News & Politics » Miscellany

The Flight of the Fascist



In the southern Illinois town of Marion, an octogenarian recalls the arrival of the Italian armada of 24 Savoia Marchetti S. 55X hydroplanes at Chicago's Century of Progress on July 15, 1933. He was a 21-year-old clarinetist with the Jefferson Barracks (Saint Louis) Sixth Infantry band stationed in Chicago for the exposition. For months his band had alternated with its Fort Sheridan counterpart in escorting distinguished visitors and Chicago politicians onto the grounds. On that limpid Saturday he had been ordered to report unusually early to the bowels of Soldier Field, where the band rehearsed briefly with an Italian tenor whose volume made it difficult for the musicians to hear themselves play. By 9 AM, a crowd the clarinetist now thinks must have been made up of 125,000 Italians (reporters estimated that perhaps 100,000 Chicagoans were in the stadium) had congregated above, expecting to see General Italo Balbo and his armada fly over around noon. They were to have a long wait. One band played for 45 minutes as the tenor sang, then after a 15-minute break in which the crowd chanted, "Where's Balbo?" the other band performed its 45 minutes while the tenor sang. And so on throughout the day.

Close to 4 PM, the crowd gave a deafening cheer when it heard the combined engines of the armada and its escort of 43 American fighter planes. The 11-ton seaplanes appeared briefly, then disappeared northward behind the stadium wall. They settled one by one on their pontoons inside the Lake Michigan breakwater, taxied toward Navy Pier, and moored among boatloads of well-wishers there to greet the four-man crews as they emerged from their cramped cockpits. They had completed the 840 miles of the seventh and final leg of a flight that, because of weather, mechanical delays, and a cruising speed of about 145 miles per hour, had taken a full three weeks from their base at Orbetello (north of Rome) to Amsterdam, Londonderry, Reykjavik, Cartwright (Newfoundland), Shediac (Nova Scotia), Montreal, and now Chicago.

The stadium crowd would have to wait two more hours while the crews tethered and serviced their craft and then made their way from the Navy ship Wilmette--where they'd been welcomed by a rear admiral and a 19-gun salute--through the fairgrounds to Soldier Field. According to the Chicago Tribune account, the crowd, undaunted, some wearing black shirts, many giving the Fascist salute, responded excitedly to Balbo's brief address, described by the reporter as consisting of "short punching phrases evidently modeled on the speeches of his leader, Mussolini": Duce Italia Fascist . . . Mussolini . . . Chicago . . . Viva Chicago! The remarks were punctuated by the occasional spontaneous yell, Eia, eia alala, uttered by many of the fascisti in the audience. This was the cry that accompanied the salute of Mussolini's supporters, a cry the world came to know better two years later when Italian troops marched into Ethiopia.

To the young bandsman, and to most people in the midwest and the rest of the nation, the Century of Progress exposition offered a welcome diversion from the Great Depression. That one of the highlights of the exposition was to be the achievement of the Italian armada is not surprising. Spectacular aerial feats provided a singular source of awe and entertainment at a time when all else seemed hopeless. Examples of a heroism accentuated by the potential for death made daily headlines. Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh had flown into Cartwright, surveying the North Atlantic for air routes, the day after the armada left that base on its way to Chicago. The day Balbo landed in Chicago, Wiley Post left New York on a round-the-world solo flight that he completed in a record week, returning to New York just in time to exchange congratulations with Balbo as the world cheered. On the heels of Post, two Lithuanian Americans from Chicago began a nonstop flight from New York to Kaunas, Lithuania, only to perish in the attempt.

Even in a time of exhilarating aerial successes and noble failures, the Balbo flight was an impressive achievement. Balbo and Mussolini, each understanding by professional experience how to get the attention of the masses through the media, dedicated extraordinary effort and resources to this display of Fascist technology and human accomplishment. The brochure of the Italian Pavilion at the Century of Progress pointed out that the building, located at the south end of the Avenue of Flags, symbolized Italy's technological competitiveness--it resembled a giant airplane. Italy's enormous exhibit stressed the nation's "remarkable achievements in engineering, physics, medicine, geography, astronomy, agriculture, shipping and aviation from the time of the Caesars to the present day." The pavilion could not hold all its country's displays, which spilled out into portions of the Hall of Science and the Adler Planetarium, and even into the Museum of Science and Industry far to the south.

