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Librarian uncovers Natick veteran’s true story
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NATICK — Cary Holmes, a reference librarian at Morse Institute Library, was reviewing records as part of a project to dedicate a memorial to the town’s fallen service members when he made a stunning discovery.
Crammed in the back of a dusty folder was a copy of a 2½-page, single-spaced typed letter from the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS — America’s first intelligence agency — to the widow of Army Sergeant Alfred DeFlumeri, who had died in World War II on March 26, 1944. It was mailed to 1 Harrison St. in Natick and dated Aug. 6, 1945.
The letter, which provides details of an ill-fated 1944 OSS operation behind enemy lines in Italy to destroy a German railroad tunnel, reads like a bestselling novel — with a tragic ending: All 15 uniformed US soldiers were executed, including DeFlumeri, a Natick native. The rediscovered letter came as a surprise to Natick and to Holmes, a retired teacher who has become the town’s unofficial military historian.
‘‘It was astonishing,’’ said Holmes, who found the letter a couple months ago.
The town had known that DeFlumeri had died in the war, and had even dedicated a bridge in his memory. ‘‘But why, the atrocity, that was unknown,’’ Holmes said.
Holmes showed the letter to Joe Keefe of the National Archives and Records Administration’s Waltham office. ‘‘I was shocked at the amount of detail in the letter,’’ Keefe said. ‘‘Coming from a spy agency, I’m surprised it made it past the censors. I’ve never seen anything like it.’’
The letter may have been an attempt on the part of the commanding officer to provide solace to the wife. ‘‘My guess is that he was probably very close to DeFlumeri and felt that he had to explain to her the details of his death,’’ Keefe said.
Ida C. DeFlumeri had been informed in a letter from the War Department that her husband had been captured and killed, but apparently had not known the details of his death until the letter from her husband’s commanding officer in the OSS arrived two months later.
‘‘It may be some consolation to you to know the facts concerning Alfred which until now we either did not know or could not disclose,’’ wrote Colonel Russell B. Livermore.
As the letter describes, DeFlumeri was in an operational group of the OSS designated as Company A, 2671st Special Reconnaissance Battalion. ‘‘In joining this unit he had volunteered for extra hazardous duty in carrying out such operations behind the German lines in uniform, as might be directed by the Army Headquarters,’’ said the letter.
In March 1944 the unit was based on the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea. American planes were trying to cut German lines of communication ahead of a spring offensive to liberate Rome and push beyond Florence.
One important line was a coastal railroad from Genoa through La Spezia to Livorno. Bombing runs had failed due to the protective presence of mountains close to the shore and the railroad’s many tunnels. ‘‘Our unit was requested by the Army Headquarters to land a small force of men by boat to demolish or block a tunnel by explosives,’’ Livermore’s letter explained.
A first attempt to destroy a tunnel near La Spezia failed when the raiding party left Corsica in Navy PT boats and ‘‘rowed ashore in rubber boats but due to the extremely dark night’’ were unable to locate the target in time to blow it up. The party returned to Corsica.
The next attempt was made on March 22, and this time the men got close to the target, but one of the PT boats ran into a German convoy ‘‘and a running battle ensued.’’
One American boat was damaged and the other remained to help. The damaged boat was repaired, but by that time it was almost daybreak and too late to pick up the men.
‘‘In the ensuing days every effort was made to pick up these men,’’ the letter said.
Enemy patrols kept PT boats from getting close to shore the next night for an attempted rescue. On March 24 a storm prevented another attempt. A plane flew over the area but the pilot spotted no sign of the men and saw that the tunnel had not been damaged. A final attempt one day later failed. It was later learned that the men had been captured by the Germans on March 24 and executed two days later.
The United States Graves Registration Service exhumed and identified the bodies, and buried them in the US Military Cemetery at Granaglione in Italy. Services were conducted by a Catholic chaplain. ‘‘The act of the German command in executing these men was a wanton disregard of the rules of warfare and constitutes a war crime,’’ the letter said. ‘‘Every effort has been made to apprehend the Germans responsible for this act.’’
According to news accounts, the two officers and 13 enlisted men were discovered in a common grave with their hands tied behind their backs. Joseph A. Libardi of West Stockbridge, Mass., and Liberty J. Tremonte of Westport, Conn., were reportedly among those executed.
German General Anton Dostler, acting on a 1942 order from Hitler to execute commandos without a trial, had ordered the execution despite resistance from officers within his own ranks. He was found guilty of war crimes and was shot by firing squad on Dec. 1, 1945.
