My father’s Italian parents, Leonardo and Anna Maria Mecca, resided in a small mountainous village about 50 miles east of Salerno known as Avigliano before immigrating to the United States. They sought America’s freedom and opportunity, but nothing else.
Once an important center of woodworking and cutlery artisans, an earthquake in 1980 decimated Avigliano and destroyed most of the ancient buildings. However, today Avigliano thrives as a tourist attraction with fine eateries and modern hotels, yet my grandparents’ birthplace contributed no significant role in WWII.
Further north, approximately 56 miles southeast of Genoa, the hilly township of Ameglia, with a comparable population but less altitude, played a major yet mostly forgotten role during WWII. Swept under the blanket of ‘security’ for many years, the heart-breaking story of 15 brave Italian-American heroes has just recently gained its much deserved attention. And this is their story.
♦ Santoro Calcara was born in 1920 in Mazara del Vallo, Sicily, a fishing village. Like my grandfather, ’s father immigrated to America first and his wife, Rosa, raised their son by herself. Santoro was 18 years old before he reunited with his dad, Giuseppe, in Detroit. Santoro found his childhood sweetheart, Carmela, got a job as a machinist, and daydreamed of the day they would be joined in marriage. But as the winds of war beckoned America’s new citizens, 21-year-old Santoro Calcara joined the Army on October 23, 1941.
♦ Angelo Sirico was born in Ottaviano, on the slopes of dormant Mount Vesuvius, in 1921. His father immigrated to America the same year, and within a year his wife and two children followed. The couple had five more children. At 22 years of age, Angelo was drafted and sent to Europe. Angelo’s father, Domenico, received word that Angelo was MIA (Missing in Action), yet kept the news from his wife, Anna, to protect her from grieving for her son. Domenico continued his protection when the news of Angelo’s death was delivered. Anna passed in 1945, never knowing she would be reunited with her son upon her death.
♦ Alfred L. De Flumeri was born in 1911 in Natick, Massachusetts, where his family had taken roots at the turn of the century. He married Ida Lodi in 1932. Ten years later at the age of 31, Alfred joined the Army. He would be the oldest soldier in an elite ‘unit’ being formed by the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), precursors of the CIA.
♦ Salvatore Di Sclafani didn’t want to be in the Army; he wanted to join the Navy with a cousin. Health issues kept Salvatore out of the Navy, yet the Army accepted him with open arms. He was the second of seven siblings, born in 1916. Salvatore worked as a polisher before being drafted. He earned a Soldier’s Medal during the war for saving a fellow soldier from drowning.
♦ Joseph M. Farrell was born in Stamford, Conn. in 1922. His father was an American of Italian origin and his Italian mother hailed from Marineo, near Palermo. Joseph participated in the Anzio landing on January 22, 1944 and earned a “Bronze Arrowhead.”
♦ John J. Leone’s father, Emilo, immigrated to the U.S. in 1893 and settled in Poughkeepsie, NY. Emilo worked in a Main St. barbershop. He and his wife, Carmela, had seven children. John, born in 1922, joined the Army in November 1943. He wrote home from the island of Corsica (excerpts): “Dear Mom and Dad, I am in the best of heath and hope everyone at home is the same. I am on the island of Corsica, a small island owned by the French. I got paid but there isn’t a store worth spending my money, so I’m sending $100 home, please save it for me.” That was John’s last letter. The ‘mission’ would be launched from Corsica.
♦ Joseph A. Libardi was born in Stockbridge, Mass. in 1921. He was the son of Giuseppe Giocondo Libardi, an immigrant from the town of Levico, a village still under Austrian rule where many of the residents were immigrating to America to escape the bitter misery. His spouse, Rose, emigrated from the Trentino region.
♦ Dominick C. Mauro’s parents immigrated from Baucina, about 15 miles from Palermo. At age 25, Dominick was drafted, just like his brothers. He wrote home (excerpts): “Dear Mom, just to remind you that you will not hear from me for several weeks. This precaution is purely for our protection. For heaven’s sake don’t worry about the khaki suit I left at home. The Army has more clothes than we can use up.”
♦ Joseph Noia’s father left the mountains of San Lorenzo Bellizzi and immigrated to America in 1912. Joseph worked as a playground teacher and attended two years of college. He was drafted in 1942, two years after the death of his 16-year-old sister, Rosalia.
♦ Vincent J. Russo was born in 1916. His father, Giovanni, and his mother, Luisa Marano, both grew up in Rocchetta Sant’Antonio Foggia province. They settled in Montclair, NJ and procreated five children. Vincent followed in his father’s footsteps to work in construction before the war.
♦ Thomas N. Savino’s daughter, Grace, was one year old when her father was killed in WWII. Her mother remarried and with the new marriage, her birth father’s story was not shared with the new family. Grace knew her father was originally from the Puglia region. Her grandfather never learned English, but with gestures he would remind her of how she looked so much like his son, Thomas.
♦ Rosario F. Squatrito, the son of Sicilian immigrants, and one of nine offspring, had several nicknames: Saddo, Sonny, and Rosy. He loved his father’s De Nobili cigars and ‘pilfered’ them with regularity. Drafted into the Army, Rosario volunteered for the commandos. His family did not like his decision. He wrote to his girlfriend, Ann (excerpts): “I love you and miss you. I am on the island of Corsica, a French island. Tell my parents that I miss them and that I love them. Be well and God bless us all.” Rosairo’s mother never believed that her son had been killed in combat: his dog tag was not returned and she died believing her son had survived the war and was safely somewhere else.
