November 11. It’s a holiday, but in Europe on this day in 1944 nobody celebrated, for sure not my friend Tulio Basso or me.
What happened that day and continued the next two is never far from my mind. Many times I think I’ve got to write it down. I turned 91 last month so I better stop putting it off.
That 11th of November 73 years ago was the toughest day of my life, the longest. And I wasn’t the one who was hit by mortar shrapnel that struck at the earlobe, penetrated clear across near where the jaw is hinged and lodged just short of the other earlobe.
Tulio and I were partisans, fighters with the Italian resistance. I was 18 and had defected from Mussolini’s puppet army.
Tulio and I grew up in the same village, Sesta Godano, in the northwest Italian region of Liguria. We joined a unit of partisans that helped the advancing Allies by blowing up bridges and tunnels important to Hitler’s defenses.
That November, Tulio and I and a few other partisans were crouched behind pine trees high up a hill, firing down at the enemy. I was shooting my machine gun when it overheated and stopped firing. I shouted to Tulio that I had to run a short ways to where I’d hidden a second gun.
Coming back, I heard another mortar explosion. A partisan said to me as he ran, “Your friend is dead.”
I had to check on Tulio. I crawled to where he lay, his face and shirt thick with blood.
He looked up and spoke. I could barely make it out: “Get out. They’re going to kill you.”
I could not go, not without him. To stand would be to risk being shot, so I stayed low and pulled Tulio by a leg. Once we were a safe distance from the Germans, I hauled him up onto my back.
He was a big guy, 6-foot-2. I carried him as long as I could, then I put him down and covered him with leaves.
I found three partisans and told them they had to help me get Tulio to a doctor. We carried him to a little town, Chiusola. The people there wanted to help us, but they could not. They knew that if the Germans found out, if spies told, they and their families could be killed. It happened so often.
Some women did feed us, and the town’s priest gave Tulio a sip of grappa and the last rites. The people asked us, please, to leave.
We decided we had to get Tulio to a hospital two regions away in Albareto, in the Apennines. It was November, there was snow, more than a foot. None of us, I’m sure, was ever so cold or tired.
We got Tulio to the hospital on Nov. 13.
He survived, though he’d lost more than four liters of blood. One reason was because he’d been so cold, it was like he was frozen.
He healed a while, then what did he do? He came back to our unit and resumed fighting to liberate his country from the Nazis and fascists.
He talked with a crooked mouth from then on.
Most people have not been to war. I am happy for that. But most people have no idea, really, what the veterans who fought for them suffered and sacrificed, what they did and what they saw, what they carry around with them all the rest of their lives.