Photograph from Ralph Hotchkiss Archive: March 1944 – Italian peasants using a ferry built by the US Army Corp of Engineers.
This is part 2 of 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 less than a ten-minute read per part. Parts will be posted in two-week intervals.
San Pietro, Italy – December 1943
…..What was worse: having no one left to love or despising the ones left? She cried as she thought about this. It was hopeless.
There were noticeable changes in the days following the Allied occupation. The soldiers started performing military exercises. The Germans were gone from San Pietro, but the aura of pending conflict remained. This was evident in the soldiers’ behavior even as they tried to make local life as normal as possible. Rose saw vehicles and troops assembled in an orderly fashion. Troops would head out of the city with full packs and returned tired and dirty.
Privates Maloney and Pellegrini went out on reconnaissance missions with their platoon every day. The “Greasy Wop” was Joe’s best friend. No soldier enjoyed these duties, but it gave Joe the opportunity to tell his buddy the feelings he had for the beautiful village girl. Frank kept to himself as to what they both knew. It was probably not a good idea to get attached now. It would be a matter of days before they would be moving on to yet more brutal fighting.
They were patrolling in and around the nearby Liri Valley and the Rapido River. The terrain was difficult at best. Unusually large amounts of rain and cold weather joined forces with hordes of tanks, troops and artillery to create a barren landscape with a mud floor and sawed off trees standing like pillars with no roof to support. Lurking below the surface was the omnipresence of human maiming contraptions. Mines took life or limbs without discretion. Human blood would complete the quagmire in a short few days when Joe, Frank and their 143rd Infantry would be charged with crossing the Rapido River.
The results of these missions revealed a large defensive force on the north side of the river. Patrols were routinely within firing range of the multitude of Howitzers and sniper fire from the kraut positions, but no enemy fire was encountered. The enemy did not wish to reveal the locations of their offensive posistions. They would wait for a much larger target than a couple of platoons.
Each time Maloney returned from one of the missions he would spend every available moment looking for the girl with pink skin and leather-brown eyes. He had seen her on two occasions during exercises and spent those brief moments becoming more emotionally attached. His present hope was headed towards love, the future had other plans.
Joe was making a routine delivery of Army issue blankets to a Church cum makeshift shelter near Belmonte’s bakery. Maria was inside still struggling to determine if it was worth rebuilding. It would be the emotional damage that would ultimately doom the bakery and the entire village for that matter. She had cleared the one room left intact from the shelling. It was where she slept and wept in equal parts. She exited the demolished bakery and ran right into Private Maloney carrying a stack of olive drab blankets. Startled, she found herself perking up as she said, “Buon Giorno, Joe!”
Joe beamed. “Hi…errr…bon jurno!” was all he could manage, still wondering how she knew his name.
He added his new Italian phrase: “Comay tee key amee – what is your name?” Careful to get each syllable correct.
“Buono – good!” Maria applauded. “Mi chiamo Maria.”
Unsure, Joe repeated, “Madea?”
“Non,” she paused and thoughtfully corrected herself, “Mi chiamo Rose!”
Ahhh, Rose, like the flower…that’s perfect, Maloney thought. In response, he said, “Mee key ammo Joe.” He added, “but you already knew that – but how?”
Rose help herself from breaking out in laughter. She understood immediately that this was a real Joe and not “GI Joe” for a US soldier.
“You Joe, me Rose,” she gestured while not trying to hide the blush on her pink cheeks. Her giddiness was infectious, and they both huddled over laughing at their new-found method of communication.
After the most comfortable yet uncomfortable silence that followed, Rose pointed to the blankets Joe had set down on a nearby pile of stone that once was a bench. He motioned he was delivering them to the town Basilica being used as a shelter for residents hardest hit by the battle. Rose got up, handed half the bundle to Joe, grabbed the rest herself, and marched into the shelter.
Maloney’s directive was to drop off the blankets. He knew that Rose had an expanded purpose. Rose knew Sister Marguerita, the Mother Superior of the nuns taking care of those in the shelter. They embraced and exchanged brushes of both cheeks. Mutual smiles and nod of approval were followed by Rose heading through an archway into the nave that had been set up as living quarters. It was overflowing with people, most of whom were acquainted with Rose. She made rounds, distributing blankets and speaking with the displaced villagers; mostly elders. She set alight the dreary place with her attitude. The clouds outside even parted and allowed shafts of sunlight to beam through the stained glass miraculously spared from artillery. Rose had a new purpose which showed in her demeanor. She became the most upbeat and caring person in San Pietro. She was hugged and thanked and blessed and thanked some more. Joe almost wished he were in one of the cots so he could give her a hug, too.
