San Pietro Rose Part 1

Photograph from Ralph Hotchkiss archive: Captain Ralph Hotchkiss (Left – my Grandfather & Major Frank Pellegrin) Ravello, Italy March 1944.

This is a historical non-fiction short story. It is based on song lyrics written by Major Frank Pellegrin about a doughfoot named Joe Maloney who meets an Italian girl named Rose after the US Army had driven the Nazis from the village of San Pietro. This part is true as is the historical context of WWII in Italy in December 1943. I made up the rest of the stuff.

The song lyrics were posted previously in this Blog: San Pietro Rose (Foreword)

I’m posting this in three parts of about 2800 words each to keep it to a fifteen-minute read per part. Parts will be posted in two-week intervals.


San Pietro, Italy – December 1943

Mama is gone. Papi is gone. Fabi is gone. Maria Belmonte’s thoughts circulated in her mind like the wheel of the grist mill just a short distance outside the village of San Pietro Infine. It turned slowly as the stream was low; the buckets were half filled as were the young woman’s heart. All she knew was the sadness of the death of her family and the oppression of the Italian Fascists and Nazi German occupiers. Weeks of attacks by Allied forces drove the hated Wehrmacht from the San Pietro, but at the cost of Mama’s life.

Halfway between Naples and Rome, San Pietro was surrounded by mountains that facilitated a stout German defense and created the necessity for an overwhelming artillery barrage to oust the enemy. It also destroyed most structures in the ancient town including Belmonte’s “Pane di Montagne”; a sixth generation family bakery. Many of the Villagers who had not fled to the safety of the caves in nearby Mt Sambuccaro met the same tragic fate of Maria’s Mama. They would never know that the caves were not much safer. Tragedy did not know of topography.

How can I go on? She thought. Mama had always told her how happiness is never more than one chance encounter away. She was far too devastated at this moment to even contemplate a future. Hope would have to wait for a long time, if ever.

As the Nazi’s retreated from San Pietro, they made it as difficult as possible for the advancing Americans to follow. These impediments included blockading roads, and destroying bridges. Streams were dammed like the one feeding the grist mill to create a flood plain. They left booby traps in the rubble of ancient village buildings.

Papi, her father, had been working with other villagers clearing dead soldiers and civilians from the wreckage when a German Schrapnellmine exploded, killing Papi and two neighbors.

Mama’s fate was no less tragic. There was nowhere to hide from the Allied mortar shells as they rained down onto the ancient village leaving the pock-marked sign, “Pane di Montagna” laying on the ground like a wounded goat felled by a poacher’s arrow. Maria and her parents, hiding beneath the flour sacks in the bakery, were treated the same to an incoming 105 mm Howitzer shell as the German soldiers in surrounding stone buildings. They took a direct hit from an off-target mortar. The stiff wooden beams that had been holding the roof over three-century-old building shattered into kindling sticks. Wood and stone debris fell right next to Maria, bludgeoning and burying her mother. Her blood oozed from beneath the pile and mixed with equal parts stone dust and flour, forming a gruesome pinkish paste.

Maria’s twin brother Fabrizio had died three years ago. Prior to the arrival of the Nazis, sixteen-year-old males were required to serve in Mussolini’s Fascist Youth Ballila. Fabi took the pledge, expected to be all young Italian’s core belief: “I believe in Rome, the Eternal, the mother of my country. I believe in the genius of Mussolini, and in the resurrection of the Empire.”

The Belmonte children were raised in opposition to the teachings of the Fascist system but knew if they protested they could be imprisoned – or worse. Prior to going the Ballila, Fabi confided in his sister that he would try to run away when he could and find a safe place to get away from the Fascist enforcers. Maria cried and begged him to come home safe.

The official report from the Fascists claimed Fabrizio Belmonte had fallen to his death trying to rescue another soldier. Maria and her parents knew the story was not true. Fabi had likely let his feelings about the Fascist regime be heard and was eliminated because of them. She hated the Fascists more than ever. Fabi was gone too. She was alone.

Memories, present and past, dominated Maria as she cowered in the corner of the small room of what was left of the bakery. It was as silent as the dust, suspended in the air, which refused to settle on the newly created rubble from centuries-old stone. The villagers of San Pietro called her Rose, as she had reddish brown hair and a vibrant pinkish color to her face, not typical of the Campagna Region of Italy. She looked younger than her 21 years. Growing up under the oppressive regime of Benito Mussolini and the occupation of her village by the Nazis would add years to most adolescents, but Rose had a spirit in her that defied her harsh and grief-stricken life.

