Archive for the September Category

THEY NEVER BETRAYED ME

This is intended as a long overdue tribute to my friends, the Italian people.  Specifically, it has to do with the United States Depression starting in 1929 and secondly, it also has to do with the War in Italy which involved United States forces from 1942 to 1945.

In my mind, there is a clear cut dichotomy between these two events.  In the case of the Depression, I have often recounted how the Carr family was kept going by the generosity of John Gualdoni, a Brentwood, Missouri grocer.  I have spoken about John many times and in an essay in 2001, I called him, “A prince of a man.”  So I have been very vocal about that aspect of life during the Depression that troubled American households from 1929 to 1941.

While I have spoken and written often about John Gualdoni’s generosity, I have rarely spoken about events in 1943 and early 1944 in Northeastern Italy which comprise the other half of this dichotomy.  I suppose for nearly 60 years, those events have been buried in the deepest recesses of my mind.  I am now 80 years of age.  The best medical advice coming my way does not suggest that I will be fitted for angel wings anytime soon.  So given this factual situation, it is time now to pay long overdue tribute to all the citizens of Italy, but especially to the citizens of Emilia-Romagna and the Marche Regions of Northeastern Italy, for their protection granted to me and other British and American soldiers and flyers in 1943 and early 1944.  And finally, I may very well owe my life to the Italian Partisans who had no reluctance to attack the German Army, even if they were badly outnumbered and out-gunned.

My belief is that opera was and is a delightful Italian invention.  If a composer and a librettist were to produce an opera about the Depression and World War II and me, I suspect that there would be scenes of dark despair, with the stage lights dimmed for eerie effect and with the cast members holding their heads and singing melancholy arias such as “O Tomba Oscura” (In This Dark Tomb) from Beethoven’s Fidelio.  Ah, but in this Irish Opera, the composer and the librettist would be required to add Act IV.  In that Act, after all the sadness and despair of the first three acts, the opera would have a happy ending with the main character (me) living to see his 110th birthday.  But before he reaches that event, he wants to pay a tribute to the Italian people while he is still alive.  And that is what this essay is all about.

Let’s deal first with the John Gualdoni part.  I started to school in the first grade at the Forsyth School in Clayton, Missouri in September, 1928.  The first grade teacher was a wonderful lady, Miss Brantley.  The lady principal was Miss Broussard.  The principal was stern and humorless.  Miss Brantley taught us to sing:

Good morning to you,
Good morning to you.
We’re all in our places
With sunshiny faces.
Good morning Miss Brantley,
Good morning to you.

Those days in 1928 were happier days.  My father was employed by the Evans-Howard Brick Refractory Company in Brentwood, Missouri.  In October, 1929, the stock market in this country collapsed.  In a few months, construction work stopped.  Evans-Howard told their work force during the summer of 1930 that there was no more work for them.  For the next four to five years, my father took work where ever he could find it.  He cleaned out sewers and he cut wood and he dug ditches.  But for long stretches of time, there was no work whatsoever.

From 1926, John Gualdoni had been our grocer.  In those days, there were no superstores.  All of our supplies came generally from just one store.  John sold us our meat, the bread, the canned goods and, in winter, the vegetables we ate.  There were very few – if any – specialty stores or monstrous stores like the Central Market in Austin, Texas or like Wegman’s in the Northeastern U. S.

When times got tough, with my father out of work, John Gualdoni made it clear that he still intended to be our grocer.  When my mother would tell John that she was having trouble paying for food, John would always say, “Don’t worry about it”.  Of course, she did worry about it.

My father found steady low paying work in 1934 or 1935 and began to pay John’s back bills.  It took two or three years, but in the end, the Carr family bill was paid.  Be that as it may, I do not know how the Carr family would have survived the early years of the Depression without the assistance of John Gualdoni.  It is for that reason in an earlier essay, I called John, “A prince of a man.”  I’m here to tell you, he was all of that.

It was during this period in our history when minorities were referred to in derogatory, slang terms.  Jews, Negroes, Polish people and Italians all were the subject of these demeaning terms.  My parents were hardworking, minimally educated people who were among the first victims of the Great Depression.  If I had ever used a derogatory, slang term in referring to minorities, particularly Italian people, my parents would have eaten me alive.  The one exception that applied here, had to do with natives of England and to those Americans who affected English accents.  We were free to slander those folks enormously.  That was the Irish national pastime.

I am indebted to my parents for my outlook on life.  As poor as they were, as undereducated as they were, they never walked on the shoulders of  other poor people.  And for those more fortunate than they were, they never attempted to pull them down to their level.

