Homing pigeons, historical novels, and Italy

In the author’s note of a historical novel I read this week, I learned that a homing pigeon named G. I. Joe saved the village of Calvi Vecchia, and the British soldiers who had wrested the village from German occupiers, during World War II.

G.I. Joe received the Dickin Medal for gallantry. He died in 1961, and is now displayed at Fort Monmouth, NJ.

Calvi Vecchia, about 25 km northwest of Caserta, was occupied by the Germans, and Allied air forces were requested to help dislodge them. British infantry were able to liberate the village ahead of schedule but weren’t able to radio the allies’ airfield to call off their attack.

G. I. Joe was released with the message, and carried it to the airfield twenty miles away in just twenty minutes, arriving as the planes were preparing to take off — just in time to prevent the bombing of Calvi Vecchia.

Award-winning author Kate Breslin features homing pigeons in her WWI novel, Far Side of the Sea. Her story, set in 1918, takes British Lieutenant Colin Mabry, struggling to recover from shell shock and injuries, back into France to help the French girl, Jewel, who had saved his life the prior year. With twists and turns like the Amalfi coast road, the plot pulled me along as Colin met Jewel’s sister Johanna. Together they searched for Jewel and her father, encountered spies from all sides, and questioned who they could trust. While Johanna longs to find the only family she has left, Colin seeks God’s purpose and plan for his life after military duty. Breslin’s colorful writing, and the satisfying conclusion, make this a book I recommend!

The book itself has no link to The Italian South, but I was intrigued by Breslin’s mention of G. I Joe in the back matter. I’m always delighted to find tidbits of southern Italy in unexpected places!

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Salvatore and the Priest (Part 2 of 3)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast week’s post introduced Salvatore and our serendipitous meeting.

So how did this 80-something retired Latin teacher from a remote town east of Naples learn English? “I learned from an American priest,” he told us. “The priest who saved Piedimonte Matese!”

We walked along a street that climbed one side of a valley. As we walked, he told us about the priest. As a young man in America, he converted to Roman Catholicism, and was rejected by his Protestant family because of it. They wanted nothing to do with him. But he felt called to the priesthood, and eventually studied in Rome. He was assigned to serve in Piedimonte Matese in the 1930s. His family in America cut him off completely, but he loved his life and work in Italy as a priest, and he taught English to those who wanted to learn, including Salvatore, who was a young teenager at the time.

Then the war came. Mussolini joined the Axis powers in 1937, and as war gradually engulfed Europe, life in Italy became more and more difficult. The German presence in Italy grew to an oppressive level, and life was further disrupted by food shortages and military conscription. With the potential of American involvement in the war, the church and community authorities urged the priest to return to America, but he refused. Italy was his home, and he had no family waiting for him.

Then came Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered the war.

Salvatore paused on the sidewalk and pointed across the valley to another section of the town. “Do you see the palazzo over there, the biggest building? That is where the priest stayed during the war.”

The ducal palace, highest building in this photo.

The ducal palace, largest building in this photo.

Because it wasn’t safe for him to continue his service, the authorities prevailed upon the local duke to take him under his protection. Within the Palazzo Ducale, the priest was safe, but he could not leave the palace without risk of capture and imprisonment as an enemy alien.

Almost two years later, in the fall of 1943, American and British forces began making their way north up the Italian peninsula. The Germans had established a camp west of Piedimonte Matesa, near the Volturno River, and as the Allied forces approached in October, the Germans began a slow retreat, destroying bridges, roads, and supplies in their wake.

American forces continued their approach, shelling locations the Germans had occupied, causing additional damage to the war-ravaged town. The citizens were caught in the crossfire.  The priest knew the Germans had all withdrawn from the town, and wanted to let the approaching Allied forces know.

He attached a white flag to a pole, and set out for the American line, over the protests of the local citizens. When they realized he would not be dissuaded, a couple of them joined him as he walked down the main road directly into the Allied attack, waving the white flag and calling out to them in English. Finally, the shooting stopped.

“He saved our town,” Salvatore told us with tears in his eyes. “He was a hero to us.”

The Allies set up a camp where the Germans had been, and helped restore some order to the area. They needed help communicating with the local officials and citizens, and the priest recommended his young student, Salvatore, as their translator. Each day an army jeep driver picked up Salvatore to help with translation, and he was granted permission to be out after curfew so he could give Italian language lessons to the soldiers in the evenings. His father’s house had been bombed, and the soldiers helped them begin rebuilding.

“You see,” Salvatore said, “we owe a lot to Americans.”

I took photos of the palazzo across the valley, and we started back down the road. “Now, I’d like you to come to my house. I have made some liqueur I would like you to try.”

Come back next week for Part 3!