Golden Gate Wing Guest Speaker Archive

Presentation Date: March 27, 2008

Primetta Giacopini

Speaker Photo

Escapee from Mussolini Terror
* Born June 9th, 1916 in Connecticut; Mother died when Primetta was 2
* Then traveled to Northern Italy in 1929 with foster parents to their original home town
* Stayed in Italy until "caught" in the whirlwind of Mussolini's rise in power and impending war
* Mussolini entered war June 10th, 1940; next day Questura arrived & ordered her to leave Italy - she understood them to be the Italian equivalent of the Gestapo
* With no passport papers in her possession, she was designated a foreign alien.
* She struggled for a year, trying to resolve the dilemma via the American Consulate & others
* Money, frustrating delays & obstacles-- plus increasing dangers-- nearly defeated her. She feared she would end up in a concentration camp and die
* Finally on June 5th, 1941, with great ingenuity and determination, she managed to leave by train
* Her first true love, a fighter pilot for the King's Army in Italy, disappeared in action
* Her odyssey of full escape, to finally reach Jersey City, NJ on June 24th, 1941, is dramatic Escapee from Mussolini Terror
* Born June 9th, 1916 in Connecticut; Mother died when Primetta was 2
* Then traveled to Northern Italy in 1929 with foster parents to their original home town
* Stayed in Italy until "caught" in the whirlwind of Mussolini's rise in power and impending war
* Mussolini entered war June 10th, 1940; next day Questura arrived & ordered her to leave Italy - she understood them to be the Italian equivalent of the Gestapo
* With no passport papers in her possession, she was designated a foreign alien.
* She struggled for a year, trying to resolve the dilemma via the American Consulate & others
* Money, frustrating delays & obstacles-- plus increasing dangers-- nearly defeated her. She feared she would end up in a concentration camp and die
* Finally on June 5th, 1941, with great ingenuity and determination, she managed to leave by train
* Her first true love, a fighter pilot for the King's Army in Italy, disappeared in action
* Her odyssey of full escape, to finally reach Jersey City, NJ on June 24th, 1941, is dramatic
* Married American Umbert "Bert" Giacopini in Washington, DC; lasted nearly 60 years until 2002
* Primetta worked for General Motors during WWII and beyond
* Hear stories about her earned "extra" gasoline coupons during the war
* Primetta still drives, lives independently, maintains her household, swimming pool, etc.

Primetta Giacopini represents a true-life odyssey of surviving a dangerous escape from the tyranny of dictatorship and war--overcoming major obstacles to freedom, then creating a full, productive life that continues!

Escape from Fascist Italy

Primetta Giacopini,

March 2008 Golden Gate Wing Guest Speaker

Born June 9th, 1916 in Torrington, Connecticut, Primetta Fei lost her mother to the Spanish flu epidemic when Primetta was but two years old. She was cared for by foster parents, Italian immigrants by the name of Chini who her father allowed to raise her but not adopt her. In 1929, they wanted to retire back to their home town in northern Italy near the Swiss border. They asked for and received permission from Primetta’s biological father to take the 13-year old girl with them.

"I grew up there and I intended to spend the rest of my life there. In the meantime I got older and I fell in love with a fighter pilot named Vittorio Andriani. And I didn’t see too much of him because he was always fighting some place."

Primetta says Andriani flew for Generalissimo Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War, in Ethiopia when Mussolini invaded that African country, and then in World War II. The photo of Andriani that Primetta still has shows him with a Fiat Cr. 32 biplane. Altogether, he was in aerial combat for eight years.

"With the rickety plane he had, I’m surprised he lasted that long," she says.

Another keepsake Primetta has retained is a reminder of how Fascist states tried to win the hearts and minds of their citizens. Needing funds for Italy’s conquests in the mid 1930’s, Mussolini had decreed Italians turn over their gold wedding bands to the government, to be melted down and used to pay for military campaigns. And though he collected some gold, most of the citizenry knew how to minimize their losses.

"What people did is they had nice, big, heavy wedding rings. They went and had a small wedding band made to give to the government, and kept the larger, heavier gold band."

