Charles M. Baffo: WWII veteran honored locally and abroad


In 1944, 1st Lt. Charles Matthew Baffo’s bomber plane was shot down in France by German fire, leading him to make a quick, heroic decision that earned him the Croix de Chevalier dans l’Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur on the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, also known as D-Day.
“The plane had several bombs on it and you can’t crash-land with the bombs on it or you’re all going to die, so you have to release the bombs before you crash-land,” said his daughter Ruthann Walsh.
Her father knew he was over a very densely populated area of France, said Ms. Walsh, and knew he would kill hundreds of French civilians if he released the bombs.
“He remembered an area in Brussels that had been cleared out and he knew that was where he needed to land the plane,” she said. “He took a chance, landed his plane with the bombs on it and told the crew to run."
Mr. Baffo was born and raised in New York City and graduated from Amityville High School in June 1941. Six months later, Pearl Harbor was attacked, on Dec. 7.

Mr. Baffo had football scholarships to Hofstra University and Cornell University, but instead of going to college, he signed up for the Air Force in February 1942.
In 1944, he was assigned to the 490th Bombardment Group and learned to fly both the B-24 and B-17 Flying Fortress with the 8th Air Force.
Between May and November of 1944, he flew 35 missions over Germany, earning him the Distinguished Flying Cross, which is awarded to armed forces members who demonstrate “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

Légion d’Honneur


Mr. Baffo died on Oct. 17, 2014, at the age of 92. Two months later, the French government awarded him the Légion d’Honneur, which is bestowed on “eligible U.S. veterans of WWII who contributed significantly to the liberation of France from 1944 to 1945.”
“I’m told it’s extremely unusual for anyone who is not alive to receive it — it’s very unusual to give it to someone posthumously,” said state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143), whose husband, Jean-Pierre Lavielle, applied for the Légion d’Honneur on Mr. Baffo’s behalf last summer.
“The French government does not give it to everybody,” she said. “In fact, of all the people my husband was in touch with, Mr. Baffo was the only one to receive it so far.”

Route 106


A Wilton resident of more than 40 years, Mr. Baffo left a lasting impact on not only the French but those closer to home as well.
In January, Ms. Lavielle and state Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125) introduced legislation that would name the Wilton portion of Route 106, a state road, for Mr. Baffo. The proposal will be brought in front of the Transportation Committee on Friday, Feb. 6.
Mr. O’Dea said the proposal is a “very small but important gesture” that will “show the high esteem that this community and this state holds for his selfless service, going above and beyond the call of duty in our nation’s hour of need.”
“Charles Baffo exemplified the virtues of the members of the Greatest Generation, who gave so much of themselves to our country and to the world,” said Ms. Lavielle.
“That his service during World War II has been recognized not only at home but also abroad testifies to its exceptional merit and distinction.”
Ms. Lavielle said she was impressed by Mr. Baffo’s “true discretion and modesty.”
“Mr. Baffo did all these things but was so discreet and so modest. He considered it his duty and responsibility and he never talked about it — it was just something he felt he should do and he did it,” she said. “He didn’t make a big deal out of it afterwards; he didn’t try to take credit — that alone made a huge impression on me.”

Recognition


Mr. Baffo was a “child of the Great Depression,” said Ms. Walsh, whose parents were immigrants from Italy.
After Mr. Lavielle applied for the Légion d’Honneur on his behalf, Ms. Walsh said, her father told her the only reason he wanted to win was to feel like “a true American.”
“Growing up, he always felt labeled as ‘an Italian immigrant,’ and he said he never felt like he was accepted as a true American,” said Ms. Walsh. “He said, ‘If I got this award, it would really make me feel like I’ve been recognized for fighting for my country and I will feel like a true American.’”
When Ms. Lavielle told her about the proposal to name Route 106 in her father’s honor, Ms. Walsh said, she started crying.
“Gail called me in the middle of January and she said, ‘I’ve waited this long to tell you because I knew it was going to be hard for you to hear because it’s so bittersweet,’” said Ms. Walsh. “I told her that my father wouldn’t have believed it — he never felt worthy of that kind of thing because he always felt like he had this label.”

Post-war


In 1945, Mr. Baffo returned from the war and married his high school sweetheart, Joanne Goodwin. He began attending Yale University in February 1946 and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture, and went on to work for the architecture firm of Eliot Noyes, one of a group of architects known as the Harvard Five.
In addition to designing the Westinghouse Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, Mr. Baffo worked for Eliot Noyes’ Mobil Oil account.
“Mobil Oil came to him and said, ‘We have an issue with our gas stations — our consumers are complaining that when it rains and they’re pumping gas, they’re getting wet ,and at night, it’s really dark,’” said Ms. Walsh.
“You know now when you go to any gas station and there’s a canopy that protects you from the elements and it has wonderful lighting — my father designed that. He holds the patent to it.”
The CEO of Mobil Oil even wrote Mr. Baffo a letter, thanking him for “his outstanding innovative designs that expanded the Mobil business globally.”
Ms. Walsh said her father had “a brilliant, inquisitive mind,” was “very resilient” and had “an extraordinary appreciation for the good things in life.”
“During the war, he was exposed to beautiful architecture and really wonderful food,” said Ms. Walsh, “and once he saw that, I think he set in his mind that he wanted that in his life.”
In an interview for the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress, that is just what Mr. Baffo said. Recalling his flight on D-Day, he said, “From the air in those days, at about 12,000 feet these large cathedrals just loomed. It’s amazing how they stuck up into the sky. I can recall the beautiful cathedral in Brussels with a black-and-white checkered roof … these cathedrals were just outstanding. That’s one of the things that got me interested in architecture.”
As an architect, Ms. Walsh said, her father’s dream was to design and build his own home, which he did in Wilton.
“He didn’t make a lot of money, so we did a lot of the labor of building the house — it was quite a journey,” said Ms. Walsh.
Mr. Baffo, his wife, Joanne, and daughters lived in Norwalk while the house was under construction, and on weekends, Ms. Walsh said, he would “drag us up to the site and we would be pounding nails and cleaning up the site and helping him build it.”
In 1968, said Ms. Walsh, her family moved into her father’s “dream home” on Moriarity Drive.
“My father was amazing. He overcame so many obstacles in his childhood and persevered and got to a point in his life where, I think, he accomplished everything he set out for,” said Ms. Walsh. “He was an amazing man.”

Route 106 process


During Friday’s hearing, Ms. Lavielle said, people will testify or submit written testimony to the Transportation Committee and a vote will be taken by the end of March. Proposals will then go before either the House or Senate before going through the other chamber.
All road-naming proposals will go into one bill and a vote will take place before the end of the legislative session on June 3.
“The bill then has to go to the governor for signature,” said Ms. Lavielle, “and then you wait for the Department of Transportation to manufacture the sign, which they generally finish by late summer.”