DeFlumeri, whose name is spelled differently in various documents, was born in Natick in May 1911, attended school there, and enlisted in December 1942. His mother and father were from Italy; the raiding party was composed of Italian-Americans, presumably at least some of whom could speak fluent Italian. The old newspaper clipping stated that DeFlumeri left behind four children, three brothers, and a sister. ‘‘The records here in town are sketchy at best,’’ Holmes said.
Ida DeFlumeri’s whereabouts could not be determined, and other family members either could not be located or could not be reached for comment.
The Natick Veterans Council is planning to dedicate a square to DeFlumeri in the fall, council president Ed Jolley said, with a location to be determined.
Paul Carew, veterans services director for the town, said the atrocity was beyond anything he had encountered involving service members in his territory.
‘‘I’ve heard a lot of stories about atrocities involving veterans, but nothing to this extent,’’ he said. ‘‘These men were executed in uniform.’’
Bill Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mission Ginny II
On the cloudy and moonless night of March 22, 1944, two PT boats from the American OSS base on Corsica appproached the rocky Ligurian coast near Framura, a tiny town 6 miles north of Monterosso in Cinque Terre. Working silently, the boats' crews launched three rubber boats holding a commando team of 15 American soldiers in field uniform, their weapons and equipment, including 650 pounds of dynamite. As the team paddled toward shore, they struggled to ascertain their position relative to their objective: a small promontory south and east of Framura Station where two railroad tunnels on the critical Genoa-La Spezia line joined in a vaulted arcade with openings toward the sea. They knew their starting position from the radar carried on one of the PT boats, and they planned on using radio contact for further direction. In a disastrous turn of events, radio transmissions were unreliable that night and German torpedo boats appeared, forcing the American PT boats to leave. The final approach was visual on the darkest of nights with unknowable ocean currents.
The team consisted entirely of soldiers who had volunteered for the OSS, Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA. These well-trained soldiers had been chosen for covert operations on the Italian front because they were qualified, of Italian heritage, and they spoke Italian to some degree. At least one even spoke Genoese, the dialect of Genoa that would be quite similar to the dialect spoken around Framura. Several had been born in Italy and emigrated with their parents, most were born in America to immigrants from Italy. They were a cohesive unit and had tried this very mission before. On the previous lunar cycle in February, they had put ashore near here on the mission known as Ginny I, but were unable to find the target. After more aerial surveys were flown, they were confident of success this time.They reached land still not knowing their exact position, but it was soon clear they were not near the right promontory and there was no access to the rail tunnel. They had apparently drifted down the coast while paddling and put ashore near the locality named Sca. Scouts were sent to locate the rail line but travel on the very steep and rocky slopes made it impossible to locate before dawn. Since an attack on the tunnel could not take place, they had to hide and try the next night, according to the mission plan. They hid the yellow rubber boats and the explosives as best they could and began moving upslope. The team found an unused farm building on the edge of the locality of Carpeneggio, and settled in. On the morning of March 23, two team members, 1st Lt. Russo and Sgt. Mauro, went out to get food and information at the nearest farm. They made contact with an Italian farmer named Franco Lagaxo, who agreed to buy food for them, and later in the day guided them on reconnaissance which succeeded in locating access to the Genoa-La Spezia rail tunnel.
The mission plan called for the OSS team to make contact with the PT boats at prearranged radio contact times before setting off the explosives. On the evening of March 23rd however, the mission took another bad turn - the PT boats ran into trouble. One had a mechanical breakdown on the trip from Corsica and had to return to base. The second encountered enemy activity as it approached the coast, and was also forced to turn back. Lacking a coordinated means to escape after the attack, the team was forced into another day of hiding.
In the morning light of March 24, an Italian fisherman noticed the rubber boats pulled up along the shore, and mentioned them to authorities at nearby Bonassola. Soon a search of the area began, involving both Italian and German personnel. Eventually, as the search area widened, searchers encountered an Italian girl who had seen strangers with rifles on a road near her home. Quickly the area was sealed off, the farm building surrounded, and the American team forced to surrender. They were questioned briefly by Italian Fascist authorities in Bonassola, then turned over to the German military, and transferred to the German headquarters of the 135th Fortress Brigade in La Spezia. There interrogation began in earnest. Details of the interrogation methods are lacking, but eventually at least one of the soldiers divulged the details of the mission. Ominously, the information that it was a commando raid was relayed up the German hierarchy.
