Sommocolonia, Barga, Italy
By Frank Viviano
barganews Staff Writer
When a massive German assault was launched on this windswept
mountain village in December 1944, a scant two platoons of American
infantrymen were dug in here. Their own commanding officers expected
them to throw down their guns and run.
But for twenty critical hours, the tiny complement of seventy
G.I.s -- all of them black, from the U.S. Army's segregated 92nd
Infantry Division -- held out against an offensive that might
have changed the course of World War Two.
Then they vanished, almost completely, from the war's official
It has taken five decades of stubborn efforts by the battle's
few survivors, and twenty years of research by a San Francisco
Bay Area woman who accidentally stumbled onto their tale, to
fill in the empty page in that history.
On Sunday [July 16], they will reassemble in Sommocolonia
to dedicate a "peace park" to the memory of their lost
comrades in the presence of U.S. diplomats and Italian dignitaries.
Put bluntly, the park is also a monument to American racial bigotry,
at a moment when the U.S. army was ostensibly at war against
the racist megalomania of Adolph Hitler.
A mile to the north of Sommocolonia was the forward encampment
of the German Fourteenth Army, which had been instructed not
to take prisoners from the 92nd Division because its soldiers
were black, and by official Nazi standards not fully men.
Six miles miles to the south was the command post of the American
Fifth Army, which refused to provide either reinforcements for
the besieged troops in Sommocolonia or blood transfusions for
their wounded. They were black, and by official U.S. Army standards
in World War Two, not fully soldiers.
"In those days, if you were not white, you had to fight
on two fronts at once," says former Major Otis Zachary,
a veteran of the battle. "One against the Nazis, and another
against the mentality of your own superiors."
On the day after Christmas, 1944, the black G.I.s in Sommocolonia
were determined to prove that official assumptions, German and
American alike, were wrong. Most of them were dead twenty-four
hours later, and all but forgotten by their own country within
Today, the U.S. Army is among America's most successfully integrated
institutions, with black officers at the highest level. But in
1944, racism in the army was astonishingly crude, government-sanctioned
"The military had become an extension of the Southern political
system because of the close ties to Southern Congressmen who
controlled military appropriations, and because a large number
of the senior white officers in the Army were southernors,"
former 92nd Infantry Captain Dennette A. Harrod, Sr., recalled
in a 1992 speech at the U.S. Army War College.
If black soldiers were wounded in action and required emergency
blood transfusions, only the plasma of other black soldiers could
be used to save their lives.
The segregated units in which the majority of black enlistees
served were commanded by whites, many of whom regarded their
men with contempt and limited them to duty as grave-diggers or
mess hall workers.
"I did not send for you," General Edmund Almond, the
white commandant of the 92nd Division told his African-American
junior officers after their disembarcation in Italy. "Your
Negro newspapers, Negro politicians and white friends have insisted
on your seeing combat, and I shall see that you get combat and
your share of casualties."
If a black unit was under-strength, white G.I.s could not be
sent to reinforce it. When the 92nd division was so depleted
by losses that it could no longer be sent into combat, it was
combined with the all-Japanese-American 442nd Infantry Regiment
in what was dismissively referred to as "the Rainbow Division."
Dark-skinned Puerto-Rican inductees were assigned to the 92nd.
Lighter Puerto Ricans, sometimes from the same families, were
assigned to white units.
By the end of 1944, the Allies had developed formidable new weapons
and motorized vehicles to confront the Wehrmacht. But the 92nd
Infantry might have been fighting a war in the Middle Ages or
earlier, transporting their ammunition and supplies on the backs
of 372 mules purchased from Italian peasants.
"Regardless of your educational training and background,
you were considered less intelligent, less trustworthy, and incapable
of functioning on a level equal to that of whites," said
Just under one million black soldiers served in World War Two.
Among those who saw combat, nearly a quarter were killed or wounded.
They captured twice as many enemy troops as their own numbers.
Yet when the official books were closed on the war effort, not
a single African-American had been presented with the Congressional
Medal of Honor, the nation's highest commendation for valor.
Black soldiers, the conventional wisdom ran, had "melted
away" during major offensives.
The phrase came from an offhand remark in 1945 by Truman Gibson,
Special Assistant on Negro Affairs to the U.S. War Department.
For half a century, his words were the standard assessment of
African-American military performance in World War Two.
Solace Wales and her husband Bill Sheets, two artists from Kentfield
in Marin County, bought a house in Sommocolonia in 1973. Set
on the edge of a cliff at 2,200 feet above sea level, it is a
landscape painter's dream and a soldier's nightmare.
From her kitchen window, Wales looks out over an enormous vista
of craggy granite peaks that frame the 35-mile-long Serchio Valley,
where the 92nd Infantry fought its way north 56 years ago. Cutting
sharply through two precipitous mountain ranges the valley was
a key stretch of the "Gothic Line," the principal German
defensive bulwark in Italy.
Wandering around on a hilltop above her home one day, Wales happened
onto a low stone marker
"John Fox, U.S. Army Lieutenant, December 26, 1944,"
it read in Italian. The marker had been erected by the village
authorities, and stood next to the graves of anti-Fascist Italian
Partisans who died in Sommocolonia.
Curious, Wales asked a neighbor about Fox. "He was one of
the black Americans who died here back in the war. "They
almost all died, you know," the neighbor told Wales.
Why, she wondered, was there no American monument to Fox and
his comrades? What had happened to them? The short conversation
set Wales on a two-decade search for answers. She started with
the other villagers, gradually interviewing anyone who was old
enough to remember the war and tape-recording their accounts.
The story of Fox and the 92nd Infantry took hold of Solace Wales.
Slowly, she began to piece it together.
