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Adventures of a 13-Year-Old American Kid in World War II Italy

Joe Moraglia, 91, recounts his childhood adventure helping the British allies
BY Dustin Bass TIMEAugust 16, 2022 PRINT

Joseph Moraglia was born in Brooklyn on July 4, 1931. He was the youngest of nine children born to Domenico and Rosa Moraglia. Fittingly for being born on the Fourth of July, he was the only child of the Italian family born in the United States.

Joseph turned 91 this year. He’s the poster child for the American dream. He married his sweetheart, Loretta, in 1957. They have four children and nine grandchildren. He was a successful entrepreneur multiple times over. He was in the Naval Reserve from August 1949 to November 1950, until he enlisted in the Marines for three years to fight in Korea. He fought from May 6, 1952, to July 2, 1953, and after only a month in action, he was promoted to sergeant. His stories of combat against the North Koreans and Chinese along the 38th Parallel are harrowing. He led a mortar unit, was nearly killed by a mortar blast, and carried one of his wounded men to safety under heavy fire. He was an extra in “Retreat Hell,” a Korean War film about a marine battalion facing incredible odds. He moved to Florida, where he purchased his parents a home after they returned from Italy. Every year, he goes to the family home in Palo del Colle, a small town 10 miles west of the port city of Bari, Italy.

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Joe Moraglia celebrated his 91st birthday last month. (Courtesy of the Moraglias)
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Joe Moraglia at home in Long Island, N.Y. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

“I did so many things I can’t even remember,” he said with a laugh.

It’s possible that Joe, as everyone calls him, has forgotten more than he can remember. After 91 years of a full life, that’s understandable. But there’s one story he can’t forget. There’s no way he could. It’s a story that reads like the best of wartime fiction.

This isn’t a story about his service as a Marine in Korea. This story is about his service to the British as an American kid stuck in World War II Italy.

The Moraglias Return to Italy

Domenico Moraglia was a businessman. Born in 1888, he became one of the 4 million Italians from 1880 to 1920 to plant roots in U.S. soil. His entrepreneurial spirit would soar in Brooklyn, where he started businesses and sold them. From those sales, he returned home to Italy to purchase farmland in Palo del Colle. As he traveled and prospered, his family grew. He was the beneficiary of the booming post-war economy during the Roaring ‘20s.

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Joe Moraglia (R) in the arm of his father and with his family. (Courtesy of the Moraglias)

While Americans enjoyed the fruits of their labor, the economy suddenly faltered and then crashed. When Joseph was born, the Great Depression had been in full swing for more than a year.

As the 1930s crept closer to the 1940s, Leonardo, Joseph’s 22-year-old brother, moved back to Italy. Swept up in the emotion and excitement of a new political movement, Leonardo would join the Royal Italian Army to fight during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War.

“My father was very mad because my father was an anti-fascist,” Joe said.

Shortly after the war in Ethiopia ended in 1937, Leonardo returned to the United States. Ironically, he would later be drafted into the U.S. Army to fight the Axis Powers, which included Italy. At about the same time, Domenico decided to return to Italy to cash in on the farmland he had bought. It would be the quickest and most certain way to place himself and his family on firm financial footing in the United States.

“He was supposed to go alone, but my mother says, ‘No, I want to see my mother and everything else. So we’ll all go,’” Joe said. “So they made it like a trip.”

The Moraglia family arrived in Palo del Colle sometime in 1938. Domenico tried to sell his farmland, but there was one problem: No one was buying. The economic crisis was a global crisis. As a rather wealthy landowner, local authorities tried to convince him of the nation’s new political movement of fascism, a term coined by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

“The authorities in Palo del Colle did everything spiteful to him to make him join the party, but he would not join,” Joe said.

It wasn’t just the political climate that was so different from the United States. From the concrete and skyscrapers of New York to the farmland and baroque architecture of Palo del Colle, Joe, or Joey as he was called as a kid, had practically been transferred to a different dimension.