On the next morning, March 25, a cable arrived at German headquarters in La Spezia, signed by General Anton Dostler, head of the 75th German Army Corps. The Americans were to be executed immediately. The order was the implementation of an edict issued by Hitler in 1942 called the Fuhrerbefehl Commando Order which specified immediate death without trial for anyone engaging in sabotage or other action behind German lines. To execute uniformed prisoners of war was a direct violation of the Geneva Convention and the German officer corps knew it. However, the entire higher command of the German Army had sworn a loyalty oath to Hitler. Colonel Almers, commander of the 135th, as well as the interrogating officers, requested a stay of execution, but it was denied. During the evening of the 25th, an officer, Koerbitz, from the 135th and two from the German navy, Klaps and Sessler (who, incredibly, had met one of the Americans before the war), sought in writing and by phone to have the order reversed, but were ignored. Alexander zu Dohna-Schlobitten, an aide to Gerneral Dostler, refused to sign the execution order, and was later dismissed from the Wehrmacht for insubordination. However, in the end, the commanding officer General Dostler refused to reconsider, and ordered the prisoners executed the next morning.
On the morning of March 26, 1944, the 15 American soldiers -still in uniform - were brought to Punta Bianca, above the sea on the rocky tip of Ameglia's peninsula. Eleven were executed by being struck on the head with great force, two were shot in the head at close range, and two had no known wounds*. The bodies were taken to the La Ferrara area of Bocca di Magra and buried in a shallow, hidden mass grave. The circumstances make clear that the German command knew this was a war crime, and sought to hide it. They chose Punta Bianca because it was remote, with no houses nearby, and under military control. There was no firing squad, both to reduce the number of witnesses and the noise. They did not inform the De Lutti cannon batteries close by. They chose to bury the soldiers in an area of Bocca di Magra with no houses at the time, and camouflaged the grave site. Two days later a German communique was issued falsely reporting that the commandos had been annihilated in combat. Four days later, General Kesselring, Commander in Chief of German forces in Italy, ordered all written records of the affair destroyed.
In the days after Liberation, the investigation into the disappearence of the OSS commando team was given priority. Notice was given to American forces that General Dostler and Colonel Almers were wanted, and should be taken alive if possible. Several investigators were assigned and began interviewing at Framura. Information was gathered from local Italians and then German Army personnel. Gradually the story was pieced together and the grave located. Dostler was subsequently captured and brought to trial before an American Military Commission in Rome on October 8, 1945. His defense was that he had simply obeyed Hitler's order, and if he had not done so, he would have been brought before a German court martial. The defense of 'Superior Orders' was rejected and the Commission unanimously found General Dostler guilty and he was shot by a firing squad near Naples on December 1, 1945. Anton Dostler was the first German General brought to trial after the war, and the first executed. This case became a precedent for the Nuremberg war crime trials of German generals, officials and Nazi leaders beginning in November, 1945. The precedent thus contributed to the codification of Principle IV of the Nuremberg Principles, which rejects 'Superior Orders', and a similar principle found in sections of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Men Who Loved Two Countries
A traveler or ex-pat is easily drawn into reflection about what love of country means. It's simple enough when we're seven years old, and the concept is absolute and the flag is its visualization. Later, patriotism becomes incorporated into our morality and our egos. We enter a nuanced world where we have the luxury of liking this aspect of our host country and not liking that aspect of our homeland, defending this idiosyncracy of our people, and knocking that characteristic of another people. But this story is of men who lived in a period when that luxury dropped away, and these fifteen ordinary people faced the necessity of deciding what they believed, what was worth fighting for. These Italian-Americans decided to defend "the meaningfulness of their life itself": they did their duty and fought for two nations, for two peoples. This is what Liberation Day honors and remembers whether you are American or Italian or both. Honored because they had the courage to face that decision. Remembered so that future generations might summon the courage to similarly face their own decisions. The fifteen men of the Ginny II mission were:
1st Lt. Vincent J. Russo, Montclair, NJ Sgt Alfred L. De Flumeri, Natick, MA
T/5 Liberty J. Tremonte, Westport, CT T/5 Joseph M. Farrell, Southport, CT
T/5 Salvatore DiSclafani, Brooklyn, NY T/5 Angelo Sirico, Brooklyn, NY
T/5 Thomas N. Savino, Brooklyn, NY T/5 John J. Leone, Poughkeepsie, NY
T/5 Joseph Noia, NY, NY 1st. Lt. Paul J. Traficante, NY, NY
Sgt. Dominick Mauro, NY, NY T/5 Rosario Squatrito, Staten Island, NY
T/5 Joseph A. Libardi, Stockbridge, MA T/Sgt. Livio Vieceli, Manor, PA
T/5 Santoro Calcara, Detroit, MI