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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
The O.S.S., or Office of Strategic Services, was a special World War Il agency created by President Roosevelt to handle America ‘s covert, or “black, “propaganda. Its opposite number, which dealt with overt, or “white,”propaganda, was the Office of War Information. At the insistence of the director of the O.S.S., General William J. (“Wild Bill”) Donovan, the agency remained independent of all other intelligence units, but it served them all.
For obvious reasons, O.S.S. operations and even the names of its personnel were top secret during the war and have been only spottily revealed since then. In the forthcoming book Donovan of OSS , Corey Ford, who had access to General Donovan ‘s private papers, has told for the first lime, the whole story of the agency’s clandestine and dangerous mission. The book, from which this article is taken, will be published later this month by Little, Brown and Company. Its publication will be posthumous, since Mr. Ford died on July 27, 1969, after he had completed work on the manuscript. Mr. Ford was best known as a highly successful humorist, but his more than thirty books and five hundred magazine articles included nature writing, autobiography, and history.
On his way back to Washington after the Sicilian landings of July i o, 1943, General William Donovan conferred with General Mark Clark at Fifth Army headquarters in Morocco and offered to place his agency’s resources at the disposal of the Fifth Army for the coming invasion of Italy. It was decided to expand the O.S.S. functions by adding operations specialists and research experts for tactical and strategic intelligence procurement, and a special reconnaissance battalion, an O.S.S. unit reorganized on a full military basis, was assigned to the Fifth Army’s G-2, or intelligence branch. This was to be the first time that O.S.S. techniques would be employed directly by ground armies.
The decision to invade the Italian mainland had been reached after prolonged and heated debate. With the surrender of the German forces in Tunisia in May of 1943 and the capture of fifteen Axis divisions, the U. S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had renewed their pressure for a cross-Channel assault on German-occupied France. Prime Minister Churchill countered that the recent success in North Africa had exposed what he called, with both rhetoric and accuracy, the “soft underbelly” of Europe, and he insisted that the Allies should maintain their momentum in the Mediterranean. Roosevelt reluctantly acknowledged the logic of Churchill’s argument, and the all-out attack on the German homeland was postponed for another year.
For a time events seemed to justify Churchill’s decision. Sicily and Corsica and the outlying islands fell to the Allies virtually without a struggle, due in part to previous O.S.S. infiltration that had organized the local resistance, and early in September the Anglo-American forces established a successful foothold on the mainland at Salerno, near the tip of the Italian boot. On September 8, Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship toppled, the United States recognized the royal government of Victor Emmanuel III, and his prime minister, Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio, hastened to arrange the capitulation of the Italian army. Hopes for a speedy Allied victory faded when the German forces, although deserted by their Axis partner, continued to fight on stubbornly, and the attack on the “soft underbelly” proved eventually to be the longest and bloodiest campaign of the European war.
While the Anglo-American armies moved slowly and painfully up the Italian peninsula, five O.S.S. infiltration teams slipped into the harbor of Naples, behind enemy lines, in small fishing boats. Two teams were repulsed by machine-gun fire from German shore patrols, but the others succeeded in entering the captive city. They carried arms for Neapolitan patriots and began to organize guerrilla resistance against the Nazis. Agents crossed the enemy lines as many as twenty times a day, and intelligence was radioed to the Fifth Army to pinpoint Air Force bombing missions. When the Germans evacuated Naples on October I, the O.S.S. teams and their partisan followers greeted the American army of liberation with cheers and Chianti.
The Allied advance bogged down in December at Cassino, where Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s Tenth Army succeeded in halting the fourteen divisions of the American Fifth and the British Eighth armies at the heavily entrenched Winter Line. To break the stalemate, it was decided to launch a daring amphibious landing north of the Winter Line at Anzio, only thirty-three miles from Rome. Operation Shingle, as it was named, was conceived as a “cat-claw” thrust using parachutists to seize the Alban Hills, a key mountain group near Rome, and to hold the ground long enough to cut the communication and supply lines of the German Tenth Army at Cassino. “It is not intended to maintain these divisions for long over the beaches,” Churchill cabled the Chiefs of Staff on December 26, “but rather to bring the battle to a climax in a week or ten days.” The Shingle target date was to be on or about January 20, 1944.
