21 April 2011

Liberation Day and The Liberation of America


Ameglia Basso, Magra River, Colli di Luni, & Apuan Alps
One spring day in 1991 we looked out the window onto the Piazza della Liberta in Ameglia and were shocked. There was a long procession led by a priest and a group of uniformed officials and two flag bearers with a huge Italian flag and a huge American flag. This began our education about the Italian holiday Liberation Day and the events it celebrates. We are Americans who had just bought an apartment in the hill town of Ameglia in Liguria.  As we learned more of the history of WWII in Italy, and of the history of the surrounding territory, we came to realize that Liberation Day is our American history as well.  Not the history of facts and dates, but the important history of ideas, dignity, courage, and self-determination. Within the history of Lunigiana and nearby Versilia is an inspiring and emblematic story of part of America's racial and social liberation.

First, a short precis of the events here in WWII (link to more below ).  After Mussolini was removed in July 1943, Italy surrendered, but Germany seized the country and established a puppet regime. The Allies landed in Sorrento and later Anzio, near Rome, and began fighting their way up the peninsula, pushing the German and fascist Italian forces back.  The German army established the Gothic line along the natural barrier of the Appenine mountains to prevent the Allies from entering the plain of the Po. Here at the coast the Gothic line was the Cinquale Canal near Massa, enforced by the Chiodo cannon battery at Montemarcello and the De Lutti battery at nearby Punta Bianca. The Allies were blocked until they, with the help of Italian patriots (partigiani), could break through.

Meanwhile, Allied forces moving up the coast of Versilia and Lunigiana had the naval base at La Spezia as a prime objective. (Area map).  A second objective was Aulla, both as a rail junction and in order to cut off a German retreat up the Magra River valley leading to the Pass of the Cisa and the plain of the Po.  Key to achieving these objectives was overcoming the substantial cannon emplacements at the end of Ameglia's peninsula (Montemarcello and Punta Bianca) about two kilometers to the right of the photo above.

These guns could fire heavy shells 15 miles. As the Allies fought up the coast, they came under fire from these giant guns, and from enemy counterattacks, and the advance bogged down at the fortified Gothic Line at Cinquale in February, 1945.  After valiant attempts to move forward, the advance was called off after 1100 casualties.  In early April 1945, the advance was renewed. Troops advanced through the foothills and engaged the Germans with heavy losses. Tanks and fighter aircraft attacked the guns on the peninsula with more than 11,000 shells. The fighting lasted two weeks until the guns were silenced on April 18. Finally, the Germans retreated as the outcome here and elsewhere in Italy became clear. La Spezia was liberated on April 27, 1945.  Two unique US Army units fought these battles: the 92nd Infantry Division and the attached 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Both units were racially segregated and composed of groups that faced severe discrimination at home, both from the US government and the American public.

Go For Broke Four Four Two!
The 442nd regiment of the US Army is the most decorated unit in the history of the US military. This all-volunteer unit fought to liberate the Lunigiana and Versilia from the the retreating Nazi German army in 1945. Their bravery and determination came despite the fact that many of their families had been forced from their homes and businesses without trial or a hearing simply because of their ancestry.  Most were American citizens, born and bred, yet many of their fellow citizens considered them to be potential spies because of their race. This atmosphere of racism and suspicion lead President Roosevelt to authorize internment with Executive Order 9066 which allowed local military commanders to designate "military areas" as "exclusion zones," from which "any or all persons may be excluded." This power was used to declare that all people of Japanese ancestry were excluded from the entire Pacific coast, including all of California and most of Oregon and Washington, except for those in internment camps.

 The Shibuya family at their California home before evacuation. The parents were born in Japan and came to the USA in 1904. with $60 in cash and a basket of clothes. Mr. Shibuya built a prosperous business raising chrysanthemums. The six children in the family were born in the United States and are American citizens.


The all volunteer Japanese American 442nd. The families of many of these soldiers had been relocated to internment camps because of their ancestry. The 'Go For Broke' 442 became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service. There were over 9,000 Purple Hearts (wounded in action), seven Presidential Distinguished Unit Citations, and over 18,000 individual decorations for bravery including twenty Congressional Medals of Honor. The distinguished US Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the 2nd longest serving Senator in US history, served in the 442.



The Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry
The nickname 'Buffalo soldier' was given to African-American soldiers by American Indians during the 'Indian Wars' after the US Civil War.  The soldiers' tightly curled dark hair seemed buffalo-like to the natives. It was a term of honor as the Native Americans respected the buffalo. The Buffalo Soldier name has been used proudly as a nickname by African-American US Army units ever since.