Maria struggled to her feet and exited the remnants of “Belmonte’s Pane di Montagne” as distant mechanical sounds replaced the silence. The Allied forces led by the Americans were on their way to capture Rome. San Pietro was directly in the path of this objective. They were coming.

The 36th Infantry of the U.S. Army were the first to move into San Pietro. As the line of soldiers appeared, they were as beleaguered as the remaining villagers. Heads down, feet dragging, their torn uniforms covered in mud. They looked like anything but a conquering army marching into the site of victory. The soldiers all knew they had removed one obstacle on the road to Rome; there would be more.

Maria felt no pity for these soldiers, just as she had felt no relief when the Nazi troops retreated. She despised all soldiers. They were responsible for the deaths that lay over the village like a huge fish net. Survivors struggled to move around trying to escape as the dead just lay there, immovable. Some of the optimistic villagers welcomed the soldiers as liberators. They had fresh memories of the oppression of the Nazi occupiers and the Fascists prior to that. Nazis killed Papi, Americans killed Mama and the Fascists killed Fabi.

The new occupiers spread out, vacillating between expressing thanks to the welcoming committee and attempting to console others. Few of the soldiers spoke Italian. They had learned “hello – buon giorno”, “thank you – grazi” and “don’t move – non si muovono” after coming ashore during the beach landing at Salerno, three months and countless casualties ago.

A soldier caught site and approached Maria standing outside the bakery. Her swollen eyes had produced tear tracks like dried rivers on her silt covered cheeks.

“Hello….bon jurno!” he said in his best Italian/Texan as he approached. “My name is Joe Maloney.”

Despite the battle-weary condition of his own mind and appearance, he managed a big, hearty Irish grin. Maria was too spent to move, scream, or run away. She recoiled making it known she was not interested in engaging the handsome American. Undaunted, Maloney lowered himself to eye level and maintained the best friendly face his exhaustion would allow. She gestured as if shooing away a fly.

Maloney said, “Do you speak English, Miss?”

She turned her back. Not knowing what to do next, Private Maloney extracted a piece of cheese he had taken from an abandoned farm over a week ago. He placed it in front of Maria in his tin mess cup. He made one more attempt to get her attention by slowly rattling his quarter full canteen in an offer for her to drink.

Maria, having only ingested dusty remnants of stale bread from the bakery in the last uncounted hours was thirsty. All the water wells in the village were dry or undrinkable. To the surprise of the soldier, she swung around, grabbed the canteen and the tin cup, and fled into the rubble. Maloney thought of following but decided to see if other villagers were in the same bad shape as the frightened girl. He couldn’t get this girl from his mind. She sparkled through the grime that served as her clothing. Her eyes were sunken, puffy, and red from crying, but he saw a life spark in the brown centers.

***

The son of Irish immigrants, Joe Maloney was raised in Lufkin, Texas in the eastern part of the Lone Star state. It was the Great Depression and his father had lost his job as a railroad switch operator. Despite these impoverished conditions, he was fodder-worthy. His Irish Catholic heritage made him a pariah amongst the Southern Baptists. His bright green eyes and friendly smile made him an attraction to the girls of Lufkin, further angering their brothers and fathers. The townspeople called him O’Smiley as a gesture that was both a tease of his Irish roots and a compliment of his temperament. Joe was happy given the circumstances but never felt welcome.

In the summer of 1940, with no end to the depression in sight, 17-year-old Joe was drawn by a $21 per month fortune and signed up to serve in the 36th Division of the Texas National Guard.

Private Maloney was assigned to the 143rd Infantry and found a friend in Private Frank Pellegrini, a second generation Italian who enlisted for the same 21 reasons Joe had. His platoon leader called them “Dumb Mick” and “Greasy Wop.” The rest of his company learned of his Lufkin name and called him O’Smiley for that infectious grin that had attracted the young girls back home. Joe felt more welcome among this hodgepodge including a regiment of Mexican immigrants than he ever had.

When the 36th was decreed regular army, their wages increased to a whopping $50 a month to cover expanded responsibilities. It took two years, an amphibious landing and 90 miles of bloody fighting up the Italian peninsula for them to understand the meaning of “expanded responsibilities”. By the time the 36th Division got to San Pietro, one-third of its men had become casualties of war.

