VALDINATO, 1943

Book VI of the World War Two Series
Fiction: war/adventure/historical romance


 

The story begins in New York, but since the central character, Ennio, an Italian-American pastry chef, decides he should sign up, the action soon moves to the invasion of Italy. He becomes a cook with a company moving north from Naples, village by village, toward Rome. Meanwhile Lucia is working the family farm in the Liri Valley below the Abbey of Monte Cassino. Ennio and his friends are stopped short by the Germans at their Gustav Line, of which the Abbey forms a crucial part. Lucia’s farm is bombed, and she and Ennio are soon involved personally in one of the worst battles of WWII.

 

Italian Campaign Facts

After the Axis’ defeat in North Africa, the Allies had to choose their next step. Churchill wanted to invade Italy, to open the Mediterranean to Allied traffic. Stalin had been pressing to open a “second front” in Europe, and invading Italy would serve to tie down German forces that would otherwise fight at the Russian front. But General Marshall wanted to avoid operations that might delay the invasion planned to take place in France. It was agreed to invade Sicily, and once that was successful, the remainder of the Italian mainland. In late July 1943 Mussolini was deposed as head of the Italian government, which then approached the Allies to make peace. It was believed an invasion of Italy might hasten an Italian surrender and produce quick victories over the German troops trapped there. German resistance, however, proved strong, and fierce fighting in Italy continued even after the fall of Berlin.

 

Sample chapter: © David Andrew Westwood 2012, all rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced without written permission from the author.

14. Naples, October 1943.

In Newport News Harbor, thousands of khaki-clad men shuffled onto graceless Liberty ships. It was raining. “You lucky guys,” one dockworker yelled, “Sunny Italy!” A hundred and fifty ships in a heaving convoy, with destroyers zigzagging around and, some said, submarines below, they made their way across the Atlantic. Liberty ships, it transpired, were sluggish and ungainly vessels, designed for cheapness and speed of construction, with no concessions to seaworthiness or comfort.

The men, belowdecks for most of the trip, were bored. For those who didn’t gamble, the only interest was eating. The men would take their food from the chow line and through into the dining room, where instead of sitting at tables they stood and ate at long waist-high counters.

Four days out they hit a storm. All had queasy stomachs, and when one man got sick at lunch and threw up, this set off an entire line of men refilling their trays, a kind of eating in reverse. Ennio was horrified.

At least he wasn’t in charge of the kitchens here, dealing with the incessant pitch and yaw of the deck, putting together meals in a timeless twilight for a constant stream of men that only sometimes stayed down inside them. The whole affair had a nightmarish quality that was intensified by the added dimension of claustrophobia. It would have been funny had it not lasted for weeks. What time of day was it? Would they never dock? Would they be sunk? Bombed? What was that creaking—was the ship coming apart? Were there too few lifeboats in case of an emergency, like on the Titanic? On the rare occasions he was allowed topside it certainly looked like it.

And topside was usually rain-lashed and bitterly cold, an equally oppressive environment, just without the smells. He’d seen a newsreel of men exercising on deck as they were shipped over, playing leapfrog, baseball, tennis—laughing, joking. Here they just huddled in the lee of the Frances Cleveland’s superstructure and shivered.

Tempers flared as men, with no female companionship and trapped like animals in a cheap zoo, took out their frustrations on each other. Fistfights were common, triggered by territorial disputes over sleeping arrangements, nonpayments of poker and craps debts, possession of more than your share of cigarettes, even too long spent in the head. Ennio tried to eat early and quickly, go back to the bunks to take advantage of the sleeping area when it was relatively empty, help out the cooks with preparations for the next meal—anything to get himself away from the crush of short-tempered and malodorous men.

But he slept poorly at night, fretting about what could happen and how powerless he’d be in the bowels of the ship if it did. Nightly he thanked God he had not picked the Navy and been forced to live this way for the entire duration of his service. So he would wake up early and walk the endless interior passageways of the Frances Cleveland, passageways that were never horizontal but always canting one way or the other.

He made the mistake of confiding his fears to a Navy Cadet during one of his wanderings.

“What do we do if we’re hit?” Ennio asked, “There’s been no drills.”

The man just laughed and said, “That’s because there’s nothing you can do. These bastards are welded, not riveted. They break in half and go down in under a minute. You won’t even have time to kiss your ass goodbye. And no ship stops to pick up survivors. Orders.”

On his way back to the sleeping quarters, Ennio lost his way. All the gray metal corridors and stairs looked the same. All the sailors he passed, all the soldiers, looked the same. The swaying of the walls became hypnotic. It was this way, wasn’t it? No, surely he had just been down here. This was like a house of mirrors at the carnival. The ship was lurching. Another storm? People he passed were looking at him strangely. These were not corridors, these were paths in a maze. He was a rat trapped in a maze. He fell.

·  ·  ·

“Capriotti. Capriotti. Can you hear me?”

A middle-aged man’s face peered worriedly into his. He wore a stethoscope and a little name badge on his white coat that read L. Sugarman, M.D.

