From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 26
World War II

For over two thousand years, Gioviano has been caught in the middle of wars between empires, nations, feudal warlords, tribes, barbarian invaders, city-states, republics, democracies, fascist governments and dictatorships. It is surprising that the village and its inhabitants has had the tenacity and resilience to survive—during World War II in particular. With great bravery, the people of Gioviano and vicinity played a central role in the brave fight against Hitler and Nazi Germany.

There are many tales, some of them tragic, about the period in which Gioviano found itself caught between the Allied and German forces. During the German occupation, there were conscriptions for slave labor to build the Gothic Line. There were also the losses of loved ones, extreme hunger, and other deprivations. Palazzo Margherita, because of its strategic position overlooking the Serchio Valley, played a central role both during the German occupation of Gioviano and later during the American occupation, when the lives of the Giovianini vastly improved. The following tales revolve around events that transpired in our Palazzo and in our valley.

The Man in the Mattress
The son of a schoolteacher in Gioviano had been taken by the Germans and placed in a concentration camp in Bologna. On September 8, 1943, he and some of his companions tunneled out, and he spent the next week or so walking to Gioviano through the mountain fastnesses in order to avoid recapture by the Germans.

The Germans were tenacious in their quest to find escapees, due largely to fact that they were desperate for slave labor to help them in their last-ditch efforts to defeat the Allies and the Italian partisans. For months, the young man hid in the forest and in what we call the “dungeon” of the Palazzo, with its barred windows and earthen floor.

When a troop of Germans entered the village to search for escapees, partisans, or persons with enough strength left to work for the Nazi cause, there was not enough time for the young man to escape to the mountains. The boy’s mother removed some of the cornhusks in the mattress on the bed and sewed him up inside the mattress. When the Germans entered the room he lay as still as if he were dead, without taking so much as a breath of air. The Germans looked over and under the bed. When they were satisfied that no one was in the bedroom, they left.

This same bed had another adventure many years later that nearly did it in. Damian Mandola and his nephew Johnny Carrabba opened their first Italian restaurant while attending Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and our family enjoyed many fine meals there. My parents maintained a friendship and contact with them over the years, and so when they came to Italy they would drop by to spend the night at Palazzo Margherita. Well, if you are familiar with their television show on PBS, Cucina Toscana, you know that the men are rather large from having enjoyed so much good food over the years.

One of the men--I won’t say which to avoid further embarrassment--was enjoying the evening in the bed that had hidden the young man from the Germans. Now keep in mind, this bed was around 150 years old at the time. Crash! The bed simply could not stand up under the weight. Neither Johnny nor Damian ever returned to spend the night at the Palazzo in spite of the fact that the bed was easily repaired and remains to this day as the place we reserve for our lightweight young grandchildren.

Refugees in the Palazzo
During World War II, over forty refugees are said to have lived in Palazzo Margherita, but I am not sure how many people were in the house when it came under attack by the Germans. A German 88 shell penetrated the roof, shattered a huge chestnut support beam, and then went through the ceiling of the kitchen, destroying some of the frescoes. The shell then made its exit through a window where it landed harmlessly in the street. The roof beam was put back together and reinforced with iron braces. When the roof, which dated back to the early 18th century, was replaced under the direction of my father in the late 20th century, the shattered beam was replaced. The big white patch is still evident in the ceiling of the kitchen right above the sink. Fortunately, we are told, no one was injured during the shelling.

The German 88 was a very powerful and effective anti-tank weapon. German Tiger Tanks outfitted with 88s could destroy a Sherman Tank from up to 2,000 yards, whereas the Sherman’s cannon had to be within 500-600 yards of the target in order to be effective. The main reason that so little damage occurred to the Palazzo is that the 88 was designed to penetrate armor at 820 meters per second, rather than to blow up medieval buildings. The old structure offered little resistance, and the shell carried no explosive charge, so it just whizzed right through, inflicting minor damage.

The Buffalo Soldiers
There was a lot of excitement in the village and immediate acceptance of us by the townspeople when we first arrived in 1973. This was due largely to the fact that I was serving in the United States Army on Italian soil. Memories of the war were still very lucid in the minds of many of the people. Gino, the fabbro, (smith) would recite tales of the war each time he would encounter me. He was just a young boy at the time and was of little use to the Germans. Thus, he was neither conscripted into military service nor taken prisoner to serve as a slave laborer. His wartime experience and that of the other citizens, mostly the very young and the very old, was marred by the terrible suffering from the cold and from the lack of food.

When the Americans arrived in Gioviano, having driven the Germans across the Serchio, the people were amazed to see that the American troops were all Black! They were the Buffalo Soldiers, fighting for their country during a time when there was still a great deal of discrimination in the U.S. Military. The Nazis considered these brave men less than human, and so they were slaughtered rather than being taken prisoner as white American soldiers were. In addition, if they were wounded in battle, they were not allowed to receive blood transfusions from white soldiers, only their fellow Black troops.

Despite the discrimination from their own American government and despite the horrors of fighting the Nazis with only death to look forward to if captured, the Buffalo Soldiers were extremely kind to the Italian people. They were especially kind to children such as Gino who still speaks with excitement about them sharing their candy and C-rations with him and the other Giovianini.

The Gothic Line
During the first week of June, 1944, the Allied forces had taken Rome and invaded Normandy. With the Americans advancing toward the north, the German high command began to build a line of fortifications from La Spezia on the Tyrhennian Sea all the way across the Italian Peninsula to Pesaro on the Adriatic. The Germans were desperate to stop the Allied advance and to retain control of northern Italy.

Fifteen thousand Italians were forced to labor in the construction of this massive defense network. It would soon be evident that this effort, too, would fail to stop the northward march of the Americans and their allies.