It was Balbo, however, whose chemistry focused the world's attention. A consummate planner and organizer, he had a flair for the dramatic gesture. After years of political and technological preparation, three weeks of flight covering 6,100 miles, and the loss of a plane and a crewman in Amsterdam, he ended the ordeal with the aplomb befitting an international hero. In the words of a Tribune reporter:

"Gen. Balbo, a few minutes after the ending of this history making flight, strolled out on the deck of his seaplane as if going to afternoon tea. He had on a gray blue uniform decorated with eagle and crown, and orders of his war service. In his hand he carried a swagger stick. He lit a cigaret, surveyed the scene, and smiled happily."

Balbo had long ago perfected the ability to become the cynosure of great events. As the youngest of the Fascist party's quadrumvirs, he had engineered the march on Rome in 1922 that was the culmination of Mussolini's rise to power. By 1928, he was often spoken of as the number-two man in the country. Moreover, he grasped the advantages to be had in flight. He was the Billy Mitchell of Italy, but was supported better than Mitchell because Mussolini understood the equation between aeronautics and virtuosity--a value by which he wanted his own government to be known.

Balbo's flight was the capstone to Italy's display of technological achievement, the principal evidence that the Fascist government--coincidentally celebrating its first decade at the time of Chicago's centennial--was a world leader in flight. Claudio Segre, the author of Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life (1987), emphasizes that Balbo left nothing to chance. During a trip to the States in 1928, Balbo had met Orville Wright and Henry Ford, and had found so little anti-Fascist sentiment among Italian Americans that he was encouraged to plan in earnest for Chicago in 1933. In 1928 he led a massive flight to Los Alcazares, Spain; the next year, as air minister, he took an armada to Odessa; and in December of 1930 his Italian armada made the first large-scale cross-Atlantic flight from Orbetello to Rio de Janeiro.

These flights were but preparations for the North Atlantic trip that was to catch the world's imagination and demonstrate that not only commercial but also, perhaps, large-scale and long-range military flights were possible. Balbo's armada, as Segre points out, carried 96 fliers to Chicago--11 more men than the three ships of Columbus contained and 28 more than had been involved in Balbo's own crossing to Rio. And this flight was accomplished with little loss of life and aircraft.

Comparisons with Columbus were, of course, inevitable in Chicago. Governor Henry Horner greeted Balbo and his fellow aviators by saying, "History repeats itself by your flight. Just as Columbus was the first to sail the uncharted seas to our shores, so you, General Balbo, and your courageous band have piloted the first armada of flying boats from Europe to North America." And Mayor Edward Kelly found it fitting that Balbo had made Chicago's exposition the goal of his flight, since the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago had commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage. "The City Council has decreed that a thoroughfare leading to the fairgrounds from our downtown streets shall be called Balbo Avenue [sic]," the mayor announced. "The City Council by resolution has expressed the thanks of the city to the Italian nation, to its illustrious premier, Benito Mussolini, and to its representatives for this flight." Thus, the easternmost portion of Seventh Street became Balbo Drive.

The Columbus connection was also made on one of two monuments honoring Balbo. The 37-foot Columbus monument that sits just to the northwest of the Field Museum had been erected for the exposition. After the Balbo flight, its sculptor, Carlo Brioschi, added to the pedestal an inscription honoring Balbo and his crew: "This monument has seen the glory of the wings of Italy led by Italo Balbo July 15, 1933." (Interestingly, Columbus, the Italian, sailed under the Spanish flag in the 15th century, and it is possible that Balbo is of the lineage of L. Cornelio Balbo, who was born in Cadiz, Spain, around 100 BC and given Roman citizenship under the sponsorship of Pompey in 72 BC, and whose claim to that citizenship was defended before a tribunal by Cicero.)

On the first anniversary of his flight, Balbo received further recognition that made no comparison with Columbus. The Roman column, located above Burnham Harbor on the spot where the Italian Pavilion stood, seems weighted with the rhetoric of Il Duce. Written in both English and Italian, the inscription leaves little doubt that Mussolini, already notorious for his fits of jealousy, demanded to share in Balbo's success and popularity: "This column / Twenty centuries old / Erected on the beach of Ostia / The port of imperial Rome / To watch over the fortunes and victories / Of the Roman triremes / Fascist Italy with the sponsorship of Benito Mussolini / Presents to Chicago / As symbol and memorial in honor / Of the Atlantic Squadron led by Balbo / Which with Roman daring flew across the ocean / In the eleventh year / Of the fascist era."