“Y-yes. I can hear you.”

“Capriotti—why on God’s green earth did you join up if you get grand mals?”

“They … they don’t happen often.”

“That’s not the point. The point is that they happen at all. Someone with your condition is no use to the Army.”

“I want to serve.”

“Capriotti. Listen to me. You … are … no … goddamn … use … to the Army.”

“That’s not true.”

“I can send you back, y’know. I think I will.”

“No. I’m just a cook. It won’t matter.”

Sugarman laughed humorlessly. “You won’t be much use if you pass out in your meatloaf.” He looked around for a moment, thinking. “Stay here tonight. I’ll say you had heat prostration. They don’t care about that.”

·  ·  ·

At Oran they were transferred to another ship for the two-day journey to Naples. Once there they had to climb down ropes because all the wreckage in the harbor meant they couldn’t berth normally at a wharf. Ennio quickly found he did not have the knack of climbing down a rope ladder, which swung from side to side, in and out, while simultaneously sagging and jerking. He promptly became seriously tangled. Next thing he knew he was extricated by Tagata and two of his men. They laughed as they set him upright. “Thanks for the rice!” they called, and staggered off under their enormous packs.

He had to clamber ashore from the hull of one sunken ship to the next. It was dark, and pouring with cold rain. “Welcome to sunny Italy,” called a dockworker. His first step onto European soil. He looked around, his legs so used to compensating for the swaying of the ship that he couldn’t stop reeling like a drunk.

As dawn broke, he looked around. So this was the country his parents had emigrated from. He had expected to feel something profound, some deep and visceral connection to his racial past. Instead, he wrinkled his nose. Naples was smoking, and it stank. The Allies had bombed, then the Germans had blown up its sewage system and anything else that might have become usable by their enemy, leaving the mess behind them, and now it was the Germans who bombed. The end result was a city in pieces but still full of people. Desperate, hungry people.

The ships had been loaded backwards, with the matériel that would be needed first hoisted on last. Off came the vehicles to begin with, and Ennio was told it would be some time before the kitchens would be accessible. As the infantry boys drove off in their trucks, he and his assistants wandered around the docks awaiting their turn.

Girls younger than himself, women like his mother, offered themselves to him in exchange for something—anything—to eat. Everywhere he went it was, “Hey, Joe…” and a suggestive action of some kind. Even if he hadn’t been put off by the films on venereal disease they’d been subjected to on board, he wouldn’t have been interested. He had urges like any other guy, sure, but he didn’t feel like losing his virginity under these circumstances. But if he found a nice Italian girl from a nice family that didn’t need to walk the streets … well, that would be a different matter.

But he did have access to all his company’s C rations, and he handed them out whenever he could. The girls would look at the can and back at him and say things like, “Che cazzo? You want flicky-flick now?” And he’d just shake his head and walk on.

The other men didn’t seem to share these reservations, and everywhere he looked he saw furtive assignations—alleys, doorways, between stacks of crates. For a pack of cigarettes or a candy bar, most men seemed to be taking the opportunity of getting themselves a moment or two of pleasure. The whole place had a sad and sordid air, a kind of end-of-the-world desperation.

Ennio ran into his colonel, a man named Davy, who sat him down on a barrel.

“Cannoli—I hear that’s what they call you, right? We’re out of here at dawn tomorrow. That guy waiting over there is Pruitt, your driver. He’s been here a coupla weeks, so he knows the ropes. He’ll show you where the field kitchens are, and he’ll help you load ‘em. The food truck’ll follow yours. Good luck, keep an eye on your kit at all times, and I’ll see you at the first stop. Get cooking the minute we stop.”

“Sir. How long will that be?”

“Can’t tell you.”

“What should I serve, sir—I mean, what time–?”

“Can’t tell you that, either. Oh, and one more thing…” The colonel stuffed his pipe and lit it. “I don’t know what all they taught you at Shelby about cooking, Cannoli,” he said, his pipe bowl glowing in the dark, “But food’s pretty important to the GI. You probably think he’s more interested in gals and booze, but that’s not right. The one thing he’ll talk about all the time is food. Even more than mail call, and that’s saying something. And the longer he’s at the front, the more he’ll talk about it. Sure, you can’t give him what he dreams about, but you can make it more than just the basic slop. I want you to try your best for my boys, OK? You’re their link to home, just as much as that letter from a sweetheart.”

“Yessir.”

Davy stood. “Good man.”

Pruitt showed Ennio to his truck, a Chevrolet G7107 flatbed one-and-a-half tonner that he called ‘Bertha’ because “it reminds me of my mother-in-law, big and ugly,” and three M-1937 gasoline powered field kitchens in boxes. These three working together, Ennio had been taught, could serve 225 men, though how the Army had come up with that number he wasn’t clear. Pruitt stood on the wharf, supervising stevedores who unpacked and loaded the field kitchens onto Bertha. The kitchens had handles on each side and were relatively light and easy to move, and they set them side-by-side behind the cab on the bed of the Chevy. Straps were provided to keep them in place, and Pruitt hammered in a strip of 4x4 in front of them to help keep them from shifting in transit.

