Gloucester veteran recalls the path that led him from childhood in Italy

by Quinton Sheppard - Posted on Nov 07, 2018 - 02:47 PM

Photo: Anthony and Joan Gattuso sit on the front porch of their Gloucester home. Photo by Quinton Sheppard

Anthony and Joan Gattuso sit on the front porch of their Gloucester home. Photo by Quinton Sheppard

Gloucester veteran Anthony Gattuso never could have imagined the twists and turns his life would take from growing up in a small village in Italy to his retirement in Virginia. His is a story of bravery, love and the pursuit of a better life.

Anthony’s father left for the United States in 1933, just six months after his son was born, to seek his fortune. Communication with the home country became difficult, and then impossible, with the outbreak of World War II.

Once the war was over, Anthony’s father sent a Red Cross message to his family in Italy to let them know he was okay. His family in Italy sent the same back to him. His father also completed paperwork to allow the family to come to the U.S.

In the meantime, Gattuso’s two older sisters in Italy got married, leaving just him and his mother to travel overseas. Misfortune struck in 1946 when his mother became ill and passed away shortly thereafter. “That left me alone to come to the States,” Gattuso said.

He had just turned 14 when he left the home country on Christmas Day, heading to a new country and a life with a father of whom he had no memory. “We were supposed to reach New York seven days later,” Gattuso said. However, the ship got lost while at sea and ended up at sea another week.

When the ship finally docked in New York, a gentleman who happened to speak Italian saw that Gattuso looked lost and frightened and asked who he was looking for. When Gattuso showed the man a photo of his dad, he pointed to a man on the dock waving a white handkerchief. Since he was a veteran, his dad was allowed to board the ship to see his son for the first time in many years.

“It was an unbelievable feeling,” Gattuso said. “Everything was brand new to me.”

Once at his new home in New Jersey, he described being overwhelmed when meeting cousins, aunts and uncles on his father’s side that he had never met before. He was also struck by a new concept—indoor plumbing. 

At age 14, Gattuso was put in the sixth grade and, because he was not fluent in English, he often found himself in fights with classmates because they could not understand one another. 

By the ninth grade, Gattuso was almost 18 years old and though school was getting better, he decided he was too old to be in classes and quit. He took a job with a company that made metal cabinets for the military.

Then, one day, he picked up a pamphlet on the newly-formed U.S. Air Force. The Korean War was starting. Expecting he would be drafted into the Army, he decided instead to voluntarily join the Air Force.

By now, his father had remarried a woman with the same name as his late mother, Petronilla, and had several stepchildren. They were very happy.

By December 1951, he had been accepted into the Air Force. “I still have no idea how I passed the test to get in,” Gattuso said. “It was rough—very, very hard.”

After living in the U.S. for about four years, Gattuso found himself changing locations, from New Jersey to Sampson Air Force Base in Geneva, New York, for basic training.

Having worked part-time in a bakery during his school years, Gattuso entered the Air Force as a baker. After graduating from basic training, he was assigned to Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York. “One day, this lady got hired to work in the same office as me,” he said. “She ended up being my commander’s secretary.”

At the time, Gattuso said he just knew Joan as a secretary. However, by 1952, their love for each other became apparent and they soon were engaged. 

Soon, he received overseas orders for Japan, but they were later changed to the Bahamas. “This was the best assignment,” he said. Enjoying photography, he recalled being able to photograph Queen Elizabeth on her visit to the island shortly after she was crowned. 

He and wife Joan married in 1954 just before his next assignment sent him to Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard, Florida. They honeymooned in the Poconos before settling into the Sunshine State. The couple soon scraped together $250 to buy their first car, a 1948 Ford.

The couple spent three years in Florida and while there, he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen in 1955. As a naturalization gift, the Gattusos purchased a brand-new 1955 Ford. “It didn’t have heat or a radio, but it was new, so we splurged,” he said. 

In 1957, Gattuso received orders to Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, Alaska. It was during this time that he took interest in and was accepted to a position in the Air Police Squadron (now called the Air Force Security Forces). Their first daughter, Delores, was born there.

In 1960, the family moved to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas where son Anthony Jr. was born.

In 1964, Gattuso was reassigned to Korea and was forced to settle his family in Joan’s hometown of Rome, New York. He spent 13 months in Korea, and when transferred to Wiesbaden Air Force Base in Germany, his family came along. Their second son Peter was born there.

He had always told those he left in Italy that once he got to the U.S. and became rich and had a car, he would drive right up to their home place. When he left Italy, it could only be reached by foot. So, while in Germany, Gattuso and his family took a two-week vacation and drove their Mercedes-Benz from Germany to his Italian home place. 

“One of my friends remembered that promise I had made,” Gattuso said. “I told him, ‘I got the car, but I didn’t get rich.’”

It was 1969 when his last assignment took him to Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, where their youngest Petrina was born.

Gattuso retired from the Air Force in 1974. His neighbor in Hampton was leaving a job as a maintenance supervisor at Rices Nachman’s department store in Newport News. He was hired as part of the security team at then-Virginia Power’s Surry Nuclear Power Plant. “That was the best assignment I’ve ever had,” Gattuso said. “I spent 23 years with that company.”

In 1994, he fully retired. Five years later, he and Joan left their home in Newport News, moving to King William County. They stayed there for seven years before setting off for a year-long journey in their fifth wheel camper.

“After a year, we parked in Williamsburg,” Gattuso said, “and we said, “I guess we better find a place to live.’”

The couple looked around and settled in Gloucester—a move Gattuso said he wished he had made earlier.

The Gattusos joined the Church of St. Therese and became two of the founding members of the Bread for Life Food Pantry.

To date, Gattuso has over 7,000 volunteer hours with that organization, spanning more than nine years of service. 

Joan summed up the couple’s story by saying that though her husband may not have gotten rich in money by coming to the United States, they both are rich in all of the things that matter—their family, faith and friends. “And for those things, we are truly thankful,” she said.