San Francisco Chronicle



Friends With the Enemy         Thursday, November 11, 1999

Soldier from S.F. sees gentler side of, finds charity amid World War II

Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer


Terry Tong got his first good look at the enemy in 1943 while clearing rubble from a waterfront warehouse in Naples, Italy, during World War II.

Tong was an infantryman who had marched through Italy after the Allied invasion of Sicily. He was just a replacement trooper. He had not fought anybody, and the war was still far ahead of him. This was his first real encounter with an Italian, and what he saw was the desperate face of a 10-year-old boy who needed money to help his family.

To Tong, who grew up in San Francisco's Chinatown, it was a portrait of innocence in the face of widespread misery, and when Veterans Day rolls around every year, this is his indelible memory.

``He kept asking me if he could do anything for me,'' said Tong, who was then 21. ``I finally agreed to let his mother do my laundry, and I paid them with my cigarette rations, which was like gold back then.''

It was the beginning of a deep and enduring friendship that has lasted more than a half-century despite ethnic, cultural and political boundaries. But it all might have slipped away if not for the discovery of a container full of undeveloped film some 20 years after the war.

The 77-year-old Tong, whose grandfather came to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, will honor his Italian war buddy, Gennaro Sacco, today by faxing him a greeting.

The gesture, although small, means more to Tong than Veterans Day parades or war memorial ceremonies. It represents a human bond that grew out of the ashes of war and gave both men hope for humanity at a time when there seemed to be little hope.

It all began in Chinatown, where Tong was born to a long line of goldsmiths. His grandfather, Tong Yet Hing, came to San Francisco from southern China in hopes of making it big during the Gold Rush. He opened a jewelry shop on Jackson Street called ``Heavenly Creation'' and passed the art of goldsmithing to his son, Jack.

Terry Tong said his grandfather's wish had always been that each succeeding generation improve itself, so he decided to give up the jewelry business and, instead, become an architect.

While studying at the University of California at Berkeley during World War II, he joined the Army reserves. When his unit was called up in 1943, Tong soon found himself in North Africa and then in Italy after the invasion of Sicily.

He met Gennaro Sacco while on ``special assignment'' cleaning up debris on the waterfront in Naples. It was the first time he had met an Italian, and it was the first time Sacco had ever seen a Chinese person.

``Here we are, young American soldiers not knowing who our enemies were,'' Tong said. ``Being a sheltered Chinatown boy, I had never even left the state of California, but I did recognize someone in need. We never thought of each other as enemies.''

The bond between the villagers and Tong grew after Tong rescued two teenage Italian girls who were being held in a barn near Aversa by two allied soldiers who evidently planned to molest them.

Then, when Tong became ill with jaundice, Gennaro's mother stepped in to repay his kindness. ``Gennaro's mother took care of me until I was better,'' Tong said.

He went on to fight in Anzio and was later wounded by shrapnel while fighting in France. After facial surgery, he returned to San Francisco and became an architect.

He said he often thought about Gennaro but lost track of him until sometime in the 1960s when Tong's sister, while cleaning out their mother's basement, came across some undeveloped film from the war.

He had the film developed and while several frames were ruined, he managed to salvage pictures of Sacco and his family. The pictures brought back old memories. Tong looked up Sacco's name in an old address book he still had from the war and began to write him letters.

Tong said Sacco was overcome with emotion when he sent him the pictures several years ago and insisted that Tong come to visit. Last year, the two friends met in Italy for the first time in 55 years.

``It was emotional enough for me to actually hug and kiss a guy,'' said Tong, who is normally more reserved in such matters. ``My young friend was holding up a sign saying `Welcome, Terrancio.' My young friend looked just like Jacques Cousteau.''

Sacco, who still lives in Naples, told The Chronicle by fax through an interpreter yesterday that their bond grew out of wartime difficulties and can never be broken.

``Mr. Tong was a good soldier in the name of freedom,'' Sacco said.

The saga may continue into future generations. One of Tong's daughters married an Italian, and their 9-year-old son, Jacob Tong DiMartino, has been pestering his grandfather to take him to Italy.

``It's a continuation of life,'' Tong said. ``My philosophy is we are all one race. We are all human.''

``Besides,'' he said, ``good friends are hard to come by.''




©1999 San Francisco Chronicle
The copy at Chronicle Archive (without distracting wallpaper
 


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