Pierced Steel Planking: the gates of the war

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   With the eyes of the childrens
(Antonio "Tony" Preite and Carmine "Carlo" Briscese: interview by Renato Mancino )


Carmine and Tonino have been friends since childhood. 
In the year 1943 they were next-door neighbours, and they were respectively 11 and 9 years-old. Piazza Castello (the public square near the castle) was the usual place of their games. Hence, for months, they had observed the fascist sentinel who, during the war, perennially was on watch duty in the castle’s tower. It was to be a reassuring presence in order to tranquilize everyone, adults and children: someone ensured their safety. 
This is where they saw the war, the excited bustles of the units of two great Armies, one retreating, the other quickly advancing. There they met the men who had to fight the war, coming from the remote America. 
Carmine and Tonino became friends with some of these Americans; now again, one 76 years-old one and the other 74, they still remember the names, the benevolence, the cordiality and the memorable moments with those men, always kind and generous. Still they speak about them with admiration, nearly with fascination, because this is how the eyes of the children see things.  
The Castle of Venosa, in front of Piazza Castello. Writed on the tower, the old fascist slogans "Rex" (King) "Vincere" (Win) and "Dux" (Duce).
In the year 1943 the war, of which the fascist bombast narrated nonexistent triumphs, arrived in the houses of the Italians. On July 10th, the 7th US Army of General Patton and the Eighth British Army of General Montgomery landed in Sicily and completed the conquest in a little more than a month. Meanwhile, on July 25th, Mussolini had been dismissed, therefore ending the fascist regime.
Antonio (Tonino) Preite, in 1943, had attended the third year of elementary school but, like all the children during those times, he worked nearly full time in the family-owned business: the management of the Bar Castello, located where today there is a fashion atelier, in the alley that separates the two sections of the colonnade.
With his mother, he divided a great part of the job, while the father travelled the neighbouring towns in order to repair sewing machines.
Every morning Tonino had to prepare liters of coffee with milk and coffee, kept warm for the customers on electric cooking stoves.
It was up to him, in the summer, to prepare ice cream with the ice that his father would buy in Forenza; later the ice had to be preserved in wine cellars, strewn with “yellow salt” on sale in the butcher shops. 
In the coffee bar the customers played cards for hours, staking some drink of anise or homemade “rosolio Strega” or, exceptionally, peppermint: it was something for rich persons.  
In August a detachment of Germans had arrived in the town. 
They took up quarters in the castle. At the entrance, between the two lions of stone, they had arranged a machine-gun nest. Rarely some of them went to the coffee bar, just for a drink. They spoke German, but communicated with gestures. Often Tonino saw them exiting with cars of the Venosa hirers; the cars, parked in the castle’s courtyard, were commandeered by the Germans for their requirements. 
A curfew was enforced, and at eight o’clock the bar had to close. One evening, a little past eight o’clock, the coffee bar was still open. Tonino was cleaning up some glasses, when two Germans with machine-guns entered the bar. One of them pointed the machine-gun over the counter towards Tonino. He just barely had a chance to dive under the marble counter when a string of bullets was unleashed from the machine gun, shattering bottles, glasses and anything else that was exposed there. 
Then they shouted in German “Schliben!” accompanying the order with the peremptory hand gestures that is to mean: go away.  Tonino, pale with fear, with the deafening fire of the machine-gun still in his ears, immediately closed and went home. 
After this episode the coffee bar was closed for an indefinite period of time. His parents thought it was prudent not to run risks, thus all the family took shelter in the countryside, with some family friends.
They decided: they would remain there until the departure of the Germans. Tonino, nevertheless, sometimes had to go into Venosa to buy pasta, wine or other commodities.  

