Ciro T. De
© Copyright 2006 by Ciro T. De Rosa
Everyone knew that the Germans would be leaving Casilino very soon. The American forces landed at Salerno and were making their way north. Besides, every day for weeks, trucks rumbled into Casilino halting in front of the Municipio while dozens of soldiers carried boxes and filing cabinets from the second floor offices of the commandant, Colonel Vogel and hauled them away. The Germans had taken over the Town Hall when they arrived the year before. A huge flag emblazoned with the swastika was immediately draped over the balustrade facing the center of the Piazza dei Giudici. The purpose of the thing was to insure that everyone walking through the piazza would know who ruled over life and death.
Things remained quiet for the better part of six months. Then as the partisans grew bolder and began disrupting supply trains by dynamiting the track streaming southward from Rome, things began to get very dangerous for everyone. The commandant issued orders for a six o’clock curfew and anyone caught breaking it would be summarily shot in the piazza in front of the town’s folks. Very shortly executions became a regular event in Casilino. Of course the partisan attacks became more frequent as well.
One event was seared into the minds of the Casilianese and remembered to this very day. During one of the raids, four soldiers were killed and a truck load of equipment was destroyed. The next day squads of soldiers crashed into apartments carrying off fathers and sons. About a hundred men and boys were marched to the cemetery that lay on the outskirts of the town, lined up against the cemetery wall and machine gunned. Their bodies remained there for weeks. Fear and hatred for the Tedeschi was palpable and so the soldiers became more brutal as the days went by. The partisans began to use Scugnizzi Casilinese, urchins of Casilino to act as their eyes and ears. The children were able to meander around the town without causing suspicion and in so doing gathered important information from the soldiers as they talked among themselves at the cafes.
On the morning of October 2, 1943 it was evident that the Germans were leaving. Besides dealing with the partisans, the English Hurricanes zoomed above laying siege to the anti-aircraft positions around the town. The planes strafed the riverbanks of the Volturno River as German soldiers, streaming across the bridge that connected Casilino to its northern border of the town, died by the hundreds. Bombs fell everywhere.. What was left of the garrison was to remain in Casilino until ordered north to Formia.
By this time, partisans controlled the Porta Napoli at the southern end of the town. Also, groups of the young boys managed to get hold of rifles and Lugar machine pistols and began snipping at the patrols on a daily basis. Everyone could sense the impending liberation of Casilino by the allies and so it emboldened them to act foolishly, gallantly, bravely against a small, but a better armed and a more mobile force.
On the morning of October 3, 1943 on via Grotte di San. Lazzaro, Carlo Simeone, Luigi Celenti, Franco Rongo and Pino Steffenelli, barricaded themselves behind the remains of a burned out German staff car with the intention of ambushing a light armored car and the soldiers manning its guns. Carlo who was fourteen and had the face of an angel was the leader of his “squad.” His lieutenant was Luigi Celenti. They decided to lay in wait and destroy the first patrol they came across.
“Franco,” Carlo pointed toward the engine.” stay low, you’ll be the first to spot the bastards when they turn the corner.” Franco waved a salute and huddled behind the charred engine block.
Pino, the runt of the group, stationed himself in the rear seat of the car, poking his head just above the window. He carried a rifle that was almost as tall as himself which he propped up on the back of the rear seat. Carlo glanced over to him and smiled, giving him a “thumbs up” and stationed himself behind the passenger side door with a clear view of the road beyond. The mass of ringlets bleached from the summer sun framed his handsome face. He was young and strong for his age. He had acquired his muscles while working at his father’s forge. He too rested his rifle on the edge of the door and sighted down the barrel, a grenade nestled in his shirt pocket. Luigi was the last one to pick a spot. He had a machine pistol and a cartridge belt draped over his slim shoulders and stood next to Carlo who now glanced around at his fellow scugnizzi and felt his pride rise in him. Today they would join with the partisans and help destroy the Germans and drive them out of Casilino.
While they waited for action, the conversation got around to how many Germans they were going to kill that day. Each boy boasted that his kill would be the most. Carlo cautioned them not to get too boastful, “The Tedeschi might be just around the bend! Then you’ll shit your pants when they come”
“Not me,” exclaimed the runt, “I’ll shoot their balls off. Then I’ll stuff them in their mouth!” He burst into a silly giggle.
“Shut up! You want to spoil everything?” Franco sliced the air with his hand in exasperation.
The boys began to feel the heat from the sun, now risen high in the morning sky. They had been behind the auto for the better part of two hours and still no sign of the patrol. Franco pulled out the stub of a cigarette from his shirt pocket. “Do you think those bastards won’t come this way, Carlo?” Disappointment tinged his voice as he lit the butt. Carlo allowed him two drags and pulled the cigarette from his lips and took a deep pull. “I dunno, maybe they’re patrolling around the Porta Napoli. The partisans got that whole area of the village under their control. Maybe they wanna try to flush them out. Who knows?” he shrugged and took another drag.
“Ho! Save a puff for me too” whined Pino from the back seat. Carlo shot him a darting glance and handed what was left of the stub to Franco.
