Personal Histories: the Tale of Two Soldiers

by Virginia Ottolina & Matthew Short     

Below are the stories of two family men who fought on opposite sides in World War II. Were it not for the Diplomatic Academy’s ability to unite different cultures and nations, the two would never be mentioned together. Although they never knew each other, their life paths crossed when the Allied 340th Bomb Group bombed northern Italy. The lives of an Italian and an American soldier were taken in drastically different directions after the bombing. Their hardships and trials shaped the men that they became and the families they had raised.

 Capitano Armando Pietroni

Before the War

Armando Pietroni, my great grandfather, was a count and an architect from le Marche, Italy. He and his family accumulated and renovated a great deal of property around Italy throughout his lifetime. During World War I, he enlisted as a Second Lieutenant and was quickly promoted to Lieutenant commanding the field artillery. Afterwards, he moved with his wife and son to Buenos Aires for a few years where he received a commission to renovate the Opera House. It was in Argentina where his wife gave birth to a daughter in 1932.

During WWII

When World War II broke out, the family had moved back to Italy and Pietroni decided to enlist as a volunteer. In 1935, he became Captain and then Commander of the Royal Navy. After spending some years in Pola (today’s Croatia), he was promoted to senior ranking officer in the navy. In November 1940, he was transferred to Taranto, Italy. He became an officer in charge of the latest fortified train supporting the Coast Guard and anti-aircraft artillery. His orders were to take it to Sicily and guard the Sicilian coastline from Licata to Porto Empedocle (a stretch of land 50 km long). During the first war years, while the Allies remained mostly in North Africa, he kept his troops occupied by overseeing the construction of a monument to the Italian Royal Marines.

Virginia 5

Capitano Armando Pietroni, courtesy of Virginia Ottolina, family archive

This is where, on July 9 and 10, 1943, American, British and Canadian troops disembarked during the Operation Husky. My great grandfather always called this day the moment the enemy invaded Italy. The 50 km that he oversaw were taken in 48 hours by 7 divisions of allied infantry. Given Pietroni’s limited resources, the attack was impossible to deter. The War Diary of the Allied 340th Bombardment Group explains that the American Army Air Corps frightened and confused the enemy by dropping thousands of parachutes carrying small phonographs that automatically played sounds of shots, shouts, trucks and airplanes. With Licata surrounded, the Italians shot from the train until they ran out of ammunition. Captain Pietroni realized that further resistance was futile so he deployed all of his forces on the shore, as a sign of surrender to the enemy.

Courtesy of Virginia Ottolina, family archive

Courtesy of Virginia Ottolina, family archive

His personal tragedy began here on July 11, 1943. When the American marines arrived at the port of Licata, one of them went directly to Pietroni, recognized him as the Captain and took his golden stopwatch. Robbed, Pietroni retorted in English, “Behave as a soldier, not as a thief.” The American soldier responded by stabbing him in the chest with a knife. The stab wound was not fatal, but the Italian was severely injured. He was discharged to a prison camp in Bona, Algeria and later to Constantine where contracted petechial typhus within a year. His condition became so severe that the enemy was forced to send him back to Taranto on a Red Cross boat used to exchange prisoners. Meanwhile, his family was displaced to Riccione, Italy, due to heavy bombardments in Milan.

After the War

Pietroni’s family returned to Milan, but they had suffered as much as the city itself. The Vatican informed then that their beloved Armando is alive, but they knew nothing of his whereabouts. One morning in mid-May of 1945, a truck with soldiers from the Royal Division of Legnano arrived at their home. My grandmother told me that she understood what love was for the first time when she saw the look in her mother’s eyes: Her husband had unexpectedly returned five years after he was assigned to Taranto. His condition was terrible, so his wife decided to sell all the properties they had, one after the other, in order to pay for the best and most modern therapies. My grandmother still remembers the wooden boxes with dry ice and expensive penicillin coming by plane from the U.S. that prolonged his life for one more year. At his funeral in 1946, a platoon of artillery soldiers were deployed in his honor. They stood next to his wife Maria Ortensia, his son Guido, and his daughter Amelia Soledad, who is now my grandma.

Courtesy of Virginia Ottolina, family archive

Courtesy of Virginia Ottolina, family archive

 

Lieutenant Colonel Stewart W. Miner

Before the War

Stewart, my grandfather, grew up in upstate New York. He enlisted straight out of college after WWII broke out, and he had several months of flight school prior to entering combat. He met his future wife, Gertrude Shipman, while briefly stationed in Easton, Pennsylvania. Once Stewart graduated flight school, he was promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant and was deployed by boat to Corsica. From the sea, he wrote a short letter to his mother. He avoided speaking of harsh realities and spoke only of the thanksgiving meal that he and his compatriots had shared during the voyage.

During WWII

Second Lieutenant Miner flew in the 340th Bomb Group’s 486th Squadron based out of Corsica and later Rimini. The 340th is credited with greatest tonnage of bombs dropped during the war for a squadron of its size, although it was the last to enter the theater as support for the British 8th Army in Tunisia. Although 2nd Lieutenant Miner only arrived in December of 1944, by the end of the war he flew 52 combat missions for a total of 179 hours as a B-25 bomber pilot.

The 340th was primarily tasked with bridge-busting and infantry support missions. Such missions usually entailed breaking the recommended altitude barriers for the aircraft, which resulted in pressurization sickness. However, that also meant that the bombers were beyond the effective range of Italian anti-aircraft guns. By the time 2nd Lieutenant Miner arrived, the campaign had largely transitioned away from Sicily and most of his bombing runs were concentrated in Northern Italy and Southwestern Austria in the Brenner Pass.

Times at the base were characterized by migraine-like headaches from the drastic air pressure changes for both the pilots and airborne soldiers. Meanwhile, servicemen traded American canned goods for services from native women who sought to feed their starving families. In some cases, this meant employment in the world’s oldest profession, while in others, it meant washing laundry for the young men who had never learned to wash their own clothes.

Courtesy of Virginia Ottolina, family archive

Courtesy of Virginia Ottolina, family archive

From the 340th’s diaries one can surmise that the pilots were also prone to superstition and rumors. They would often fly with religious charms from the Italian island of Capri. Speculation of their next bombing runs would fluctuate from as near as France to as far as China, although the latter was logistically impossible. Before the War’s end, Stewart Miner was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant, and he received several awards for bravery and successful missions.

After the War

First Lieutenant Miner returned to the United States and reenlisted in the Army Air Corps Reserve. He later transferred to the Air Force where he eventually retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was also recruited into the CIA after he graduated from Syracuse University where he worked as a Russian specialist from 1951 to 1982. When he retired in 1982, he served as a Deputy to the Division Chief, Foreign Liaison Officer and the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act referent for the Division. However, most of his career at the CIA was characterized by his work as a Russian economic analyst.

Miner_final

Courtesy of Virginia Ottolina, family archive

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