By Joe Livernois
A love of history, a discovered old artifact and the long reach of social media have unexpectedly connected a young Italian student to the son of a Monterey man who served in Italy during World War II.
This is a story that stretches across three generations, a tale that crosses the Atlantic Ocean and back again. In the end, Giulio Borlini’s resolve in trying to solve a random mystery about a World War II American mess tin he found allowed Robert Cardinalli to learn that his father was more of a war hero than he even knew. And, in a process that might have taken years to achieve 20 years ago, the research and connections Borlini made from his laptop computer were accomplished in a matter of weeks.
“What this entire episode about my father’s mess tin has done for me is quite extraordinary,” said Cardinalli, an anthropologist who was born and raised in Monterey and who now lives in Cyprus.
A small discovery
It started when Borlini, a 20-year-old mechanical engineering student at Universita degli Studi di Bergamo in Gorno, was poring over old items at a community rummage sale — they call them “car boot sales” in Europe — several months ago. He happened upon an old metal mess tin that looked like it might have come from the United States. The thing was encrusted with grime and dust accumulated over 70-plus years. He purchased the relic, scrubbed away the dirt, and found that someone had etched his name on it: James Cardinalli.
Borlini said he and his father have been doing lots of research together on an American aircraft that had crashed into the Alps while flying for a special mission to parachute materials to the Italian Resistance during WWII. The B-24 Liberator was shot down and the crash killed all 13 on board, including 10 soldiers and three secret agents for the OSS. Borlini said he has found artifacts from the crash and has been in contact with some of the survivors of the victims.
While the mess tin he found at the garage sale had nothing to do with the crash, Borlini said he learned from the experience with the downed B-24 that Americans appreciate receiving items belonging to their ancestors.
“We know what … it means for families to know something about relatives at war,” Borlini said during a social-media interview with Voices of Monterey Bay.
So Borlini set out to find the family of James Cardinalli. He started posting photographs and information about the mess tin on Facebook groups in Italy and in the United States, asking if anyone knew of James Cardinalli. In addition to the Cardinalli name, the names of three Italian cities — Oran, Naples and Rome — had been etched into the bottom of the tin. Friendly local Italian journalists also joined in the search.
“I began to receive many answers and comments from the American Facebook groups,” he said. “People of Facebook ‘united’ to help me. It was incredible.”
Eventually he heard from a woman who said she knew Cardinalli’s son and who said the family was from Monterey. Borlini then reached out to Monterey city officials and the Monterey Library for assistance. And then he heard from Robert Cardinalli, the son. “He was very surprised,” Borlini said. “And me too.”
The family’s service
Borlini learned that Pvt. James Cardinalli was born in Monterey in 1918, the son of parents who had migrated from Isola delle Femmine in Sicily in 1898. Cardinalli enlisted in the Army in 1942 — one of eight family members who served during WWII — and served in the medical corps in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. In fact, dozens of Monterey men with roots in Isola delle Femmine served in World War II. The Monterey Peninsula Herald once ran separate photographs of James and his brother Neno side by side, noting that they were among a large contingent from the family “helping Uncle Sam” in the war.
Borlini was told that James Cardinalli and others were “overcome and traumatized” by the horror of seeing all the wounded children and mothers he treated. Cardinalli also contracted tuberculosis while overseas and spent the very last days of the war in a military hospital outside of Verona.
“He probably lost his mess tin there,” Borlini said.
James Cardinalli returned to Monterey and worked as a federal employee. His family originally settled in Pittsburg, but his father moved them to Monterey during the great influenza epidemic in Pittsburg in 1917 and settled into the local fishing industry, according to Robert Cardinalli. In all, James had 10 brothers and sisters. Robert said his mother was from the Cooper-Abernathy clan that settled in Pacific Grove in the early 1900s after originally ranching in Big Sur. It was rather scandalous at the time — a good Catholic Italian marrying into the “PG Anglo-Saxon Methodist alliance,” Robert said. James Cardinalli died in 1990.
Because of Borlini’s research, Robert Cardinalli started doing his own digging. James Cardinalli rarely spoke about the war, so Robert realized he knew very little about his father’s service. The only thing he really knew was that his father was a medic. An uncle once told him that James Cardinalli “could never pass any wounded creature, not even a street dog, without wanting to be Dr. Kildare,” referring to a fictional character of book, movie and TV fame.
Robert Cardinalli, 68, recently reached out to other relatives and to one of his father’s old surviving war buddies to learn more. He discovered that his father, along with another Army medic, snuck out of their unit’s camp at night to treat wounded civilian townspeople, mostly women and children who had no other access to care. He learned that his father had been reprimanded and was issued a citation by his unit commander for disobeying an order. They continued to provide care, risking court martial, but were never caught.
