Like so many immigrants on the Iron Range, Alphonse Valentini worked deep in the iron mines around Chisholm. But the windows of his home were unlike any other in Minnesota.
One at a time, he hung stars in those windows as his sons scattered across the globe during World War II, from Austria to Okinawa, Sicily to Burma.
“Oh, he was proud. He had those stars in the window,” daughter-in-law Patricia Valentini recalled in 2001. “As kids would go to school, he’d say: ‘See, thatsa my boys, and they’re all gone …’ ”
This week marks the 70th anniversary of V-J Day — the victory over Japan, signaling the end of history’s deadliest war. So let’s flash back to the eight Valentini brothers from Chisholm, who set the state record for most members of the same family joining the World War II cause.
Marbello (Bello) went first, hooking on with the Army in January 1942 — the month after Pearl Harbor — to work as a radio inspector on search planes. His brothers Frank and Quentin (Queenie) signed up the same day that August. Fiorello (Frello) joined the Navy that month.
Constantino, known as “Dindi,” was the youngest of the brothers to serve and worked ground crew for a glider team in Italy. August (Gusty) was the youngest and joined the Navy in 1943, building aircraft bases in Okinawa and other Pacific hot zones. Louie followed him into the Navy a few days later and headed to the Philippines and New Guinea.
Finally, Valentino Valentini — whom everyone called “V” — joined the Navy in 1944. That meant eight of Alphonse’s 10 sons had gone off to war. His eldest son was too old and another was a steel plant chemist considered too essential to enlist.
Mary, their only sister, served as an information clearinghouse, collecting the letters and keeping their father abreast of the boys’ exploits.
“My father was running out of windows,” Frank said in a 2001 interview with Minnesota Public Radio. “He didn’t have enough windows for the stars honoring his sons.”
Amazingly, all eight Valentinis came home — unlike the staggering number of Minnesotans who died in the war. A 1946 War Department honor roll of the missing and dead lists 6,462 Minnesotans who lost their lives during World War II — including 55 from the Valentinis’ hometown of Chisholm and 573 from their St. Louis County alone.
Frank could rattle off the names of friends from Chisholm who weren’t as lucky as his clan, including his best friend, Fred Franceschetti, a navigator on a lost B-29.
“I lost Dario. I lost Fritzy. Elroy Frank. I lost Tom Radotich. Luke Laurich. Joe and Louie Kne, two brothers, killed in the war from Chisholm,” Frank said. “Lots of friends. Lots of them.”
Today, all of the Valentini brothers are dead, too. Frank, a longtime Chisholm High School teacher, was the last to go on June 21, 2014, at 95 — outlasting Fiorello by nearly a dozen years.
In the 2001 interview, Frank’s eyes grew misty as he talked about his mother, Colomba. Thankfully, perhaps, she died in 1940 — less than a year before Pearl Harbor. The fretting she would have endured with her eight sons at war might have been too much for her.
Overprotective, Colomba didn’t want her sons to join the military. “If your mother would have been alive, it would have killed her,” Patricia Valentini, Frank’s wife, told MPR in 2001.
A story that has passed down through the family recalls how one night Alphonse might have had a little too much Chianti with dinner and stumbled over to the recruiting station to volunteer. “He got half in the bag one time,” Frank said, “but he was about 70 years old. ‘You took all my sons,’ he says. ‘Why not take me?’ ”
Frank himself was rejected when he first tried to join the service. He actually flunked his enlistment physical, when the Navy said his eyes were too bad. But a few months later, the Army accepted him. He told the corporal giving the vision test at Fort Snelling: “If I have both eyes open, I can see perfectly.”
The corporal waved him on. He would be one of the eight brothers at war. It wasn’t what he’d imagined.
“People get the impression that everyone was in combat, or everybody had hand-to-hand, or everybody was like Normandy,” he said. “I had visions of infantry. I’d seen pictures of World War I, over the top and all that.” He took the aptitude test and wound up a radio operator with the Signal Corps, earning a Bronze Star guiding planes toward Japanese targets. He worked in camps pummeled with bullets and rocked with bombs.
“Now, that may sound gung-ho, but I said: ‘I’m not going to be left behind. I want to be part of this.’ ”
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org