80 Years Ago Today: The Balbo Air Squadron

In 1933 Chicago staged a World’s Fair in Burnham Park. July 15 marked one of the Fair’s highlights. Shortly after 6 p.m., the Balbo Air Squadron arrived in the waters of Lake Michigan.

Aviation was still exciting and dangerous in 1933—only six years had passed since Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight. Now General Italo Balbo, head of the Italian Air Force, had brought his fleet of 24 seaplanes on a goodwill trip from Rome to Chicago. Because of bad weather and an accident along the way, the journey had taken two weeks.

General Italo Balbo

General Italo Balbo

But now they were here, safely moored off Navy Pier. A few minutes after the landing, Balbo himself strolled onto the deck of his seaplane, coolly surveying the cheering thousands who had gathered on shore—he looked as if he were “going to afternoon tea,” one reporter wrote. The General lit a cigarette and smiled.

For the next three days, the city went Balbo-crazy. The General and his fliers were feted with a rally in Soldier Field, speeches, parades, banquets, and official proclamations. Seventh Street was renamed Balbo Drive. The hoopla was later spoofed by the Marx Brothers in their movie A Night at the Opera. Then, at the end of the three days, the intrepid crew flew back to Rome.

That’s the way it looked in 1933. But as Paul Harvey used to say, now for the rest of the story . . .

The Italian government that sponsored the Balbo Air Squadron was the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini. Balbo himself was a true believer, often referred to as the Duce’s “right-hand man.” The brutality of the Fascist regime was already well-known.

Still, many apologists accepted such “difficulties” as the price of progress. One bit of wisdom declared: “Mussolini may be bad, but he makes the trains run on time.”

So Chicago took Balbo to its heart. And on the first anniversary of the flight, the city accepted an ancient temple column as a gift from the Italian government. The Balbo Column was erected in the park east of Soldier Field.

The Balbo Column

The Balbo Column

General Italo Balbo was killed in 1940, his plane hit by friendly fire. There was suspicion that Mussolini ordered an assassination to remove a popular rival.

Eighty years later, Balbo Drive remains as a memorial to the air squadron’s exciting adventure. Because of the General’s politics, having his name on a Chicago street is controversial. From time to time there are calls to have it changed.

The Balbo Column also remains. Its florid inscription mentions Mussolini and “the Fascist Era.” Unfortunately, the words are carved into the stone base. If they’d used a copper plate like most other statues, it would have been stolen by now, and we wouldn’t have to be embarrassed by the sentiment.

The area where the column stands is now known as Gold Star Families Memorial Park, in honor of police officers who have been killed in the line of duty. Why not put a new plaque on the column and re-dedicate it to them? Sometimes historical revisionism does make sense.



3 Responses to “80 Years Ago Today: The Balbo Air Squadron”

  1. 1 Garry July 15, 2013 at 9:22 am

    How about changing the street name to Enrico Fermi Drive?
    He not only was Italian, but he moved to the US to escape Mussolini because his wife was Jewish.
    He came to Chicago & built the first nuclear reactor.
    A far more deserving name for the street!

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt July 15, 2013 at 9:55 am

      If it needs to be changed, it could simply be changed to Balboa Drive. That’s what most people think it is, anyway.

  2. 3 Alzo July 15, 2013 at 10:17 am

    Sure, Mussolini and his gang were bad, but so was that butcher Andrew Jackson- and we’re not about to strip his name off of stuff. Let’s not sugarcoat history and sweep it under the rug (or use mixed metaphors); let’s keep it around as an object lesson.

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