Down at the Saturday Greenwich Farmer’s Market in the Horseneck lot, market manager Judy Waldeyer is occasionally accompanied by father Jerry Siccardi.
On a recent morning at the market, Mr. Siccardi shared his life story, including struggles to start a career during the Depression and memories of his service in the US Army during World War II, where as an early radar expert he taught Generals and Colonels, and even met General George Patton more than once.
His natural affinity for mathematics served him well, though his hopes of becoming an accountant were dashed first by the Depression and then by the war.
Born in 1920, Siccardi was the first in his family to graduate from high school.
“When I came out of school it was the Depression and you couldn’t get a job,” he recalled adding that he was accepted to a program for math and business accounting at NYU, and for three years he commuted three nights a week from Paterson, New Jersey to NYU while working a day job at a garment factory.
If he had been enrolled full time Siccardi would have been protected from the draft, but that was not the case.
“And I was all set to get married in November,” he continued, raising both hands to indicate his plans in 1942 were dashed. “We canceled that because I was going to get drafted. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, and on February 17, 1942 I was drafted.”
The Army assessed each enlisted man’s skills to put them to their best use in the war effort, and Siccardi was trained in radar, a revolutionary new technology at the time.
In Fort Dix, and then at forts in Virginia and North Carolina Siccardi learned how to handle radar directed anti-aircraft artillery. From there, the Army had him teaching others.
Wartime radio-based detection and tracking required quick calculations.
“The shells traveled half a mile in 2 seconds,” he recalled.
Arriving in France five days after D Day, Siccardi served on the front before switching to General Patton’s Third Army.
“I was 22 and I was always terrified,” Siccardi said. “We had 50 caliber machine guns. We slept on the ground. Every time we stopped we had to dig a hole. Many times, just when we finished digging a hole they would say, ‘We’re moving out.’ When it was raining we were wet all the time.”
The first time Siccardi met General Patton was for radar training.
“I was in a separate battalion in the Third Army and he was the General. He was always in the first tanks,” Siccardi said.
“I remember once he turned around and said, ‘These God damn Germans.’ He was a nice guy, a professional man, but he used what I call, ‘elegant profanity.’”
Siccardi described Patton as a professional soldier, adding, “No matter what they say about him, he did his job and the Germans were scared of him.”
Siccardi was recommended to become an officer a number of times.
“I always refused. I wanted to be an enlisted man. I liked to work with radar and I figured there was a future in it,” he said. “If I was made an officer they’d probably have sent me to a different group, but I knew my men and they knew me.”
The next time Siccardi met General Patton was under different circumstances.
Patton, who began his career leading the Cavalry in World War I, remained interested in horses.
In Linz, Austria Siccardi’s group located 20 horses, which they learned were wild Lipizzan stallions.
“They were the white dancing horses from Spain – purebred horses that are born black or dark brown and turn white. One fellow said, ‘These are not farm horses. These are those famous white Stallions.’”
Siccardi said his command post notified Patton of the horses and Patton came immediately.
Siccardi recalled gazing upon the horses himself and, at someone’s instruction, he tried to ride one of them but fell off.
“Who was standing there but General Patton?” Siccardi exclaimed. “He looked at me and was laughing and said, ‘I don’t think you ever rode a horse, soldier.’ I said, ‘No sir.’ That horse was as wild as it could be.”
“He was so interested in those horses. He had them relocated,” Siccardi recalled.
But the wild horses were but one bright moment in what would bring ever more horrific scenes as the war carried on.
“And the Battle of the Bulge in Bastone,” he said of the engagement with Germans in Belgium, his voice trailing off for a moment. “The bleeding bloody bastards. It was hell. There was nothing standing. If you found a place to lay and sleep you were lucky. First you had to chase the rats out. Then the cockroaches. It was no picnic.”
Siccardi said he thought he could see no worse horrors than those at the Battle of the Bulge, but he was wrong.
“I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it,” he said of the sights he would behold at the end of the war.
“We liberated a concentration camp. We saw the walking dead,” he said of Dachau. “It was so depressing. The people had no clothes. There were maggots on their faces and the stench you never forget. I had my friends from New Jersey – we got together and we used to talk about it. You never ever forget. I was no hero. You just had to survive. I am a survivor. I survived.”
“We took pictures of them, of the prisoners,” Siccardi continued. “We had to de-louse them. How could humans do something like this?”
Siccardi also shared painful memories of the sight of the Malmedy Massacre, a war crime committed by members of the 1st SS Panzer Division, a German Combat Unit on December 17, 1944. In all, 84 American prisoners of war were massacred by their German captors. They were assembled in a field and shot with machine guns.
“The Germans made targets of the American prisoners. When we got there, there was a river of blood in the snow. We just cried. I think one or two survived,” he said, adding that later, “There was a trial in Nuremberg for the General in control. They hung him.”
At one point Siccardi was injured, having cut himself carrying a stove to heat up the barracks where he was staying.
“One of the stoves broke apart and cut an artery. I was bleeding and they brought me to an Army field hospital – nothing fancy. There were guys there moaning in pain, amputees,” he recalled.
But, he said, “Who was there but Bob Hope and Betty Grabel? She looked at me and kissed me right on the head. The guys teased me afterward.”