In return, the dictator offered a simple band of steel inscribed with the words "Home, Motherland, Love, All One, November 1936" to signify marriage bonds. Primetta still carries her foster mother’s substitute marriage ring.

Italy entered World War II on June 10, 1940. By that date, Hitler’s German armies had already taken the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, Poland and other countries, and embattled French forces were but two weeks away from surrendering.

June 11th, Primetta says, a knock came on the door of the home where she was still living in a strained manner with her foster father and his new wife -- her foster mother had died in 1937. Italian police told her she had to leave because she was an American citizen.

"Leave? From where? You can’t go in the Mediterranean because they’re sinking everything that shows up there. No American ship would come in there anyway, and none of the other ships could go out and sail across the Atlantic, because they’d get sunk."

Primetta was advised to go to the American Consulate in Milan. She arrived there, only to find that the American Consul didn’t speak Italian, and that her command of English, after more than 12 years in Italy, was inadequate to discuss such matters.

"The first thing he told me was that he couldn’t give me a passport because I’d lost my rights as an American citizen because I’d lived in Italy for 12 years without renewing my passport. And when you’re an American living in Italy you better have a passport that you can pick up and leave in a moment’s notice."

"So I went home. I didn’t want to leave, because I had this boyfriend. I went home and forgot about it."

After a few weeks passed, the Questura—fascist Italy’s state police and the equivalent of Germany’s Gestapo—was in touch with Primetta.

"So I go down there and these guys came walking out with the black boots and black fezzes, and they’re marching around. And they said, ‘You’re taking this thing quite lightly aren’t you?’

"I said, ‘Why? I’m not Jewish and I happened to have been born in America because my father left the country when things were tough here, before Mussolini came and made things better for everybody.’ "

Primetta recalls the officer commenting, "You’d make a good lawyer for yourself," and then adding, "I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes. You better get out of here or you will wind up in a concentration camp."

Returning to the U.S. Consulate, Primetta spoke Italian and the consul spoke English and in that way they finally could communicate well enough to understand that if she could arrange passage to America he would issue her a provisional passport. Her inquiry at a travel agency was met with rejection - - no passport, no ticket. But the travel agency suggested that if the American Consulate put in writing that it would give her a provisional passport if she could arrange passage, they would work on passage. That worked and she got the provisional passport.

Her next step was to find a port of embarkation. Lisbon, Portugal was recommended, but reaching Lisbon involved a trip through pro-German southern France and then fascist Spain. Fortunately the French corridor through which she would pass was under Vichy control, with less strict security than areas under direct German control. The agency had to start by getting a Portuguese visa, followed by a Spanish visa and then a French visa. The visas all had to be obtained during one month because the Portuguese visa was only good for a month and if it expired the process had to start all over again. It took almost a year. "The war started for Italy on June 10 of 1940, and I didn’t leave until June 5th of 1941."

The land- based part of the trip took her five days.

"They told me they could give me passage from Lisbon, but I had to bring cash to Lisbon to pay $450 for the voyage. I couldn’t have traveler’s checks, cashier’s checks or lira. I had to have Swiss francs or American dollars."

"I had to get the money exchanged. I went to the Bank of Milan on the first of June and they couldn’t scrounge 498 dollars. In 1941, that was a value of about 3,000 or 4,000 dollars. I had my trunk shipped and went down to get the money and they didn’t have it. They said if you’re leaving the fifth, come down then and we’ll try to have it. I said, ‘What do you mean you’ll try to have it, I’m leaving in 5 days!’"

Those five days were very stressful for Primetta, not knowing if they’d have her money, but actually it worked to her benefit due to the exchange rate from lira to dollars. "The Italian lira rose by 99 cents. Instead of paying 19.99 for each dollar, I only had to pay 19.00 lira and that left me with 50 dollars extra.

Her friend told her to make a pocket in her bra and carry the money in there.

"Well when I got the money it was a stack that high. There were about 200 one-dollar bills, some 2-dollar bills, Swiss francs… so I had to carry it in a big suitcase."

