“I know there are a lotta great stories out there about World War II,” declares actor Joe Mantegna, “but I’ve got a pretty good one.” The versatile Chicago-born star’s resumé includes David Mamet films, The Simpsons, and Criminal Minds, his current TV series. But the story he means is his family’s. While tuberculosis kept his father out of the war, five uncles were among the 1.5 million Italian Americans who served in the wartime armed forces. “They never talked about any of it,” he says. How Mantegna discovered what his uncles did in the war is, in fact, a surprising and gratifying tale.
Did your uncles enlist because of Pearl Harbor?
Actually, my uncle Sam, my dad’s brother, was at Pearl Harbor before the war started. He was in the Marine Corps, on the [heavy cruiser] USS Chicago. Luckily the Chicago was at sea the morning of the attack.
And all of your mother’s brothers served?
The four Novellis, yeah. The oldest was my uncle Tony. He was a B-17 bombardier, shot down over Italy and captured by the Italians. It’s a weird story. They were getting ready to do their bomb run, but saw this old guy on the bridge they were supposed to hit. They kept hoping he’d move along, but he didn’t. Finally they bombed the bridge and wound up killing him. When my uncle got shot down, the Italians took him to the local jail. But when they saw his dog tags and realized he was Italian, they got a little crazy. They started planning to break into the jail that night and lynch him, because he, a paisan, killed the old man. The Germans still had some power in the area and took my uncle back to a German prison camp. He was in POW camps for about a year.
How did Tony get out?
It’s a funny story. My uncle Willie, the next-to-youngest Novelli brother, almost liberated Tony. Willie was in Patton’s Third Army, in the 37th Tank Battalion under Creighton Abrams. His unit liberated the camp Tony had been in. But the Russians had gotten there the day before, and Tony left with them. He figured he wouldn’t wait around for the Americans to get there. He had no idea how close they were.
Willy must have seen a lot of action with Patton.
He sure did. He joined up before Pearl Harbor, and was in for the duration. He was in Sicily, Normandy, France, Ger-many. They advanced 700 miles across France in seven weeks before they ran out of gas. They were out in front when Patton raced to the Bulge. Willie’s got something like five battle stars and a Purple Heart. He got that because outside Bastogne, a rocket exploded near his radar truck and blew him down a hill. He was hospitalized in Paris, then went back to his unit.
How did your uncle Joe get into the army?
Junior—that’s what they called him—was the last brother left at home. It was early 1945. He was only 17, and he got into some trouble with some friends. The trial made the papers, because my grandmother goes to court with him and tells the judge, “It’s your fault he’s in trouble, because his three brothers are overseas fighting in the war”—she’s got the star in the window for Tony in the prison camp, right?—“and if they were here, they’d straighten him out.” The judge says to the prosecutor, “We can’t prosecute this kid.” My grandmother says, “Put him in the army so he can be with his brothers!” So they did.
And the last Novelli brother?
Jack was a Marine, like my uncle Sam, and served on the USS Enterprise with Admiral Halsey. Halsey liked to have Marine aides, and Jack was one of them. He used to love to give talks at the retirement home where my brother worked in Chicago, because there were a lot of World War II veterans there. A couple years ago I brought Jack down to the annual National Memorial Concert in Washington, D.C., and was able to get the Marine Corps Drum and Bugle Corps to sing “Happy Birthday” to him at the rehearsal. I’d never seen Jack cry before, but he did then. He died a year ago. When he died, the Marine Corps gave him a 21-gun salute at his graveside.
When did you first hear these war stories?
Since my father died in 1971, Willie’s been like a father to me, but until recently he never talked about any of it. None of them did. What happened was, in 2002 my good friend Charlie Durning asked me if I’d be part of the National Memorial Day Concerts; he’d been doing them for years. They use actors to read pieces as part of the show. I knew nothing about it, but I said sure. Memorial Day, I should say, was not a holiday that was high on my radar. All five of my uncles came back, so I had nobody in the military to mourn. And they didn’t talk about the war at all, so I knew nothing about what they’d done. Doing the concert that first year just blew me away. So I brought Willie the next year. And that kinda opened him up. That, and Saving Private Ryan—that movie did that for a lotta these guys. When Willie saw it, he said it was so authentic it brought it all back. The concert hit him that way too.
Did Willy get emotional?
He’s not that kinda guy. What really prompted him to open up was meeting all these vets, from Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, World War II; he’s met thousands by now, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff—they’re at the concert every year—on down. The first guy he met in 2003, Joe Bowser, lost a leg after volunteering to go back to Iraq. Joe was still sorta shell-shocked; I could see it in his eyes. At one point, he broke down, and Willie comforted him. That started opening Willie up; he started telling me things. Those two are the best of friends now. Joe’s closer to Willie than I am, swear to God. And now Joe is staff assistant to the Secretary of the Army.
I bet there’s another story in that.
Oh yeah. When Joe found out Willie had lost his Purple Heart—you gotta understand, that happened 50 years ago—he arranged for Willie to get another one. What we did was, I got Willie to the Pentagon saying, “C’mon, we’ll visit Joe.” Joe shows us around for a while. Then he winks at me, and we go into this room where there’s a general at the dais and Willie’s daughter. They bring Willie up to give him his Purple Heart. The rest of us are crying; Willie’s chewing gum. I made him spit it out.
How old is Willie?
Almost 90. And now—he’s amazing—he’s become a kind of mascot for wounded vets. This year, he went to the Bulge battlefield with a group of them who biked through the sites there. Every year I bring him to the concert, and to Bethesda with me to visit the wounded warriors there, and I hear more stories. It’s all strengthened my commitment to stay involved with our veterans.