Departing to a universal shout of “Ciao Bella!” Joe and Rose left the shelter. She was on a roll. This American had helped her find a part of her that cared again. She grabbed Joe by the hand and led him into the bakery. She brought over two stools from the corner, wiped off the dust so they could sit down. She went into what was once a storage room and returned with a small jug of wine, two glasses, a loaf of fresh bread and cheese she had traded for earlier that morning. She uncorked the wine and poured a glass for each.
Joe took a bite of bread and cheese. He couldn’t remember the last time he tasted such freshness – better than K-Rations he thought. They sat and ate and drank and laughed at each other’s attempts to communicate. They connected in a way that does not require a common language.
Joe’s gestures were understood as if he were fluent in Italian. He signed, “Do you want to help me?” He made a sweeping wave to indicate he was referring to the entire village.
“Si!” Rose cried. She clapped her hands in pleasure and said “Grazi, caro amico – thank you my friend!” over and over.
They continued with their sign-language banter and teaching each other words. When Joe asked about family la familia, Rose slumped and said “morte.”
Joe put one hand on his chest and extended the other, mouthing “so sorry Rose, so sorry,” over and over.
She embraced him strongly. She held tight and Joe soon sensed she was sobbing. He let her cry on his shoulder for as long she needed. When she lifted her head, Rose gazed into Joe’s eyes with a compassion like nothing he ever felt. They kissed. At first gently and then more passionately. After unlocking and with a sheepish grin, she got up, wiped away a tear, and walked him out of the bakery. They departed with both thinking the same thing: “I can’t wait until tomorrow,” a feeling devoid from their consciences going further back then they could remember.
The following morning, Rose found her way to the staging area where the 36th Infantry Division supply trucks dropped off the contents of their vehicles. On the way, she saw all the tents. It dawned on her how many soldiers were in and around San Pietro. There had to be thousands, she realized. She approached the three circus-sized tents that served as the warehouse for the supplies. She saw boxes piled high inside the tent with “Ammunition: Garand” stenciled on the side right next to a stack labeled: “Amusement: Reading Material.” Alphabetic, she thought not knowing the meaning of the words.
Wandering around the perimeter, she walked by pallets of triangular stacked 155mm Howitzer shells and marveled at the size of “il prioettiles.” Along with the huge “bullets”, she noticed a row of enormous guns along the boundary of the clearing. The “Long Toms” were being readied for serious action. There were tables full of uniforms, stacks of boots, even a haphazard pile of gas masks. Her upbeat mood started to waver.
She perked up when she heard Joe’s voice as he ran towards her and cried, “Rose! Bueno giorno, Rose! Ti amo, Rose!”
She was taken aback and openly blushed at the last comment. Noticing her reaction, Joe silently thanked Frank for telling him to say that to her. “It meant pretty girl,” Frank had told Joe with a wink. She met him with her arms wide open and flung them around his perspiring neck. Maloney had been unloading trucks for over an hour, and despite the cool December temperature, he had worked up a sweat. She gave him a cheek-to-cheek “air kiss” suitable for public eyes.
“Yuck!” she said, shaking her hands by her side indicating he had dripped sweat on her.
“Just watering my Rose,” said Joe as he made a watering can gesture.
“Grazi. I’ll grow strong like you now!” she giggled and made like a strongman.
Joe chuckled at her gusto and grabbed her by the hand. He led her to the far side of the tent where supplies more suitable to Rose’s jubilant mood were being laid out.
At the area designated for “local supplies,” Frank was among the Italian speaking soldiers, so communication became easier. With the palpable urgency of a near-term departure, Joe started asking questions in rapid succession with Frank translating. What did she like to do? What food did she like? What’s your favorite color?
Rose wanted to know where Joe was from and how old he was. Questions that belied an underlying premonition that any digging into of the past or future would go down a bleak road. A place neither Joe nor Rose wanted to travel at this juncture. One statement stuck with her. Joe told her that Frank was the one person she could trust. “He would save my life, and I would save his,” he said.
She had forgotten he was a soldier. Soldiers destroyed and killed in order to survive and save. This was difficult for Rose to grasp…at least the killing part.
The exchange was cut off as a booming voice was heard, “K Company! Fall in!”
Joe gave Rose a “Ciao Bella” as they embraced, air-kissed and then he and Frank responded to the call. The 143rd Infantry of the 36th T-Patchers were being summoned to a Division address by the General Fred Walker.
End Part 2
#italiancampaign #wwiihistory #sanpietro #5tharmy #36thinfantry #tpatcher #rapidoriver #markclark #albertkesselring
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