World War II oral history interview
Date: 18 August 2004
Veteran: Army PFC Alfred J. Cristina
U.S. Army Field Artillery Corps November 5, 1942 – December 23, 1945
Interviewer: Gregory R. Spiers
Summarizer: Sherwood T. Goodenough
Alfred J. Cristina was born on Manhattan’s East Side in 1921 and spent his formative years living in a “cold water flat” in the hurly burly cosmopolitan cauldron of Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the “Roaring ‘20s” and Great Depression. Life was hard. Cristina recalled taking wood from a wagon to bring home to burn in the apartment coal stove to provide heat in the winter. Against this backdrop he matured, chose a civilian career and ultimately volunteered to defend America and the world against Hitler’s war machine.
Prior to joining the war effort in early 1942, Cristina was a waiter at the famed Plaza Hotel in New York City. Far more than a hotel at the time, the Plaza provided a rare window into the lives of the privileged, far beyond the struggles most Americans endured during the depression years preceding World War II. At the center of the most fabulous city in the world, it was arguably the most impressive hotel in the world, where Cristina would meet the likes of John Barrymore, and witness intimate moments unseen by all but the rich and famous of the era.
Cristina began his career working at a local restaurant like many of his friends and relatives, but in his late teens went to see the head waiter at The Plaza, Mr. Richard Paul Boiardi. Initially rebuffed, he returned the very next day and, Boiardi, impressed by the young man’s persistence and determination, hired him as a busboy. Cristina eventually worked his way up to becoming a waiter.
Like most Americans, Cristina was aware of the growing conflagration in Europe. Relatives in Italy had witnessed firsthand Benito Mussolini’s Navy saluting a visiting Adolf Hitler, as they themselves fled for the United States from Mussolini’s oppression. Cristina recalled that he was 20 years old when the Imperial Japanese Navy conducted its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii which killed more than 2,400 persons, destroyed 188 aircraft and sunk four battleships. Soon after what President Franklin D. Roosevelt would refer to as a “date which will live in infamy,” Cristina enlisted in the United States Army. Eventually he would be shipped overseas to fight as an artilleryman with Battery A, 310th Field Artillery, with the military occupational specialty of “cannoneer.”
From The Plaza to basic training and eventually the front lines, Cristina’s world transitioned from a lavish spectacle of luxury to scenes of horror he could never have imagined. Oddly, however, in the middle of it all, so far from New York City, he would encounter a small taste of home. Mr. Boiardi, his former boss at the Plaza, had a brother named Ettore, a chef who created a line of Italian-American canned food called “Chef Boyardee” (so spelled to help Americans pronounce Boiardi’s name correctly) that would become a favorite of soldiers in wartime and an iconic household product in postwar America.
After basic and advanced training as an artilleryman, Cristina was assigned to Battery A of the 310th Field Artillery Battalion, which was attached to the 79th Infantry Division. The 79th was nicknamed the “Cross of Lorraine” Division, following extensive combat in the province of Lorraine, France, during World War I and bore the cross as its divisional insignia. Deactivated after the war, the division was reactivated at Camp Pickett, Virginia in June 1942.
Cristina shipped out with his division on April 7, 1944, arriving in England on April 19. The 79th trained intensively through June 12, when it landed on Utah Beach in Normandy, less than a week after D-Day. Pushing inland, Cristina’s unit moved on and then captured Cherbourg on June 25. The 79th advanced across France and into Belgium, fighting off heavy German counterattacks through September and October, when it was relieved from the line for rest and training. Cristina recalled seeing mounds of dead Germans, as well as dead cows, strewn willy-nilly along the roadside and fields beyond as his division advanced. It reminded him of a slaughterhouse.
After a period of rest and retraining, during which replacements were integrated into the division’s units, the 79th reentered combat in November, 1944, crossing the Vezouse and Moder Rivers and coming up against the Siegfried Line in late December. Beating off German attacks in the depths of winter, the division resumed the offensive in March, and Cristina recalled that his unit moved fast after crossing the Rhine River and clearing and securing the Ruhr Pocket, which was accomplished by April 13. With the end of the war, the division was assigned to occupation duty in Dortmund, Sudetenland and Bavaria, until returning to the United States in December, 1945, when it was again inactivated.
Private First Class Alfred Cristina, who recalled that the war changed his view of life forever, returned to Fort Dix on December 19, 1945 and was separated from the service there on December 23. He was awarded the American Service Medal, European-African-Middle-Eastern Service Medal, the Good Conduct Medal and the World War II Victory Medal for his service. He returned to his career as a waiter at the Plaza.