After he recovered he returned to his unit. “When I reported back for duty they said, ‘We thought you died.’ But I was stitched up and in good shape. I said, ‘I’m here for assignment.’ They said, ‘Someone took over your job so we have to demote you.’ They demoted me to private. I didn’t care.”
Siccardi said his service record said, ‘Demoted for C of G, which stood for Convenience of the Government.”
Years later, in 1960 he sent a letter to St. Louis to find out whether he could have a copy of that letter for personal use.
“They said, ‘Sorry Charlie, all service records for World War I and World War II were lost in a fire,’” he recalled.
“But, they said, ‘You’re one of the few guys who types their letters. The Colonel needs some typing done. Could you do that?’”
Siccardi said the next day he was asked to report to headquarters. “I thought I was in trouble,” he recalled. “The Colonel said, “I think I got a private secretary.’”
And with his accounting training he was able to do the payroll and was ultimately promoted to Sergeant Major. Again, he said, “I survived.”
Another memory Siccardi shared took place toward the end of the war, in a small town outside Salzburg called Branau, where he came upon a plaque in front of a house that said Adolph Hitler had been born there.
He said he could read enough German to understand it was a shrine to the Nazis.
The house was locked but he and another soldier kicked in the front door and found the house empty.
“While I was there I put my name on the wall: ‘Jerry Siccardi, May 7, 1945, Paterson, NJ.’”
A few days later a British photographer organized a photo of Siccardi and the other soldier, Gil Pechacek from Minnesota, who had also signed the wall.
Siccardi said 55 years later, in 2000, a group of Italians in Milan set about looking for the soldiers who wrote their names on the wall of the house where Hitler was born.
“I was interviewed by the Italians and I was on television in Europe,” he said. “They described me as the son of an Italian immigrant.”
He said the interview took place at a time when the fate of Hitler’s former home was up in the air, and there was talk of making it into a museum.
“I wanted to go back,” he said. “But I was warned, ‘Some Neo Nazis will kill you, so I decided I’ll never go back.”
“We signed our names on the wall because we wanted it to be like we were signing his death warrant,” Siccardi told a reporter with The Bergen Record in New Jersey in October 2000.
In addition to writing his name on the wall, Siccardi said he had urinated on the floor.
Siccardi went on to say that toward the end of the war there were many orphaned children.
“In France, we’d always find children crying. We took them and gave them to the Red Cross. Hundreds of kids in France, and in Belgium, we even did it for the German kids. They were still children of God.”
Siccardi said he mustered out of the Army about two months after the photo was taken of him posing by the living room wall of Hitler’s birthplace, though he suffered from nightmares for years.
Back home he married a girl named Iole who was from Paterson, his hometown in New Jersey, and they had two daughters and a son. They were married for 42 years when Iole died. Five years later he met Grace, who would become his second wife. They were married 26 years when she died.
His daughter Judy Waldeyer is a retired high school English teacher who now runs the farmers market in Greenwich. His daughter Louise, who joined the Army and was in the Nursing Corps, recently retired with the rank of Colonel after 20 years of service.
In 1955 Siccardi started a business making church vestments, which grew and expanded over the years.
He attributed the inspiration for that business to his mother, who took in work as a seamstress to pay the bills when her husband returned diminished from service in World War I.
Siccardi said his father had come to the US from Avalena, Italy (south of Rome) in 1905.
“He learned English and never spoke Italian to us kids. They sent him to the trenches at Château-Thierry and Verdun, France where he got gassed,” Siccardi said. “When he came home to my mother he wasn’t the same person. He looked normal but after about a year his memory just went.”
Siccardi said his mother eventually got her husband into a VA hospital in New Jersey where he remained for 50 years until he died in 1985.
“There were hundreds of them,” he said of the World War I veterans who lost their memory. “My father was well dressed and had a full crop of hair, but no memory.”
Siccardi said his mother took on the responsibility of raising three children on her own.
“She got $9.00 a month or $3.00 each for her three children, and she took in work. That’s how I learned to sew. She made shirts.
I used to cut the shirts for her. Every once in a while I’d go on the sewing machine. I’d watch her sew,” he recalled. “She was one of a kind.”
Siccardi said his church vestments business grew. “I didn’t have a factory – just a shop – I didn’t want to get too rich,” he joked. In 1992 Siccardi’s son took over the business.
“It’s now in Elmsford, NY,” Siccardi said. “It’s renamed ‘G. Siccardi & Family,’ and has expanded from the robes to include religious gifts, supplies, candles, funeral items, chalices, Bibles, books, and religious collectibles.”
Siccardi said he considers himself fortunate, noting that he and Grace traveled quite a bit.
“I went to Italy 10 times. I went to Greece, Mykonos, Santorini, Austria, and Great Britain – all over Europe. I think I’ve been to every country except Russia,” he said, adding that Grace had never left New Jersey when he met her.
“I told her, if you love to travel, marry me. She married me,” he said with a smile.
Recently Siccardi closed up his house in Bergen County and moved to Connecticut to join Judy.
Asked his secret to longevity, Siccardi said he has always been industrious and loves to dance.
Also, he believes in the Golden Rule. “I treat people how I want them to treat me and I never say anything bad about anybody. My mother was that way. Don’t say it. Just don’t say it,” he advised.