From Phillips Academy, Andover in World War II, by Leonard F. James, pages 176–189
RODERICK S.G. HALL ’34
CAPTAIN, CE, AUS, OSS
Legion of Merit, Purple Heart
Died in Service, February 20, 1945
STEVE’S FIRST LETTER TO HIS MOTHER
(Written behind the German Lines in the Italian Alps and consigned to a Partisan for delivery after the war. Together they sealed it in a bottle and buried the bottle under five feet of snow.)
Hallowe’en Oct. 31, 1944
Andrich, Cadore Italy
Dear Mother and Family,
Your last letters, all written in July and August, arrived in a bunch—by parachute! The heavy cases of arms and explosives and supplies came floating down silently through the night; and among them was a package (with its own ‘chute) which carried all the news from home. There were birthday cards from you and Bruce, family letters from Betsy and the Lougees and Leadbeaters, a clipping of Wells Lewis, and lots else.
I was the only one of our team who got mail, so I read some of the paragraphs to the others to give them a little taste of home—they were pretty disappointed—all about Father’s big tomato in the garden, and the water shortage this summer, and the busted outboard of Bruce’s. We all got a big laugh out of the clipping which showed the chart on the wall “My Draft Status” and had the caption, “They were certainly breathing down my neck there for a while!” We were definitely in a situation where “they were breathing down our necks “, and could enjoy that one heartily. However, for security reasons, I had to burn all the mail, much as I hated to, keeping only the birthday cards, which I have carried with me ever since.
You see, we were some 250 miles behind the front in Italy and actually right up against the border of Germany itself—in the Italian Alps where, as you know, I’d always wanted to fight my tiny part of this war, anyway. The letters appeared out of the dark over a wide place in the bed of the Tagliamento River near a village called “Enemonzo”, about 10 miles east of Ampezzo and the same distance west of Tolmezzo. At Tolmezzo were 11,000 Nazi troops and mongoloids from Turkestan, picked up in the German retreat from the Caspian and now serving as mercenaries.
We used the river flats for over 12 “supply drops”, although our flaming signal fires were in full sight of Tolmezzo, on the nights when we got the signal over the regular commercial program from London to expect a plane-load. To get to the dropping zone we rode in a huge truck (captured from the Nazis) which roared down thru the winding gorges of the Tagliamento at terrific speed from Ovasta. We went so fast because it was a race to a certain road fork. We had to make it before the Germans did, if they should ever get it into their thick skulls to investigate what was going on. I believe they knew; but psychology was on our side; they imagined our partisan bands of Italian patriots so strong that any attack by them would be suicidal. Actually we had less than 100 men in our command; and the Nazis waited ’til he had the garrison in Tolmezzo built up to 14,000 men before he struck. But that happened much later.
At Ovasta, a medieval hamlet lodged on a shelf overlooking the River and ringed round by the gigantic spears and flakes of the Carnic Alps, we had our “Base” Headquarters. We had a powerful short wave set with which to communicate with Army HQ way to the south; and a room or two; and a tobacco supply composed of old “butts” and cornsilk.
I was at the Base very little, spending my time in long swings—by trail, or motorcycle, or bicycle, or climbing rope—deep into zones crawling with Germans but where unarmed groups of patriots waited for help. So my returns to “Base” were always occasions for mutual celebration; it was good to get back to a bed and hot food, after sleeping in haybarns or caves and eating mushrooms and cold cornmeal, with an occasional squirrel thrown in. The days went very fast then. At “Base” there was corn on the cob, and American radio programs, and “Smitty” (Major Lloyd C. Smith, State College, Pa.) had arranged a deal with a pre-war ice cream freezer in Ovara, so we had ice cream now and then—all we had to do was climb down 1500 feet to the valley floor and then climb up again.
But I’m getting ‘way ahead of things. The peaks are plated with ice now; there are drifts in the passes and snow powderings in the valleys. August, everything was green and warm—we took our showers in waterfalls, went roaring up and down the village streets singing Yankee songs to the delighted grins of the war-weary people who were fed to the ears with the grim and cruel Nazi soldiers.