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Moraglia’s hometown of Palo del Colle, near Bari, Italy. (Courtesy of the Moraglias)

“I didn’t like it,” he said. “I was so used to the nice United States because all I did was go to school and play. Over there, I had to go to the farm and pick olives out of the mud and everything else. I didn’t like farm work.”

The small Italian town was also woefully behind Brooklyn technologically, from running water to transportation.

“We had these fountains about every two or three blocks. Me and my sisters would carry water to the house in two buckets. When we had to do the washing, we would make about 10 trips. That was work,” he said. “Also, no one had a car in town. Everyone was horse and buggy.”

Palo del Colle may not have kept up with Brooklyn, but the Italian residents did keep up with the news coming out of New York, especially when it regarded Italians. In 1935, while the Italians were preparing to fight the Ethiopians, there was an Italian who had come to the United States to fight. His name was Primo Carnera. He had won the heavyweight boxing championship from Jack Sharkey in June 1933. Two years later, almost to the day, he would face Joe Louis at Yankee Stadium. Carnera, whom Mussolini glorified as the symbol of Italian strength, didn’t last through the sixth round after getting knocked down three times. The knockout left a lasting impression on the kids of Palo del Colle.

“The kids my age started saying, ‘Show me the American punch.’ They called it ‘The Punch,’” Joe said. “So I made a punch, and I hit one of the kids—the one who was on top of me saying, ‘Show me the punch. Show me the punch.’ And I knocked him out. Well, that was it. They said, ‘That’s the punch!’ I made a reputation of ‘Don’t mess with Joey.’”

Joe’s “American punch” actually helped other local kids. He said kids he didn’t even know would invoke his name as a deterrent to bullies.

“They would say, ‘We’re gonna tell Joey,’ and so they would leave them alone. This went on for years.”

As “Joey” was making a name for himself among the local youth, Domenico was being warned by the U.S. Consulate that his family needed to get out of Italy. In the words of Joe: “The drums of war were beating.”

On May 22, 1939, Mussolini signed the Pact of Steel with Germany’s Adolf Hitler, creating a political and military alliance between the nations. Three months later, the Germans invaded Poland. World War II had begun. The Moraglias were stuck in Italy.

Secluded From the War

From 1938 to 1945, the Moraglias would remain in Italy. But while the war raged on, Palo del Colle was practically immune to it. The fighting hadn’t reached the southeast coast of Italy. Joe’s days would be consumed by going to school, visiting the beaches of Bari, and working the family farm.

Until 1943, Joe would see only Italian soldiers. In July of that year, Mussolini was overthrown. Italy surrendered to the Allies. But the Nazis remained, disarming the Italian soldiers and stationing themselves in various parts of the country.

“The Germans used to come and go,” Joe said. “We didn’t like them. They weren’t friendly. They were rigid. You couldn’t talk to them or get near their camp. We had a soccer stadium. A company or battalion would stay over there for a month or a few weeks and then move on. It was almost like a rest area.”

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As a kid, Moraglia took a photo of a downed German plane. (Courtesy of the Moraglias)

Joe was aware of what had transpired with Mussolini and why the Germans had arrived. When he saw the Germans leave for good, he knew that the Allies were on their way.

The Allies Invade

On July 10, 1943, just six days after his 12th birthday and 15 days before Mussolini was overthrown, Operation Husky would commence, with more than 150,000 Allied troops invading Sicily. By Aug. 17, 1943, the Allies had liberated Sicily. However, the fight for Italy was much harder than anticipated. What British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called “Europe’s soft underbelly” proved to be what U.S. Gen. Mark Clark called “a tough old gut.”

The first Allied troops Joe saw were from the 8th Indian Infantry Division, which arrived in September after crossing the Strait of Messina.

“They were a novelty to us,” he said. “We never saw any of them before. We didn’t even know where they came from.”

Soon the British arrived in Bari. Then the Americans. The major port city would be a supply center for Allied troops fighting in Europe, primarily Britain’s 8th Army. With the arrival of Allied troops and a new Italian government, Italy declared war on Germany on Oct. 13, 1943.

