I may know a little more about the circumstances of Babe’s death.
Nearly 19 years ago, I first wrote about Babe. I wrote then that I knew the cause of Babe’s death. I knew it from a handful of official documents recovered from my grandmother’s collection, and from the few additional documents I could get from the federal government.
As I said then, the cause of his death is very different from the circumstances of his death. His vehicle went into a canal. He drowned. Those two facts are corroborated in two separate documents. One of those documents noted that the death was “non-combat.” But how it happened has eluded me.
On the afternoon of Jan. 25, I received a Facebook chat message from a woman named Pia Conte. Babe had grown up with a man named Luca Conte in their hometown of Mount Kisco, N.Y., and likely sailed to Europe on the same ship with him. About two years ago, I emailed the only Contes I knew in Mount Kisco: The owners of Conte’s fish market, where my family used to visit when I was kid.
One thing led to another and I was soon connected with Pia and her line of the Conte family. Pia’s father Luca was the brother of Benjamin, who started the fish market. I also corresponded with one of Pia’s brothers, also named Luca, who shared a great deal of information about their father’s time in the service. Eventually, our correspondence tailed off. Until Jan. 25.
“Hi, Kurt. My brother told me something about your uncle I did not know. It’s rather sad. Do you want to hear it?” Pia wrote in her Facebook chat. I did, of course. This news came from another one of Pia’s seven siblings, John Conte. It took several weeks, but we finally got a chance to speak on the phone on Feb. 28.
John recalled a conversation with his father Luca in the early 1990s, while he was visiting Mount Kisco to see his parents. For whatever reason, they had been talking about his father’s service in Italy in World War II. At some point, John said, they talked a bit about the Mauros, who had been close friends of the family. Luca mentioned that my grandmother, Florence, had lost a son in the war.
John asked about it. He had known my Uncle Bob, Babe’s younger brother. He knew Babe had a brother named Vince, and a baby sister (my mother). But John never knew about the son my grandmother lost at the end of World War II.
“What he said was the war had just ended and Babe was very jubilant,” John told me. “Somehow or other, he took a jeep out and they were taking something of a joy ride, celebrating. They lost control…”
“It’s a tragic story when you think he survived everything else,” John said.
And that was it.
It certainly could have happened that way. The Germans surrendered in Italy on April 29, 1945, at the Palace of Caserta. On May 2, the surrender officially went into effect. For Babe, for Luca, and for the rest of the Fifth Army, the war was over. There would have been reason to celebrate.
John, who lives now in Hellertown, Pa., and works for the insurance industry in New York City, said it was an off-hand, five-minute aside in a longer conversation from many years ago. I asked whether there was any more to it. John didn’t know how his father had come across the information; Luca and Babe were not stationed together. Luca died 10 days after 9/11.
Was Babe drunk? “He didn’t mention being drunk or anything,” John said. “He mentioned it as ‘jubilation.'”
That is the “rather sad” information surrounding the death of my Uncle Babe on May 4, 1945, four days before V-E Day. It may be the best information I’ll ever get on the subject. And yes, I wanted to hear it.