♦ Paul J. Traficante’s parents immigrated from Caltbellotta near Agrigento. Paul had completed one draft assignment, but re-enlisted in March 1942 after hearing the news of Pearl Harbor during his brother’s wedding. He was 23 years old. An excerpt from his last letter: “There isn’t much doing here and the grind is getting very boring. We had an American movie here and it was so old it wasn’t even funny. Over here all you see are soldiers and more soldiers.”
♦ Liberty J. Tremonte’s first name inspired his patriotism. He had four sisters and four brothers. All the brothers served in the military; three in WWII, one in Korea. In August 1943, he wrote his sister, Carmela (excerpts): “Hi, Sis. We do a lot of exercise that is the most important part in this outfit. We are called Gorillas, can you imagine a little shrimp like me being a gorilla? We are training somewhere in Washington, that’s all I can tell you. This is a very secret outfit. We can hardly say anything.”
♦ Livio Vieceli’s parents, Angel and Angelina, had eight children. As war raged in Europe, all four of the brothers enlisted, as does a sister, Blanche, who achieved the rank of Captain as a nurse. As a US Army sergeant, Livio found himself in Europe in 1944. He carried a family picture with him: 10 Italians, a mother, father, and eight offspring; the father sporting a mustache and eight offspring that all look alike.
GINNY I AND GINNY II
The secret mission for the 15 Italian-American commandos, 2677th Special Reconnaissance Battalion OSS, were the railroad tunnels on a segment of the Genoa-La Spezia rail line. Bomber missions had failed to seal the tunnels, therefore, it was up to the commandos to sabotage the tunnels which would cut the line of communications to German forces in central Italy.
The Italian-Americans were chosen, of course, because the Army thought they spoke Italian and could communicate with the local populace, if need be. Ironically, some spoke Italian, some didn’t. The operation was code-named Ginny.
On February 27, 1944 at 19:45 (7:45 p.m.), the 15 bold commandos departed Bastia Harbor in Corsica on two Navy PT Boats. Their landing site was the coast of Liguria in northwest Italy, roughly 170 miles from Corsica. Even with the speed attributed to PT Boats, the journey was considerable, plus the raid was delayed several times to avoid enemy vessels via radar contact. At 0125 (1:25 a.m.) on the 28th, the boats arrived at the disembarkation point.
Using rubber boats, the commandos paddled for shore. All the men were properly dressed in military uniforms to avoid being shot as spies had they been dressed in civilian clothes. Once ashore, First Lt. Vincent Russo sensed something was wrong. He heard a train to the northeast, thus realizing the team had landed too far south of their objective. To achieve their goal, the team would have to spend the night ashore after hitting their target.
The senior officer aboard the PT Boats nixed the idea due to German patrols, both on land and sea. He ordered the OSS team to return to the PT Boats. They did so, and returned to Bastia Harbor at 0730 (7:30 a.m.) that morning. A second mission to hit the same tunnels, code named Ginny II, was planned for March.
On the fateful evening of March 22, 1944, the Italian-Americans boarded two PT Boats, PT-214 and PT-210. By 2300 (11 p.m.), they had arrived on station. Using three rubber boats, they went ashore. Lt. Russo took three men on a reconnaissance patrol while the other men guarded the boats and explosives. Still somewhat off course, the targeted railway tunnels were about 1.5 miles west of their position.
Radio contact with the PT Boats was suddenly lost. One boat left the area after detecting German ships; the other developed mechanical problems. The mechanical repairs were completed by dawn, too late and too dangerous to pick-up the commando team. The pick-up was delayed until the next night.
Meanwhile, on shore, the 15 commandos spent the day in hiding. At night, moving under the cover of darkness, they found an abandoned stable and took shelter. A young farmer, Franco Lagaxo, lived nearby and discovered the American soldiers. He not only provided them with food, but led them to Framura station, the target of their mission. PT Boats once again put to sea for a rescue attempt; no contact was made, and the boats returned to Corsica.
On March 24, a fisherman noticed the partially-concealed rubber boats and notifies the authorities. The young farmer, Lagaxo, attempted to warn the commandos but was too late. After a brief skirmish with Italian Fascist and German soldiers, the Italian-American raiders were captured and taken to the German HQ in La Spezia for interrogation.
On the morning of March 25, information on the captured U.S. soldiers was sent to General Anton Dostler at the 75th German Army Corps HQ. Dostler conveyed the information to General Albert Kesselring, Field Marshall and Commanding General of all German forces in Italy.
In accordance with Adolph Hitler’s 1942 Commando Order that all Allied commandos captured behind German lines were to be executed, even if properly attired in military uniforms, Kesselring ordered the Italian-American commandos to be executed. Hitler’s order and Kesselring’s compliance was in direct violation of the Geneva Convention.
All 15 Italian-American commandos, with their hands tied behind their backs and still wearing U.S. Army uniforms, were marched to the rocky tip of Ameglia’s peninsula. Executed on the spot, the G.I.s were buried in a mass grave that was then camouflaged to cover up the war crime. All records ordering the executions were destroyed as part of the cover up.
After the war, Field Marshall Kesselring denied any involvement with the executions and escaped punishment. General Dostler, however, was put on trial and sentenced to death.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran. For story consideration, visit his website at veteransarticle.com and click on “contact us.”