A Haven in Smerillo

an old Italian woman carries a bundle of sticks on her head

Letizia Galiè in Del Gobbo

This story has a remarkable heroine—Letizia Galiè in Del Gobbo, who lived during the war in the Marche comune of Smerillo, roughly 10 miles from Servigliano. Days after the prison camp breakout from P.G. 59, she was approached by two ragged, hungry American soldiers.

Widowed just seven years earlier, Letizia was left alone to provide for and raise six children. Yet she did not hesitate to welcome the escapees into her home.

Marco Ercoli shared the story of his grandmother’s courage and humanity with me.

He wrote, “My grandmother, Letizia Del Gobbo, hosted in Smerillo two American prisoners escaped from Camp 59 in Servigliano. She remembered just their names: Michele, whose his parents were Italian emigrants, and Beo.

“They arrived in Smerillo on September 1943 and remained there until June 1944, when the U.S. Army moved into the Marche region.

“The family Del Gobbo in 1943 was made up of my grandmother Letizia, widowed in 1936, and three sons—Antonio, Giacomo, and Giuseppe—and three daughters—Maria, Chiarina, and Palma (my mother). Antonio had lost a leg in 1940, when he was 17, and they were very poor.

“Yet they had the strength to host—at great risk—the two Americans.

“Only Antonio, 96 years old, lives still in Smerillo. The others have all died.

“Two years ago, Ian McCarthy [of La Casa della Memoria] gave him a filmed interview.” Also, Pasquale Ricci, an Italian with an interest in the escape stories, has written about the Del Gobbo family in his book 9 Settembre 1943: Lo Sbando e La Fuga.

“I am writing a short story about the experience,” Marco said. “When I finish it, I will send you an English version. And I’ll send you photos of Antonio (called Ntontò) and my grandmother Letizia (“nonna Litì”).

“In the list of prisoners on your site, I found Michele’s name and surname: Michael Rotunno. I asked my uncle Antonio, and he confirmed it was correct.

“In 1990, Beo and his wife returned to Smerillo. Beo told us that when he got home, before marrying his wife, he chose to become a Baptist pastor. He also had a funeral service. In fact, after Smerillo, Beo came to Rome to visit the great cemetery. He took photos of the tombs in order to propose designs drawn from them in the United States. They had four sons.”

Marco’s short story is based on memories of his father and his uncle Antonio. Today, Marco says, “My father is a young 93 years old.” Although the account is factual, some conversation and details are fictionalized in order to fill in what is lost to memory after so many years.

Marco himself is the narrator for the segment on Beo’s return to Smerillo, as he helped to host Beo and his wife Nadine in 1990.

The Two Prisoners

(This story of sheltering the POWs is told from the perspective of Marco’s father, Delio.)

It was on the night between Wednesday the 15th and Thursday the 16th of September, 1943, when two American prisoners—together with other Americans and some British soldiers—escaped from military prison camp P.G. 59. In this camp, located just beyond the medieval walls that define the historic center of Servigliano, fascists imprisoned Allied soldiers captured during the military operations of the Second World War.

We learned about the escape during Don Peppe’s homily, in which he urged us to watch carefully for any foreigners.

P.G. 59 was built in 1915 to contain Austrian prisoners of the Great War in over 40 wooden barracks. It was closed in 1918 at the end of the war. When Italy sided with Hitler, the fascist government of Mussolini reopened a section of the camp, and in January 1941 it again began receiving prisoners of war.

In the days immediately following the armistice of 8 September, prisoners fled through a breach in the prison wall and dispersed into the surrounding hills.

A few weeks after the prisoners’ escape, the Nazis took control of the camp. They used it as a concentration camp for the Jews of the province of Ascoli, considering it strategic because of its proximity to the railway that would easily allow transfer to extermination camps in Germany. The order was: “All interned and free Jews, Italian and foreign citizens, whether or not residents of this province, must be arrested and interned in the Servigliano concentration camp as soon as possible.”

Two American fugitives, Michele—of Italian ancestry—and Beo, headed south, following the course of the River Tenna, skirting the railway, and found refuge in a cave halfway up a cliff near our tiny village of Smerillo, perched on a hill formed several million years ago. In fact, the walls of the cave are studded with countless fossil shells.

After several cold autumn nights in hiding, the two began to approach the village in search of food. One of these times they came across a young farmer who limped towards them. He was my uncle Antonio, who tragically at 16 years of age had lost half a leg in a threshing accident. Considering he might be an invalid of war and therefore wary of his possible denunciation to the authorities, they simply observed his rural activities from afar. Some of their fellow fugitives had found shelter in stables of the peasants across the region near Servigliano, who had welcomed them, and offered food and protection. News of the solidarity offered by this most humble population had reached Beo and Michele, but they did not know if they could hope for a similar reception.

One afternoon, the sweet sound of an unfamiliar musical instrument reached them. Although aware of the risk, curiosity drew them closer to learn the source of the music. They saw a young farmer, Antonio, leaning against a haystack near the house playing the instrument that had a bellows, on the right side of which was a small keyboard, and on the other a set of buttons pressed with his left hand. It was an “organetto”—a little “fisarmonica.” Sitting in the shade of a large oak tree, listening to these cheerful melodies were children who were sisters and brothers of Antonio. I was among them also.

As they approached cautiously, Michele stepped on a dry branch, which broke with a very loud snap. Antonio stopped playing and we all looked over, amazed and a bit of fearful. There in the bushes were two young men—one blond and the other dark-haired, the first tall and slender, the second short and stockier. They were certainly strangers to us, and they were dressed in tattered clothing. They, too, were perplexed and uncertain what was to come next, but Michele broke the silence with an appeal in broken Italian. Raising both his open hands, he said, “Amici … fame.”

We immediately understood these were two were escaped prisoners. Without hesitation, we led them to the cow stable beneath the house, safe from prying eyes and sharp ears.

Letizia, the head of the family—her husband having died seven years earlier—told the youngest daughters, Marietta and Palmina, to get some wine from the barrel in the cellar. And she told Chiarina to get half a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese from the cupboard. Then she told Giacomino and Peppino to fetch four figs and a cluster of grapes from the field and a head of lettuce from the garden. Antonio and I stayed to “check out” these two strangers, and we began to get to know them. Michele, born in America to parents who had emigrated from Campania at the beginning of the century, spoke our language well enough, while Beo was silent.

From that moment on the poor family showed an incredible hospitality that lasted for the next eight months—until the front line passed Smerillo to settle in Filottrano and the two men rejoined their fellow soldiers.

Immediately after the war Letizia received a letter with red and blue outlines—an air mail envelope. It was from Michele’s mother. Her very moving letter began like this, “Dear Letizia, I am writing to you from mother to mother. You saved my son’s life.”

village of Smerillo

A postcard of Smerillo as as it appeared in 1948

An old photo of an Italian family

The Del Gobbo family after the war. Letizia is not in the photo. “Galiè is the surname of my grandmother before she married Del Gobbo Nicola, who died in 1936,” Marco writes. Her correct name was Letizia Galiè in Del Gobbo.

four women

Left to right: Palmina, Antonio’s wife Viola, Giacomo’s wife Ave, and Letizia

an Italian man in a workshop

Antonio at work

The Return Visit, 1990

(The story of Beo’s return is told by Marco Ercoli.)

After the war, Beo became a Baptist minister. For years he had told his wife, Nadine, that he longed to return to the “roots” of his spiritual vocation in Italy. He wanted to track down those who had given him access to a new life, protecting him from Nazi-fascist raids and starvation.

In addition to being a minister, Beo prepared the dead for “the last trip” through a funeral service his family owned.

Each time Beo talked of a trip to Italy, Nadine’s practicality distracted him from the thought. She reasoned that probably no one was alive in the family that had protected him, and, if they were living, they would likely not recognize him. Beo’s sons were of the same opinion that it was a wild idea. Moreover, their family finances couldn’t cover the cost, as transoceanic flights were expensive.

One Sunday after church, Beo sat in the rocking chair on the veranda, reading the local Sunday paper, when he saw an ad for a low-cost New York–Brussels flight, He tore the ad out and tucked it in his pocket. Without saying a word to his family, the following morning he phoned the travel agency for more details. Indeed, the flight was as cheap as advertised. He also inquired about the cost of renting a car for a week. He was stunned to learn an extremely affordable rental offer was available with the flight. Convinced this was a sign that it was time to fulfill his dream, he reviewed his finances and applied for a small loan, then purchased round trip tickets for Nadine and himself.

Beo bought a lovely bouquet of flowers and returned home, rejuvenated by this moment of “senior madness.”

Nadine asked, “To what do I owe this pleasant surprise? Unexpected good news? A client who wants to spend a fortune on a funeral? Someone coming home for a visit?” Smiling, Beo handed her the bouquet and an envelope. Intrigued, she opened the envelope, gazed at the tickets, and glanced up at him for an explanation. With tears in his eyes, Beo hugged her tightly and whispered, “Nadine, my love, it’s time—we’re going to Italy.”

The day of departure arrived: New York to Brussels, with a brief stop in Ireland. On arrival in Brussels, they picked up their Toyota Starlet rental and asked the shortest route to Italy.

Beo had only three references: Marche–Smerillo–Antonio.

With these three things in mind, they picked up a map of Europe and headed for the Italian border, finally arriving in the Marche region at Pesaro on the Adriatic coast. They went down to Porto San Elpidio and followed the Faleriense road along the River Tenna to Servigliano. With direction from locals, Beo found the site of the prison camp and showed his Nadine the place in the stone wall though which he and others had escaped.

They returned to the car and continued on to Smerillo. The trip from Belgium had been 760 km and over nine hours of driving. Nadine, tired from the trip, hid her skepticism as they explored the village and stopped in front of a stone artifact with a plaque that Beo remembered—he excitedly told her it was a monument dedicated to the fallen of the First World War. Beo stretched, breathing in deeply the fresh, pure country air.

They stopped next in front of the parish priest’s house. The housekeeper answered the door and Beo requested direction with a single word: “Antonio?”

Without hesitation, the housekeeper directed him to a nearby building where Antonio lived with his wife Viola and their son Giulio.

When Beo rang the doorbell and the door opened, he was greeted by an elderly couple holding hands. After a moment of silence and mutual perplexity, Beo said, quietly—but visibly moved—in uncertain Italian, “Hi Antonio, io sono Beo and questa donna è Nadine—my wife.” And he stepped forward to embrace Antonio.

Antonio replied, “So you seemed to me—but I could hardly believe it. Today is a very happy day for me and my family.”

two couples

Left to right: Antonio’s wife Viola, Beo, Antonio, and Beo’s wife Nadine. On the back of the photo is written “Nadine & Bill.”

Antonio hugged Beo tightly and his eyes filled with tears of joy. After embracing the Nadine, he exclaimed, “Come—come in, I introduce you to my wife Viola and my son Giulio.” Then he turned and exclaimed: “Viola, bring that bottle that I’ve been keeping aside for a long time for an important occasion. The time has come to open it. Today let’s drink to life!”

They sat in the living room and began to ask each other questions about the past years. The conversation was difficult, as Antonio did not speak English and Beo, after 45 years, had a very limited memory of Italian. The first thing Beo asked was if Letizia was still alive. Learning of her death, he asked to be taken to the cemetery as soon as possible.

Antonio immediately sent Giulio to fetch me, because, having spent a year in Australia in the mid ’50s, I still understood and spoke English. My dad and mom were in Rome.

Nadine was incredulous at the loving reception.

After we sat down and had toasted the incredible reunion, Beo told us the story of the “mad” trip that he had had in mind for years, but which had taken so long to be realized.

That evening at Antonio’s house there was a delicious, festive dinner, during which words in dialect were mixed with those of awkward Italian, and those in English that I translated poorly, but as best I could. The conversation was accompanied by excellent homemade red wine, a final toast with a special reserve of cooked wine aged for over a decade, and stirrup of potent artisan Mistrà.

Then everyone went to sleep. Giulio willingly gave his room to the guests of honor and slept on the sofa in the living room. The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, Beo asked me to accompany him to Letizia’s tomb. Along the road, Beo told his wife several anecdotes related to the places we passed: the Madonnina, a small statue dedicated to the mother of Jesus; the municipal building; the church of Santa Caterina; and the tower and the cross of the Rocca.

a wall of tombs

Letizia’s tomb

We reached the cemetery, and at Letizia’s grave, Beo, deeply moved, said, “Nadine, here is the woman who gave me my life back. Without her we would never have met and had a family.” His wife hugged him tightly as tears furrowed the wrinkles of his face. We then shared a solemn moment of prayer.

Beo asked to visit tombs of the Smerillians whom he had known during the war and who had died during his long absence, explaining to his wife the relationship he had had with each of them.

Beo asked to see a house in a place called “the bridge” (ponte) that he remembered had been damaged by an earthquake when he and Michele were in the area. In passing through the village, Vincenzo, who was older than Beo, came out of a house. After scrutinized the stranger’s face, he said, “Wow—you’re back!”

I asked him, “Vincenzo, but do you know who he is?” And he replied in his straightforward way, “Well, of course, I’m not completely daft… It’s Beo! A little aged, but not so much….”

Then we arrived at the house. “Nadine, do you see the crack that starts from the wooden beam and reaches the window?” Beo asked. “That was caused by the earthquake on October 3, 1943. It was on a Sunday morning, around 9 or 10 a.m. From the countryside, the farm families had come to the village for mass. Michele and I had hidden in a ravine just below the North Gate, which was typical when there were gatherings in the village. At some point we heard a sound like a roar, as if the sound had burst from underground, then the rock against which we were leaning began to shake powerfully. I had never experienced the shock of an earthquake. I felt our time had come. We ran out of hiding to an open space. As suddenly as it had started, the tremor stopped, and the ground was once again stable. We ran to see what had happened to the old houses in the country, and to give help if it was needed. Fortunately, all the people were safe and even the houses were intact, with only cracks in the facades of a few older houses. Nadine, it was a terrible, frightening experience!”

