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Wartime Smiles Etched in My Mind: Retracing My Dad’s Footsteps In WWII

The war had been officially over for hours, but not every soldier knew that as a sniper took aim at the one who was to be the last to die in Italy

by Ted Nardin

Photo sent to author by Richard Neuman, veteran of Company B. The caption reads “A group of guys in my company. Just before we got in a firefight, May 2, 1945.”

One of the first veterans of his unit I talked with would forever make a lasting impression on me. “You see that?” he said, singling out a photo from my father’s collection I placed in front of him. “Those are the faces of soldiers happy to be alive.” After pausing he looked up and said, “We all had that half smile right after it was over. I never saw that look before and have never since.” But looking at the photo, I had to ask myself why in such a moment weren’t they smiling from ear to ear?

It might just be my DNA talking, but as a second-generation American of Trentino descent, I feel completely at home amongst Northern Italy’s sprawling valleys, lush vineyards, and breathtaking views. There is a peacefulness that arises within me as I hear church bells ring lyrically across serene rolling hills. Yet, I suppose it’s more than just DNA. For a decade and a half, I have been retracing my dad’s footsteps through WWII. Like him, one chapter of my journey ended near the Dolomites only a short distance from our ancestral home in the Cembra Valley. But unlike mine, the end of his chapter was far from serene.

Not only have I spent countless hours reading through historical documents and talking with veterans of the 88th Infantry Division, but I have also walked in dad’s footsteps through the Italian countryside, feeling some of the same cold on my face and mud under my feet. One of the first veterans of his unit I talked with would forever make a lasting impression on me. “You see that?” he said, singling out a photo from my father’s collection I placed in front of him. “Those are the faces of soldiers happy to be alive.” After pausing he looked up and said, “We all had that half smile right after it was over. I never saw that look before and have never since.”

Louis Nardin (left) exhibits a larger smile while posing with others from the 351st at Lake Garda during the summer of 1945.

I had looked at that photo marked “San Cristoforo 2km from Pergine” at least a dozen times and it never crossed my mind there was anything odd about it. By referencing unit reports, I had determined the scene was captured not too long after the end of the war and I had always viewed it as a jubilant moment celebrated with buddies. Yet, after pondering the veteran’s statement, I had to ask myself why in such a moment weren’t they smiling from ear to ear? My answer would come a few kilometers from where that photo was taken, and it took me many years to make the connection.

Over lunch forty years ago at our kitchen table, I watched my father transform into a twenty-year-old Private First Class Louis Nardin. I still don’t know what possessed him to go into such detail about his wartime experience, but for some reason that day he relived the agony of war. He spoke of sleepless nights in ice-covered foxholes where he “sweated out” terrifying artillery barrages. Riveting stories emerged like throwing grenades at an enemy patrol in the dark of night and sharing a cigarette with a mortally wounded German officer in a bombed-out house, whom he watched die moment by moment. He dropped in amusing anecdotes like his foxhole buddies nicknamed him “paesano” because he wore an “Italian style” cap under his helmet given to him by a local family to keep his head warm.

However, as his storyline neared the end of the war his mood noticeably changed. After relating how they dashed across the Po River in the final push in April of 1945 and made their way into the high mountains on the other side, he painfully revealed a set of tragic events. Concluding in a bitter tone he said, “That should never have happened. It was all wrong and none of those guys should have died.”

“Your dad was here,” my cousin, a native of the Cembra Valley, said pointing to the open field just below us. “Right here?” I asked. “Yes,” he responded. And he should know. Shortly after the surrender of German troops in Italy, May 1945, his father, my dad’s first cousin, trekked here on foot from his home a few kilometers away. He had learned through letters from my grandmother in America that dad’s infantry division, the 88th, was in the north of Italy. By networking with others in the region he was surprised to find that not only was the 88th located in the Trentino but his specific regiment, the 351st, was encamped outside Pinè, a nearby town. He set off on foot to find my dad and meet him in person for the first time. He crossed the mountain now in front of us and arrived only to find that the 351st had recently packed up and moved several kilometers east to Lake Garda. All that was left were a few tents flapping in the cool, early-summer breeze. They were never to meet face-to-face. That “half smile” photo now etched in my mind was likely snapped around the same time just down the road.

Taken shortly after the war “2 km from Pergine” the half smiles on the soldiers’ faces potentially provide a clue to their feelings about the ending of the war in Italy.

Several days before they lined up for that photo a secret surrender had been arranged between the Axis forces in Italy and the Allies. By early morning May 2nd word had spread that the war was over, but nobody informed the 88th. Just after noon they received an incoming barrage and returned fire with all they had, sending 500 high explosive rounds to where they suspected the enemy was located just outside of Roncegno.