In October the Germans left Venosa, abandoning more than 2.000 firearm shells stacked in the public gardens.
With their trucks they headed toward Maschito, carrying away many horses that they took possession of in town.
They mined the bridge on the road to Palazzo S. Gervasio, near the entrance of Venosa and escaped hastily.
The Allied Forces arrived little after, from the road for Palazzo S. Gervasio.
In two hours they reconstructed the bridge destroyed by the Germans and entered  Venosa, stopping in Piazza Castello.
Here the entire population gathered applauding the allied forces, and from a big truck parked in the square, they distributed bags of flour, chocolates, coffee, miscellaneous tins to the kids who had approached them to take all sorts of good things that they gave away; in the meantime the adults, also appreciating the gesture, maintained a proud distance.
The Americans took up quarters outside Venosa, raising a tent camp just beyond the Railway Station.
After a few days, in town people began talking about the rumor of an airport that was to be built, and to do so the Allied Forces had already bought the land that belonged to the Rosania, Sinisi, Rapolla, Di Grisolo families.  
Tonino and his family reopened the coffee bar.
Initially they saw alone troops in transit towards the front, included the notorious Maghrebi units.
After the battle of Garigliano, in November 1943, the construction of the airfield was heavily intensified; every morning the American trucks carried hundreds of workers and specialized workers from Piazza Castello to the yard.
The airfield was totally operative beginning in May 1944, when the 485th Bomb Group of the USAAF settled in Venosa and was ready.
That day was the beginning of a magical moment for the town. 
In the afternoons, Venosa would fill up with hundreds of those kind, well-mannered young men, full of money to spend, supplied with candies and cigarettes; they arrived in Venosa with every vehicle: trucks, jeeps, motorcycles.
Tonino’s coffee bar had never been so crowded. 
Even the brothel was always crowded; it was near the castle, today the site of a famous restaurant.  The owner was of Andria. At the call of the Madame, Tonino would bring the coffee.  He would enter only as far as the hall that was always full of waiting soldiers.  
The Military Police’s headquarters were in Piazza Orazio, in the rooms of the old gentleman’s club. The MP commander was Captain Guglielmi, an Italian-American.
The captain befriended Tonino’s father, and in order to avoid possible brawls between countrymen and soldiers, decided to classify the bar as being reserved only for Allied soldiers.
Thus the reason a wooden triangular sign appeared at the entrance of the bar with its new name: Sloppy Joes
(image from the book I'M OFF TO WAR, MOTHER,BUT I'LL BE BACK, by Jerry W. Whiting and Wayne B. Whiting, Tarnaby Books, Walnut Creek, 2001).
At the Sloppy Joes the Americans drank sparkling wine and ate classic fried eggs with pork sausages; however, more than every other food, they chose… the acquasale (a traditional, local and poor food: eggs boiled with dried peppers and stale bread, in water and salt).
Now business was good. The Preite family bought a new, great coffee maker, with a proud copper Eagle on the top, another machine able to prepare ice cream and a tricycle in order to sell it out and around town. 
Tonino pedaled with the tricycle roaming the town; his better customers were always the Americans, who bought entire containers full of ice cream in order to give it to the children of Venosa; and swarms of adoring children followed them anywhere. 
In order to make the Sloppy Joes more welcoming, Tonino’s father hired a small orchestra with violin, guitar, bugle and jazz-band, and every evening they would play Italian songs or the new Americans tunes. Tonino also would often join the group and become one of the musicians, strumming the guitar along with the band.  
However, even if the brawls between countrymen and soldiers had been avoided with the preventive order of Capt. Guglielmi, there was no way to avoid the brawls between Allied soldiers when the alcohol levels exceeded the guard limit. And so, often furious brawls exploded between the Spanish and British soldiers, or British and Americans. Once, during one of these fights, someone seized the Tonino’s guitar and shattered it on the head of a doomed man. Seeing his guitar smashed into pieces, Tonino burst into unrestrainable tears.  


