Note: As we celebrate the Memorial Day holiday with gatherings for friends and family, I’d like to offer this column as my annual tribute to those who serve our country. This is a true story, honoring a group of brave, Italian American soldiers in WW II.
The early morning darkness of March 22, 1944, was cloudy with no moonlight to guide the three inflatable boats that were carrying 15 United States soldiers on a secret mission almost 250 miles behind enemy lines on the rocky Ligurian coast near Framura, in occupied Italy. The soldiers paddled towards the shore with 650 pounds of dynamite in tow. Their mission: to locate and destroy two train tunnels, where the Genoa-La Spieza lines joined together to meet the sea shore. These rail lines were the main supply arteries to Anzio.
As well-trained soldiers who had volunteered for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), they had been chosen for this specific mission because of their Italian heritage and their ability to speak Italian to some degree. My Father’s oldest brother, my uncle Sammy DiSclafani (whose given name was Salvatore), was one of those soldiers. They had previously tried this same mission, code name “Ginny,” on a similar moonless night in February, but were unable to locate the target. Additional aerial surveys enabled them to make a second attempt in a new mission, dubbed “Ginny II.”
Without the benefit of PT boat radar and unable to communicate with the ships due to unreliable radio transmissions that night, ocean currents caused the commandos to drift off-course. To make matters worse, the PT boats were forced to vacate their position and abandon the commandos when German torpedo boats appeared.
On land but unable to locate their target as dawn approached, they hunkered down in an unused farm house to hide for 24 hours, as per the mission directive. On the morning of the 23rd, two officers left on a reconnaissance mission for food and information, successfully locating the Genoa-La Spieza target. Now all they had to do was coordinate their escape with the PT boats after they blew the tunnel and completed their mission later that evening.
But both PT boats ran into trouble, one with a mechanical breakdown and the other encountering enemy activity and forced to turn back. Without a viable escape plan, the mission would have to wait another day.
Little did they know they had just 72 hours to live.
Unfortunately, the uniformed soldiers were spotted by an Italian girl who notified authorities. They were captured and surrendered that morning, March 24. After being initially interrogated by Fascist Italian authorities, they were turned over to the German military and transferred to the 135th Fortress Brigade in La Spieza.
Now in the hands of the Germans, the interrogations went to another level and eventually the true nature of their mission was discovered. Once identified as a commando raid, the situation was relayed up the German hierarchy and the next morning, March 25, a cable arrived signed by General Anton Dostler. The Americans were to be executed immediately, as per an edict implemented by Adolph Hitler in 1942. The Fuhrerbefehl Commando Order specified immediate death without trial for anyone engaging in sabotage behind German lines. Although the German officers knew that executing uniformed prisoners of war was a direct violation of the Geneva Convention, they had sworn a loyal oath to Hitler.
On the morning of March 26, the 15 Italian-American soldiers, still in uniform, were brought to a remote location, Punta Bianca, on the hilltop of the Ameglia peninsula, and executed, then buried in a shallow, hidden grave, as the German military sought to cover up their war crimes. A German communique was issued that the commandos had been killed in combat and just a few days later, all written records of the incident were destroyed.
There is no happy ending to this story, unless you count General Dostler being captured and tried before an American Military Commission in October of 1945. He was the first German general brought to trial after the war. His defense of “obeying orders” was rejected and was a factor that contributed to the creation of Principle IV for future Nuremberg war crime trials in which the defense of “supervisor orders” was deemed unacceptable. Dosler was found guilty and executed by firing squad on Dec. 1, 1945.
As this country celebrates Memorial Day with barbeques and car sales, I wanted to tell this story to remind us what sacrifices the men and women in our military make every day.
While some people call Derek Jeter or Tom Brady heroes, I wanted you to know the story of my uncle Sammy and the other 14 men who volunteered for this mission, not knowing if they were ever going to see their families again. They all posthumously received the “Silver Star,” but they didn’t do it for the glory; they did it for their country and what they believed in.
They did it for all of us. That’s the true definition of a hero.