Veterans return to honor black soldiers killed in Italy

Recognition for the men sought in Sommocolonia

July 16, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SOMMOCOLONIA, Italy - Albert O. Burke, 80, silently strolled around the ruins of a medieval fortress in the village where dozens of black servicemen were killed Dec. 26, 1944, and broke down. "I felt I owed it to the fellows to come back," he sobbed as two other frail veterans held him up. "But I don't think I want to come back here anymore."

The place that stirred him so deeply was Sommocolonia, a poignant footnote in both World War II military history and the uncompleted story of America's black war veterans. Among Burke's comrades killed here was a lieutenant named John Fox, who died shortly after ordering his men to fire on his position because it was about to be overrun by advancing Austrian and German soldiers.

A hero of the black 92nd Infantry Division in a segregated U.S. military, Fox was awarded a Medal of Honor by Congress in 1997.

Burke, Otis Zachary, 83, and Richard O. Hogg, 80, toured Sommocolonia on Friday, their first visit to the battle zone in almost 56 years, seeking to close the most vivid chapter of their lives. And the anguish they relived was echoed among the Italian war survivors who welcomed their return.

Just as Burke and his comrades and relatives cannot shed their bitterness over the United States' long refusal to fully recognize the combat records of black servicemen, many Italian veterans cannot forgive their countrymen who fought against them more than 50 years ago.

Sommocolonia, a dying village of fewer than 50 inhabitants in Tuscany, wants to forge out of its ruins a peace memorial to honor Fox and all those who died. But the plan has resurrected old rancors.

"Peace is always won through liberation from oppression, and you cannot put together oppressors and liberators," said Moreno Salvatori, 67, who withdrew from the "Fortress of Peace" committee in protest. His father died in German captivity.

Perhaps the only thing that everyone agrees on is that Fox is a hero all sides must hurry to honor here before those few left who remember his heroism die.

It was that sense of urgency that led Solace Wales, an American writer who has commuted between Marin County, Calif., and Sommocolonia since 1972, to invite the servicemen back to Sommocolonia for a memorial ceremony today, even before the town had agreed on what kind of monument to build.

At least seven civilians died the day of the fight. German war records show that 43 members of the Austrian 4th Mountain Division died in the fighting. Historians say about 40 black American soldiers died here.

"We still have fellows who should be recognized now," said Burke.

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