Look Homeward, Soldier

by Ilan Mochari

Bob Hardy, photo by Kelly MacDonald

“He must have been one hell of a man when he was in the military.”

Bob Hardy, Commander of George Dilboy VFW Post 529 (371 Summer St), was talking about a World War II veteran. Hardy had spotted the man on Holland Ave during Somerville’s previous four Memorial Day parades. “He’s always standing there in his uniform, in this Eisenhower jacket, and he always salutes us. He’s gotta be close to 90 years old,” continued Hardy, who served in the Army as a medic in Vietnam.

The scene was American Legion Post #19 (124 Highland Ave), a humid Thursday evening. The Somerville Allied Veterans’ Council had just wrapped up a session planning Somerville’s 2010 Memorial Day parade.

After the meeting, a few dozen veterans – just a handful of the roughly 8,000 living in Somerville – stuck around Post #19. Some played darts. Others drank and smoked at the bar, following the Red Sox on the flat-screen TV. Classic rock played from a jukebox.

At a small wooden table some Army men shared the Somerville segments of their life stories. Stephen Silvestri, born in 1956 at Somerville hospital, later a cook at Kay and Chips; Ed Clough, 66, a graduate of Somerville High School, who served alongside Silvestri’s older brother; Joseph Zmitrowicz, 70, who moved to Union Square’s Kilby St (he calls it “Kilby Alley”) when he was eight. Zmitrowicz also keeps his military-issued “1C” card in his wallet, indicating that he was honorably discharged.

Later in the evening, Hardy and Bob Hickey, a 22-year veteran of the Marines who is President of SAVC, joined the conversation. Hickey discussed his experience in Iraq serving under arguably Somerville’s most accomplished military man, General John Sheehan. Hardy revealed his plan to honor the veteran he saw on Holland Ave every year.

Hardy’s hope was to lead the World War II soldier from his usual position on the sidewalk into the middle of the street. There, the five soldiers marching behind Hardy in the parade could acknowledge the veteran’s service by halting the parade and posing him in front of the Medal of Honor flag – a light blue banner spangled with 13 white stars.

After many smokes and beers, with summary laments like “Papelbon screwed up” coming from bar patrons – Mickey Curtin, 80, sat down. A combat engineer who served in the Korean War shortly after graduating SHS in 1948, Curtin directed Somerville’s Office of Veterans’ Services for 40 years (1960-2000).

In that position, he helped returning veterans – or the relatives of deceased veterans – slice through knotty federal red tape to collect their benefits. “Vietnam veterans were given a raw deal when they came home, just like the Korean veterans were,” he says. “There were no big parades or hullabaloos like there were after World War II. We just came back and melted into the fabric of the city.” Curtin, for his part, ran a small fruit store in Magoun Sq before finding his niche in Veterans’ Services.

There are thousands of World War II and Korea veterans living in Somerville. Frank Senesi, the current director of Veterans Services, a Somerville native who won two Purple Hearts as a Marine in Vietnam, puts the World War II number at just over 1,000 and the Korean number at roughly 1,800.

But those figures are hard to verify because of relocations and deaths. By most estimates, more than 850 American veterans of World War II and Korea die every day. Somerville lost at least two older veterans this spring: Francis X. Doherty Sr., 71, a Navy man who was adjutant of Disabled American Veterans Chapter 27 (616 Broadway); and John R. McKenzie, 85, who served in an Army artillery battalion in World War II. In addition, since Memorial Day of 2009, 13 veterans from Post #19 have passed away; and 21 veterans of James Logan VFW Post 6800 have passed.

All of which meant that, come Memorial Day, there was a chance that Hardy’s idea would not come to pass.

Somerville is home to two VFW posts, three American Legion Posts and one Disabled American Veterans post. But Tony’s Barber Shop (294 Broadway) may be the center of the action.

Step inside the 600-square-foot space and you’ll find six folding chairs for waiting customers and two rise-and-fall chairs for haircuts. One of the two barber chairs is manned by the second-generation owner, Tony Matarazzo, 83, who served in the Navy from 1944-46. The other is manned by Phil Vozzella, 60, who spent more than 20 years in the Army Reserve.

Vozzella estimates that about 60 percent of their customers are veterans. About five years ago, he began to compile photos, clips and other memorabilia from Somerville soldiers in a three-ring loose-leaf binder. The binder is labeled “Tony’s Barber Shop Armed Forces Honor Roll.” Inside, you can find a Xeroxed notice announcing the award of a Bronze Star medal; a hard copy of a flight record on War Department letterhead; and a Western Union wire that reads “Dear Mom received discharge will be home Wed. wire from New York. –Johnny.”

There are photographs of Chet Benson, an Army man who jumped on D-Day (June 6, 1944); Freddie Solberg, who twice escaped a POW camp in World War II; and there are numerous pages devoted to Somerville’s military families: Edward and Tom Zibrofski, father-and-son Marines who served in World War II and Vietnam respectively; the three Brothers Quinn – Bob (Air Force), Jesse (Navy) and John (Air Force) – each of whom served in World War II (John was a Pearl Harbor survivor).

Scroll through these pages while you’re waiting in one of the folding chairs, and you’re bound to meet a customer or two who knows  some of the men in the pictures. You might even encounter a customer who is in the book. Three days before the Memorial Day parade, Army veteran Anthony Cipriano, 89, stopped by.

In World War II, Cipriano was responsible for guarding German prisoners. He can recall conversations he had with his prisoners, and he says that on the whole “they were blond-headed kids who were really nice.”

