Gaetano “Tom” Rossi was born in Newark, N.J., in October 1919 to parents who had immigrated from the Neapolitan region of Italy. When the United States entered World War II, Rossi joined the top-secret Italian Operational Group of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was organized by the legendary Maj. Gen. William J. Donovan. Similar to today’s Special Forces, OSS operational groups supported partisan resistance forces, disrupted communications and supply lines, and rescued Allied prisoners of war.
Unrecognized for many decades, Rossi and his brother commandos — who called themselves “Donovan’s Devils” — received official commendation for their OSS service when they each were awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, in 2018.
Rossi joined the Knights of Columbus 60 years ago and is currently a member of St. John the Evangelist Council 7515 in Yardley, Pa.
There were nine kids in the family. That was an education in itself. As a youngster, to help the family, I shined shoes. I had a box, carried it downtown, and the people who could afford a pair of shoes got a shine for a dime. I also worked in a barbershop sweeping the floors. These little jobs were all everybody had. I wasn’t alone; everybody was doing the same thing.
You get out of high school in middle of the Depression, so what do you do? You look for work, which wasn’t there anymore. I finally hit it when I went to this employment office and they sent me to an upholstery shop. They wanted me for a week, but I stayed even longer.
I was at my uncle’s house listening to the radio when we heard about Pearl Harbor. I said, “Pearl Harbor? What the hell is that?” I had no idea. But staying on the radio, we found out that we were attacked.
I couldn’t wait to get downtown to sign up. Half the city was down there. At age 22, I was in OK shape and got to be a 1-A (eligible for military service). After my draft notice came, I was assigned to the Army War College in Washington, D.C.
After a couple of months of the paperwork business, the boss, Col. Booth — I won’t forget that name — wanted to talk to me in private. “You have an Italian name,” he said. “Yeah, my parents are Italian. I’m Italian.” “Well, they’re making up a special group. A lot of action, mostly secret. Are you interested? If so, we’re going to make an appointment for you to be interviewed by the Office of Strategic Services.” I said, “Yes.”
Within a week, I got the notice. The guy picked me up, took me to a room full of colonels and at least one general. “Whatever you hear here, you don’t repeat,” they said. “You’re going to be involved in parachuting and sabotage behind the lines.” Our job was specifically to get a hold of the many Italian resistance groups or partisans — partigiani, as they were called — and support them.
Our training was rigorous and was conducted in secret at what is now known as the presidential retreat Camp David. William Fairbairn, a tough British army officer, directed much of the hand-to-hand training there: If you have to grapple with a guy, we were told, make sure he’s down. Boom boom. Always two shots. Never boom and then go.
After training, I was assigned to the 2671st Special Reconnaissance Battalion, Company A — the Italian-speaking unit — but we also had units in France, Greece and so forth.
We were what they called an OSS operational group — a fighting, commando group and the forerunner of today’s U.S. Army Special Forces. We’d have two or three guys go behind the lines maybe for a month, or some for days. We had our American uniforms and always, even behind the lines, we kept our uniforms.
There was also the OSS secret intelligence group (SI), which later became the CIA. They were spies, who were there already and which we knew nothing about.
Our job started once we got to Africa and the Sicilian campaign started. We had a small group parachute into Italy, and their job was to find the concentration camps where the American and British prisoners were and talk to the wardens in Italian. “Let’s get these guys the hell out of here. What’s the best way?” Our guys took care that they got out safe.
Then we moved up to Corsica, which was a few hundred miles in front of the action with direct access to the Italian coast. That’s where our long-term job started.
L’Île-Rousse, on the northwest coast, became our main headquarters; I was sent to the forward operating base in Bastia, on the northeast coast. The FOBs were located behind enemy lines and facilitated air drops, intel and direct support for the many ongoing operations.
The unit got involved in everything after early operations expelling most of the Nazis from Corsica. I was in the headquarters most of the time and got drafted out to help our first sergeant handle paperwork. One very important mission my unit was involved in was the Ginny mission. We had to get to a long mountain tunnel in north central Italy that the German trains used to transport guns and food for the German soldiers. Our job was to break up that tunnel.
Somehow, after the outfit landed, all 15 men got captured. We found out later that Hitler had ordered, “We don’t care what uniform they have or not. If they’re here for sabotage, kill them. Period.” So, our men were executed. We lived and trained with these guys. To lose them all was a terrible blow.
From mid-April to May 1, 1945, I was part of a small operational group that established a forward operating base behind German lines in Siena. There, we were in a better position to supply and lead partisan forces against the Nazis. It was to be our last FOB of the war.
When V-E Day came on May 8, we got down to Naples to take a boat, go back to the States to train to go to the East. War wasn’t over. We got to Washington, and we were all waiting to go to the Pacific. But we didn’t have to go there. The war ended in August.
I served in the war four years. When I saw my kid brothers and sisters again, they were teenagers. They grew up, and I had missed those formative years. I also missed my youngest brother, who had died during the war.
I got married in 1946, and Giovanna and I eventually had four children. A few years later, as a GI Bill graduate, I passed the civil service tests and Social Security became my profession.
In 1961, I joined Our Lady of Fatima Council 5184 in Newark. We had a ball doing good things: collecting food, giving it out, collecting money at intersections for good causes. We kept busy and did the work of the council. Wherever people needed help, we went. Charity was numero uno. I’ve always loved the Knights of Columbus, and half of my family are Knights today. My current council here is beautiful. Our guys do a lot of great work.
My OSS group had a lot of reunions aer the war, because most of us came from New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania. We had at least 50 reunions. We were close going in. We were close coming out.
It took 50 years for my unit — the 2671st Special Reconnaissance Battalion, Company A, OSS Italian Operational Group — to be officially recognized. But it finally happened in 2018, when the members of the OSS all received the Congressional Gold Medal, the few of us that were left, for our service. I think that was very honorable, very impressive. I was so happy. I was proud to be who I was: an American soldier.
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