Slightly more than one in every three men captured on Bataan returned home. But few did so to recognition of their peculiar ordeal. In the flush of V-J Day, Americans yearned for their antebellum status quo. In just such a spirit Cardinals owner Charley Bidwill asked Tonelli, home not even a month, to rejoin the team. It was a publicity stunt, but one in which all parties eagerly conspired. War hero Tonelli, The Chicago Sun declared, had been "nursed back to full strength and health." Tonelli played along. "My weight is back up to 183 pounds," he told the papers, though he weighed more like 140. He still had malaria. Since that day his wife, Mary, and his parents had met him at Chicago's Union Station, doctors had twice cut him open to treat his intestines.
Bidwill's gesture was well-intentioned, but football doesn't run on sentiment. Three days after signing in front of the cameras, Tonelli carried twice against the Packers in Green Bay, each time for no gain, and so ended his NFL career. The next morning's Chicago Tribune carried both news of the Cardinals' 33-14 loss and the headline WAR VETERANS RETURN AND GO HOUSE HUNTING.
Over the next couple of decades Tonelli shuttled in and out of hospitals, to be treated for the malaria and schistosomiasis. A kind of depression visited him, too, though names like posttraumatic stress disorder would come later, with Vietnam. "As I got older and started to read about Bataan, I wondered how he couldn't be bitter" says his daughter, Nancy Reynolds. "But back then everybody just wanted to start over." Skokie, Ill., where he settled, became home to a large number of Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, and there Tonelli seemed unremarkable—just another man still alive who once almost wasn't.
He took a turn at politics, winning election as a Cook County commissioner in 1946, at 30 the youngest man ever elected, and the only Republican to do so for a generation. (Motts breaks jail again.) He didn't much like his eight years in elective office. Chicagoans had expectations of their pols, and he came to dread the calls at home: Hey, Motts, my cousin got this parking ticket, see...Or Hey, Motts, a buddy landed up in jail, just a little problem, see...Given the chance, he took appointive positions, staying in county government for 34 more years. He also started a contracting business, and in 1954 built a one-story house so that Mary, who had diabetes, wouldn't have to climb stairs. He retired in 1988, four years after Mary died.
He wore his ring every day. In the late '50s, at Tonelli's request, a jeweler friend set a diamond in the onyx. Mary had a fit—she thought it ruined the look. "What, you think it doesn't deserve a diamond?" Motts replied.
Many returning POWs felt guilty—not for having surrendered but for having survived. In surviving, as Gavan Daws puts it in his book Prisoners of the Japanese, "They suffered the intimate and awful companionship of the dead, making eternal claims on them that they could never satisfy" But angst wasn't Tonelli's way. He was as proud to have survived as he was to have served. He didn't withdraw; he sought people out. A speaker's bureau booked dates for him. He visited schools, although those visits gradually left him discouraged, for as the years passed fewer students, and then fewer teachers, had even heard of Bataan.
It began to gnaw at him: Flag Day with few flags out; Memorial Day, a pretext for cut-rate retailing. He'd tell of the Death March and the camps and the hellships, and see the skeptical looks on the schoolkids before him, faces that said, "Aw, this is bull." And he'd drive home wondering if, listening to those stories, he wouldn't react the same way.
It is just before Christmas 2002, and Motts Tonelli, now 86, has permitted you to chauffeur him from his house in Skokie to the center of the world—to Schaller's, the South Side pub across from the 11th Ward Democratic Club, from which Mayor Richard J. Daley once ruled Chicago.
Schaller's is the site of an annual holiday gathering of old ballplayers and their acolytes. Tonelli is royalty here, even among men who played for Vince Lombardi and Frank Leahy, even as an erstwhile Republican pebble in the gearbox of the Democratic machine. Buddies often asked him to switch parties, and he would firmly say, "No, that's not who I am." And for that people respected him. Schaller's is an ideal place to toss back beers and fire up cigars and ask Tonelli the questions he's so often asked, usually about that Japanese officer and the ring.
Had they been in touch after the war? No; Tonelli assumed he was killed in combat. Had he tried finding the officer's family? So many students of Japanese ancestry attended Southern Cal during the '30s that it would have been very hard to do so. How did that lieutenant remember who you were? Even if the officer hadn't been in Notre Dame Stadium that day, Tonelli believed the name might have stuck from the papers or the radio because the USC team also had a Tonelli, no relation, named Amerigo.