On a 1944 Battleground, Salute for a Black Hero

 

By Alessandra Stanley, July 16, 2000

 

SOMMOCOLONIA, Italy, July 15 -- Albert O. Burke, 80, silently strolled around the ruins of a medieval fortress in the village where dozens of black servicemen were killed on Dec. 26, 1944, and broke down. "I felt I owed it to the fellows to come back," he sobbed as two other frail veterans held him up. "But I don't think I want to come back here anymore."

The place that stirred him so deeply is Sommocolonia, a poignant footnote in both World War II military history and the still uncompleted story of America's black war veterans. Among Mr. Burke's comrades killed here was a lieutenant named John Fox, who died shortly after ordering his own men to fire on his position because it was about to be overrun by advancing Austrian and German soldiers. A hero of the black 92nd Infantry Division in a segregated United States military, Lieutenant Fox was awarded a Medal of Honor only in 1997.

Mr. Burke, Otis Zachary, 83, and Richard O. Hogg, 80, toured Sommocolonia on Friday, their first visit to the battle zone in almost 56 years, seeking to close the most vivid chapter of their lives. And the anguish they relived was echoed among the Italian war survivors who welcomed their return.

The black veterans and their Italian hosts have more than war memories in common. Just as Mr. Burke and his comrades and relatives cannot shed their bitterness over the United States' long refusal to recognize the combat records of black servicemen fully, many Italian veterans cannot forgive their own countrymen who fought against them more than 50 years ago.

Sommocolonia, a dying mountain village of fewer than 50 inhabitants that overlooks Barga in Tuscany, wants to forge out of its ruins some sort of peace memorial to honor Lieutenant Fox and all those who died: black soldiers, village civilians, Italian partisans, and Italian and German troops. But that still hazy plan has resurrected old rancors.

"Peace is always won through liberation from oppression, and you cannot put together oppressors and liberators," said Moreno Salvatori, 67, who withdrew from the "Fortress of Peace" committee in protest. His father was taken prisoner by the Germans during the war and died in captivity. "It's a mixing of memories that I cannot share."

Perhaps the only thing that everyone agrees on is that Lieutenant Fox was a hero whom all sides must hurry to honor here before those few left who remember his heroism die.

It was that sense of urgency that led Solace Wales, an American writer who has commuted between Marin County, Calif., and Sommocolonia since 1972, to invite "Buffalo Soldiers," the name first given to black servicemen in the 1860's, back to Sommocolonia for a memorial ceremony on Sunday, even before the town had agreed on what kind of monument to build.

Ms. Wales, who began 20 years ago to research the history of Lieutenant Fox and the other black soldiers who fought around Sommocolonia, is a little like Frances Mayes, author of "Under the Tuscan Sun," only in addition to fixing up her 16th-century villa and garden Ms. Wales wanted to restore Sommocolonia's place in history. "Somebody had to tell the story," she said. "It had been in the shadows too long."

Unrooting the story of Lieutenant Fox was not difficult here, where survivors warmly recall the black soldiers. They were part of the Allied forces seeking to keep Axis troops behind the so-called Gothic Line, which in 1944 stretched from the Ligurian Sea to the Adriatic.

The surprise German attack was part of a somewhat desperate attempt to push through Allied lines and take the port of Livorno. An Austrian unit captured Sommocolonia and Barga on Dec. 26, but proved too weak to hold its gains. By Jan. 1, the Allies had more or less re-established their original positions. Some military historians credit Lieutenant Fox with buying time as the Americans retreated so that other men could be saved.

On the Piazza Martiri della Resistenza, a memorial in a wooded park at the top of Sommocolonia, seven stone slabs commemorate slain Italian resistance fighters. Next to them another memorial reads, in Italian, "John Fox. Lt. American Army. 26.12.44" It was erected in 1979, three years before the United States Army, under pressure from black veterans associations, awarded Lieutenant Fox the Distinguished Service Cross.

"They were wonderful, so nice to us," said Irma Biondi, now 77. "My little brothers followed them like shadows."

"We had never seen so much food," she added, remembering the chicken, rabbits, chocolate and cheese that the more than 60 black servicemen stationed here gave out on Christmas Day, 1944.