Primetta had also already paid $250 to a travel agency in Torino to join a group of 15 other rail travelers escorted by a tour guide named Rena. Today, she’s amused when recalling that she was told she could buy luggage insurance from Italy to Lisbon, but there was no such insurance from Lisbon to New York. Primetta laughs, "It was almost a sure bet that if the boat went down you were going to go down with it."

Among the other five people in her compartment, Primetta says, was Rena, who knew the route – all the places to go and places to avoid on the road to Lisbon.

"We saw this horse- drawn carriage go by and I said, ’Let's take a ride on it.’

She said, ‘I don’t think we should. You know, it’s mostly prostitutes who get on and ride it.’ Primetta, figuring she’d never pass that way again, decided to ride it anyway.

Another passenger in the same railcar compartment seemed to be a priest. He wore an ankle- length cassock and a big round brimmed hat.

"He’s sitting next to me and we started talking and I realized this guy is flirting with me, and he’s a priest?! So, I had to go to the bathroom, and asked Rena to keep her eye on my bag leaning against the compartment wall. I returned and the bag was gone.

"I was blaming this one and that one and I’m looking at the priest and asked, ‘Don’t tell me you’ve got it?!’ And sure enough, it was under his cassock."

While still in France, Primetta had her closest brush with trouble.

Rena asked her to take two of the six trunks through customs that she was carrying for wealthy people who flew to America on the Yankee Clipper, and Primetta agreed without thinking much of it. When customs agents opened the first trunk, it was full of ballerina shoes, and the agent asked if Primetta was a dancer. She told him no, that she was just helping the woman bring the trunks through. Primetta remembers that, fortunately, the other trunk was "only" full of original manuscripts by and books belonging to William Faulkner!

Arriving safely in Barcelona, Spain, Primetta and the others in the group had time to kill before journeying to Lisbon. They decided to go to a bullfight, and the priest, suddenly and suspiciously, showed up to join them wearing a suit instead of a cassock.

The day they reached their embarkation point for the trip to America was Primetta’s 25th birthday. She heard the steamer, the S.S. Exeter, was in port, so she went to see it. When she got there she said, "Where is it?" She was astounded at the diminutive 7,000 -ton vessel at the dock which was to take her across the Atlantic Ocean to America.

The passengers boarded the ship on Friday the 13th. Primetta had a ball gown with her for dancing in the ship’s ballroom. She was disappointed to learn that the ballroom was filled with hundreds of cots for people who were traveling in steerage. During the trip her boat rescued several people whose boats had been torpedoed.

"Before we got to America, we had a stop in Bermuda. The British came aboard and checked everybody. They came to me, got my provisional passport and my trunk, and were looking at everything. They said, "She’s an alien."

"I asked a guy I’d met on the ship, ‘What’s an alien?’

He told me, ‘A foreigner.’

And I said, ‘I’m not a foreigner!’"

Eventually, all was straightened out with Primetta’s papers. But intrigue in the Bermuda port continued.

"On the ship the ‘priest’ is bugging me left and right." Primetta watched authorities handcuff the ‘priest’ and take him away, later hearing that the man who appeared to be a priest was actually a spy.

The ten-day ocean voyage on the S.S. Exeter ended in Jersey City, New Jersey, where Primetta’s father, uncle and sister met her. Customs agents carefully counted the cash she still carried, as agents had done at each inspection, to make sure she wasn’t smuggling money into the country.

Then came a shocker. Agents confiscated Primetta’s provisional passport, telling her, "you’re not going anywhere for 5 years." Primetta was angry because the passport had all kinds of foreign stamps and she wanted to keep it as a souvenir.

Back to Connecticut

‘Home’ in Torrington, proved at first to be disappointing, to say the least.

"I arrive in my father’s house, and he’s remarried. She (father’s new wife) has four children of her own, older than I was. They put my trunk down in the middle of the living room, with my suitcase, and I figure they’re going to bring me to a room. I should have a bedroom to bring this stuff to. I figured it was going to be the first time I would live in a house where we would all have the same name."