Given that outlook by my parents and with the experience of John Gualdoni’s generosity, I have always approached people of Italian ancestry as friends.  And those people have almost universally returned my friendship.  Maybe we should have Act V in that opera we are writing to celebrate my friendship with Italian people.  German opera goes on for several hours.  Our opera should finish by midnight, even with Act V.

I hope it is clear that for whatever reason, I like Italian people.  Now it is time to say a few words about events in Italy that have been buried in my memory for nearly 60 years.

The title of this essay is “They Never Betrayed Me.”  The “they” in that title refers to citizens of the two Italian regions mentioned earlier and the Partisans who resided in the northern regions of Italy.

I am going to make this a sparse account of my wartime adventures in Northern Italy.  It is going to be sparse because nearly 60 years have passed.  In all those years, far from trying to relive those moments, I was trying subconsciously to repress the memory of the events that are the subject of this essay.  I’ll do the best I can, but above all, it is not my desire to cast myself as a hero or anything like that.  More than anything else, I was just trying to get from one day to the next while trying to stay alive.  That’s preservation, not heroism.

In 1943, as a soldier on detached service to the 12th United States Air Force, my squadron was to skip-bomb the main north-south rail lines and marshalling yards in the general vicinity of Ancona, which is located in the Marche Region of Northeastern Italy.  Skip bombing involved very low level flying by our A-20 attack bombers which dropped bombs with delayed action fuses.  If everything went well, the bomb would explode in three to five seconds, by which time the A-20 should be clear of danger.  At this late date, my recollection is that the fuses were generally reliable. If that was not the case, of course, the A-20 would be brought down by its own bomb blast.

We knew the target would be well defended by anti-aircraft pieces.  What we were not told about is that Messerschmidt 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 fighter planes from the German Luftwaffe were to join in the mission – on the wrong side.  To make a long story short, we were forced north beyond Ancona after dropping our bombs and gained an altitude of about 3000 feet.  We were shot up pretty badly and the Messerschmidt and Focke- Wulf pilots were hammering us relentlessly.

In the A-20’s of 1943 vintage, the pilot flew the plane in the front cockpit.  The aerial engineer-gunner sat in the rear cockpit where he had a duplicate set of controls.  When the pilot decided to bail out on this mission, an action with which I fully agreed, it was my duty to hold the plane in as nearly level flight as possible, while the pilot exited his cockpit and walked toward the tail on the aircraft wing.  When he reached the trailing edge of the wing, he would dive so that he would not be wounded by the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer on the tail.  At 250 miles per hour, a man could nearly be cut in half if he came in contact with the empennage.  That is a technical aircraft term.  It refers to the entire tail assembly of the aircraft.

As soon as the pilot pulled his “D” ring which opened his parachute, the German pilots seemed to cut him in half with machine gun fire.  I saw what the Luftwaffe pilots were doing, but I never actually saw the end of my pilot as I had many, many things to do to get myself out of the plane.  In any case, I knew that my pilot had been riddled by German machine gun fire coming from the Luftwaffe fighters.

As best as it could be done in a crippled airplane, it was my objective to go lower than 3000 feet, because of the treatment handed out by the German fighter aircraft to my pilot.  I knew that bailing out below 3000 feet had many risks.  If you bail out and have a balky parachute, under 3000 feet you may find yourself splattered upon landing.  I also knew that the German pilots were probably waiting for me.  So my guess is that between 1500 and 2000 feet, I started over the side.

There was a complication that took place at this unfortunate moment.  I always wore a chest pack parachute.  Men who wear a seat pack have it on them at all times, but it is very awkward for a gunner who must often stand on his feet.  The chest pack has one disadvantage.  It must be snapped into place whenever its use is desired.  In my haste to get out of the rear cockpit with the right engine aflame, I started over the side without my chest pack.  When I realized my omission, I had to climb back in the rear cockpit to get my chest pack.  Well, like I say, I had lots of things on my mind at that time.

I suppose when I bailed out, the plane was near 1200 to 1500 feet.  My chute opened, as I recall it, just before I hit the ground.  The Luftwaffe pilots took their shots at me, but the proximity to the ground probably discouraged them from pursuing me further.  They also knew that I would be landing in German held territory, so I suppose they decided to let the ground forces deal with me.

Very soon German soldiers surrounded me.  I made it clear that I was unarmed.  It would have been foolish for me to brandish a six shot Army 45 caliber pistol while the German captors had rifles and machine guns and machine pistols.  If I had brandished a weapon out there in that field where I landed, I would simply be another fatality, and a futile one at that.

