This is a creative nonfiction piece about events that happened in Italy in 1945. The story is based on in-person interviews with Mr. Johnson’s relatives, original letters, and newspaper archives research.
The Thunderbolt was going down, and Lieutenant Wilbur H. Johnson knew it, but when Durant asked him how his instruments were reading, he replied, “They’re okay.” There had been white smoke trailing from the wastegates of his aircraft even before the dive run, and now the oil pressure was dropping. Lips tightened, he squeezed his eyes and swallowed.
“RPM is dropping,” he called, no reason to add more. Everybody knew what that meant—the worst scenario in the worst position. The flight leader instructed him to head to the mountains, a grim call, yet the only alternative to crashing right in the den of the beast, on the west coast of Lake Garda.
Later, in his report, Durant would write that he saw Johnson parachuting at approximately F-1673, the white balloon blossoming in a silver sky above a frozen land a few miles from the beating heart of the Italian Social Republic. Not good. Not good at all. That part of Italy wasn’t a postcard. No peaceful fields, no sun-filled beaches, no golden ruins—only crunchy snow over a black winter soil. In those mountains, brothers and foes sat side by side in the church pews, indistinguishable. They looked alike and felt the same. Foreigners liberated and foreigners deported. Suspicions and uncertainties distorted all interactions, and fear turned them explosive, inhuman.
The aircraft crashed in an open field, perturbing the cautious routine of a nearby village. Some people saw it doing down; others heard the explosion. Everybody speculated. It was the Allies, they said. No, it was the Germans. The Germans shut down an American plane. The partisans crawled out of the woods to save a friend or torture an enemy. But villagers didn’t know a thing, and, to disguise their preoccupation, they moved erratically from home to home, from farm to farm. Mothers called their children inside, and elders prayed the rosary, but most people ran toward the smoke to ransack the crash site looking for aluminum and treasures that didn’t exist, walking away with tackles they had never seen and wouldn’t use. Soon, a black circle of burned grass replaced the aircraft. It vanished like its pilot, but piece by piece, its fragments covered with hay in the barns of the village.
Wilbur’s eyes went from shut to wide open as soon as he regained consciousness. He couldn’t tell how long he’d been out. Waves of pink and brown permeated the snow surrounding his lower body—a pool of blood. The massive roots of a chestnut tree pushed rough against his spine. As he struggled to stand, he felt the pain in his right leg, pungent and unexpected. Something had cut through his thigh, lacerating the flesh. The chute was entangled in the branches up high like a white flag announcing surrender.
Eyes closed, he longed for his home—the banana split at the soda stand, the smell of roasted nuts, the dim lights of Chicago. He longed for her, more than anything, the Southern belle he’d met at a USO dance in Little Rock, Arkansas, and married shortly after. The familiar images didn’t console his heart but propelled him into action, desperate and painful. He stood up, added pressure to the wound, and walked as far as he could. After a few hundred yards, his leg gave in and forced him to hide behind brambles. Everything turned black a second time.
Moments later, he felt something against his forehead. It was the barrel of a rifle. The sweat froze solid between his skin and the steel of the weapon. They got me. It’s over, he thought. He showed his hands and raised at slow speed to face the enemy. But instead, he encountered the uncertain eyes of a civilian, his age or so, much smaller in stature. Other men stood a few steps away, perhaps five or six of them. A wordless conversation of blind promises occurred between Wilbur and the man holding the rifle. Can I trust you? Are you a friend? Can I? Are you?
The man finally lowered the weapon, and placing a hand on his chest said, “Santo.”
They shook hands, a vail of suspicion lingering in both sets of eyes. There was no time for hesitation. German forces had ordered a roundup of people in nearby territories determined to weaken the partisans, heroes of the guerilla warfare. They were already on their way north to catch, deport, and detain the American pilot.
