A Staten Island Trombonist Breaks a 64-Year Silence About a Military Race Riot

A violent tale of justice and injustice from America's uglier racial past

And that's when the feel-good story gets a little more complicated.

When Anthony DeCesare saw the story in the Advance, he says, he nearly became sick to his stomach.

DeCesare says he was at Fort Lawton the night of the riot and can still vividly remember seeing the bloody Italian POWs and American MPs being brought into the hospital where he was receiving treatment for post-concussion symptoms.

Sounding a sour note: Anthony DeCesare, 92, in his Staten Island home
Staci Schwartz
Sounding a sour note: Anthony DeCesare, 92, in his Staten Island home

DeCesare had kept that memory mostly to himself for 64 years. But then there was the story in the Advance, and he says he couldn't believe what he was reading.

DeCesare, you see, is seriously pissed off.

"It's crooked. It's not the story. It's not the truth," he says. "The whole thing stinks."

Next month, Tony DeCesare will turn 93 years old. He lives in a small bedroom that's been turned into both a sickroom and a shrine. For years, he was confined to the second floor of the house, until he finally convinced the VA to install an elevator so he could visit his sister, who lived downstairs—both were too frail to use the stairs and could only shout to each other.

That sister is no longer living, but another, Mary Cadier, 85, has come over as DeCesare receives a visitor. He's sitting in a chair next to his bed, wearing a blue robe over pajamas. In front of him is a folding tray piled with documents of his military career. On the walls of the room are other artifacts of his military experience: the Croix de Guerre citation from a grateful France, a detailed drawing of the Panama Canal, where he served before the war, other medals and letters of gratitude. Also mounted on the wall are two trombones and a baritone horn.

DeCesare's first love was music, and it was part of the reason he joined the military to begin with: to play in a military band. He was born on Staten Island but spent much of his youth in Maine, where his father, an Italian immigrant, was, of all things, a Protestant minister. DeCesare says that he'd started playing trombone at the age of five; he was 20 years old when he enlisted in 1935, and soon found himself on his way to the Panama Canal with the Fourth Coastal Artillery band.

There, he likes to point out, he played for the Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who received an official military welcome to the Canal Zone. "If we had known then what was coming in a couple of years," he says, "believe me, we would have given him a different kind of welcome."

After two years in Panama, DeCesare had picked up a fungal infection that seriously damaged his lungs, permanently ruined his prospects as a trombonist, and convinced him to take an early discharge. But when war broke out in Europe, he re-enlisted and was shipped to England in 1940 on the Queen Mary. Again a military musician, he was with the first American troops stationed there since World War I. He still has a British newspaper clipping—yellowed, but laminated—that lauds the "crack band" for marching into town.

After Pearl Harbor, DeCesare was part of the first major American military offensive of the war, the invasion of North Africa. In November 1942, sailing on the Queen of Bermuda, he went over the side with the others at a beach in Algeria, climbing down ropes and loaded down with gear. The men were so weighed down with what turned out to be antiquated equipment, DeCesare remembers, that many of them simply drowned before they could get to shore. And then things got worse.

The reflections on their goggles, he says, were providing something for the enemy—both German and Vichy French—to shoot at. "Guys were getting shot through the head and the eyes—we were greenhorns," he says. Stuck on the beach, they hunkered down. A big shell, he recalls, landed near him but didn't explode.

"I didn't move, or I'd go to kingdom come," he says.

Eventually, they had to retreat to the ship, landing later at Tunisia. There, he was promoted to technical sergeant and bandmaster—an odd distinction when you're storming beaches, to be sure, but the title didn't get him out of doing jobs like digging graves, he points out.

Without a chief warrant officer in his outfit, DeCesare says, disciplining the men of his unit fell on his shoulders. But the last thing he wanted was to send a soldier to a court-martial. When he had to discipline men, he says, he'd have them run around in a square. He didn't want to be known as a pain in the ass—he didn't brook wrongdoing, but he tried to be lenient.

Later, riding in Jeeps over mountainous terrain, DeCesare and his men found themselves in an action that became known as the Battle of Kasserine Pass. "We cornered the Germans," he says. "We thought we had them licked. But General Rommel had his tanks dug into the Atlas Mountains." Infantryman DeCesare and his troops followed the U.S. tanks into battle.

« Previous Page
Next Page »