Thursday, April 22, 2010

Italo Balbo, Pillar of the Community

The Century of Progress World's Fair in Chicago
Image from Chuckman's Collection of Chicago Postcards 

In July of 1933 the Century of Progress World's Fair in Chciago was a little more than six weeks old.  It was the heart of the Depression, but the city had embraced the fair, an exhibition that would go on to extend its original run by a year and draw more than 39 million people to its future-related exhibits.

Excitement had been building for two weeks at the impending arrival of an armada of 24 Italian seaplanes and 96 airmen, led by Italian Minister of the Air Force Italo Balbo.  The flight had begun in Orbitello, Italy on June 30, and Chicagoans had watched as the air fleet slowly made its way toward the city.  Bad weather delayed the group in Reykjavik, Iceland for nearly a week and served to heighten the anticipation of the big event.

Poster for Italo Balbo's Transatlantic Flight to the Century of Progress
Image from Wikipedia

This was a VERY BIG DEAL.  It had been front page news ever since the announcement of the flight's itinerary, and the mission had captured the imagination of thousands of Chicagoans.  The lakefront was lined with a million onlookers, who had waited all afternoon on July 15 for the arrival of the seaplanes, which finally began to touch down at 6:00 after a six and a-half hour flight from Montreal.

"As the two 'stormi' of 12 planes came out of the southeast to the towers of A Century of Progress and settled slowly down over the water," The Chicago Tribune wrote, "the people gathered to witness this arrival were aware of the beauty and its daring, but only aviators knew of the long preparation that had gone into it, the years of experiment and hard work.  For this was a task of lifting 264 tons above the Alps, flying as high as 12,000 feet, and navigating for hours through fog and storm in the most dangerous part of the world."

The Italian squadron, led by Balbo, was escorted to the city by the 17th and 27th pursuit squadrons of the United States army from Selfridge Field, Detroit.  The U.S.S. Wilmette, moored at the end of Navy Pier, was the official reception vessel.  It must have been quite an evening.

The Tribune wrote, "The skyline was set in the colors of the evening, blue-black clouds massed in the southwest, but all the rest clear and shining.  Grant park was black with people.  Navy pier held a crowd that massed perilously close to the edge."  A 19-gun salute was fired as Balbo moved up the gangway of the Wilmette.

An interesting historical back story . . . the Wilmette was the new name for the S. S. Eastland, the vessel that capsized on the Chicago River in 1915, killing 844 passengers, after the Eastland was refloated and sold to the Navy for use as a gunboat.

 The U.S.S. Wilmette
Image from Wikipedia

After waving to the crowd at the pier, Balbo boarded a launch with Mayor Ed Kelly and Governor Henry Horner and cruised to the dock of the Hall of Sciences at the 23rd Street entrance to the fair, where people were lined up for a mile to greet the hero.  From there a parade of 50 automobiles slowly moved to Soldiers' field, where 60,000 men and women waited.

Mayor Kelly, in words he probably wished he could take back a half-dozen years later, proclaimed, "Chicago realizes the honor conferred upon her as the goal of this flight.  The city council has decreed that a thoroughfare [7th street] leading to the Fair grounds from our downtown streets shall be called Balbo avenue.  The city council by resolution has expressed the thanks of the city to the Italian nation, to its illustrious premier, Benito Mussolini, and to its representatives for this flight."

So . . . to all who have ever wondered about the strangely named street that runs three blocks from Lake Shore Drive to State Street, it dates from that summer night in 1933.  

After all the speeches were over, General Balbo was escorted to the Drake Hotel, where a message from Mussolini was waiting for him.

"Now that you have finished in a very brilliant way the first part of your mission," it read.  "I send to you my brotherly greeting and to all your officers and men.  The announcement of your arrival thrilled the whole population of Italy.  I am glad that you are faithful to the Fascist rule I gave you before leaving, that is, sternest discipline in the air and conservation of strength on land.

Air Marshall Italo Balbo 
Image from Wikipedia 

It had been a big day for Balbo, for Italy and for Chicago, but there was more to come.  Watch for that in my next blog.

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