This article cannot begin to describe the centuries-long oppression of America's African-American population. These soldiers in 1945 could barely dream of equality. They lived in a society where their second-class status was an unquestioned assumption in much of the US, de jure in the South, de facto in parts of the North. The US Supreme Court ruling forbidding separate schools was still 9 years away, and that would only be a start. Although the progressive FDR was President, he didn't even dare propose anti-lynching legislation to the US Congress, since he depended on the support of southern Congressmen. Even in its hour of need, America could not see beyond its prejudices. Though the US Army was desperately short of infantrymen, the 92nd was the only division of black soldiers sent to combat areas. The African-American officers were hastily selected, and received inadequate training. The senior officers, higher than 2nd Lieutenant, were all white and most were from the US South. No black officer could outrank a white soldier in the same unit.

Despite the odds, the 92nd Infantry fought valiantly and did the job. Of the nearly 13,000 Buffalo Soldiers who saw action, 2,848 were killed, captured or wounded. The 92nd Infantry broke through the Gothic Line. They reached their objectives, captured or helped to capture nearly 24,000 prisoners and received more than 12,000 decorations and citations for their gallantry in combat. They liberated the Garfagna, Versilia, and Lunigiana and were rightly cheered as heroes by the liberated Italian population. 
African-American 'Buffalo' soldiers of the US Army 92nd Division fire mortar shells at German forces near Massa. These soldiers could not eat at white restaurants in the American south.  In one story, widely reported at the time, black soldiers were denied service at a Southern restaurant that was serving German POWs.


Commanding General of the 92nd Infantry (`Buffalo') Division in Italy, inspects troops in a decoration ceremony. March 1945.
Stories such as these can be used for almost any political purpose, but we have none. We are ordinary citizens who are inspired when learning about people who acted with dignity in the face of injustice. People who displayed courage when they were the victims of cowardice.  Individuals who subscribed to society's greater goals when society was abusing them. These actions fulfill the meaning and promise of Liberation Day, not only for Italians and Americans, but for people who yearn for freedom everywhere.

Tangential Info
Many Italian-Americans and German-Americans would be surprised to learn that Executive Order 9066 providing for exclusion zones was initially meant to apply to them as well. Due to political pressure, and the impracticality of applying these measures to larger populations, the policies were largely - but not entirely - reversed or not enforced. Over 600,000 Italian immigrants in the US were classified as 'Enemy Aliens', including two of our Grandparents who had lived in the US for more than 30 years. One English language website for the Italian-American story is Una Storia Segreta  ( the Table of Contents is clickable).

One of numerous ruins at Punta Bianca. 
The ruins of the De Lutti gun batteries at Punta Bianca are now a popular, though rocky, seaside sunbathing spot. Surrounded by cliffs, the remains of diverse concrete structures are dramatic only to those who know the history. They can be reached from the road between Bocca di Magra and Montemarcello (subject to official closure at times due to rock slides). The area is part of the Parco Montemarcello Magra which has several nice hiking trails with pretty views passing nearby. In the forest, one will see deep pits here and there where shells landed in those unimaginable days.
Montemarcello Memorial Piazza December XIII


In the center of Montemarcello is a somber plaque remembering civilians who died when an errant bomb landed in the village center on December 13, 1944. The ruins of the Chiodo gun emplacement are about 400 meters from the village. 




The recent movie 'Miracle at St. Anna' by Spike Lee is a fictional story based on a historical novel of the same name. It features soldiers of the 92nd Division, and it's a sincere movie with realistic, evocative scenes. The St. Anna mentioned is actually Sant'Anna di Stazzema in Versilia and it was the scene of the worst atrocity by German forces in Italy, resulting in the execution of about 560 civilians, mainly women and children and the elderly. Most of the victims were urban dwellers who had sought refuge in the mountains. A visit to the site of the massacre is a very moving experience. Located in the mountains north of Viareggio, momentos from the relatives of the victims and the remote natural setting provides an unforgettable tribute to the dead.

Copyright 2012 www.apathtolunch.com. All Rights Reserved. This article appeared on www.apathtolunch.com and has not been authorized elsewhere.

Comments
As we are not historians, we especially welcome your comments, corrections, and additions.

Links
Area Map Google map with balloons on the places mentioned.
Italian Campaign WWII  An overview with timeline.

US National Archives Summary of the relocation of Japanese Americans
Wikipedia Japanese-American Internment Good overall information on the Internment.
Nisei WWII Stories Very well done, moving site which includes personal stories from Japanese-Americans including from the 442.

History.net  Detailed description of the 92nd Infantry Division's combat, 4 pages. Page 4 has the best description of the Massa battle.
Wikipedia 92nd Infantry Well done general information on the unit.
Photos Chiodo battery ruins Italian site with photos of the Chiodo Battery today.
Faces of the 92nd Infantry Read our post about some memorable soldiers in the 92nd.



2 comments:

  1. I was honoured to meet Brian Lett, son of Major Gordon Lett last year. Gordon Lett led an international brigade of partigiani in the Rossano valley near Zeri and was the first allied officer to enter La Spezia after it's liberation. Brian now organises a commorative walk every year in August or September. Last year we walked with him from Rossano over the Passo dei Due Santi over the Appenines.

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  2. Just this week, I visited Colognora in the Garfagnana, where The Miracle of St. Anna was filmed!

    Great piece.

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