“Our big bombers used to come along at least every week or more, and a lot of them,” Joe said. “They were coming from Africa to Germany. After about a half hour, you would hear the bombs going off―boom, boom―from far away. And then you would see the planes coming back. We were right in line, and they would pass right over us.”

While bombers flew to bomb Germany, some of the heaviest fighting of the war was taking place on the west side of Italy.

Shortly after the British 8th Army crossed the Strait of Messina, the U.S. 5th Army landed in Salerno, and the British 1st Airborne Division landed in Taranto, just 54 miles south of Bari. The Allies had their sights set on Naples, which they took on Oct. 1, 1943. Rome was the next to fall, but taking the Eternal City proved more costly and time-consuming. It would be another eight months before the Allies pushed the German divisions out of Rome. Two days later, on the northern coast of France, Operation Overlord, known as the D-Day Invasion, took place.

While the Allies were toiling along the west coast of Italy, Joe and the newly liberated Italians on the east coast were working for the Allies.

“The British came and set up shops. It was like a town. They had everything over there,” he said. “My father became the interpreter for the head British general or whoever it was. He did the hiring. He hired all the Palo farmers. They were all working, and they were coming from other towns to work. Even his friends that owned farms were mad at my father because they said, ‘Hey we’ve got no more laborers to come and work.’ He said, ‘I can’t help it. The people come here to work, and they’ve got the money.’”

Bari: The ‘2nd Pearl Harbor’

Bari had become the Italian home for the British and was also headquarters for the newly activated 15th Army Air Force under U.S. Maj. Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, who had arrived in Bari on Dec. 1, 1943.

Despite the mass buildup of Allied troops, Bari appeared immune to attack. British Air Vice Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham stated on the afternoon of Dec. 2, 1943, that he “would regard it as a personal affront and insult if the Luftwaffe would attempt any significant action in this area.”

The Luftwaffe was eager to oblige, and a single German reconnaissance plane flew over the port city. The pilot reported on the vast amount of ships crammed into the harbor. Within hours, the Luftwaffe struck.

The attack on Bari was dubbed the “second Pearl Harbor.” On the evening of Dec. 2, 1943, almost two years to the day after the first Pearl Harbor attack, approximately 100 Ju-88s flew across the Adriatic toward the port.

“I was about two miles away working with the Americans. We were sitting eating and all of the sudden, ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ They swooped and hit all the ships over there,” Joe said.

The attack lasted all of 20 minutes, but the damage was immense. Seventeen Allied ships (five American, four British, three Italian, three Norwegian, and two Polish) were sunk and eight were damaged, with more than 31,000 tons of cargo destroyed. There were more than 1,000 Allied soldiers killed and about as many wounded. Against a setting sun, Bari’s port was engulfed in flames and a strange smell.

“One of the ships was loaded with gas―poisonous gas. Nobody knew there was gas in there,” Joe said. “I was in the plumber shop. Our shop was in charge of having the fire engine. We had two of them. The American soldiers headed for the port. I wanted to go, but they wouldn’t let me. It’s a good thing I didn’t go because it wasn’t as good as I thought it was going to be.”

The U.S. Liberty ship John Harvey was secretly carrying 100 tons of mustard gas bombs. Allied intelligence suggested that the Germans had been stockpiling chemical weapons. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt issued a proclamation that if the Germans used chemical weapons, the Allies would respond in kind. The John Harvey was loaded for just such an occasion.

The number of civilian casualties is still unknown and may never fully be known. Conservative estimates suggest 1,000 casualties. The fact that it was mustard gas was kept a secret during and after the war in order to eliminate the possibility of a German propaganda victory. Ironically, the raid on Bari was the only chemical warfare incident of World War II.

“A lot of people died,” Joe said. “In fact, a number of my relatives died. They lived in Bari Vecchia near the port. They said the wind was blowing out to sea, but they lived too close.”