The men pulled the chute off the tree, rolled it up, and coved it with snow to hide traces of the landing site. They would pick it up later, bring it to town, and, in the hands of their women, the chute would turn into shirts their kids would wear for months to come. The adrenaline of the moment, fed by Santo’s nervousness and haste, masked the pain in Wilbur’s leg. When it was time to go, he leaned on unknown shoulders, dropping his weight and his future on them, as strangers guided him through the woods, the cold permeating his flash all the way to the bones.
Wilbur would not be able to remember Santo’s name, how long he’d walked or how they’d managed to get to the house. His eyes reopened to a crackling fireplace, flames consuming a bundle of wood and fabric—his uniform. He realized he was wearing civilian clothes, clean and warm, ill-fitting. A woman attended to his wound. Her eyes met his only once; she lowered them as soon as she realized he was conscious. After mending his thigh, she washed her hands, rubbing them vigorously as if she feared the blood would stain her skin forever. Two men sat around the fireplace staring at him from behind their thick mustaches, elbows on their knees. Another man paced back and forth from the door to the window looking out at regular intervals as the afternoon sky darkened. No trace of Santo. The men occasionally shared fast sentences in a peculiar language of firm tones which sounded more German than Italian—a northern dialect. The woman fed Wilbur piping hot polenta and milk, carefully avoiding his stare. The coffee spiked with grappa went down fast, awakening his senses, burning his throat. When he coughed, one of the men chuckled.
Santo walked in the room minutes later. He gave Wilbur the jacket he carried in his arm.
“Nom,” he said. The man put on their jackets and gestured Wilbur to do the same. Time to move again. The woman dipped her chin into her chest as Wilbur thanked her, then closed the door behind the men and pulled the bolt as hard as she could. Two at a time, Santo and his friend carried Wilbur out of the village, into the approaching night.
Shortly after the men had departed, military vehicles occupied the village, blocking all roads, unloading soldiers tasked with searching the American pilot in every house and every barn. Harsh voices met humble murmurs; orders fused with supplications. The rumble of trucks resounded throughout the night, but the Germans didn’t find what they were looking for, and, without the intel of local blackshirts, they had no choice but to move to the next village.
Wilburn woke up in a hayloft nested in a valley far from town, still feverish and limping, but alive. He knew he couldn’t stay in the area for long. The Germans would be back, likely tipped off by supporters of Mussolini. There was no hiding an American with legs that long and teeth that bright in a village of a few hundred folks. Wordless and with the clothes of an Italian farmer, Wilburn still looked entirely foreign—the stars and the stripes were in his eyes.
After another coffee with grappa—that flavor again—Santo and his friends decided it was time to go. The four of them walked with Wilbur for miles, hiking snowing hills, helping him along the way. They slowed down periodically to give Santo the time to inspect the footpath ahead and make sure it was safe. At the top of Màdelà, a mountain overlooking an ample valley, the journey came to a halt. Santo sat on the trunk of a tree cut in the fall and explained as best he could the route to Switzerland, the closest haven, still hundreds of miles away. The other men contributed with suggestions, trying to come up with easier instructions and clearer gestures, but altogether their effort couldn’t offer more than the general direction to pursue. Between their good intentions and Switzerland, there were mountains and enemies in every town. And if Wilbur couldn’t understand Santo and his friends at all, he perceived the uncertainty in their voices. Not hopelessness, really—objectivity.
Eventually, they said their goodbyes, blurting out words to cheat the silence. Wilbur and Santo made a silent promise to each other—they would meet again when the damn war would be over. Then the Italians returned to their village, to their homes, to their wives and children. They did the best they could. The American, shoulders pulled back and head held high, walked on, alone.
He followed the paths of the hunters in a frozen land with no sign of life. He avoided main roads and open fields. The pain in his leg almost disappeared, numbed by the cold winds, the sense of purpose, and the fear. Dogs would pick up his smell from far away and bark.
On an uphill path, broader than others, he spotted a pair of black figures walking in his direction—two men, likely civilians. Wilbur, progressively weaker, decided to confide in faith, which, as precarious as it seemed, was all he had. He didn’t change direction.
