As has been the case several times during the telling of letters home, the next chapter was one in which I came in thinking I knew what story I wanted to tell, but had it completely reshaped from what I found.
It all started with a simple entry in a US Army Morning Report, the daily reports filed by every company during the war detailing their strength, activity and situation. Acquafondata, it said. This place that I had never heard of that my grandfather spent the winter of early 1944 from January 19 to March 14. The reports showed that he had seen action there on several occasions. And I remember him speaking of the hardship that he and his fellow soldiers endured during that hard winter. That some even considered self inflicted wounds as a ticket home despite almost certain court martial proceedings and a dishonorable discharge from the Army.
I knew that at this time the Allies were making a furious push into Italy, having landed at Salerno three months before and after reaching a stalemate at the Gustav line being forced to dig in that terrible winter. What was hoped as a quick push and capture of Rome before Christmas instead became a bloody slog up the Italian boot whose end no one could tell. What was hoped to be a morale boosting victory for the folks back home of the grand Axis capital falling into Allied hands instead became yet another headline of carnage and hard fought battles; more butchers’ bills like those to the tiny farm town of Red Oak, Iowa that received more than 100 telegrams earlier that year informing families that their sons, brothers, boyfriends had been captured, killed or were missing in action.
As new landings took place at Anzio in a final effort to unlock the road to Rome and break open the Axis front in January of 1944, my grandfather found himself entreched in the high mountains in this town called Acquafondata.
I did not know what to expect of this town. I had explored it in Google Street View. Looked at photos online. There were pictures from a wedding at one of the two restaurants in town, Ristorante del Lupo, where I saw people drinking wine, dancing, laughing. These people were not unlike me, I thought. But I also knew that an American family of four cruising into a small town in the Italian mountains far from any tourist area would likely turn heads and elicit unvoiced questions and suspicious stares.
I did not know that I would fall in love with this town. That the stories that it had to tell were not the ones that I had planned to tell. That its people, welcoming and with smiles on their faces, would make us feel as though we were at home, and would treat us as if we were their kin.
After more than two hours of driving from the Italian coast and a surprisingly well demeanored crew of our two and six year old, we arrived in Venafro, the town from which the allies had hurled shells for weeks at the fearful townspeople of Acquafondata. At the meeting point, I saw three gentlemen waiting nearby that I was not sure were our contacts. After passing them and awkwardly backing up, I rolled down the window and said something in English. I think: “Kurt. Acquafondata? World War Two” (I think I managed to say “Guerra Mundial?” for this one.) I must have painted a unique sight to these men who had given up their whole Wednesday afternoon to guide a random American around their town.
Alessio, the law student from the University of Cassino and Vice President of the “Casino MIA 1944” Association who would be our translator said, “Join us for a coffee while we talk about the plan for today, you are our VIPS now.”
I shrugged the statement off, insisting that I was in no way, shape, or form a VIP, but he told me that any person coming to their town, asking about their history, and hoping to remember and share the past, was a VIP to them. So we had a nice coffee, the boys enjoyed a hot chocolate which Jenn reported as among the best she has ever had, which was high praise coming from a sweets aficionado such as her, and we made our way off. Of course, only after Jacob had put coins in the machine that gave him some trinket that was likely lost in under the seat of the car a few hours later.
As we drove up the road to Acquafondata, we followed the same road that eighty years earlier carried the convoy of my grandfather and the 150 men of the 67th CA in their eight 6×6 “Deuce and a Halfs” laden with the Bofors AA gun, .50 caliber Browning machine guns and all of the ammunition and provisions they would need those initial weeks in the mountains of Acquafondata.
Winding up the narrow roads, the autumn leaves blanketing the path and the occasional panoramic view opening with breaks in the trees, I was struck by the beauty of it all. This quiet, peaceful, wilderness. Subject to so much terror years ago. One would not know that children darted through these forests, evading capture of the occupying Germans that winter, dodging artillery shells hurled by both Axis and Allies alike, scavenging for food, as militaries short on supplies requisitioned all they could from the local herds and families.
We made our way finally to Acquafondata and pulled into a small parking lot by city hall. The gentleman that had met us from the Combat Road History Museum, Gino, Artio and Alessio walked us in where we were greeted by Agostino and Eugenio, two elderly men who were young children when my grandfather was there in 1944. Despite the language barrier, they immediately greeted me with a kindness that can only be matched as a grandfather greeting their long lost grandson. My eyes filled with tears as I pictured these men, so seasoned with life, as children suffering through those hellacious winter months, caught between the grip of the Germans and the Allies in 1943 and 1944.
We talked through Alessio’s translation and they shared the horrors of those years, the memories, the way they all stuck together in the face of such adversity. That the fear they all shared was not as much from the government, the soldiers, or the shells, but was that of going hungry. Even though I don’t speak a word of Italian, I’ll never forget the look on Agostino’s face as he recalled those days on the brink of hunger, fetching leftover food from the French mess kitchen, only to be told that army regulations mandated its disposal.
The life hardened faces of these men was evident. But they had a spark in their eyes. The desire they had to tell younger generations like myself what it was like and how important it was to not forget lit up the room as a flame lights the dark. They were impacted by this past in unmistakeable and painful ways, but expressed such a need to share their story. Hearing that the mayor was coming to meet us, I expected to soon see an elderly cigar toting Italian man cut from a scene out of “The Godfather” come through the door, but instead was greeted by a striking middle-aged woman with an air of confidence about her that was the perfect symbol of leadership in this small idyllic community.
After filming these men tell their stories, Eugenio invited us to his home where on display, he showed us beautiful, yet pain evoking artwork that he makes from bombshells and shrapnel that he recovered himself from the area. What things of beauty he had made come from those painful memories of the past.
We finished our trip with a visit to the Combat Road History Museum, a testament to the past of this area run by several history enthusiasts that spend their free time uncovering relics from the mountains around Acquafondata. There we also met Marco, the original contact that I had had with all of these fantastic people. Late one night while communicating over Facebook just a week before, we had found that the same BF 109 aircraft that he and the men from the Combat Road History Museum were scouring the mountains for with metal detectors was one that the 67th CA had shot down in March in 1944.
They opened their museum on this day just for us and with pride showed us the most fantastic collection of WWII relics I have ever seen, bringing to life what it was like to be a soldier in the mountains of Italy in those years. Ailerons of downed aircraft, old rusty rifles, toothpaste tubes, mess kits, dioramas of medical tents, command centers, communications rooms. I held in my hand a piece of the BF 109 that I knew from the morning reports was likely the victim of anti-aircraft fire of the 67th. The life that the men lived in those days came to life in those rooms carefully curated by these men who ran the museum with no intent of profit but simply to bring history back to life.
As we parted ways, I gave them a nice Kentucky Bourbon as a thankyou, and joked that while World War II relics can be recovered from the hills of Acquafondata, this is what comes from the hills where I come from. He laughed and said that this will give him warmth in the forest the next time he is out scouring the mountains for artifacts from the war. Driving back down the mountain and making our way to Rome, I still was in disbelief what a turn the day had taken versus my initial (and I thought at the time unlikely) goal to simply view the field from which the 67th had dug into in 1944. What a rich history those mountains had to tell to those who cared to listen.