The Departure of Heroes

Antonio Del Gobbo on his ninety-second birthday
Marino Palmoni is interviewed by Italian historian Filippo Ieranò (left) and Ian McCarthy (not shown), 2010

My father, American Sgt. Armie Hill, was a prisoner of war in P.G. 59 Servigliano during the Second World War.

He escaped from the camp in September 1943, shortly after Italy signed the armistice with the Allies. Although the Italian government had capitulated, much of Italy was still held by the Germans. Escapees from prison camps across central and northern Italy found themselves on the run in enemy-occupied territory—and were at the mercy of local Italians for protection.

The Italians themselves were divided between fascists, who cooperated with the Germans, and partisans, who fought for liberation of their country. Rural laborers and farmers, the contadini, were faced with an ethical dilemma when ragged POWs turned up at their doorsteps asking for food, shelter, or directions. 

My father was helped by local Italians—he was fed, sheltered, given directions, and warned of impending dangers. His experience with the local Italians was not at all unusual.

Antonio Del Gobbo was a young farmer in Smerillo when he was approached by POWs from P.G. 59 asking for food. Antonio brought the young escapees home, where his mother, Letizia, took them in. 

Read the family’s story in “A Haven in Smerillo.”

Marino Palmoni was 10 years old when his father, Luigi, discovered escapees from P.G. 59 hiding in woods that bordered his farm fields. Without hesitation, Luigi sent Marino home for food for the men and, when winter set in, the Palmoni family welcomed them into their home.

Read “Marino Palmoni on the Sheltering of the POWs.”

Antonio’s nephew, Marco Ercoli, wrote early this year that Antonio had died on January 2. Antonio was the last living Del Gobbo family member to remember their rescue of the escaped prisoners.

This month, Antonello Palmoni emailed me that his father, Marino, had passed away on February 20.

When I began this website in January 2008 (eight years after my dad’s death), I knew relatively little about P.G. 59 and even less about prisoners from camps across Italy who found themselves on the run in 1943–44.

However, once I established a presence online, I was surprised by how many people contacted me—former POWs who were interned in Italy, their sons and daughter, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and even a few great grandchildren. Researchers kindly shared information with me and, in time, I heard from descendants of Italian helpers, some of whom had living parents or other relatives who recalled sheltering the Allied escapees.

Stories and information these contacts shared with me are on this site. 

Each year, I am saddened to learn of the deaths of contacts, especially those who remembered the war. Many had become close friends. Soldiers who fought and endured captivity are my heroes, of course. But the Italian protectors are my heroes as well. I have deep admiration for their courage and selflessness.

The dangers faced by Italians who harbored escapees are made clear through notices widely distributed in comunes near the camps. A German flyer written in Italian that was posted in Comunanza—about 26 kilometers (or 16 miles) from P.G. 59—was preserved as evidence by British war crimes investigators after the war. 

A contemporary translation by Celestina Moretti of the flyer, now in the British National Archives, reads:

FIGHT AGAINST THE FAVOURING OF THE ENEMY.

  1. Be silent about all you hear and what you see of the German troops. If, for example, the enemy should get to know that German troops are in your town, the town will be bombed by the enemy without pity. Being silent you will save your town, your home and possessions.
  2. You are to notify the German Commands of any P.O.Ws., spies and saboteurs, or of any other persons acting against them. Notify any attempt at sabotage, or any espionage.
  3. A reward of 1,800 lire shall be given to you for every prisoner, saboteur etc, captured as a result of your information.
  4. Notify us of all radio transmitting apparatus.
  5. A reward of 5,000 lire will be paid for every transmitter that is traced as a result of your information.
  6. All offenders shall eventually be punished by the German Military laws
    BY DEATH
    if they conceal any persons or the above facts, or help in the sheltering, feeding, clothing or escape of these persons.
  7. Severe punishment shall be given to the inhabitants of the town if it is known that they assist spies, saboteurs, or escaped prisoners, etc..
  8. The present notice shall be affixed to all public buildings and all churches. Severe punishment will be given to those responsible who do not see that this order is carried out, and to those who remove notices from any of these buildings.

THE COMMANDER of the GERMAN TROOPS.

In spite of the threats, hundreds of Italian families and individuals, motivated by their humanity—and many undoubtedly inspired by their faith—chose to protect the escapees. Many had their homes destroyed and many more became martyrs.

The end of the year is a good time to remember and honor these departed Italian heroes. Generations of descendants of Allied POWs are indebted to them. They must not be forgotten.

Copies of the original Comunanza flyer were cut into quarters to fit on four pages of the war crimes report, now on file at the National Archives in Kew; image courtesy of Brian Sims

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