Firsthand views of WWII given at Byram Shubert Library discussion

A World War II discussion presented by the Byram Shubert Library last month transported attendees back to a time of war and sacrifice with the help of two Greenwich residents who were among the era’s heroes.

Native Italian Luci Nevin and American naval aviator Chuck Standard shared their stories of triumph and tribulation as part of the library’s ongoing effort to establish communitywide discussions on various topics.

According to Miguel Garcia-Colon, Byram Shubert Library’s branch manager, the facility is “the center of the community.” As such, the library provides programs “that not only educate but also bring alive the experience for our community to share,” including the World War II discussion, he told the Post.


Italy under Mussolini

Ms. Nevin’s tale about childhood under the reign of Mussolini seemed to do just that, evoking “oohs” and “aahs” from the audience throughout her presentation.

Born in Gorizia, Italy, in 1929 as Luciana Colla, Ms. Nevin began her life under Fascist rule as Mussolini entered his seventh year as prime minister of Italy. By 1934, during the Great Depression, Ms. Nevin’s father’s family business was forced to cut down, and because he was the oldest and smartest of the clan, he was chosen to open up shop on his own.

Fortunately, Ms. Nevin explained, her father moved the family to a coastal town near Croatia and quickly established another factory. The catch, she explained, was that under Mussolini’s rule, all Italian businesses were required to register as a member of the Fascist party in order to receive a business permit. Like many Italians, Ms. Nevin said, her father did not agree with fascism and had no desire to attend the member meetings. This prompted him to become a member of the party, which was a requirement, but do so in a way where he applied for his business permit many hours away from his factory, allowing him to escape Fascist gatherings unbeknownst to the party.

At the same time, Ms. Nevin’s mother enrolled Ms. Nevin and her younger sister in public school, where they were required to obtain permits to become “Little Italians,” or young members of the Fascist Party. Although Mussolini’s education reform had improved schools, public school students were required to learn to march, go to Fascist meetings and wear a specific uniform, which included an expensive black cape that Ms. Nevin’s mother would later transform into winter pants for her daughters during the war when clothing was unavailable, Ms. Nevin said.

In 1936, Mussolini wanted to conquer a “place in the sun,” culminating in his brutal invasion of Ethiopia. As a result, the League of Nations instituted many sanctions on the country, forbidding imports and exports and starting the country on a downward spiral, Ms. Nevin said.

At the same time, permit expirations were coming up and it was discovered that Mr. Colla had a factory outside of the town in which he registered. He was forced to sell his business for hardly any money, and subsequently moved his family to Africa for a time.

The family, with the exception of Mr. Colla, returned to Gorizia just as the war was starting.

At 10 every morning, an air raid siren sounded in the building next to Ms. Nevin’s residence, evoking anxiety from the many citizens who could hear it.

“It was a reminder of the terror to come,” Ms. Nevin said.

Family tragedies

By 1942, Africa had fallen back under British rule and Mr. Colla, awaiting repatriation in a refugee camp, wired all the money he had to his wife in Italy. When Mrs. Colla attempted to withdraw the funds, the bank told her she needed to make formal arrangements to do so. When she returned, following bank protocol, to receive the money, the bank told her the money had never arrived and that it was just another circumstance of war, Ms. Nevin said.

With no money in her bank account, Mrs. Colla found a secretarial job and, along with her daughters, awaited her husband’s return. A short time later, a refugee who had been in camp with Mr. Colla arrived at the family’s door, telling them the British had taken Mr. Colla prisoner, charging him with working as a government spy for the British then betraying them — an allegation far from the truth, Ms. Nevin said. The family was horrified to hear the stranger relay to them that Mr. Colla had been tortured daily by the British to the point of madness, eventually unable to recognize a picture of his own children.

After much searching, Mrs. Colla discovered the story and photo of a man who, Ms. Nevin said, could have been her father’s twin and was the true perpetrator of the crime, but by that time it was too late and Mr. Colla was nowhere to be found.

In 1943, fascism fell and by 1945, the war in Gorizia was over and residents were on their own. At this time, Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz, best known as “Tito,” brought his troops into the town and for 40 days forced the area’s best professionals, including doctors, priests, office workers, engineers, and the like, to leave town in order to help them get their territory up and running, telling them they would be returned home promptly.

Those people, Ms. Nevin said, never returned.