A Post-War Adventure

The war in Europe lasted another 17 months. It culminated almost simultaneously with the deaths of two Axis dictators. On April 30, 1945, as the Allies swarmed into Berlin, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. Two days prior, Mussolini suffered a much worse fate. While trying to escape to Switzerland, he and 17 others, including his mistress, Clara Petacci, were stopped by resistance fighters near Lake Como and executed. Their bodies were then brought to Milan’s city square, the Piazzale Loreto, and hung upside down by their ankles.

On the day of Mussolini’s execution, Venice fell to the Allies. The war in Italy was over. The war in Europe had concluded. The British were leaving Italy, but there was one job that still needed to be completed.

The trucks that had been used to convey bombs from the railroad to the port had to be taken to Milan. There were 50 trucks in all. With only 13 British soldiers to undertake the task, the rest were drivers from Palo del Colle—and a 13-year-old U.S. Italian boy.

“The captain asked me if I wanted to come. My father says, ‘Go,’” Joe said. “I was right there with the captain. I knew most of the roads, but I had never gone that far. We were doing good until we got about halfway, and I made a mistake.”

Upon his directions, the entire convoy began traveling down a narrow farm road that led nowhere near Milan. All 50 trucks had to conduct an arduous and time-consuming u-turn. The captain was irate and grabbed his gun. Joe knew what to do: run and hide.

“I don’t think he would have shot me,” he said. “A couple of the sergeants or peons saw me and what was going on and put me in the back of their truck and put canvases over me. So I made the rest of the trip under those canvases. Hiding. Once we got going, he wasn’t looking for me anymore.”

When Joe and the 50-truck convoy arrived in Milan, it was a city in revolution. Its former political leader had been executed and hung in the streets. Partisans were vying for power, among them the already-prominent Italian Communist Party. The plan was to drop off the convoy of trucks and then take the train back to Palo del Colle, but the man who “made the trains run on time” was now dead, and the trains weren’t coming. A seemingly harmless trip was now an apparent danger for the southern Italians.

“It was crazy,” he said. “They had just finished hanging Mussolini. The northern people didn’t like the southern people. They were giving us a hard time. You couldn’t say that you were from the south or they would kill you. You didn’t know who to trust.”

Days went by, and Joe was still in Milan with no way of making the 550-mile trek back home. He milled around the city, even visiting the Piazzale Loreto, although the bodies had been taken down by then.

“I can’t say that I saw Mussolini because I’d be lying, but I told everybody that I saw it,” he said with a big laugh. “That made things interesting, you know? But they showed me where it happened. The scaffold where they hung them was still there. The ropes were still there.”

While touring parts of the city, Joe ran into several of the British soldiers from the convoy. They asked why he was still in Milan. When he told them that no trains had arrived, they told him to come with them to Udine, near the now-Slovenian border. They would drop off 12 trucks in Udine and keep one to bring him back home.

“So I left without telling anybody,” he said.

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Joe Moraglia, 13, standing behind the soldier on the motorcycle. (Courtesy of the Moraglias)
Epoch Times Photo
3. A British soldier on a motorcycle. Moraglia is behind him, with hands on his shoulders. (Courtesy of the Moraglias)

The Adventure Continues

A train finally arrived in Milan, but Joe was already gone. Those from Palo del Colle boarded and went home. When they arrived, his father was waiting.

“He asked, ‘Where’s Joey?’ They said, ‘Oh, we don’t know. He disappeared. There was a revolution in Milan. They probably killed him,’” Joe said. “So that’s how it got around that I was dead.”

His family was distraught.

“There were no telephones or communicating to call home,” Joe said. “I couldn’t care less. I was having fun with the soldiers.”

It was a 300-mile trip to the former “war capital” of World War I. The downsized convoy journeyed through a country undergoing a post-war revolution. They rode through cities and towns. They rode past long stretches of beautiful Italian countryside that neared the Adriatic coast. Eventually, they arrived in the heavily-bombed city of Udine. Although the beautiful sites of the city, such as the Piazza della Libertà, the Loggia di San Giovanni, and the Piazza San Giacomo, could be seen, Joe wasn’t there for sightseeing. Unbeknown to him, he was there to conduct business.

