By Linda DiMarzio Massicot and Elisa Speranza
“I fell in love with his ears,” said Dorothy Messina DiMarzio as she recalled the first time she saw her future husband, Ermanno. She was the daughter of Sicilian immigrants and he was an Italian prisoner-of-war.
After the Allies defeated the Axis powers in North Africa in 1943, 51,000 Italians and 380,000 Germans were brought to the US. Jackson Barracks in New Orleans housed about 1,000 Italian prisoners, most of whom arrived in 1944 from other military bases around the country.
Ermanno DiMarzio had been studying accounting at the University of Rome when he was called up for the war. He was one of 10 children—nine of whom were boys who all felt compelled to fight for their country. Four of his brothers were killed in the war, several were wounded and two were Italian Medal of Honor winners. He was a Lieutenant in the Italian Air Force when he was captured in Tunisia.
Italy surrendered in September of 1943 and switched sides in the war. Even so, the Geneva Convention prevented the US from turning the Italian POWs loose. Many of them joined Italian Service Units (ISUs), which assisted the American military in a time of severe labor shortages on the homefront.
Dorothy vividly recalled when she spotted Ermanno for the first time, at Jackson Barracks. “He was “sitting on a bench, reading the paper with a cigarette in his hand and turning the pages,” she said. “He didn’t know I had my eye on him. Then he turned around and flipped the cigarette down. As we passed by there, he looked at me and I looked at him. And this is so silly to say: I fell in love with his ears!”
The Italian POWs were given certain freedoms, including being allowed to attend events away from the Barracks and mingle with local residents. In New Orleans and other American cities with large Italian- and Sicilian-American communities, local residents adopted the men, bringing them familiar food, speaking their language, and providing comfort during their captivity.
The Army held dances at Jackson Barracks for the enlisted Italian soldiers and local girls, but officers like Ermanno did not attend. He and Dorothy had seen each other a couple of times, though, and apparently the attraction was mutual. One night when Dorothy was visiting Jackson Barracks, one of her Italian soldier friends asked if she would like to meet Ermanno. They were officially introduced, and she told him about herself and her family. He said he would like to meet them and began coming to Dorothy’s home every Sunday for dinner, accompanied by Eddie Forzani, an Italian-American soldier, who became a lifelong friend.
Ermanno soon endeared himself to the Messina family, especially to Dorothy’s mother Carmellina Messina. “Big Mama,” as the family called her, sensed or hoped that a relationship was developing, as she soon began to “photoshop” any photos of Dorothy with previous suitors, by cutting them out with scissors.
Meanwhile, Dorothy’s sister Mary, was also dating an Italian POW, Antonio Pezzana. Their American soldier escort Eddie would drive the two couples around on double dates. “(Your) Daddy and I were in the backseat, when he gave me the first kiss. Made my toes curl,” Dorothy told her daughter.
Dorothy worked at the New Orleans Port of Embarkation as a secretary in the water department. Ermanno was an interpreter for his ISU company and would come into the Port office on official business. Forbidden to speak, they would steal silent glances at each other. “The Americans looked down on them,” Dorothy said, and discouraged the girls from “consorting with the enemy,” even though Italy was an ally by then.
Despite the many obstacles, their relationship blossomed. “I knew, I really knew I was in love with him, even though I really spent only about six or eight weeks with him.” In addition to the restrictions hampering their courtship, the young couple also had to deal with an uncertain future, not knowing what would happen once the war was over. “One night when we came back home,” Dorothy remembered, “I said: this isn’t going to do either one of us any good, because you have to go back, and I have to stay. He kissed me and said, ‘I will be back.” She said, “I just knew that I was going to marry him. Even though it seemed like a great impossibility, I knew it was going to happen.”
Ermanno wrote a letter to her parents, asking them for permission to make her his fidanzata—to seriously court their daughter. By that time, her parents had fallen in love with Ermanno too, and were happy to grant permission.
In the fall of 1945, after the war had ended, word came that the Italian prisoners would be repatriated, in accordance with the Geneva Convention. This was wonderful news for the majority of the POWs but was bittersweet for those in relationships with American sweethearts. “We made a commitment that no matter what happened, we would get back together, even though at that time it looked like it would be a miracle,” Dorothy told her daughter.
The day of their departure, the girls and their families waited for trucks to come to transport the POWs to the train to begin their journeys back home. “I saw him get on the truck and he was looking down at me and we were waving,” Dorothy recalled. “The girls that had boyfriends going back were all crying. When I got back home, it was such an empty feeling. It was horrible, and the minute I opened the door there was a dozen American Beauty roses. The card read: ‘I love you and I will be back.’ And so I cried and cried.”
For two years, Dorothy made novenas (prayers) for what seemed like an impossible reunion. Ermanno could not come to the US, and she could not go to Italy without chaperones. “I was kind of getting into a depressed state because I knew nothing could come of it,” she said. “We could not even talk on the phone because connections were so awful, not like now.”
Then in 1947, her prayers were answered. The parents of some of the girls involved with the POWs agreed to accompany their own daughters and other girls to Italy. Among the organizers were the Lupo and DeMajo families of Central Grocery fame, who had also helped organize the dances at Jackson Barracks. Dorothy and her sister Mary married their sweethearts in their parents’ ancestral home of Cefalú, Sicily in May of 1947. Their wedding was in the famous Cefalú cathedral where their parents had married 50 years earlier. Many of their extended family were present. Dorothy recounted that at the double wedding, guests were seated in church, as was the custom in the US, unlike the local Sicilian custom of waiting outside for the arrival of the bride and groom.
The couples honeymooned together in Italy, before separating to go to the homes of their respective husbands’ families to wait for the paperwork that would allow their husbands to emigrate back to the US. Dorothy and Ermanno went to Pescara in the Abruzzo Region; Mary and Antonio went to Vercelli in the Piedmont Region.
After several months, the new brides had to leave their husbands in Italy and come back to the US. Dorothy was pregnant with Linda. Antonio was able to join Mary six months later, arriving on the night that his niece was born. Ermanno did not see his first born until she was six months old. In her baby book, he described his joy at their first meeting: “Daddy arrived, and she cried. I was so happy to see my darling baby, I almost cried with her.”
When the two couples were finally reunited, they lived with the Dorothy and Mary’s parents, who were ailing. Antonio worked for many years in his father-in-law’s business, the Roma Restaurant on Decatur Street across from Morning Call. Ermanno remained close to his Italian roots in his enjoyable work for the Italian Trade Commission office in New Orleans, until the office moved to Atlanta around 1975. At that time, he opened his own ceramic tile and marble business, and worked until he was 85 years old.
Dorothy and Ermanno had a son, Gregory, and two daughters, Linda and her sister Lisa. Mary and Antonio had one daughter, Marlene. Although Italy was always in their hearts, the men became fiercely loyal US citizens, and raised their own American families. Mary died in 1978 at 64 years old, and Antonio died in 1984 at age 73. Ermanno died in 2002 at 87 years of age, and Dorothy died in 2012. She was 92. The families they started still live in the New Orleans area, and keep their memories alive.
(c) 2020 Elisa M. Speranza