He may have been born in Italy, but World War II veteran Dante Antonacci – who turns 100 today – lives and breathes red, white and blue.
“America is the best place in the world to live,” said Antonacci from his small room in the Georgia War Veterans Nursing Home. “We take our freedom for granted, but there are so many opportunities here.”
Antonacci’s family fled his Italian homeland in 1925 to escape the fascism that was gaining momentum. He recalls many days at sea and several stops along the way aboard the Leonardo da Vinci when he was just 10 years old.
He quickly learned to speak English, survived the Great Depression and attended Penn State following high school. Antonacci was drafted into the U.S. Army shortly after marrying his childhood sweetheart Lida, the mother of his four children.
“She taught me to be an American,” he said.
He served in the Pacific Theatre during World War II – as an American – which made him an enemy of former Italian comrades and even his own cousin.
“It was emotional,” Antonacci said. “But I was American all through that.”
His 30th birthday on Aug. 7, 1945, should have been a milestone for him, but it was overshadowed by the dropping of the first atomic bomb in Hiroshima the day before.
“We didn’t celebrate my birthday,” he said. “We were thinking about the bombing of Hiroshima. I never thought about having a birthday.”
Then, a second atomic bomb hit Nagasaki two days after Antonacci’s 30th birthday.
“We realized that the war was over after the second bomb went off,” he said. “It was a happy day. Happy day and happy birthday.”
100th birthday party
The Georgia War Veterans Nursing Home staff organized a birthday luncheon for him on the eve of his 100th birthday, serving two Italian specialties – lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs. The meal was topped off with a huge patriotic-colored birthday cake, and his great-grandson Max leading a roomful of family and friends in the “Happy Birthday” song.
When it was his turn to take the microphone during the festivities, Antonacci was overwhelmed with emotions.
He expressed his thanks for his family and all those gathered around him. He was most thankful to be an American, calling the United States “the greatest place on Earth to live.”