The strangers stopped in their tracks as Wilbur approached. One of them, the older, was wearing formal clothes—a winter coat over a dark, three-piece suit. He carried what looked like a doctor’s bag. His companion, modestly dressed, stood a step behind.
“Buon giornata, Signore,” said the elegant man tipping his hat. Wilbur nodded and smiled. He knew better than attempting a verbal greeting. The older man pointed at his leg and, gesturing, signaled he’d noticed the limping—he’d already understood that Wilbur did not speak Italian. He asked for permission to examine the wound. His hands were smooth and expert on Wilbur’s thigh—a doctor indeed.
His name was Luigi Bonomelli, a country physician known and respected in the area. There had been a rumor going around for months throughout the valley that Dr. Bonomelli participated in the resistance movement and had assisted several wounded partisans. The doctor was on his way to the hospital in the city of Brescia, the capital of the province.
Wilbur wished he could tell him about his squadron—253rd Fighter—and his base in Pontedera, about the crash and the night he had spent in Santo’s hayloft. Instead, he could only attempt to understand what the doctor suggested. Dr. Bonomelli instructed his companion to take the fugitive to the house of Silvio Vallini in Bione, a stronghold of the resistance movement a few miles north-east. The doctor had been practicing in the village for years and knew each soul—the fascists and the pacifists, the traitors and the spies. He recommended Silvio because he was a cautious supporter of the resistance, and, as a former immigrant to Australia, he was the only person around who spoke some English. Wilbur didn’t catch that detail but trusted the doctor and followed his companion—yet another stranger—in enemy land. On their way, they often heard the roar of military vehicles in the vicinity, and though his guide didn’t say anything, he knew they were enemy troops looking for him, determined to capture him alive, a glorious accomplishment to feed to the propaganda. It would remind civilians who owned their puppet state. In Northern Italy, the regime was losing strength, and the opposition to the Social Republic was growing.
Wilbur walked behind Dr. Bonomelli’s entrusted companion all night, uphill and downhill, on rocks and snow. Finally, at the crack of dawn, the man pointed at the horizon.
“Bione,” he said.
The village, still some three miles ahead, lay on a hill, overlooking a territory so luxuriant it was named Conca D’Oro—The Gold Basin. Mountains to the north guarded the town, protecting its people from the northern winds, and the sun caressed its houses of stone from the moment it raised to the east until it sat behind the peaks to the north. From afar, Bione resembled the setting of a fairytale, a promised land spared by fire, immune to raids.
It was bright out when they knocked on the door of Silvio Vallini, but early enough for the kids to still be in bed. The man invited them inside. As the fellow countryman explained the reason for the sudden intrusion, Silvio gestured him to lower his voice, closing the door that led to the bedrooms. He was a short, handsome man with brown, perspective eyes and a squared jaw. He listened to the story staring at the floor, rubbing his chin. Finally, he looked up and said, “You don’t stay.”
At the sound of English, imperfect and heavy-accented, a shiver ran up Wilbur’s neck, tingling his eyes.
“Thank God. Thank you, kind sir. My name is Wilbur Johnson. I’m with the—”
“No! Quiet!” Silvio interrupted him. “Wife and sons sleep. No see you.”
It became apparent then that the village that had seemed so amicable in the early daylight was like the rest of the warzone—perturbed. Suspicion and fear had disfigured the disposition of its people. Silvio did not want his family to see the American because seeing meant taking sides—Allies or fascists, no in-between, no hesitation.
“Go,” he said. Wilbur’s limbs were still cold when they left the house and walked on the main road to the church overlooking the town’s central square. The man who had guided Wilbur to Bione took his leave there. Wilbur realized he didn’t even know his name, but before he could ask about it, Silvio knocked on the door of the house opposite to the church.
A man with thick dark eyebrows opened the door in his night clothes. There was apprehension in his expression as if he had been up all night waiting for bad news. His name was don Giuseppe Bazzoli, the town’s priest, a somber-looking man of the Lord. He welcomed Silvio and his silent companion in his studio and left them alone as he got dressed.
