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Italian POWs and a Texas Church

by Donald Mace Williams

Paperback, 168 pages

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Partly out of fear of vandalism to the works of art inside, the doors of the church have generally been kept locked over the years. The parishioners see the works on Sundays, most of them being regulars at mass. Outsiders, even since word about the art has spread, have scarcely come in flocks. The little town, Umbarger, like all towns in the Texas Panhandle, is pretty well off to itself. Besides, the town has always been essentially a ring of German-flavored farms looking inward toward the church and not wanting or expecting outsiders, even Catholic ones, to brush past. The priest assigned to St. Mary's at the time the art was put there, which was just at the end of World War II, once approached a family from Amarillo that was visiting for mass and said, "Why don't you go to your own church?"

So the murals, the carvings, and the one big canvas have remained pretty much a private gallery for Umbarger. Even on the weekend every November when hundreds of people from Amarillo and the rest of the Panhandle come to the German-sausage dinner in the parish hall next door, the church has been open only a few years. Umbarger people old enough to remember the hollow-eyed Italian prisoners of war who came to the church to work with paint brushes and carving tools are generally hospitable and willing to reminisce about that period. About numerous, sometimes disrespectful visitors, most of them would probably feel as the former priest did.

It is not this book's purpose to decide whether the art itself, if accessible, would have justified many visitors. The art is at least of a quality to make the inside of the church a "totally unexpected" sight in its region, as the inspectors who in the early 1980s nominated St. Mary's for placement on the National Register of Historic Places said in their report. They judged the art outstanding in design and craftsmanship. No doubt they would have been surprised to know that it was completed in forty-one working days.

Outsiders who know about the art are likely to suppose that the artists put it there out of gratitude to their humane captors. Many Umbarger residents, including some who were around at the time, used to think the same. In fact, the prisoners' sentiments about the American officials of the Hereford Military Reservation and Reception Center, where they were held, twenty-six miles to the west, were largely bitter ones in those summer and fall months of 1945 after the end of the war in Europe. The officials generally reciprocated the sentiments.

The seven prisoners who did the art work, like virtually all other prisoners in the camp by that time, were stubborn noncollaborationists who had refused to renounce their vows as fighting men. They were therefore known, with hostility and with some accuracy, as "Mussolini men." Partly as a consequence of their refusal, they had had their rations cut to a level below that necessary for happiness and health, and they were well into the scheming and thieving stages of hunger. Their motives in accepting the Umbarger project, which the priest at St. Mary's had arranged as a way to get talented artists for very little expenditure, had something to do with curiosity and with the chance to be among civilians, including women. But the main attraction was the prospect of a good country meal every noontime in the basement of the church.

After a few days of those meals and of the relaxed air in the church, the captive artists did indeed become friendly with Umbarger people (more than friendly, in at least one instance). Hence the sentimental and wishful memories among the hosts. The Italians did not create the same impression among American soldiers and officers at the prison camp, many of whom thought them obstructionist, destructive, and obnoxious. These prisoners had refused to give up their adherence to a repugnant system, and they had nursed their activist nostalgia for its late leader. As expected of Mediterranean prisoners, furthermore, they protested their treatment in theatrically excessive terms. It is no wonder that the commander of the camp felt tempted to punish them, even to underfeed them. Giving in to the temptation is another matter. The commander never starved any of his prisoners to death, but he cut their rations to an inhumane level. For Americans who suppose that only the enemy mistreats captives, the last months of the POW camp at Hereford are not a prideworthy episode.

During the first two years of the camp, which received its first prisoners in April 1943, food was plentiful (by the prisoners' own accounts) and of good quality. The change came almost immediately after the victory in Europe, when, as a former prisoner relates, the Allies "found a number of those infamous extermination camps where the Nazists had caused the death of millions of people by starvation or directly killing them." This discovery, he surmised, led to the order that brought on the bad times for the Hereford prisoners. As a matter of fact, it was not the order itself, but the misapplication of it by the American command at the Hereford camp, that was to blame. This was the effect, in the words of Franco Di Bello, at the time a second lieutenant in captivity at Hereford:

In a matter of days, food and all items on sale at the PX [Post Exchange] were cut down to almost nothing and we found ourselves deprived not only of the necessary nourishment, but also of the possibility to exercise any activities. Many of us thought it was not worthy of the Americans acting like that and the new treatment was to be temporary. But it wasn't and things went on that way till we left the U.S. After two or three months of this absurd policy our life in the Camp had become really tough and miserable: people began to fall sick (five of them would have died in the following months), quite a few began to show mental disorders, most of us spent almost the entire day in bed and many became a prey to distrust and pessimism.