***

In the center of San Pietro, the piazza was coming to life. The mood was somber but with an underlying sense of relief as the misery of Mussolini’s regime and Nazi occupation was over. When the krauts assumed control of the small village, they turned it into a heavily fortified garrison. Gone now were the Panzer tanks pointing their turrets in any direction of a possible attack.  Maria was conflicted by her compatriots warming up to the Allied forces despite the relief that had spread throughout the village.

Rose had finished the water and cheese the smiling soldier had given her before scurrying away. Raised with little more than the love of a mother, father, and twin brother can offer, she was born compassionate. Even if she could never forgive the combatants that fought so hard for her village, she would at least return the tin cup and say Grazi to the soldier.

Days passed, and Rose couldn’t find the American. Her concern surprised her. After all, it was just a tin cup and a dented canteen. The town would never be the same, but things started to change. Bodies once lay like unstacked firewood were given proper burials. The soldiers did all this dirty work while respecting the families of the fallen. They were trained in dealing with booby traps, as she knew of no other deaths or accidents that occurred from Schrapnellmines. She wished the Allies had shown up a day earlier, and perhaps Papi would still be alive. In fact, if they had been there a few years ago, Fabi may not have been martyred.

Normal life including the clops of goat hooves could be heard throughout the village. The cobblestone streets had been clear and were now passable for the villagers and soldiers. The stench of death and destruction was replaced with the aroma of fresh baked bread. Makeshift shops appeared in the piazza offering clothing, bread, cheese, and wine. No one had money, so a friendly barter system sufficed.

Maria traded her tin cup for a new shawl. She kept the canteen in hopes of returning it. Her old clothes carried the permanent scent of the Belmonte’s Pane di Montagna, a perpetual remembrance of everything she lost; too bitter to be wearing daily.

Fresh supplies were delivered every day. It was during one of these deliveries from the back of a Jeep that Rose saw the smiling soldier who had given her the water and cheese. He was chatting with another soldier who looked more like he belonged in the village than in an army uniform. She had picked up some English phrases just from being around the new occupiers. She was neither shy nor outgoing. The decision to approach the men was a matter of courtesy; part of her upbringing.

“Scuzzie,” she said. “Hello, Joe.”

Not realizing Rose was using the colloquialism for an American soldier, Private Maloney turned toward the voice and asked, “Howdy Ma’am. How’d ya know my name?”

He immediately recognized the girl as the one he tried to help when he first walked into San Pietro. She was mesmerizing. The dirt and grime were gone. Her pale pink skin was radiant and her eyes revealed a deep brown color, like the leather on a fine piece of furniture Joe had seen in the National Guard recruitment office.

She extended the empty canteen she carried with her everywhere. With a sultry Italian accent said, “Tank you. Grazi.” The words rolled off her tongue cascading into Joe’s senses.

Maloney took a few seconds to look at her. She was indeed stunning but in an innocent way. He noticed that she carried pain. Even those brown leather eyes couldn’t hide her anguish.

Rose felt her heart beat faster. Was she nervous talking to this strange soldier? She was not intimidated, and she didn’t know why. This man was different somehow.

Maloney mumbled, “No, thank you.” He pointed at the canteen. “Keep it,” he said, smiling.

He now noticed her round bosom filling the shirt beneath the shawl she had traded for the tin cup. He realized that she was older than he originally observed. Perhaps the vulnerability of the moment in the bombed-out Belmonte family bakery had made her look younger. She’s just about my age, he thought.

“Non-non,” Rose said as she blushed and gestured with her hand.

Their discussion became an exchange of sheepish grins. They understood each other via eye contact and emotion. Rose knew she was asked to keep the canteen, and O’Smiley knew she desired to return it to its owner. Maloney realized he had work to do and made his final offer, “I insist…per favori.” He beamed as he said this.

Rose almost giggled as she muttered another soft, “Tank you…grazi,” as she turned and departed. Joe thought he saw her skip as she left…his heart did.

After the surprising encounter with the American soldier, Rose was sullen again. The wounds were still fresh and deep. Even healing scars were in the distant future. She kicked herself for feeling happy for even a few moments with a member of the group responsible for her mother’s death.  She then rationalized they drove out the ones responsible for her father’s death. How would it be possible to ever trust anyone? There is no one to thank – only those to scorn. What was worse: having no one left to love or despising the only the ones left? She cried as she thought about this. It was hopeless.

End of Part 1

San Pietro Rose Part 2

#italiancampaign #wwiihistory #sanpietro #5tharmy #36thinfantry #tpatcher #rapidoriver #markclark #albertkesselring


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