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Friday, October 16, 2009

Fascist visits Chicago World's Fair

A Century of Progress International Exposition was the name given to the World's Fair held in Chicago from 1933 to 1934.

The Century of Progress celebrated the city's centennial, and has become known for many things, including appearances by future stars Judy Garland and the Andrews Sisters, its' Art Deco buildings, and exhibits relating to its' theme of technological innovation.

It was most likely the emphasis on innovation and the chance for publicity that lured fascist leader, and Italian Air Marshall, Italo Balbo (1896-1940), to the Century of Progress.

In 1922, Balbo was one of four men who brought Benito Mussolini to power in Italy. He served as Mussolini's general of militia and minister of aviation. Although he knew nothing about aviation when he was appointed, Balbo quickly learned to fly and set out to re-organize Italy's air force.

Balbo was eager to promote advances in Italian aircraft and made a spectacular trans-atlantic flight to Chicago for the Century of Progress in 1933. He led 24 Savoia-Marchetti S-55 double-hulled flying boats from Italy to land in Lake Michigan in just over 48 hours, setting records for speed, payload, altitude and range.

The planes maintained a tight "V" formation for the entire Atlantic crossing. To this day, pilots often refer to a large formation of aircraft as a "Balbo." Shown here are General Balbo's flying boats arriving at the Century of Progress in Chicago.

When the planes landed in Lake Michigan it was reported as one of the proudest moments for Chicago's Italian community. At the time, many Americans supported Mussolini and his fascist regime. It was not until the United States declared war on Italy in 1941 when that sentiment changed sharply.

Balbo was charming and educated, and his adventurousness appealed to Americans. During his 5-day stay in Chicago he visited Fort Sheridan. Balbo is shown here at Fort Sheridan with Chaplain Aristeo Simoni. During World War I, First Lieutenant (Chaplain) Simoni of the 111th Infantry Regiment, 28th Division, A.E.F., received the Distinguished Service Cross for rescuing three wounded servicemen from the frontlines in France.

The Chicago visit included mass at Holy Name Cathedral celebrated by Cardinal Mundelein, who in 1924 had a town in Lake County named in his honor.

After returing to Italy, Balbo became Mussolini's possible heir. In 1938, Balbo met with Aldolf Hitler. Two years later, Balbo was killed in an air crash in Libya. Some have claimed that his plane was shot down mistakenly by his own military.

Chicago retains two reminders of General Italo Balbo's famous visit. The most prominent one is Balbo Drive. Then Mayor Ed Kelly capitalized on the excitment of the visit by renaming 7th Street in Balbo's honor.

The second landmark was a gift from Mussolini, who donated an ancient Roman column from the temple in Ostia to the people of Chicago, to commemorate Balbo's voyage and to symbolize the greatness of Fascist Italy. The column now stands as the last remnant--in its original spot--from the Century of Progress exhibition. It is located a few feet off Chicago's lakefront bike path, and within a hundred yards of Soldier Field.


Timothy Taylor said...

WOuld it be possible to get a copy of the photograph of CH Simoni with Gen Balbo?
For the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps Museum.

Diana Dretske said...

The museum has two photographs of Chaplain Simoni with General Balbo from the same event. Please email me to discuss Thank you for your interest.