Alla Famiglia — a Memoir from Alma De Santis

In Remembrance of the US First Division Marines who visited Melbourne for R and R during the Second World War.

The author, Alma De Santis,  is a close friend of mine, and a pioneer Civil Marriage Celebrant from the time of the founding Australian Statesman, Attorney-General Lionel Murphy.

For another audience I wrote the following reflection on her memoir.
I was deeply moved by the recollection of Alma de Santis, my dear friend, in the accompanying memoir.
When I was six or seven years old my family too hosted visiting American servicemen. They came here to heal after battle, before they headed back once again into the conflict zone – many of them to die.
It was President John F. Kennedy who famously said – “one of the greatest tragedies we humans experience is the death of young men.”
It is also said that the only real memory we preserve is “the speaking”.
Alma speaks – she speaks of a real and vivid memory over seventy years old, the time she was an impressionable young girl excited by the presence of a group of vital and fascinating young men who lit up her home and her household.
It is an historical pericope of life, love, excitement, loving and dying. It is a window on the bonding of the USA and Australia, it is a nostalgic longing for a short happy time burnt deep into the writers memory.
It is vivid moment which records the horror, the tragedy and the futility of war.
It is a moment strongly related to the immortal lament of the renowned poet Rupert Brooke

These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music;
known Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and and cheeks. All this is ended.

—————————————————–

ALLA FAMIGLIA -1942-43 – MELBOURNE (Alma Florence de Santis nèe Resuggan)

Over-paid over-sexed over-here were the headlines of the National Weekly Newspapers 1942—1943 of the friendly American invasion of approximately 15,000 First Division Marines in Melbourne, Australia.

The Marines were shipped to Melbourne for rest and recuperation after the grueling Guadalcanal campaign. They were suffering battle fatigue, dengue fever and some had malaria.

This is my story of our Marine family in Melbourne 1942/3. I am in my nineties now and didn’t want these stories to die with me, nameless, faceless, story-less and forgotten. So much has been written about the First Marine Division, “The Old Breed” in the Pacific 1942—1945 but not very much about their 9 months in Melbourne until they were shipped out on August 7, 1943.

To Robert, Tyrone, Seth, Carlo, Billy, Jim and Max of the First Marine Division, we knew you, we loved you, and we remember you.

May God bless “The Old Breed”. They all left their footprints in our hearts.

1stMarineDivision

………………………………………….

The majority of the Marines were 18 to 20 years old. For many of them this was their first time away from home. These young men formed enduring friendships with Australian families. They fell in love with Melbourne and we Australians reciprocated with affection.

They spread new ideas about music, sport, food and culture. Of course they were not here for a vacation, but to build up their strength and heal, refit and rest for future combat. If they were well enough and wanted to they could work on large building sites, concreting, laboring or doing frame and form work.

At that time my father’s firm was building the Royal Children’s Hospital. Dad had many Marines who liked the idea of helping out at the Children’s Hospital. When given leave from Balcombe Barracks and their part time training they would work at the Children’s Hospital with my father.

Dad liked the Marines and invited many home for Mum’s home cooked dinners, family picnics, family outings and trips to the country. They became part of our family. From memory our regulars were Robert, Tyrone, Seth, Carlo, Jim, Billy, Max, and Bud – more about Bud later.

A number of my family were in the army. I was working part-time in the Women’s Land Army. My brother George and my cousins had not yet left for Japan. They all got along well with the Marines. I remember they would all visit The Dugout, the Trocadero and Palm Court where the troops and the girls gathered to meet and dance. I didn’t go to the dances with them as I had only just turned 18. My brother and his friends would also take them to Luna Park, ice skating and to the football.

Dad once asked an officer friend of his who was a Major in the Army about the First Marine Division. The Major said “Harry, they are the best of the best, an elite corps, their values are high, they train hard, fight hard, work hard, drink hard, love hard and hurt hard.” Dad never forgot those words.

We had a self-contained bungalow in our garden and when on leave two or three or more of the boys, Mum never minded how many, would stay in the bungalow if they had overnight leave.

Every time we sat down to a meal with them you would feel the love and affection. Carlo would raise his glass, and say “alla famiglia” which in English translates to “the family”. Seventy years later though there are only two of us left, we still say “alla famiglia”.