You know how long I’d worked on this Alps thing—well, I finally sold it to GHQ (that’s what all the flying around Italy was about). We put together a team of five: Major Smith, who’d won the DSC getting 18 stranded nurses out of Nazi hands in Albania; 1st Lt. Joe Lukitsch—a paratrooper who came over on the boat with me; Sgt. Victor Malespino, interpreter, who worked for me when I was chief instructor in the Spy School in the mountains outside Algiers; 1st Cl. Seaman Stan Sbeig from Bridgeport—radioman.
Smitty was to organize and direct partisans in Carnia; and I was to do the same in Cadore, having also the mission of closing the Cortina road. Once inside German-occupied territory, we were entirely on our own, as autonomous as soldiers-of-fortune in a Chinese war or banana republic revolution. But I guess General Devers and General Alexander had faith in us because they okayed the deal, 100%, one afternoon on the shores of Lake Bolzeno, where I’d gone to explain the project.
Of course it wasn’t as easy as that; the project had to be drafted as carefully as a case before the Supreme Court; and the preparations were as detailed as an expedition to Everest: maps, sleeping bags, foreign money, climbing gear, radio cyphers, medicine, and just about a thousand damn things—all weighed and triple-checked.
Finally, the night of August 1st, we gathered under the wing of a big 4-motored Lancaster at Brindisi airport. We had on “Strip-tease” suits, against the cold at 10,000 feet, and looked like Eskimos. We sweated rivers—and froze later over Udine.
The ride was painful, for we were cramped in amongst the containers of our supplies, and the roar of the engines was overwhelming—also, naturally, the prospect of a parachute jump into enemy territory at night, or any other time, is none too comforting.
I realize this sounds like a story, but it’s about the way it happened (leaving out the gaudier details); and I know you’ve been wondering why you haven’t heard from me for the last three months. Naturally we couldn’t tell anyone what was up.
At Brindisi we did not know just where we’d drop. A couple of places I’d been counting on were ruled out in the last two days because of Nazi troop movements. We climbed up thru the small hole in the bottom of the plane and found we were bound for Mt. Pala in the foothills of the Alps of Carnia, bad news for me, as it was some 85 miles from the Cortina area. Smitty and I squabbled for the privilege of being “first out” on the jump, but he outranked me.
We nearly did not make it, as the pilot could not find the right pattern of ground fires in the right place. Jerry was, aside from shooting at us with flak, apparently lighting a few signals to decoy us. Finally the word came back over the inter-com that the right fires had been spotted, but in the wrong place. One of the crew opened the hatch, and after a dying run by the plane, Smitty, Vie, and Stan disappeared thru the hole—just like that. Joe Lukitsch and I swung our legs into the hole and looked down. With a full moon the tumbled hills far below looked eerie; the fires looked small and distant—they were, about 2500 feet. Suddenly the green light blazed and the bell rang on the wall of the ship, and I dropped thru, Joe right after me. The ‘chute opened with a crack, but I had a bad spin and the shroud lines were twisting rapidly—if they twist enough, the ‘chute collapses. I fought for about 1000 feet before the twists came out.
Then I looked around. With the night breezes Joe sailed past like a shot out of a cannon. Below, there was nothing but hill, woods and rocks. It looked like a trap. I was sure it was when I landed—between two wicked spikes of limestone, doing a couple of back somersaults down a gully into some saplings. There wasn’t a person around, just complete silence. I cut my way out of the ‘chute and got out my automatic. For twenty minutes there wasn’t a sound. Then I made for a low, bare hillock near by and in a little while the others came up. It was 2 A.M. The fires were phony all right. Smitty had landed near them and seen a man running away.
About 700 yards away a fire shone on the side of Mt. Pala, but we couldn’t find the path; which was lucky as the fire came from a house the Germans were burning, we found out later. They were too drunk to pay any attention to the drop. We hid in a deep swale until dawn, and then I went to a farmhouse to ask questions. By noon we had made contact with some local partisans and later were on our way back into the mountains. We felt that we had been granted a miracle. The whole operation was in full sight of Nazi observation towers in the plain below; and the lack of reception and the hideous rock pile we landed on should have made us all casualties and easy prisoners. Aside from cuts and bruises we were O.K. It took the Nazis a week to start chasing us.
