Many of us at Carlton Senior Living Pleasant Hill-Martinez know Connie Malone but only a few remember her husband, Mike, who lived here from 2008 until his death in 2010. Connie is a first-generation American born of an Italian couple who immigrated to the United States around 1919 to build a better life. Mike, the son of an Indiana Presbyterian minister’s family, decided to sign up for a two-year enlistment in the Marine Corps in October 1941 so he could get the draft out of the way before resuming college to become a lawyer.
Just two months later, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor radically changed Mike’s plan. By August 1942, he was an infantryman fighting the Japanese at Guadalcanal, the first stage of the three-year battle across the Pacific to defeat Japan.
As in that old radio short feature, “The Rest of the Story” is how an Indiana boy ended up in Martinez where he met a California-born Italian girl and they lived happily ever after for 65 years.
CONNIE’S STORY: Costanza Savioni was born on August 7, 1924 at her family’s small home on Alhambra Avenue near the SP railroad tracks and Grainger’s Wharf where much of the Italian community lived and fished. She was the seventh of eight children, two of whom died before the family left Rimini in central Italy for a new chance in America. Her father was a fisherman in Martinez before getting a job at Mountain Copper just east of town. He died at age 53 when Connie was in elementary school leaving two boys and four girls. Mrs. Savioni kept the family together by taking in laundry, cleaning people’s houses and taking the kids with her to help serve at people’s dinner parties. The kids all worked as well to keep the family going, Connie remembers.
Connie attended Martinez Elementary School in the building that is now Martinez City Hall and graduated from Alhambra High School in 1943. Her high school days were interrupted in 1942 when Germans and Italians who had not applied for citizenship were rounded up and moved away from coastlines and sensitive factories. Mrs. Savioni was not a citizen so she and her two youngest children, Connie, then a junior in high school, and her sister, Mary, moved to Walnut Creek early in 1942. Connie attended the brand new Acalanes High School for a few months before the ban was lifted and they could return to Martinez.
Connie was still in high school when she was hired as a waitress at Wilson’s, a popular coffee shop and soda fountain on Main Street in Martinez, then the core of a thriving shopping center serving Central Contra Costa County from Carquinez Strait to Walnut Creek and beyond.
Martinez had several coffee shops and soda fountains but, Connie recalls, “Ours was the popular one. We had judges and lawyers in for lunch. The kids came after school was out and adults and teenagers would come in on the weekend and in the evening after the movies.”
MIKE’S STORY: Later in life, Mike wrote a memoir entitled “The Marine Corps Experience of Orrin (Iron Mike) Malone. A quiet, self-effacing man, he did not include the origin of the nickname in his memoir which is a captivating 13 pages long. It begins in the summer of 1941. He had finished his first year of college and was working seven days a week at the Perfect Circle Piston Ring Company in Tilton, Indiana. The United States was not yet at war but universal military service, known as the Draft, had been put into effect. He and his Class of ’38 high school friends decided to take the military physical with an eye to getting military service out of the way in two years then buying out the required third and fourth years, a feature of the law. Mike passed every physical and ended up in the Marine Corps towards the end of October 1941. On December 7, with basic training in San Diego almost complete, he and other Marines were walking back to their barracks when “the loudspeakers blared the news of Pearl Harbor being attacked by Japan.” Thus, ended the ‘two years and out’ dream.
Mike and his mates were sent to Pearl Harbor where he was assigned to a battalion directly under Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. The Admiral stood right by Mike as his gun crew scored a perfect shot on the final five-inch artillery test. The Admiral was pleased and it became a treasured memory for Mike along with being stopped outside the kings’ palace in downtown Honolulu by Shirley Temple’s future mother-in-law who invited Mike and his mates to her mansion for Cokes, pineapples and cookies and a tour of her beautiful garden. Later at Guadalcanal, he met and made friends with Marine fighter pilot hero and Medal of Honor winner Joe Foss, later governor of South Dakota.
In a month, Mike had become a PFC and was on his way to an unknown location which turned out to be Guadalcanal and its neighboring Santa Cruz Islands. The eight single-spaced pages describing his experiences on Guadalcanal and the neighboring Tulagi island make one wonder how he survived without being wounded. But that doesn’t mean he came out unscathed during the period from August 1942 to February 1943. The almost literally millions of mosquitoes on the Santa Cruz Islands left him with malaria which plagued him for the next several years. It was the recurring hospitalizations that occurred in New Zealand that sent him back to the United States where he was put on leave for one month. Just before his leave was up, he became ill again. When he was well enough to travel he went back to San Diego where he again was admitted to the hospital for a three month stay before recovering enough to be assigned to guard duty at the Naval Weapons Station at Port Chicago, near Martinez, CA in the summer of 1944.
On July 17, 1944, Mike was on guard duty at the sergeants’ quarters. The story in his words:
“While writing a message from our jeep patrol, I had just stepped out in front of a six-foot radio cabinet. Suddenly, a violent explosion occurred. It threw me halfway across the room. The steel cabinet was jerked off of the wall and went across the room, bouncing off the rear wall and coming to rest half-way back. The event, to be known as the Port Chicago Disaster, was a deadly munitions explosion while being loaded onto two cargo vessels bound for the Pacific Theater of Operations, killing 320 sailors and civilians and injuring 390 others.
