This is not the usual war story that one is most likely to read in this column of “As I Remember It”. More often than not those stories relate to the soldier’s participation in the harsh realities of battle, telling of his experiences entwined with those of his fellow squad members. The stories speak of battle, hardships, pain and at times, the pangs of loneliness one endures in the front line of duty. This is a story of two boys of diversified backgrounds, one born American of Irish heritage, the other a naturalized citizen of Italian parents; both caught up in the throes of war, from which they became good friends. They hailed from the state of Massachusetts, one from Worcester the other from Malden, some 45 miles east; were inducted into the army on the same day and after being outfitted in army olive drab at Ft. Devans were quickly railed to Macon, Georgia and Camp Wheeler to undergo basic training in infantry tactics.
John McAuliffe was born in Brooklyn, New York with his brothers and sisters, the son of a sculptor, in the employ of an even more prominent sculptress, Mrs. Gertrude Whitney, daughter of the millionaire Vanderbilt of the railroad dynasty. He returned to Worcester, the home of his father, after his parent’s deaths at his early age, and became a student at Holy Cross College there, when the war was declared against Japan in 1941.
Donato Marini was born in the little town of San Donato val di Camino just outside Rome. The town’s heritage goes back many centuries to the days of the emperor Caesar and the formation of the Roman Empire. Donato indeed was named after the ancient town’s patron saint. He was the son of Gaetano, a stone cutter in Italy, now faced with entering the equivalent of our high school at the age of 14. Rather than undergo the forced military indoctrination under the Fascist system of Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, his caring father wisely took him from school and directed him to live with some relatives in America. This was in 1935 during the buildup of the Fascist Party and Mussolini’s left wing army.
John McAuliffe attended the boarding schools of the Catholic sisters and brothers after his parent’s deaths, and now was pursuing a premed course at Holy Cross College, while living with his school teacher aunt and uncle. The nature of the course allowed him a deferment from being drafted into the selective service and one by one he watched many of his classmates enter the military service, and being envious of them. He wanted so much to be in uniform with his friends but it was his folks’ wishes that he continue with his studies as long as possible. The day came when he graduated but was immediately drafted into the Army in June of 1944 to fill vacancies in the long line of infantrymen. This was about the time that the ASTP folded and the boys in that program went in to the Infantry also.
On the other hand, Danny, as he was now called in America, was attending night school and learning the English language while working days at the Fore River shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts as a welder. He was helping to build the new carrier Lexington after the former was sunk in the Battle of Midway, and also was helping to build the battleship, Massachusetts. The nature of Danny’s work also provided him with a deferment from the draft into the military, as his work was classified as essential to the war effort. Like in the case of John, the day came when his job was superseded by the need for infantrymen over that of new warships and he also was called into active service with the army.
The two draftees with the surnames beginning with the letter “M”, were assigned to the same company in training and bunked in the same aisle, one at each end of the row of beds. The seventeen weeks of training together brought them even closer and they found themselves on January 1, 1945 on the converted luxury liner, Queen Mary, on the way to Europe and the Battle of the Bulge. The trip over was uneventful as the big ship laden with troops zigged and zagged alone, without convoy across the cold Atlantic. The three days across France in unheated boxcars, herded like cattle in freezing temperatures was a foreteller of conditions that were to face us. All amenities and comforts were left behind at the Port of La Havre. We now were faced with the life of soldiering at its worst. As the numbers would have it, the two “M” boys were assigned to “M” company of the 347th Infantry in the 87th Division, in the same mortar section but in different squads. This was in the city of Echternach just after the battles of Moircy, Tillet, and Bonnerue were fought.
This is not a story of soldiering, as I mentioned earlier, but being soldiers in combat in the Ardennes we were subjected to the frigid temperatures, the hardships, the shelling and the machine gun fire and struggles of every day hazards in the life of an infantryman.
This story begins in Springtime April, about a month after we crossed the Rhine River. I do not recall where it all started nor is it important. Many are the times that we didn’t know where we were, as the drive across Germany was at such a rapid pace. Our squads were approaching a small hamlet in typical infantry fashion, at spaced intervals on both sides of the road. Suddenly we came upon foxholes that were dug in along the roadsides at some thirty feet apart. They were not the usual type holes, but more like graves, deep and with neat square cuts and equal sides. They were dug with precision and meticulous care as if ordered and watched over in the process. We became suspicious of their uniqueness and our attention was quickly diverted to the movement and assembly of people up ahead in the road. They posed no threat as we knew they were not enemy troops.
As we approached they came forward as if to greet us, and on closer look we found that they were displaced men in civilian clothes. In greeting them, we learned that they were Italians. Immediately Danny came to the fore and engaged them in his native Italian tongue. Their happiness in making contact with American soldiers was exceeded only by being able to talk with one of us in the Italian language. Danny jabbered with them for a half hour and I was completely left out of it.
