24 April 2012

Liberation Day: The Ameglia Executions

The Murder of 15 Italian Americans

The historic center and castle of Ameglia with the Apuan Alps.
The Italian hill town of Ameglia rests prettily upon bedrock at the very tip of Liguria. The historic center and its frazioni are a popular destination for Italian and foreign visitors, who come for the renowned beach at Punta Corvo, the riverside walk at Bocca di Magra, or the pretty village of Montemarcello. If not for three memorial plaques, no visitor would suspect that Ameglia's gentle nobility was defiled by a terrible war crime. Within the borders of this innocent town, fifteen American soldiers were executed by the German Army on March 26, 1944, in contravention of the Geneva Prisoner of War Convention.  They were ignobly and brutally killed and buried in a mass grave. Today they are remembered not just by their families nor by those three markers, however. Their deaths led to a judgement which was used as a precedent at the Nuremberg war crime trials and which is now part of the bedrock of modern international law: an illegal military order by a superior is not a defense to a war crime.


The rugged Ligurian coast SE of Framura Station.

Mission Ginny II

On the cloudy and moonless night of March 22, 1944, two PT boats from the American OSS base on Corsica appproached the rocky Ligurian coast near Framura, a tiny town 6 miles north of Monterosso in Cinque Terre. This began the Operation codenamed Ginny II.  Working silently, the boats' crews launched three rubber boats holding a commando team of 15 American soldiers in field uniform, their weapons and equipment, including 650 pounds of dynamite. As the team paddled toward shore, they struggled to ascertain their position relative to their objective: a small promontory south and east of Framura Station where two railroad tunnels on the critical Genoa-La Spezia line joined in a vaulted arcade with openings toward the sea. They knew their starting position from the radar carried on one of the PT boats, and they planned on using radio contact for further direction.  In a disastrous turn of events, radio transmissions were unreliable that night and German torpedo boats appeared, forcing the American PT boats to leave. The final approach was visual on the darkest of nights with unknowable ocean currents.

The team consisted entirely of soldiers who had volunteered for the OSS, Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA. These well-trained soldiers had been chosen for covert operations on the Italian front because they were qualified, of Italian heritage, and they spoke Italian to some degree. At least one even spoke Genoese, the dialect of Genoa that would be quite similar to the dialect spoken around Framura. Several had been born in Italy and emigrated with their parents, most were born in America to immigrants from Italy. They were a cohesive unit and had tried this very mission before. On the previous lunar cycle in February, they had put ashore near here on the mission known as Ginny I, but were unable to find the target. After more aerial surveys were flown, they were confident of success this time.


The Ginny II mission objective, vaulted
tunnel arcades that open to the sea, Framura.
They reached land still not knowing their exact position, but it was soon clear they were not near the right promontory and there was no access to the rail tunnel. They  had apparently drifted down the coast while paddling and put ashore near the locality named Sca. Scouts were sent to locate the rail line but travel on the very steep and rocky slopes made it impossible to locate before dawn. Since an attack on the tunnel could not take place, they had to hide and try the next night, according to the mission plan. They hid the yellow rubber boats and the explosives as best they could and began moving upslope. The team found an unused farm building on the edge of the locality of Carpeneggio, and settled in. On the morning of March 23, two team members, 1st Lt. Russo and Sgt. Mauro, went out to get food and information at the nearest farm. They made contact with an Italian farmer named Franco Lagaxo, who agreed to buy food for them, and later in the day guided them on reconnaissance which succeeded in locating access to the Genoa-La Spezia rail tunnel.


The mission plan called for the OSS team to make contact with the PT boats at prearranged radio contact times before setting off the explosives. On the evening of March 23rd however, the mission took another bad turn - the PT boats ran into trouble. One had a mechanical breakdown on the trip from Corsica and had to return to base. The second encountered enemy activity as it approached the coast, and was also forced to turn back. Lacking a coordinated means to escape after the attack, the team was forced into another day of hiding.

