EXCERPTS FROM CHAPTER 3: TO AMERICA I WILL GO
The Battle of Caporetto
The Italian Army artillery units opened fire on the Austrian trench. They fired round after round without stopping. The ground trembled and shook from the exploding shells that fell only two hundred yards away from me. Echoes of one explosion after another rumbled through the surrounding mountains like thunder. My eardrums ached from the pounding concussion of the big guns behind me. The purpose of it all was to keep the Austrian soldiers pinned down in their trench. Artillery fire rarely killed enemy soldiers because they could hide in underground rooms in their trench. But forcing the Austrians to remain hidden, and to keep their heads down, would make them blind to the coming attack.
As the Italian artillery shells whistled overhead, I heard Antonio say a prayer and make the sign of the cross. He looked at me and said: “There are no atheists in the trenches.” I nodded in agreement. Then Antonio climbed the wall of the trench and waited for the command to go over the top. “I will see you in a couple of hours,” he shouted to me over the sounds of the artillery bombardment,“. . . if I am one of the lucky ones to come back.”
When the command to attack was given, Antonio and the other Arditi soldiers raised their fists into the air and yelled in unison: “A chi l’onore [Who deserves the glory]? A noi [We do]!” Then, they scrambled over the parapet and into No Man’s Land.
“Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die . . .”
I watched as the Arditi soldiers crawled on their bellies through No Man’s Land. They slithered like snakes underneath tangles of barbed wire, through bomb craters, and past dead bodies and debris. Closer and closer, they crawled to the Austrian trench, moving forward under the cover of the constant artillery fire. When they came within a few yards of the edge of the enemy trench, their own shells were exploding all around them.
Antonio held up his hand, signaling the Italian artillery bombardment to cease. When the bombs stopped falling, the Arditi took hand grenades from their belts and tossed them into the enemy trench, forcing their enemy to stay under cover and to keep their heads down for a few seconds more. Then, the Arditi unsheathed their daggers and slipped into the enemy trench.
The whole area got quiet. It was eerie.
An hour later, I saw Antonio emerge from the Austrian trench. He didn’t crawl; he raced back toward the Italian line. He ran through No Man’s Land in a zigzag pattern, splashing through mud and puddles, and leaping over coils of barbed wire and debris. When he reached the Italian trench, he dove head first over the parapet, just as Austrian machine gun fire erupted, kicking up bits of rock and earth at his feet. I ducked down.
Antonio picked himself up off the muddy trench floor, clutched his chest, and strained to catch his breath. Many of his friends didn’t make it back. Antonio was one of the lucky ones.
“I . . . will . . . survive . . . this,” Antonio said, breathing heavily and coughing out his words. “To America . . . I will go.”
Christmas Eve 1917
Near the Piave River on the Austrian Front
After a while on the front lines, you don’t hear the shelling; you hear the silence when the shelling stops. The shelling stopped on Christmas Eve.
It was a clear night. There was only one wisp of a white cloud in the dark sky. Antonio and I watched the cloud drift across the face of the full moon. The battlefield had been quiet all evening. But then, at about midnight, we heard singing. The singing was low at first, but gradually grew louder. It was the Austrians singing in their trench. Their voices floated on the cold night air, unmistakable even from two hundred yards away, across No Man’s Land. I didn’t have to understand the words to recognize the song.
Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Alles schlaft; einsam wacht Nur das traute heilige Paar.
Holder Knab’ im lockigten Haar, Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
[Silent Night! Holy Night!
All is calm; all is bright Round yon Godly tender pair.
Holy infant with curly hair, Sleep in Heavenly peace!
Sleep in Heavenly peace!]
I sang the carol softly in English, against the background chorus of Austrian voices. Antonio looked at me and asked what the name of the song was. It was the first time he had ever heard the song, Silent Night.
November 11, 1918
The Great War Ends
The day the war ended, Antonio lay in a hospital bed, nearly unconscious from fever. He had contracted malaria from the mosquitoes that swarmed in the wet trenches and on the riverbanks during the late summer and early autumn. I was with Antonio in the Italian army hospital in Treviso, Italy, near the Piave River and the Austrian Front. The medics had carried him out of heavy fighting during the Vittorio-Veneto offensive that began on October 24. In the hospital, Antonio was being treated for his malaria with quinine.
I was glad that the war was over. The horrible, bloody war was waged for nothing more than territory and power and pride. The Great War wasted a generation of young men.
I told Antonio that the war was over, but because of his high fever, I wasn’t sure that he had heard me. He had been delirious for hours. But then he looked up at me and whispered: “I...will...survive... this. To America . . . I will go.”
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