From this point on another problem intrudes here that has to do with identifying events and people.  Aside from the loss of memory by the passage of nearly 60 years and by the deliberate suppression of the memory processes, I spent the next few weeks after bailing out of the A-20 without calendars and watches and was often blindfolded.  It was amazing to me how one can lose track of time in that circumstance.  On top of all that, when the Italian Partisans came to rescue us or to move us, they would never identify themselves for obvious reasons.  And the brave people with whom we stayed mostly in barns, were never known to us by name or address so that we could not reveal their identities under torture.  What I am trying to say is that while I was a participant in these events, I would not be able to offer credible testimony about what went on because I was blindfolded by the Germans and because of the passage of 60 years that would make me an unreliable witness.

After the bailout, the Germans brought me blindfolded in a truck to a prison camp which I believed to be in the vicinity of Rimini, which is near the tiny independent state of San Marino.  The German prison guards seemed to be assisted by Rumanian soldiers.  Once inside the camp, the guards took my flying jacket, a wristwatch, my wallet with all my money in lira’s as well as my 1881 American silver dollar.  My father had given that dollar to me shortly before my enlistment.  The year of his birth was 1881.  He advised me that as long as I had that silver dollar, I would not be broke.  When the Germans and the Rumanians got through with me, I had nothing.  I suppose for the first time in my young life, I was completely broke.

It was December, 1943.  I believe I was wearing a sleeveless GI sweater and U. S. Army issue wool olive drab trousers.  To make up for losing my flying jacket, the Germans gave me a moth eaten sweater.  The problem is obvious.  How could a man in my current condition convince friends and foe alike that he is an American soldier?  I had no identification such as dog tags or shoulder patches on the flying jacket.  The German language was not one of my skills.  All things considered, I looked like an American but not necessarily like an American soldier.

The German penalty for escaped prisoners was clear.  We all knew that an escaped GI out of uniform would be shot, without any questions being asked.  If an escaped GI was in full uniform, as unlikely as that would be, he would probably be brought to the nearest German facility and shot.  As you can see, it was the intention of the Germans to shoot escaped GI’s in any case.  To make their work easier, they relieved us of all identification, including dog tags.  The Germans have a reputation for thoroughness which is well deserved.  And as I said, I looked like an American.  That fact alone would cause German soldiers to cock their weapons and probably to shoot if I were found outside the prison camp.

That reputation for thoroughness did not necessarily extend to notifying the International Red Cross about captured prisoners.  I believe that is the proper organization, but I may be mistaken.  In any case, the organization was located in neutral Switzerland.

My recollection is that the Red Cross or whoever in Geneva, was supposed to be notified in six days from the date of capturing the enemy soldier.  I suspect that this requirement was fulfilled in the breech, that is neither the Allies nor the Axis powers always honored the requirement that notification be made in six days.  Neither side wanted the other to know that it had an important prisoner.  I was certainly not an important prisoner.  My best guess is that the Germans planned to notify the Geneva organization of my capture when I reached the Stalag Luft in Germany.  That’s just a guess, but in any case, as far as I could tell, the Germans never told the Geneva organization about me.  With the people in Geneva never being notified, they reported nothing to the United States Army Air Force.  With the American Army making some bizarre assumptions at times, it was fortunate that other planes in the flight near Ancona saw my plane go down.  The Army is quite capable of concluding that, without the notification from Geneva, I was simply AWOL (absent without leave) for seven weeks.  That sort of thing could easily happen in the American Army.

A final thought on this point.  The Germans had an English speaking woman broadcaster who had what seemed to be an American accent.  Her name was Axis Sally.  I’m not sure at this late date whether we gave her that name or whether that was what she called herself.  Axis Sally broadcast on frequencies that United States and British radios could easily pick up.

When an American prisoner said too much, or if he carried personal items in his uniform,  Axis Sally would taunt us using names of other soldiers or names of parents or girlfriends in the States.  Some GI’s would wonder how Axis Sally could know so much.  Occasionally, the United States forces would find out that a man had been taken prisoner from Axis Sally before notification was given to the Geneva organization.  So to that extent, Miss Sally was performing a service for the United States.  In any case, she had a wide listenership among American forces.

From what I could piece together, my stay in that camp in the general vicinity of Rimini was about 11 or 12 days.  The prisoners missed about eight to ten meals in those days.  The lost meals just never showed up.  The meals that were offered were of regrettable quality, so the lost meals may have been a sort of blessing.  I don’t recall any torture but the German and Rumanian guards dearly loved to push us and to hit us.  In short, they were armed bullies.

