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15 Notes from Italy The war in Italy officially ended on May 2, 1945, but Gene Johnston’s war and the other Buffalo Soldiers’ war did not actually end on that day. Their war with the Germans was officially over, but there were other wars ahead: the Cold War, the prelude to Vietnam, and the continuing war against racism. The end of my­ father’s war was the beginning of a mystery for me. To unravel it, I boarded a plane on Sep­tem­ber 7, 2007, bound for Italy.The three stories of this book would converge there: the story of my own search for my father’s war, his memoir of the war, and my discovery of the stories of the black soldiers of the 92nd Division. I made this journey with close friends from California and France—Patricia Perez-­ Arce, Ed De Avila, and Jeffrey Kennedy. From Pisa, my friend Jeffrey and I drove to Ficulle, a small village in Umbria, which would serve as a home base, dropped the bags, and drove immediately to Rome to experience La Notte Bianca , TheWhite Night, a time when the city is lighted, all churches and museums open and free, and traffic halted. The city was magical; music, theater, and dance filled the streets. Rome was at its most luminous and beautiful. I had already been awake twenty-­ four hours when I arrived in Rome and would stay up forty-­ two hours straight before my head hit the pillow. La Notte Bianca was like being in a Fellini film or a carnival in Gabriel García Márquez’s novels. Hundreds of events filled the city. An enormous mechanical praying mantis, breathing smoke with music blaring, came down the street near the Capitoline. Hundreds of people followed it and acrobats on five-­ foot pogo stilts jumped alongside it. Beauty streamed through the city. In the Circus Maximus were hundreds of iridescent globes, an acre of light glowing, with each globe changing to many different pastel colors. During the Italian campaign, the soldiers often spent a few days on R and R in Rome. I do not know if they were as overwhelmed with wonder as I was on La Notte Bianca, but I do know they entered another world, a world away from the war. They experienced the contrast between the horrors and rigors of the front and the pleasures of good food, of female companionship (of various sorts), and of Rome’s impressive his­ tori­ cal monuments. Back in Umbria, we traveled to Orvieto, Siena, Assisi, Bolsena, and Castelluc- Notes from Italy / 141 cio di Norcia. Ancient Etruscan ruins, Roman temples, castles, churches; silver-­ tinged olive trees swaying; and a landscape transformed from spring to summer— Italy is a land of extremes. A panorama of wildflowers in the spring turns into a lunar landscape with virtually no vegetation in the fall. Buffaloes, sheep and the dogs herding them, and wild horses wander through the valley down from Castelluccio di Norcia. Soon we were on the train for Naples, and I was leaving my Italian world and entering my father’s Italian world. I wanted to see the three ports: Naples, Livorno (Leghorn), and La Spezia, all criti­ cal to the 92nd Division’s journey in Italy. The Naples that the members of the 370th saw as they disembarked amid sunken ships is still an active port with scores of ferries, boats, and cruise ships. Napoli is gritty, intense, lively, and reputedly under the domination of the Mafia. Some areas are a bit shabby, but the city is also grand and elegant, with buildings majestically arranged around large boulevards. I imagined the black soldiers making their way to the crater camp near Vesuvius. In March 1944, Vesuvius erupted.The soldiers were perched on the side of a volcano. Just across from Naples lay Capri, one of the most spectacularly beautiful places in the world. No wonder the emperors and the Germans wanted it for their own. Back in Umbria, we began the journey to follow in the footsteps of the 92nd Division. Overlooking the fertile valley, the house where we stayed, Casa del Fagiano , presented a panoramic view of a castle nearby and acres upon acres of grapes bursting in the sun, ready to be harvested.The landscape contrasted sharply with the memories of war: dramatic incongruities of the beauty of the setting and the ugliness of war and killing. In 1944 and 1945, the beauty gave way to bombed...


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