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After serving on both sides in WWII, a life haunted by regrets

Frank Cortese is one of the few people who fought on both sides during World War II.

He started as a sailor with the Italian navy, fighting against the Allies. After Italy surrendered, he continued as an Italian sailor fighting for the Allies. As most familiar with history remember, Italy entered the war on the side of Germany and Japan, before surrendering in October 1943.

Cortese enlisted in his country's navy when he was 16 years old. The move was not necessarily out of a sense of patriotism. His mother, Maria, suggested it as a job opportunity, given that Italy's economy was a wreck.

Desperate for work herself, she had become a member of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's National Fascist Party. That opened the door to a job sewing tailored shirts for party members.

Her wages bought food for the 10 children she and her chronically unemployed husband, Domenic, were raising.

But all of that was a long time ago, and Frank, the oldest child, is now 92 and living at Brothers of Mercy's Sacred Heart assisted living home in Clarence. He has difficulty communicating because of an illness that damaged his brain two years ago. But with help from his son, his story of war, marriage, business and regret survives.

"My father told us he served in the Mediterranean, but after Italy joined with the Allies his warship patrolled the Atlantic Ocean to stop the Japanese. He said that they also patrolled the Indian Ocean," said Domenic V. Cortese, who is known throughout Western New York for his Saturday WBEN radio show on home repairs.

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Frank Cortese, 92

Hometown: Giovinazzo, Italy

Residence: Clarence

Branch: Italian navy

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: World War II, mostly European Theater

Years of service: 1940 - 1945

Specialty: Missile launching assistant.

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Aboard the Italian warship, Cortese worked as a "motorist," helping launch missiles while patrolling the Atlantic and Indian oceans. The German navy was a threat; but there also was another concern: the Japanese navy. Though reeling from its losses at the Pacific battle at Midway, it might attempt to inject itself into the war in Europe.

The purpose of the Italian warship's patrols, the son explained, was to run interference against the enemy.

"But they apparently never ran into the Japanese, and he never mentioned any battles," Domenic Cortese said.

A black-and-white photo survives of Frank Cortese in his Italian naval uniform. Appearing ever so young, he seems to be gazing out at perhaps the future, though he had no idea what was in store for him.

After the war, he returned home to Giovinazzo, a town beside the Adriatic Sea. His job prospects were once again bleak. The war had further devastated Italy's economy. But once again his mother came up with a suggestion: He should go to America.

Frank Cortese served on an Italian warship, helping launch missiles while patrolling the Atlantic and Indian oceans. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

But how would he get there? She also had a plan for that.

Playing the role of matchmaker, Maria Cortese struck up discussions with another Giovinazzo family, who were related to a married couple in Buffalo.

Nicholas and Rosa Sette had left Giovinazzo some three decades earlier to escape the deadly pandemic Spanish flu. Their two daughters were among the millions who had succumbed to it.

On Buffalo's East Side, the Settes made a new life, buying a home at 62 Edison Ave. for $3,000 and raising three daughters.

When word reached them that the Cortese family matriarch was looking to arrange a marriage, the Settes were open to the offer. They suggested the idea to their youngest daughter, Palma, the only one who was unmarried. The arrangement, perhaps with some parental encouragement, was agreed upon, Domenic Cortese said of his parents' betrothal.

But Maria Cortese was ambitious. She also wanted to arrange a second marriage for another son, Nicholas. The Settes had two nieces – Frances and Isabelle – also living in Buffalo, and they too were available for arranged marriages.

There was a problem, though. Maria, at the time, only had two sons of marrying age. But again the industrious woman found a third prospective husband outside her family, though he, too, hailed from Giovinazzo.

"My parents had a courtship through an exchange of letters, and then she and her cousins went out and all bought wedding dresses and went to Italy and married men they had never met," Domenic Cortese said. "The marriages all happened at the same time in the same Mass at St. Domenic's Church on Oct. 2, 1948."

When they returned to Buffalo, Palma and Frank Cortese lived with her parents in the first-floor apartment in the Edison Avenue house and Frances and Nicholas Cortese lived in the second-floor apartment with other Sette family relatives.

The third bride, Isabelle, and her husband, Joseph LoRusso, set up housekeeping in a nearby apartment.

"My sister and I were raised in the Edison Street house, too, and it was amazing to grow up there with all of the family intertwined," Dominic Cortese said.

He learned to speak both English and Italian, noting that the Italian spoken in Giovinazzo has its own dialect.

Honoring his mother Maria's wish that he make a success of himself, Frank Cortese worked long hours.

"He was a crane operator on the 3-11 shift at Niagara Machine and Tool Works, and he also worked with my Uncle Nick during the day at the company they had started doing concrete work," Domenic Cortese said.

As Cortese Bros. Construction Co. prospered, the ambitious brothers started buying commercial properties and apartments. Equally ambitious and wanting the best for all of her children, Maria Cortese started sending her other children over to America. She did not stop until all 10 were in what she was certain was the land of opportunity.

"My mother Palma and Frances sent clothing for them to wear on their ocean voyages over here and then they would sometimes send the clothing back for the next one to wear," Domenic Cortese said. "When they arrived, most of them spent some time with us on Edison Street, some longer than others."

With prosperity, Frank Cortese eventually moved his family to a bigger home he built on South Autumn Street in Williamsville.

But success did not necessarily bring happiness to Frank Cortese, whose wife died in 2009.

"There was always a sense of regret. He didn't marry for love. It was orchestrated. He did it to respect his mother," Domenic Cortese said. "He never got over leaving Italy, and he returned every year to visit his family and friends."

Out of the three arranged marriages, Nick and Frances Cortese appeared the happiest, according to Domenic Cortese.

"Nick and Frances seemed to hit it off the best," he said, adding that the LoRussos died a number of years ago.

His Aunt Frances, who was better known as Rose, her middle name, died last June.

But what of the other eight Cortese siblings who left their homeland for America?

They, too, succeeded, settling in different places across America and in Niagara Falls, Ont. Seven of the 10 children are alive.

"When they have reunions and you see them all together, I feel like I'm a kid again. They are remarkably close even though they bicker. You walk away shaking your head and laughing," Domenic Cortese said.

But there is no mistaking the love they have for one another.

"It comes from the love they all had for their mother and that they all went through the experience of leaving their country and coming to America," he said.

And though Frank Cortese has remained haunted by what-ifs throughout his long life, he finds joy in knowing that the business he and his brother started remains in family hands 66 years later.

"We're into our third generation," Domenic Cortese said. "I work at it with my children, Philip, Nicholas and Michelle."

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