We lost five planes, including all lead elements. Ploesti was completely covered by dense smoke. We could not make a good run what with evasive action and obscurity of target.”
That flight was also the last mission for the Moo Juice crew.
As the bombers were making their return flight to Italy, Riccardi went on to record one battle-fatigued airman “just lost his head when a piece of flak hit him in the belly.” The crewman “threatened to jump” out of the plane, but was saved from doing so.
In addition to the aerial war, Riccardi’s tour of duty in Italy became especially memorable because his life intersected with a youngster enduring the war’s hardships.
“When my Dad got to Italy, he was walking around the base one day, and he saw this little kid named Mario, who was picking up cigarette butts. My Dad starts yelling at him in Italian, ‘You’re a little kid. You can’t smoke!’” Cerra said. “Mario thought, ‘Here is someone speaking to me in Italian.’ He turned around and said he was picking up the cigarette butts to get the tobacco for his father, who did smoke. His family was very poor. Mario became the tent boy for my father and the crew. This kid would run errands for them, and he would take their laundry to his mother.”
Riccardi and his fellow flyers did what many American military personnel in war-ravaged foreign lands have done when they encountered young victims of circumstances beyond their control; they took Mario under their wing, and he became like a son to them.
The boy’s name was Mario Capocefalo.
“My father started to teach Mario English,” Cerra continued. “Every day when my father went on a mission, he would give Mario a list of 10 words, and then he would find out if Mario learned the words. He was a quick study.”
Mario and the bomber crew bonded.
“At one point, their tent caught on fire, and Mario helped put it out,” Cerra said.
“My Dad felt badly for this kid. it was time for my father to go home, and Mario said, “Take me with you!,’” she remembered hearing her father say.
Once back in the U.S., Riccardi lost touch with Mario, but that would not be the end of the story.
Life in peacetime
After the war ended, Riccardi married and furthered his education.
“He credits the military with giving him a life,” Cerra said. “With the GI Bill, he received a master’s degree from Columbia. He was an amateur boxer. He told me once he was a sparring partner with Joe Louis’ sparring partner.”
Riccardi, whose degree was in health education, used his academic training to improve the lives of others.
“He taught in Harlem,” Cerra said, “and he also taught in the Miami-Dade County school system.”
The Riccardi family moved from New York to Broward County in the late 1950s.
Off we go
Riccardi remained in the Air Force Reserve. He was called up for active duty during the Korean War.
“He spent a year in Okinawa,” Cerra said, 1952-53.
The Cold War kept Riccardi on active duty until 1958. During those years, Cerra and her family became one of millions of military families, on the move from base to base and having the children entering and leaving schools quite often.
“I was in seven different schools in the second grade,” she said.
Family stability returned when Riccardi was discharged from active duty. Her father wanted to volunteer for active duty during the Vietnam War, but her mother said no.
Memories come alive
A pleasant surprise came during Riccardi’s retirement.
“Mario called my Dad — 40 years after the end of World War II — he called him out of the blue. My father was crying as they talked,” Cerra said.
Her parents flew to Italy.
“They met Mario, and they kept in touch with each other,” Cerra said.
That was in 1985 or 1986, following a reunion of the old 454th Bomb Group.
Mario, at the time, was working at the Rome Hilton, where he was the hotel’s food manager. Because Riccardi had taught him English, Mario had learned other languages, including French and German, which proved useful in the hospitality sector.
Cerra learned from Mario that he had tried to find Riccardi for some time. Mario, it turned out, had maintained contact with a lieutenant living in another tent on the Cerignola base, James Cavanaugh.
After the 454th Bomb Group reunion, Cavanaugh was able to provide Mario with Riccardi’s address and telephone number.
Mario later visited the U.S., and stayed at Cerra’s home in DeLand.
“He spoke to a group of the neighbors in Victoria Park,” she said. “He also cooked, and when he was in the kitchen, there was no doubt about who was in charge.”
Cerra said she was saddened to learn that Mario died earlier this year.
A life well lived
Cerra remembers her father, who died in 2003, as a role model, the perfect parent.
“I never heard my father tell a dirty joke, or gossip, or put people down. He tutored me through geometry, Shakespeare, history and chemistry,” Cerra said.
Her father’s wartime diary is a priceless family treasure that is part of the greater mosaic of World War II history, a piece of the bigger picture that is preserved for posterity.
Riccardi’s story is one of millions of stories of those who went through the crucible of the war that likely claimed as many as 100 million lives in all of its far-flung theaters.
Maryanne Cerra said her father, Alphonse Riccardi, loved to write, as evidenced by his wartime diary. Several years after World War II, he wrote an essay titled “My most memorable Christmas away from home.” Here are excerpts from that piece, describing the December 1943 flight from the U.S. to Italy, via Brazil, where they stopped and spent the holiday.
“I heard the announcement that Christmas Eve Mass would be celebrated at midnight, and all would be welcome to attend.
“As it was, Special Services would present a Christmas Eve singalong before Mass. When we got to the bandstand, we spread out on the grass not far away. The band was playing, and we had a good spot up close.
“We sat relaxed, with a beautiful moon up above. So close it seemed you could stretch out and touch it. Of course, we made note that the same full moon was shining over our loved ones back home.
“Then the big surprise — Nelson Eddy, the famed movie actor and singer. We greeted him with an orderly crescendo of shouts and cheers. Then, not a sound, as he began to sing with the familiar mellifluous baritone we heard in the movies.
“Gradually, he moved into singing our favorite Christmas carols. Then we could feel it coming up, the grand finale of “Silent Night, Holy Night.”
“Not a sound from any of us, as dreams of Christmas past flowed through our memories.
“I was the first to stand, as I said, “Well, I’d better get going or the chapel will be packed. When they asked, I explained that Mass at Christmas Eve was a hereditary tradition in our family back home.
“Surprise! Surprise! They asked if they could go with me. Of course!
“The whole crew accompanied me — three Protestants, three Catholics, two Jews and three free-thinkers. We found room upstairs in the choir loft, closer to Heaven, we joked.
“As I knelt in prayer, I kept thinking, “Here we are, different faiths in church together. Why can’t we live in peace every day, respecting each other’s differences with tolerance?” Sorry to say, I keep wondering that to this day!”