To War and Back

John Trovato has rarely left Little Italy in his 91 years, with one major exception: It involved the Battle of the Bulge, Nazi infiltrators and the German surrender to Patton.


John Trovato is a familiar figure on the benches and in the bars and restaurants of Little Italy, where he likes to end his days with a dram of Grand Marnier and a cappuccino at Da Mimmo. He lives next door, just a half-block from the corner store on High Street where he was born 91 years ago yesterday.

He's spent most of his life here in the 200 block of High St., where about 100 years ago, his father, Orazio, an immigrant from Sicily, started the store where Apicella's deli is now. Trovato has hardly ever left Little Italy, or even his block. In fact, his first long period of time away from home came when he was drafted after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He spent the rest of World War II in the Army.

His apartment is filled with hundreds and hundreds of pictures from his war years. He loves to show them to anyone who will pause long enough to look. He took them with a 35 mm camera that his parents gave him when he was 18. He carried it during the war in Europe, safe in a thick leather case made by a shoemaker in Little Italy.

His memories unspool in a continuous reel like a movie that he has to run from start to finish without interruption lest he lose details in the mists of age. But his pictures bring them all back.

He shows one where he peers out of a thick-roofed dugout.

"They knew I was in that hole!" he says. "The shells were landing [only] feet from me for a long time."

The bombardment signaled the start of the Battle of the Bulge, 61 years ago tomorrow. More than a million Allied and German soldiers would clash in what became the biggest land battle the United States fought in World War II. Winston Churchill called it "a great American victory."

Trovato served in a field artillery outfit with the 99th Infantry Division. The all-draftee division took the brunt of the German thrust and held what became known as the northern shoulder of the Bulge to help slow and turn back the attack.

Trovato drove a jeep for a forward observer team that went to the frontlines, and beyond, to direct fire for 105 mm howitzers, a job with a life expectancy of slightly more than zero.

"I was always up forward, for a month at a time, because we had to give commands to the guns," he says. "We were closer to the enemy than anybody in the war."

He remembers one German bombardment on a snowy December day very well.

"They started hitting us with harassing fire, maybe from railroad guns and their big guns, constantly hitting us," he says. Then the shelling stopped and he took advantage of the lull to wash a pair of pants in his helmet. The snow had stopped and the sun was out.

"I hung them on the line," he says. But then the bombardment began again, and he ducked into his bunker. "When I came out I looked at the pants and they were cut in half. The shell had landed in a direct hit on the hole I was down in and knocked 2 feet off [the top]."

He shakes his head at the memory of his luck: "I would have been cut in half."

Today, he's a brisk, bright, but slight man in a light blue sweater, khakis and an Orioles cap. In his World War II pictures, he's lean and young and good-looking, often with a stubbly beard like GI Joe in a Bill Mauldin cartoon.

His unit had entered Belgium just before the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge.

"We went into the Ardennes forest, a big woods," he says. "That's where the Germans were. It started snowing! Very bad weather coming in. I was on guard every night, pulling guard every two hours, right there in the Ardennes forest. It snowed about 3 feet of snow. It was down to 15 degrees, more or less.

"While I was on guard, an officer came out of the woods," Trovato recalls. "He came up to me and I said, `What is the password?' He gave me the password. I let him through. He was a German dressed in our steel helmet and our overcoat."

He thinks the Germans took their gear from captured American infantrymen.

His disguised German soldier turned out to be one of the first infiltrators before the German attack.

He remembers German soldiers pouring out of the Siegfried line, their fortified Westwall that stretched from Holland to Switzerland.

Two weeks later the Germans would surround the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne. The commander, Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, became famous for his reply when the Germans demanded he surrender. "He said: `Nuts!'" Trovato recalls.

The 99th Division fighting on the northern shoulder helped take pressure off McAuliffe's "Battered Bastards of Bastogne."

The German advance forced Trovato's artillery outfit to bail out of one position. He scrambled into a truck full of reels of wire. A lieutenant hung on to the running board.

"I'm peeping out there," he says. "The shells were landing 10 feet from his backside, landing everywhere. And I'm watching it. We came through and none of us got killed. We were lucky. I counted the holes in the canvas, a dozen holes about a foot over my head. Shrapnel. No direct hit on the truck."

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