Robert Cardinalli, anti-war agitator
Robert Cardinalli admits in retrospect that he was “full of himself” back in high school in Monterey. He was active in the anti-war movement at the school, and a photograph of him and other protestors appeared on the front page of the Monterey Peninsula Herald as he protested Lady Bird Johnson’s appearance at Colton Hall in 1966. “Apparently, having my photo appear front and center like that … brought shame raining down on the entire family,” Robert said. One evening at a large family gathering in Monterey, he got into a heated discussion with a relative from Pittsburg about the war in Vietnam. During the course of the discussion, he declared that he would become a conscientious objector and that he would flee to Canada if drafted into the Army.
“My relative nearly backed up over a table full of cannoli at this point, and it may have been the last time we ever spoke face to face,” Cardinalli said.
Later, Robert’s father pulled him aside in the kitchen. Robert said this is what he told him: “If you want to be a CO I will support you. I thank God to this day that as a medic I never had to carry a weapon of killing on the front line. I am proud of you.”
Robert said it was the only time he can recall his father talking about his service in the war.
Meanwhile, Robert Cardinalli never had to prove his declaration that he would turn conscientious objector. He was granted a deferment from the draft due to a congenital hearing loss in one ear. “Those were the days before any of us heard of bone spurs being the sure-fire way to avoid the draft,” he said.
After high school, Robert Cardinalli attended the University of the Pacific in Stockton, and later the University of Wisconsin. He said his early interest in the local Native American population of Monterey County led him to pursue anthropology. He eventually conducted research and worked in Nepal for 20 years, in India and Pakistan for another decade, and in the Middle East and the former USSR for a dozen years.
He sold the family home several years ago and now lives in a tiny village on Cyprus that dates back to the second Crusades. “I know, because last year while putting up a small retaining wall we dug up a piece of a chariot that was dated to the armies led by Eleanor of Aquitaine,” he said.
The world grows smaller
Back to the present day in Italy, Borlini has become a minor celebrity since his discovery and the connection he made with Robert Cardinalli. The story has been featured in numerous regional newspapers and on at least one local television news broadcast. He’s been busy posting the results of his findings on the California history-related sites in which he first made his inquiries, including Vintage Images from the Monterey Peninsula.
He says he hopes to meet up with Cardinalli sometime this spring so he can give him the mess tin. Oddly, Cardinalli happened to be in Bergamo to attend an opera several weeks before Borlini found him. “Too bad I did not know about you at that time,” Cardinalli told Borlini in a Facebook comment soon after the two connected.
The fact that a young student could track down the owner of a WWII relic so quickly through social media is not lost on Cardinalli, the anthropologist. Neither is the reality that I’ve been able to research and write this story from my laptop without ever having to travel to Italy and Cyprus. The world has become so much smaller, and encounters like the Borlini-Cardinalli connection are much more possible. In the time it likely took James Cardinalli to get from Italy back to the United States after he recovered from TB, Borlini was able to solve his historic mystery. He reached out in appropriate social media sites in the United States, tracked James Cardinalli across the Atlantic Ocean to Monterey, and rather quickly discovered Robert Cardinalli back in Cyrus.
“Social media and internet have been fundamental for my research,” Borlini told me. “Some years ago, I would have begun [sic] the research because it would have been impossible. I think that, some years ago, the only way to do a similar research would have been through institutions, beginning from the American consulate in Italy.”
Cardinalli currently works for the National Social Marketing Centre, a British agency, and Cardinalli’s profile indicates he has worked with organizations like USAID to develop “complex large-scale development initiative” to promote behavior changes in the far corners of the world. As an example, he oversaw a program not long ago that reached more than 5 million Jordanians using social media to promote more efficient use of water and energy. He understands the power of social media.
He calls the information revolution brought on by the internet as “utterly transformative, and not always in a positive way.” But he said his own experiences — everything from the Jordanian program to his interaction with Borlini — have been positive.
“From 1964 onward … the time of the US Berkeley free speech movement through the 1980s, we experienced what I feel was a protracted era of social fracture, marked by an information highway glut combined with communication breakdown,” Cardinalli told me. “Everyone was talking talking talking, but there was little focused communication. With the advent of social media platforms … it is now possible for people — who want to take the time — to hew out a customized niche that focuses on their interests.
“I think the way Giulio Borlini pursues his interests in human history is testimony to that.”
In this case, it all came down to very human connections. “Had it not been for the discovery of his mess tin and all the digging to find any information, I never would have known any of this about my father,” Cardinalli told me. “More than I can possibly say, I am grateful for that. There were thousands … of such unsung heroes, whose quiet dedication and efforts are lost to history; at least I have been afforded a glimpse of my father’s.”
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