US Soldiers visit Italian Village in World War II
Chaplain Henry Prescott, had landed with the 5th Company at Salerno, and he'd been with them at Anzio. Now the fighting was heavy, against the German positions at Monte Cassino; but 5th Company was camped thirty miles outside Naples, far from the fighting, or anything else, waiting for orders, and waiting and waiting, and waiting.
Chaplain Prescott wanted to be where men were suffering and dying, where God was most needed. Instead he was here, speaking firmly to certain men, about being drunk, swearing, consorting with prostitutes, and violations of the Code.
This morning the Southern Baptist Minister, sat at his desk, inside the Chaplain's Tent.
He prayed, with a heavy, South Carolina accent. "Oh Lord, I'm bored; right out of my gourd."
A soldier stood silhouetted in the tent's doorway.
The Chaplain told the man, "Enter."
The man stepped inside, out of the sunlight, and saluted. The Chaplain recognized his stubble bearded face. He returned the salute.
"What can I do for you, Corporal Natalino?"
Dark haired Nicholas Natalino said, "I'd like a pass sir."
"So would I soldier."
"You see sir. " The soldier spoke with a New York accent; pronouncing his Ts like the letter D, and his Ks like the letter G. "We're not far from the Village of Vianito, where my Grandparents were born sir. I've received a letter from my Aunt Marie. She says that some of my relatives are still living there. I'd like to get a pass, so I can go up and visit them. Sergeant Luzak says that I need an officer to accompany me."
Chaplain Prescott's eyes lit up.
"Thank you Lord." He grinned, "Why, I think that's a fine idea, Corporal Natalino! Wonderful idea! We'll be in a jeep and out of this camp in five minutes!"
Fifteen minutes later, Chaplain Prescott sat beside Corporal Natalino, who drove through the Italian countryside, in a bouncing jeep, under the bright blue sky, on a warm spring morning. They drove past piles of rubble, where plants were beginning to sprout, and birds sang guiltless, above the destruction.
The Chaplain asked, "You said you got a letter from your Aunt Marie?"
"Yes sir. She'd my grandfather's sister. She lives in Mid-town Manhattan."
"Mid-town Manhattan? Is she one of those ladies of fashion, who you see in the newspapers and magazines, wearing furs and jewelry?"
Natalino laughed. "No sir. I think she has an old fur coat, and her engagement ring is the only real jewelry she has. She might wear some plastic earrings and bracelets; but nobody can ever call my Aunt Marie, a lady of fashion."
"I'm sorry. I'm just a country boy, showing my naivete."
"My Aunt Marie lives in a two room apartment, in an old tenement building, on West 35th Street. She's lived there for more than 50 years, but once you step inside, it's as if she'd never left the old country.
"She lives directly across the street from the Hotel New Yorker."
"Isn't that's one of the top hotels in the world?"
"That's right, and she's just one block from Macy's."
"'World's largest store?'"
"Exactly. The Metropolitan Opera House is on Broadway between 40th and 41st Street, just five blocks north and two blocks east of my Aunt's place; and the Broadway theaters are just ten blocks north. A short one stop ride on the 8th Avenue Subway; but I can't imagine her spending time in any of those places, except Macy's"
"What a pity." The Chaplain said, "We never appreciate what we have right in front of us."
"Well, her life revolves around 9th Avenue. That's where everything costs less, and everybody speaks Italian."
"Doesn't she speak English?"
"Padre. My aunt's lived in Mid-town Manhattan for more than 50 years. Of course she's gonna speak English. She just doesn't speak it all that well.
"She'll say things like 'How'd you like some smeshed potatoes?'"
The Chaplain grinned. "'Smashed' potatoes?"
"That's right. Bam! Bam! Bam! 'Okay! De potatoe, he's a smeshed!'"
"Sounds like she trained the Mess Sergeant."
The Corporal and Chaplain drove on. Then the rubble was behind them. They drove past undamaged buildings, and undisturbed olive groves, along a narrow road, paved with large blocks.
"Corporal." The Chaplain said, "I think we're traveling along an ancient Roman Road."
"Yes sir. I think this might be part of the Appian Way itself. Julius Caesar himself, might have come this way, in his chariot."
"And the Apostle Paul might have come along this way on foot.
"Do you realize soldier, we now live in a time, when men name their sons Paul, and call their dogs Caesar?"
They came to a junction, with a sign pointing right, saying "Vianito". The Corporal turned off the historic highway, and went along a gravel road, up into the hills.
Then they were moving through the narrow, twisting, cobblestone streets of Vianito, passing whitewashed stucco buildings, with orange tile roofs. They saw a few people looking through doorways and windows, watching the American Soldiers with concern, but not fear.
The Chaplain asked, "How well do you speak Italian Corporal?"
"Well I can converse, in uneducated, immigrant Italian. It's not the 'King's Italian', and it's probably full of all kinds of grammatical errors. It's a regional dialect, but we're in the region where it's spoken."
"Then that should be more than enough, for a friendly visit."
Then they drove into a small Piazza, with a dry fountain, and a small Parish Church. A few tables were set under umbrellas, on the opposite side of the fountain from the Church. About a half dozen elderly men were seated at the tables, watching the soldiers.
Corporal Natalino halted the jeep, in front of the tables.
The Corporal called out, "Buon giorno!"
The men nodded respectfully.
The soldier spoke in Italian. "My name is Nicholas Natalino!"
The men looked startled.
"I am looking for my uncle. Is there anyone in this village, named Alfredo Natalino?"