Bar Castello (Sloppy Joes): Umberto, Tony's father, with American soldiers. Photo Rocco Preite  
Sergeant Wayne Whiting, distinguished and habitual customer of the coffee-bar, tried to console him: he led Tonino to the tent camp, gave him an enormous amount of chocolate and others candies, and lastly put twenty dollars in his hands so that Tonino could buy a new guitar.  Tonino bought the guitar in Barletta city, during his mother’s hospital stay in the city. 
At the music story, he asked if he could try a guitar, and in doing so he tried it out with an American song that he learned by listening to the soldiers that frequented his bar.
“Drink beer corporaaaal…” Tonino sang, while a small audience of British and Americans soldiers grew in front of the store, attracted by the well-known tune.
They applauded him, complimented him and paid for his new guitar.  
Tonino, now known as “Tony”, won the general affection of all the airmen of the airfield. They considered him their mascot: “Hi, Joe” answered generically Tony to all their salutes. 
The tent camp was like a second home to him. Of those many friends, Sgt. Whiting was his favorite. When he did not fly, the Sergeant spent his evenings at the Sloppy Joes. When Tony didn’t see him at the coffee-bar, he would go to the airfield the following day to look for him there.  Often he would wait for him sitting by his tent, until he would return from his mission. 
He was happy when he would see the arrival of his Sergeant friend, who would never forget to bring him something to eat as well. When the airplanes returned safely with the crews, it was in fact a time for celebrating, joking, drinking, eating.
It was a time to knock on wood in the face of death: unfortunately, celebration was not always the case.  
Sgt. Whiting (from the book I'M OFF TO WAR, MOTHER,BUT I'LL BE BACK, by Jerry W. Whiting and Wayne B. Whiting, Tarnaby Books, Walnut Creek, 2001).


The life at the tent camp was very well organized. There was a  movie theatre as well as an open-air theatre.  Sundays there were shows with trained animals: dogs, foxes, lizards, frogs, even fleas. Tony watched incredulous and fascinated. He also had a little fox, captured as a cub. He gave away the little fox to the American soldier that trained the animals. 
Some days later, the little fox disappeared with the collar and the chain. Tony found the fox, brought back it to the soldier. The soldier didn’t want to accept the fox: “the fox wants to stay with you!” he said. Tony brought the fox back home, closing it in a wine cellar; for months he didn’t see it. The fox lived hidden in the corner, coming out of hiding to eat only when nobody was around. 
Thus, one day, his uncle went in the wine cellar with a gun, coming out later holding the fox by the tail. Tony cried for days:  he had to come to the understanding that animals could be treated in several ways.  Even cooked. His fox was eaten with much satisfaction by the customers of the Sloppy Joes.
During this time his father, with others two associates, had opened a second coffee-bar: the “Villa Rosa” (also called Carolina Moon), a little further up the road from the public gardens, and Tony’s working responsibilities began to increase and become more pressing.  And so, the months passed. At last, the end of the war arrived: on April 29 the German troops in Italy surrendered, and on May 7, 1945 Germany surrendered. The joy for the end of the war exploded also in Venosa. But the joy was short-lived.
In little days the airplanes and the crews returned home, while at the airfield remained only a small garrison. Suddenly Venosa lost those appreciative guests, and the many economic activities connected to their presence began to suffer. 
It was like the end of a dream also for Tony. 
Now reality returned harshly with all the toughness of the problems only aggravated by the long years of war. The poverty, the lack of work, the ancient hardships never had gone away. 
Soon, the airfield would have been definitively dismantled. 
With a large fire the Americans destroyed all the materials that they couldn’t carry away. They had always been so generous; they could’ve donated the material, why did they act this way now? 
Someone told Tonino that it was because of the Communists. 
To this day, he is still convinced. 


Venosa: USO show
(from: Jerry Whiting - photo 485th BG).
831st  Squadron, tent camp: Tony  with John Manfrida, Italian-American from New York
(from: Jerry Whiting - Photo 485th BG).
Bar Castello (Sloppy Joes): Tony with his sister Teresa on the bar; behind the bar, his father.  Photo Rocco Preite
  • Photo Antonio Di Vietri  (click to enlarge)