No one in fact died of hunger in the camp; and largely because of the intervention of the Catholic bishop of Amarillo, conditions were somewhat improved before Di Bello and most of the other prisoners left for Italy. Nonetheless, his account was substantially accurate. It was in the midst of the period of bad conditions that the project at St. Mary's Church began. And although the project meant relief for Di Bello and the other six participants, the approximately 3,000 prisoners3—especially the 800-odd officers—who did not join them stayed hungry.

This account is concerned mainly with the months starting at the onset of the lean period in May 1945, and it essentially ends with the end of the project at St. Mary's Church, by which time conditions in camp had begun to ease. Because Di Bello was a leader in the church project and was articulate in recounting his days in camp, much of the narration reflects his experiences. He had a further qualification as the central figure in a story about uncooperative prisoners and their treatment: he was a zealous noncollaborationist, taught from childhood to be loyal to Benito Mussolini.

Franco Di Bello, a schoolteacher's child, spent his early boyhood in villages amid the flat farmlands of northeastern Italy. In Percoto, south of Udine, the two-story gray-stone building where his mother taught downstairs and the family lived upstairs is still standing. So are the chestnut tree he used to climb and the stone wall at the corner of the grounds, onto which he would lift his younger brother Bruno to watch for their mother to come back from marketing. In those days, his father rode a bicycle a bumpy three miles over the gravel roads to Udine, where he was a payroll officer in the army.

Franco Di Bello was one of his mother's pupils for the first three years of his schooling. Disciplined when another child might have been let off, he learned the peril of privilege.

"Once, she left the room—maybe to speak with someone, I don't know," Di Bello said. "We began to shout and horse around. When she came back, I was in the first desk, and she shouted and at the same time slapped me."

"You are the first one. You understand you have to give examples to the others," she told him.

His mother, Ida Mannucci di Bello (the parents did not capitalize the d) , who came from Tuscany, in the north, was the disciplinarian at home as well as at school. His father, Eugenio, was a sweet-natured, demonstrative South Italian who played the violin and loved opera, an interest not shared by the rest of the family. When his father tuned in an operatic broadcast on the family's floor-model Magneti Marelli radio, Franco escaped to his room. He always disliked opera, though he had a pleasant baritone voice and after his POW days liked to sing American popular music of the 1940s.

Ida di Bello made herself an example of discipline. After the family had moved to Udine, when Franco was in the fourth grade, she would get her umbrella and her satchel of books, put on her hat, sedately mount her bicycle, and ride four graveled miles to her teaching job at an elementary school in Pradamano. She did everything in the house on top of her job, even the two boys having no regular chores. She cooked meals her husband's southern way, with tomatoes, peppers, and spices, though that was not her way. (Franco Di Bello, who always thought himself like her rather than like his father—analytical rather than emotional—developed a possibly tendentious allergy to garlic during his adolescence.) When she was packing her son's clothes for his trip to military school at Rome, she told him, "Remember, Franco, that life is sacrifice, but sacrifice is never sterile." Later he wrote that precept into the abbreviated diary he kept at Hereford.

The di Bellos moved to Udine in 1929, when Franco was nine. In Piazza Vittorio, a child could make a game of hopping from gray tile to pink tile on the floor of the Venetianstyle city hall and could watch the two mechanical slaves beat out the half-hours from the top of the clock tower on the Loggia del Lionello on the east side of the piazza. Udine was part of the Republic of Venice for centuries. The influence shows in the public buildings and in the graceful windows of the old houses.

In his school days amid such visible order, Franco learned to love rules and to be serene in punishment. It was a formula well conceived for the production of a future noncollaborator. He saw left-handed students with the forbidden hand tied behind them. Using the standard calligraphy, he wrote reports in the prescribed diction: "Today il signor maestro spoke about the 'festa del fiore...'" He memorized a little notebook's-worth of poems and added the flourish of a neat crayon drawing at the top of each poem. Above the "Marcia Reale," the royal hymn, with the refrain "Viva il Re! the joyous trumpets blare" he drew a boy in the uniform of the Balilla holding the green, white, and red Italian flag on a staff. The boy wore shorts and, except for his black shirt, looked much like a Boy Scout.

Sports, to Ida di Bello, meant bruised knees, neglected studies, rough talk, worn-out shoes, and dirty shirts. For a time in his early adolescence, she forbade Franco to play soccer, though by then he thought of almost nothing else. A big game was coming up, and Franco packed a suitcase with his shoes, shorts, and jersey; lowered it by a string from his second-floor window; let himself down to a garage roof; and jumped. When he came home from the game that night, he was sentenced to three days in his room under the usual punishment of silence from both parents. Since he thought the punishment just, he did not protest. Late in life he said that if he should be justly accused of some crime, he would not hire a lawyer to defend him. He would want to be punished.