Capture

In the morning light of March 24, an Italian fisherman noticed the rubber boats pulled up along the shore, and mentioned them to authorities at nearby Bonassola. Soon a search of the area began, involving both Italian and German personnel. Eventually, as the search area widened, searchers encountered an Italian girl who had seen strangers with rifles on a road near her home. Quickly the area was sealed off, the farm building surrounded, and the American team forced to surrender. They were questioned briefly by Italian Fascist authorities in Bonassola, then turned over to the German military, and transferred to the German headquarters of the 135th Fortress Brigade in La Spezia. There interrogation began in earnest. Details of the interrogation methods are lacking, but eventually at least one of the soldiers divulged the details of the mission. Ominously, the information that it was a commando raid was relayed up the German hierarchy.

Execution

Memorial at Punta Bianca, Ameglia.
On the next morning, March 25, a cable arrived at German headquarters in La Spezia, signed by General Anton Dostler, head of the 75th German Army Corps. The Americans were to be executed immediately. The order was the implementation of an edict issued by Hitler in 1942 called the Fuhrerbefehl Commando Order which specified immediate death without trial for anyone engaging in sabotage or other action behind German lines. To execute uniformed prisoners of war was a direct violation of the Geneva Convention and the German officer corps knew it. However, the entire higher command of the German Army had sworn a loyalty oath to Hitler. Colonel Almers, commander of the 135th, as well as the interrogating officers, requested a stay of execution, but it was denied. During the evening of the 25th, an officer, Koerbitz, from the 135th and two from the German navy, Klaps and Sessler (who, incredibly, had met one of the Americans before the war), sought in writing and by phone to have the order reversed, but were ignored. Alexander zu Dohna-Schlobitten, an aide to Gerneral Dostler, refused to sign the execution order, and was later dismissed from the Wehrmacht for insubordination. However, in the end, the commanding officer General Dostler refused to reconsider, and ordered the prisoners executed the next morning.


Memorial at the site of the mass grave/
La Ferrara area, Bocca di Magra. 
On the morning of March 26, 1944, the 15 American soldiers -still in uniform - were brought to Punta Bianca, above the sea on the rocky tip of Ameglia's peninsula. Eleven were executed by being struck on the head with great force, two were shot in the head at close range, and two had no known wounds*. The bodies were taken to the La Ferrara area of Bocca di Magra and buried in a shallow, hidden mass grave. The circumstances make clear that the German command knew this was a war crime, and sought to hide it. They chose Punta Bianca because it was remote, with no houses nearby, and under military control. There was no firing squad, both to reduce the number of witnesses and the noise. They did not inform the De Lutti cannon batteries close by. They chose to bury the soldiers in an area of Bocca di Magra with no houses at the time, and camouflaged the grave site.** Two days later a German communique was issued falsely reporting that the commandos had been annihilated in combat. Four days later, General Kesselring, Commander in Chief of German forces in Italy, ordered all written records of the affair destroyed.

Justice

In the days after Liberation, the investigation into the disappearence of the OSS commando team was given priority. Notice was given to American forces that General Dostler and Colonel Almers were wanted, and should be taken alive if possible. Several investigators were assigned and began interviewing at Framura. Information was gathered from local Italians and then German Army personnel. Gradually the story was pieced together and the grave located. Dostler was subsequently captured and brought to trial before an American Military Commission in Rome on October 8, 1945. His defense was that he had simply obeyed Hitler's order, and if he had not done so, he would have been brought before a German court martial. The defense of 'Superior Orders' was rejected and the Commission unanimously found General Dostler guilty and he was shot by a firing squad near Naples on December 1, 1945. Anton Dostler was the first German General brought to trial after the war, and the first executed.  This case became a precedent for the Nuremberg war crime trials of German generals, officials and Nazi leaders beginning in November, 1945. The precedent thus contributed to the codification of Principle IV of the Nuremberg Principles, which rejects 'Superior Orders', and a similar principle found in sections of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


