During the many times my father and I worked the fields, he sometimes would tell me his war stories. To me the stories seemed not real and far away, but to him they were hatched in his memory re-living the terrible days that pained him forever during those times that changed the world.
At age 21 my father was drafted into the Italian army and was told to travel to Venice and report there. He was with 3 or 4 other local soldiers all asked to go to Venice. Once they arrived, they were told they were at the wrong place and to travel to Trieste. Once in Trieste, they were also told they were not on the rosters. This was 1942 and Italy was under the control of Mussolini. At that time he was on the side of Hitler and a ruthless charlatan.
I told my dad he should have left Trieste right then and go back to San Romano, but he waited along with the other soldiers. After a few days, he was given orders to go to Fiume and placed in the supplies warehouse helping with the control of all supplies especially food. The army camp Fiume location was a fortress. According to my father, the fortress extended into rock caves and it was basically impenetrable.
During the time there, my father experienced the basic routine of been in the military. He especially loved his position because he was one of the soldiers in charge of distributing food and cigarettes to the general soldier population. This gave him a bit of authority and control and this played very well with the other soldiers. He was very fair and thus admired, he was also able to take a few items home when on leave. In the two years there he was on leave only once.
In early 1944, life would soon change for the absolute worst for him and his local soldier friends.
During this time, Hitler dropped Mussolini and what was first an alliance, became the other side, and now Mussolini was the enemy.
These turn of events happened very quickly and the Fiume fortress was, as many other Italian military locations, were in total disarray with the upper military command escaping and no one in charge. My father said that one day they saw ships coming to the Fiume location. Fiume is a sea location opposite of Venice, now part of Croatia. The ships were full of German soldiers. Once they arrived, they quickly took control of the base and instructed the soldier to board. All soldiers were taken to Venice; during the trip, my father managed to hide his pistol. This was an automatic Berretta and his favorite. While at sea, he contemplated running away, but he could not swim and before they landed in Venice, he tossed the gun oversea.
Without ever firing a shot, when in Venice the German managed to place the Italian soldiers inside trains what were cattle transport carts. They filled each one with soldiers until full and then they welded the doors shut.
The trains took off and where headed for Kiev Germany. The trip took several days. I asked my dad if there were bathrooms on the train; he looked sad and told me no, the soldiers would relieve themselves in the corner of the cart. He said that when they arrived in Kiev, the smell was unbearable. They were treated as cattle’s and not human beings.
Once in Kiev, they were taken to a concentration camp and assigned to specific groups. They were instructed to work on anything required by the German soldiers.
In order to show absolute control, the German in charge would create horrendous conditions on a regular basis. One of his favorite drills was to wake up all the prisoners and ask them to line up and assemble outside with basically almost no clothes on in the freezing German winter.
He would have the men stand in line for hours while the German soldiers would go inside the barracks. Once inside, they would take all of the personal belonging of each prisoner and create a huge pile in the corner of the barrack. When finished, the order would be given to go back in and find their personal stuff and remove it from the pile sometimes taking all night to complete the task. This was repeated over and over to the point that my dad steel feels an incredible pain when thinking about it.
The biggest pain my father can remember was hunger. Hunger was unbearable and it was with him every day. He would try anything to find food. One incident that almost cost his life happened one day near a farm. My father saw a field of carrots and attempted to extract one from the ground. A German soldier saw him and went up with his gun, he was going to shoot him dead and in that exact moment a German Sergeant saw him and yelled out to stop. The soldier turned and lowered his gun. The German Sergeant then told the soldier they need the workers, but he would be punished. The Sergeant grabbed a large steel bolt and hit my father in the back several times until he fell with pain. He still has pain sometimes where he was hit, but realizes that the Sear gent saved his life.
With the war now in full swing with the US involvement, the job of the Italian soldiers was to clean up after each air strike from the US and English Air attacks.
My father was moved many times and he was assigned to many different locations throughout Germany. The work was unbearable, but hunger was much worse.
During an air attack alarm, the German soldier would help with the civilian population and take cover underground. The Italian soldiers were always last outside and would only be allowed underground bunkers if room allowed it. Most of the times my father and the rest of the soldiers would be left outside to deal with the bombs coming down all around them.
Dad told me that once he was in a field lying down behind a small dirt mound and he said the sky was absolutely covered with planes as far as the eye could see.
Bombs were falling everywhere and one dropped a few feet from my father, but it didn’t detonate.
The bomb simply plunged to the ground and penetrated into the soil. Dad considered that a good omen, he lived. He used to tell me that when the war started he was afraid to die; later in the midst of all the horror he told me he became absolutely fearless not contemplating on death.
