Where Heroes Walked: A True Story

In Honor of April 25 -Liberation Day in Italy: an excerpt from “Romancing Through Italy”

©2017 Robert James Connors

 …It was on our first trip in 1995 that we learned much of why the bonds between Italy and the United States, as well as other allied nations, are so strong. It was thanks to our friend George and many others that they exist at all…

“…George then surprised us by appearing in a complete WWII U.S. Army uniform, only his familiar lined face and white hair giving him away. He seemed transformed His dress shoes gleamed, and even his belt was polished. At age 80, George was suddenly, once again, an American soldier. On his shoulder he wore wore a blue quadrifoglio patch. We asked, and learned that it was the symbol his 88th Division, known as the ‘Blue Devils.’ Because of the shape of the patches they were also sometimes referred to as the Clover Leaf Division. Those were names that would echo through our experiences.

Our first visit to Italy was about to come to an emotional crescendo. George had barely arrived before he was surrounded by a small cluster of men, some of whom hugged and kissed him enthusiastically on both cheeks in the Italian manner. Most wore the distinctive peaked cap of the Alpini troops, marked by their plumes, and many had dressed in remnants of their old uniforms as well. This was to be a reunion of heroes, a gathering of those who had survived the terrible conditions and bloody fighting. The crowd began to swell and the band struck up a lively tune. Entire families turned out.

We had been to observances in the United States that drew little attention beyond a few veterans, family members, and an honor guard. In Italy, it seemed, they paid much closer attention to their history. We only later began to fully understand the terrible sacrifices that had been endured, and how indelibly those events were burned into the communal memory.

George speaking to veterans and friends

With so many well-wishers surrounding him and speaking excitedly in Italian, we had no further opportunity to get close until after George had delivered a speech, led the parade, and been honored at the banquet that followed. When we did, we were full of questions.

We asked him about what had happened in Monghidoro during the war. It seemed like a peaceful and insignificant small town, not the sort of place that world powers would spend much time fighting over. This, George explained, was where the Germans had made their second winter defensive line, and was the scene of bloody fighting. His story was gripping.

“These mountains were strategic, because if we could get through them, there was nothing else to hold back our armor, and we would take all of northern Italy. We called this their Gothic Line, and it had taken us all summer to battle our way here after we finally cracked their old Gustav Line north of Napoli in May. The Alpini fought their way up the mountains with us. We needed them, especially because they knew the mountains better than we ever could, even with good maps. They were our eyes and ears. They knew the roads, and the attack routes.”

We learned just how difficult life under Nazi-Fascists had been. Fanatic Nazi SS troops had slaughtered entire villages in nearby Tuscany, simply rounding up the population in house-by-house sweeps before machine-gunning them. Bodies were left where they fell. It was only later that people arrived from neighboring villages to find and bury them.

The day before the arrival of the Americans, as the Nazis prepared to fall back to yet another line of prepared fortifications farther north, they performed their darkest deeds around Monghidoro.

Arriving in the night, soldiers led by Fascist collaborators had rounded up groups of men for brutal interrogations. Families were terrorized, and many were forced from their burning homes into the freezing night without food, water, or clothing. On that first day of October, dozens of people were simply executed, led to their deaths by platoons of soldiers. Small monuments scattered across the district mark where they fell.

“In order to drive the Germans out of Monghidoro, we had to use our artillery. We blasted the town to pieces,” he told us. “There was probably not an undamaged building in town. Most had their roofs destroyed, some were just a wall or two. Some buildings had burned. The trees along the main street, and even on the hills and mountainsides, were just shreds and stumps. We felt bad about it, but we hadn’t had a choice. Everything was devastated, and most of the people were hiding in the mountains or in cellars, but when we reached the rubble, they poured out to greet us, cheering. We passed out food and blankets, and even chocolates for the children, which some of them had never seen.”

“I was the only one in my division who could speak Italian, so I did a lot of translating, even though I wasn’t an official translator. People would approach the troops with an issue, or we would need to tell them something, and I would get the call. I guess I helped a few people out that way,” he told us in his understated manner.

“When we had first arrived in Monghidoro in October it was all mud, but soon it began to freeze up. Then winter set in hard. At first the jeeps would freeze into the mud overnight, and we had to crack them out in the mornings. Then the snow started, and everything was frozen solid. It was almost impossible to move, and the roads were slick with ice, but we were still trying to push the Germans. We lived in tents, and pretty much without heat.”

Glancing around the alpine setting and the deep valley below, it was easy to imagine the town in the dead of winter, with slick, icy roads and footpaths through the rough terrain. George continued his story, quietly relating the long-ago events.

“Christmas was coming. The church in town had been destroyed when we drove the Germans out. It was just a hollowed-out shell, and most of the roof was missing. We sort of fixed it up, used some of our field tents to put a roof over it so they could have a Christmas mass. Lots of people came, even though it was very dangerous, and we made a bit of a feast for them. People brought what they could. It was a moment of brightness. Those people had been through so much…”

As George spoke we began to understand the outpouring we had witnessed. For the people of Monghidoro, it was Liberation Day once again. The war was over at last for them and their families. I tried to imagine the emotions that the day must have evoked. Tears of joy and sorrow flowed as people rejoiced at their own survival, but remembered those who hadn’t…

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