The Gothic Line crossed the Serchio River just below Borgo a Mozzano which meant that Gioviano was to be kept under Nazi occupation even if the Americans freed Lucca from the Germans. Fortunately for the Giovianini, the Buffalo Soldiers were not about to be stopped by the Germans’ efforts.

What had been an act of discrimination against the African-American soldiers turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Had they been issued the latest tanks, jeeps, and trucks, their only route up the valley of the Serchio would have been along the two heavily damaged roads that line each of its banks. Here the German fortifications were the strongest with tank traps and concrete barriers,. The Allies would have been easy marks since the Germans would have had the advantage of being able to shoot down at them from the mountain flanks.

The only way to reach mountain villages such as Gioviano was on foot or by mule, due to the fact that there were very few paved roads into any of the villages at that time. The fact that the Buffalo Soldiers had purchased 372 mules from Italian peasants to carry their munitions and supplies gave them a serious tactical advantage over more conventional forces.

In late November of 1944, the Buffalo Soldiers had entered the Serchio Valley. By Christmas Eve, 1944, they had breached the German defenses of the Gothic Line which was just 2.5 miles south of Gioviano. The American soldiers freed our village and continued marching up the valley. The Germans counterattacked and retook Calavorno, the town that lies just across the Serchio from Piano di Gioviano (Lower Gioviano). From my window in Casa Rosina, it would have been possible to see the entire drama unfold. I suspect that one or more Buffalo Soldiers took advantage of this fact to observe the Nazi counterattack and report on their positions.

The Germans never reached Gioviano again, largely due to its defensive posture high on the mountainside and to the presence of the Buffalo Soldiers. Almost immediately the Germans were pushed back up the valley, but it wasn’t until April 26, 1945 that Castelnuovo di Garfagnana was taken. Thus for four long cold months Gioviano had a front row seat to watch the slow and tortuous conquest of the German forces.

What if the Gothic Line had held and an armistice had been reached that divided Italy into a Nazi-held north and a democratic south just as Germany was divided for nearly half a century after World War II, between a Communist East Germany and a democratic West Germany? I certainly wouldn’t be writing this book now because Gioviano would still have been in Nazi hands in 1973 when we purchased Casa Giorgio-- if the Gothic Line had held out as long as the Berlin Wall, which didn’t fall until 1989.

Thank you again Buffalo Soldiers. I love my Tuscan window with its fabulous view of the vast panorama in which critical parts of the history of Western Civilization have unfolded over the millennia.

Forgotten Heroes of Sommocolonia
From both Casa Giorgio-Rosina and Palazzo Margherita, one can peer up to a little town in the mountains high above the city of Barga. The name, Sommocolonia, means “colony at the summit”, for it origins date back to Roman times when a colony was established there because of its strategically advantageous position.

Places that were strategically important in the Roman, Longobard, Medieval, and Napoleonic eras were also so during World War II. In December of 1944, two platoons of American infantrymen, all of them Black, from the segregated 92nd Infantry Division were defending Sommocolonia. The 92nd Infantry, considered second class, had not been issued the latest weapons. The Germans were desperate to take the village as part of a last-ditch effort to break through the American lines and then take the port of Livorno (Leghorn), which would have cut off supplies to the Allied offensive. Were it not for the 70 brave Buffalo Soldiers and 25 Italian partisans who stood fast despite orders to retreat, the course of the war might have been altered in favor of the Nazis.

Lt. John R. Fox, the African-American commander of the attached 366th Infantry Regiment, refused to give in to the enemy. When the Nazis finally retreated, the village priest counted over 100 dead enemy soldiers around the body of Lt. Fox. After the war, the heroic efforts of the Buffalo Soldiers were not recognized at the Pentagon, Not a single one was awarded the Medal of Honor.

It was not until 1997 that Lt. Fox was posthumously presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in defending not only Sommocolonia, but ultimately the extremely important port of Livorno from the Nazis. Each time I stare out my window into the mountains above Barga, I am reminded of the great sacrifice of Lt. Fox and his men, who were given the opportunity to retreat-- in fact, the orders to do so. Yet, they refused to give in to the enemy, sacrificing their lives in order to save many others. A monument to honor the bravery of the Buffalo Soldiers was erected in the town of Sommocolonia in gratitude.

The Blessing of German Germaphobia
I was chatting with Daria yesterday (June 9, 2006), and the subject of this book came up. I told her that I was writing about World War II and asked her if there was any vivid memory that she could conjure up of that time period. She thought for a minute, and then told the following short anecdote which I have translated into English.

“I was thirteen years old. My father had gone to war, and I was alone in the house with my mother. I was very sick at the time and was in bed with my illness. German soldiers came to the door and demanded to enter and search the house. I don’t know what they were looking for, but when they came to my room and saw how sick I was, they immediately left. The German soldiers were very much afraid that the sickness might be contagious.”

What a blessing that must have been for Daria, a pretty little girl of thirteen, to have been deathly ill at the time of the German invasion of her home. Had she been well, she might have been fair game for the Nazi soldiers, whose moral conduct during the war was certainly less than honorable.

Gioviano fared far better than many towns and villages in the Serchio Valley, Apuanian Alps and Luccan Apennines. In some villages, monuments have been erected to commemorate the slaughter of innocent civilians – old men, women, and children.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, we usually toured Italy in a Volkswagen microbus, a German-made vehicle. If we got off the beaten path, we would oftentimes be looked at in horror until the populace learned that we were Americans, not Germans. Then we would be offered drinks and treated like family. The memories of the German atrocities were still very much alive during those years

Updated December 21, 2009
Copyright 2005-2009 George H. Russell
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