BUFFALO, N.Y. — Long before Charles J. Zappo toiled as a medic on World War II’s battlefields and assisted in liberating a concentration camp, he knew what hard work was and how war could exact a devastating price.
At 8 years old, Zappo helped his mother and stepfather make ends meet by going out and shining shoes in the warmer weather. In winter, he sold newspapers.
“There was this city inspector who kept bringing me home because you had to be 12 years old to have working papers. He threatened to put me in Father Baker’s orphanage. My stepfather would give him a few bottles of homemade wine, and everything would be OK,” Zappo recalls.
At 11 years old, the inspector relented and presented him with a badge that identified him as having working papers.
“I felt like I had graduated from high school, I was so proud of that badge,” the 95-year-old Buffalo resident says.
When he completed grammar school on the honor roll, Zappo says, his mother delivered bad news. He would not be going to high school.
“She said I needed to work to help the family,” says Zappo, one of seven children. “The grammar school principal came over and told my mother you have to send your boy to high school. So I was enrolled at Grover Cleveland for about three days before my mother made me leave.”
Zappo hit the streets with his shoeshine box.
“I would see all of my friends going to high school, and there I was carrying a shoeshine box,” he says. “I would avoid my friends. I felt ashamed and very bad.”
Time passed, and he found a full-time job as a file clerk at Buffalo General Hospital making $5 a week, and that included working a half-day on Saturdays. More time passed, and he started working at the Curtiss-Wright airplane factory, making P-40 fighter planes.
One night on the production line, Zappo experienced firsthand how dangerous the business of war was, even nowhere near combat. A test pilot crashed one of the planes into the plant, killing a number of workers and burning many others.
“It was horrible,” he remembers. “I thought we were being bombed. It happened about 75 feet from me.”
But his time at Curtiss-Wright also led to love.
“They started allowing women to work at the plant, Rosie the Riveters, and one of them became my wife,” he said of Mary R. Mancuso. They have been married for 70 years.
In 1943, sensing his time on the home front was limited, Zappo tried to enlist in the Navy in an attempt to avoid being drafted into the Army’s infantry. He already had three brothers serving in World War II and felt that the Navy would be a good alternative to living in foxholes and eating K-rations.
His strategy failed. The Navy rejected him because he was colorblind. The Army was not so fussy, and he ended up in its 42nd Rainbow Division, where he served as a combat medic “probably because I had worked at Buffalo General Hospital,” Zappo says.
But before he marched off to war, he married his sweetheart, Mary, whom, he said, was quite willing to take a chance at becoming a war widow. And for a while, the newlyweds lived together in a little town by Camp Gruber, Okla.
“We paid this Lutheran minister $5 a week to rent a room,” he says.
But husband and wife were soon far apart. Zappo was sent to France and experienced his first taste of combat at the Battle of the Bulge, which occurred during one of the worst winters Europe had known.
“We were around Strasbourg. All the troops were thrown there to block the Germans. If they got through, they would have gone to the coast,” Zappo recalls. “We lost about 1,000 men. I would see all these American boys from our 42nd, and they were just frozen in the ground. The Germans were shooting 88 millimeter anti-aircraft, anti-personnel guns. It was awful.”
In time, Zappo learned that his brother James, a member of the 26th Infantry Division, was captured during the infamous battle.
“We are Italian, but the Germans thought James looked Jewish, and he was treated terribly,” Zappo says. “He was sent to what amounted to a concentration camp and worked in the mines. He lost 50 pounds. He ended up weighing about 80 pounds. He was held prisoner for about six months and was almost dead when he was freed.”
Zappo caught pneumonia and was sick for weeks following the Battle of the Bulge. He turned yellow from consuming sulfur pills but recovered, thanks to his fellow medics who nursed him back to health.
After crossing the Rhine River as part of the first U.S. troops advancing into Germany, the 42nd moved deeper into enemy territory and fought door-to-door in Wurzburg. Victory provided spoils. Large supplies of French champagne were discovered in the cellars of the city.
“Since there wasn’t any water there, we drank it and even washed our feet in it,” Zappo says. “It was the best champagne I ever had.”
But his intoxicating memories are sobered by the horror he recalls in assisting in the liberation of Dachau, one of the notorious Nazi concentration camps.
“Even before we got into the camp, there were these railway boxcars outside packed with bodies. There were 1,500, and the smell was horrible,” Zappo says. “The bodies had been transported there from another camp to be put in the ovens, but Dachau had run out of coal to burn them.
“Inside the camp, there were 33,000 prisoners, and they went wild when we arrived. They were hugging us and asking us for our autographs. I remember somebody throwing a loaf of bread, and they went wild. I also remember that some of the SS soldiers dressed up as prisoners to disguise themselves. They thought they might get out, but they were recognized by the prisoners, who killed them.”
When the war in Europe ended in the spring of 1945, Zappo was stationed in Austria before he returned home to his wife and met his 14-month-old son, Joe, for the first time.
“When I picked Joe up, he cried his head off,” Zappo says. “He wanted to know who this guy was holding him.”
With the GI Bill of Rights in place, the former shoeshine boy pursued an education.
“I earned a high school diploma at Kensington in one year and then went to Bryant & Stratton and got an associate degree in accounting,” Zappo says. “I became a cost accountant at Loblaws bakery.”
After several years, he took a civil service test and was hired by New York State’s Department of Taxation and Finance, working as a corporation tax auditor for 15 years before retiring in 1982.
Life has been good.
But even so many years later, Zappo says, he often thinks about the Second World War and “that horrible camp, Dachau.”