The boys would spend a lot of the time in the kitchen. I remember any one of them would sneak up behind Mum and undo her apron. The others would scramble to pick it up and the offender would get a slap from Mum’s wooden spoon. Mum loved them.

Robert and Tyrone were both 20 years of age with a healthy interest in girls. Like so many of that age at that time, it was their coming of age, their rite of passage to adulthood. Melbourne equated with coming of age to many of these young men and many romances and sexual relationships began.

Robert and Tyrone met two nice girls a little older than themselves. They would go to dances, concerts, drives to the country and beaches. They brought the girls home once for dinner and to meet Mum and Dad and show their bungalow. The boys were always respectful and any romantic occurrences were never, ever conducted at our home.

After 2 or so months, the boys moved onto other girls, other interludes and other experiences.

Seth was a dear boy and a wonderful singer. I remember he would say “I sing like my Daddy”. He would sing ballads, blues, anything. I recall “Paper Doll”, “That Old Black Magic”, “My Foolish Heart”, “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and so many others. He was a true southern laid back boy and would often say “goodnight y’al I’m going to bay-ed now”. He would go off singing “gawjah on my mind” in his southern accent. We could always forgive Seth anything when we heard him sing.

Seth initiated sing-a-longs which we would all enter into with much enthusiasm. Someone found a guitar and a violin which would rev things up a bit. Seth was semi-engaged to a girl back home but after being away for so long, he asked his Daddy to buy an engagement ring and planned to marry soon after his return to the U.S.A.

Seth was a friendly gossip who could not keep a secret. Snippets of his gossip would sift through our sunroom windows from the bungalow if the door was open. We could sometimes hear them discussing Carlos’ intense sexual episodes or stories about how Jim lost his innocence at 17 on a blanket in a cornfield or that Max had an affair with a librarian in the library at St Kilda. I recall Tyrone’s coming of age was whispered and incoherent and all that we heard was “Wow” at the end of the story.

Seth would sing “Georgia On My Mind” with tears in his eyes and say “Daddy and I will sing this together again soon”. Seth and his Daddy never got to sing again after the war.

Now to “flash” Carlo, born of Italian parents in America. He was very charismatic, very handsome, 24 years of age and a real ladies man. He loved the girls. As my aunt would say he had “molto sensuale eviene a letto con quelli occhi” (very sensual and come to bed eyes). When on leave Carlo would get dressed up, drop into the building site for two or so hours and a quick talk then go. A day or so later he would come home to the bungalow, come into the kitchen, kiss Mum on the cheek, tell her she was beautiful, have his breakfast, have a shower and go to bed before going back to the barracks.

Mum worried about Carlo, and asked Dad to talk to him “like a father”. I recall Dad saying “but Alma he is 25 a grown man this isn’t his coming of age. Carlo probably wrote the book on sex.” Mum insisted so Dad took Carlo into the lounge. Dad told Mum he spoke to Carlo about life, safe sex, unwanted pregnancies, loose women, gold diggers, family trouble and Marine trouble. The basis was girls and sex.

Evidently Carlo listened quietly, smiled and said “I thank you sir, that is real good advice, but haven’t you heard a Marine is a warrior by day, a professional by training, a lover by night and by the grace of God I am a Marine but I thank you sir for your advice and concern.” What could Dad say? Carlo kept to his pattern and Mum still worried.

Jim was an introspective, intelligent boy beyond his 20 years. Jim was a living image of the young Robert Redford with the same mouth and slow smile. Jim was an enigma. He never talked much about his family or his life back home. Jim could talk about anything if encouraged. He could talk about philosophy, mechanics or destiny.

Jim loved Mum and would spend time in the kitchen cutting up vegetables. Jim always told us all “The only thing I will promise a woman if she is with me, she will wake up smiling” and I bet many did.

Billy came from New Jersey. Billy was a delightful boy. He and Jim were mates and they would go to the movies, loved the country, and enjoyed trips to the mountains with us or by train.