Pruitt explained that the gasoline they would need was stacked fifty yards away. Ennio told Greeley to bring ten cans back to their truck, and as the man walked off an enormous explosion knocked them on their backs. A fireball engulfed the area, and everyone staggered to their feet and ran in the opposite direction as fast as their legs would carry them.

Pruitt helped Ennio and Pruitt to their feet. “Krauts seem to’ve left us a little present,” he said. “Time bomb. Happens every now and then. Where’s your other guy?”

When the flames had been doused they found the body of Greeley shriveled into a black arc, burned almost beyond recognition.

Perhaps it was the end of the world.

Medics were called down from a ship, and the three watched them bag the body and carry it back on board. Each dealt with the experience in a different way. Ennio was shaken to the core, seeing death for the first time, and began to ponder on the fragility of mortality. Spall seemed to take it personally, and looked at everything as if it might explode at any moment, preferring to stand behind someone else.

Pruitt, after a smoke and relieving himself off the edge of the dock, said almost cheerfully, “You two got the day to yourselves, and the loadin’s done. What say we look around?”

“My bag,” Spall said, peering around a corner of the wharf, “It’s gone.”

“Shit,” Pruitt said, shaking his head. “Gotta keep an eye on your stuff every minute here, don’tcha know that? Everythin’ not nailed down goes missin’. Got any money?”

“Some. Why?”

“I know where you can buy it back. Follow me.”

They walked from the docks into the city, Vesuvius smoking desultorily in the distance. At every turn were bomb craters, rubble, and abandoned streetcars being stripped of anything salvageable. The unmistakable smell of sewage pervaded the air, mixed with that of wet stone dust. The Neapolitans themselves were emaciated and puffy-eyed, dressed in motley concoctions of fabric they had turned into everyday clothing—sacks, drapes, wedding dresses, dinner jackets, dishtowels. Everywhere ragged and hard-eyed urchins ran from brick pile to brick pile, clutching something or other they must consider valuable.

“Those are the scugnazzi. Watch out for the holes in the street—they’ve stolen the manhole covers too. If you drop your voice they’ll pick it up and sell it back to you.”

One of the little boys came up to them, holding out his hand, which was wrapped in a disgusting blood-soaked bandage covered in flies. “Gum, Joe?” he asked. Ennio shuddered. “What d’you think happened to him?”

“Kid musta picked a Brit truck to try an’ rob. They’ve lost so much gear that now they hide a guy in the back with a bayonet, and when he sees fingers grab onto the back of the truck he chops ‘em off. Half the kids in the city are missin’ some.”

On the way they passed a butcher’s shop. Ennio stopped and stared in the window.

“They have rabbit,” he told the others. “Maybe we could buy some, and–”

“They’re not rabbits,” Pruitt said, walking on.

“Yes they are. The ears...”

Pruitt returned and went to the window. “Look,” he said, pointing. “See the cut on the neck? Rabbit’s head, cat’s body. They chop the tail off, sell it as rabbit.”

“Really? How does it taste?”

“I’d rather eat rat. Let’s go.”

“I ate rat once,” Spall said, “on a bet.”

“And?” Ennio asked.

Spall shrugged. “Kind of a cross ‘tween squirrel and possum.”

In just a few minutes they had reached via Forcella, a street lined on both sides by stalls and tables loaded with items for sale and busy with browsing American and British shoppers. It only took a second for Ennio and the others to recognize Allied equipment of all kinds. B, C and K rations, boots, combat jackets, kit bags, canteens, helmets, ammunition belts, holsters, and lengths of copper wire. Some tables showed cameras, binoculars, compasses, even a sextant. Presumably, on request, they would pull out the guns and ammo, a jeep or two.

“Well,” Pruitt said to Spall, sweeping an arm around to include the bazaar, “what d’you need?”

“Well, first of all I need some smokes,” Spall began, “And—”

“Sigaretti! Here, Joe!” and the seller launched into a torrent of Neapolitan dialect.

Spall looked at Ennio. “What’d he say?”

“He wants to know if you want the humped donkey—Camels, I guess, or the bearded King—Raleighs.”

“Uh … I’ll take a carton of the humped donkeys.” Spall pulled out his money.

“Don’t give him what he’s askin’, you idiot,” Pruitt told him. “Here—” and he negotiated violently with the man until a price was agreed upon.

·  ·  ·

That night, as they prepared to move out, the Germans paid them a little call. Pruitt had warned them earlier that now that they had been ousted from the city, the Krauts liked to return to bomb it. But only at night, because their reserves were low and they couldn’t risk aircraft in daytime operations. He said that as air raids went, the Naples hits were small.

Small, perhaps, but to Ennio and Spall the random explosions lighting the night around them, and anti-aircraft fire hammering back, made an air raid of any size terrifying. They cringed under containers on the dock, hoping to be missed, but for the half hour duration of the raid they felt helpless and doomed. When the all-clear sounded, they found Pruitt already nonchalantly loading the last of the stores.