“Ouch?” Silvio pointed at Wilbur’s leg.
“It’s just a cut. I’m okay.”
“You okay here,” Silvio added after a long pause. “Priest is good. We help, but children no see you. Okay?”
Wilbur nodded. They sat in silence, staring at each other in the eyes, blue in brown and brown in blue.
Don Bazzoli reappeared wearing a cassock. He had woken his aunt so she would prepare coffee and bread for the unexpected visitors. He sat behind the desk and, placing his left hand on his right, asked pointed questions. Silvio translated as Wilbur shared his account of the crash along with information about him—his wife, his family in Chicago, his companions in the air force, those who perished and those in combat. Details were lost in translation. Silvio’s English wasn’t as reliable as everybody thought, himself included. Still, he found himself inexplicably drawn to the American. Although he was older than Wilbur and had never been in combat, Silvio knew what it meant to be left behind, alone in a foreign land, longing for home. As Wilbur talked about how devastated his young wife must have been learning her young husband was missing in action, Silvio thought about his three little boys and what their future would look like in a doomed world on the verge of extinction. And in Wilbur, he saw a younger brother.
After the questioning, don Bazzoli tapped his lips repeatedly. He told Wilbur the people of Bione would take care of him, but he needed to turn invisible, a shadow in the dark. The Germans and repubblichini—the supporters of fascism—were not the priest’s chief concern. They didn’t know the area, its hideouts, the caverns in the rocks, the sheds of the hunters. Don Bazzoli feared the spies in town, informants of the regime out of convenience, servility, or fear. Paisans of Bione—one thousand of them in seven square miles—knew a lot about each other and enemies walked among saviors.
“Nessuno può vederti. Non fidarti di nessuno,” said don Bazzoli. No one can see you. Trust no one. Wilbur held his breath as a rush of expectation filled his lungs.
“I’ll hide in the mountains,” he said.
“You no know the mountains. And cold,” intervened Silvio. He stood up and placed his right hand on his heart. “I help. You okay.”
He extended his hand, and Wilbur took it. The pact they sealed in from the of the priest would mark the beginning of the most consequential friendship of their lives.
The snow melted. Swallows appeared on the branches. Villagers fasted on Ash Wednesday and feasted on Easter. Wilbur saw none of that during his long six weeks in Bione. He spent days hiding and nights traveling from stable to stable, from shed to shed, seeking refuge in farms owned by trusted families, in abandoned barns, or in the small room adjacent to the church of San Bernardo. Silvio searched and scouted each site during the day, met Wilbur at nightfall and guided him to a different shelter every night. They spent time together exclusively in hiding and developed a silent, curious friendship with the emotional contours of brotherhood. They had simple conversations, in broken English and funny gestures, occasionally sharing a modest dinner of cheese and polenta, a cup of barley coffee, even a glass of apple cider which, all things considered, tasted like the nectar of the gods.
One night, with no better hideouts available, Wilbur had to hide in the granary on Silvio’s property. He was already asleep when someone knocked on the door waking everyone in the house. Silvio’s wife squeezed her husband’s hand.
“Chesta olta ghe som,” Silvio said. This time they got us.
As he walked down the stairs, he heard little steps behind him. The kids were up, confused by the turmoil and the sound of foreign voices. He ordered them to go to their room and lock the door.
A German official stood outside his door holding a blackjack, four more soldiers behind him, in a straight line, armed to the teeth. They looked like identical giants, towering over Silvio, almost translucent in the night, like specters. They smelled of cigar and soap. One of them asked without runarounds in Italian if he had been aiding an American pilot. Silvio shook his head, showed the palms of his hand and let them into his house before they could repeat the question. He invited them to sit, enticing them with apple cider. He cut slices of salame, the food his family reserved for special occasions. He grabbed some wood, lit the fire and started cooking polenta on his knees. His legs were shaking, and he didn’t want the officials to notice. They didn’t. They accepted his offerings and stayed for a while, then ordered him to go to a nearby village the following morning for a sworn statement. After they left, Silvio sat and stared at the crumbs on the table, his heart a hammer. In the granary, Wilbur heard the trucks driving away and took a sigh of relief, safe again and for now, aware the Germans knew he was in Bione.