While Balbo dutifully accepted the accolades of politicians and the American public, throughout his stay in the United States he remained in the role of ambassador from his nation, its Fascist party, and Benito Mussolini. This role was made difficult by Mussolini's attempts to insinuate his own importance from afar. For Mussolini, whose leadership was characterized by paranoiac jealousy, Balbo's praise of him was not enough. Segre describes how Mussolini schemed to diminish the focus on Balbo. For example, he flatly asked Balbo to decline having a street named after him. Failing in that, Mussolini conceived that his gift of the Roman column should rise from a spot named in his own honor. This wish, of course, was not satisfied when the column was placed in 1934.

For Balbo to refuse the honors accorded him would have been rude if not impossible. Balbo was launched in the States into high society and into the popular imagination. Everyone wanted to see or be seen with him. On the return trip to Italy, Balbo and his fellow fliers were accorded a ticker tape parade in New York. President Roosevelt--not unaware that Mussolini's Fascist regime had worked something of an economic miracle during those early Depression years--invited Balbo and a few of his top officers to lunch. Even after he returned home and was made governor of Libya by Mussolini--in what was universally understood to be an attempt to diminish his political importance--Balbo remained a prominent figure in aviation, respected particularly among his fellow fliers around the world. In 1935, he and Aldo Pellegrini, second in command of the armada, were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, an honor previously reserved for American citizens such as Lindbergh, Richard Byrd, and Amelia Earhart.

Segre points out that Dwight Eisenhower, among Balbo's young hosts in 1933, was lodged with one of Balbo's relatives when he visited Italy as head of NATO in 1950. Eisenhower, Segre notes, frustrated his anti-Fascist hosts by remembering Balbo fondly and remarking on "his charm, his acute sense of publicity, his passion for doing things on a grand scale," which caused him to be a hero "for Americans even more than for Italians."

Balbo had gained entry into a select fraternity of air heroes and prominent supporters of flight whose mutual respect transcended the international divisions mounting in the 30s. Balbo felt this kinship with both Charles Lindbergh and Hermann Goring, the latter in spite of what Segre documents was Balbo's dislike for the German nation and his despair over the direction it was pressuring Italy into taking. The day after Balbo was killed at Tobruk, Libya, the commander in chief of the British Royal Air Force, Middle East, had a message dropped behind Italian lines that praised Balbo, then supreme commander of the fledgling Italian forces in North Africa, as "a great leader and gallant aviator . . ."

Ironically, Mussolini's attempt to remove Balbo from world attention by sending him to Libya caused Balbo's reputation to wax as Il Duce's waned. Balbo's Chicago flight had forged his reputation in Italy and in the world. In Libya, Balbo found a tabula rasa, an arid, empty country that he believed he could swiftly develop into a model colony that would stem the tide of Italian immigrants to the United States. His relatively humane and efficient administration attracted favorable attention from the world's press. As Mussolini became more involved with expanding the empire, eventually joining Hitler in Spain and then in World War II, Balbo, from across the Mediterranean, could be critical of Il Duce's erratic leadership, his seemingly increasing paranoia, and his irreversible compact with Nazi Germany.

But despite Balbo's criticisms, he maintained his military and political notions of loyalty and nationalism. Segre establishes that Balbo never forsook the concept of gerachi (the hierarchical politics that made national socialist dictatorships distinct from communist ones, thereby causing them to appear less threatening to American capitalism). Balbo could abide the increasing failures of Mussolini's fascism in the 1930s because he believed fascism harbored the institutions around which the country could best be organized: the agraria, the monarchy, the military, and, above all, the talented authors of his nation's achievements since World War I.