One of them asked why I was so quiet and I poked Danny and said, “You Italians sure do talk a lot.” At one point there was lots of arm waving, shouting and laughing. Danny detected a familiarity in the man’s dialect, and we learned that he was from San Donato val di Camino, Provincia Frocinone, Danny’s birthplace. They were ecstatic to say the least! The man’s name was Antonio Massa, a first lieutenant in the Italian army of his majesty the King. Not in Mussolini’s army. These men were a pan of those troops that were captured and disarmed and made to fight with the Germans against the Russians. They were also pressed into the German work force and were the ones that were forced to dig the grave-like foxholes we saw in the road. They were left behind by the retreating Germans as the American troops approached the town.
Danny’s letter home mentioned all this and his girlfriend began to get more worried about his being on German soil. It was during a break in the fighting when we had our tents pitched in a field that Danny asked me to write to his girlfriend in an attempt to allay her fears, saying that he was OKAY AND NOT TO WORRY, that the war would soon be over. I didn’t know Josephine but Danny had shown me pictures of her and had mentioned me to her in his letters home
Let me take you ahead in time about 44 years. In 1989 on a visit to the Marini’s, now living in Newtonville, Massachusetts, Josephine took out her box of letters that she had saved during the war. Among them was my letter that I had hand written, along with all of Danny’s. The letter read:
|Somewhere in Germany, April 1, 1945.
You’ve never heard from me before, nor have you ever seen me, but I’m from that dear old state of Massachusetts, the city of Worcester. Dante and I were at Devans and Wheeler together and here we are again in the same outfit chasing the Huns. He was just writing to you over at my tent so he asked me to drop a line. We’ve talked over old times a great deal and what we’d like to be doing back home in old Mass. He has shown me your picture many times and you sure do make a nice couple… (that is, if I don’t break it up.) Dante just ran after his rifle so I guess I better take it easy. Anyway, I’ll be at the wedding with a pound of rice or two. We just got back from a movie this afternoon and had a pretty good time. You see we’re taking a rest now and can enjoy life a little, as best we can with what we have. This country is pretty – too bad the inhabitants aren’t peaceful people. But we hope to make it peaceful soon. Well it’s getting dark now so I think I’d better close. Hope you don’t mind me writing to you but we Massachusetts people have to stick together.
One of the boys,
I don’t know how much my letter helped but I hoped it would have helped put her at ease. Also among the letters was the wallet that Danny had carried through the War with the picture of Josephine and a lock of her hair. She had saved these mementos through the years.
I didn’t know until this time, or else I had forgotten, that Josephine was also from the town of San Donato. Both she and Danny attended the primary school in the village and both had the last name of Marini but were not directly related. Danny had taken a liking towards her.
In 1940 when Danny was working at the shipyard, his father told him one day that a Marini family had just arrived from the old country and was residing in nearby Newton. Would he like to drive out there with him to meet them? To his great surprise, he was met at the door by Josephine, her mother, aunt and grandmother. Josephine was now twenty years old and had developed into “a very nice young lady.” The relationship that was broken off five years earlier, by their separation, was now taken up again but in a much different dimension. This very nice young lady who worried so much about a young soldier in Germany and to whom his buddy wrote to, was to become his wife forever.
Back with the 87th Division of Patton’s Third Army in their pursuit across Germany.
It was now the middle of April and the armies were on a roll along the Autobahns deeper and deeper into the Deutschland. It was springtime and the soldiers had shed their winter overcoats. You would see them along the roadsides, here and there as the warmth of the day wore on the men. Getting rid of them made one less item to bear with. It was a long way from Oberhof (the sports center), to Oelsnitz near the Czechoslovakian border. We passed through Bad Blakenburg Salfeld, Schliez and the railroad and industrial center of Plauen, the largest of cities and now completely leveled. It was in the small city of Theuma that the war ended for us on May 8, 1945 just outside of Oelsnitz.
Our company pitched tents on a hillside along a road into the town. From here we watched the endless parade of defeated and surrendered German troops file by to set up their camp not far away and across from a small pond that separated the two camps. It was a warm Spring day, the water was inviting and we were off and down to the pond to the strains of Lily Marlene, that famous song of the war. A handful of German soldiers were already there on their side of the pond, singing, soaping up and I suppose, celebrating the end of the long war for them.