The Men Who Loved Two Countries

Memorial to the executed American soldiers.
Piazza della Liberta, Ameglia.
A traveler or ex-pat is easily drawn into reflection about what love of country means. It's simple enough when we're seven years old, and the concept is absolute and the flag is its visualization. Later, patriotism becomes incorporated into our morality and our egos. We enter a nuanced world where we have the luxury of liking this aspect of our host country and not liking that aspect of our homeland, defending this idiosyncracy of our people, and knocking that characteristic of another people. But this story is of men who lived in a period when that luxury dropped away, and these fifteen ordinary people faced the necessity of deciding what they believed, what was worth fighting for. These Italian-Americans decided to defend "the meaningfulness of their life itself": they did their duty and fought for two nations, for two peoples. This is what Liberation Day honors and remembers whether you are American or Italian or both. Honored because they had the courage to face that decision. Remembered so that future generations might summon the courage to similarly face their own decisions. The fifteen brave men of the Ginny II mission were:

1st Lt. Vincent J. Russo, Montclair, NJ          Sgt Alfred L. De Flumeri, Natick, MA
T/5 Liberty J. Tremonte, Westport, CT          T/5 Joseph M. Farrell, Southport, CT
T/5 Salvatore DiSclafani, Brooklyn, NY         T/5 Angelo Sirico, Brooklyn, NY
T/5 Thomas N. Savino, Brooklyn, NY            T/5 John J. Leone, Poughkeepsie, NY
T/5 Joseph Noia, NY, NY                               1st. Lt. Paul J. Traficante, NY, NY
Sgt. Dominick Mauro, NY, NY                        T/5 Rosario Squatrito, Staten Island, NY        
T/5 Joseph A. Libardi, Stockbridge, MA        T/Sgt. Livio Vieceli, Manor, PA
T/5 Santoro Calcara, Detroit, MI

The Sites Today

Framura. The tunnels in use in 1944 between Framura and Levanto were replaced with wider tunnels after the war. The original 1874 tunnels are now open as a recreational bikeway / walkway (Pista Ciclabile) between Framura and Bonassola and Levanto and visitors can rent bikes at several locations along the line. The area is well served by Trenitalia. There are also numerous well-marked hiking trails with stunning views, and there are good tourist amenities at Bonassola and Levanto. Remember to tip your hat to these brave soldiers as you pass the brick-vaulted arcades between Bonassola and Framura. We have a map of some of the Ginny II locations.

Ameglia. We have a Map of Ginny II Plaques showing the memorial locations. There is a small entry about Punta Bianca in our story, Liberation Day and the Liberation of America. We also have an overview map of the Caprione Promontory which has commentary on the towns, points of interest and some restaurants.

More Info

The story we have told has been simplified to suit this format, and many details have been left untold. We've done our best to be accurate, but since many facts of this story were determined well after the events, there are significant discrepancies, errors, and gaps in available records and published descriptions. Plainly, no one knows the whole truth.

A Hero's Story by Joseph Squatrito. A family member's earnest account of the Ginny II mission and his Uncle's life based on the factual record, family memories, and educated supposition. Mr. Squatrito deserves much credit for delving into the factual record.

Italian-Americans in the OSS. An American cinematographer, Nancy Schiesari,  has done extensive work on the OSS and the contribution of Italian-Americans on the Italian front. Italian-Americans in the OSS is a very interesting film excerpt of interviews with veterans, photos of the Ginny mission team, footage of the sentencing and death of General Dostler, and other period material. Or watch just the Ginny II material by itself. Her website Behind the Lines has fascinating material on the subject of the OSS and the Partigiani. The quote above, "the meaningfulness of their life itself" came from one of her interview subjects, Frank Zabatta.

Anatomy of Perjury: Field Marshal Albert Kesserling, Via Rasella, and the Ginny Mission. The Commander-in-Chief of German forces in Italy was in La Spezia on the day of the executions. He confirmed the execution order, but he was not prosecuted for this war crime because records were falsified and destroyed to hide his presence and his complicity, as presented in this book by Richard Raiber.