The old men all turned, to look at one among themselves.
Corporal Natalino told the man, "You look like you could be any of my father's brothers."
The man stood up slowly. His features were deeply wrinkled.
Natalino told the Chaplain. "The man's 53. He looks like he's in his seventies."
The man stepped up to the jeep, and reached out his hand.
"I am Alfredo Natalino. Who is your father?"
"And is your mother Angela Frascani?"
"Yes. That was her maiden name."
The old man grinned, showing a few empty spaces in his teeth.
"Then welcome my American nephew."
They shook hands.
"Welcome to your Italian family."
The Corporal then waved his hand toward the officer, in the seat beside him.
"This is Captain Prescott. Chaplain of 5th Company."
"A Priest? A Priest in the village? After all these years!"
The men at the tables all stood up, and blessed themselves.
Within ten minutes, it seemed as if everyone in the village, had come into the Piazza. Prescott saw that they were mostly women, children, and old men.
Corporal Natalino stopped speaking Italian, and told his officer,
"There hasn't been a Priest in this village, since the War began, and everyone would like to make Confession."
"But I'm not a Catholic Priest. I'm a Baptist Minister."
"I don't know if anybody here would know what that means, but you are a man of God."
"You are correct Corporal; and I'm going to need your help as a translator."
Natalino repeated his words to the crowd.
There was a brief discussion.
Then Natalino told the Chaplain, "Before I translate anybody's confession, they want me to swear to never divulge anything I hear."
"Are you a man of honor Corporal Natalino?"
"I take this as seriously as they do sir."
"Then I will hear their confessions."
Then they were inside the ancient Church. Chaplain Prescott sat inside the confessional, with Corporal Natalino at his side.
Someone entered on the other side, and spoke through the screen.
"Bless me Father. I have sinned. It has been four years since my last confession."
The Corporal translated the words.
The Chaplain said, "You'll have to say the Catholic words for me Corporal."
Natalino repeated the standard Priestly response.
The person said, "I have lied. I have cheated..."
The first confession was over.
There were dozens of confessions that day, all very much the same, all patiently listened to by Reverend Prescott, and just as patiently translated by Corporal Natalino.
One woman said, "I have fallen at the fountain."
The Chaplain said, "That is no sin."
One man said, "I have been fighting in this war. I have done some horrible things, and I am haunted by them."
Many American soldiers had said the same thing to Prescott.
He said, "If you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, your sins are forgiven, and all the guilt you feel, is taken away. Before God you are sinless."
"Thank you Father."
More people came in. They confessed to lying, to cheating, stealing, gossiping with malice, and what anyone would expect to hear, anywhere in the world.
Four other people also said, "I have fallen at the fountain."
He told each, "That is no sin."
The Chaplain told Natalino, "But it's a problem I'll have to speak about to whoever runs things in this village."
The Confessions were completed in a little more than four hours. The Chaplain and the Corporal emerged from the Church, in the early afternoon. The aroma of spices and cooking pasta filled the air.
Natalino said, "The welcome has just begun."
Alfredo Natalino came up to both soldiers.
He said, "Come please. We're having a big feast for you Father, over at the ristaurante."
They walked down the Church steps, and around the empty fountain.
Prescott said, "There doesn't seem to be any problem with the paving."
The Corporal spoke to his uncle in Italian.
"Is there something wrong with the pavement here uncle Alfredo?"
"Yes. It seems like a number of people have kept falling at the fountain."
The old man stopped smiling.
"What have you done? You said you wouldn't repeat any of the sins you heard confessed. You've broken your word to God."
"But an accidental fall isn't a sin uncle."
"Oh! I see." His uncle laughed. "You don't understand what you heard.
"You see. We never say the word," He lowered his voice. "'adultery'. If that happens, we say that someone has 'Fallen at the fountain.'"
"It's all right. You didn't know, so you didn't break your word."
"But the Chaplain didn't know that either, and he told all of them that it wasn't a sin."
"Just don't tell him that, and whole day will go well."
Then there was a major banquet at the Ristaurante, beginning with an infinite antepasto.
When the antepasto was done, Captain Prescott said, "Thank you all. This was a wonderful meal! It's the best I've had since we left the States."
Then the second course was brought out. Then the third course, followed by the fourth and fifth course; all served with a carafe of Chianti.
Then the Chaplain said, "Thank you all for everything. I'll never forget this day. I'd love to stay longer, but we have to get back to camp by nightfall."
Then he and Natalino got into the jeep. Uncle Alfredo and the Mayor came over to them, and presented the Chaplain with another bottle of Chianti.
"Mayor." The officer said, "I'll speak to somebody when we get back to camp."
Natalino translated his words again.
"I'll see if they can send some engineers up here, to fix the pavement around the fountain; so your people won't keep falling down around it."
The Mayor chuckled.
"I don't see why you think it's funny Mayor. Your own wife keeps falling here all the time."
Chaplain Prescott asked, "Is there a problem Corporal?"
"Not as long as I don't translate that last sentence Padre."
The two American soldiers drove out of the village, and back along the ancient Roman Road.
The Chaplain said, "That food was wonderful. It's a pity that there isn't a single place in all South Carolina, where you can get lasagne."
"Wait 'til after the War. Then if you ever come to New York, you can look me up. There are hundreds of places where you can get lasagne that's just as good, or even better."
"I just might do that, Corporal Natalino. I'd like to meet your Aunt Marie too. I'd just love to have a heaping plateful of her smashed potatoes."
This story is based on an actual incident. My father was told about it by his cousin.