A week before Anzio, General Donovan arrived unannounced at O.S.S. headquarters in Naples, a dilapidated four-story palazzo requisitioned from an indigent Neapolitan duke. In its vast rococo rooms, radios and high explosives mingled incongruously with the duke’s gilded mirrors and heavy Victorian furniture, and the personnel feasted by candlelight on wines from their host’s cellar and fettucine made with G.I. powdered eggs. The general joined them for dinner and with instinctive courtesy insisted that Peter Tompkins, twenty-four-yearold chief of the Naples group, should preside at the head of the table. “You’re the host,” he said. “I’ll sit at your right.” Later, over coffee, he confided to Tompkins the purpose of his visit. It was expected that the coming landings at Anzio would result in an early liberation of Rome, the general explained, and he wanted someone to enter the occupied city, contact O.S.S. secret radio Vittorio , which had been operating in Rome since the previous October, and at a given signal set off sabotage and countersabotage measures to coincide with the Allied invasion. Filled with that sense of dedication that Donovan engendered in his men, Tompkins volunteered and was promptly accepted for the job.
Donovan’s selection was a shrewd one. Tompkins’ parents had lived in Rome for years, he had spent much of his boyhood there, and he spoke the language fluently enough to pass for an Italian. He had worked in the Rome bureau of the New York Herald Tribune before the war and knew his way around the city “as well as any trasteverino born in the shadow of St. Peter’s,” according to his autobiography. Under the cover name of “Pietro,” he was flown by O.S.S. plane to Corsica, landed on the Italian mainland in a rubber boat on the night of January 21, and was smuggled by car into Rome without detection. There he contacted “Coniglio,” leader of the strategic intelligence team dispatched by the O.S.S. Fifth Army Detachment in October, whose dark, piercing eyes reminded Tompkins of a ferret, and a sensitive young Neapolitan agent known as “Cervo,” who wore the uniform of a police lieutenant, complete with highly polished boots and official armband and revolver. It was Cervo who had brought the Vittorio radio from Naples and was charged with its care and concealment. Cervo invited Tompkins to hide out in his own apartment. “After all,” he said, “who would expect to find an American agent in a Fascist policeman’s bed?”
The following morning, January 22, Tompkins learned that an Allied assault convoy of fifty thousand men and five thousand vehicles had anchored off Anzio before dawn and that the troops had swarmed ashore without opposition. The invasion had caught the enemy completely off guard. In Rome the O.S.S. countersabotage teams made ready to defuse the mines planted on the Tiber bridges as the Allies approached and to initiate guerrilla activities against the Germans. Tompkins waited impatiently for the signal over Vittorio to start their operations. The only messages were a warning that the liberation of Rome would be temporarily postponed and a top-priority request for information on all German troop movements toward the beachhead.
Several days passed without news of the expected Allied advance, and gradually the truth dawned on Tompkins: instead of the lightning “cat-claw thrust at the Alban Hills, General Clark’s Anglo-American forces had inexplicably decided to dig in and consolidate their defensive position on the beach against a German counterattack. Long after the war it was revealed that Field Marshal Kesselring, upon learning of the Anzio landings, had exclaimed: “Only a miracle can save us now.” The miracle was Allied overcaution. The advantage of surprise was squandered; General Clark called off the plan to drop paratroopers, who could have prevented the movement of enemy troops against the beachhead, “lest it prematurely disclose the area of our main assault”; and Anzio settled into a stalemate as complete as Cassino. Churchill cabled Field Marshal Viscount Alexander in disgust: “I expected to see a wildcat roaring into the mountains—and what do I find? A whale wallowing on the beaches.”
For the next two months O.S.S. radio Vittorio continued to supply detailed information on all the German units deployed against the allied landing forces and to recommend railroad yards and main lines for bombing targets. The underground groups that Tompkins had alerted for countersabotage were transformed in February and March into a comprehensive intelligence network, deriving its information from the various political parties, from industrialists who still enjoyed German confidence, and from officers of the “Open City of Rome” staff, including one actually assigned to Kesselring’s headquarters.