On December 26, 1944, John Fox was awakened at four a.m. by
the sound of mortar fire and rushed to his position on the Sommoclonia
hilltop, where he served as an artillery spotter. As dawn broke
over the mountains, the 29-year-old lieutenant saw that the streets
below him were swarming with troops.
They were Austrian infantrymen from the elite Fourth Mountain
Battalion, the forward edge of a blitzkreig offensive that was
to throw elements of six Axis divisions at U.S. Army detachments
in the Serchio Valley. The poorly equipped and thinly supported
92nd was expected to pose no obstacle to the offensive. With
luck, the Wehrmacht hoped to retake the strategic port of Livorno,
40 miles miles south of Sommocolonia. If successful, they would
have choked off supplies to the Allied invasion force.
It didn't happen that way.
By nine a.m., Sommocolonia was the scene of bloody, hand-to-hand
fighting. The black G.I.s and 25 Italian Partisans who joined
them knew they could not turn back the offensive. But they could
slow it down. An order came to retreat at noon. "Get the
hell out of there," a U.S. Army captain in the nearby city
of Barga radioed Lieutenant Graham Jenkins, Fox's fellow officer
"Just get me some ammunition," Jenkins radioed back.
The men in Sommocolonia fought on until more than two-thirds
of them were dead or wounded. The Austrians began torching houses
where wounded G.I.s lay, shooting them as they tried to escape
from the windows.
Jenkins radioed his final message. "They're coming after
us," he said to the captain in Barga. "Please, when
you get back to the States, tell my wife and my kid and my mother
that I love them..."
As the Austrians closed in to kill Jenkins, who had no ammunition
left, a survivor reported, he was trying to comfort a badly wounded
"That was how it was with 'the master race' of Nazism,"
said villager Bonafede Moscardini, who was thirteen when he watched
the battle explode around him. "They weren't about to show
mercy to these black soldiers."
From his observation post, which was now surrounded by enemy
troops, Fox telephoned in artillery coordinates that moved closer
and closer to his own position. No one has survived who saw what
happened at the end, but several men at 92nd headquarters overheard
Fox's last call.
He asked for a smoke screen to cover a withdrawal by the handful
of G.I.s. and Partisans who could still walk. Then he ordered
a heavy concentration of mortar and 105mm shells on the surrounded
"Fox, that will be right on you. I can't do that,"
the artillery officer at hedquarters yelled into the phone.
"Fire it!" Fox yelled back."
Late that night, the Austrians rounded up villagers who had hidden
in cellars during the battle, and forced them to leave Sommocolonia.
The village priest recalled seeing the body of Fox next to his
observation post, with the corpses of more than 100 Austrians
Of the 95 American and Italian Partisan defenders of Sommocolonia,
18 made it alive to U.S. Fifth Army lines.
Three days later, the German offensive sputtered to a halt, and
by January 1, Sommocolonia was firmly back in Allied hands.
For a dozen years, Solace Wales had no idea that anyone had
survived the battle. Back in the states, she had tried to broaden
her research in U.S. Army archives. Wales found nothing in the
official military records, not even a list of the men who had
died at Sommocolonia. The Italians remembered them, but as far
as Washington was concerned, Fox and Jenkins and their men had
simply melted away.
Otis Zachary knew otherwise. The events of December 26, 1944,
were burned into his memory. He had been one of John Fox's closest
friends. They had trained together in Massachusetts in 1942 and
shipped out on the same transport for Italy.
He was also the man on the other end of Fox's last phone call,
a gunner so adroit, according to 92nd Infantry lore, that he
could "lay artillery on a cat."
The officer in Zachary understood that the targeting at Sommocolonia
was Fox's decision. He had called and said, "I want everything
you've got put on my coordinates," and Zachary had refused
until he was ordered by a colonel to do what Fox asked.
But the man in Zachary, Fox's oldest friend in the army, was
haunted by the belief that that his shells had killed Fox. "When
something like that happens, you go half nuts," he told
Solace Wales half a century later. "A lot of things still
come back to me at night, so that I can't sleep for thinking
There were other 92nd vets, widows and children -- notably Fox's
wife Arlene and their daughter Sandra -- who were haunted by
the story and couldn't let it rest. For five decades they pounded
at the Pentagon door, demanding that the record be corrected.
The response was always the same: The official book on World
War Two had been closed in 1952. Only an Act of Congress could
reopen it. Zachary and the others were working people, raising
families and struggling to make ends meet. But they found the
time, somehow, to keep the effort going. They petitioned their
legislators. They harrassed the Pentagon.
They grew old, and some of them died, while the story remained
in the shadows.
In 1994, Solace Wales finally discovered the existence of
a 92nd Infantry veteran's group, and contacted its president.
He put her in touch with Otis Zachary.
The white woman who wanted to bring John Fox's story back to
life met the black artillery officer who was haunted by his death.
Wales told Zachary what she had learned from the people of Sommocolonia.
How they had virtually nothing to eat except chestnuts in the
bitter winter of '44, until the black G.I.s arrived and shared
their rations. She translated the villagers' account of the last
hours of Fox and his men.
Meanwhile, the effort to reopen the records, driven relentlessly
forward by Fox's widow and surviving comrades, was finally attracting
attention. The Clinton Administration was more attentive to black
concerns than its predecessors. The rise to prominence of an
African-American general, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff Colin Powell, increased the pressure on Capital Hill.
Congress agreed to reopen the books.
On January 13, 1997, John Fox and six other black Americans were
presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions
in World War Two.
This Sunday, almost 56 years after they died, the black soldiers
who defended Sommocolonia will at long last be honored where
they fell by their own nation, in a joint ceremony presided over
by the village mayor and U.S.diplomats. Otis Zachary and Solace
Wales will both be there.
ceremony on Sunday 16th July 2000 in Sommocolonia
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