IN ITALY
BY OLLIE STEWART

Women for Sale

North Africa, Sicily and now Italy--it's always the same when you follow in the wake of the Germans. In North Africa you listened to the French and Arabs and then looked for yourself. Now you listen to the Sicilians and Italians, and then you look.

Death, destruction, hunger, nakedness and despair. I have seen them all in the places I have visited after German soldiers had departed. Now it is an old story, But I still can't look with indifference upon hordes of hungry people, homeless and cold, without thinking of them in terms of America.

A few days ago we rode through a gutted Italian city, or perhaps I should say village. Here and there a man or woman poked and peered into shambles that had once been their homes, and in most cases all their worldly goods had been lost when a bomb struck.

Said a soldier at my side: "I wonder how we would feel if we got back to the States and found our homes like that!"

In Tunis and Bizerte and Palermo and Messina and Naples I have seen the ruins of lovely villas and apartment houses that must have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I thought of the men whose entire fortunes had been tied up in these buildings, and how they must have felt the morning after the bombs made them paupers. For, in almost every instance, if the structure has not been entirely destroyed, the ruins will have to be blown down.

Recently I looked across the Bay of Naples at the Isle of Capri, Famed in song and story for its gaiety. Now the waterfront at Naples looks like the rear end of a tornado, and the pleasure-loving people have departed from Capri for the safety of the mountains.

Beautiful shore drives are dented with bomb craters and bridges are all dynamited by German rear engineers.

And the people--ah, the people. They have been caught between two fires. Americans and British bombed the daylights out of their homes when the German were there. When the Allied armies moved in, the Germans returned to bomb the towns again.

Old women trudge along highways barefoot; young women likewise have no shoed and very scanty dresses, but the loads they carry on their heads would put many stevedores to shame. They beg for rides in army vehicles, but we have to pass them because it is forbidden to pick up unauthorized civilians.

Children toddle along, gnawing on anything they pick up that looks edible, and swarm over the road when a truck passes, hoping the soldiers will throw something to eat their way. Everybody begs. The most common expression since I left Tunis is, "Niente manjare," meaning nothing to eat.

Perhaps it is done at home, but the first time I saw a human being eat congealed blood was in Barcellona, in Sicily.

I stood in a bare meat market for ten minutes and watched a line of people march in and eagerly buy slabs of dried blood that were heated in hot water and came out dripping. They ate it ravenously and offered some to me, but stomach wouldn't stand it.

I never knew the smell of death until a short time ago. In an area where hard fighting had occurred there hadn't been time to bury the dead before we came along.

In about a half hour the stench of bloated bodies made me desperately ill. I cannot remember having ever smelled anything quite so nauseating as men swollen and wormy under a blazing sun.

Yes, this war has many sides to it. I heard a civilian offering a soldier a bargain recently. The soldier was to provide a can of corned beef, and some hard biscuits. The civilian was to provide a woman. When the soldier asked whether the woman was young and good-looking the other man became indignant.

"She's beautiful, and there's nothing common about her. She's my sister."

I have heard mothers offer to barter their daughters for food and clothes, with more eagerness than shame.

Then there is another side. Many fine families invite our men to meals and entertain them royally, and the best way to offend them is to offer them money. Laundry is done at cut-rate prices and fruit and nuts and consistently brought to camp as peace offerings.

 

How Big is a Bomb Hole?

The most-fired shells among our soldiers are those for the Springfield rifle, second come the Thompson sub-machine guns. From time to time the lads have found German and Italian rifles and carbines, with plenty of ammunition. They sit on the beach on the afternoon and set up a barrage across the blue water. Rules against firing in or close to the bivouac area are strict, since several men were shot by accident.

In case you've wondered about the size of bomb holes, it might interest you to know that a 500-pound bomb makes a hole about six feet in diameter in fairly soft ground, but can wreck a house completely if a direct hit is scored. A thousand pounder or a two thousand pound bomb digs out a crater approximately 25 feet in diameter and throws chunks of dirt 100 yards away. One of these can ruin several houses, especially the way these houses are built of stone and plaster here in Sicily.

However, bombs do strange things. I have seen them cut a building in half, leaving both side walls standing; leave a bed made up in a room with bedroom slippers undisturbed under the bed. I have seen a wrecked house with table set up for a meal and plates unbroken.

On the other hand, a direct hit with a 1000-pounder often drops through four floors and scoops out a crater 20 feet deep below the basement. Parts of Catania, Palmero, Bizerte, Randazzo, Mateur and Messina are nothing but rubble. I've seen houses on both sides of the street leveled. You can't tell where the bombs fell--it's all messed up.

Yet, anybody will tell you after a few raids that it's not the big bombs that worry them. If you're in a hole and not direct hit is scored, you're fairly safe. Your bad moments come from small fragmentation bombs (often called anti-personnel bombs) which fighter planes drop, or they jump out of big bombs to explode five minutes after the bomber has departed.

They are meant to maim or blind or frighten civilians, and are dropped in crowds or bivouac areas. Jagged hunks of shrapnel fly in every direction about chest high, and woe unto the person who stops a few.

Civilians and soldiers are still being killed by mines which the Germans planted. It is impossible for engineers to cover the whole island, so if you wander off the beaten path you're liable to be a casualty in a hurry.