Elaborate precautions were taken to maintain the security of both Vittorio and a second clandestine radio transmitter that had been set up to handle the heavy flow of air traffic between the O.S.S. group in Rome and the armies stalled on the Anzio beachhead. Cervo had concealed Vittorio on one of the numerous river boats tied up along the Tiber, ramshackle wooden structures that were known as favorite site for homosexual assignations and were usually left alone by the police. The river boat he selected was almost opposite the Italian Ministry of Marine, whose radio signals would cover the weaker signals of the O.S.S. station if the enemy tried to pinpoint its location by triangulation. The other radio was hidden by an accommodating priest in a small church in the heart of Rome and tapped out its code messages in the quiet shadows of his sacristy. During a six-week period the bulletins transmitted to the Fifth Army totaled ninety-eight single-spaced typewritten pages.
Inevitably the Allied delay brought disillusionment and defections. On March 13 the O.S.S. learned that its security had been blown by a radio technician, “Walter”—supposedly a friend of Cervo’s—who had sold out to the Germans. Cervo and an orderly named Scottu sped by motorcycle to the river boat to change the location of Vittorio, while Tompkins and his fellow agents waited in the apartment for his return. When the telephone rang later that evening, one of the agents answered and hung up with a puzzled look. “Cervo’s sister wants to know if you have brought her any honey,” he told Tompkins. The others stared at their chief in sudden apprehension as they recognized their pre-arranged message of warning. “They’ve got Cervo,” Tompkins said. In the shocked silence the phone sounded again, two rings, a pause, and two more rings—the danger signal. Systematically they collected and burned all O.S.S. messages and code books, armed themselves with hand grenades, and placed their automatics in readiness on the table, prepared for a last-ditch fight if Cervo, under torture, revealed their hide-out.
Cervo never broke, though the others did not learn the full story of his capture until after a week of nerveracking suspense. Alerted by the informer, a group of Fascist police had been waiting at the river boat to seize Cervo and his orderly. They were taken to Via Principe Amedeo 2, escorted to the top floor by armed guards led by a Dr. Koch, who was noted as a torture expert, and thrown into separate cells. In an official report written after his escape Scottu stated that “they started punching my chest, my jaw as if I were a punching bag. … At 2 A.M. the lieutenant [Cervo] was brought into our cell, bleeding from the mouth, nose, and with his face all swollen. He had lost several teeth.”
Day after day the torture continued, but neither Cervo nor the orderly would reveal the names of his associates. On the twenty-third, the fifth day after their capture, it was learned that some partisans had thrown a bomb into a Rome side street, Via Rasella, which had killed thirty-two German M.P.'s. Infuriated by the news, Koch and his Fascist inquisitors burst into the cell and, reported Scottu, “started to beat, kick and punch those present, covering us with spittle.” The lieutenant was interrogated alone for about twenty minutes, “coming back with his face disfigured, tottering and worn out.”
Toward evening the turncoat Walter announced that the inmates of the cell were to be handed over to the Nazi S.S. as part of the 320 civilians to be executed in ten-to-one retaliation for the thirty-two Germans bombed at Via Rasella. “Only the lieutenant whispered words of encouragement to all,” Scottu reported. “I helped him to the toilet, but he could pass only blood. Seeing us, Walter knocked us both to the ground.” Cervo was carried bodily out of the cell and taken to Regina Coeli jail; Scottu, arriving later at the same jail, was not among those selected for execution. Cervo and the other hostages were transported by truck to some catacombs near San Callisto and were thrown into a cave and shot one by one in the back of the neck. Then the victims were piled in a heap, and the Germans exploded a number of mines, burying dead and dying under the collapsing walls of the cave.
Although Cervo’s sacrifice had saved the lives of his associates, both the Germans and the Fascist police were now aware of the existence of the O.S.S. group. The members led a hunted life, hiding in garrets and cellars while waiting for the Allies to liberate the city. Complicating the situation was the increasing friction between Coniglio, the original O.S.S. leader in Rome, and Tompkins. The two agents, increasingly resentful of each other, resorted to means of their own to transmit what was often duplicate intelligence. Coniglio sent his message north by courier to be relayed to the Fifth Army by other O.S.S. radios in Italy; Tompkins, after the loss of Vittorio , made use of a British Secret Intelligence Service circuit. The S.I.S. set in southern Italy often did not forward Tompkins’ information until it was over a month old and therefore useless.
