The Balbo Column

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 twenty-four 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.

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. He lit a cigarette and smiled.

General Italo Balbo

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. Yet 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.”

Mussolini also knew something about public relations. On the first anniversary of the flight, he sent Chicago an ancient temple column as a gift—though he sent it by ship, and not by plane. Balbo himself spoke from Rome via radio-phone at the dedication ceremony. “Let this column stand as a symbol of increasing friendship between the people of Italy and the people of the United States,” the General said. The Balbo Column, as it became known, was erected in the park east of Soldier Field.

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.

Following fascist Italy’s defeat in World War II, the new government’s ambassador to the United States suggested that marks of respect to the Mussolini regime be removed. Shortly afterward, a Chicago alderman proposed renaming Balbo Drive, though nothing was said about the Balbo Column. In any case, both the street name and the column remained.

The Balbo Column

Time appeared to heal the wounds of war. In 1973 the Museum of Science and Industry celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the Balbo Air Squadron with a special exhibit. Each year there were fewer and fewer irate letters demanding that the street name be changed or the monument be removed. Most Chicagoans figured that the street was named Balboa, after the Spanish explorer who sighted the Pacific Ocean.

There was no mistaking what the Balbo Column was about. Carved into its base was a florid inscription in Italian declaring that “Fascist Italy Under the Auspices of Benito Mussolini” was presenting this monument to the City of Chicago in honor of the Balbo Squadron. Instead of 1933, the date of the historic flight is given as “The Eleventh Year of the Fascist Era.”

In 2017 the protests over Confederate statues and other dated artifacts have caused Chicagoans to revisit the Balbo question. Once again, there are calls to change the name of Balbo Drive. This time it may happen.

What to do with the Balbo Column is not so easily resolved—after all, its pedigree predates the “Fascist Era” by two millennia. The area where it 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?

But please use an aluminum plaque. A copper one might be stolen.



8 Responses to “The Balbo Column”

  1. 1 Garry September 21, 2017 at 3:15 am

    As far as the street name goes, rename the street after Enrico Fermi, who left Fascist Italy & came here, built the first nuclear reactor in Hyde Park & then helped with the Manhattan project.

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt September 21, 2017 at 8:36 am

      I believe you made this suggestion four years ago, when I ran a similar post on the 80th anniversary of the flight. And since Fermi’s wife was Jewish, putting his name on the street would be a great way to stick it to any leftover fascists.

      • 3 Garry September 21, 2017 at 11:50 am

        I’ve made that suggestion everywhere, but our 50 worthless, useless & overpaid aldermen haven’t done a damned thing about it.
        I guess I need to get a bunch of intaglio portraits of Ben Franklin & give them out, under the table of course!

      • 4 J.R. Schmidt September 21, 2017 at 12:23 pm

        Last month, the Tribune reported that the city council will be considering the street name issue in September. Various names have been floated, but I think your “Fermi” has a good chance because it’s politically astute—replacing a nasty Italian with an admirable Italian. Alderman Burke has actually read this blog on occasion, so maybe he’ll take up the Fermi fight.

  2. 5 Kirk Mellish September 21, 2017 at 5:43 am

    Great column, one of your best. History I didn’t know. I am OK if they leave the street name or change it. But if changed I like Garry’s idea. I’ll look to visit the ancient column on my next visit home from Atlanta.

  3. 6 Patricia Schmit September 21, 2017 at 8:43 pm

    All these years and I thought it was Balboa! Amazing story – thanks. And a vote for Garry!!!!

  4. 7 Garry September 21, 2017 at 11:29 pm

    Burke actually said he wanted the street renamed after Martin Kennelly, who was mayor before the first Daley.
    Not the astute Burke so many want to believe exists!

    • 8 J.R. Schmidt September 22, 2017 at 8:31 am

      There’s also talk of Barack Obama, William Wrigley, Victor Lawson, Ida B. Wells, Montgomery Ward, Mike Royko, and others. But if we’re going with mayors, I’d pick William Hale Thompson. Big Bill combined public works with political corruption—and isn’t that The Chicago Way?

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