In words penned in the margin of his copy of the 351st history, dad noted, “I witnessed this.” He was referring to the party of German 1st Parachute Division soldiers who shortly after the artillery exchange entered his Company B lines under a white flag. Colonel Miller, commander of the 351st ordered a cease-fire. Through an interpreter, the officer in charge of the entourage stated that the war was over. Miller attempted to confirm this with Division Headquarters. “Forces to our front wish to surrender unconditionally,” he radioed. There was no reply. During the lull partisans also brought forth the message that German forces in Italy had conceded.

Hoping to delay the resumption of his attack, Miller told the Fallschirmjäger officer to return to his lines. He gave him one hour to come back with formal paperwork confirming the surrender. The officer replied that he would try and that his soldiers would not fire so long as Miller’s troops didn’t advance. Observing this exchange, dad and the men of Company B watched their enemy disappear back across the field and thought this might finally be the end. A photo taken moments later was sent to me by another eyewitness. His platoon left their positions to pose “…only moments before we got in a firefight…”

The German officer didn’t return as planned but Miller delayed as long as he could until finally connection to headquarters was restored. He informed them of the situation. However, Division Headquarters was out of contact with Corps Headquarters. Not knowing that enemy forces in Italy had formally surrendered several hours earlier they commanded him to resume his attack. “Have received your orders to advance,” Miller radioed. “Does this still hold?” A succinct reply was received. “You will proceed on mission assigned. There will be no delay.” Company B was tasked with leading a renewed assault.

The instant they attempted to move they were met with a hailstorm of fire. The violent reaction resulted in a deafening cacophony of battle from rifles, machine guns, artillery and tanks. Ninety minutes later, Miller received the message from HQ he had been hoping to hear. “Hostilities have ceased.”

“Cease fire!” was yelled up and down the line. The elite Fallschirmjäger troops followed suit. A hush fell over the area. Tragically, long after the official end to the war in Italy, four of Company B, long-time veterans of the Italian Campaign, boys my dad knew well, lay dead. Observing the scene unfolding in front of him he realized to his horror that local civilians and dozens of German soldiers also lay dead or wounded.

As word of the surrender began to sink in the men let down their guard slightly. As dad described it, there was not much talking, just guys sort of staring at each other as the bodies were removed from the battlefield. Suddenly, the silence was broken by the crack of a single rifle shot. “Sniper,” someone yelled, and they scrambled for cover. Hearing nothing further, they cautiously looked around only to find one of their own from Company B had been hit while making his way back into the line. He died instantly. The men watched as some of that poor soul’s buddies carried the last soldier to die in battle in Italy back to their lines. An officer who knew him well broke down. He crumpled up against the foundation of a rubble house and wept bitterly. “His nerves were shot,” dad remarked, “and I never saw him again.”

“Snipers operate out there alone,” he said almost apologetically. “He probably didn’t get the word the war was over.” He paused, wiped what I thought was a tear, and finished in a bitter tone. “But that should never have happened. The war had been over for hours. It was all wrong and none of those guys should have died.”

Would any of this tragedy have played out if they had simply held their positions for another 90 minutes? I believe dad spent his life passively trying to reconcile that bitter ending to his war. On a few occasions over the years, I heard him mutter, “What was it all for anyway?” He suffered from nightmares until his death.

I don’t believe it’s for me to reconcile “what it was all for.” I wasn’t there for any of the events in my dad’s journey, so I am not qualified to do so anyway. What I know is that in my travels around Italy I have been inside museums dedicated to preserving the legacy of the 88th. I have met some of the warmest, friendliest people who welcomed me into their homes with open arms simply because of my connection to the men of the 351st. I have read many stories of medics providing comfort to the sick and G.I.s delivering babies in the middle of the countryside. More than one local has described their joy at returning home after their town was liberated from enemy hands by the “Blue Devils,” as they were known.

What I also know is that these men of the 88th didn’t ask for any of what they went through in Italy. Most did their best under the circumstances, and I am proud to be the son of one of them. That half smile on my dad’s face would become full again as time went on. He became a teacher and delighted in sharing his love of music with the children with whom he came in contact.

He never returned to Italy. “I spent a lifetime trying to forget,” is how he responded when mom asked him to go. She wanted him to finally meet his cousins face-to-face, but the prospect of facing his troubling memories must have been overwhelming. If nothing else, I wish he could have experienced Gorgognano.

There, on a hilltop in the Apennines outside of Bologna are the ruins of an ancient church that I know he stared at from one of those frozen, snow-covered foxholes. The source of constant enemy fire during the winter of 1944, it now stands as a quintessential reminder of wartime Italy. On a visit not long ago, I noticed within its crumbling, bomb-shattered walls some handcrafted leaflets created by local school children. Placed inconspicuously they gave tribute to those who died and they shared prayers for peace in the world. Perhaps, just perhaps, by experiencing the gratitude I have witnessed and by seeing the hopes of a vibrant population that emerged from a war-torn Italy, my dad would have found some serenity at last.

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