Veteran recalls WW II service
Ret. Master Sgt. Ulysses BaFoni nearly breaks down when reciting the inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He does not lose control completely, but his voice cracks, and he stammers considerably while pushing the phrase past the grief.
He apologizes, but it is not necessary. His ties to Arlington National Cemetery are deep, his career as a member of the United States Air Force long and storied. He already knows he is going to be laid to rest alongside his fellow soldiers, he just does not know when.
At age 87, the man has squeezed two lifetimes into one; a veteran of World War II, BaFoni flew 47 missions throughout Europe, suffering the loss of a fellow airman during his first mission.
“It was bad,” Bafoni recalled. “I thought, ‘How the hell am I going to make it, if we lose someone our first time out?'”
BaFoni was an aerial engineer and gunner on the so-called “Flying Fortress,” massive B-17 bombers that were primarily used in the daylight precision strategic bombing campaigns of World War II against German industrial, civilian and military targets.
When operating the 50-caliber machine gun, BaFoni said he had a gun “in my right ear and another in my left,” while flying at altitudes of 35,000 feet over parts of Germany, Romania and Vienna.
It was in Tuscany, Italy, while on leave, when BaFoni met the family of his new bride, Zita, who was waiting back stateside for her husband’s return or the end of the war.
“They (the family) hadn’t heard from her since she left for America,” BaFoni recalls. “I was showing people a letter addressed to her mother just to find the family.”
From 1944 to 1945, BaFoni fought against the Axis forces, as Germany surrendered before he finished his tour.
Concerned he was going to be sent to the Pacific Theater, Bafoni was on leave at home in Philadelphia when Hiroshima was hit with the world’s first nuclear weapon, effectively ending the war.
“I was home on leave when we dropped the atom bomb, and that was the end of it,” he said. “What a party in Philadelphia. Everybody was hugging, everybody was celebrating.”
After 30 years as a member of the Air Force, BaFoni moved into the private sector as a high school teacher. His time in the Air Force afforded him the opportunity to live in exotic locales far from his hometown, even living in Libya for a decade.
BaFoni and Zita still own the home of her family in Tuscany, which is attached to a mill that is 200 years old. They spend their summers there, when the heat and humidity of Southwest Florida become too oppressive.
Yet, for this Veterans Day, when Southwest Florida weather is enjoyable and mild, BaFoni planned to stay inside, watching a few of the parades on television.
Then again, he might very well spend the time thinking of his father Lorenzo, who was a stone mason by trade.
Lorenzo made a successful bid to work on a new project in Virginia in the 1930s, beating out hundreds of potential bidders for the honor. He and his crew won the honor of laying the marble “approaches” leading to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, forever tying himself and his son to the national landmark.
BaFoni said he already has made plans to be buried in Arlington, whenever that day may come.
Until then, he has the history and stories of a man who has fought for America and for freedom as part of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation.”
“I’m going to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery where my dad did all that work,” he said. “I’ve had an interesting life, and I thank God for it every time I go to bed.”