On August 12th I started out alone for the “Cadore”, about 30 miles from Ovasta, crossing Lavardet Pass; made contact with the partisans around San Stefano, and started work. The Cadore was tough, because there were Nazi garrisons in all the towns, and the area was much more populated and desirable to Jerry than desolate Carnia. Cortina alone had 1000 picked troops to guard the 5000 wounded Nazis in the hotels and hospitals there.
The Air Corps would not “drop” to me in Cadore—mountains too high; altho I spent 18 days at a dropping zone on the Austrian border (the Val Visdende) watching the Army build its “Alpine Line”. Whatever you’ve heard about that in the papers is direct intelligence I gathered. Finally we rigged a system for backpacking arms and explosive across the ranges from Carnia. I traveled back and forth and round about all over the area, always in uniform, often 500 yards from Nazi garrisons, or walking past their front doors at night, and earned a pair of legs like cast iron.
So, by the end of September, I had been able to get an organization of 500 men on its feet, despatch reams of important intelligence to GHQ, blow out the standard gauge R.R. from Venice and the electric R.R. through Cortina to Austria, and eleven highway bridges, effectively blocking all routes through the Alps north of Venice. Mr. Nazi was proportionately furious, the more so when we attacked three garrisons, taking around 187 prisoners.
But by the end of September there was snow on the highest peaks, and the campaign in Italy had changed to a holding action, designed to keep as many Nazi troops there as possible, so they wouldn’t reinforce the other fronts. Our time-schedule was badly upset. We got the terrific news, too, that Jerry planned to turn over Carnia to the savages from Turkestan, who would massacre all the Italians and take the farms for themselves—thus giving future Germany an area deep into Italy, populated by a solid block of pro-Nazi Mongols.
Smitty worked himself green, getting in arms for the poor Italians and begging to have Tolmezzo bombed—but GHQ wouldn’t bomb, for some unknown reason. All things taken together, we felt we had to stay until the front had advanced considerably, so as to help the Army as much as possible in cutting the supply lines.
In spite of the shadow that hung over Carnia, everything was going very well in the upper Piave River valley in Cadore. At the end of September I heard about a large group of Italian patriots—all ex-Alpini soldiers—on the other side of Cortina, over near Selva-di-Cadore. They needed help. So I made up my pack and started out, contouring the peaks just at the line where the bare rock jumps from the steep scrub slopes. It took three days to make the 55 miles and involved 3,000 feet of climbing. But from August 12th ’til now (3 months, or a little less) I’d been living and working at 7000 feet and often going to 9000 feet on reconnaissance, so it wasn’t too tough. I lost some time skirting the Marmarole range and Mt. Antelao, as I had to slip through patrols of 500 Nazi Alpenjaeger who were out hunting partisans. And the last day was in a snowstorm and a foot of new snow over the flank of Mt. Pelmo.
This group was all I’d heard, being all ex-officers and non-coms of the Alpini troops who knew every trail and crag of all the Dolomites. Their HQ was only four hours by foot from Cortina, just over the range I had skied in 1937-38. I got a message back to “Base” requesting a drop. The plane came, two weeks later, in the middle of a Nazi drive on partisans around Cortina, so we did not get the drop, being unable to light signal fires. We climbed up in the rock of the precipices for five straight days and watched the Nazis hunting for us in the forests below. Each evening they fired cannon and machine guns up into the rock gullies—just in case; and we watched the tracers smack on the rock all around us. We couldn’t do anything, having no guns. But they never really saw us, and finally went away.
Then I got crushing news: the 14,000 troops at Tolmezzo had overrun Carnia from the south, while 3000 Nazis, brought in from Austria, attacked from the north. Smitty and the rest were caught between the two forces, and I haven’t heard a whisper about them since—over three weeks. I feel sure he must have got through and escaped toward Yugoslavia, that being one of our exit plans before we started.