AMEGLIA Informa, (Newsletter in Italian) Giugno-Ottobre 2004, four part series excerpted from the Italian book 'Missioni- SOE ed OSS, Gli Alleati e la Resistenza in Liguria, Emilia e Toscana 1943-1945' by Pierangelo Caiti.

The Execution of a War Criminal.The death by firing squad of General Dostler for his war crime was filmed, and the preceding link is one of many available. It is a short, grainy, black and white record of the death of a human being.

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

* Our source is the Epilogue to Mr. Squatrito's book, 'A Hero's Story', which states that US Army autopsies of the remains showed that thirteen of the executed had fractured skulls, but only two of those thirteen were caused by gunshot wounds to the head. The remaining two victims had no evidence of wounds. The autopsy report from May 27, 1945, by Major Pedro Souza, Medical Officer of Company A of the 2671st Battalion, was classified for many years. Many descriptions of these executions, as well as Ameglia's memorials, mention death by firing squad due to reports from American and German sources that were manifestly inaccurate, for whatever reason.

** In his book "Ameglia Nella Storia Della Lunigiana" (Ameglia in Lunigiana History) the historian Ennio Silvestri presents details from a report by a priest, Don Nilo Greco, to the American Commission investigating (page 305 note 20). In part:
 "Someone said that they (the Americans) were stripped of insignia and dressed in civilian clothes, as though to justify the execution as one treats common spies." and "Also this (the burial) happened with a special artifice, however it didn't remain hidden. The workers that labored as employees of the Germans were ordered to dig a large ditch of the type used to construct bunkers. When they finished they were sent home, but when they returned to work the next morning, the ditch had disappeared. Plants, grass, stones, all were put in order as before the digging and it was very difficult to imagine that under that terrain lay the bodies of 14 (sic) people."

Written by Martha Bates

5 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this! I love history and being able to physically visit a place where I know the story behind it is something I treasure. I have linked to this and your other Liberation post on my blog: http://culturalcomments.blogspot.it/2012/04/liberation-day.html
    Saluti anche a voi!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I also thank you for this article. My family had some information on the execution of my Uncle(Lt Paul Traficante) but never as comprehensive and this.
    Coming on Memorial day, it is a double blessing being able to honor my Uncle and the other fallen hero's that we lost during that fatefull war( and also all of the other wars we had to fight as a free people). I had the previlage of watching the 20 anniverary of the memorial celebration on TV last night hosted by Gary Sinese and Joe Monteglia. Thank you all of the vets that came home from these wars. You are a living testimory of the of why our fallen hero's need to be honored every day, not just memorial day. Even though I never knew my Uncle, Lt Paul Traficante I have a certain love and closeness that I did not know I could experiance.

    Thank again.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you for writing this story, my uncle , Joseph Libardi was honored in his home town of West Stockbridge Mass 50 years ago . At the time i was 5 and had no real idea of what was happening or what had happened , my mother Julia , Joe,s sister did not talk about the subject. only that my uncle was killed in the war, it effected my grand mother only to say poor Joseph to me. Last year from my family i received a document titled The Dostiler Report, I read it and began searching. This article brings an understanding of his life and the kind of man my uncle was . Sincerely appreciated , Michael R. Shea son of Julia Libardi (Shea). Joseph , you are still on my hearth mantle, a fine picture, not forgotten, and spoken to daily . Love , your nephew

    ReplyDelete
  4. Very moving, as an American, Italian-American & combat infantryman. As a paratrooper we always knew what the the "saboteur" label could bring & in Iraq, we knew our fate if capture - this only affects me more. God rest your souls my brothers, to die for the freedom of your people on both sides of the Atlantic

    ReplyDelete
  5. A truly tragic story, one of thousands from the dark days of WW II.
    I knew nothing about this until I saw a BBC or PBS special about the mission a few months ago. For some reason, some of the information had still be classified.
    I appreciate the time you took to research and post this. I look forward to reading
    more of your posts.

    ReplyDelete