Sunday, July 15, 2018
Military News

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

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.

 
Comments
Veterans to break ground on Sun City Center memorial

Veterans to break ground on Sun City Center memorial

SUN CITY CENTER — Residents in this retirement community will celebrate the construction of a Veterans Memorial with a groundbreaking ceremony at 10 a.m. on July 17.The memorial will mark the first such tribute to the thousands of veterans who have l...
Published: 07/10/18
Updated: 07/13/18
Were veterans’ radiology tests wrongly canceled? VA includes Haley in national audit

Were veterans’ radiology tests wrongly canceled? VA includes Haley in national audit

TAMPA — Federal investigators are looking into allegations that officials at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital canceled hundreds of patient radiology exams without following safety guidelines and then tried to cover it up.The exams had been order...
Published: 07/09/18
Howard Altman: Hillsborough joins new national military suicide prevention effort

Howard Altman: Hillsborough joins new national military suicide prevention effort

Florida veterans have a significantly higher rate of taking their own lives compared to the national veteran suicide rate, according to the most recent data released by the Department of Veterans Affairs.But in Hillsborough County, that figure is far...
Published: 07/06/18
Trump’s counterterrorism pick is Joe Maguire of Tampa, now helping commando families

Trump’s counterterrorism pick is Joe Maguire of Tampa, now helping commando families

TAMPA — The intelligence leader who keeps tabs on terrorist threats and communicates them to the nation will be a retired vice admiral from Tampa, if President Donald Trump has his way.For the past five years, former Navy SEAL Joe Maguire has served ...
Published: 07/03/18
Updated: 07/04/18
Art2Action, The Bunker team to give veterans ‘Open Mic Night’

Art2Action, The Bunker team to give veterans ‘Open Mic Night’

YBOR CITY — With umbrellas piled in the corner as you walked into The Bunker, welcoming vibes mixed with the sweet aroma of coffee, hints of just-baked muffins and cookies, and a few kind hellos from the staff.The seats, plush and cushioned, are pull...
Published: 06/28/18
Updated: 07/04/18
New chief calls MacDill ‘crown jewel’ of Air Force’s mobility command

New chief calls MacDill ‘crown jewel’ of Air Force’s mobility command

TAMPA — Air Force Col. Stephen Snelson, the new leader of the host command at MacDill Air Force Base, called his new assignment a career pinnacle as he took over the 6th Air Mobility Wing at a ceremony Friday."MacDill Air Force Base is the crown jewe...
Updated one month ago
Howard Altman: Three Tampa firms win rights to bid on $2.4 billion Army contract

Howard Altman: Three Tampa firms win rights to bid on $2.4 billion Army contract

In a move that could mean more high-paying defense contracting jobs for the Tampa area, three local firms have been awarded the rights to bid on work through a $2.4 billion Army contract.Calhoun International and a combined effort by two other Tampa ...
Updated one month ago
Writer resigns from ‘New Yorker’ after twitter flap over Pasco Marine’s tattoo

Writer resigns from ‘New Yorker’ after twitter flap over Pasco Marine’s tattoo

Talia Lavin, whose tweet about a Pasco veteran’s tattoo implied he was a Nazi, has apologized to him and resigned from her position as a fact-checker at the New Yorker magazine.But in another tweet, Thursday evening, Lavin also lashed out at the fede...
Updated one month ago
New Yorker magazine apologizes to combat-wounded Pasco veteran over staffer’s Tweet

New Yorker magazine apologizes to combat-wounded Pasco veteran over staffer’s Tweet

The New Yorker magazine has apologized to a combat-wounded Pasco County veteran about a tweet posted by one of its staffers.Over the weekend, New Yorker staffer Talia Lavin wrote in a tweet that a tattoo on the left elbow of Justin Gaertner looked li...
Updated one month ago
Nazi or not? Tattoo sparks Twitter storm over wounded Pasco veteran

Nazi or not? Tattoo sparks Twitter storm over wounded Pasco veteran

The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is pushing back against a social media post implying that a combat-wounded New Port Richey veteran has a Nazi symbol tattooed on his arm. In a tweet Monday afternoon, ICE officials denied the ve...
Updated one month ago