Unable to contribute timely intelligence, Tompkins and his unit decided to organize the patriot forces in Rome into secret brigades to prevent completion of the German scorched-earth program. In order to ensure police co-operation, Tompkins had the wonderful audacity to issue a set of official orders to General Presti, head of the police forces in Rome, instructing him to maintain public discipline and prevent sabotage of buildings and utilities when the Germans departed. “The orders were written in official military form on paper headed ‘United States Office of Strategic Services ” Tompkins explained. “I then signed them ‘O.S.S. C.O. Rome Area’ and affixed a special rubber stamp which I had had prepared for just such an occasion.” When the Allies finally broke out of the beachhead at Anzio and the Germans evacuated Rome on June 6, 1944, all the major electric and telephone controls remained intact, and one of Rome’s radio stations, preserved from destruction by Presti’s police, broadcast the news of the Fifth Army’s triumphant entry—the first Allied soldiers to occupy an enemy capital.
Field Marshal Kesselring proclaimed October 8-14, 1944, as a special week, to be observed by all his troops in German-occupied Italy. “And what will be the nature of this week, Herr Marshal?” a staff general inquired.
“It will be known as Antipartisan Week,” Kesselring growled, “and we will observe it by exterminating this guerrilla resistance once and for all. Our German Wehrmacht is being stopped by a shadow.”
The shadow lay dark across the path of every retreating division as the Nazis moved northward through Italy after the evacuation of Rome. Partisans haunted the towns and hamlets the Germans passed, poisoning their water, putting their trucks out of commission with emery dust concealed in the bearings. They struck silently in Nazi bivouacs at night—the pad of feet, the gasp of a sentry garroted at his post. Land mines exploded along the line of march, snipers fired from ledges and faded away like phantoms, a key highway bridge crumbled before the retreating armies in a cloud of smoke and flying chunks of concrete. Kesselring’s own communication lines, repaired one day, were found cut in a dozen places the next. At the very moment that the marshal was announcing Antipartisan Week to his division commanders, a mysterious blast in the power plant plunged the room into darkness, and Kesselring stamped back to his quarters with his speech unfinished.
The proud German army found itself on the defensive, fighting a force without substance. Sentries were ordered to walk in pairs, guards were doubled and redoubled. It was safer to risk the Allied Air Force in the daytime than to travel through partisan-held country at night. Whole battalions were withdrawn from combat zones to hunt the elusive resistance bands. One company of picked troops scoured the hills for a week in search of a parachuted O.S.S. radio team and returned empty-handed with a third of its complement wounded or missing. Furious, Kesselring proclaimed that henceforth any Allied agent caught working with the partisans, in uniform or not, would be shot on sight.
Threats and savage reprisals failed to cow the shadow army. Members of the resistance taken prisoner by the Nazi S.S. were castrated or had their eyes gouged out. Others were impaled on steel meat-hooks and hanged in village squares, a popular form of S.S. torture. The Germans would tie a prisoner’s hands, lift him off the ground, then lower him so that the two meat-hook points would penetrate the soft underside of his jaw, just inside the jawbone; and all the inhabitants of the village would be routed out at bayonet-point to watch his agonized writhings.
Still the partisans fought on, growing bolder and more numerous as Kesselring’s forces reached North Italy, where anti-Fascist, as well as anti-German, sentiment was strongest. Many former Italian army officers joined the civilian resistance groups and disclosed to them the formal organization of military units.
When the general German retreat to the Gothic Line—above Florence—was at its height, in the summer and fall of 1944, several major partisan groups deep inside northern Italy, supported by O.S.S. weapons and communication facilities, engaged in open combat with the Nazis. One of the principal uprisings was in the VaI d’Ossola, where a large resistance group led by O.S.S. agent “Como” attacked German garrisons along Lake Maggiore, hoping to clear the enemy from a stretch of the Swiss-Italian frontier. Marshal Kesselring committed two of his divisions to eliminate the Val d’Ossola bands, and they were bivouacked in the lakeside resort town of Cannobia. The partisans notified the O.S.S. in Bern, Switzerland, that they could capture the town if they were supported by Allied air attacks on certain specified targets, including enemy barracks and boats being used as transports. Bern passed the word to Caserta, and on September 25 the Tactical Air Force bombed so accurately that the partisans quickly took Cannobia.