She also vividly recalled the sound of the stomping boots of Austrian soldiers under German command who began storming the town that night. "We fled out into the streets, passing over the bodies of dead Americans and Germans," she said.

At least seven civilians died that day. German war records show that 43 members of the Austrian Fourth Mountain Division died in the fighting. United States Army records are sketchier, but historians say about 40 black American soldiers died here.

"We still have fellows who should be recognized now," said Mr. Burke, president of the 92nd Infantry Division World War II Association, a Buffalo Soldiers veterans association, talking about lingering discrimination against all black veterans.

Reminiscing earlier at their hotel in Barga, the three men joked as they recalled petty injustices inflicted by their senior officers, who were white. But when Mr. Zachary, still cocky at 83, reached the tower, he too was overcome. After trying to console Mr. Burke, he collapsed himself.

"Burke," he keened, "I see him in the tower, I see John."

Arlene Fox, the widow of Lieutenant Fox, arrived on Thursday to stay with Ms. Wales in Sommocolonia, accompanied by her sister-in-law, her daughter and two grandchildren. But she did not go with her husband's comrades on their first tour of the crumbling fortress. "I have a lot of unresolved feelings about being here," she explained. "Its so beautiful, and people have been so kind, and that helps. But it is not easy."

That was what Antonio Nardini, 79, said, only he was talking about dealing with his own experience as a soldier in Mussolini's army. Mr. Nardini, who volunteered in 1939, was taken prisoner by Italian partisans in 1945, and said he was rescued from execution by the Americans.

"Before 1943, Italy had 40 million Fascists," he said, citing the year Mussolini was overthrown and Italy switched sides. "Afterward," he said sarcastically, "there were 40 million anti-Fascists. Except one: me."

Several former partisans said that it was time to get over wartime enmities and to honor all the dead, including the Fascists and Germans. Mr. Nardini, who is president of the Barga chapter of the Lucca Historical Society, agreed. He, like most other former Fascists, mourns his fallen comrades in private ceremonies.

"There is a lot of demagoguery about the resistance," he said. "But there is no debate about Fox."

"His gesture may have been futile," he said, noting that the Germans took the town anyway. "But he acted like a real soldier."

In tiny Sommocolonia, the desire for a monument is not just about Lieutenant Fox, or even the war. It is about surviving postwar demographic shifts that have turned a once vibrant village into an almost deserted retirement home.

"We need something alive, for the town, not a museum for the dead," said Dario Giannini, who is coordinating the weekend activities. "The bombs didn't just destroy the fortress, they killed the hope of the entire village."


MEDAL OF HONOR

 

First Lieutenant John R. Fox

 

General Order:

 

Citation:

 

For extraordinary heroism against an armed enemy in the vicinity of Sommocolonia, Italy on 26 December 1944, while serving as a member of Cannon Company, 366th Infantry Regiment, 92d Infantry Division. During the preceding few weeks, Lieutenant Fox served with the 598th Field Artillery Battalion as a forward observer. On Christmas night, enemy soldiers gradually infiltrated the town of Sommocolonia in civilian clothes, and by early morning the town was largely in hostile hands. Commencing with a heavy barrage of enemy artillery at 0400 hours on 26 December 1944, an organized attack by uniformed German units began. Being greatly outnumbered, most of the United States Infantry forces were forced to withdraw from the town, but Lieutenant Fox and some other members of his observer party voluntarily remained on the second floor of a house to direct defensive artillery fire. At 0800 hours, Lieutenant Fox reported that the Germans were in the streets and attacking in strength. He then called for defensive artillery fire to slow the enemy advance. As the Germans continued to press the attack towards the area that Lieutenant Fox occupied, he adjusted the artillery fire closer to his position. Finally he was warned that the next adjustment would bring the deadly artillery right on top of his position. After acknowledging the danger, Lieutenant Fox insisted that the last adjustment be fired as this was the only way to defeat the attacking soldiers. Later, when a counterattack retook the position from the Germans, Lieutenant Fox's body was found with the bodies of approximately 100 German soldiers. Lieutenant Fox's gallant and courageous actions, at the supreme sacrifice of his own life, contributed greatly to delaying the enemy advance until other infantry and artillery units could reorganize to repel the attack. His extraordinary valorous actions were in keeping with the most cherished traditions of military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army.


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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov