For author Robert A. Newton, publication earlier this year of a 360-page book entitled Soldiers of the Strange Night marked the culmination of many years of dedicated research.
Robert’s experience was a personal journey of first coming to understand, and now sharing, the full life story of his father’s brother—and Robert’s own namesake—U.S. Army Corporal Robert Alvey Newton, who was called Alvey by his family and friends.
Robert took the title of his book from a quote by Pulitzer Prize–winning American journalist and roving war correspondent Ernest Taylor “Ernie” Pyle (who, like Alvey, was born and raised in Indiana and attended Indiana University):
“Everything in this world had stopped except war and we are all men of a new profession out in a strange night caring for each other.”—Ernie Pyle, Brave Men
One way to understand war is to study it in terms of politics, power, strategy, and battles won or lost. Another way, which was Ernie Pyle’s way and Robert Newton’s approach as well, is to see it on a deeply personal level—of men serving together as brothers and caring for each other, while acting in a savage, tumultuous theatre.
This spirit of compassion and bravery was characteristic also of the Italians who sheltered Allied escapers—in the case of Robert and fellow escapee Martin Majeski, the Viozzi family, who are profiled in the book.
I’ve written several posts on this website about former P.G. 59 prisoner Robert Alvey Newton, and felt I knew most of the details of his story before reading this book—his service with the First Armored Division in North Africa, capture, internment in Italy, having been sheltered after escape, and finally the recapture and murder of the two young soldiers by Germans and Fascist collaborators.
However, this excellent book held many surprises for me.
Alvey’s spirit shines through recounted stories of his growing up on the Newton family farm in Logansport, Indiana; adventures with his boyhood “Pirate Gang” friends; excitement of finding his way in the world as a young man; and the dread of leaving college for service in the military.
Once inducted, Alvey was a fine soldier, trained well, forged strong friendships, and wrote home faithfully. Robert draws on passages from Alvey’s letters to give us insight into what he was thinking and feeling.
Robert describes the pain the Newton family experienced on learning of Alvey’s murder, and of their life-long struggle to come to terms with their grief.
What form of justice can there be for an atrocity such as this? Robert Newton has found one way—to seek out every available testimony and bit of evidence regarding Alvey’s death and to tell the story clearly—bearing witness to the truth. He has accomplished this admirably in this volume.
During his years of gathering information, Robert wrote to and spoke with many men who had been prisoners of war at P.G. 59. Each shared his story with Robert, and in a chapter of the book entitled “Brave Men” he recounts many of their experiences.
“The former American soldiers and ex-prisoners of war did not just tell me their stories. Rather, they entrusted them to me,” Robert writes. “I have a solemn obligation to now share those stories with the public, since that is the implied reason that so many consigned them to me.”
Robert’s book contains chapters on Nazi and Fascist atrocities in Italy, the notoriously brutal Fascist kingpin Settimio Roscioli, and the repressive work of the German Brandenburg Division in Italy. He rounds the volume out with an overview of Allied intelligence operations responsible for the rescue of scores of escapees from behind enemy lines.
Below are a few of the many photos included in Soldiers of the Strange Night.
Lifelong friends out fishing: Robert Alvey Newton and Robert J. “Doc” Frie
Robert Alvey Newton camping in the Indiana woods. Regarding Alvey’s love of nature, Robert writes, “Alvey’s enthrallment with life in the outdoors began at a very early age. He often went into the woods alone, or with friends, transversing the banks of the rivers and streams while bearing a well-worn copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau. He wrote the following epigraph just inside the cover: ‘Thoreau: My tutelary god.'”
Robert Alvey Newton and friend Joe Kienly at the Boy Scouts training ship
March 1942. A last photograph with his family as Robert Alvey Newton leaves for Fort Dix, New Jersey, and the war. The family was never to see him again. Left to right: Father, Claude Lee (C.L.) Newton; Robert Alvey; mother, Susie Newton; and brother “Red” Newton. Younger brother Joe Newton (not pictured) was serving in the U.S. Army Air Force at the time.
Author Robert A. Newton
This document, presented to Alvey’s family by Indiana University, reads:
Indiana University holds in reverent memory Robert Alvey Newton who died in the service of his country. His name has been inscribed on the permanent honor roll of his Alma Mater with the hope that his sacrifice may help those who come after him to live peaceably in the free world.
Bloomington, Indiana, May 1, 1946.
Herman B Wells
President, Indiana University