Pittsburghers who fought Nazis 70 years ago respond to seeing Nazi flags and salutes on U.S. streets

“That’s the kind of thing that we liberated people from 70 years ago.”

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Photos Courtesy of Kevin Farkas, Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative
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Rosemary Capone, 90, has spent the last week glued to CNN. She compares it to an addiction, then exhaustedly shakes her head.

Her 94-year-old husband Joe Capone is also watching. He looks exhausted, too.

On Wednesday, the couple sat in the living room of their Wilkins Township home, awash in cable news coverage of the violence in Charlottesville, the political fallout and the rise of hate groups including neo-nazis at home.

Joe was wounded three times while serving overseas as a rifleman with the U.S. Army during World War II. He was also among the first to discover the Nazi concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora. And so he bristles, as one might expect, when photos of Nazi salutes and Nazi flags being hoisted on the streets of American cities are splashed across his television set.

“That’s the kind of thing that we liberated people from 70 years ago,” Joe said.

“I don’t know how you disallow that. You can’t take free speech out of our culture, but I am very against that. I have my opinion on what they accomplish.”

Rosemary is also incensed, although far less diplomatic in her response. They are not alone.

With the help of Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, The Incline reached out to three Pittsburgh-area World War II veterans for their thoughts on the violence in Charlottesville and what it’s like to see Nazi flags and symbols being marched down the streets of American cities more than seven decades after they served in the war. Guy Capone and Joe Prestia said they’re not opposed to Confederate monuments like Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue remaining in place. Instead, they explained, they’re opposed to the tactics used by some far-right groups in arguing against the monuments coming down.

Excerpts of our conversations follow here.

Guy Prestia

Guy Prestia

Courtesy of Kevin Farkas, Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative

Guy Prestia of Ellwood City, 95, a gunner and later a sergeant in the U.S. Army’s 45th infantry Division, 157 Regiment: 

“The unit I was in liberated Dachau in April of 1945. I was 23 years old at the time. I think we got out 31,000 survivors. Many were nothing but skin and bones, and we weren’t allowed to give them food because it probably would have killed them, they were so malnourished. There were also 38 flat railroad cars just stacked with bodies.

“… We were over there for over three years before then, and many of us had wondered why we were fighting. But then, when we liberated Dachau, we found out. So this stuff that goes on today — I always say it’s a free country, but we give too much freedom to people who don’t deserve it, and one is the neo-nazis who display the swastika. I’m against all that. I think it’s treason. We fought against that, and I’m not sure why they haven’t passed a law to make that illegal. I thought anything like that would be treason to this country. We were fighting for a cause and the American flag was our symbol and we honored the flag.

“… I’m also not opposed to people in the south having a Confederate flag, but it should be below the American flag on the pole.”

Al DeFazio

Al DeFazio

Courtesy of Kevin Farkas, Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative

Al DeFazio of Penn Hills, U.S. Army 36th Infantry Division, 1943-1946:

“I think it’s terrible. It makes me feel terrible. I lost my buddy right next to me. He was killed, and I was with him all through camp. He’s always on my mind. Out of my outfit, only six came back alive from Monte Cassino. And so I’m very disgusted. We fought against [Nazi Germany] for freedom, and [neo-Nazis in the U.S.] want to fly their flag. That discourages me. But I still love this country. I would rather sleep in a gutter here than in any other country in the world.”

Joseph Capone

Joe Capone

Courtesy of Kevin Farkas, Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative

Joe Capone of Wilkins Township, an infantry and rifleman with the U.S. Army’s 415th Infantry Regiment, 104th Infantry Division, also known as the Timberwolf Division, 1943-1945:

I know right after I was home on leave from the service — this is towards the end of the war — I remember being in a movie theater, and they were showing pictures of the different concentration camps, and the people behind me said, ‘You believe that? That can’t be true.’ And so I turned around, I was not in uniform at the time, and I turned around and said, ‘It was true. I was in one of them.’ And they shut up after that, but I was pretty disturbed.”

“… It was most awful sight I’ll ever remember,” he says of Mittelbau-Dora now. “Just thinking about it, I can almost smell the stench that was with that place.”

“And so I think what happened in Charlottesville is God awful. … [Hate groups] take advantage of the liberalism we have, that it’s a free country and you can speak and do this and this. But I’m so opposed to these groups, because they’re nothing but hate groups and they rub off on the same thing the Nazis did during World War II. I think there’s really no place for this type of behavior, and the only reason they’re doing it is because they have a free country that they can do it in. They have a country that gives them a free voice to believe what they want to and so on. But they carry it to an extreme and look what happened. These groups abuse that privilege, and they usurp it. Charlottesville is a terrible reflection of what’s happening in our country. The result is what we saw. It’s awful. It’s terrible. And of course bigotry feeds on bigotry.”

Hear more from Joe Capone here.