"But we just sat there. There were a lot of people there, talking and talking and talking. Finally, my sister suggested that I stay at her house. She said, ‘You wouldn’t like it here anyway.’"

Alice (Fei) Ross, Primetta’s sister, lived with her husband about four houses down on the same street. The next year passed with Primetta living with her sister and brother- in-law, again with people whose last names were different from hers. She finally moved in with her father and his second wife after Alice needed her room for a new baby. (Her step-mother was embarrassed by the prospect of Primetta going elsewhere to board with strangers.)

Employment in Torrington, June 1941, had Primetta doing piecework in a plant that made surgical needles. She was tasked with placing the needles in between pieces of felt, so another employee could grab them by the head and polish them. She says the veteran female workers immediately tried to take advantage of her.

"These girls said, ‘She just came from Italy and doesn’t know which way is up.’ They were giving me all the little tiny needles, and doing two or three boxes to my one box.

"Well, I said, ‘Hey! You think I’m a greenhorn, huh? I was born here, and got just as much right as you do. I want some of that work, not just the small ones. You do part of that, too."

Primetta had made her point and her co -workers responded by dividing up the piecework. On top of that, Primetta’s piecework pay rose to $35 instead of the $16 a week she had been paid. But that rate wasn’t to last, as she was soon sent back to the regular plant.

"I was telling someone about it and I said, ‘I feel like putting a bomb in this damned place.’"

Undaunted, Primetta quit and sought another job. (Her sister told her she was nuts.) After a background check which included her birth certificate being sent to Washington D.C., she landed a job with General Motors. Soon after, though, an FBI agent by the name of Henry Miller showed up at Primetta’s sister’s home. Primetta and Alice let him in.

"I said, ‘I just left the Gestapo, and now the FBI?’ "

Miller told her that the FBI had heard of a threat Primetta allegedly made against her old company. But by the end of the interview, the young factory worker’s reputation and patriotism remained untarnished and the FBI said they didn’t expect to ever return.

At General Motors, Primetta’s job involved grinding steel cones which encapsulated ball bearings. It was man’s work, performed while standing, and Primetta was doing the work because men weren’t available. They were being drafted to serve in the Army. The work soon took its toll.

"I was having trouble standing. I got a special pair of shoes. But then I got a job sitting down, instead, and worked there for a while. It was a good thing I worked for General Motors, because it had the most generous retirement plan in America."

Primetta’s work ethic, combined with her thriftiness, put her in a position to buy a 1940 Chevrolet. She had recovered from an appendectomy, paid for her operation, and still had saved enough money to buy a car. She was the first woman in Torrington that she knew who got a drivers license. Most women didn’t get drivers licenses -- until their husbands went off to war and they had no choice.

A Polish neighbor had been drafted, and his family put his 1940 Chevrolet up on blocks, then, figuring the war would likely last at least five years, decided to sell it,.

"People who had been living here all their lives, working for three or four years, didn’t have a dime to their name. And I had enough money that I paid the doctor and the hospital and 500 dollars for that car, and it only had 500 miles on it. It was a 1940 Chevy four -door sedan."

Umbert "Bert" Giacopini

Bert was a machinist/ toolmaker during World War II, and his skills were so valued that he received eight deferments from military service. Honing those skills for industry took four years of apprenticeship under his father. The government recognized the worth of men and women who had developed their abilities for manufacturing. In fact, once Bert was getting razzed for not being in the service so he told his boss he was going to enlist. His boss told him, "Go ahead, I’ll have you back here Monday morning wearing a uniform and getting paid a lot less."

Primetta met her husband -to- be in the winter of 1942, when she was temporarily slotted into the third shift. That night Bert, normally on day shift, also had a shift change that was to last six weeks, and which meant Bert would ride in to work with Primetta.

"So, in comes Bert. I didn’t even give him a second look because all the guys left were married. Right away that night we had a terrific storm. It was 35 below zero. They said to call workers and tell them not to come in, because everything is frozen…. So I looked up his name and I called him.

