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News | Oct. 28, 2013

An Unforgettable Gesture

By DIA Public Affairs

With the help of DIA‘s Director of Security (SEC) Steve Norton, Italian aviation pioneer Francesco de Pinedo still impacts relations between the U.S. and Italy, even 80 years after his death.

De Pinedo touched down his S-55 seaplane in New Orleans, La., March 20, 1927 —  the first arrival of a foreign aircraft on American soil. Serving in the Royal Italian Air Force under leader Benito Mussolini, de Pinedo was tasked with demonstrating Italian capability to the world. And he did just that.

In 1925, de Pinedo and his crew shattered distance records with a 34,000-mile trip from Italy to Japan and Australia. In February 1927, de Pinedo completed an unprecedented transatlantic flight to Brazil followed by the first aerial crossing of the treacherous Brazilian jungles. In response to Mussolini’s challenge to promote a sense of national pride among Italian emigrants, especially those in North America, de Pinedo set off from South America to make history again — this time by being the first foreign aircraft to land in the U.S.  Upon touchdown, de Pinedo was swarmed by admirers and reporters. After a few days of receptions in New Orleans, de Pinedo embarked on a transnational trip visiting major cities along the way, including New York, N.Y., and Washington, D.C.

(U) On Sept. 3, 1933, de Pinedo died doing what he loved. With an international flight plan from New York City to Baghdad, Iraq, his aircraft crashed and exploded just after takeoff.

(U) Fast forward to 2013 when Norton and his wife, Nancy, were sifting through items in the estate of James McCrae, a retired Army veteran who served as Norton’s commanding officer upon his return from Vietnam. The couple happened to stumble upon some papers belonging to an Italian by the name of de Pinedo and quickly determined they had historic value. McCrae’s mother, Mildred, was the daughter of MG James McCrae, who commanded the 78th Division in World War I. The papers were acquired through Mildred’s friendship with de Pinedo which began while she and her husband COL Mixson were stationed in The Philippines in the 1920s.

(U) The Nortons contacted the Italian embassy in Washington, D.C., with their wish to return the papers of historical importance to the country. The embassy appreciated their kind gesture so much that the Italians insisted on having a ceremony on the 80th anniversary of de Pinedo’s death. The Nortons passed the papers to Ambassador Claudio Bisognero during the ceremony Sept. 3, 2013, who would then pass them to Gen. Defense Attaché Giovanni Fantuzzi.

(U) In a letter addressed to the Nortons, Italian Air Force Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Pasquale Preziosa called their act “an unforgettable gesture of real friendship and recognition.” The papers will be displayed in a museum outside of Rome.