Although Americans eventually broke through the town, demanding that Tito return the professionals to their homes from the jails in which he kept them, he couldn’t be stopped. At night, the people were taken by the truckload, bound in barbed wire, away from the jail never to be seen again, Ms. Nevin said. Mrs. Colla was one of them, and Ms. Nevin and her sister never saw their mother again.

A heroine in her own right, Ms. Nevin acquired two jobs, making enough money to take care of herself, her sister and her grandmother, but forcing her to quit school in her final year.

Then in 1946, a year and a half after the war had ended, Ms. Nevin heard the whistle her father had always blown when she was a child to get his children’s attention over the loud noises of the factory. It was the one night Ms. Nevin wasn’t at the nightclub where she earned money as a pianist because the club was being renovated, and lo and behold, her father appeared, she said.

Mr. Colla had a two-year lapse in memory and was a “lost man,” broken from the torture he endured at the hands of the British, Ms. Nevin said.

With no mother and a father who could not help them, Ms. Nevin and her sister moved to America, where eventually they found peace.

Naval missions

Mr. Standard also gripped the audience with his tales of life as a young military man during World War II.

Operating in the South Pacific as a naval aviator, Mr. Standard had a role in what would later be referred to as the “Turkey Shoot” in reference to the more than 300 Japanese planes shot down by Americans in a single day. It all started on a day when Americans detected Japanese aircraft on their radar. Mr. Standard was sent on a 315-mile search of the skies to find the enemy, he said, but to no avail.

The next day, however, the Americans got a lead on the location of the Japanese. By the time their precise location was determined, Mr. Standard had found himself 65 miles farther away from his carrier than anticipated, leaving his plane with very limited fuel, he said.

After working with fellow soldiers to bomb the Japanese carriers they had located, Mr. Standard said, he realized there was no way his plane had enough gas to get back to the carrier and he began to prepare. Hoping to get as close to the carrier as possible before ditching into the water, Mr. Standard told his gunner to throw 16 large guns, as well as ammunition, overboard to lighten the plane’s load. Navigating his way through pitch-black skies, Mr. Standard eventually felt his aircraft begin to lose speed and the first instinct, he explained, is to pull back. If he had done so, however, it would have ultimately caused the plane to turn sharply then spin out of control.

“The only time I got really scared in the war … was knowing that I’d be dead in 30 seconds if I didn’t fly that plane properly,” Mr. Standard said.

The young soldier was so frightened, in fact, that he suffered dry heaves, but somehow managed to continue maneuvering the plane.

Eventually, Mr. Standard spotted his carrier’s beacon and knew if he wanted to land on the ship he would have to do so quickly, before his plane ran out of fuel, he said. He lined up to the ship’s runway as best he could and inched his way closer to it. Although he could hardly see in the night sky, as he got closer to the carrier he realized he couldn’t keep circling the ship to land appropriately without running out of gas. So with some tight turns and quick maneuvering, he bit the bullet, knowing he had no time left, and landed his plane successfully on the carrier.

Many of Mr. Standard’s comrades were not so fortunate, he said, and he stayed aboard the ship for a week after his miraculous landing as the crew picked up stranded soldiers nearby.

“I’ve been lucky all my life,” Mr. Standard said of the experience.

In another close-call affair, at the age of 25, Mr. Standard was asked to bring one of the photographers documenting World War II in the area on a bombing mission with him.

After dropping his bomb, Mr. Standard’s instructions were to circle the area, allowing the photographer to capture rare aerial footage of the ongoing combat. When the Japanese began firing at the plane, however, the photographer lost his nerve and yelled for Mr. Standard to fly back to safe territory. Taking his chances, Mr. Standard ignored the photographer’s plea and circled the area again, hoping the man would get a few more key shots. In the end, it was important that Mr. Standard had done so, he explained, because the other Naval plane carrying a photographer was shot down during the mission, leaving his photographer with the only footage of the event.

Ten years later at a Navy reunion, a man approached Mr. Standard, yelling at him wildly. Curious as to what all the commotion was about, Mr. Standard asked what the problem was and the man replied, “Don’t you remember?”

It was the photographer from the bombing mission, Mr. Standard said.

“You scared me so much that when I got back to the carrier I threw all of my equipment in a chair and said I’ll never fly again and because of you I never did,” Mr. Standard said, recalling the man’s words with a chuckle.

Although Mr. Standard and Ms. Nevin had extraordinarily different experiences to tell the audience about life during the war, it was clear from each of their stories, and confirmed by Mr. Garcia-Colon, that the two had been selected to share their tales with the community to prove that heroes come in many forms.


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