ORLEANS — The three men's names are set apart from the others on the town's World War II memorial. They appear under the words “DIED IN SERVICE.”
We can never know what lives S. Hilton Atwood, Albert P. Nassi, and Allen B. Walker would have lived, but by following the thread of one's man's story and that of his survivors, we may better understand his sacrifice.
Albert Nassi was born into a world of music. His parents came to this country from Albania and met and married in 1918 in Massachusetts. That was the same year father Thomas graduated from the New England Conservatory in Boston and performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a flutist. After he joined the Army and led a military band during the final year of World War I, he and his wife Olympia and two children (Albert, born in 1919, and Madeline, in 1920) sailed to Albania, where they organized the nation's music system and helped introduce Western music. While there, their second daughter, Carmen, was born; the king of Albania served as her godfather.
By 1931, the family had settled in Chatham, from which Mr. and Mrs. Nassi taught music in the public schools throughout the Lower Cape. That was the year George Goodspeed and friends organized a town band, recruiting Thomas Nassi to provide lessons for members. There is a picture of the group, then known as the American Legion Band, from the early '30s that shows a very young Albert Nassi front and center at the right of the drums. In an email, Dave Boyer, author of “We Can Hear You on the Hill: The History of the Chatham Band,” wrote that Albert “is holding a French horn, an instrument notorious for leaving sad and broken men in its wake.”
He'd had plenty of performance experience by then. Clippings preserved by family members show Albert and sister Madeline as they appeared at a piano and plectrum recital in Brockton when he was 7. By the time he was 11, the young violinist was on his way to Syracuse, N.Y., for a radio appearance by an orchestra of young musicians chosen out of 12,000 applicants. He also found time to play in the Chatham High School Band; his circa 1933 uniform is preserved by the Chatham Historical Society.
By 1935, the Nassis were living in Orleans. Albert left the Cape to attend Rollins College Conservatory of Music in Winter Park, Fla., where his advanced skills and experience led to concert notices like this one from 1941 in “Winter Park Topics,” a local society sheet that reported faculty members “will be assisted by Albert Nassi, an exceptionally talented violin student at Rollins.”
Albert's college years were shadowed by the war. In the Rollins Alumni Record published in September 1943, he's listed as a member of the Class of 1943. The top of that page carries the names of 10 recent graduates who had already died in service.
Having enlisted in the Army Air Corps reserve in 1942, he was called to active duty in 1943, trained with the Army Air Force in Texas and Kansas, and was deployed to England with his combat crew in 1944.
Once overseas, the radio operator and his crew joined the 838th Bomb Squadron of the 487th Bomb Group at Army Air Forces Station 37 outside Lavenham in Suffolk. Less than a month after their arrival, on July 17, 1944, the nine-member crew flew to Glen in France, where they bombed and destroyed a railroad bridge. On their return approach to the landing field at Lavenham, an engine on their B-24 quit, and they crashed at the end of a runway.
The plane “'fell in' on landing and really got smashed up,” an observer reported. “They have been penned up in the wreck all afternoon while efforts were made to get them out.” In his extensively detailed history of Sgt. Albert Nassi, 487th Bomb Group Association Secretary Paul Webber wrote that the airman “was killed outright” and that a crewmate died later that day. All the survivors had serious injuries.
A Western Union telegram addressed to Thomas Nassi delivers the grim news: “The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son sargent Albert Nassi was killed in action on seventeen July in England. Letter follows.”
The loss would echo over the decades. The immediate family had lost not only a son and brother but a musical comrade. “Each of us could play many instruments,” sister Carmen told the Cape Cod Times in 1995, recalling that the Nassis played private concerts around New England as a family quintet.
Carmen married another US Army Air Force airman, Richard Bartlett, and came to live in Cotuit. She passed away last December in Burlington, Mass.
“To the best of my knowledge my mother was the last living member of Albert's generation and all of our generation were born after WW2,” one of Carmen's sons, Jay, wrote in an email. “Greg's and my maternal grandparents were kind of legendary in their time as the founders of public-school music education on the Cape. It seemed to be the universal opinion when we were growing up that Albert was the one who had inherited most of the musical talent (although his sisters were fairly accomplished musicians as well and the whole family played in various bands and orchestras Thomas organized).”
The remains of Sgt. Albert Nassi were buried in England before being interred in Orleans Cemetery in 1948. Today, a well-oxidized sign above a patch of plantings at the intersection of Locust and Main streets announces the location of Albert P. Nassi Square.
Take a moment this Memorial Day to remember the promise and sacrifice of Albert Nassi and his comrades S. Hilton Atwood and Allen B. Walker. And consider this: in the early 1940s, the population of Orleans hovered around 1,500. That means one in every 500 people living here died in service during World War II.
The Chronicle thanks the family members who shared documents and stories, including nephews Greg and Jay Bartlett and Betty-Jo Watt, who married the son of Albert's sister Madeline. Paul Webber, secretary of the 487th Bomb Group Association, researched much of this material and shared it generously. Thanks also to David Boyer, whose book “We Can Hear You on the Hill: The History of the Chatham Band” is available at Where the Sidewalk Ends bookstore in Chatham, and to Pamela Feltus, executive director of the Orleans Historical Society.