The Germans, outraged at this blow to their prestige, mounted a heavy counterattack on Cannobia, and Como requested another airdrop of weapons and supplies. Since all Allied aircraft had by that time been diverted to support the growing Warsaw resistance, it was impossible for the Air Force to comply. While the partisans held off the German drive, Como made a personal trip to Switzerland, obtained arms and ammunition, and loaded them secretly onto a freight train. The Swiss border control discovered the contraband and threatened to confiscate it, whereupon Como took over the train, crashed it across the frontier into Italian territory, and distributed the precious weapons to the partisans. The Swiss protested that his act was a flagrant infringement of their neutrality. To prevent further trouble with Switzerland, the O.S.S. spirited Como off to southern Italy, where he was detained for the duration.
Supplementing the partisan warfare, the Morale Operations (M.O.) branch of the O.S.S. conducted a campaign of black propaganda in an attempt to weaken the spirit of the Italian Fascist and German troops. A bogus newspaper, Das Neue Deutschland , purporting to be the instrument of an anti-Nazi German peace party, was airdropped to resistance groups who smuggled it across the enemy lines. Copies of a forged military announcement by General Kesselring, stating that he was resigning his command because the “war is lost in Germany,” were distributed by special “Sauerkraut” missions in forward areas and proved so successful that Kesselring found it necessary on September 13 to deny authorship of the proclamation. Even more effective with the Italian Fascists were “passes” from a self-styled “Patriots’ Committee,” inviting the bearer to join the partisans. “Actually we didn’t know whether the Partisans would honor the pass,” an O.S.S. field report admitted, “but we didn’t give a damn; the idea was to make the Italians completely useless to the Germans. The effect was cumulative. Kesselring was forced to interlard his Fascist troops with German units he badly needed elsewhere. When the Italians reached the front lines, they deserted in whole platoons, armed with surrender passes.”
Sometimes a partisan area would be overrun by the Germans, the leaders captured and executed, and the demoralized survivors sent fleeing into the mountains. Then American O.S.S. officers would drop into the area to weld the scattered unit together again and lead it in further sabotage efforts against assigned targets. General Donovan paid a special postwar tribute to these men who “took some of the gravest risks and performed some of the bravest acts of the war.” Men with no previous experience in resistance—men like Captain Joseph Benucci or Captain Howard Chappell or Captain Roderick Hall—were hand-picked to carry out resistance work in northern Italy. Their stories, strangely intertwined, are told here not because they are so extraordinary but rather because they are so typical.
Donovan worked a kind of magic when he talked, and O.S.S. field agents, infected by the general’s confidence, would often volunteer without hesitation to carry out any hazardous duty he suggested. Captain Benucci said after his interview with Donovan: “He talked to me for half an hour, and I walked out of his office convinced that I could do the impossible.”
Benucci, twenty-eight and a railroad worker from Newark, New Jersey, was chosen to lead an O.S.S. sabotage operation in Italy called Mission Aztec. On October 13, 1944, with sergeants Nick Gangelosi of Elmont, New York, and Sebastian Gionfriddo of Hartford, Connecticut, he parachuted into the lower Alps north of Venice, a strategically vital area that lay astride the German route to the Brenner Pass and Austria. He had expected to find a large partisan force awaiting him, but from the reception committee at the drop zone he learned that the Germans had struck just a month before and had killed over five hundred partisans in a mass slaughter that had left only fifty effective members in the local underground, headed by a slight and neatly dressed Rome industrialist named “Antonio.” Benucci would have to build his organization virtually from scratch.
By November 4, when Mission Aztec received its first O.S.S. supply drop, he had two hundred partisans in his mountain hide-out near Belluno, most of them members of the 1JUi Alpini Brigade and courageous fighters. The snow was already three feet deep, the temperature hovered around zero, and the encampment was badly in need of food. Accompanied by some of his best men armed with automatic weapons, Benucci set an ambush for an enemy supply convoy. Mines blew the tracks off the vehicles, and the fifteen German guards were cut down by concentrated fire. The partisans’ booty was the payroll for the Nazi garrison at Belluno, abundant food and weapons, and, best of all, a month’s ration of cigarettes. The Germans reacted promptly; an S.S. force swept the countryside and captured several partisans. Under torture they admitted Benucci’s presence in the area, though they did not reveal his whereabouts, and the enemy put a price of five thousand dollars on his head.