Incidentally, I flew to Sicily in less than two hours, ate lunch on the plane and watched boys of the fighter squadron weave back and forth overhead as they escorted us over. I felt absolutely safe and nothing exciting happened. Weather here is still very hot in the day, but cool for sleeping at night. Rainy season is supposed to start about mid-October.

 

The Nazis Dish It Out

Once or twice I have been certain that I'd never get back to the U.S.A. But always after a heavy bombing, I have a big appetite and forget the whole thing before noon.

I'll never get used to night bombings. It's a terrible thing to be lying in a hole when huge flares light up the scene for miles and big bombers fill your ears with a roar and the bombs whistle down. And all the time the ant-aircraft guns are chattering like mad. Light, noise and sudden death. You always wonder will the next one fall in your lap--and you know there isn't a damn thing you can do about it.

I don't write much about these bombings I have been in--more than a dozen bad ones, all told. I suppose.

Somehow, I can't get it down how I feel, I am scared to death, actually. A few nights ago a big one fell very close and shrapnel tore holes in my tent. I sat up and poked my fist through the fright. We sat there like two dummies until day break, saying nothing that made sense.

Some men lose their nerve and get hysterical. Maybe I'll go that way one of these nights. If a soldier over here never saw a German he would know them by their bombers.

I wonder how Baltimore would take it if 50 JU-88s leveled half the downtown buildings one night, and machine-gunned Druid Hill Avenue? Well, a lot of kids from schools and offices are now going through something similar. I looked at Palmero the other day. It's a mess. Debris all over the streets--but our guys have to stay on the job and put out the fires.

You read in the States from a communique. It says enemy aircraft were active over the city and some damage was done. It may not mention that incendiaries set fire to ammunition and shells went off like firecrackers; or that a direct hit killed fifteen guys in one gun emplacement or at a gas dump Tracer bullets fill the sky with weird light; and fragmentation bombs go off under your nose when you think the whole thing is over.

It's actually funny that I'm still living when I've died so many deaths in the past year.

It may seem strange, but songs intended for certain units are seldom heard in such units. Take the sir corps song, for instance, I have heard it only twice--once by a white group and once by a colored squadron to which I was attached in September, 1944.

The boys don't bother to sing such ditties. They leave that for rabble rousers at home; for the people who want to drum up patriotism by noise. These kids risk their necks every day and don't see any point in wasting energy.

When you're pestered by fleas and lice and flies and dust, and worried about people back home--not to mention death lurking at your side every minute of the day and night--you think a guy is silly as hell singing about something you wish was over with. War us only glorious in history books, or in the mouth of a politician.

 

No Color Line in Foxholes

One can predict the attitude of the soldiers when they return to America after the war is over, but each month I have noted a change overseas. The common danger, the common foe and hardships of battle are bringing American troops closer together.

My first year overseas is almost completed and my greatest gain has been increased tolerance for the many different peoples I have seen. Soldier after soldier has told me he can never be narrow-minded again after seeing such widespread human suffering.

Technically our army is separated by racial lines, but actually every man in our uniform has been brought together by our job. Freedom for all is our aim, and even the most rabid hater of a different race has been forced to admit that to gain victory and freedom for himself for himself, he has to share same with every comrade in arms.

There are no color lines in foxholes or when a landing barge is being shelled; when an air field is strafed or when a convoy is dive bombed. I have seen colored and white who glared at each other before a bombing get quite chummy after death whistled by in big hunks of shrapnel.

Hungry white soldiers gladly wave mess kits in a colored chow line and vice versa. Men who had never eaten, slept or drunk with a different race now share the same bottle of wine, use fingers in the same rations and bunk in the same ditch or tent.

Of course as I look back, I recall many instances of bitterness between racial groups, but with each campaign that becomes harder. Opinion here is growing stronger that the American army cannot fight two wars at the same time--one against the Axis and the other between its own white and colored soldiers.

No one can now deny credit to colored men in all branches of service over here. Every landing and invasion has groups doing various jobs, and not one has disrupted our advance by treachery or inefficiency.

In Sicily some of the same quartermaster and engineer troops I saw in the mud of Tunisia last winter are still setting records in heat and dust of this campaign. Without machinery, food, medicines, and gas, we could not have gotten here, and under rain of shellfire colored troops helped bring these essentials ashore.

Many lives will be lost before the final victory is achieved, but already our men are looking ahead toward their part in the post-war world. While statesmen study maps in anticipation of global control, these boys lie on the ground and swat flies and sweat on docks to make this control possible, and all they want to know is will they be allowed to enjoy what they have fought for?

Slogans do not interest them and I have nor met an idealist after waves of Stukas have passed his way. Our men talk of concrete things like homes with good plumbing, steady jobs, good schools, clean government with opportunity for all.

In my travels among many thousands of soldiers, I find that colored soldiers expect to share these same rewards of victory in the same way they have shared danger from the German ME-198's and eighty-eight millimeter guns.

 

Copyright 2001-, Terry Muse
Revised: December 30, 2001
URL: http://black_and_hispanic.tripod.com/blackhistory/
Contact: Terry Muse