MECHANICVILLE, N.Y. >> During World War II, hundreds of servicemen in uniform had their photographs taken at a popular tavern near the Hudson River in upstate New York.
Seventy years after the war officially ended with Japan’s surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, Siciliano’s Restaurant is long gone, but the black-and-white portraits endure. Only a few of the people photographed by Mechanicville restaurant owner Charlie Siciliano are still living.
Public displays of photographs of local servicemen and women were common in many U.S communities during the war, but few have survived. The quality, size and longevity of the Siciliano collection make it "completely unique" among known WWII collections, according to Kimberly Guise, a curator at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
Here are some of the details about the Siciliano photographs:
Starting in 1942 and continuing through the war’s duration, Siciliano snapped more than 700 black-and-white portraits of local servicemen, and a few servicewomen.
The 3-by-3-inch photos, framed in groups of 25, covered the walls of his bar for 30 years. Siciliano died in 1980, a few years after selling the restaurant. The new owner had the photos arranged alphabetically in eight large frames, which eventually were donated to the Mechanicville Public Library. Several years ago, Siciliano’s son also donated the negatives.
Siciliano photographed servicemen during the Korean War, but most of the portraits are from WWII. More than 600 of them are on display in the library’s local history room. Some photos are torn or discolored, but most remain remarkably intact and clear, as if they were taken yesterday.
The entire Siciliano collection has been digitized on the library’s website.
HOW IT HAPPENED
After the U.S. entered the war, word spread around town that Siciliano was taking photos of anyone who showed up at his restaurant in uniform. It quickly became a ritual for local servicemen home on leave or recently returned from overseas to head to the hangout, known for its Saturday night dance bands and clams at 25 cents a dozen.
"If Charlie saw you there in uniform, he’d say, ‘Go sit in the corner.’ Then he’d snap your picture," said Mechanicville native Christopher Sgambati, 90, a Navy veteran who served in the Pacific.
Each sailor, soldier, airman or Marine sat in the same well-lit corner at the end of the curved wooden bar. Many are holding a drink in their hands. The interior white tile walls and a shaded window served as a backdrop. The same vase with flowers, and occasionally a bottle of wine, appears in nearly every photo.
Siciliano, a photography buff, gave each person he photographed a copy for free. Each framed photo had a name typewritten under it. A star placed on a photo indicated that person was killed during the war.
Most of the men photographed at Siciliano’s were from Mechanicville, which during the war had a population of about 7,500 and now has just over 5,000. Servicemen from nearby communities also had their pictures taken. At least three women in uniform are in the collection.
The men in the photographs represent all branches of the U.S. military and nearly every rank and specialty: enlisted men and officers, gunners and bomber pilots, medics and doctors.
It’s unknown how many of the veterans in the photos are still living. Seven were recently contacted for an informal gathering at the library and four showed up, including Sgambati and Army veterans Anthony Luciano, 90, and Felix Farina, 91, and Marine Corps veteran Francis "Dick" Varone, 89.
Varone, an Iwo Jima veteran, was fresh out of boot camp when he had his picture taken at Siciliano’s in 1943. When he finally returned home in 1946, he went to Siciliano’s — and met Mary Lou, the woman he would be married to until her death in 1994.
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT
Guise, the National WWII Museum curator, called the Siciliano collection "a local history treasure trove."
The museum, founded by the late historian Stephen Ambrose, is home to more than 100,000 artifacts, including photo collections, but it has nothing that compares with the Siciliano collection, she said.
The photographs are one small town’s lasting tribute to the local men and women who fought in history’s biggest war.
"We considered them all part of our family," said Charles Siciliano Jr., who was 9 when his father started taking the photos. "That collection will last long after all the guys are gone, including me."