Security was his prime concern. Antonio had warned him that the partisan band was honeycombed with informers ready to sell out their comrades to the S.S. for a reward. By great good luck a young Italian woman was captured by the Alpini and brought before Benucci; her partisan brother-in-law had been mysteriously fingered and hanged by the S.S., and she was known to be sleeping with a German master sergeant in the village. Under pressure she confessed that she was the paymaster for the local spy ring and surrendered a ledger containing the names of all the traitors in the area. Thirty-three informers, many of them members of the Aztec group, were lined up along with the woman agent and shot by the Alpini. The following morning twelve more villagers left in haste. The betrayals abruptly ceased.
Other American volunteers were less fortunate. Captain Roderick “Steve” Hall of New Hampshire, a young geologist, jumped from a Liberator bomber on August 2, 1944, the first O.S.S. leader to drop in uniform into northern Italy. Working in the VaI Cordovale area, he directed a partisan brigade for several months in demolition work. His radio operator was killed, and he arranged to send his intelligence to Mission Aztec for transmission to the O.S.S. base at Florence. On two occasions Hall’s trusted courier, a Swiss named Tell, arrived to deliver the messages to Captain Benucci; but intuition warned Benucci to meet Tell at a point some distance from his own headquarters, on the opposite side of the River Piave. His suspicions of the Swiss courier were justified when Hall was betrayed to the S.S. in January, and although in uniform, was tortured and hanged.
His story was never fully known. Inquiries by the O.S.S. revealed that Hall had left his unit on January 26 to ski north for a sabotage effort near the Brenner Pass. The following day, while hiding out with a local priest in Ampezzo, he was seized by Fascist police and carried off to the torture chambers. After the war an Italian doctor in Ampezzo disclosed a death certificate he had signed for one “R. G. Hall,” giving the cause of death as “heart failure.” The doctor confessed: “The Gestapo made me say that. All I saw was a body lying at the bottom of a cart. I noticed he had a rope around his neck.”
Due to Benucci’s precautions the informer Tell had not been able to give the S.S. the location of Aztec headquarters; but he was able to furnish them with Benucci’s name and rank and with an exact description. The Germans raised the reward for his capture to ten thousand dollars, “dead or alive.” For the rest of the Italian campaign Benucci never remained in one spot for more than two days at a time.
On the day after Christmas, 1944, another O.S.S. volunteer leader arrived: Infantry Captain Howard Chappell of East Cleveland, Ohio, a tall, powerful blond of Prussian descent, who was a former all-state football player and the heavyweight boxing champion at Western Reserve University. Like Benucci and Hall, he had been selected personally by General Donovan for the mission. Chappell and his team, Corporal Silsby and T/5 Fabrega, parachuted into the Aztec area near Belluno, and he spent several days with Benucci, being briefed on the territory he would penetrate. After some discussion it was decided that Benucci should continue with the 7th Alpini and should also take command of the VaI Cordovale brigade, leaderless since Captain Hall’s capture. Chappell would assume command of the Nanette Division, which operated to the west near the city of Bolzano, headquarters of the Nazi S.S. troops in Italy.
The Nanette Division proved to be a Communist outfit, more concerned with future political developments than with the liberation of their country. The division’s local chief was “Mello,” described by Chappell as “a pleasant character who, along with another Communist named De Lucca, schemed to have me murdered. Mello stole three planeloads of American equipment. One of his brigades had received from us clothing and forty Sten guns, which they buried whenever the Germans came near. They did no fighting.”
While carrying on their sabotage work, hiding in haystacks and bushes by day and striking at night, Chappell’s unit picked up twenty-one American pilots who had been shot down behind the lines and arranged for their evacuation to Yugoslavia. “When the parachutes landed,” Chappell said, “my partisans would try to get to them before the Germans or Fascists, who would kill our airmen on sight. The pilots usually drew their revolvers as soon as they scrambled to their feet, and it was difficult for the partisans, few of whom spoke any English, to let the Americans know they were friendly. They brought in one pilot who told us that a couple of tough characters had come running toward him across a field, and he had whipped out his .45 and was about to knock them off when one began yelling ‘Jesus-Christ-Lucky-Stri ke-God-Damn-ChesterfieldSon-of-a-Bitch.’ So the pilot put his gun away.”
