Husband & Wife Articles


 

A True Memorial Day Story

Of newborn life and stubborn survival during World War II

By Sabrina Arena Ferrisi

My father’s earliest memories were of sirens blaring. Not from fire trucks or police cars, but the sirens of an air raid.

The year was 1943. My father’s hometown was just outside of Messina, Sicily. He was one month shy of turning 3 years old and had little knowledge that his island had been caught up in a terrible battle. During that fateful summer of 1943, the American-British allies fought to liberate Sicily from the German Nazi and Italian Fascist forces.

As the German/Italian forces lost battle after battle, German forces concentrated on Messina. They set up cannons and anti-aircraft weapons all along the beaches, a few blocks away from my father’s house.

American planes flew overhead during the day of July 14, 1943 – throwing leaflets to the ground with an Italian message. These leaflets warned the civilian population below to evacuate the city because Americans would bomb it in the coming days.

My father remembers that his uncle Peppino immediately packed two suitcases with food, water and bedding. My grandfather was a petty officer in Italy’s Navy. He was away and no one had any news from him. Peppino took my grandmother – a woman of 26 who was nine months pregnant at the time – my dad and his 5-year-old brother, Nino, and everyone started to walk.

The entire city, it seemed, was walking in those days. They walked around a lake, behind St. Nicholas’ parish and up into the mountains. My father was too tired to keep walking so Peppino had to carry him, besides the suitcases.

Everyone in my family knows what happened next: my grandmother began to feel her labor pains coming. Sirens were blaring and the American planes were starting to bomb the city. Peppino knocked on the door of the nearest house frantically, and the Lunino family opened the door. They were probably getting ready to head up into the hills themselves when they realized the situation. Two women of the house brought my grandmother Nina into another room and closed the door. She gave birth to my aunt Josephina in two hours. But the situation was dangerous because they were still fairly close to the city. Everyone had to make the difficult decision to move to higher ground. My grandmother carried her newborn baby girl, unable to rest after childbirth until they reached a safer area.

The bombings continued for many days. The population of my father’s hometown witnessed everything from their vantage point in the mountains. They were able to see when the Germans ultimately fled Messina. Cannons and broken machinery were left on the beaches. As the British and American soldiers marched into the city, the entire town spilled back down the mountain and rejoiced. Scottish soldiers marched with their kilts and bagpipes – causing my grandmother to marvel that these British men were so odd. They dressed like women!

American soldiers immediately began to pass out food packages. My father remembers this vividly because everyone had been near starvation for years. With all the able-bodied men at war, there had been very little food. The packages contained powdered milk, corned beef, biscuits and chocolates. The distribution of food would go on for years in every town that was liberated – an incredible example of America’s generosity and organization.

It was the first happy moment in years.

Meanwhile, my grandfather had been captured by the German Navy in September 1943 because his ship had joined with ten other Italian ships near Cyprus declaring an armistice. The German government disapproved this move and surrounded the ships. The Italian admiral was executed by German troops. The officers on my grandfather’s ship were also slated to be shot dead when Mussolini intervened directly with Adolf Hitler – and asked him to spare the officers and petty officers. Hitler relented and all the Italian officers were shipped to a German labor camp – a coal mine – for over two years. During this time my grandmother got word that her husband was a prisoner of war, but little else. They weren’t treated as cruelly as Jewish prisoners, but they were barely fed. Often they supplemented their meager rations with poison ivy.

American forces liberated my grandfather’s labor camp in 1945 but it took him six months to get back to Sicily. Transportation had been destroyed throughout Europe, so he made it home by walking and hitching rides. When my grandfather finally walked into my father’s house in 1946, the first time my father remembers ever seeing him, he weighed 95 pounds.

During this Memorial Day, it is good to remember the many sacrifices made by our American armed forces throughout our nation’s history. The sacrifices they made during World War II touched my family directly. My father would have grown up in a very different Italy had American soldiers not gone in. And my grandfather might not have survived the war had it continued for much longer. My parents moved to New York in 1968 and two years later I was born. Today, we are all proud to be American citizens.

God bless our nation and our armed forces.

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is senior writer for Legatus magazine.