“You’re too young to smoke. Besides what would your mother say? Carlo admonished with wry humor.
“Firstly, I don’ know where my mother is. She lit out of the village a couple of days ago. She could be in Caserta for all I know.” the little boy boasted.
“Whatta you mean she lit out? She left you” Luigi asked not believing his own ears.
Pino stuck his chin out defiantly and cracked, “ Naw, she wanted me to go with her, but then if I went, I’d miss all the fun!”
“You gotta be pazzo!” Luigi answered.
Just at that moment the dull roar of a motor signaled the boys that a patrol car was just around the bend. In an instant the bravado that had infused itself into the lads seemed to disappear as the car rounded the corner. Three troopers were seated in the back. The driver and an officer in front and another soldier standing between them manned the machine gun mounted above the windscreen. Carlo felt his throat tighten, fear gripped him as he glanced warily at the others; they stared back at him waiting for his signal. Carlo shifted his gaze to the car that was advancing slowly toward them. The enemy was getting closer. The dull hum of the vehicle’s engine seemed to keep in time with Carlo’s heart beat. Now! It was now! He lifted his rifle and took aim; each of the boys placed their weapons at the ready. Carlo fired the first volley and instantly the others followed. The armored car stopped and proceeded to reverse itself as the machine gun spat out a barrage of bullets toward the boy’s position. As the bullets found their mark, each of the boys hunkered down behind the car. The moment the firing stopped, Carlo raised his rifle and fired at the retreating vehicle. He pulled off two shots when the rifle jammed. Luigi was reloading the pistol from the ammunition belt. Pino was on his knees on the back seat pumping out shots as fast as he could, the recoil from the rifle knocking him backwards onto the seat. Franco was on the ground behind the engine block firing at will. Unable to use the rifle, Carlo reached into the car and grabbed Pino by the pants. Dragging the small boy out, he snatched the rifle from him and began firing. The Germans stopped the car at a hundred and fifty yards away thus making the fire from the boys practically useless. But the machine gun reached the target without any trouble. As the bullets whizzed by and crashed into the metal, the boys could do nothing but keep their heads down. The armored car began to move slowly toward them as the machine continued to fire, strafing the car and the ground around it. Carlo realized that they would be unable to stop the advance. He signaled the boys to retreat. There was a low wall just behind them that led to a narrow lane just behind the road. It was to be their escape route in case something like this happened. Without hesitation, the three boys sidled quickly over to the wall and waited for Carlo who was firing Luigi’s pistol over the door while keeping his head down. He looked at the boys and screamed, “Get going! I’ll hold ‘em off until you get down the street. Then I’ll throw the grenade and that’ll give me time to follow!” The boys hesitated just long enough for Carlo to fling a curse at them and wave them away.
As the Germans got closer, Carlo gripped the grenade and pulled the pin. He held it until they were about fifty feet away and let it go. It bounced off the fender of the approaching vehicle, rolled away. It didn’t explode. Carlo looked in disbelief at the bomb lying across the road. He cursed all the saints and turned to scurry out of the way of the approaching car. The armored car stopped and the soldiers charged Carlo who was attempting to run. One trooper snatched him by the neck and kicked him to the ground. Another slammed him in the back with the butt of his rifle. The officer barked orders to them and they hoisted the boy up on his feet and dragged him to the car. The young officer smashed Carlo across the face with his pistol and broke the boy’s nose. They hauled him into the vehicle and drove off toward the piazza.
Carlo’s head ached and the thick rope burned into his wrists. He was standing before another officer who was seated at the mayor’s desk. The officer asked, “Who were the others, eh?” Carlo strained against the ropes and shook his head.
“Look, Ragazzo, tell me who they are and I’ll let you off. Don’t tell me and I’ll have my sergeant beat you to a pulp, capire?” Carlo thought it funny that the German used the correct form of “to understand” rather than capish. The officer stood in front of the boy and leaned close to his face. “Listen to me. If you don’t tell me it will go very bad for you. We will be very cruel. You will suffer a lot, I assure you.” Carlo remained silent. He wasn’t going to give them shit! He would take whatever they handed out! The officer waited a long moment, checked his watch and shrugged. “It’s now two. In an hour we’ll assemble the people in the square and dispense with this then. Take him out and make him “comfortable.” A smirk crossed his lips.
The boy was dragged into an adjoining room by two soldiers. After they removed their tunics, each proceeded to beat the boy about the face. By the time they were finished, Carlo’s face was almost unrecognizable and he had ceased feeling the pummeling minutes before when he passed out. He was thrown stomach down over a chair seat; his arms and head hanging over the edge. The taller and crueler of the two soldiers removed his belt and ripped the shirt off Carlo’s back exposing the boy’s upper torso. Stepping back a pace, the trooper swung the wide leather belt down on the boy’s bare back. The sharp crack of the lash echoed in the room. A huge blood stained welt rose across his shoulders. Another lash and the boy’s body contracted against the blow. Another wicked welt rose along the rib cage. The soldier who was watching the beating reminded his comrade that the kid had to able to walk to the table in the square. “Listen, you make it impossible for him to walk, the captain will see to it that your ass is shipped to the Russian Front.”