Word was received through the underground that the Fascists were gathering a large force in the area equipped with machine guns and mortars, so Chappell moved his men into another valley and dug in on the crest of a mountain. Over a hundred Fascist militiamen took over the tiny village of Chison at the foot of the mountain, cutting off the partisans’ only source of food. Chappell felt it was time for action. At midnight twenty partisans surrounded the Fascist garrison, fired some bazooka rounds through a window, and called on the garrison to surrender. “A Fascist trooper came to the door to ask our terms,” Chappell said, “but when one of our men advanced to talk with him the Fascist opened up with a machine gun, so we slammed all the rest of our bazooka rounds into the house. I’m sure no one escaped from it. We estimated the next morning that we had killed eighty.”
Chappell knew the enemy would swarm like hornets in reprisal; and with added food supplies from Chison he and some thirty partisans retreated to the highest mountain of the region, the Col de Moi, three thousand feet above the Po Valley. They hid in some shepherd huts on the crest. All that day the Fascists tried to storm the mountain peak and were driven back by mortars and machine guns. During the afternoon the enemy rolled up cannon in an attempt to blast the huts off the mountain, but darkness fell before they got the range. That night the firing inexplicably ceased, and dawn revealed that the attackers had lost their nerve and pulled out, leaving their Fascist dead on the slopes. Later, rather than risk further casualties, they paid neutral civilians fifty lire for each body brought down for burial. Villagers counted over three hundred Fascists killed by Chappell’s small force. Partisan losses were two dead and two wounded.
With Chappell’s brigades harassing the enemy to the west and the VaI Cordovale brigade engaged in demolition activities to the north, the Germans were kept occupied all over the lower Alpine zone and were unable to concentrate on wiping out Mission Aztec. In February of 1945 Benucci decided to carry out his major sabotage assignment, the destruction of the important bridge across the Piave at San Felice. This bridge was midway between Belluno and Feltre, the two leading cities of the province, on the main highway, which carried most of the German supplies to the fighting front. It was a three-hundred-foot, four-span structure of reinforced concrete, with guard posts at either end. It stood only a mile from Belluno, where a thousand S.S. troops had recently been augmented by fifteen hundred members of the German aoth Infantry withdrawn from the combat zone for rest and reorganization. Another thousand troops were billeted at Feltre just south of the target. Benucci’s saboteurs would have to operate in the very heart of enemy country.
Benucci, with Sergeant Nick Gangelosi and a partisan engineer, crept to the edge of a wooded foothill a hundred and fifty yards from the target and made final plans for the demolition. They estimated that they would need forty men and four hundred pounds of plastic explosive to do the job. One two-hundredpound charge would blast the buttress end of the bridge where it met the land, the other would be placed at the top of the first arch. A squad of assassins were to knock out the guards at each end of the bridge, and an ambush party would cover the demolition workers while they were setting the charges.
On the night of February 12 they carried the explosives down from their mountain cache and hid them in a patch of woods. “We planned to start working on the bridge at 1 A.M. ,” Captain Benucci later told an O.S.S. interviewer, “at which time our intelligence had indicated we stood the best chance of avoiding detection by German traffic. About 11 P.M. Nick and I with thirty-five partisans took up a position overlooking the bridge at the point where we had hidden the explosives. All of the men were well armed, and in addition we had four bazookas in case armored vehicles or tanks came out to interfere.”
“At 12:30 A.M. I sent five of my most experienced assassins to take care of the southern guards. Twenty minutes later they flashed a signal to me which meant they had wiped the guards out. Thirty seconds later a flash from the north side told me that things were under control there, too. I gave the order, and our partisans picked up the explosives and sandbags and rushed onto the bridge. … Everyone worked fast, and in twenty minutes the last charges were laid, the last sandbags in place, and the whole thing wired together. I set the ten-minute time pencils, using a dozen to make sure. After a final check, I blew two blasts on my whistle and took off for the foothills.
“We all stopped about two hundred and fifty yards south of the bridge and waited for the explosion. It went up with a terrific roar. For a few seconds the span seemed to hang in the air, then collapsed into the river. When I saw that span go, I knew they couldn’t repair it, and it was still down when the war ended.”