  • Photos Antonio Di Vietri  (click to enlarge)
    Carmine (Carlo) Briscese is the third of five children. His father was a saddler and made pack-saddles, collars, harnesses and also what was needed for the beasts of burden and draught animals used by the peasants. He shared the ups and downs of the peasants and the hard life of the fields, the difficulties, the hardships. But also the values of friendship, solidarity, and the sense of the word of honour.
    Therefore, more than ideological convictions, he accepted the assignment as councillor in the local communist administration that governed Venosa in the difficult post-war years.
    Before the war, Carmine’s father had an equine butcher shop that he later rented. From the renter he took raw hides and meat as payment of the rent. He used the hides in his saddler’s shop while the meat was boiled and conserved in gelatin and stored in clay jars: it was a precious reserve of food for his family, to consume with prudence.
    During the fascist regime, Carmine had been, like all the boys, a Figlio della Lupa ("Son of the She-wolf”). In front of his grandfather’s house he observed the young people in paramilitary training.
    He, however, was not a fan of discipline, nor the military life, nor the war. He observed the soldiers lodged in the castle or the unit of cavalry encamped near the Norman Fountain with little interest. He felt he was a free spirit.
    One day the family had news about one of his uncles, captured by the British and sent in a POW camp in India. His relatives spoke about him with much worry.
    Another day Carmine found out that near Venosa, at the great farm of the Briscese family - homonymous but not relatives -, there had been British prisoners of war taken. He wanted to go to see them. 
    Certainly, they were odd-looking in their shorts, but they didn’t seem to be bad people, they were even kind, offering him chewing gum. Instead, he had more fear of the Germans.
    Someone said a large detachment of German troops was camped in the Pantano (the Marsh), between Venosa and Palazzo San Gervasio. And so, they suddenly came into town: with sidecars, with their impeccable uniforms. They went to the City Hall to announce publicly: anyone that had weapons in house, had to deliver in twenty-four hours.  If not, the punishment was execution.
    His father too, reluctantly, had to separate himself from his beloved double-barrelled gun. At night there was a mandatory blackout and one evening, when his mother forgot to close the window curtains, the entire family was almost arrested for collaboration with the enemy.
    Another time, he happened to be a bystander to an aerial duel while he was in Piazza Municipio.
    A German cargo plane flew in the sky when it met a formation of six American fighters with double fuselage (P-38), flying at low altitude along a small valley.
    Two of the fighters split the formation.
    After each of them reached the sides of the German aircraft, they swung their wings towards the cargo plane, perhaps hoping for a surrender; then, they fired long machine-gun bursts at the undefended German aircraft.
     Fascist paramilitary training
    (photo Appia 2, Venosa - click to enlarge)
    The Fascist dictatorship also obligated all the children in paramilitary organizations: Sons of the She-Wolf (6 - 7 years old) Balilla and Little Italian Girls (8-12), Avant-gardists and Young Italian Girls (13-17), Young Fascists and Young Fascist Women (18-21). The slogan of the Fascist Regime, about education, was: "libro e moschetto, fascista perfetto" (book and gun, perfect fascist).
     The cargo plane, giving off a long, black wake of smoke, quickly nosed to ground. 
    Carmine felt the cases of the bullets falling around him, on the public square and against the walls of the Cathedral, but carelessly could not stop watching the scene. His brother Vincenzo, in the same moment, saw the final act of this show. Vincenzo was in the countryside, a few miles from Venosa, where he was collecting wheat straws that his father would use to prepare the pack-saddles. He felt the increasing roar approaching. The German plane, with the black wake of smoke, flew at a small distance over him, so low he could hear the desperate yells of the passengers very clearly just before the definitive crash. Then the rumble and the fire. 
    The day after Vincenzo returned to the scene of the accident.  
    Observing the large crater in the impact point, between the many visible wrecks, the sight of singed child’s shoes scattered at ground shake him. He understood the tragedy: the German aircraft was full of women and children, perhaps familiar of German officers. It was one of the horrors of the war.  
    Then, finally, the Americans arrived. 
    Carmine had always dreamed of America. The brothers of his grandmother, called Focarazzo, had immigrated to New York some years before. From New York, they often had sent packages full of things to their sister. To Carmine, America was mythical. Those packages, full of every gift, in Carmine’s eyes were proof of a extraordinary country, and this country was America.   
    Venosa airfield: tail of a German plane. It's the same that Carmine saw?
    (from: Jerry Whiting - photo 485th BG)


