Due to the massive demand from my last post (thank you, Mark), I have posted these recollections of stories told me back in the 60s and 70s.
The Austro-Hungarian soldier
An Austro-Hungarian soldier
A bicycle accident put me in the hospital when I was just in my teens. For a week the guy across the aisle from me was an old guy (about the age I am now), a retired Italian immigrant.
He was born and raised in Trieste, back when that was the major Adriatic port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The second story of the houses were larger than the ground floors and overhung them. He told of shinnying up between the buildings as a kid to poach pies left out to cool on second floor window sills. He said if he’d slipped, he might have been killed.
In 1914 he was drafted into the army and put in a battalion of Italian-speaking troops. They all had to learn 50 words of German to understand their officers. Needless to say, they were deployed on the eastern front against the Russians rather than against the Italians in the Alps.
One of the minor army punishments was up-binden. They stood you up on a barrel with a sturdy post behind. Your wrists were tied together behind you to the post. Then the barrel was kicked out. If you passed out a bucket of water was thrown to awaken you. Miscreants were sentenced to this for an hour or two.
Our guy deployed on the Eastern front. He was captured in 1916. It was likely during the Brusilov Offensive, when the Russians captured some 400,000 troops. A model prisoner, he was released in St. Petersburg to be a house servant for a wealthy family. When the Bolsheviks seized power, the family lit out. They sewed some jewels into pillows and told him to take care of them since they’d be back soon. He thought otherwise and told the local Bolsheviks about the jewels. This put him in good with them. He got along fine with them. Some years later he returned to Italy – Trieste was now the easternmost city in Italy and no longer as important a port. He evidently acquired some Bolshevik politics and worked as a labor organizer. When Mussolini came to power, he made his way to New York City, leaving Italy and his radical days behind.
The German Refugee
This guy was with an acquaintance I met in a bar in the late 60s. He told me the tale of the hyperinflation, when workers were paid daily before lunch and everyone rushed out to buy food before the prices went up. (see the previous post)
He fled to Switzerland since the Nazis were hunting for Jews. He was an illegal alien. He said the Swiss authorities weren’t looking too hard for him but he had to keep a low profile to avoid repatriation/extermination. He did various odd jobs but his most dependable source of income was the Swiss Army. Back then (maybe still?) every Swiss man of military age had to report for a week of training every year. Guys who didn’t want to go would send him instead. In return they let him pocket the week’s pay from the army.
I asked him if he thought fascism could happen in the US. He said it could happen anywhere. But it might be more difficult here. I asked him why. He said in Germany, if you were well dressed and had a commanding voice, you could walk into a train station and announce everyone had to board the first car. People would line up. If you tried that here, someone would ask who the hell you were.
The Italian soldier
In the mid-70s I was in Florence, Italy, enjoying my first trip over the pond. Dining outdoors at a trattoria, I met a local guy who spoke excellent English. It soon became apparent why.
He’d been drafted into the Army in the Second World War. He was in the Trieste Division, though he was a Florentine native. He was sent in a draft of 3,000 reinforcements across the Mediterranean. The RAF intervened and sank the whole convoy. Later I found that the Ultra code-breakers knew when every convoy set out. He was in the water for a day before Italian Navy destroyers picked up the 300 survivors. I assumed they took them back to Italy. Oh no, he said, straight across to Africa and from there to the front. They settled in just in time for Second Alamein. He was captured by Australians and remarked how big they were. I’ve known one Australian and one Kiwi, both very big men. He was shipped to England and then on to the US. Well behaved, in time he was sent to the Pacific where he helped build airfields on Okinawa. That’s why his command of English was so good. He didn’t get back to Italy until 1946.
A Liberty ship
He was a cook on Liberty ships. (Later in life he was an executive chef at a large Long Island restaurant.) After each meal he dumped food scraps over the stern. Several large sharks tailed his ship for the scraps. One night the convoy was under attack, I assume by a wolf pack. He was off duty, since dinner had been served long before. He lay in his bunk, below the waterline. He kept hearing explosions. He eventually fell asleep. In the morning he arose and prepared breakfast. Afterwards he went to the stern with scraps. The ship that had been behind his in the convoy was gone.
Once in the Caribbean, he was out on lifeboat drill with others of his crew. They were out of the harbor when a U-Boat alarm sounded. There was an anti-submarine boom that started to close. He and his boat crew had to row like mad to get back into the harbor before the boom closed. Once closed, it might be 24 hours before it opened again. He said it was a close call, and exhausting.
Liberty ship engine room
Liberty ship engine room
He worked on Liberty ships, wiping down the boilers. It was the lowest job in the engine room. He did tell me one story. He went to Murmansk twice. He was walking in the town when a German plane appeared at very high altitude. The Russians wheeled out a very large anti-aircraft gun and shot down the German. He was mightily impressed by the size and accuracy of the Russian gun. My grandfather also made it to Murmansk twice.
The Legal Secretary/Modern Dancer