While five hundred German S.S. men with police dogs were scouring the countryside in search of the saboteurs, Benucci arranged for another meeting with Chappell. Both he and Chappell had been told at O.S.S. training school that officers in the field should never risk a rendezvous, but they were anxious to coordinate their zone-wide operations. With his two sergeants and three leading partisans Benucci arrived at Chappell’s secret command post near the town of San Antonio and established his own headquarters in a small house about a thousand yards away. He and Chappell talked until four in the morning, and then Benucci ordered the sergeants and the three partisans back to their temporary quarters to send out the morning radio messages, while he remained to enjoy a turkey that one of Chappell’s contacts in San Antonio had furnished. “The turkey was cooking and we were shooting the breeze over some tea at about seven in the morning,” Benucci’s account continued, “when a young girl came running into our hut shouting: ‘Tedeschi, Tedeschi [Germans], San Antonio!’ ”
“We weren’t particularly alarmed at first, for we thought it was just a morning patrol, but we woke up Chappell’s men and they began to bury the vital equipment, while I took a B.A.R. [Browning Automatic Rifle] and went outside with Chappell.” From a small knoll they spotted some Germans moving cautiously along a ridge to the west and other groups working downhill toward them from the north and east. “Immediately we knew that we had been surrounded. We decided to make a break for it by following a creek south, the one direction that didn’t seem to be covered, and our only hope of breaking out of the trap.”
“We all took off at a run and started down the stream. The water was ice cold and knee-deep, which made it hard going. We managed to go about eight hundred yards before the Germans opened up on us with machine guns and automatic weapons from the ridges on either side and from our rear.” Benucci waved four partisans ahead of him up a small side brook, while Chappell and the rest kept on going downstream. Suddenly Benucci realized that he was near the temporary quarters where his sergeants had gone earlier to send the messages. Four Germans were running down the road toward the house, and he raised the carbine that he had been carrying and let them have half a clip.
“One of them fell, and the rest hit the dirt,” Benucci went on. “This only took a few seconds, but it saved my life, because as I turned back to start following our four men up the side brook, I heard German voices and automatic fire just above me. I looked up and saw five S.S. men standing on the high bank, firing into the brook ahead of me. By some miracle they hadn’t seen me, though I was only thirty yards away. I lifted my carbine and emptied the clip at the group. Three of them fell, one body tumbling into the brook just in front of me. The rest pulled back, dragging the other two bodies with them. From Chappell’s direction I could hear a lot of firing.
“My carbine was useless, for I had no more ammo, so I threw it away. I still had my .45 and a hand grenade. … No matter what happened, I was determined not to be taken prisoner. I kept going up the brook, because there was no other place to go. Just as I reached the body of the S.S. man I had killed, I saw a place where the snow had drifted up against the overhanging bank. I dived into this cavity, scraped as much snow as possible up around me, and rubbed some clay from the bank onto my face and hands. I curled up and waited, scarcely daring to-breathe. In one hand I had my .45 pointed out at the brook, and I held the ring of the grenade in my teeth so that, even if wounded, I could pull it out and take some of them with me.
“Just as I finished concealing myself, I heard German voices. While I crouched motionless, an S.S. lieutenant came to the edge of the bank above my head and gave orders to two of his men, who waded into the stream and picked up the body. They were so close that I could nearly touch them, but their attention was concentrated on their dead comrade, and they didn’t look at me. They retrieved the body and carried it away.
“All day long S.S. troops searched the area, and several other scouting parties waded up and down the brook. Fortunately they kept looking straight ahead. I lay there wet and freezing for seven hours until it was pitch-dark and then rolled out of my hiding place, not knowing where to go. I was sure all my boys had been captured, and I knew such a trap could not have been an accident—someone had talked to the Germans. Driven by hunger, I made my way alone to the emergency quarters where we had buried some food and vitamins. As I crouched in the underbrush, I heard a voice inside the house—it was Nick! I hurled myself against the door, pounding it with my fists and shouting the password.
“They came tumbling out, the whole bunch of them, every single one safe. Nick kept shouting: ‘But we thought you were dead!’ I was all but carried into the house, and then I got the whole story. The bulk of the 7th Alpini had escaped the roundup and were concentrating in the VaI Moral, though we had lost eightyfour partisans in the fighting. They reported that Chappell and two of his men had been captured.”
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.”