Billy was engaged to his childhood sweetheart. Their wedding, her bridal gown, the wedding rings the honeymoon, reception, all arranged but the First Division was shipped out a week before it could take place. Billy would tell us with tears in his eyes “I have promised that we will marry a week after I am discharged.” They kept everything planned. Billy never got home, he was killed at Pelelui.

We heard later that Jim carried him to the wounded area but Billy had already gone. Retrieving wounded comrades from the field of fire is a Marine Corps tradition more sacred than life.

Dear Max, a boy from a broken home sent to live with his elderly grandmother when he was 12 years of age. His grandmother died when he was 15 years old. Max was alone with no family anywhere after his grandmother died. The school social worker heard his story and took him under her motherly wings and spoke to the school committee who kept him at school until he graduated with his High School Diploma.

Max was street smart and book smart and an avid reader. He was polite, friendly and a very nice human being.

He had worked after school in a hardware store and lived behind the shop and had done so since he was 15 years old.

After his graduation and the week he turned 18 years he joined the First Marine Division. He said “it was the only time in his life he belonged to anyone or anything important”. Max was so proud to be a Marine. Of all the boys his shoes were the shiniest, his clothes the best pressed, they were all, always neat and clean but Max was a degree ahead. Max loved the brotherhood of Marines above anything else and wanted everyone to know it.

One night coming home from the movies Max heard a small whimper from the corner of a shop front and stopped to investigate. He saw a small kitten. He brought it home to the bungalow where Robert and Tyrone were playing cards. They gave it milk and the kitten curled up on Max’s bed and slept.

In the morning they came to the kitchen and saw Mum. Dad was at the office. Mum said “What have you got under your jumper Max?” They all said “a cat, a kitten”. “Can we keep it please?” Mum said she looked at three tough Marines with wide eyes soon to go off to battles again, and said “is it a boy or a girl?” “A boy” they said in unison. “Well” said Mum “if he is going live here he will have to go to the vet or he will be out all night like Carlo looking for girls”. Mum and Max took him to the vet and so Bud became a much loved very spoiled member of the house.

Bud adored the Marines and when they went back to barracks to duty he would sit by the front gate waiting for them. He was known by all the neighbors and the passersby who would call out “Bud, not home yet mate”. Bud lived with us until 1957. He lived for another 14 years but was never quite the same after the boys left. Bud had the same close bonds of fidelity with the boys as they had for each other.

In early July 1943 the boys were taken off the building site and all returned to Balcombe Barracks. They would have weekend leave, but not together.

When Dad said goodbye to them all and thanked them he said he felt like crying. Dad told them as the Major said “you are an elite group”.

In the next few days Dad couldn’t find their tools. Eventually he found out that when the Marines had finished that final day they had thrown their picks, shovels, hammers and all their tools into the wet cement. There were about 35 to 45 Marines working there on shifts at that time. Dad’s only concern was that if in the future the hospital was demolished they would find the hospital was reinforced with picks, shovels and hammers.

The Marines knew there was something big ahead of them, more brutal, more bloody conflicts, their leave was considerably restricted and rarely together though there was than 15,000 Marines at Balcombe.

Serious training now as the First Marine Division was a land and sea amphibious unit. They practiced dawn landings from the H.M.A.S Manoora off the cliffs at Mt Martha near the Balcombe Barracks.

Dad rang his friend the Major and asked one favour. The favour was given but for just this once.

Four weeks before they left Melbourne on 7 August, 1943 they all came to the house and we all sat down to a wonderful meal together. Carlo said “alla famiglia”. Carlo called it “The Last Supper” but none of us laughed. Max said “Well mates if I charge follow me, if I retreat shoot me, if I am killed avenge me.”

We didn’t say goodbye just “we will see you all again” not believing it. Dear Mum had a code “never let anyone leave your side without feeling happier” but we all broke Mum’s code on July 6, 1943.

Robert, Tyrone, Seth and Billy were killed at either Guadalcanal or Pelelui. So many broken dreams. Whoever wrote “freedom is free”?

Jim and Carlo were honorably discharged. I heard Max stayed on with his band of brothers as an enlisted Marine.

War ended in 1945. As someone said “it’s the land of the free because of the brave”.

One of Dad’s brothers was killed in Europe. Another was a prisoner of war in Germany and another brother a highly decorated officer was home from Japan. My cousin returned from Japan as did my brother who then went back to Japan with the Occupation Force.

