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Howard Altman: Tampa World War II veteran turning 100 recalls guarding prisoners then celebs

Courtesy of the Sorbera family World War II veteran Frank Sorbera, who turns 100 Sept. 16, ran a private security firm after the war and guarded some of the biggest names in show business when they came to New York. Here he is with Sammy Davis Jr. , who has Frank\u2019s son Frank Jr. on his lap.
Published Sep. 14, 2018

Frank Sorbera was a band boy for the Russ Morgan Orchestra, lugging equipment and driving vehicles, all the while hoping to one day join the big band outfit as a singer.

But it was 1944, World War II was grinding on and Uncle Sam had other plans for the 26-year-old aspiring musician from Manhattan who spent his youth singing in the dance halls of New York.

"I was traveling across country with the band and when we got to the Oakland Hotel, I received a notice that I was being drafted," said Sorbera, of Tampa, who was to be honored this weekend with a party celebrating his 100th birthday.

Sorbera, who turns 100 on Sunday, never became a singer. But thanks in part to his time in the war, he spent the better part of his life around the greatest names in showbiz.

•••

Among his many military jobs, Sorbera helped oversee Stockade 9, a prisoner of war camp for captured German soldiers in Naples, Italy.

"They were very good prisoners," said Sorbera, whose gruff, New York accent remains strong despite 37 years in Florida. "They stood at attention as soon as I walked into the barracks."

Sorbera said he and his men provided the prisoners humane treatment.

"We treated them beautifully," he said. "They hadn't eaten meat in six months, so I got a truck, went to a farm and picked up a cow. They killed it and made me a suitcase. I don't have it anymore."

Despite the horrors inflicted by the Germans, Sorbera said he had no hard feelings.

"Let's face it, if you are in the military, you have to do what the sergeant tells you," he said. "You have to do what the lieutenant tells you, even if you didn't like it, you had to do it and keep your mouth shut. Today, you can do whatever you want, and talk back, but it was different in our time."

It was during this time that Sorbera, a sergeant first class, earned a nickname from the troops reporting to him.

"I was very strong about everything," he said. "They used to call me 'Little Caesar.'"

In August 1945, Sorbera was in Bologna, Italy, preparing to leave for the Philippines, when Uncle Sam once again changed his plans.

"We were supposed to ship out, but they threw the atomic bomb and the war ended before I could get into the shooting war. We became an army of occupation."

• • •

After leaving the Army in 1949, "Little Caesar" returned to New York and, using some of the things he learned during the war, went to work as a private investigator, starting the Veterans Detective Bureau.

Instead of guarding prisoners, he was guarding some of the biggest names in show business.

"I took care of all the celebrities coming to New York, you name them and I took care of them," said Sorbera, who packed heat and was in charge of the company's weapons cache. "I had 200 men and we were paid by the studios to provide protection."

Prodded, Sorbera rattled off some of the names.

"Bette Davis, oh she was wonderful," he said.

"Judy Garland was very nice."

"I have a book that Bob Hope gave me. You couldn't find a better man. He was very, very friendly to everybody."

"I once spent the night with Boris Karloff at the St. Moritz. It was snowing. He was a very intelligent man."

"Sammy Davis Jr. was wonderful."

•••

Sorbera is one of nine children, including a sister who also lived to be 100. He jokes about how he was older than the combined ages of his father and brother.

"My father died at 47 and my brother also died at 47," he said. "Combined that's 94. I'm about to turn 100."

He cites "good living" for his longevity.

"I had people who fed me well, took me to restaurants," said Sorbera, whose wife of 55 years, Lina, died 24 years ago. "My son, Salvatore, lives in Hawaii. He is the one celebrating my birthday."

Like his father, Salvatore, now "76 years young," is also in the security business. And like his father, he displayed a sly sense of humor.

I explained that Little Caesar is the second World War II veteran turning 100 that I've written about in recent weeks, the first being Martha Cameron, a nurse during the war.

"Maybe we should fix them up," he joked.

•••

The Pentagon announced no new deaths last week in support of ongoing operations.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 55 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom's Sentinel; 56 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one troop death in support of Operation Joint Guardian, one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; one death in Operation Octave Shield and six deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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