As the 11th or 12th day approached, most of us could sense that something was happening in the camp.  The camp at Rimini was not ever intended as a long term facility.  On the contrary, it was sort of a holding operation until enough prisoners were acquired at which time, they would be sent to the Stalag Lufts or prisons for airmen in Germany.  Escape from the Stalag Lufts in Germany was a very difficult proposition.  Clearly, if escape was on anyone’s mind, it should be done in Italy.  Germany would be too late.

American commanders were clearly split on the subject of escape from German prisons.  Obviously, I was not in possession of the latest results when commanders were polled, but it seemed to me that about half of American Generals would tell their troops that it was a duty to escape incarceration.  The fact that a GI would be shot for his efforts was dismissed as just a detail.  The other half of the American General corps said that it is your duty to live to fight another day.  Of course, the Americans had the Japanese to deal with, so it made sense for GI’s  to live to fight the Asian foe assuming, of course, that the Germans were defeated.  And so Americans who were captured had an ambivalence on the subject of escape.

Now there was another development affecting us that we knew nothing about.  It had to do with the ability of the secret services of the British military establishment to penetrate the German government and its prison system.  I won’t bore you with the details because it is written in a book first published in Great Britain in 1993.  The book is called, “War in Italy, 1943-1945, A Brutal Story” by Richard Lamb.

Don’t ask me how all this worked, but the British secret service could penetrate German plans for its prisons.  I have no way of knowing how the system worked.  I know that the Brits were in regular contact with the Italian Partisans and that the Partisans coordinated much of their efforts against the Germans with the British.

You may recall a few paragraphs ago that I thought something was going to happen in the camp.  The Germans were excited.  What I learned after our escape, which was made possible by the Partisans, was that many if not all of us were to be sent to Verona the day after the Partisan raid.  If a prisoner got to Verona, he might as well be in a Stalag Luft in Germany.  The prison trains at Verona were on the main line north to Austria and Germany.  Obviously, the trick is to stay as far away from Verona as possible.  If Shakespeare used Verona as a setting for his Romeo and Juliet, it must have been before Hitler and Himmler came to power in Germany.

In any event, the Partisans raided the Rimini prison camp.  They took no prisoners.  The German and Rumanian dead were all over the place.  This must have been on December 19th or 20th, 1943.  There were by my estimate only 25 or 30 Allied prisoners, mostly British airmen and soldiers.  We were immediately split into groups of two or three.  These changed frequently as we moved.

From this point on, I know nothing about the exact locations of the farms and the one convent that sheltered us.  We were moved at night every two or three days.  As a general rule, we stayed in sheds and barns for to go outside in daylight could have meant death to us and to our Italian benefactors.  The short stay at the convent seemed to be the safest place for us because the Germans did not want the Italians to grow angry because of any mistreatment by Hitler’s forces in a Catholic convent.  The Germans had trouble enough without stirring up religious hatred.

Our benefactors were generally farmers.  They shared what they had to eat with us just as they shared the fate of execution if we were found on or near their premises.  This hiding in barns and sheds and in the one convent, went on until late in January, 1944, a span of perhaps seven weeks.  In all that time, we never once learned the name of our benefactors nor did we know exactly where we were.  And in all that time, we never once learned the name of the Italian Partisans who moved us further south toward Allied lines.  And most importantly, none – not one of those brave Italians ever betrayed us.

I am at a loss to tell you why my mind wants to recall that late at night, four of us were put on a creaky fishing boat in the Port of San Benedetto.  I have no proof that San Benedetto was our port of exit.  Maybe it is a figment of my imagination.  The Partisans never told us where we were.  They simply said, “Get on and shut up.”  At least that’s what my mind tells me at this late date.  The boat had no name, as far as I could tell, but we were below deck in any case.  The fish we were given to eat were pretty good, but that was 59 or 60 years ago, so I’m not so sure now.

After two or three days in the Adriatic Sea, we put in at a little used port in Apulia.  The port is called Mattinata. In English, that name means “Early morning.”  (See attachments.)  If Italy is like a long boot in the Adriatic, there is what I would call a high ankle spur east of Foggia sticking out in the Adriatic.  On the south side of that spur is Mattinata, which was in Allied hands.  I do not know the name of the boat.  It was entirely understandable that if we knew no names, German torture if we were captured again would yield nothing.  War is not a game.  Anyone who treats it as a game is a candidate for execution.

The port authorities got in touch with American authorities at Foggia some 50 kilometers or about 30 miles distant.  The captain – as my faulty memory recalls it – welcomed us back, and said there is a war to be won, and then said that we were very lucky to be alive.  He was quite right.  The reason Lillie Carr’s last son was still alive had to do with a lot of Italians who never betrayed us.

