Old Scars, New Wounds

A reader named Ernie Florio called me today and shared a sad Pearl Harbor memory.

He was sitting on the front stoop of his family’s rowhouse in Germantown, PA, with his father, an Italian immigrant and union bricklayer, and his neighbor, a German immigrant named Willy Baurle.  Both men were in their 40s and combat veterans of World War I.  Willy had been gassed.  War had scarred both men profoundly.

In the Old Country, they were officially enemies, but here, by the miracle of America, they were friends.  Closer than friends, really, for in Philadelphia rowhouses, next door neighbors were like family.  Willy was a wallpaper hanger, so he was the only one on the block with a telephone.  When a call came in for Ernie’s family, Willy would simply bang on the wall, and Ernie would run outside, leap the railing, and hop into Willy’s house to take it.

The news of Pearl Harbor devastated Willy and the senior Florio.  “They aged ten years overnight,” Ernie told me.  

The old veterans stood on the stoop that fateful Sunday and shook their heads in sorrow.  “They don’t know what is going to happen to them, Willy,” Florio said, thinking of the combat soldiers.   

Although the men were in middle age and had families, they were eligible for the draft.  Some FBI or Army official called Ernie’s dad in for an interview. 

“Would you be willing to fight against your home country?” the official asked him.

The proud immigrant responded, “America is my country.  I love America.  I would fight anyone for it.”

Then, Willy was called in.  Willy had long said he would never pick up a gun again.  But he didn’t bother to explain his objections to war to the official who interviewed him in 1942.  Instead, when he was asked if he would be willing to take up arms against Germany, Willy simply said, “No.”

“Are you crazy?” exclaimed Ernie’s dad when Willy returned.  “You mean you didn’t tell them why you wouldn’t fight?”

Several weeks later, FBI agents showed up on Willy’s doorstep and took him from his rowhouse.  Willy spent the rest of the war in a camp in Oklahoma for German POWs.  He returned to Germantown in late 1945 and  tried to restart his life as a paperhanger.