"He said, ‘How did you find me?’’ And I said, "In the phone book, under G."

"He said, ‘Nobody knows that. Here, whenever I give my name and I say Giacopini with a G, they’ve already got J on. Anybody that looks for me is looking for the J and they can’t find me.’

"I said, ‘I’m Italian and there’s no J in the Italian alphabet.’ "

Primetta’s phone call led to Bert’s invitation… something along the lines of, "If we’re not going to work, we might as well go out." And they went out together.

She says Bert was known for never having "gone steady" with a girlfriend, not anyone, until he met Primetta. He had carried a little book of phone numbers for Saturday night dates, but the book quickly went into disuse.

Bert and Primetta both stayed with General Motors during the war, where she commanded nearly the same 55 -dollar a week paycheck as he did.

The leanness of the war years, combined with Primetta’s resourcefulness, resulted in her getting a letter one day from the Office of Price Administration (OPA). The writer said he wanted to speak with her about a report that she had gas- rationing stamps "coming out of her ears."

"So I said to Bert, do you know this guy?" He said, ‘Yeah, I play poker with him.’ I said, "Well, find out what he wants."

When Bert inquired on her behalf, the OPA officer asked, "That girl on Beechwood Avenue is your girlfriend? We’re waiting for her." They thought she had black market gas coupons.

"If you had a car— and it was 17 miles to go to General Motors, where I worked— they told us that if we took passengers, we’ll give you ‘C’ coupons."

‘A’ coupons were for nonessential trips and ‘C’ coupons were for gas to commute to and from jobs tied to the war effort. When she began carrying riders, she was given additional gas coupons, and with the 23 miles per gallon her ’40 Chevy gave her, those coupons added up. The coupons were based on vehicles getting only 15 miles per gallon.

Before too long, Primetta was regularly driving not only to General Motors, but occasionally making 90 -mile trips to Ocean Beach in New London. She even went to Fort Dix in New Jersey twice to visit an Italian prisoner of war. Neighbors complained about her trips and the OPA reduced her coupons based on 23 mpg. She would have had a problem if the war hadn’t ended relatively soon because she had a ring job done on her car and after that she got 15 mpg.

She didn’t particularly know or like this prisoner of war, a Fascist from a neighboring town in Northern Italy who was captured in North Africa, but she wanted to find out about her Italian fighter pilot boyfriend Vittorio.

"I asked about Vittorio, and he said he was shot down just a few months ago, in 1943, right around Malta. They never found him, but I think they found a few pieces of his plane."

The second time she went was so to bring a woman who wanted to ask him about her mother who still lived in that town.

Not only did she never buy black market coupons or sell the extras she had, she gave away some of her coupons so a mother could visit her son who was in a sanitarium with TB.

May 5, 1945 was the marriage date for Bert and Primetta. They started their honeymoon in Philadelphia (described by Primetta as a dead town because it had no movies or plays on Sunday). Their honeymoon continued in Washington, D.C., and they were delighted on the evening of May 7th to see lights at night.

Primetta remembers saying, "Hey, we come here and they turn on all the lights for us!"

VE Day was May 8th in Europe, but May 7th in the United States. In celebration of the end of the European Theater threat, the nearly 3-1/2 year blackout was lifted.

Primetta Giacopini has enjoyed a life of freedom to live and work in her native America. And she still has many reminders of her experiences in northern Italy, experiences which might have led to a dramatically different life had she not had the courage to escape that country during World War II.

"My daughter went to Italy on her honeymoon. She went to see my friends and they said the main piazza in his town was named Piazza Vittorio Andriani. They named it after him."

Bert passed away in 2002. Yet since then, Primetta Giacopini has retained her independence in living. She has a current driver’s license… and still drives most places she goes, in addition to maintaining her own household with a swimming pool. She hasn’t been back to Italy since then, after everything she went through there. However, this August she’s returning for her first visit since 1941. She’ll visit the town where she grew up and her biological cousins in Tuscany. She’ll let us know how it goes…