    Carmine, with the convincing of Tonino too, tried to find American soldiers from New York. He sought news about his uncles and  cousins in America. From the beginning of the war the family had not received news about them. Carmine wrote their name and address on a piece of paper, showing it to the soldiers with the naive hope to find someone who knew them.  
    All the airmen shook their heads, the endeavour was arduous: “New York is big!” they said. But how “big” this New York could be, Carmine could never imagine, not even with his eyes shut. 
    He had to wait until the end of the war to find out that all his cousins had enlisted. 
    One of them died in a submarine near Japan; another one, enlisted in the USAAF was in Italy, in the Foggia airfield, just a short distance from his original family. 
    Among the many Americans that Carmine knew and befriended, he formed a particular friendship with a gunner, the Sergeant Sam. He would bring him chewing gums and lollipops from the airfield and Carmine, in order to repay him for the favour, would give him a little of the meat in gelatin made by his mother, that he secretly took from the jar.  
    Usually Carmine looked for Sam in the public gardens; he went to the airfield camp only one time with Tonino: his parents were absolutely again it. Thus he had to see the airplanes from Piazza Castello: in the morning, when the airplanes took off for a mission, circling over Venosa until they were able to complete the flight formation; in the afternoon, when the planes returned with the signs of the battles had, they again circled the inhabited center of Venosa until the landing phases were completed. Carmine would run to watch  them and remained the entire time with his nose in the air. The wounds caused from the AA fire over the bombed targets were visible and, from the plane’s roar, he had learned to recognize if an engine was damaged.  
    He had already begun to show a particular interest for engines: this interest will accompany him always, for the rest of his life. 
    One day, Carmine didn’t see his friend Sergeant Sam, walking in the public gardens as usual. He didn’t see him the next day, nor the days after. 
    He waited for him in the gardens, in vain, with the little paper bag containing the meat in gelatin in his hands. One day he decided to go to the airfield, against his parents wishes that prohibited him from going. With Tonino, he went along the paths to the airfield and arrived to the check-point. 
    Tonino and Carmine communicated the name of the airman they went to visit, and a jeep escorted them to the tent camp. 
    But they found no trace of the Sergeant, and his tent was empty. 
    Another American soldier made them understand the airplane of Sgt. Sam had been shot down. Many airmen didn’t return from the missions. 
    Carmine never felt a stronger sense of sorrow as that day.  As he returned home, with the paper bag of the meat in his hands and the sadness in the heart, he thought of his dead friend, the friend he would never see again.
    64 years after, he knew the truth: Sam had been wounded in mission, not killed, and fortunately survived the war. 
    Sammy Schneider died in 2006, at this point 90 years-old, in his house in California, without having ever forgotten the months of war he spent in Venosa and without ever knowing that destiny had also brought Carmine, his young friend from Venosa, to live in America.


    MISSION BY NUMBERS,  Sammy Schneider, Tarnaby Books, Walnut Creek, CA, 2000 (2nd edition, 2008).


    The war reached its end. Carmine also remembers the moment in which the airfield was immediately dismantled and abandoned. There was a great well there in the field, from which the soldiers would draw drinkable water. Upon their departure, the soldiers threw a great amount of miscellaneous waste into the well. This to him see to be a vain an inexplicable insult.  
    The post-war period had many difficulties. 
    Carmine left school and took on an apprenticeship for a well-known automotive garage of Venosa; engines fascinated him, and the passion for the engines will bring him to immigrate to Switzerland in 1950, and then finally to that America that he so dreamed as a child. He remembers the extraordinary political engagement of his father in the city government in those years. 
    He remembers it with nostalgia and a bit of admiration, rethinking of his efforts to calm the burning spirits, to avoid vengeances, to enable the pacification of the people of Venosa; and still, with a veil of emotion he reconsiders the great civic sense of his father that led him to neglect his familiar engagements in order to contribute and confront the serious issues that troubled his community at that time.  
    Soon after the end of the war, the castle, which no longer served a military function, was used as a home for some of the town’s poorest families.  The Communist Party made this their headquarters. The old machine-gun of the fascist, without the breechblock, was still fixed on the tower.  
    Carmine and Tonino, with many other children, spent the free time in Piazza Castello, the best place for their games.
    Often, in company of other children, they managed to sneak into the castle, climbing to the top of the tower and with the machine-gun, imitating the crackle sound of the gun with a high voice, they played war: ta ta ta ta ta… ta ta ta ta ta…
    A war always between Americans and Germans, but different from the war fought by his friend Sam. 
    This was a war of children: perhaps, the only war that could be acceptable.  
    The well
     (fom: Jerry Whiting - photo 485th BG)
    Testimonies given in Venosa,  May 30 and June 5, 2008.

    Pierced Steel Planking: the gates of the war
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