SSgt. N. Arch Milani, 8th Air Force
by JC Sullivan
On a Saturday afternoon, my friend Staff Sergeant Arch Milani and I had the pleasure of spending a few hours together. The last time we did this I had written about the highly-decorated veteran. Up to that time he had never worn his World War Two decorations. “My Dad would ask me time and again to put on my uniform and wear my medals to the Memorial Day Parade,” Milani said.
When I wrote the original story, Milani had told me, “One of these days maybe I’ll put things in a proper perspective and grant my father his one last wish, that I wear my medals and be proud of what I did in defense of our country. Maybe one of these Memorial Days I’ll put them on and appear in the parade.” Milani never felt inclined to do that. “I was just so happy to get away from it all.”
Getting away from it all meant putting his wartime experience and combat missions behind him. As one of a ten-man B-17 bomber crew in the 305th Bomber Group, they flew out of Chelveston, England on bombing runs over targets in familiar-sounding cities such as Berlin, Cologne, Koblenz, Hamburg and Munich, Germany. On these runs his station was in the nose of the aircraft. He was the toggelier, the crewman who released the bombs.
Milani is a member of an exclusive and distinguished group, the “Caterpillar Club.” He qualifies because he was forced to bail out (hit the silk) of a disabled warplane. After hitting the ground in Nancy, France, a French farmer, armed with a pitchfork, confronted him and shouted, “Italiano!” mistaking Milani for an Axis flyer from Italy.
Enemy forces wearing American uniforms had sometimes parachuted behind Allied lines. Milani looked the part. He was, after all, first-generation Italian-American. To make matters worse, he had no identification to prove he was American – it all went down with the aircraft.
Taken to U.S. Army Intelligence, an officer ascertained Milani was from the Akron/Cleveland area. One of the questions he asked him was, “What’s the best way to get downtown from Shaker Heights?” When Milani replied, “On the Shaker Rapid,” he proved his citizenship. It turned out the Intelligence Officer was from Shaker Heights.
On his 28th bombing run over the Rhine River at Remagen, a serious leg wound took him out of the war. His Army Air Corps service with the 8th Air Force earned him numerous decorations, including the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters and the Purple Heart.
Why did Milani not wear his decorations for all those years? “I still have ambivalent feelings trying to identify the real winners of each of our past major conflicts,” he said. “Bombing railroad yards in Munich, knowing we were killing men, women and children, was something really disdainful. But it was part of what we were ordered to do.” For years he witnessed the local Memorial Day parade. He even attended the service afterwards at the Northfield-Macedonia Cemetery. He was always with a camera but never in uniform.
Since my original story, however, something caused him to have a change of heart. “I began to see the age of the veterans was getting older and older each year,” Milani recalled. “They were also dying off, with fewer to carry the torch. Somebody has to remind people war is hell and no one ever wins a war.” Milani now believes that by appearing with his decorations he might help Americans to relate to World War II and other war eras and perhaps, in the process, personalize history.
“I think today is a good example. I have children and grandchildren who can link to World War II when they see me in a uniform. They might think, ‘Why was he there? For what reason was he there?’ By virtue of our presence, we veterans perpetuate this link and carry it to another generation. Hopefully we can learn from past mistakes. This is the best link we can have – one generation learning what actually happened and what the consequences of war are and always will be.”
In spite of his personal wartime misgivings, Milani is convinced the United States must remain in a position of strength as far as our own defenses are concerned. “We don’t ever want bombs falling in our country; never want our women violated by an aggressive nation. There’s only one way avoid that – to keep confrontations from American shores by keeping our national defense in a state of readiness.”
A lifelong resident and past-Mayor of Northfield Village, Milani and his wife Alice are parents of Pam Vercek, Monica Milani, son Victor Milani, past-Mayor of Northfield Village, and the late Kim Masseria of Walton Hills. They have been blessed to live to see their children’s children.
Editor’s Note – The official website of the 8th Air Force can be found at