Whether or not Franco took after his mother as much as he liked to believe, he admired his father enough that from the beginning he was determined to follow him in his career. Eugenio was a proud soldier, though in those days a pencilpushing administrative officer. He had served as a reserve second lieutenant in combat in the first world war and for a year and a half had been a prisoner in Hungary. He was a broad-shouldered man, a little thick in the middle, hawknosed and somewhat taller than the South Italian average. On his bicycle, ready to leave for the barracks, he wore nearly knee-high boots, a cap with a braid, and a broad leather belt. His sword was stuck down from the handlebars along the left side of the front wheel. The Italian army had splendid trappings in those days when Mussolini's epinephrine ran high.

Franco had playmates, but his chief outside interest was calico. If he was alone, he would bounce a soccer ball off the wall for practice. He did not pretend. "I hadn't that much fantasy," he said. "My plays were mostly sports play." He didn't daydream much about travel and adventure, but he wished he could see America, a new and exciting place by the evidence of books and pictures.

At the discipline of soccer, Franco by the age of fifteen had become an outstanding participant, strong and fast; his coach had talked Ida di Bello into rescinding her order. The coach, Mario Cabai, was the right one to influence her, for he had a conscience like hers. Rules, to him, were moral precepts. In soccer, a player can sometimes get by with shoving an opponent away from the ball unobserved, but Cabai would not hear of his players' trying this. He taught loyalty to oneself and to the ideals of the team. The lessons encouraged Franco to police himself later in life, when he might suddenly stop running in the middle of a game. "I thought I was offside," he would explain.

Franco had his sixth birthday when fascism was four years old, and like practically all Italian boys he became one of the Figli della lupa, little Romuluses and Remuses of the Fascist youth program. At school, his teachers taught him obedience to Mussolini. When he was nine, Franco joined the Balilla,the next step above the Sons of the Wolf. He loved the sea and so became a Balilla marinaretto, clad in blue and wearing a flat white cap. On Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning, he rode his bicycle across to the Fascist Youth Hall on the east side of Udine to see an inspirational movie, learn the history of fascism, or study the making of weapons and the organization of the armed forces. The study was light, and the boys generally enjoyed the meetings for the chance to march like real soldiers or sailors. In October 1932, when he was twelve, Franco went to Rome for a Balilla parade before Mussolini. It was the tenth anniversary of the founding of fascism.

Boys not in the marine branch of Balilla trained in the mountains. Probably it was his love of the sea and an antipathy for mountains, rather than any small rebellion against his father's influence, that directed Franco into the marine branch. His part of Italy is a narrow, productive bench between the Adriatic Sea and the rocky Prealpi Venete. To enjoy nature, residents go north to the mountains or south to the beach. Franco disliked skiing, and unlike the many Italians who hunted rabbits and hares and even songbirds for sport and food, he had an aversion to killing animals. He did eat meat, though he saw its origins in haunting clarity when he passed a butcher's shop within which the red, peeled hares, hanging upside down by their bulging hind legs, stared like living things.

When he was fifteen, Franco passed the examinations for admission to the Military School of Rome. He began this apprenticeship for his career in October 1935. The routine was tough at Rome and tougher, later, at Modena, where he attended the Royal Academy of Infantry and Cavalry, Italy's West Point; but he did not chafe under it. Other first-year allievi got hazed (Franco saw some boys squeezing toothpaste into the rectum of another), but Franco was protected by his physique, by a dignity that could intimidate, and by his position as a star soccer player. His best scholastic subject was drawing. He drew ancient buildings freehand with sharp lines, good perspective, and accurate dimensions. He did not paint, and he said with considerable positiveness that he did not draw for recreation or release.

The fellowship at Rome replaced that of the Fascist Youth, which had dropped him the day he entered the military school—the military organization (except for the Fascist Militia) being separate from the party. And the regimen of the Scuola Militare extended that of Ida di Bello. As an instructor of cadets, Franco had to assemble on a Sunday afternoon the seven members of his company who were on punishment and could not have the afternoon off as the others did. One of the seven was missing, with Franco's secret permission. When the officer of the day asked about him, Franco replied, "Sir, he's sick in bed." The officer went to look and found the bed unoccupied. Di Bello confessed and, as he would have done at home, served his five-day confinement in near cheerfulness. He admired justice even from beneath its heel. At Modena, pushed through the two-year curriculum two months early because of the army's need for officers, Franco topped his class of 344 in rifle shooting and in athletics, easily winning the pentathlon that amounted to a final examination in athletics. Prince Umberto, a spectator, congratulated him and afterward exchanged several friendly letters with him. In overall ratings, with emphasis on academic achievement, Franco graduated twenty-second.