We quickly jumped in and splashed and swam around reveling in the sun. It was a great day, the war was over, it was V-E Day and the water was fine. Someone got hold of a bottle of cognac, we had a campfire that night and did some celebrating of our own. A few weeks before this, Danny had picked up a camera someplace and came back to the squad area with his shirt stuffed with rolls of film. He went about snapping pictures of everybody. Now that hostilities had ceased, he was off into town on a picture shoot. If it moved, he shot it! And much more. He was fortunate to be able to bring the rolls of exposed film back to the States and when I visited him shortly after the war, I was surprised to see all the pictures he had taken. Included was one of General Culin posing with his foot up on his jeep, “Arizona”. He had others of German officers surrendering, pictures of the German camp and troops and also many of his buddies in the field. Today they provide a wonderful album of memories.
With time on his hands, Danny remembered the note from our newfound friend, the Italian Lieutenant. He now had a scheme to get our commanding officer, Captain Pierceall’s permission to visit the camp where the Italian was and look him up. He not only found him but also he got his picture, which he has to this day.
Lieutenant Massa had been away from home for a long time and had not heard from his family back in San Donato, where Danny’s mother still lived. Massa had no way of reaching his parents to let them know he was alright, still alive and just liberated by the American soldiers. If he could only write a note to his father and have Danny insert the message in his letter to his mother in San Donato. The captain gave Danny permission to write the letter and approved the letter with his signature of censorship. Of course, there was no way that Massa would know that the message got to his father and very improbable that a return letter would be forthcoming. Danny said “good-bye” to Massa, wished him the best and returned to our camp.
We were kept busy doing ten mile hikes, and performing simulated firing orders with the 81 mm mortar, as well as performing close order drill. At one recreation period, Danny and I put on boxing gloves and went at it for a good half hour. It was the format of the future Jake LaMotta Sugar Ray Robinson matches. Danny, big boned and heavily muscled, somewhat awkward and sluggish versus the slightly built, wiry John, with quicker reflexes. Starting at the company headquarters tent, we sparred, pushed and shoved, slugged and groaned our way along the line of tents to the end of the row, to the cheers and jeers of our resting buddies. It was a draw! We returned to our tents a bit roughed up but arm in arm and still the best of friends.
From then on the order of events passed quickly. The boxcar trip back across France to Camp Lucky Strike, St. Valery on the coast to board the West Point and the five day voyage across the Atlantic. From Fort Meade to Fort Devans and home on a 30 day furlough. I did not return to Fort Benning for the deactivation of the division. I was sent to Deshon General Hospital in Butler, Pennsylvania for treatment of a service connected disability. It was here that I got the invitation to Danny and Josephine’s wedding. I was not able to attend and sent my regrets. Soon we were both discharged from the army and sought separate ways. Danny went to work as a welder building bridges over the rivers in and around Boston and John went back to school in pursuit of a career in dentistry.
In 1947, Danny’s two brothers came to the States to live in Malden, Massachusetts. They were now able to tell Danny of how Massa’s note to San Donato was received. Danny’s mother was quite ill and without much hope of getting well. She gave the note in Danny’s letter to her aged father who in turn took it to Massa’s father, Goffredo Massa. It had finally reached its destination. He was an old man himself now, a former officer with the rank of general in the medical corps in WWI. The old soldier wept on opening the note and recognizing his son’s handwriting. The tears of sadness and then of joy rolled down his cheeks. His son who was taken by the Germans to work at slave labor for three years was alive and well. In a way of showing thanks, he visited Mother Marini to see if he could help her get well. Using his professional skills and making changes in her medicine, Danny’s mother gradually responded and got better. She lived for several years after that. However, no one knew what ever happened to Lieutenant Massa, if he had come home after the war was over or had he met some other fate.
It was not unusual for the Italian people to leave San Donato and come to live in Malden and Newtonville. Now that there were many living there, relatives could come as long as there was someone to sponsor them and insure that there was a job for them. Many were skilled masons, stone cutters, carpenters, cabinet makers, and construction workers. Through the years since the war, Danny and Josephine got to know the new arrivals just as they were met and welcomed to the new land of opportunity. When John visits Danny as he has often in the past few years, he kids him about the red, white and green stripes painted on local fire hydrants, the colors of the Italian flag. The whole town has an Italian flavor.
In 1950, John graduated from Georgetown University Dental School and became associated with another dentist in practice for two years. It was during the Korean War there was a military need for dentists and John found himself going through Ft. Devans once again being outfitted in army khaki. His assignment at Fort McNair in Washington, DC was a picnic compared to winter of ’44-’45 in the ETO.
There were many generals living on the post and John got to meet the “other McAuliffe”, the famous Bastogne general who gave the “NUTS” answer to the German ultimatum to surrender. There was also the famous General Lawton J. Collins, “Lightening Joe”, who commanded the VII Corps in the Battle of Bulge, and General Mark Clark, commander of the Fifth Army in Italy.