I believe in thanking people who give me a hand.  In 1942 when troop trains went through Hutchinson, Kansas, women and girls got on all those trains which stopped at that railroad division point at what ever hour.  They would walk the length of the train giving out apples and cookies.  A lot of time passed, but in 1998, Judy and I went back to Hutchinson to thank those folks.  Unfortunately, we found only one elderly woman whom we took to lunch.  A story I had written about the train women appeared in the Hutchison News so perhaps those who couldn’t make it to lunch that day knew that this old soldier wanted to thank them.

In Italy, with no names or locations being disclosed, it would be impossible to thank the people who protected us.  Business and vacation trips brought me to Italy on many occasions.  I made many inquiries about the people who sheltered us, but I was never able to find such a person.  I regret that.

While I have singled out the citizens of Emilia-Romagna and Marche Regions because they were involved in the post imprisonment developments, I want to say something about the rest of Italy.  By and large, the Italians took their misfortunes in World War II with a great degree of good grace.  When they ran out of gasoline for their cars, some of them converted to charcoal as a fuel.  The cars did not go very fast and they weren’t great at climbing hills, but they ran.  They tried to manage.

The Italians had little to eat under the Germans.  There were places where starvation occurred.  Under the Allies, things got better for the Italians.  After the Italians made it clear that their sympathies were no longer with their former Axis partner, they were often executed because of real or imagined offences to their German occupiers.  The Italians had a very difficult role to manage in areas where the German occupiers were in control.

I sincerely hope that I have made it unmistakably clear that the heroes of this essay are the Italian Missourian, John Gualdoni who fed the Carr family during the Depression.  And it is to be hoped that the reader will finish this essay by agreeing that the nameless citizens of Northeastern Italy and in the Partisan organization are the real war heroes because they never betrayed any of the escaped American and British prisoners.

And so as it was said in the first sentence of this essay, this composition is a long overdue tribute to my friends, the Italian people.  I don’t know of any five act operas except for the one I have proposed.  In this case, our opera uses Act V to celebrate friendship with the Italian people in Brentwood, Missouri and in Italy.  And so, if I may paraphrase the last line of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, I would say, “Viva la amicizia – per sempre”.  Long live friendship – forever.  And for my protectors in Northeastern Italy, the two principals of our Opera should close with a rousing duetto, “Viva il Coràggio – Per Sempre”.  Long live courage – forever.  I would pay to see such an opera, even if it took four or five hours to perform.

 

E. E. CARR

September 1, 2002

Essay 54

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Kevin’s commentary: One of Pop’s earliest essays. I’ve published all but one essay from 2011 this point, to the best of my knowledge, so I figured this would be a good piece to include before moving into 2010.

So far as John Gualdoni goes, he does indeed sound like a heck of a guy. There are four other essays on this site already having to do with him and his store:  WHATEVER HAPPENED TO SILENCE?,  MUST WE ALWAYS BE ENTERTAINED?LAYAWAY PLANS, and SAVERS OF STRING. I’m sure that he’d be pleased to know that he predisposed the Carr family to be happy with the entire Italian nation.

Though this essay relays some experiences that would probably be traumatizing to experience and unpleasant to dredge back up for the sake of an essay, I am very glad that it was written. I find no particular joy in reading about the gruesome experiences but I do appreciate getting a window into a part of Pop’s background that is otherwise somewhat of a black hole to me. I knew a decent amount about Mimi because she was my grandmother and I visited her many times, and some of Pop’s other essays (like the ones about Mr. Gualdoni, for example) reveal bits and pieces about the depression, but the years in which Pop was in the military are conspicuously absent. I know basically what areas of the world he was in, but not really in what order, and am not sure what he was doing there. He recently wrote an essay about military food which I thought was wonderful; that was an essay that I specifically requested. I liked it because he contextualized several comments which I’d read in other essays, and he did so in the context of food instead of violence. Hopefully the former was a lot easier on Pop to remember.

That said I think this essay is perhaps one of the most valuable in the corpus, since it seems to cover some moments which are not likely to be mentioned offhandedly in other works.

I feel terrible that Pop had to go through all this. And if memory serves he had to do something twice, because he was shot down twice. I could be wrong on this. Needless to say I am incredibly grateful for the bravery and stoicism of the Italians. I wouldn’t exist if not for their actions. So I am thankful for their commitment to the American troops, as well as for Pop’s quick thinking and survival instincts. I hope that I will never be put into any similar situation, and that if I am, I can keep as level of a head as he did.