So the Allies have finally landed in Western Europe and are making their way to Germany to put a definitive end to Hitler’s Third Reich. Here in America, a sense of optimism grows as newspaper headlines and newsreels report the progress being made all throughout the summer and fall of 1944. Allied commanders are confident they have the German army on the run, as it turns out, much too confident.
German generals are quietly amassing a counteroffensive consisting of over 400,000 men, 1,200 tanks and 4,000 pieces of field artillery in the heavily forested Ardennes region of Belgium. Aided by a long stretch of overcast skies that prevent allied air reconnaissance missions from being effective, the German counterattack on the morning of December 16 catches the allies by complete surprise. The Battle of the Bulge has begun and in its early stages, all of the optimism of the American people and the confidence of the Allied command is shattered and the life of the July 12 Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant, Corporal Mario Checca, changes forever.
As a kid, I lived around the block from where Mario and Josephine Checca lived on the corner of Division and Steadwell. Their boys, Bobby and Charlie were both a few years older than me and their daughters, Carol and Pauline, a bit younger. But we all went to Guy Park Avenue School together and I remember Mr. and Mrs. Checca very well. Solid people and parents, devoted to their kids, hard workers, great neighbors. Mario worked for the Post Office for 40 years.
But back on that bitter cold December morning in 1944, he was a 20-year-old machine gunner with the Army’s 106th Infantry, nicknamed the “Golden Lions.” His unit had been sent as reinforcements into what had been a very calm sector along the French-Belgian border and Corporal Checca had not yet fired his weapon in battle, That was certainly about to change.
When Checca’s unit took its position that morning, things seemed calm. Then the world exploded around him and as he told a reporter of the Schenectady Gazette in an interview in December of 2004, Checca remembers “removing his steel helmet, lacing his hands behind his head and walking into German control.”
After a full day of marching Checca and his captured comrades were loaded into train cattle cars and transported to German POW camps. It took a week to reach his destination and spent it packed into that car without food or access to a bathroom.
Conditions didn’t get much better once Checca was inside the German POW camp either. He told the Gazette he was living on about 750 calories per day and he quickly lost 100 pounds. Shortly after he was captured, he wrote a letter to his boyhood pal Marc Palombi, asking him, actually imploring him to write to Checca’s parents and let them know that he was alive. Palombi did so and then kept the letter from Checca for the rest of his life, framing it and hanging it in a place of honor in Palombi’s home in Amsterdam.
Fortunately, the Allies were able to pretty quickly reverse the German’s bulge and complete their invasion of Hitler’s Reich. Checca’s camp was liberated on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945.
Checca’s daughter Pauline Kretzer told the Gazette her father’s capture and four-month harsh confinement had a significant impact on the rest of his life. “He spoke about it more as he got older — he gave presentations at schools and talked with grandchildren about it, but you had to catch him in the mood,” his daughter explained. “Being captured was difficult for him to admit.”
When he returned to Amsterdam after his wartime ordeal he married his hometown sweetheart Josephine, whose maiden name was Ottavio and started his career with the post office. Pauline explained that her dad was a frugal man in many ways but extremely generous at the same time. He saved and lived efficiently his entire life, which permitted him to be able to be able to do nice things for his own family.
Checca passed away in January of 2016 at the age of 91.
(July 12 is also the birthday of this onetime host of WCSS’s Italian Hour.)