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  1. Opinion

The birth of a Boom

Sitting with her mother’s wedding dress, Ann Simas Schoenacher, who lives in St. Petersburg and was conceived in Italy, was one of the very first Baby Boomers.
Sitting with her mother’s wedding dress, Ann Simas Schoenacher, who lives in St. Petersburg and was conceived in Italy, was one of the very first Baby Boomers.
Published Jun. 8, 2015

"A terrible year has ended." Amidst the ruins of the abbey at Monte Cassino, a Benedictine monk scribbled those words, Dec. 31, 1944. Few Italians or Americans would have disagreed. But if 1944 was a year of despair, 1945 was a year of hope.

May 1945 offered a bittersweet respite: bitter because years of war had inflicted terrible suffering upon civilians and combatants; sweet because peace finally beckoned. For Americans, the May 8 celebration of VE Day (Victory in Europe) was muted. Our war was not over. Everyone expected appalling casualties when Operation Olympia, the invasion of Japan, began.

The conflict left a world turned upside down and flying apart. The war fought over five continents took the lives of 60 million people, many of them civilians. New and old words took on ominous meanings: DPs (displaced persons), collaborator, concentration camp, Quisling, kamikaze, and gold-star mother. Parents feared the dreaded Western Union messenger delivering the telegram that began, "The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son ..."

Among the millions adjusting to peace and the specter of still another battlefront were Dorothy Elizabeth Schobert and Eugene Simas. She was a beautiful nurse, a farm girl from the American Heartlands. He was the handsome son of Portuguese immigrants from Gloucester, Mass.

Part Nellie Forbush, the heroine of South Pacific, and part Hana, the star-crossed nurse in The English Patient, Dorothy Schobert was a real-life, love-struck nurse in war-ravaged Italy. Born in 1917 in Yorkville, Ill., Dorothy Schobert grew up on a farmstead southwest of Chicago, where her family raised corn and soybeans, hogs and cattle. She attended a one-room school house.

Imbued with idealism and duty, Dorothy enlisted in the Army Nursing Corps. In late 1942, the midwesterner who had led a sheltered life landed in North Africa, part of an historic invasion. She had never seen any place as exotic as Oran, Algeria. "I think that all patriotic young nurses should 'join up,' " she wrote to her hometown newspaper.

In Oran, Dorothy's and Eugene's paths crossed briefly. Upon seeing Dorothy for the first time, Eugene told a friend, "That's the girl I'm going to marry." Whereas Dorothy was a homespun daughter of the prairie, Eugene Simas grew up amid rough-hewn Italian and Portuguese fishermen.

Eugene's parents emigrated from the Azores, where his father was a whaler. When he wasn't fishing, Eugene's father wrote poems and love letters for his unlettered countrymen. Eugene's mother worked at local factories.

Eugene enlisted in the Army, serving in the Army Medical Corps. A gifted musician, he also played in the corps band.

For millions of young men such as Eugene Simas, World War II was liberating. For the first time, they had traveled far from home. No longer were they confined to the ethnic quarters of Little Italy and Ybor City, Poletown and Hunky Hollow.

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In early 1942, the pollster George Gallup asked Americans a rather indiscreet question: "Taking into account all the qualities possessed by the different people or races of the world, how would you rate the people listed below, in comparison with the people of the United States?"

The findings of the "Confidential Report" serve as a 1942 benchmark of home-front ethnic relations. Americans expressed the highest admiration for Canadians, Scandinavians, the Dutch and the English. Predictably, the Japanese ranked as the least desirable. Three groups ranking near the bottom — Spaniards, Italians and Mexicans — suggested lingering distrust of Catholicism and disapproval of swarthy foreigners. Curiously, Germans ranked very high, one notch below the French. Jewish refugees ranked in the lower third, one slot above Poles. The poll was never published.

However mean-spirited the poll was, the results offered hope to millions of sons and daughters of Italian, Portuguese, and Polish immigrants. The Gallup poll confirmed Americans' newfound admiration of the Irish. Fifty years earlier, Americans associated the Irish with diabolical Roman Catholic priests and corrupt saloon keepers. The heroism of the Irish Brigade, the Fighting 69th of New York, at Gettysburg and World War I's Meuse Argonne, helped redeem the sons of Erin.

World War II, for Eugene Simas, offered the opportunity to prove that he was as American and patriotic as H. Gordon Schobert, Dorothy's brother, a Marine.

The war, at least for white Americans, reinforced democratic ideals. George Herbert Walker Bush, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and John F. Kennedy served alongside John Basilone, Hank Greenberg and the mythical Joe Palooka. The composition of the platoon and military regimentation helped break down ethnic divisions. When contrasted with Germany's treatment of Jews and Gypsies and Japan's brutalization of colonial subjects, American stereotypes of Slovaks, Greeks and Hungarians seemed trivial.

War encouraged romantic relationships that rarely occurred in peacetime. As late as the 1930s, Portuguese, Italian and Polish Americans tended to marry within their group. If a Neapolitan married a Lombard, neighbors gossiped over a "mixed marriage." Had Eugene Simas not joined the armed forces, he likely would have met a nice Portuguese girl at Our Lady of Good Voyage in Gloucester. Dorothy Schobert might have met a handsome farm boy at Au Sable Grove Presbyterian Church in Yorkville. For all of its brutalities, the war — at USO dances and other venues — brought together officers and privates first class, Hollywood starlets and the Bomb-a-Dears — the St. Petersburg cadre of young volunteer women who women attended dances, sold war bonds and wrote letters to servicemen overseas.

