A big band coastie and his Italian prisoners go to town in WWII

This is a story of a young seaman during WWII who befriended POWs over Betty Gable movies, played trumpet in the United States Coast Guard orchestra band in Charleston, South Carolina, and spent his later years performing with the likes of Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey. It’s not a story well-known, but a story worth knowing.

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Written by Petty Officer 1st Class William Bleyer

Tony Agresta, second from right, plays the trumpet with a band. Photo courtesy of the Agresta family.
Tony Agresta, second from right, plays the trumpet with a band. Photo courtesy of the Agresta family.

During World War II, the United States armed forces had a large presence in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Coast Guard was no exception. Cutters fighting in the Battle of the Atlantic against Adolf Hitler’s submarines were serviced at the Navy base on the Cooper River. At the mouth of Charleston Harbor, Coast Guard personnel stood watch in Fort Moultrie’s harbor defense command post, coordinating shipping and standing ready to respond to an attack in conjunction with the Army’s coast artillery corps.

Downtown, the Coast Guard had recently taken ownership of the U.S. Lighthouse Service base on Tradd Street, and buoy and construction tenders departed daily to service aids to navigation. Coast Guard small boats patrolled the harbor and offshore where the German submarines lurked and sank ships.  Away from the city, Coast Guardsmen used horses and dogs to patrol miles of isolated beaches.

Coast Guard Seaman Tony Agresta. Photo courtesy of the Agresta family.
Coast Guard Seaman Tony Agresta. Photo courtesy of the Agresta family.

A crew member on the Coast Guard boats patrolling the harbor was a young, aspiring big band musician named Tony Agresta. Agresta was reflective of the diverse array of people which made up the U.S. military during WWII. The son of an Italian immigrant from Salerno, he had grown up in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and quickly developed a reputation as an outstanding trombone player. He had six brothers, one of whom also served in the military during the war. Agresta chose to join the Coast Guard because it had a good reputation and he was impressed by the Coast Guard Band.

In addition to a myriad of Army, Air Corps, Navy and Coast Guard facilities, the Charleston area was also the site of several prisoner of war camps. One of them was located in West Ashley, which is an area on the far side of the Ashley River from the Charleston peninsula. Today, West Ashley sprawls out from Highway 17 in a grid of convenience stores, apartment complexes, and sleepy green neighborhoods. During the 1940s, however, it was significantly less developed and consisted largely of farm fields, forest, swamps, mosquitoes and the occasional alligator.

Before being assigned to Charleston, Tony had attended basic training at the Coast Guard base in Curtis Bay, Maryland, near Baltimore.

The training he received made quite an impression and decades later Agresta recalled, “My company commander was this salty old chief petty officer, a boatswain’s mate, and he was a real solid guy – just all business.”

Seaman Tony Agresta poses for a photo while stationed in Charleston, N.C. Photo courtesy of the Agresta family.
Seaman Tony Agresta poses for a photo while stationed in Charleston, N.C. Photo courtesy of the Agresta family.

Agresta said he liked Baltimore, and after graduating in 1942 quickly rose to the rank of seaman first class, the equivalent of today’s seaman.

The first prisoners at the West Ashley POW camp were Italians who had been captured during the fighting in North Africa. Later, German prisoners arrived. The camp was a modest facility with a few guard towers and wooden administration buildings. The prisoners lived in tents.  Some of them worked on local farms for minimal pay or picked up trash on roadsides.

While hot and buggy in the summer, the camp’s location was quite scenic. Prisoners could look across the Ashley River at the Military College of Charleston, more commonly known as the Citadel, where some of the officers they had fought against had been trained. Downtown Charleston was clearly visible further to the south.

Agresta very much liked being stationed in Charleston. The base on Tradd Street, located on the Ashley River amidst downtown’s blend of picturesque historical buildings and greenery, had long been considered a prime location to be stationed, and Agresta said he considered it a wonderful spot. He enjoyed patrolling the harbor, inspecting incoming ships and the local music scene. On the side, he acted as a base barber.

One morning he heard servicemen who could speak Italian were being solicited for escorting prisoners at the West Ashley POW camp.  Tony had learned some Italian from his father as a kid so he volunteered.

He drew a pistol from the armory, a big, heavy .45 caliber M1911A1.

Agresta said he really hoped  he wouldn’t have to use it.

While boot camp at Curtis Bay had included some weapons training, he was still much more comfortable holding a brass instrument than a firearm.

Tony Agresta in a Coast Guard band in Charleston, N.C., marches during Victory in Europe (VE) Day, May 8, 1945. Photo courtesy of the Agresta family.
Tony Agresta in a Coast Guard band in Charleston, N.C., marches during Victory in Europe (VE) Day, May 8, 1945. Photo courtesy of the Agresta family.

Two years later while standing midnight guard duty on a recently-liberated Pacific Island, he would fire an identical .45 at a sound he heard in the brush.

“Darn thing was like a cannon, nearly knocked me over,” he said.

Fortunately for him and the drunken Navy sailor crawling around in the underbrush, he missed.

