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“Our German Wehrmacht Is Being Stopped By A Shadow”
The furious speaker was Field Marshal Kesselring. The time was 1944. And the “shadow” was cast by Italian partisans and a handful of brave Americans from General Bill Donovan’s O.S.S.
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
Captain Chappell, after leaving Benucci, had continued down the brook with his two companions, Corporal Silsby and Sergeant Eric Buchhardt of Summit, Ohio, an O.S.S. medical technician who had parachuted into the area to treat wounded American airmen. Silsby and Buchhardt halted at a small waterfall, completely exhausted. Chappell, the ex-football player, took Buchhardt’s arm and lowered him over the falls, and then went back to help Silsby. A German patrol cornered and disarmed them and marched them along the road toward an S.S. headquarters at Trichiana. Chappell watched for an opportunity and leaped off the road into a ravine, sliding and stumbling to the bottom. “I ran about four hundred yards,” he said later, “and walked a mile, once encountering six Krauts. One shot me in the leg, which was good for five points on my discharge, and didn’t bother me much. After getting away from them, I hid behind a boulder in the creek bed until dark.”
The following morning, while searching for information about Buchhardt and Silsby, Chappell was recaptured by a member of a search party who thrust a gun into his back, ordered him to turn around, and marched him back up the creek bed toward the S.S. outpost. As soon as they were out of sight of the other Nazis, Chappell tackled the guard and silently broke his neck with his bare hands. He stuffed the body into a culvert, camouflaging it so it would not be detected. Knowing that the rest of the search party would start looking for him if he attempted to hide, he decided to brazen it out. “Ruffling my yellow hair to look as German as possible, I walked up the other bank of the creek, paying no attention to the Krauts on the knoll, and kept glancing right and left as though I were one of the search party. Passing within twenty yards of them in plain sight then, I kept straight on to a house, opened its door as if I was billeted there, and walked in.”
The occupants, an old woman and her two daughters, gave him hard-boiled eggs and bread to stuff in his pockets, and one of the girls led him to a ravine where she thought he would be safe. That night he learned from partisans that Sergeant Buchhardt was hiding in the home of a patriot in San Antonio, and he sent Buchhardt a message to meet him at some caves near the village of Dusoi that he knew would serve as a safe retreat. That night at the caves he found Sergeant Buchhardt, his left leg gashed and an ear torn off.
Both Chappell and Benucci ordered their partisan followers to form small groups of three or four, make their way to a safer area, and wait for things to quiet down. Benucci and his two sergeants went on the run, changing their hiding place each night and never letting more than one or two people know their whereabouts. “Once the priest of the little town of MeI secreted us in the belfry of his church,” Benucci recalled. “The town was full of Germans, and we watched them all day long while those bells rang right next to our ears.” The whole German zoth Infantry Division joined the manhunt, and during the next few weeks several hundred partisans were captured, the majority of whom were given the meat-hook treatment. One of those captured at San Antonio was a youngster named Brownie who had served Chappell as a guide. “When he refused to talk,” Chappell said, “they took him into the public square, chopped off both hands at the wrists, and gouged out his eyes. Then they threw him on the pavement, and one of the troops mercifully shot him. Even the S.S. had some good guys.”
On March 31 the goth Infantry Division, now reformed into the aoth Panzer Grenadiers, received emergency orders to leave at midnight for the Adriatic sector of the front to repel an expected Allied landing. Benucci sent word to his scattered bands to dig out their arms and assemble every available patriot; the Alpini resumed their sabotage operations, blasting ammunition dumps, destroying bridges, and ambushing German patrols. In one action they killed forty S.S. troops and took ninety prisoners, among them the notorious Lieutenant Carl, a leading S.S. torturer. “Later that night I heard that Carl had been killed while trying to escape,” Benucci said. “Still later I heard that it had taken him eight hours to die. Knowing how many young boys he had impaled on meat hooks, what he had done to American fliers, the number of partisan girls he had sent to S.S. brothels, I made no further inquiries. It probably would not have done any good if I had. A lot of S.S. murderers were killed trying to escape.”
Later, in a ceremony at O.S.S. headquarters in Washington, General Donovan personally presented medals to these courageous men. Captain Benucci was decorated with the Legion of Merit. On Benucci’s strong recommendation Sergeant Gionfriddo, his radioman, also received the Legion of Merit, and Sergeant Nick Gangelosi was awarded the Bronze Star. Captain Chappell was given the Silver Star for his work in cutting off the German escape route through the Brenner Pass, and Corporal Silsby and T/5 Fabrega, released from German prison camps after the war, received similar decorations. Captain Hall was posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit for “his remarkable bravery, resourcefulness, and ability in keeping with the highest traditions of the Armed Forces of the United States.”