Fortune brought Eugene and Dorothy together once again, this time in Italy. She was stationed at a general hospital in Bari. A romantic, Eugene serenaded the nurses' quarters.

Dorothy asked for a transfer to the front lines, and was assigned to an evacuation hospital in Naples. There, she witnessed the terrible costs of Allied efforts to seize the Anzio beachhead and cross the Rapido River. Surgeons performed operations in tents. The nurses took showers in tents consisting of fabric without a ceiling. Dorothy joked about "fly boys" piloting low over the showers to sneak a peek.

By the spring of 1945, the young couple was madly in love. As Allied forces drove north, they moved to Florence, Mirandola and Treviso. Finally, Eugene proposed. Dorothy accepted. She wrote home, concerned that mom might not welcome a Portuguese-American musician. "He's no sissy," Dorothy confided.

The couple was determined to be married in Italy — if Eugene could find a wedding dress — no easy task. Desperate, Eugene sailed to the island of Corsica, occupied only months earlier by 30,000 German troops. Lt. Simas knocked at the door of an old French convent. He was shown into the Mother Superior's office. Eugene inquired whether the nuns could fashion a wedding dress. Mother Superior smiled, opened a desk drawer and pulled out some Vogue magazines! He pointed to a dress and handed over a pile of parachutes and Dorothy's measurements.

The nuns never fitted Dorothy, but through hours of hand-stitching and recycling of silk and nylon parachutes, they crafted a precious wedding dress, the bride's undergarments and a handsome scarf for the groom. The dress fit perfectly. "The bridal gown," Dorothy's home-town paper understated, "is one of the most unusual that a bride has ever worn."

On May 26, 1945, Lt. Dorothy Schobert and Lt. Eugene Simas were married at Treviso, near Venice. A paper reported, "The attendants were all Army nurses and Americans serving in the armed forces in that area."

The reporter added, "The town baker made a three-tier cake which, with open-face sandwiches, deviled eggs and peanuts, was served at the reception that was held in the day room (a tent) of the hospital where the bride was stationed." An army dentist sculpted the plain wedding bands from dental gold, while molding bride and groom figures atop the wedding cake out of dental wax.

The couple honeymooned at Stresa on Lago Maggiore, in the Italian lake region. They remember seeing "lines and lines of German POWs." Their first night was spent at a farmer's cottage. The Italian farmer was so happy for the young lovers that he excavated a precious bottle of Asti Spumante he had buried. They also met a sergeant whom Dorothy had cared for at a field hospital. The sergeant supplied the honeymooners with carnations, azaleas and roses.

Why did the young couple insist upon being married in Italy rather than waiting to return to the States? Perhaps because their parents might disapprove? After all, to be married in Italy, Dorothy had to swear she would raise her children as Catholics.

Most likely, Eugene and Dorothy got married in Italy because he had been reassigned to the Pacific Theater. There might not be another time. Following the honeymoon, Dorothy hitchhiked to the Adriatic coast on a two-ton truck to say goodbye to her husband, perhaps for the last time. For most of their lives, they had known only the Depression and war. In a world that had turned violent, ugly, and unhinged, marriage promised tenderness, beauty and harmony.

Fate intervened, again. There would be no invasion of Japan. The young couple returned to the United States in 1946. Dorothy was pregnant.

In one of the most hopeful eras in American history — our cities and factories had not been bombed, the G.I. Bill guaranteed educational and housing assistance, and every veteran wanted to get married, get a job and buy a new car — love and romance flourished. In 1946, an astonishing 2.3 million couples walked down the aisle, including Mabel Dingle and Ross Mormino.

Readers hardly need a sociologist to explain the consequences of "makin' whoopee." Newlyweds motored away, tin cans clanking and signs heralding "Hot Springs Tonite!!" Babies followed, so many that the press dubbed the phenomenon "the Baby Boom." American mothers gave birth to a record 7.2 million babies from 1946 -1947.

Made in Italy, Ann Simas (Schoenacher) was born in Gloucester in March 1946. Ann took her First Holy Communion at Our Lady of Good Voyage Church. A brother, Paul, followed.

In 1952, the Simas family became part of the Florida dream, migrating to Miami. In the Magic City, Eugene Simas reinvented himself as Gene Simms, a baritone crooner. Nightly, following dinner, he put on his tuxedo and entertained crowds at the Eden Roc, the Deauville and the Hotel Fontainbleau's Boom-Boom Room.

In 1991, Dorothy and Eugene Simas moved from their single-family home to On Top of the World, a retirement community in Ocala.

Their memorable union, which began in North Africa, ended in Florida. Dorothy Simas died in 2001 and Eugene passed away in 2009.

Ann Simas Schoenacher has resided in St. Petersburg since the 1970s, where she taught at the SunFlower School for 12 years and worked 17 years at the Florida Humanities Council. Her mother's wedding dress, hand-sewn by French nuns from American parachutes, remains an heirloom.

Gary R. Mormino, scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council and recipient of the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award in writing, still teaches history classes at USF St. Petersburg and cries during Frank Capra movies. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Correction: Eugene Simas entertained crowds at the Hotel Fontainbleau's Boom-Boom Room. Earlier versions of this story appearing in print and online gave an incorrect name for the room.

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