After that night, finding inconspicuous hideouts became even more crucial. Repubblichini were canvassing the mountains and woods around Bione relentlessly. Someone in town was keeping an eye on Silvio, that was certain. Wilbur spent more time in the home of Teresa, a woman known in the village for having helped partisans and deserters in more than one occasion. Her husband had moved to Australia temporarily to find remunerative work, and her sons were on three different fronts of the war. Like Silvio, she also saw in the American her own children, taken at once by the call to arms.
Teresa lived in a narrow house built around 1640. Wilbur stayed in the basement, a lightless maze of cobwebs and dust, claustrophobic but impenetrable, with a tiny stall under the stone steps where, if needed, he could hide and even leave the building through an opening to the courtyard. They didn’t talk—couldn’t talk; they just observed each other, smiling on occasions, nodding. Teresa cooked and washed his clothes wondering about her sons. In return, Wilbur chopped wood in the courtyard, away from prying eyes but not from prying ears. People in town knew Teresa lived alone. All that axing, too vigorous for a woman in her fifties, arouse suspects.
On a March afternoon, SS officers showed up to Teresa’s house. They shoot a barrage of bullets from a machine gun into the ceiling of her kitchen then dragged her outside. They shouted in her face, saying they knew she had been aiding enemies. Teresa stood tall in the street, her hands neatly folded on her tummy. Honesty was the only option that came to mind. She told the officers, “Yes, someone was here. He was wearing clothes like yours. But I am not familiar with uniforms, and I don’t speak languages. I’m only a mother. All my sons are fighting in this war. If they need help, I certainly hope someone will show them kindness, the way I did to those who asked for mine. If you need me, I’m here for you as well.”
Perhaps, the eyes of a mother convinced them, or perhaps her empty, modest house moved them, but the SS officers left Teresa alone.
Bione was no longer safe. The searches in the area had become more frequent. There was new tension in the air that spring, the collective consciousness a bundle of nerves.
Back in don Bazzoli’s home with Silvio, Wilbur came to the conclusion it was time to flee. The priest gave him one of his cassocks to wear on the road, another disguise. Silvio walked with him for a mile and explained how to get to Mantova. The plan was now to cross the Po River and reach the lines of the Allies. Chances were thin; they both knew that. Silvio said goodbye with a knot in his throat. As much as he wanted to say something—anything—he stayed silent, nothing to do with his English. He watched his younger brother walk away, alone again, and again in someone else’s clothes.
Wilbur stared at the road ahead. He couldn’t know he would never make it to his destination, that the Germans would capture him in Asola, transfer him to Verona and later to Camp Hammelburg in Germany, a prisoner of war.
He couldn’t imagine John Waters would be detained in the same camp and that his father-in-law, U.S. Army General George Patton, would rescue them on March 27, 1945, or that the enemies would apprehend him a second time and send him to the concentration camp Stalag VII-A in Moosburg,
He couldn’t guess he would be freed again and for good on April 29, 1945, the day before Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun died by suicide.
He couldn’t predict he would spend months in one of the Cigarette Camps waiting to be repatriated and reunified with his Southern belle.
He couldn’t dream he would move to New York City and study at Columbia University, or that he would keep in touch with Silvio and Teresa for the rest of his life, or that he would name his first child, a beautiful daughter, after them—Terry Sylvia Johnson.
As he left Bione behind, he couldn’t see any of this. In his eyes, the road.
The author received an MA from UCSC in Milan. He currently conducts research on gender and sexuality at Columbia University in New York City. His work has appeared or his forthcoming in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Advocate, The Mark Literary Review, Literally Stories, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.
Renato Barucco www.renatobarucco.com