When we turn to pages devoted to General Sheehan, Cipriano reveals that he and Sheehan’s father were ushers together at St. Polycarp Church. Matarazzo mentions that Sheehan himself, as a boy, used to trim the hedges at St. Polycarp. All this beneath the backdrop of a barbershop’s regular rhythms: instrumentals playing softly from radio speakers, razors buzzing, shears snapping, brooms sweeping clumps of hair from the square-tile floor. Patrons discuss boxing and the weather and the neighborhood.

Soon we reach a photograph of the young Vito Vaccaro, a Navy veteran of World War II who has served Somerville in several capacities (Alderman, School Committee, Licensing Commission). “Oh, there’s Vito,” says Cipriano. “Boy, did he change.” .

By mid-afternoon, while Vozzella tended to the lone remaining patron, Matarazzo sat down to share his story. His father established the barbershop in 1929, when it was called Mystic Barber Shop and was, fittingly, on Mystic Ave. Though he grew up in Ten Hills, Matarazzo attended Malden Catholic High School, where he was a rangy shortstop and devoted student. “Those brothers were tough, brother,” he says.

When he was 16, he opted to leave Malden Catholic and enlist. “I figured, I was going to get drafted anyway, but if I enlisted I’d have my pick,” he says. His father, paying the $60 yearly tuition at Malden, was hesitant to sign Matarazzo’s release, especially since Matarazzo’s mother had died earlier that year. “She never would’ve signed it,” says Matarazzo.

He eventually persuaded his father, insisting that the Navy could help pay for college. Soon the father and son were exchanging wisecracks about it all. “I told him, ‘With my luck, I’ll meet the first 6-foot-6 Jap in hand-to-hand combat,’” recalls Matarazzo.

Days later Matarazzo boarded a bus in Powderhouse Sq bound for eight weeks of naval training in Sampson, NY. Matarazzo and the other trainees were welcomed with a shared spaghetti meal from a large bucket. “They told us, ‘You eat that, sailor boy,’” he says. “I was homesick, I didn’t know my ass from my elbow, I couldn’t shoot a rifle for the life of me.” At one point he left his wallet on a ledge while he was showering; it promptly got stolen. “I told myself, ‘You’re not in Ten Hills anymore,’” he says.

When he returned to Somerville in 1946, Matarazzo pondered what his next step would be. Within weeks, his father reprimanded him for a lack of direction. “What are you gonna do, loaf the rest of your life?” Soon thereafter, Matarazzo apprenticed under his father and also went to barber school. In 1948 he got married and moved into the Ten Hills house he grew up in.

He has marched in many a Memorial Day parade, but planned to bypass this year’s to spend the day with his family. But make no mistake: The parade was on his mind. As a farewell to one of his regular customers, Matarazzo shook the man’s hand and said goodbye with these three words: “Hope you’re marching.”

On the morning of the parade, Bob Horgan, 81, an SHS grad who served with the Army in the Korean War, told a story about growing up in Somerville and attending Memorial Day activities with his father, who fought in World War I. Horgan described how, at age 11, he saw a huge black limo roll up to the Spanish-American War statue – “and this was back when you never saw these huge black cars, unless it was a funeral” – and out of the car stepped a veteran with white hair in his dress blues, shiny black visor, garrison cap and striped pants. The nameless veteran placed a wreath on the statue. The image stayed with Horgan. He concluded: “A veteran never dies until he’s forgotten.”

Later that morning, ceremonies honored the 13 veterans from Post #19 and the 21 from Logan Post 6800 who had passed since Memorial Day 2009. Nor was it only soldiers whom the ceremonies acknowledged. There was praise for Gold Star Mother Helen Latanovich, 73, who lost her son Thomas while he was serving as a Marine in Vietnam. There was also praise for Gold Star Wife Doris Barry, whose first husband, Harold Mahum Stevens, committed suicide shortly after returning home from serving the Navy on a gun crew in the Bay of Tokyo in World War II. “He proposed on the second date,” recalls Barry.

As all the names were recited, all was quiet on the blockaded street, save for a few bursts of song and preaching from the church next door (Mission Church of Our Lord, 130 Highland Ave).

At 1pm, the parade began in a light breeze under a sweltering sun. For Hardy, who has spent most of his life in Somerville, scarcely a block went by without hearing shouts from the crowd. The first “Hey, Bobby!” came from friends standing on the sidewalk near Arts at the Armory (191 Highland Ave). A few blocks later, passing the Engine 7 Fire Station (265 Highland Ave), Hardy saluted. “They’re our defense at home,” he says.

Not that every step of the march was solemn. Just past the corner of Highland and Cedar, Vietnam veteran Bob Resmini, one of the five men marching behind Hardy, drew laughs by throwing an extra “left” into his “left-right-left” chant. “Just wanted to see if you were paying attention,” he says.

Hardy meets Carvalho, photo by Emmett Stone

At 2:40 Hardy and the honor guard approached the intersection of Holland and Broadway. Standing with his family on the sidewalk in front of the Century 21 Office (205 Holland Ave) was the soldier in the Eisenhower jacket. It was Joseph Carvalho, 87, a World War II Army veteran. He was drafted in 1943 when he was 22 and served until 1946, participating in the invasion of France. He grew up on Springfield Street and attended Somerville Trade High School.

Hardy led Carvalho into the middle of the street. The parade halted while Carvalho stood for a few moments beneath the Medal of Honor flag. Hardy and the five soldiers marching behind him each shook Carvalho’s hand and, in turn, said, “Thank you.” To each of them, Carvalho replied, “No, thank you.”

Then Hardy led Carvalho back to the sidewalk, where his family was waiting.

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