Without neglecting Balbo's faults, Segre suggests the way in which Balbo's heroic self was molded. It was a mixture of deeds and personality, a combination Dwight Eisenhower knew to be attractive to Americans. He was naturally gregarious, generous, fun- and pleasure-loving, and theatrical, but he was deadly serious when it came to discipline, particularly when discipline was needed to forward a political goal, win a confrontation, or lead an armada to distant destinations. He knew how to balance high risk with precautions that gave him the odds. (In his mid-20s he masterminded the campaign to crush the socialists and any others who would deny the fascisti their rise to power.) But above all he was pragmatic in a way that Mussolini and other Fascists never seemed to be. He sensed that Mussolini had signaled the death knell for Italy when Il Duce threw in with Hitler, and he seemed bemused by his position as a general who would carry out orders from Rome even though he knew a disaster was in the works. Some believe his "accidental" death was a direct result of his differences with Mussolini. When Balbo, family members, and some friends were shot out of the air by "friendly" fire at Tobruk on June 28, 1940, just short of a fortnight after Italy entered the war, nations aligned against one another joined in common expressions of sorrow that a great man had died.

It has been 60 years since the Chicago City Council gave the name Balbo Drive to the stubby street at the south end of Grant Park. Today, most Chicagoans under 70 who have any idea at all guess the convenient access to Michigan Avenue was named for the Spanish explorer who discovered the Pacific for Europeans some 20 years after Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas. Reasons for Italo Balbo's disappearance from history abound. Not the least of these are the cataclysm of World War II and its consequences, the notoriety occasioned by his close connection with Mussolini, and the lingering antifascist sentiment pervading Italy and much of America. Even in the annals of aviation his achievements have been surpassed and put in perspective. Scholarly treatments--Claudio Segre's is an exception--usually list him as but a shadowy figure among many in Mussolini's thrall.

Only monuments are left to remind Chicagoans of the honor Balbo and his fellow airmen brought the city. Though cryptic to most contemporary passersby, Balbo Drive, the atlantici monument above Burnham Harbor, and the Columbus monument still bear witness to the hours when Chicago was the focus of the western world's hunger for heroic adventure.

Now and then, however, these memorials are singled out as vestiges of fascism. Segre mentions that Italy's strongly antifascist postwar ambassador to the United States, Alberto Tarchiani, wanted the monument to the flight removed and the name of the drive changed. Not only did his efforts fail, Segre recounts, but the flight itself became a rallying symbol for Italian-American friendship.

Writing for Fra Noi, an Italian American newspaper published in Northlake, Don Fiore has chronicled recent attempts to remove memorials to the Balbo flight. In the March 1990 issue Fiore wrote of a move by Alderman Helen Shiller to change the name of Balbo Drive to Mandela Drive. Fiore described helping Shiller to understand that by the end of the 30s Balbo was a reluctant fascist with no record of anti-Semitism. (In fact, Segre demonstrates that Balbo put himself at personal risk with his increasingly vocal criticism of Mussolini's policies, which included anti-Semitic laws analogous to those of Hitler's regime.) In June of 1991 Fiore told how in the 1960s a passerby thought he discerned the features of Mussolini in one of four images carved into the base of the Columbus monument by its sculptor. The citizen's irate reaction was reported in the Tribune, and the Park District found itself in a debate as to whether it had been harboring an unsavory icon. Amerigo Brioschi, the sculptor's son, conceded the resemblance but insisted it was unintentional; the images, he said, were allegorical representations of human virtues. According to Fiore, this apologia was accepted by the city, and "the Columbus memorial, with its attendant tribute to Balbo, drifted back to its former, sedate obscurity . . ."

As the survivors among the 1933 atlantici became fewer, and the significance of their flight more obscure, its public memory was kept alive primarily by decennial celebrations in Chicago. But the last celebration of consequence took place 20 years ago. In Chicago a parade was led by Mayor Richard J. Daley and Governor Dan Walker, and the flight--in Segre's words--was remembered as "a great adventure, an inspiration to courageous and resourceful aviators of all nations," and "as a memorable link in the long chain of Italian-American friendship." In stark contrast, the few atlantici who got together in Italy in an "almost surreptitious" meeting seemed "almost embarrassed" by a film of the crowds welcoming the aviators in Chicago, New York, and Rome 40 years before.

In 1983 there was virtually no celebration of Balbo's flight in Chicago, other than among a handful of aeronautical buffs. More notice was taken in New York and Rome (where interest in Balbo's contributions to Italian aviation has been renewed).

For the last ten years benign neglect has prevailed--as the worn Columbus monument and the derelict Balbo column attest. Still, pride flickers across the faces of those older Italian Americans one finds today at the Italian Cultural Center in the near west suburb of Stone Park when mention is made of the flight. One woman remembers how she stood beside her father as the planes descended to the harbor. Another talks of what she was wearing and remembers that she was 14. In Peoria, a professor recalls that at the age of nine, dressed in knickers, he waited for hours with his childhood friends in his Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx to be certain of catching a glimpse of the armada on its journey back to Italy.

