CHIAVARI, ITALY - This story begins a thousand miles away from where it actually happened. It begins on July 10, 1943 when the Allied forces landed in German occupied Sicily. Within a month of the landing the German and Fascist had been driven from the island and the liberation of Italy had begun.
The Allies then moved on to the mainland. As they made their way up the boot, the Germans battled them every inch of the way. It was soon clear that routing the Germans out of Italy was going to be more difficult than the Americans had imagined. The terrain was rough and the troops were not prepared for Italy’s endless chain of mountains and valleys. Communication routes were primitive to say the least, and whole army corps were often left isolated in remote mountain passes for long periods of time.
The Germans had the advantage. They were dug into carefully prepared defense line positioned on elevated areas, and could track the Allies every move. The Allies did their best to move armored vehicles and motorized troops along the valley floors, but late summer storms often brought violent rain and flash flooding. The primitive roads became muddy traps and the Americans were often reduced to using mules to move supplies and equipment.
|The Americans Had Arrived|
But free Italy they did, and more than 320 thousand Allied soldiers, 114 thousand Americans, died in the process. I doubt there is a town in Italy that does not have a monument to those lost in that war. You see them everywhere: monuments to Italian partisans, to Italians massacred by the Germans, monuments to those who died during the horrific bombings and monuments to Italian soldiers and sailors. You find them in piazzas and parks throughout Italy, standing for all to see.
But there are other reminders of that war, much more public tributes to the Americans, the Allies and the partisans who did what some thought could not be done. April 25 is Italy’s official liberation day, and I’ve never been in a town in Italy that didn’t have a street called 25 Aprile. But in some of the smaller towns the liberation was a little more personal.
|Marching into Cornuda, Italy|
There are so many war stories that can be told, personal accounts of senseless massacres, endless bombings, the destruction of entire towns which left piles of rubble where houses once stood, where children once played, where life was lived. It’s easy for those who visit Italy to gloss over the statistics, walk past the monuments, not give a second thought as to why a street would be named with a date. And those are the reasons why the story of the “Battle for Cornuda”, a battle that took place in that small town of 7,000 people in northern Italy, is worth re-telling on the day America celebrates its veterans.
The “Battle for Cornuda” has been called one of the most violent battles of the war. It began just before midnight on 30 April, 1945 when under the cover of night, a company of German scouts advanced up to the center of town. Then an entire battalion of Germans, around 600 soldiers, began to enter the town from the south.
At first the Americans didn't understand what was happening. When the horse drawn wagons arrived in Cornuda’s main piazza, ostensibly to water the horses, it took them a minute or two to realize what was going on. Those wagons certainly didn’t belong to the Americans, the American’s didn't use horses. They didn’t wear spiked boots either, and there was the unmistakable clicking of spikes echoing loud in the nighttime silence. And then they understood. The Germans had arrived and they were ready to fight.
Their reaction was rapid. All the American units quartered in the buildings of Cornuda and along the roads were alerted and ordered to open fire against the German battalion. To their surprise, the Americans were met by hundreds of German soldiers who had been hiding in town, right under their noses, and bitter hand to hand fighting broke out in the streets. The German attack was fierce enough for them to reach the American battalion's command post.
|Just Before the Battle for Cornuda|
The German soldiers stormed the town launching grenades (called “potato mashers”) through the windows of buildings and using bazookas against the ground floors. But the Americans were also going all out for this was not a fight they wanted to lose. After a few hours of battle the Germans realized they couldn’t sustain their positions, not with the kind of determination and fire power coming from the Americans, so they surrendered.
Cornuda was liberated. The townspeople were now free to rebuild their town ad their lives, and plan their new future. One of the first things they did was to change the name of Via Littorio, one of the streets that had experienced the heaviest fighting, to Via 30 Aprile 1945 in honor of the bloody battle of Cornuda and those who died there, Italians and Americans.
|Via 30 Aprile, 1945, Cornuda, Italy|
So on this Veteran’s Day as thousands of Americans celebrate our country’s veterans past and present, know that here in Italy American veterans are being celebrated as well. Wreathes are laid on every war monument in Italy on Italy’s Day of the Dead, November 2. But those veterans are also celebrated every time the Italians walk down the streets of their towns and think about the terrible things that happened on those streets. They never forget for streets like Via 30 Aprile 1945 in Cornuda, 24 Aprile in Parma, 21 Aprile in Bologna, 25 Aprile in Milan, Turin, Genova and so many other cities and towns, are permanent reminders of what is, and what could have been, if not for the Americans. Every day is American Veteran’s Day in Italy.