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All’s Fair in Love and War

Italian American Mary Vacca and Italian POW Mike Prontera fell in love during World War Two.

The greatest love stories all feature a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, overcome by a devoted couple – think Romeo and Juliet, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. This first in our series of Rainier Valley Love Stories has all the elements of a classic tale: a handsome soldier, a pretty girl, a chain link fence furtively climbed in the dead of night, a journey across the Atlantic to bring the beloved home. This tale, worthy of Hollywood, is the love story of Mike and Mary Prontera. Mary died in 2002, but Mike still operates his barber shop on McClellan Street, as he has for 56 years.

The story begins during World War Two when the United States was fighting the original Axis powers, Germany, Italy, and Japan. After Italy surrendered, the Americans began to send Italian prisoners of war back to the States. The P.O.W. camp was located down by Boeing Field, at the southern end of the Rainier Valley. The area was mostly farmland, and some of the nearby farms were owned by Italian Americans. Rose Isernio Vacca remembers: “That was not far from my mom’s and dad’s home, it was really almost across the street, where there used to be a big cow pasture, they built barracks there in order to house the prisoners.”

Mike Prontera was one of those Italian prisoners, captured in North Africa. According to Rose, who would become his sister-in-law, “when [Mike] came here, as a prisoner of war, he was so peaked and so skinny. During the war there [in Italy] they had hardly anything to eat. He says, it got so that they almost had to eat snakes, he said, some of them did kill snakes and eat snakes.” The Italian P.O.W.s spent their days working in the shipyards, where wartime workers were in short supply. In the evenings they entertained their neighbors. Says Rose: “They used to have dances. They used to have music. They used to have everything. So all the girls used to flock there, on Saturdays and Sundays, to the prison.” With so many men away to war, the chance to meet some eligible bachelors must have been quite a draw. The dances became quite the rage among Italian Americans all up and down the Rainier Valley, and all over Seattle.

Mary Vacca, whose father owned the farm behind Sicks Seattle Stadium on McClellan Street, met Mike at one of these dances. They fell in love, and Mike began to sneak out of the prison camp at night to go have dinner with Mary’s family. Apparently he wasn’t the only one – some men swam or rowed across the Duwamish River to visit girls in South Park. Rose’s parents hosted a huge gathering every Sunday. Ralph Vacca, Mary’s nephew, was a child at the time, but he remembers the scene vividly: the prisoners “couldn’t even speak English, but I remember they would go over to my grandparent’s farm, and my mother had nine brothers and sisters in her family. So it was this big “My Big Greek Wedding” kind of a thing. Every Sunday everyone went over to the farm. They would play bocce ball and my God, at dinnertime, the table was from here to there. There might be twenty, thirty people. And they would come over and they’d spend a day with Italian families and they would talk Italian and have spaghetti and whatever else was on the table.”

Ralph goes on: “Well, the war ended and my to-be uncle Mike went back to Italy. [Laughs] My aunt chased him—went over to Italy and married him, brought him back.” Mike was from the town of Lecce, in the bootheel of Italy. Rose recalls, “[Mary] and another gal, she was a blond that fell in love with [a] prisoner, too. So the two of them went to Italy, if you can imagine. When they got to Italy, Italy was a war-torn thing.” The trains were broken down, buildings and bridges destroyed by the war. Mary and her friend finally arrived in Lecce and found Mike. Rose recalls, “So she came back with him. They got married there, and then they came here. They lived with her folks for a while, and then [her] dad built them a house there on 30th. And that was the story.”

Ralph: He was a barber by trade, and I remember as a kid, we’d sit in the big pantry and he’d cut all of our hair. Then he got that place [Mike’s Barber Shop on McClelland]. Been there ever since.

by Mikala Woodward

Excerpted from Rainier Valley Food Stories Cookbook