During this time Danny had bought a piece of reclaimed land and went about building his own house with the help of his brother-in-law. It was here that he and his wife brought up two daughters while he worked as a welder and later for the postal service. He and Josephine still live there in their retirement. John returned to Worcester after his Korean tour of service and opened his own practice of dentistry where he was active for 37 years. He married late in years in 1973 and moved to a nearby town where he lived with his wife until she passed away.
One evening in 1981, John received a long distance telephone call. It was his old buddy, Danny calling, whom he had not seen nor heard from in 25 years. There was a reunion being held by the 87th Division Association, and he and Josephine were going. “Could you possibly come?” My heart was all for it, and yearned to be with them to meet again some of the “boys” of M-Company. However, I knew my wife was not keen nor interested in such affairs and I made some kind of excuse in refusing. How I wanted to go!
After John’s wife died, he moved back to Worcester. He was retired from practice now and with time on his hands. One of the first things he did was to contact Danny in Newtonville. It was an emotion filled visit all over again as they got out the album of pictures and talked about the war, about Lieutenant Massa and their experiences in M-Company. John asked Danny about the time he had called and the reunion Danny attended in Scottsdale, Arizona. He said, “I knew there was something wrong”, as it wasn’t like me to not want to go.
Danny met another buddy at that reunion who lived in nearby Phoenix. They hadn’t seen one another since the war and it was a tearful meeting for the two. Les Zimmerman asked him, “Do you hear from Mac?” (John) “How I wish I could meet old Mac again.” The three of us were very close buddies. Zim was picked for the Tiger Patrol in the early stages of the Ardennes battle. On one patrol, he got caught up in an 88mm explosion, knocking him unconscious and killing the two men near him. He woke up in Manchester, England and after several days of recuperation, rejoined the squad. It was here that I met and made friends with my new buddy from Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Danny introduced John to the Golden Acorn Association and the VBOB organization. It was now 1990 and time for the Charleston, West Virginia reunion. Danny and his wife Josephine and Zim and his wife Maxine and John all planned to be there. What a reunion of the three it was! Words cannot express the emotions felt. Our former company commander Green Keltner and platoon leader Lieutenant Ray Erickson and several others attended also. Charlie Miller, also of M-347 was the host and chairman of the reunion. We had a wonderful time reminiscing.
John and Zim have exchanged many letters since the meeting. They are ongoing correspondents. John also keeps in touch with Danny and manages to visit him and Josephine when he goes into Boston.
The three former buddies of M-Company have resumed their friendship and have made many new friends among the Association.
Danny thinks that John’s going into Boston to talk over the old days, but really it’s to indulge in Josephine’s wonderful homemade Italian sausages. She makes such delicious dishes.
In the summer of 1992, Danny and Josephine heard the “old country calling” them and together they went back there to spend four delightful weeks in the centuries old village of their birthplace, San Donato val di Camino Provincia Frocinone, where they visited with relatives. On a similar visit many years ago, they inquired of the villagers if Antonio Massa had returned to his roots. No one had heard. A war can make so many changes in one’s place of home and one’s life. It made for some fond memories in John’s.
With his incitement formed by joining the Golden Acorn Association and the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Association in 1992, John founded and became president of the Central Massachusetts Chapter of the VBOB. Starting with 17 veterans, it now numbers about 200, as was the 22nd chapter formed of the present 50.
It seems that Danny’s encouragement wore on John and they both attend the functions of both organizations; have been back to Europe and the battle sites together and John attends the VBOB reenactment in January at Fort Indiantown Gap with ACORNS, Mike Petrick, Earle Hart, John Long, Milan Rolik and others.
In the Spring of ’95 Danny invited John to a dinner at his Nonantum American Legion Post in Newton, Mass. It was given for all the 250 arrivees from San Donato who came to this country over the years since the war.
He was given a surprise tribute from his fellow countrymen, especially for his service to his new country, the U.S.A., and his service with the 87th Infantry Division. To John’s surprise, he was also called forward and honored by the group. They paid him tribute for his service and what he has done with the veterans in the state, in forming the Battle of the Bulge organization and the war the two fought as young men in the cold winter of 1944-45. John was honored by the surprise gesture of the group and considered himself an honorary townsman of the little village of San Donato val di Camino. Danny, who learned the English language the hard way, building ships and bridges over the city of Boston and in the Army, often reminds John, “You are a college boy, you are educated” but really, it’s Danny who is the educated of the two; he knows more about life, values and the importance of friendships than anyone I know. Two hundred and fifty people can’t be wrong.
In 1995 we learned that Lt. Massa was living in Florence, Italy. It was wonderful to know that he also survived the war.
Previously published in
The Golden Acorn News