Enemy machine gun fire practically blew off his left arm and probably should have killed Charles A. “Charlie” Negri.
As an Army private serving in Italy in World War II, Negri was on night patrol in Anzio when he was wounded in March 1944. He had destroyed a machine gun position with a bazooka rocket before enemy fire shredded his arm below the elbow. His memory of what happened next is hazy: he remembers blood pouring from his wound, being in a ditch with water and then somehow making his way back with other men to U.S. lines.
“All I know is I woke up sometime later in a hospital,” he said. “How many days? I have no idea. To this day, every once in a while I’ll think about it, and I still don’t understand why I did not die.”
He also knows this: He is grateful to still be here more than 75 years later.
“I truly believe I am probably the most fortunate man you will ever meet,” he said. “I mean that sincerely. I have a wonderful family. I had a good career. We have enough money to afford what we like to do. I have everything Bill Gates has, except he has more of it.”
All of that, and he can sing, too — though he didn’t figure that out until he was 73.
He always loved music, having grown up in a household where his mother sang opera arias just for fun. He sang, too, but not so anyone could hear him. He simply didn’t have the confidence — or the talent, he thought — to sing in public.
“One day in the car,” he recalled, “I was singing along to some music, and I said, ‘Oh, that’s not too bad!’”
So, he joined his church choir. After he and his wife, Martha, moved from Northern Virginia to Chesterfield County 15 years ago to be closer to their grandchildren, they attended a concert of the Virginians Barbershop Chorus and was so “enthralled,” as he put it, that he told Martha, “Gee, I’d love to sing barbershop.”
“Why don’t you look into it?”
So, he did. He auditioned for the Virginians and, at age 84, he joined the group and for the past dozen years has been a regular at weekly rehearsals and concerts.
“I enjoy it immensely, and the comradeship that we have is the jewel in the crown,” he said. “Just been a huge part of my life. This group has been an absolute lifesaver for me. As I’ve gotten older, I’m unable to do so many things I used to do, but I can still sing.
“It keeps me involved. There are many, many nights I think, ‘Oh, I’m too tired to go,’ but we get here and we start singing and by the time I get home I’m so charged up, I can’t relax and go to bed.”
Negri jokes that he’s the “shortest and oldest member of the chorus” — he’s 5-foot-1½, down from 5-foot-4½ at “my peak height,” he notes, and he just turned 95 — but he also must be one of the most-liked. For his 95th birthday in October, the chorus presented him with a cake at rehearsal, and a chorus member who also is a Henrico County firefighter showed up in full uniform just in case the candle lighting got out of hand.
“Charlie’s sparkling personality, his wit, his love of singing and his honorable military service to our country has been an inspiration to all of the Virginians since he joined us,” said Hardman Jones, his friend and fellow barbershopper.
“In preparing for a Christmas show several years ago, the chorus was learning the song ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas.’ Charlie told his story of being in a foxhole in Italy in 1942 listening to Bing Crosby sing the song over the radio and how that memory had stayed with him over the years. He introduced the song in our Christmas show, and it was an immediate hit with the audience and with us. He is certainly an important and treasured member of the Virginians family.”
Negri is a first-generation American — his mother immigrated from Switzerland, his father from Italy — and he was born and raised in Washington, six blocks from the White House, where he used to go with his siblings on the Monday after Easter for the annual Easter Egg Roll.
He graduated from high school and went to work briefly for the federal General Accounting Office as a “junior assistant messenger.”
“You can’t get any lower than that,” Negri said with a laugh.
Most of his neighborhood buddies were already in service, so he enlisted in the Army. He was inducted on March 31, 1943, at what was then Camp Lee, south of Richmond, before being shipped out for training and eventually to Europe. He arrived on the beach at Anzio on Jan. 22, 1944, as part of the Allied amphibious landing known as Operation Shingle.
“It was very early in the morning,” he said. “Oooh, that water was cold. On the beach, there was no opposition whatsoever. But that sense of euphoria didn’t last very long.”
A week later, after an attack against a fortified enemy position, only three members of Negri’s dozen-member squad survived. Negri was wounded weeks later in the operation that ultimately ended with the capture of Rome. He was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
Negri required numerous surgeries to save his arm and have it restored to almost normal use, though, he says, he cannot straighten the badly scarred arm and has always been limited in how much he can lift.
“I’ve never let it keep me from doing almost anything I wanted to do,” he said. “I’ve painted … I’ve done carpentry. I’ve had friends I’ve known for years who don’t know there’s anything wrong with me.”
One of the more fortuitous aspects of his many hospitalizations is that his brother’s fiancée came to visit him in August 1946 and she brought along her new roommate, a young woman named Martha who had grown up a farm in Iowa and had moved to Washington during the war to work for the FBI.
“The next weekend, we went out together,” Martha recalled, “and we stuck ever since.”
In the spring, Charlie and Martha will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary.
Charlie spent most of his working years with the federal government, retiring from the Department of Labor in 1980 after a heart attack. He later went to work at the exclusive Metropolitan Club in Washington, where as head front desk clerk — a perfect job for the outgoing Negri — he met movers and shakers from around the world.
Unless Negri told them — which he almost certainly never did — those movers and shakers had no idea they were in the presence of a wounded war hero.
“I don’t view it as a patriotic thing that I did,” Negri said when asked how he views his military service. “We were at war, your service was needed, so you went. That’s it. I don’t romanticize it. I don’t feel I did anything terribly heroic.”
Negri couldn’t resist going for a laugh.
“At least it gave me a job after I graduated high school,” he said. “It wasn’t very well-paid, but I got to travel a lot, got my meals free and clothing provided.”