“The two ships exploded at the dock near where I was assigned. Chunks of burning ordnance were flung over 12,000 feet into the air. The U.S.S. E.A. Bryan was completely destroyed and the U.S.S Quinalt was blown out of the water, torn into sections and thrown in several directions: the stern landed upside down in the water 500 feet away. The U.S. Coast Guard fire boat was thrown 600 feet upriver where it sank. The pier, along with its boxcars, locomotive, rails, cargo and men, was blasted into pieces. The port’s barracks and other buildings such as much of the surrounding town of Port Chicago were severely damaged. (ED note: There was also less severe but still serious damage in nearby towns including Martinez where lots of windows were broken and structures were damaged.)
“Seismographs at the University of California at Berkeley sensed the two shock waves traveling through the ground, determining the second, larger event to be equivalent to an earthquake measuring 3.4 on the Richter scale. Little did I know that hundreds of men had just lost their lives. I was physically shaken and disoriented. The captain ordered me to direct traffic at the main gate. I was assigned gate guard duty from that day on. One young man drove to the gate and wanted to photograph some of the personnel. I let him go through and was put on restriction for a week. From that day forward everyone was subject to inspection before entering.”
MIKE AND CONNIE’S STORY
CONNIE: After graduating from Alhambra, she continued working at Wilson’s. Meanwhile, Martinez became used to the military being around. When off duty, the Marines would often come to Martinez or Camp Stoneman. Most would go to the bars or to the Red Cross Canteen, she recalls, but Mike would always go to Wilson’s Soda Fountain on Main Street where he soon struck up a continuing conversation with his waitress, Connie.
“I took a liking to him,” she says, although she was engaged at the time to her sister Tina’s brother-in-law, a sailor from Ohio. She subsequently broke off the engagement. When pressed to say why she broke it off, she admitted that she was falling in love with Mike.
Connie had just walked home from work on July 17 when the Port Chicago explosion happened. She turned around and returned to Wilson’s where she spent much of the night making sandwiches to be delivered at the site and wondering if Mike was all right as she heard all kinds of rumors about how it started. Finally, someone told her he was okay.
MIKE: “During my time off I used to go to Martinez, which was a very comfortable, peaceful little city. I would often go to a soda fountain called Wilson’s Fountain on Main Street. There I met an Italian girl who worked at the fountain. She was very lovely. The young lady made milkshakes for me. In time, I got to know her quite well. She was engaged to a sailor but that didn’t make any difference to me. One day she told me she was not engaged anymore. This really made me very happy!
“For dating, we would ride the ferry to Benicia on her time off.” (Editor’s Note: And not get off but ride it back thus spending only 10 cents per passenger rather than 20 cents for the round-trip. This was a common “cheap date” practice of Martinez and Benicia young people during the years the ferry operated.) “We walked all over Martinez. Cheap dates but we loved to be together. Periodically, I would break down with bouts of malaria and have to return to the base for hospital care. But most of the time I was there, time permitting, when they closed the fountain thus giving me the pleasure of walking her home.
“I bought a ring with three diamonds. It was at Susana Street Park that I asked her to marry me. She said “yes” and we became engaged. I went to her house to ask Mrs. Savioni for her daughter’s hand in marriage and she replied “YES.”
“In October, my big brother, Pat, came to the gate where I was stationed. I snapped to attention and gave him a big salute. I was sure glad to see him after what I had seen and been through. He was in the Navy and his ship had just come into Treasure Island for a week before shipping out to the Pacific. My choice was to have my brother as my best man. That meant we had a week to plan the wedding. I talked it over with my fiancée and she agreed with the one-week plan.
“We were married on October 14, 1944. My brother stayed at the Fairmont waiting for his ship to arrive. Our honeymoon lasted four days in San Francisco staying at the Mannix Hotel. We were just happy to be together. We didn’t need anything fancy.”
CONNIE: “The wedding took place at the Baptist Church in Martinez,” Connie explained because her church, St. Catherine of Siena, wouldn’t marry them because not only was Mike not a Catholic but his father was a Presbyterian minister. The church was small, she recalls, but lots of people came. Among the guests was current Carlton resident Barbara Viera Amspoker, Alhambra class of 1944. Barbara says that even though she didn’t know Connie very well as they were a year apart in a school where activities had been cut to a minimum, she and friends attended the ceremony because it had been announced at Wilson’s by Connie and others because there was no time to prepare and send invitations. It seemed like a fun thing to do. Connie’s boss, Mr. Chubik, even closed Wilson’s that night so people could attend.
When the war ended, the couple went back to Mike’s hometown in Indiana so he could complete his college education. However, after a year, they returned to Martinez because, Connie says, the winter was too cold for Mike and the summer was too hot for her. He used the GI Bill to finish his college education at UC Berkeley but dropped the idea of law school. Instead, he went to work for the Associated Oil Refinery between Martinez and
Concord until he retired. Connie meanwhile worked at Title Insurance and Trust Company as a secretary. They raised daughters, Patty and Terry. When they both retired, they traveled including a trip to Italy, visits to Indiana as well as taking trips sponsored by the Martinez Senior Center and cruises before moving to Carlton in 2008 as Mike’s health began to fail.
Ten years after his death, Connie, now 95, says it has been fun to recall her life for this article.
“It feels good. Mike and I loved each other. We got along good. My family loved him and his family loved me. We had nice children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, a nice house, a nice life. It still is.”
Written by Harriett Burt, Carlton Senior Living Pleasant Hill-Martinez Resident
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