Finally, Beo wanted to show us the area where he and Michele hid. He took us across the grassy area beyond the medieval arch where a path descends from the North Gate into the Fessa, a canyon in the rock that opened millions of years ago. As we descended, he searched for a crevice where he and Michele hid when they sensed danger. This fissure cannot be seen from the meadow above.

Beo confided to us that in this place his life-changing religious commitment was born—a covenant he made with God in the spring of 1944. Over the years, he had confided that experience to no one, not even to Nadine.

He said, “Easter, which fell on April 9, had just passed and the Germans were withdrawing to the north while the Allies were liberating the land as they advanced. Several days earlier, an American Mustang reconnaissance plane—probably from Pescara—flew over the roofs of Smerillo and swooped towards the Tenna Valley to machine-gun German convoys in transit along the railway that bordered the river. They were heading toward the Faleriense. The plane passed so low that we could see the pilot’s face. The inhabitants of Smerillo had nicknamed that elegant, silver plane “Goofy” without good reason. When the roar of the approaching engine was heard from afar, they shouted, looking east towards the sea, as if imitating a radio announcer: ‘Attention, attention! Do not be afraid—Goofy is coming!’ Every time it flew over, Michele and I were filled with pride at the sight of the American star on the fuselage and wings. It gave us hope that soon we would be reunited with our comrades.

“The day after the village festival called “Quarantore,” word spread among the population that from the neighboring village of Montefalcone, a lone patrol of the Wermacht was approaching Smerillo to requisition food and livestock. Antonio and his brothers encouraged us to flee to safety and remain hidden until the Germans had gone, in the hope that they would limit themselves only to the raid and not engage in a massacre, as often happened if they found deserters, escaped prisoners, and other resisters. Michele ran to the cave where we had first hid—the one with the fossil shells. But I was forced to stop short of this because, in haste and fear, I had taken a wrong step and twisted my ankle. For a few hours I was curled up below the square. I distinctly heard the guttural voices of the Germans above me, who, I believe, were looking north to plan the best way to go to avoid clashes with the partisans, who were active in neighboring areas.

“I began to tremble with fear and curled more tightly against the rock. At that moment from a ravine a snake emerged—a viper. Antonio had taught me to be wary of cracks in the dry stone walls, and not uncover larger stones along the paths, so as not to be bitten by a deadly viper.

“In that moment I had to make a choice between two equally dangerous situations: emerge and be captured by the Germans—and hope that they would not fire on me, but recapture and send me back to prison—or to remain still and trust the snake would ignore me. It was precisely at that juncture that I made a covenant with God through a solemn vow: if he saved my life, I would dedicate it entirely to him. If he granted me the grace to continue living, I would become a Baptist pastor on returning home.

“I chose to remain still, and God protected me from the viper. And so it was. Amen.”

Nadine and I were speechless, our mouths open, stunned by the revelation, while Beo wept with emotion at having shared with us the secret he had kept inside for so long. We hugged each other and remained there for a long time—until we heard Giulio’s voice calling us to lunch.

Finally, Beo had returned to the deepest roots of his calling—so distant in time—and he had revealed his secret to us in an intense testimony of faith.

a stone gate

The stone North Gate (portanord) in Smerillo

a meadow on a high hill

The meadow (pianerottolo) beyond the North Gate, where the Germans gathered to survey the landscape during the raid for provisions

The rocky cliffs below the North Gate where Beo and Michele often hid and slept in a cave. Image courtesy of Pasquale Ricci.

two older man play with two babies in a tandem stroller

Antonio (left), Marco’s father, with Marco’s youngest boys, who are twins

I asked Marco if he knows Pasquale Ricci. He said, “Pasquale Ricci, called Pasquì, is a friend of mine. We meet together in Smerillo only in the summer, because I live in Rome and he in another city.”

I was curious that the man they know as “Beo” was identified on the back of the photograph from 1990 as Bill.

As the end of a post entitled “A Southward Migration,” are transfer paper for a group of 26 soldiers, including Michael Rotunno. The list contains two soldiers named William and one Willie. Having been repatriated together, its reasonable to assume Michael and Bill would have been sent back to the States together.

The two Williams on the list are William Monio and William Hurley.

A third person on the list was Willie Ash. His enlistment record in the National Archive indicates he lived in Indianapolis, Indiana, although Willie was born in Kentucky. His religious affiliation was recorded as Baptist.

William Monio, a Catholic from Stillwater, Minnesota, seems unlikely to have felt a calling to become a Baptist minister.

William Hurley—identified as a protestant from Oklahoma, a state where the Baptists are by far the largest Christian denomination—is a strong candidate.

But if Willie Ash was from the Appalachian region of Kentucky, I can imagine how Italians hearing him pronounce Bill with a mountain drawl, might have understood it as “Beo.”

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