The boy lay across the chair motionless, his wounds turning a deep purple. The younger soldier left the room and returned with a damp cloth. He swabbed the boy’s face, reviving him. Carlo spit blood and moaned. The soldier looked at the other and shook his head. “He doesn’t look good. We’d better get him up and able to walk. It’s already two thirty and it’ll take at least a half hour to get him in some kind of shape.”
The other took a step toward the trooper and snarled, “What the fuck do you care eh? What’s the matter, feel sorry for the little bastard!”
The younger soldier spread his hands in a gesture of surrender and replied with a rueful laugh, “Listen, my friend, I don’t intended to get shipped off to God knows where because you get a thrill beating the shit out of this kid. I don’t give a damn if you kill him, just don’t do when I’m here.”
The tall soldier turned and started to put on his tunic. The other did the same. Then they lifted the boy into the chair and swabbed his face again. The young one got a glass of water and had Carlo sip it through black swollen lips. The boy gasped for air through his shattered nose.
“C’mon kid, take a sip. C’mon you’ll feel better.” The soldier shot a glance at the other who was pacing the floor. Slowly the boy began to revive. He was able to take the liquid and forced his swollen eyes open. His blond hair was matted with fresh and dried blood. When he tried to straighten his back, he let out a muffled moan and slumped forward into the soldier’s arms.
“Mama! mama!, please, mama, mama, please.” He moaned and wept.
The pacing soldier looked at his watch and pulled at his britches. “Can he walk you think?”
“I hope so” said the other.
They took the boy by either arm and guided him towards the door. Every step was an agony for the child and he continued to spit blood. He moaned piteously as the dragged him into the captain’s office.
The captain was looking out the window at the square below. The troops had gathered about a hundred of the village people. They knew they were there to witness German punishment for those who dared to defy the Reich. The children were herded to the side, but still able to witness the punishment. Some kept looked furtively at the soldier who took a table from Giacomino’s café and placing it under the nearby arch that connected one of the narrow streets to the piazza. A soldier mounted the table and looped a heavy rope over an iron stanchion that once housed a street lamp and tied it securely. At the other end he fashioned a broad noose. Once done he jumped to the pavement.
The officer turned and made a face. “ I told you to knock him about, not cripple him, you idiots!” He stepped to the boy and made sure he was conscious. Carlo was teetering forward, unable to keep his balance. His entire body was wracked with searing pain from the punishment that had been inflicted on him. The soldiers held him up lest he slump to the floor. The captain asked, “Well ragazzo, ready to talk eh? Well, well?” Carlo didn’t even hear the demand. His head was bursting and he started to slump again so that the soldiers had to grab him again and prop him up. The captain cursed and turned toward the door. “Make sure he gets to the table, even if you have to carry him. Understand?” He left the office and headed down the stairs. The soldiers followed hauling Carlo along between them.
A pitiful murmur rose from the crowd when they saw the boy for the first time. Some of the women began to weep, while others crossed themselves and began to mouth silent prayers. The cold vengeful eyes of the men followed the uniformed procession as they crossed the square and made for the other troopers by the table. The captain turned to the people. He hooked his thumbs in his belt and in a loud voice said, “You see before you a criminal who tried to kill soldiers doing their lawful duty! For that he must pay the price! A price I hope none of you will have to pay, but have no doubt, you will meet the same fate if you defy me and my command!” With that he motioned to the soldiers. They hauled the boy onto the table and placed the noose around his neck. By some incomprehensible will, the boy stood erect and faced the crowd. His defiance reflected in his bloody face. He lifted his head and looked at the people.
“Death to these bastards! Death to the Germans! Viva Italia!”
Someone in the crowd began to clap. Then another, and another and another. The captain glared at the people and barked orders to the soldiers who were now pointing their rifles at the crowd. The boy’s words inspired the people. They were daring the German, as if to kill them all. The applause grew louder. A woman began to intone the Patre Nostra. More voices followed. The captain marched over to the table and ripped the boy’s pants off. Then he ripped the thin underwear away exposing the child’s genitals. The crowd became silent. The German pulled out a knife from his belt and with one swipe castrated the boy. Carlo screamed; blood flowed from between his legs. The captain then kicked the table from under the boy and within moments he was dead. The purple pool under his limp body, started to spread along the stones and into the cracked pavement. The people gasped at the horrific sight and started to move towards the soldiers. The captain ordered them to fire if they crowd came any closer. As the crowd grew menacing, the air raid siren screamed; all eyes searched the sky for the incoming Hawker Hurricanes whose roar could be heard as they approached the area. The villagers scrambled toward the Porta Tifatina where a large air raid shelter had been constructed the previous year. The soldiers ran to their posts and awaited orders. Within minutes the square was deserted. The boy’s body forgotten as people and soldiers fled to safety. It remained there the following day and was taken down by his mother and a few of the village men and buried in the Campo Santo. A picture of a smiling curly haired little boy was tacked to the wooden cross.
Three days later on October 6th, units from General
Mark Clark’s 5th Army liberated Casilino.
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