In June, 1945 Lt. Jim Armstrong of the 91st Infantry Division returned home from Italy on a stretcher, six weeks after losing his right foot to a German mine. And now 60 years later two Jim Armstrong’s would return to Italy – that would be dad and me. After all these years dad was ready to revisit the battle sites and memories of the Italian campaign.
Over the years Dad has talked about his war experiences but never about the horrors of war and never once to complain about losing a foot in the last two weeks of war. He talked about returning to Italy but never took the next step. Then in early 2004 at age 86 Dad got his first computer. Our conversations started to include e-mail addresses, and searches for "Gothic Line", "Livergnano", and "91st Infantry". And the closer: "Jim if you don’t know just say so, I’ll ask the grandchildren and they will know".
A group from the American Legion in Pelham, NY was organizing a 60th reunion tour to Italy leaving on April 29. Mom – the former Lt. Eulene Armstrong – is in good health but at 89 to frail to travel. Dad needed someone to carry the luggage, pay for cabs, check up on the Indians on ESPN, and share the memory. So we signed on for the trip of a lifetime.
Before we left our local paper called and asked dad to talk about the upcoming trip. They came out and wrote a wonderful piece about mom and dad – how they met, dad leaving for the war, his wound, and his homecoming. When the reporter asked dad about how he was wounded, he matter of factly responded, "We had some guys in a minefield and I went over to help I got two out and then I stepped on a Schu mine. That’s S-C-H-U after the German who invented it" As he spoke dad took off the wooden leg (his "army leg") and stood it beside his leg. He somehow forgot to mention the Bronze Star he was awarded.
The trip itself was a mixture of fun and intense emotions for us both.
In Rome the first day we set out to find an Internet café to let everyone know we had arrived safely. My sister-in-law had insisted if we found the Hotel Excelsior – the Army had commandeered it for R&R – that I was to mention Dad’s wartime service. The walked turned out to be longer than we planned and dad needed a break. We rounded a corner and there it was - the Hotel Excelsior. So I ordered us a beer and carefully recounted Dad’s war time experiences at the Excelsior. Two beers – 18 euros! – About $24, not quite the ‘reaction’ I was expecting.
Monday May 2 we all boarded a bus for the ceremonies at Sicily-Rome cemetery marking the 60th anniversary of the German surrender in Italy. Here the emotions really hit us. The sight of row on row of grave markers – 7,861 brave Americans rest here – was just overwhelming. Dad was the only WW II veteran and hence the guest of honor. A two star general escorted him up to place the wreath. Afterwards the Navy Times and Stars and Stripes interviewed him. He would tell the Navy Times: "Sometimes I was scared like hell – it’s perfectly normal. In combat situations you live in constant fear, but you go and do what you have to do. It doesn’t mean we’re heroes – we’re not. We did the best damn job we could"
Afterwards dad told the mayor of Anzio. "Bene, bene!" Which he naturally took to mean that dad knew a whole lot more Italian. It ended up as a wonderful photo op for the mayor. I was honored when his assistant asked me "Padre? Filo?"
On the drive back to Rome I found myself reflecting just how lucky both dad and I were to be here together. In the small tour group two other men - Ken Kraetzer and Jim Dochniak – both had fathers who served in the 91st but had died before they could make the return trip. Daphne Romeo’s husband had also served in the 91st but had died 15 months earlier. Back home I had several friends tell me about their father who never was able to return.
On Wednesday we bused up to Florence to for ceremonies at the Florence American cemetery. This would be the really emotional part for dad. He got to Italy in July, 1944 and the men buried here would be the guys he fought along side. As we entered the grounds we walked by the monument to the 361st Infantry - Dad’s regiment. That brought the memories and tears of all that they had fought for and those "who didn’t live to see their grandchildren".
The Florence cemetery is the final resting place for 4,402 Americans with another 1,409 still missing are memorialized. As Dad was walking along the memorial tablets he stopped at the name of Pvt. Louis Scalise. "Louie. He was in my platoon. A German shell hit the house he was in. We couldn’t find him and we had to move out. His parents later wrote to me but all I could tell them was to contact the War Department".
After the practice dad got to talking to the color guard comparing a rifle company in 1945 to one in 2005. He was an infantryman again, they talked for 20 minutes. I snapped a picture that I cherish- Dad talking, at home with his fellow soldiers, making his points with his hand as all Armstrongs do, with the grave makers of his wartime comrades in the background.
I got to talking to Superintendent Ron Grasso after the ceremonies, about where we planned to go and why the vets come back. "They come back because they want to know if it was worth it." When I told him that we were off to Livergnano the next day, the one place dad most wanted to see, he said simply "Every old infantryman has a town he has to see again"
Our visit to Livergnano would be all that for dad. It’s a little town along Route 65 (Easy Street as they called it). In the fall of 1944 Easy Street was a muddy winding mountain road connecting Florence to Bologna. We drove up Route 65 thru old battle scarred towns -Futa Pass, Mogihidoro, Loiano – until the road sign said simply "Livergnano". And suddenly it was October 1944 again.
The little town was the site a horrific battle and pretty much the limit of the American advance in the fall of 1944. (German resistance would quickly collapse when the offensive was renewed in April 1945).
I had heard and read the story before. Livergnano is a giant rock face with homes built right into the rocks. To get the Germans out the Americans brought up a pair of tank destroyers and systematically took every house out. The divisional history shows a picture of Livergnano in ruins. On a peaceful spring day I tried and tried to imagine just what that struggle must have been like. The 361st lost two companies in the battle and was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
But today was Dad’s day. We first visited the little church – St. Giovanni di Baptisti – destroyed in the fighting and rebuilt with donations from the 361st. And then wandered into a little museum (really a cave) to the 361st in the area taken out by the tank destroyers. I wrote out dad’s unit – 3rd Platoon, L Company, 3rd Battalion, 361st Infantry – for the Italians. They excitedly pointed out just where L Company had been. And insisted we follow them back to the church. The bells rang in dad’s honor as we drove back up! When it became time to leave dad said to me ‘The war is over. It’s time to get back to Akron."
Choking back my emotions I was never prouder of Dad nor felt luckier that I could make the long journey with him.
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