WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Wednesday is Veterans Day, when America remembers those who served in its armed forces.
Frank Caruso served in World War II. And this Veterans Day, just eight days shy of his 100th birthday, his memory still serves him remarkably well.
When asked for the secret to his longevity and happy life, he turns to Anna, his wife of 72 years.
“There she is,” he said. “There’s the secret.”
Then Caruso offers another suggestion.
“I have a longevity medicine,” he said. “One Absolut vodka martini a day, just one, with a drop of Vermouth and no fruit.”
Caruso’s stories fly with flecks of tantalizing detail, from the shadow of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius to “Mad Men”-era New York and beyond.
“I have to think, ‘What era did I do that in?’ because I sort of had separate different lives that I’ve lived through the years,” Caruso said. “You try to remember them in groups.”
99 years, 51 weeks
Each “group” is well-represented as Caruso speaks, inching his wheelchair forward, a storyteller eager to be closer to his audience at a New York retirement home.
There were the early years in Detroit, before his tailor-father Michele Caruso, a native of Abruzzo, Italy, moved the family to the Bronx in 1929. Then came the Depression and his war years in the Army — service that found him in Rome, shaking hands with Pope Pius XII.
After the war came his wife, Anna, and their two children.
Caruso spent years as a commercial artist on New York City’s Madison Avenue. From 1956 to 1987, he worked in commercial packaging for American Can Company, in Midtown Manhattan and, later, Greenwich, Connecticut.
That he has lived 99 years and 51 weeks – through war and, now pandemic – is remarkable. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that fewer than 325,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are still alive.
He wears a mask out of deference to the coronavirus pandemic – which has hit the elderly hardest, accounting for 171,814 deaths of those age 65 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cold, heat, mud
When Caruso remembers his military service – as an artillery instrument operator, siting shells in Gen. Mark Clark’s Fifth Army in North Africa and the invasion of Italy – his memories are part battle objectives, part weather report.
“You listen to artillery shells all day long, back and forth,” he said. “The Germans shelling, the Americans shelling all day.”
Caruso moved onto Corsica and on to Salerno, as the Americans worked their way up Italy’s “boot.” There was time spent in Naples, where, at night, he could see flames rising from a simmering Mount Vesuvius.
There was, by Caruso’s account, all kinds of weather, conjuring images from Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Bill Mauldin, whose work regularly depicted soggy GIs in flooded foxholes.
Caruso’s basic training was on “bitter cold Cape Cod,” followed by a landing in North Africa, “where it was 120 degrees in the shade.”
Sahara Sue II
Caruso found time for one non-artillery assignment in Corsica while waiting for the storming of Italy: Knowing that Caruso was an artist, a friend volunteered him to decorate a B-25 bomber nicknamed Sahara Sue II.
Caruso remembered having to scour the airfield for paints and brushes before spending two weeks or so to emblazon the plane with a leggy lady.
Last year, 76 years later, Caruso met a retired Air Force officer at New York’s Westchester County Airport, where World War II-era aircraft were on display. Within hours of mentioning that long-ago painting assignment to the officer, “I came home and he flipped this onto my computer.”
A photo of Sahara Sue II.
“He found this plane,” Caruso said, his voice full of awe. “Of all the thousands of planes we had.”
Salerno to Naples to Monte Cassino
The Americans fought north from Salerno to Naples and on to another key objective: the monastery atop Monte Cassino.
Bombing was finally approved on Feb. 15, 1944.
“I remember that day very vividly, because it felt like every plane in Italy was in the air dropping bombs,” Caruso recalled. “And after it was all through, the Germans still had it. It was so well guarded. They had to go up on foot, climb up the side of mountain on foot to take it eventually.”
When the war in Europe ended, Caruso was in Pisa, within walking distance of the leaning tower. V-E Day in May 1945 wasn’t a big blowout for GIs still in Italy, he recalled.
When a visitor expresses surprise that the end of the war in Europe didn’t launch a huge party, Caruso offers a simple defense: “Well, they didn’t have much good booze,” he said. “They mostly had cordials.”
There was another war, still raging in May 1945 when Germany surrendered.
“The big fear we all had was that when the war ended in Europe we were going to be shipped to Japan,” he said. But the point system – years of service overseas and combat service pins – meant Caruso was sent home. He was discharged in November 1945.
When he returned to the Bronx, he had spent 30 months overseas.
“That was a pretty rough deal, I think, for anybody,” he said. “Nobody could go home those days. They didn’t have rotations.”
Marriage and ‘Mad Men’ martinis
Back in the Bronx, a relative introduced Caruso “to a school chum” of Anna Pace. Before long, he and Pace were dating. They married on Feb. 7, 1948.
He earned his Pratt Institute advertising design degree at night while working for a Manhattan ad agency, then he got a job in package design for American Can Company, where he stayed for 31 years, from 1956 to 1987.
His portfolio brims with designs for Fanta soda and Schlitz cans, including print ads that would find their way into glossy magazines and newspapers.
During those Midtown “Mad Men” years, Caruso developed a cherished ritual that he said was one of his secrets to a long life: a single vodka martini a day.
It was a habit he developed on New York City’s Madison Avenue. He said he loved working in Midtown in that post-war era, where lunches were regularly accompanied by a cocktail.
“Madison Avenue was known for its swingers and everything else, and for a long time, everybody drank Manhattans,” he said. “But here’s the secret: You drink a Manhattan, you come back, they can smell you a half-a-mile away. You drink a vodka martini, they can’t tell. That’s how it became popular. That’s the truth.”
Caruso shrugs when asked if his war years – those months spent in all kinds of weather, seeing comrades fall – affected him, made him the man he became.
“I don’t know about that, truthfully,” he said. “Maybe I was too young. It didn’t affect me that much. Overseas was a long time, but I survived. A lot of guys didn’t survive.”
Follow Peter D. Kramer on Twitter at @PeterKramer.