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Hail Caesar: Special ops legend Caesar Civitella of St. Petersburg dies at 94

By Howard Altman
Caesar Civitella of the OSS receiving the Bronze Star from William "Wild Bill" Donovan, head of the OSS. Civitella died Oct. 25. He was 94. Photo courtesy of the Palmerio family.

ST. PETERSBURG — Goia Palmerio, a devout Catholic, remembers her father chiding her piety.

"How can you believe in God?" Palmerio recalls Caesar Civitella asking in his gruff, gravelly voice. "If you saw a quarter of the stuff I have seen in my life, you would not believe there is a God."

Mr. Civitella, a resident of St. Petersburg, died Oct. 25 apparently of a heart attack. He was 94. During his many years on earth, he saw things that most people would only see in a movie.

He grew up in a tough Philadelphia neighborhood, got into trouble at a local boys’ school and joined the Army. He served with the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and helped capture thousands of Nazis for the CIA forerunner. He later joined the Army and became one of the first Green Beret instructors, teaching future special forces soldiers the art of guerilla warfare. Then he joined the CIA and came up with a creative attempt at stopping the North Vietnamese from traveling the Ho Chi Minh trail.

A legend in the special operations and intelligence communities, Mr. Civitella was honored by U.S. Special Operations Command, the CIA and the OSS Society. Of the original 13,000 OSS members, Civitella was one of just about 100 still alive, said Charles Pinck, president of the OSS Society.

"OSS founder Gen. William Donovan said the OSS Operational Groups, predecessor to the Green Berets, performed some of the bravest acts of the war," Pinck said. "That’s how I will remember Caesar Civitella."

• • •

The son of Italian immigrants living in Philadelphia, Caesar Civitella was just 2 months old when his father died. He attended Girard College, a program for homeless boys in Philadelphia, and later joined the Pennsylvania Maritime Academy.

His academy experience helped lead him to a life of intrigue and adventure.

"One Sunday, me and a couple of guys on the commander’s boat decided to take it out for a ride without permission," Mr. Civitella told the Tampa Bay Times in a July 2016 interview.

They were soon surrounded by the Coast Guard, brought back, and given a choice: Undergo a court martial or accept a transfer.

He opted for the transfer. That led him, ultimately, into the OSS.

• • •

At 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 29, 1944, Mr. Civitella and the rest of Team Lafayette started their first mission by jumping out of a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber and parachuting behind enemy lines in southern France.

The 14-man OSS operational group was taking part in Operation Dragoon, the allied invasion of southern France. Working with the French Maquis resistance group, Mr. Civitella’s team captured nearly 3,800 enemy soldiers and 30 Nazi officers, according to his official government biography.

Nine months later, after serving on aerial resupply missions that earned him an Air Medal, Mr. Civitella and another team dropped behind enemy lines, this time in northern Italy.

They worked with Italian resistance forces to prevent the Nazis and fascists from destroying infrastructure as they retreated — and to capture Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Like the previous airdrop, it was a perilous mission.

Once on the ground, Mr. Civitella and his team traveled by horse and sled through the mountains, according to U.S. Special Operations Command’s Tip of the Spear magazine. They were carrying gold to pay the people who held Mussolini.

By the time they arrived behind enemy lines, however, Italian partisans had already captured and killed Mussolini. Still, Mr. Civitella and his team remained in the field for another month until the Germans surrendered. He earned a Bronze Star.

• • •

In 1952, when the Army was creating its special forces unit ultimately known as the Green Berets, they turned to Mr. Civitella, said Troy Sacquety, Civil Affairs Branch historian for Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C.

"There wasn’t a manual or course already laid out" to teach special forces soldiers, Sacquety said. So the Army brought in combat veterans like Mr. Civitella to teach soldiers about unconventional, guerilla-type warfare.

"He helped influence and develop courses that were taught to others," said Sacquety, who met Mr. Civitella a few times and spoke with him at least once a week since 2000. "His greatest impact and legacy is that he was able to pass on to others his experience."

• • •

Mr. Civitella did not want to be promoted beyond the rank of major, his daughter said. "He didn’t want to take a desk job," said Palmerio, 63, of Sarasota. "He always wanted to be with his men."

So after turning down a promotion for a third time, he had to retire from the Army on Aug. 31, 1964. The next day, Mr. Civitella joined the CIA.

During his time at the agency, Mr. Civitella helped devise a plan during the Vietnam War to stop traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail by having the Air Force seed clouds to make it rain, then pouring Calgon bath soap on the trail.

"For one week, we turned the trail into mud," Mr. Civitella told the Times last year.

Another time, he helped create a device that sounded like an entire battalion of soldiers to help throw off the enemy. And during the failed April 1980 attempt to rescue hostages held by Iran, Mr. Civitella was in communication with a CIA operative on the ground.

Mr. Civitella wrapped up his career at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, serving as a CIA liaison to the commands that would eventually become SOCom and U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military efforts in the Middle East and southwest Asia.

He retired Aug. 31, 1983, and was awarded the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit.

• • •

Mr. Civitella was married for more than 50 years, but his wife, Ramona, died two years ago, his daughter said.

She said growing up with a father with such a background was challenging.

"If I saw him more than one time a year, it was because he was escorting a body back home," Palmerio said. "The military life is a struggle, for the soldier or the agency person. But it also takes an incredible toll on the family."

• • •

Mr. Civitella fought and won a lot of battles in his life. But his last objective exceeded even his grasp.

"My father fought hard to get the Congressional Gold Medal for members of the OSS," Palmerio said.

It was finally approved, with Mr. Civitella’s unwavering support, in December 2016.

"He would say, ‘I have to stay alive to get this medal,’?" Palmerio said.

But the medals have yet to be distributed.

"He was definitely a character," his daughter said. "And he was an incredible hero and asset to this country. Believe me, this country lost an incredible person."

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.