Life went on with only Bud left in the bungalow.

Letters with the remaining boys were sporadic then eventually ceased.

“Alla Famiglia”  (“The Family”)

We heard that Max was in Korea although we never heard any more about Carlo.

Then in early March 1946 Mum answered the front door and there smiling and standing tall was Jim Murlie Clifford from Deer Park, Washington. Youth hadn’t lasted in his face but maturity beyond his years was there and unwavering pride.

Some people live a lifetime wondering if they have amounted to anything, but Jim didn’t have that problem Mum said “the war is over Jim, you got home safely”. Mum said he replied “Mom I got malaria, dengue fever, battle fatigue, heart ache, but I never got killed” that’s all he said. For those that understand no explanation is necessary and for those who don’t understand no explanation is possible.

I remember Jim saying in 1946 that he could sum up everything that he had learned in three words “life goes on”.

Jim moved into the bungalow with Bud who was delighted to see him. Jim worked with Dad for a week or two then moved on. The Marines had taught them all how to kill but not how to deal with the killing. I think that was why Jim was a roamer and a wanderer. He was struggling with his demons.

Jim never stayed long anywhere and he really never ever left the Marines. Jim fought for peace but never found it. He missed the brotherhood, a friendship beyond friendship. Jim was so proud of the Marine tradition and of the First Division particularly. Hard to believe but it is the truth.

We heard that from 1946 – 1952 Jim employed a few tradesmen, designed and built 3 houses and built a beautiful 3 roomed log cabin in the mountains. We heard it was the talk of the area. I believe Jim moved on bought and sold real estate and cars, got married, got divorced, moved on, we heard he was living in the Pilbara, the iron ore fields in Western Australia but moved on again. We heard in 1958 he was with a woman down south but had moved on. We never heard anything more after that.

We put notices in the paper but received no response. We all hoped and prayed Jim had gone back to the United States, joined the Marines (which he had never really left), got married again, had children and settled down.

Dad’s brother a LT Colonel served in Japan and Korea and knew only too well the trauma and emotional causalities among the returned servicemen. They were hurting and emotionally damaged with recurring thoughts of the horror and atrocities of war. I recall Dad’s brother saying “A wanderer is not necessarily lost he is looking for a place of no remembrance which poor soul he cannot ever find in this life.” I remember him saying “There is no greater fortitude than courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Servicemen know all about that and the post traumatic stress”.

So that is the story of our Marine family in 1943 and of the happy times we all had. They were family to us like they were our own sons and brothers. For that short time a state of happiness existed between us all.

In conclusion, I want to share something amusing and truthful with you. Father Kevin Keaney, First Marine Division Chaplain wrote “You cannot exaggerate about the First Marine Division, they are convinced to the point of arrogance that they are the most ferocious warriors on earth and the amusing thing about them is that they are”.

God bless all Marines past and present so many of you have served your time in hell. If we ever get to heaven I know we will see you guarding Heaven’s Gates. Semper fidelis “always faithful”.

Alma de Santis nèe Resuggan
Justice of the Peace and Civil Marriage Celebrant Australia

My thanks to Marcus, Sharon and Kara for helping me type, proofread and format the story of my Marine family. I embrace you all.

First Marine Division “The Old Breed” – History

First Marine Division Regiments were in existence as early as March 8, 1911 when the first Marine Regiment was formed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The First Marine Division was activated aboard the battleship USS Texas on February 1, 1941. It is the oldest, largest and most decorated in the United States Marine Corp.

Guadalcanal was the first major American Pacific campaign in World War II and the First Marine Division conducted combat operations as a division.

The Division’s actions during this operation won it the first of three Presidential Unit Citations during the war. The battles of its Peleliu and Okinawa culminated in additional citations.

Their shoulder patch was the first patch to be approved in the war and specifically commemorated the divisions sacrifices and victory in the battle of Guadalcanal.

The First Marine Division has served in the Korean War, Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. They have also provided disaster relief in Somalia, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

Whilst in Australia during World War II, the First Marine Division adopted the song “Waltzing Matilda” as a favourite and it soon became their official song.

Their motto is “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy”.

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