Like the old clarinetist in southern Illinois, many do not remember the exact details of the armada but they remember that something momentous was happening. If they were not invited to the social events given by the tony Saddle & Cycle Club at the Drake the evening the armada arrived, or to the dinner attended by 5,000 at the Stevens the next evening, or to more intimate meetings such as the one with the president of the United States, they nevertheless recall that they were present in 1933 when one person of ingenuity, dedication, and daring achieved a great goal in a time of general despair, a depression that others would soon exploit to tear the world apart.

But has Balbo been forgotten by everyone else? In the spring of 1992, a small group, including Don Fiore, began planning the 60th anniversary celebration, which was to concentrate on the aeronautical accomplishments of the flight. Almost immediately they encountered a problem common to ethnic communities that have been assimilated into American society over several generations. Fiore says, "It is difficult to motivate younger generations who do not have a strong grasp of history beyond the media-engendered popular culture." As it turned out, the sole organized commemoration of the flight was made by the Italian Cultural Center, which hung poster-size photographs of the landing in Chicago in a booth at this year's Festa Italiana. Hardly anyone younger than 60 was curious enough to stop.

Yet Fiore finds reasons to be positive about the future. After decades of ignoring the achievements of the man who was once their commander, the Italian Air Force now honors Balbo as one of its most significant pioneers. In collaboration with the consul general of Italy in Chicago, Dr. Stefano Cacciaguerra, the Italian Air Force has been planning an exhibit aimed at reviving the memory of Balbo and other Italian transatlantic aviators. Earlier this year, Italy's aeronautical attache in Washington, General Sandro Ferracuti, came to Chicago to discuss the exhibit with the Museum of Science and Industry. Even though the museum could not find space in time to observe the 60th anniversary, Cacciaguerra says that plans are being made to display the exhibit at a suitable location in Chicago in the near future. For now, it is in Italy. In addition, Cacciaguerra says, "A project for the restoration of the Roman column [the Balbo monument] is presently under consideration by the appropriate Italian authorities." This is the sort of support that Italian Americans such as Don Fiore have been waiting for. In Fiore's view, visible support from the Italian government is crucial to renewed interest within the Italian American community.

Of course, soliciting Chicago politicians and institutions to help regenerate the memory of Balbo is a huge task, perhaps ironically complicated by today's multiculturalism. With the Park District's recent refusal to erect a statue in Humboldt Park to the Puerto Rican nationalist hero Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, the question of equal treatment under the Constitution has been raised. A suit filed against the Park District by proponents of the Campos statue mentions the Balbo column as but one among several Park District monuments erected by European ethnic communities to the memory of historical figures--some of whom, the suit notes, were themselves politically active and controversial. The point was made more bluntly in a flier distributed by Puerto Rican petitioners at an August 10 Park Board meeting. It began, "Did you know that . . . for 60 years the Chicago Park District has maintained a monument to Fascism?" and ended by asking, "Why does the Park District honor a Fascist Military General and oppose a Puerto Rican Patriot?"

The Park District is currently engaged in a costly program of conservation and restoration of the 100 statues that the city has accepted as gifts. When earlier this year the Italian government expressed a willingness to help with the restoration of the Balbo column, the Park District prepared a proposal suggesting that the column be treated and moved indoors, preferably with a replica replacing it on site. The estimated cost of doing that is $180,000. Italian authorities are considering it. Meanwhile, the 2,000-year-old Ostia column continues to deteriorate. But Italian American activists and scholars such as Don Fiore and officials of the Italian government are undaunted by the indifference they face. Prominent among those intent upon rescuing Balbo from oblivion is the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, which since 1951 has acted as an antidefamation agency for the Italian-American community.

Dominic DiFrisco, president of the committee, says he hopes next month's Columbus Day parade will contain a float saluting Balbo's flight "as an event of historical significance." The parade is intended to celebrate the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and DiFrisco believes Balbo's historic flight to another Chicago fair in 1933 equally deserves to be celebrated. Meanwhile, contemporary Chicagoans will continue to think that they know for whom Balbo Drive is named. Most do not.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Italian Air Force Historical Office.

Add a comment