By Michael Brewer
Special to The Alpine Mountaineer
It’s hard to imagine but some of these World War ll veterans are still with us and full of wit and wisdom. Charles Callaci is one of them and one of us in the Lake Arrowhead community of Crest Estates.
I had the distinct honor of being able to sit and chat with Charlie as he looks forward to his 98th birthday on Feb. 28.
Charlie is a second-generation Italian-American, son of John, a newspaper reporter for the New York Post, and Marie Callaci. He was born in New York City in 1924 and spent a good deal of his youth interpreting for his mother who struggled with the meaning of many English phrases, frequently being misunderstood. This mother-son bond around language would later contribute to his talent in teaching communication skills.
Charlie and his most cordial and beautiful wife, Peggy, hosted me in their 100-year-old cabin in a residential delight of a neighborhood that predates much of the property around the lake.
As you might suspect 98 years affords a treasure trove of anecdotes and eye-opening experiences that absorbed our three-hour fireside chat, only a few of which we have space to share. I have to confess that I was so enamored with his waltz through American history, I had to slap myself to focus on an interview.
At 18 years old, after graduating from high school, Charlie attended Emerson College in Boston, Mass., showing an aptitude for engineering. When it was time to search for work, he landed a job with the Army Air Corps supply unit in New York City.
With not much time on the job, he was called to serve in the military as they assembled groups to fight in the wars against Nazi Germany and Japan. His unit was shipped over to England on the Queen Mary, the fastest passenger ship of its time, clipping along at 30 knots.
“This ship held the all-time record with 15,740 troops,” Charlie shared. “In the high seas there were extensive precautions because of Nazi submarines. Security was extremely high from leaving the port of New York.”
His unit was part of the “Mighty 8th” Army Air Corps from 1943 to 1945. A storied unit in military archives under the command of Jimmy Doolittle, it became the greatest air armada in history with a base in England, where Charlie was stationed at Deenethorp. By April of 1943, there would be 1000 aircraft in the Mighty 8th with a personnel strength of approximately 200,000.
“That is a lot of Yanks to get along with,” Charlie said, “and yes, I have a few tales from those days.”
“There was this one pub in England where all the Yanks would drink up all the beer before the local farm workers were done with their work. That did not make us very popular,” Charlie said with a chuckle. “So the commanding officer took it upon himself to buy all the booze for the GIs. Except there was one problem – it was warm!” Charlie recalls his fellow GIs blurting out, “Put it back in the horse!”
I asked Charlie to tell me about a signature event that really stands out from the myriad of experiences that make up war. He offered two.
“I had a facility in the French language and thereby was used to teach French phrases to anyone of our soldiers who may be stranded or shot down or captured in French territory.” A pretty valuable and vital service, we concluded.
Another stand-out experience was Charlie’s interface with Italian POWs, which he states, “was not authorized, but I did it anyhow.
“They came to work on the farms for 10 cents a day. Four of them lived in chicken coops. They would bring me fresh eggs and I would trudge through the mud and bring them provolone and salami. I was not supposed to be there,” he says with a twinkle. “On our third meeting, they brought me one egg as they were being rationed.
“I remember saying to one of the POWs, what are you doing in that uniform, and the POW responded curtly with, what are you doing in that uniform?”
One of the more heartwarming stories Charlie shared is when he got up at 4 a.m. to hook up with these POWs and “they brought some bits from the fuselage of a downed plane where they took aluminum and made a cigarette lighter and a ring.”
With Charlie’s facility for storytelling, he reached out this year to the offices of Steven Spielberg to offer his first-hand account for a new 10-part HBO World War ll series called Masters of the Air.
After his military career, Charlie found his next calling in the entertainment arena with his arsenal of talents, including but not limited to being a TV producer, director and performer. While a daytime program director for KCET Public Television in Los Angeles, he was instrumental in bringing Sesame Street to Southern California. Charlie was also interviewed not once but twice on You Bet Your Life, hosted by Groucho Marx. Charlie also hosted his own three-year children’s series called Choo-Choo Charlie. He would be considered a pioneer in “interactive television,” where he devised methods and techniques to help children with their evolving speech and language development.
Among Charlie’s panoply of talents, he had a diverse career in education as well. He is a retired professor from California State University Pomona in special education. He is also a former associate dean for instructional development and education media in the chancellor’s office of the California State University system. He has been on the faculties of USC, Cal State Fullerton and a visiting lecturer at the University of Nebraska.
A project that Charlie is immensely proud of is being a workshop leader for the training of lectors and Bible readings for the then nascent Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino. He loves to share his ideas about how to bring joy to the celebration of the Mass. He certainly brought joy to my life in our first of many more meetings to come.
I asked Charlie Callaci if he had any advice for our young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. His answer was succinct: “Stick it out – we will win in the long run.”