Those were good days for him, and better ones followed. Newly commissioned in the infantry, he spent a delightful two-week leave at home. He showed off his uniform to his father, who was very proud, and to his mother; to former teachers and school friends; and to a girl named Miriam whom he met and saw much of during that leave. For him, "bells were ringing, angels flying, violins playing." Miriam was Di Bello's first love. "The war," he said in a letter years later, "was light years far from me in those days, not only because of my general happiness but also because there were no signs at all in my town of a conflict being in progress."

When his leave was over at the end of May 1941, he reported to the motorcycle company to which he had been assigned and was sent to Karlovac, Yugoslavia, for action against the Communist partisans. Di Bello's platoon of thirty-two men was attacked while on reconnaissance and lost twelve men—seven killed, three captured (never to return), and two severely wounded. Those were the worst losses of any platoon's, and the loss conferred a particular obligation upon the unit. Italian authorities had decreed that civilians caught firing on soldiers were to be tried on the spot and shot. A few days after the attack on Di Bello and his men, four partisans who had lain in a ditch and delayed Italian movements with their fire finally ran out of ammunition and were captured, tried, and condemned. The sentence was carried out in the cemetery of the village, with a burial ditch already dug. Di Bello had the duty of commanding a firing squad of his men. Three partisans died instantly. One lay unconscious but alive. With his nine-millimeter Beretta pistol, from a distance of eight inches, Di Bello as commander of the squad shot the man at the place a doctor pointed out on his head. "I can say that that has been the most awful experience that I ever have had in my life," he said forty years afterward.

During the summer of 1942, he was sent to Rome to prepare for North African combat. In January, he took a train to Sicily for a night flight to Tunisia, wondering as he traveled what

would become of his beautiful country, "so incongruous in the role of an aggressor."

Certainly, I would have done my duty at any cost to defend it, but I wasn't going to do so: I was going, as I had been in Yugoslavia, to a Country which had not anything to do with mine, to fight against people whom hadn't shown any aggressive intentions toward my Country, people I didn't hate simply because I hadn't any reason to hate them. This all was mere thinking, of course, because loyalty and duty were both beyond question, but I couldn't stand asking myself, above all, the WHY of my situation at the moment.

In Tunisia, he fought a civilized war compared to that against the partisans—"We knew where the enemy was." On May 7 came news that American troops had taken Tunis. On May 11, having lost contact with headquarters, Di Bello had his seventy men in a wadi waiting for capture. They had burned their documents and destroyed their weapons. They had no ammunition, no food, and no gasoline. When two soldiers in a British armored car appeared, scavenging for captives, Di Bello went out to meet them, not raising his hands or making any other sign of surrender. The noncom who addressed him in high-school French did not point a gun at him. Surrender was the order of the day and needed no formalities. The noncom drove off and returned, hauling four barrels of gasoline. "Vous allez Medjez-el-Bab," he said. Di Bello and his men drove, unescorted, to Medjez-el-Bab and confinement.

Di Bello was glad to learn that his permanent stay as a prisoner would be in the United States, whose newness and power had excited him since childhood. But the violence and misery he experienced at two other North African camps under American control did not reinforce that excitement. On July 21, 1943, Di Bello embarked from Oran on a Liberty Ship. The trip was as bad as the African camps had been: pitifully little food, only twenty minutes of fresh air a day, heavy seas, and "awful news about Sicily, awful news about Italy." Mussolini fell on July 26. Di Bello was seasick all the way across the Atlantic. At Norfolk, Virginia, where the ship docked, there was an overnight wait on board with no food or fresh air.

Everything seemed brighter the next day. The prisoners were taken into a pavilion on shore, deloused, and given a shower, the first in months for Di Bello. "Everything was so neat and orderly, big and wealthy, strong and plentiful that I couldn't do without thinking again and again how stupid a nonsense it had been for my little and poor Country to fight . . . such a powerful, civil, and immense Country." A poster showed an American warplane going down in flames, with the message, "Someone talked." Di Bello sounded it out: "So-may-oh-nay tal-ket." A beautiful language, he decided. Before boarding a train for the camp at Como, Mississippi, the prisoners got a good meal, finally, and were "treated as civil and human beings." On the train ride, Di Bello had his first iced tea, which he liked, and he absorbed the views.

At that point, captivity could have looked worse. It got worse, of course. Di Bello dared it to do so when he unhesitatingly crumpled his collaboration form that fall. That action, which in view of his loyalties he could hardly have failed to take, put him in motion toward the camp on the Texas plains that became a holding area specifically for Italians who, like Di Bello, refused to cooperate with their captors.

Excerpted from Italian POWs and a Texas Church: The Murals of St. Mary's, by Donald Mace Williams, published by Texas Tech University Press (copyright 1992 by Donald Mace Williams).

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