Agresta drove a jeep up to the gate of the prison camp and met the group of prisoners he was to escort.

To Agresta’s surprise, the Italian prisoner who spoke the most English enthusiastically grinned and demanded, “We want to see Betty Gable,” referring to the iconic 40s actress who’s famous pin-up poster had been taken around the world by American servicemen.

Agresta was a bit taken aback but he shrugged and gestured at his jeep saying, “Get in.”

Tony Agresta, center, poses with fellow Coast Guard service members. Photo courtesy of the Agresta family.
Tony Agresta, center, poses with fellow Coast Guard service members and band members, Mike Gennero and Tony Gennero. Photo courtesy of the Agresta family.

The Italians piled into Agresta’s Jeep and he drove back toward downtown Charleston across the route 17 bridge over the Ashley River. The Coast Guardsman chatted with them and they quickly relaxed. His “prisoners” were clearly delighted to be out of the camp and just as clearly had no desire whatsoever to escape. Like many of their countrymen and even some Germans, they preferred an easy imprisonment in America to fighting what was becoming more and more evident a losing war.

Agresta and his charges made quite an impression in downtown Charleston, drawing odd looks from other servicemen and girls promenading in sundresses. As per their request, he took them to a Betty Gable movie at one of the theaters on King Street. Feeling exuberant afterwards, he took them to one of his favorite restaurants and bought them dinner. When they finally got back to the base he shook their hands and wished them well.

Unfortunately for Agresta, his time in Charleston was nearly at an end.

In 1944 he received orders transferring him to the Pacific. After taking a train to San Francisco, he shipped to Hawaii where he found himself filling a seat in an all-black Army band when one of their tromboners broke his hand. He played in a USO show with Bob Hope, who teased him about the Italian version of a turkey being, “a meatball with a feather stuck in it.”

This news clipping shows the United States Coast Guard orchestra of the Charleston base. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
This news clipping shows the United States Coast Guard orchestra of the Charleston base. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

From Hawaii Agresta said he sailed to Australia on some rust bucket, certainly not a Coast Guard ship – so stinky he hoped it would sink.

When he told his captain he thought he saw a Japanese submarine following them, the captain replied, “No submarine would waste a torpedo on a rust pot like us.”

The end of the war found him on an island which had been recently recaptured from the Japanese.  It was not a moment too soon for Agresta; the previous day he had been informed that he was being reassigned as a landing craft crewman.

He was relieved, “I don’t know how it is today, but every old Marine I meet says something good about the Coast Guard, you can thank the guys who drove those landing craft for that.”

The West Ashley POW camp remained open until after the war.  Agresta’s experience with his Italian prisoners was surprisingly typical. With the exception of a mass breakout in Arizona and a mass shooting of prisoners by a drunken Army sergeant, relations during World War II between European Axis prisoners, the American military, and local communities were largely amicable in the United States and Canada. On one occasion a young petty officer pursing three escaped prisoners knocked on the door of an isolated Oklahoma farmhouse and excitedly informed the lady who lived there alone, “Ma’am, there’s three escaped Germans around here somewhere!” only to have her shrug and ask, “Are they cute?”

Tony Agresta continued to perform with big bands and celebrities after his time serving in the U.S. Coast Guard. Photo courtesy of the Agresta family.
Tony Agresta continued to perform with big bands and celebrities after his time serving in the U.S. Coast Guard. Photo courtesy of the Agresta family.

After the war Agresta pursued his career as a professional musician.  He played in several famous big bands including the New York Jet Band and with band leaders like Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey (“occasionally he’d let me get a solo”), and Sammy Kaye. In a tribute to his wartime service, his nickname was “The Coast Guard Cutter.” His favorite gig of all time was on the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth II, where he stated that a valuable lesson learned in the Coast Guard, “Be friends with the cooks,” served him well. He would later play for the ship’s namesake, Queen Elizabeth, when he flew to England for her 80th birthday celebration.

The land where the West Ashley POW camp once stood is now occupied by an apartment complex and neighborhoods. The last remnant, a brick chimney which was built by prisoners and was engraved with several of their names, was torn down in 2015.  The only other remnants are a few concrete foundations and rusting iron pipes.  Former prisoners generally remember their time fondly; many have returned to visit.

Tony Agresta continued to remember his time in the Coast Guard fondly. In this photo, he posed with a painting he completed of Coast Guard Cutter Rambler.
Tony Agresta continued to remember his time in the Coast Guard fondly. In this photo, he posed with a painting he completed of Coast Guard Cutter Rambler.

Agresta liked the West Ashley area so much that he settled there after retiring from the big band scene, buying his house on land where the POW camp once stood.  He never forgot the time he spent stationed in Charleston and enjoyed a second career as a barber at the Coast Guard base, using the same straight razor he had in World War II until the base commander ordered to him stop. He finally retired from barbering at age 87.

Agresta died in 2015 at age 91. While he couldn’t play music towards the end, he remained upbeat and fondly remembered his time in the service.

“I’ve had a great life and I had a phenomenal time in the Coast Guard.”

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