Life was simply day to day, minute by minute, a fact that his mind somehow accepted it.
Live or die, it was simply destiny.
During these times of great confusion with constant air bombardments, the Germans were in a state of constant disarray and panic and the opportunity to escape rendered itself several times for a few of the Italian soldiers including my father. These occasions would always be evident after a bombing raid. One time after a very devastating air raid, the Germans where nowhere to be seen.
So my father along with a few of his friends escaped and wondered the area looking for transportation or ways to make themselves gone.
Soon the German soldiers organized a search including dogs and within a day had the Italians back under their control. Because of the great confusion, they were allowed to live and taken back to the concentration camp. My father told me that the German never really figured they escaped, but believed they were displaced by the bombing raid.
The stories of war were so much incredible to me as a young boy listening to my father.
One story that I remember clearly was about a friend soldier that had found a goat and was taking it back to camp. I don’t know the time sequence of when this happened, but it was before the concentration camps and during the time Mussolini was still allied with Hitler.
So this Italian soldier had found a goat and was taking to camp for food. Food was always the main problem.
On the way he encountered two German soldiers who demanded he hand over the goat to them.
They were heavily armed so he did. They took the goat and proceeded to leave, This soldier stood there looking at his goat been pulled away by the two soldiers. In the next moment, the Italian soldier pulled his rifle off his shoulders, aimed and shot the Germans stealing his precious goat. The bullet hit both of them since they were walking in line. They both fell to the ground dead. The Italian soldier slowly reached the soldiers, took the goat by the rope and continued his trip back to camp.
To me this story was so vivid and it told me the horror of war and what war can do to men. Here you have a young man that grew up as my dad working the fields, being responsible, and never hurting a fly. The black abyss of war scars man’s soul and the will for survival changes them forever.
During an air raid alarm, my father was not able to go underground. This was only for the Germans and the German soldiers; it was very rare that he would be allowed inside. This time he found himself inside a candy factory. Here were large containers of sorbet and other cold or frozen candies. He ate with his hands digging and digging into the barrel of frozen sorbet.
He was so happy he had found this “food”. He survived the bombings yet again, but the next day, in the concentration barrack, he was very sick. He had a very high fever and could not talk.
The German took him to the infirmary which was underground. Here he was given very painful shots that he said were given by a Polish male nurse that my father said knew nothing about nursing.
That evening a new air raid happened. The barracks with the Italian soldiers were all above ground. There were some 35 to 40 soldiers there including two of my father’s friends from very near towns to my father’s San Romano.
The raid was relentless. The next morning when he crawled out from the infirmary, everything was demolished, not one barrack stood. All the Italian soldiers had died. He looked for his friends, found them dead, he took their documents and with the few soldiers left from the infirmary, escaped aimlessly. They ran as far as possible and ended up in a farmer’s field and hid in a hay stack. Here they slept for what he believed was two days.
He reminded me that because of what happened to him and getting sick, he lived.
This was near the end of the war and the German were totally disoriented. But again, within the next few days, the Germans round them up and back to a different camp.
Within the next two months, the war was over, the German lost and the American liberated them.
At the time my father was in Northern Germany and he wanted to go home.
The country infrastructure was decimated. Bridges and roads destroyed. It took my dad 36 days to get home.
No communication of any kind, no trains, no buses. Along with some of his local soldier friends that lived near Lucca, they embarked for the trip home. Most of the travel was done by hitchhiking with American soldiers or trucks they would pick them up while walking the roads.
It was a long trip, but they were excited to be alive and going home.
When my father was near Lucca, he lost his friends one by one, they went to their towns. While walking toward San Romano along the road a jeep driven by a black American soldier passed him by. It soon stopped and the soldier asked where he was going. My dad explained his situation and he soldier gave him a huge smile and told him to come aboard.
The American dropped him off at the base of the mountain where he would have to walk up to San Romano. No drivable street existed then to go up to the village.
He arrived in the village alone to the amazement of all. His mother was working in the fields and when she found out he had come home she ran to meet him.
He was back and he was safe. He had endured the impossible and he would work for the rest of his life to erase those nightmare memories, but they would remain. Even if far into his memory, they would still remain.
On the way home the other soldiers asked him what he would do when he got home. He only had one answer:” never be without bread”. He told them he would always carry a loaf of bread in his pocket. That was his main goal. Hunger had taken a great toll on him.
Today he remains the only one alive from that awful period; he just turned 90 and he is doing well.
We talk a lot and he still is in awe by the fact that he actually lived during those years in Germany and because of it, my brother and I live and our families exist.
Life is really an enigma; each one of us have our unique destiny.