A Day In August

"When I was a child, the grown-ups sometimes muttered among themselves about 'What happened at Sant'Anna di Stazzema'. They said it with the complicity of adults into which children were not admitted ... but what was it that happened? I asked the grown-ups, my parents, my uncle, my aunt. And they didn't reply." - Antonio Tabucchi

I suppose, even as a child, I sensed a cloud over my father's head. He was a gentle man, my papa, a man who loved life, a man of laughter, and music in his soul. But every August something would come over him...a strange sort of darkness.

He would go up to the attic, to the trunk we never opened, and stay there for hours, just staring at it and whatever lay within. Sometimes I'd see tears in his eyes, and sometimes when he held me so tightly I knew he was thinking of something or someone else, a hundred miles away.

You see, my papa was a part of the Greatest Generation, or so it's called, the young men who fought in the second world war. He served in Italy in the darker days of the war, part of the first wave on Salerno. Like many others he never spoke of what he saw there but I can imagine. Few of that first wave survived.

He met my mother in Italy, a girl who visited the hospitals and saw him, wounded. Mama told me once that they hadn't expected him to live, but she had prayed, had held his hand through the worst, and listened to days and nights of feverish dreams. The war ended while he fought for life and when he woke her face was the first thing he saw.

I thought it romantic as a child and even acted it out with my dolls. But now, as an adult, I realize how much Papa must have suffered. Some of the men in his squad came back missing arms and legs, one even blinded. Some never came home at all.

I was grown before he let me see the trunk. I couldn't make sense of most of it. There was a pair of dice, the painted dots faded and the ivory chipped, and a battered and incomplete deck of cards. There was a faded dollar bill in the bottom and when I asked all he said was "the last rent he paid me." with an odd and sad smile. There was a St. Christopher medal on a chain, and a purple heart in it's box. I found a newspaper on the side, with a picture of Papa, looking young and handsome, the way he must have looked when Mama and he were married. I found a couple photographs too, of an older man with a broad smile, a young captain, and another officer with a quiet expression, standing beside two men sitting on the steps of an old Italian church. There was a lighter haired man, older than Papa had been, and in front, grinning ear to ear, was a young soldier, little more than a tow-headed boy. And then Papa, guitar in his hand, black eyes staring out of the picture.

He told me their names once, softly, with reverence. I touched their faces in the photograph, learned each one as if I'd known them too...from Hansen who spoke German, who disappeared in a battle and was missing in action for days only to turn up unharmed and with a bottle of wine under his arm, to young Gibson who held onto communications under heavy fire, risking his life to get help for the squad, but couldn't bear to watch an enemy be killed.

When Papa was very old he started talking more about the war, of his friends, and even of the battles. But never what had happened one day in August.

And after a while I stopped asking.

August 12, 1944.

August, 1944. Days of endless fighting have worn the men beyond endurance. They hardly look human now, thin and drawn, bearing the mud of a country they've fought for, inch by painful inch.

In their eyes are images of war, of loss, filling them up, choking the life out of them. It's painful to look at them, impossible to look away.

I think we all have seen too much.

It starts like any other day, warm, endlessly long, and waiting. The orders to move come in around noon and the men, streaked with a week's worth of dust and dirt, bone weary, and on short rations, march across another stretch of land beneath the dispassionate Italian sun.

They go toward a little town, Sant'Anna di Stazzema. A tiny village that any other day they might have passed and not noticed, forgotten as quickly as they came. But it's not any other day, and none of them will ever forget.

There's a scent in the air, a strange smell that they'll remember until their dying day. Smoke and death in the summer air.

They see it as soon as they enter the town, standing in the shadow of a charred cross on a broken church steeple.

"Dear God in heaven." In years later Captain Benedict never remembers that the words came from his own mouth, only the horror frozen into the faces of his men as they stare at the blackened pile around them.

It takes him several seconds to identify the charred and twisted mass as human and when recognition comes a wave of nausea claws at his throat. Behind him he can hear the sound of retching as Gibson loses his C-rations. Hansen and Lucavich stand silent and white faced, grins and joking cut off as if severed by a knife, leaving them expressionless. Hansen's hand is twisted into Ernie's sleeve and he makes no effort to remove it. Kimbro wipes a shaking hand across his mouth, face unnaturally pale.

Only D'Angelo takes a step forward, then another, and a third, until he's surrounded by the charred corpses. He bends, touches one - an infant, lying tossed like a broken doll on the pile. He rises slowly, as if an aged man, standing stiff like a severed tree in the instant before it falls.

Everywhere they turn there's more dead, hundreds, men, women, and children, bodies ripped apart by knives, bullets, and shrapnel. Civilians, murdered in cold blood.

"Captain." Gibson whispers hoarsely. Benedict's head raises, eyes staring past the field of death and into the center of the pile, at the small shape crawling from beneath. A boy, no more than six, clothes torn, blood staining his skin like spilled wine. He takes a stumbling step forward, black eyes hollow in his face.

