Sons recount father's stories - and reminder of Pittsfield amid World War II

In a bitter time of war, Joseph Cancilla of Pittsfield had a glimpse of home.

The officer in the 94th Infantry Division fought near the German border during World War II. Looking around, he could see beautiful hills.

He was reminded of the place where he spent his formative years.

"He said, 'I was stationed there; it was the middle of war, but the hills were so beautiful, they reminded me of the Berkshires," recalled Chris Cancilla, his youngest child.

Born in Sicily, Joseph Cancilla lived in Boston as a young child but came to live in Pittsfield when he was about 8.

He was drafted into the Army in 1941 and sent to Camp Edwards on Cape Cod with about 100 other men from Pittsfield.

Chris has a photo of his father at Camp Edwards with the other men from the city.

"There's a lot of ages and faces in that crowd," he said. "Somebody's going to recognize a dad, a granddad."

Cancilla sits in the second row. Like many of them, he is not smiling.

During World War II, it was common for men from the same geographic area to be drafted together.

"Basically, what they did was mustered them all together and got them together for basic training," said James Clark, director of veterans services for the city of Pittsfield.

There was a particularly big push to draft after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

"It was a quick, knee-jerk reaction," Clark said. "We need to build an army because we're under attack."

But many men didn't even wait to be drafted.

"It was very common for people to run to these recruiting sites and to sign up, more so than it was to be drafted," Clark said. "Especially in that time right after Pearl Harbor. Because it was World War II, and we were being attacked in our own country ... they were running to sign up."

Cancilla wasn't in favor of war.

"He was not a particular fan of anybody that suggested war for anything," said Joseph Cancilla Jr., his eldest son. "He was against it no matter what."

Actions that Cancilla took during the war weighed heavily on his mind, Chris said.

After two of his commanding officers died, Cancilla had to take on a greater leadership role.

"He had to take over a lot of men and put them in harm's way," Chris said. "It weighed heavily on him the rest of his life."

His father internalized the stress of the war, resulting in the severe ulcer that led to his honorable medical discharge in early 1945, Chris said.

"He saw some ugly action and got a chance to come home," he said. "He did his duty. Of course, he had to eat cream of wheat for a year."

Cancilla was one of thousands of men from Pittsfield who fought in World War II, said Clark, who could not provide an exact number.

The city had previously sent 2,500 men to fight in World War I, he said.

Over the years after he returned, Cancilla told stories of war through scenes he described.

At the time his father was in Europe, the Army was chasing the Germans back to Germany after D-Day. They were making headway, despite the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 — a counteroffensive designed to cut through Allied forces.

Cancilla remembered sheltering in churches.

One day, he woke up to discover some relics had been stolen from the church in which he had taken shelter.

"How upset he was in the middle of war that somebody stole something from the church," Chris said of his father, who was Catholic.

He said his father shared memories of homes that villagers fled as the Army pushed the Germans back through the various towns.

He remembered seeing Christmas trees still up and lit.

And he remembered the darkness.

His company suffered heavy casualties one day in a minefield. The men who remained had to retreat.

"He could hear guys crying out in the darkness that they were hurt or wounded, and he couldn't do anything about it," Chris said. "He didn't tell the gruesome stories, even as an old man."

After the war, Cancilla remained in Pittsfield, coming back to his work for The Berkshire Eagle.

Before being drafted, he was an apprentice working in the composing department setting type.

He returned a captain, and his true abilities as a leader were recognized.

"When he came back as Capt. Cancilla — I think that caught people's attention," Chris said.

Cancilla was soon promoted to circulation manager — a title he held until his retirement in 1976.

He arrived home just after the birth of Joseph Cancilla Jr. He and his wife, who died in 2010, later had five other children — two sons and three daughters.

Cancilla might not have loved the idea of war, but he left a decorated captain nonetheless.

He was awarded a Bronze Star for his actions Feb. 27, 1945, when he repeatedly exposed himself to intense enemy fire to personally lead troops in battle.

The experience and responsibility he learned while serving in World War II informed the rest of Cancilla's life.

The Great Depression had stunted Cancilla's employment growth — he was an apprentice in The Eagle's composing room at 28.

During the Depression, he was "just living," Chris said. And when it ended, there weren't a lot of jobs available.

But then Cancilla was drafted.

"Now, he goes in and shows what his real colors are — he's a leader," Chris said.

Chris said he can't remember now exactly how he heard stories of the war from his father, who died in 2003.

"Sometimes, these stories would just bubble up," he said. "I wish I could have asked for more."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at, at @BE_pleboeuf on Twitter and 413-496-6247.


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