“I assume they sold those trucks on the black market,” Joe said. “I assume because they took me into a basement, and they all looked like shady characters. The sergeant told me to interpret. They were talking about so many trucks and money and this and that. Then they come out with bags full of money.”

It’s uncertain who was purchasing the trucks. Perhaps Italian partisans, members of the Cosa Nostra, or simply a group of Italians hoping to escape the country. The British soldiers and one Italian kid piled into one truck and left Udine with money to spare. The destination was Palo del Colle, but the soldiers, with no war to fight, were in no hurry.

“All of a sudden, we stopped someplace, and they parked the truck,” Joe said. “We were on the outskirts of Venice.”

The group spent about a week in The Floating City. The Italian kid who had lived through the entire war in Mussolini’s Italy, surrounded by German, Indian, American, and British soldiers, finally got to hold a gun. While the soldiers went into the city, his job was to stand guard and protect the truck.

“They gave me the rifle and said, ‘Shoot anybody that comes near it,’” Joe said with a look on his face as though he still can’t believe it. “It was about three nights. I was staying there with the rifle in my hand. I didn’t have any problems.”

One night, a soldier who had too much to drink or bad food or was simply exhausted from the nights in Venice decided to stay back and guard the truck. Joe had earned his keep.

“So they took me. That was the first time I ever saw Venice, such a beautiful place. It looked like there was never a war,” he said. “Everybody’s partying. There were bars on the sidewalk. Soldiers with women on their laps.”

Venice seemed like an Italian city separate from Italy, or at least separate from the war that had plagued it. The former 1,000-year republic with its 118 islands connected by canals and bridges was open for Joe’s curiosity. The nightlife was wild and exhilarating. The British soldiers were certainly an entertaining bunch. When they met several American soldiers, they were excited to introduce them to one of their own. Either the British hadn’t noticed or simply didn’t care, but Joe had picked up a British accent.

“One of the guys says, ‘Hey Yankee, one of your landsmen is here,’” he said. “So they say, ‘Oh, yeah. Where are you from?’ So I start speaking Limey and the Americans think the British have pulled a fast one on them. All of the sudden, there are punches going on between the Americans and the British. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Joe stayed out of the way while the former allies broke into a fight. But it was over nearly before it had begun. Perhaps laughter overtook the fighting. Or maybe the soldiers deemed it better to get back to the ladies, alcohol, and enjoying their victory celebrations. Either way, the scrum was short-lived.

Joe’s night in Venice ended, and a couple more days elapsed before the British figured that it was time to take their interpreter back home. The near-500-mile trip was probably wearisome and uncomfortable, but that was no matter. Joe was finally going home. The only issue was that he was dead, at least to everyone back in Palo del Colle.

Back From the Dead

Before the British bid Joe adieu, they gave him a small bag of money to compensate him for his services. He was happy to get it, but he knew his father would kill him if he brought the money home. Then again, with a son seemingly back from the dead, he may have been too overjoyed to be upset. Regardless, Joe safely hid the money, then strode home.

“While I’m walking home, all of the sudden I see my father walking, he was coming from the farm,” Joe said. “He was just a little ahead of me. I said, ‘Papa. Papa.’ He just kept walking. He wouldn’t turn his head. He goes home and closes the door.”

It’s a part of the story that still gets Joe emotional. His father, having been told that his son was dead, thought he had seen a ghost. Certain that he had been killed in Milan, the family had already prepared to have a memorial service for him. The service proved premature. He was now back home. Alive and well.

“That was the end of that trip. After that, everything was OK,” he said.

Indeed it was. Joe celebrated his triumphant return in glorious fashion. He took the bag of money, rented a beach house, and brought all of his friends with him for a week. The kid who had garnered so much attention from the local kids with his American punch now had their attention with his wild American, Italian, and slightly British story.

Epoch Times Photo
Joe Moraglia and his wife Loretta at home in Long Island, N.Y. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)
Dustin Bass
Dustin Bass is the host of EpochTV's "About the Book," a show about new books with the authors who wrote them. He is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast.
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