He stops somewhere between the dead and the living, empty and aged gaze meeting the soldiers'. His mouth opens but no sound comes out, arms reaching forward in a silent plea.

And then D'Angelo is running, falling on his knees in front of the child and crushing him against his jacket. Tiny hands come up, twine in the folds of the fabric, and finally grip around his neck in a strangle hold. D'Angelo is speaking, half sobbing, half yelling, words tangled together, a mixture of Italian and English, curses and soothing sounds. His eyes are wide, as hollow as the child's. He doesn't even know he's screaming.

After a while he falls silent, face buried against the silent child. Kimbro gently touches the boy, searching for wounds but the blood doesn't seem to be the child's. The boy is silent and motionless, numb, clinging only to D'Angelo and not responding to the whispered Italian words.

He stands and gathers the child up in his arms, carrying him away from the corpses.

There's no time to bury the dead, or even make a cross over them. The devout among them whisper fragile prayers, and D'Angelo slowly crosses himself with his free hand, still holding the child in his other arm.

They set out again, the boy on D'Angelo's back, little legs and arms clenched around him like an orphaned monkey. None of them speak, eyes staring off into the fading day. Kimbro lights a cigarette but only holds it, examining it as if he's never seen one before. Finally he stamps it out, a fading ember in the battered ground behind them.

It's dark by the time they reach a field with trenches dug by the squad before them. There's still dead men lying in some of them but they sit down anyway, the child cradled in D'Angelo's arms. He pulls out his meager rations and divides them, 2/3 for the boy, a third for himself. The little dark head stays pressed into his uniform, resting against the medal beneath the cloth as if drawing comfort from it. He hums softly, an Italian lullaby from his childhood and the boy's breathing evens out, eyes closing in sleep.

He's bone weary and starting to nod off himself when Gibson jerks upright next to him and he sees the flash of a knife in the darkness. The child starts, clinging to him as he rolls with a yell, and Lucavich kills the enemy. Then there's more, running out of the darkness beneath the dim light of a weary moon.

He carries the child into a stand of trees, sets him down and pushes him back. "Don't move."

He runs back to the men, ignoring the screams of dying men he can't identify as friend or enemy in the darkness, killing the nearest German before he puts a knife in Hansen. It's over quickly, one of their's dead, a man he barely knew, and six Germans. He goes back to the clearing, calling in a harsh whisper for the boy.

The child stands up and he starts forward at the same instant a German steps into the clearing. There's a sudden flash in D'Angelo's eyes, a strange light of an otherworldly knowledge..the knowing a man has seconds before his life ends. And then there's the crash of undergrowth as the child runs forward, between D'Angelo and the German, between the guns.

"No!"

There's no hesitation as the German squeezes the trigger, no regret in his eyes as the lead exists and cuts the air between them. There's piercing silence, deafening in magnitude, only an instant as a breath is inhaled, as a ribbon of red streaks out and falls to the ground, soaking into the earth, followed by the unbearably loud sound of more guns exploding as bullets rip through the German. He jerks, twisting grotesquely, arms thrown outward like a puppet with it's strings tangled. And then he falls lifeless to the ground, outflung hand inches from the child lying motionless and broken and still.

Though it all there's the sound of someone screaming, a sound that never ends, an almost animalistic howl of agony. It isn't until Lt. Kimbro wraps his arms around D'Angelo and holds him back that he realizes the sound is coming from his own mouth.

August 13, 1944

"They did everything they could." Conley's voice is achingly gentle. "There was too much damage. If it's anything, Pete, he didn't suffer."

The man against the tree says nothing. His face is set in stone, body rigid. Only his hands move, twitching around the rim of the helmet clenched in tight fingers as if they have a life of their own.

"Pete?"

His face lifts slightly, looks toward the older man.

"Why, Conley?" His voice is scraped hoarse, the words frail. "Tell me why."

He's seeking answers, understanding, anything that will allow him to comprehend yesterday, the death, the horror they've witnessed, the loss of a little survivor they barely got time to know. But most of all he's seeking an answer as to why a group of men walked into a town on a day in August and murdered over 500 people without a passing regret.

So Conley says the only answer he can.

"I don't know, Pete. I don't think I ever will."

An estimated 560 men, women, and children, including a 20 day old infant, were blown up with grenades or machine gunned to death August 12, 1944, after which the bodies and village were burned. While the fire raged the soldiers sat on the hill overlooking Sant'Anna and ate their lunch. A few people survived, huddled beneath the bodies and escaping after the soldiers had left. Overall it's estimated that the German army (including common soldiers, not just the Nazis) murdered 7,500 or more Italian civilians during WWII. Six of the men part of the division who committed the massacre are still living in Germany. One of the men, Gerhard Sommer, in a 2002 interview, stated "I have an absolutely pure conscience."