Monday, April 26, 2010

Balbo's Pillar (Continued)

If you look back a couple of days to my last blog, you will see what a HUGE event the arrival of the Balbo aerial armada was in 1933.  A crowd of a million people lined the lakefront from Navy Pier to what is now McCormick Place to watch the arrival of 24 Italian seaplanes, led by Italian Minister of the Air Force Italo Balbo.

The group took a little over two weeks to fly from Orbitello, Italy to Chicago, which was in the first few weeks of the Century of Progress World's Fair.  It was a daring venture, and Chicagoans turned out to show their awe and appreciation.

Photo Courtesy of

Balbo was treated like royalty after he landed, given a 19-gun salute, piped aboard the U.S.S. Wilmette in front of a cheering throng at Navy Pier, ferried by boat to the site of the fairgrounds, and then cheered by thousands more as his 50-car motorcade traveled slowly through the fairgrounds to Soldiers' Field, where he addressed a cheering crowd of 60,000.

The mayor of Chicago, Ed Kelly, even named a street in his honor, a street that is familiar to all Chicago Marathon runners and anyone who remembers the 1968 Democratic convention.

But the hoopla continued.  

Balbo in Chicago -- Note Furniture Mart (now 680 Lake Shore Drive) left, behind plane (Photo Courtesy of

The next day, July 16, "an illustrious day, radiant with sunshine, animated by eager cheering throngs, and crowned with a golden midnight moon," [Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1933], 40,000 people surrounded Holy Name Cathedral in anticipation of Balbo's arrival for a noon service of celebration.  Five hundred policemen, mounted and on foot, were stationed around the cathedral.

At noon Mayor Ed Kelly and his wife entered the cathedral.  There they  waited with the crowd for another half-hour.  According to The Tribune, the mayor whispered, "This is the first time in my experience that the church waited for anybody.  But I am told that the flyers are so dog tired after the completion of the six thousand mile flight that the clergy are being patient."

Then the weary pilots arrived, halting "in triple ranks three paces from the sanctuary stairs."  Balbo's flyers wore uniforms of "white linen, white caps, white shoes, white kid gloves . . . The white uniforms of the flyers were heavily loaded with gold--massive gold cordons; gold shoulder straps crested with the crown of Savoy.  Across their breasts were wide ribbons of heavy, deeply ribbed bluish-green silk.  All wore black scarves and all carried golden hilted swords of ornate design."

Photo Couresty of

The men stood at attention as a Papal benediction addressed to Chicago's Cardinal Mundelein was read, "Please extend to Gen. Balbo and his companions, together with the congratulations of the Holy Father, also his blessing.  He prays that the divine help invoked by them at the beginning of their journey may be continued for the happy return of the heroic trans-Atlantic flyers."

The two-hour service was conducted by the Bishop Bernard Shell of the Chicago archdiocese and Father Aristo V. Simoni, the Catholic chaplain at Fort Sheridan, who wore his service uniform and translated the Mass into Italian.

Italo Balbo and Father Artisto V. Simoni (Photo Courtesy of

As the service reached its end Bishop Shell came down the chancel steps and spoke directly to Balbo and his men, " . . . You have taught us even a larger lesson, for you have shown us what the citizens of a unified and an energetic nation can do by effacement of themselves and by unfaltering allegiance to a high ideal."

That unfaltering allegiance to a high ideal thing would become a little dicey as the decade wore on, but it sounded good in church when the padre brought the golden words forth on that sunny July Sunday in 1933.

Upon completion of the service, a nonstop round of activities kept the Air Minister hopping until the small hours of the next morning.   Balbo moved from Holy Name to dedicate the Columbus statue in Grant Park where it still stands today.  He then visited the World's Fair where, among other things, he was made a chief of the Sioux tribe, complete with headdress and ceremonial name, Chief Flying Eagle.

 Photo courtesy of

Then there was a dinner given by United States Commissioner Harry S. New at the Congress Hotel, followed at 10:30 p.m. by a Grand Ball at the Casino Club on East Delaware Place, given by Prince Potenziani, the royal Italian commissioner to the Fair.

At about one o'clock in the morning of July 17, according to The Tribune, the Air Minister had a hankering to go visit the fair.  So a Major Landis gathered up a small party, which was very heavy on those of the female persuasion, Balbo changed into a dark business suit and slouch hat, and off they went -- off to the 14th Street entrance to the fair.

"Thereupon Gen. Balbo became a playboy," The Tribune reported, "indistinguishable from Hiram Jones from Poduck Center."  His first stop was the auto scooter concession where he laughed as the members of the group smashed their electric cars into one another.

The next stop was the "African Dodger" concession where "Negroes were dropped into a tub of water by hitting spring bull's eyes with a baseball."  On his third throw, Balbo was successful and "toppled a Negro into the water."  He "laughed gleefully."

He moved to the shooting gallery where he ultimately "fired six shots in succession and hit five bull's eyes."  Thirsty, the party retired to the Manhattan beer garden and listened to the music of Ernie Young's orchestra.

"Soon after," the report concludes, "Gen. Balbo was back in his hotel, all smiles, as happy as a boy who had played hookey from school."

Then he was gone, off to New York City, along with the fliers and mechanics who had accompanied him.  Balbo still had one gesture of good will left for the city that had treated him to such an amazing and heartfelt weekend. 

The Balbo Column (Bartholomew photo)

In June of 1934 it was announced that Chicago would commemorate the first anniversary of Balbo's visit by dedicating and unveiling a marble shaft, a personal gift of Premier Benito Mussolini, which was moved from the ruins of the forum at Ostia, the ancient seaport of Rome.

So it was that on July 15, 1934 a crowd of 108,560 visitors made their way to the fairgrounds.  A parade opened the ceremonies, led by army and navy bands and sailors from Camp Roosevelt, along with the members of 150 Italian societies, dressed in national costumes.  The formal program began at 3:00 p.m. at the Italian pavilion, where 3,000 persons listened as Italo Balbo spoke over short wave radio. 

The Balbo column still stands just off the bike path between Soldiers' Field and Burnham Harbor, the site of the Italian pavilion at the Century of Progress, perhaps the only physical object left from the two-year World's Fair in Chicago, an event so big that it is symbolized by the fourth red star on Chicago's flag. 

Bartholomew Photo

Inscribed on the south side of the base of the column in English and Italian are these words:  


The Fascist era would claim Balbo soon enough.  Under suspicious circumstances his plane was shot down on June 28, 1940 upon his return to the Italian airfield at Tobruk following a British attack. Fire was directed at his plane from the Italian cruiser San Georgio and the anti-aircraft guns of the airfield itself.  Friends and family members believed that it was an assassination although the government denied this, attributing it to an unfortunate incident of friendly fire.

Spiralling toward certain death, I'm wondering if Balbo thought of those three heady days in Chicago a half-dozen years before.  I think oabout what those days must have been like every time I pass by that silent, ancient column out by Burnham Harbor.


electric_scooter said...
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Unknown said...

Thank you for an extremely interesting account of history.