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.
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 proclamations. Seventh Street was renamed Balbo Drive. The hoopla was so outrageous the Marx Brothers spoofed it 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.
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.
Today in Chicago, Balbo Drive remains. From time to time, there’s talk that the name should be changed. The simplest solution would be to make it “Balboa Drive,” after the old Spanish explorer. That’s what most Chicagoans call it anyway.
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 monuments, 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.