But for three weeks now I’ve been the only Allied Officer in the whole Alps—and without a radio. Just waiting for some break and trying to keep up the partisans’ courage. Not that the time has been wasted. I managed to get contact with certain people in Bolzano and perfected a plan for blowing out one of the tunnels on the R.R. through the Brenner; sent the explosive off to them disguised as crates of jam last week!
Then, too, I managed to sign up a couple of electrical engineers and we worked out a scheme for crippling the entire telephone and telegraph net in the Alps here—important, because of the Alpine Line fortifications Jerry is working so feverishly on. And of course there’s been a wad of intelligence coming in: for example, by a stroke of pure luck, I got the map of the Nazi troop dispositions as planned for the defense of the Brenner—stuff like that; another case, the HQ of the Japanese secret service (Hotel Corona, Cortina). It has snowed every day for three weeks, and is still at it, so movement is out of the question, as Jerry can track you too easily in the snow. However, recently I made contact with an officer (Captain Joe Benucci) down in the Venetian plain below Belluno; so things are looking up. He has a radio.
At present I’m in the tiny hamlet of Andrich, part of the community of Vallada, three miles west of Cencenighe; whiling away the hours reading Ivanhoe and some 1939 copies of Collier’s someone dug up! The fine Italian family here with whom I’m staying will mail this after the war. The position is really good, as it’s plunk in the middle of the Alpine Line the Nazis are building. They’re laboring over some beautiful targets for us to blow up when and if we get a “drop”. But you don’t need to worry: we’re getting to be old hands at the art of running in under the Nazi’s nose and blowing the shoestrings out of his boots before he knows what’s happened. If he ever catches up with me, all he’ll find is another Yank who parachuted from a crashing plane—of whom there are many hiding away in the Alps—and waiting for the end of the war.
How I’ll get out, I don’t know, although I wish I could give you some assurance. The possibility of crossing the Swiss frontier is out of the picture now because of the snow (it came a whole month early this year). Carnia is solid Nazi, now, so a dash to Yugoslavia—150 miles—is none too good. So it looks like North or South. North, to fall back with the Nazis when they retreat from Italy and take up this line; South, to try to filter through and meet the Allies when they advance. Either possibility isn’t bad. But the best one is, of course, the end of the war before the Nazis move back here in force. That’s what I’m hoping for.
No matter what, it may be some time after the Armistice before I get out to wire you—having to hide and linger around awhile before showing myself. So that’s why I’m writing this—the family here will mail it with the Armistice. The mission (called Mercury Eagle) has already paid for itself and been a success. We got a lot more accomplished than anyone thought possible; luck has been with us all the way, it looks like. If Smitty is O.K., everything is all right; and I have high hopes for the future. Luck has really played a big part, with countless hairbreadth escapes from Mr. Hitler’s animals, and universal success in whatever we undertook. It’s only regretted that we did not get even more support from Rome, for opportunities were boundless in August and September.
It would be a lie for me to say that this had been an adventure or good time for me. True, at times there have been light moments, a few; and at other times the work has been long and exhausting. I’ve seen more gorgeous scenery than three men will in a lifetime: sunrises and sunsets among the peaks, moonlight glimmering on glaciers, storms swirling around tremendous pillars of rock, cataracts, forest glades, ancient villages.
But full enjoyment is not truly there when you are on eternal guard against guns appearing behind every rock and shadow. The “threat” never leaves you, asleep or awake; and I have not lain down yet to sleep without a cocked pistol at my right hand. In a land where you regularly have to hike and climb eleven miles to reach a point only three miles away by road, there’s usually more to occupy the mind than breathless vistas of beauty. You are usually “breathless” from the close acquaintance with the bare bone and sinews of that which makes up this magnificent scenery—as seen at a distance.
It has not been sport, but rather a deadly business—an unending struggle to plan each tiny detail for days ahead, when you really don’t know what’s going to happen in the next fifteen minutes. If you make the slightest error, someone dies; I found that out quickly. It seems as though life and death has been in my hands since this started, for as only representative of law and order wherever I’ve gone, I have to sit as judge at trials of criminals and spies; to determine the fate of prisoners taken; to issue orders for the general good that yet meant violence to someone along the line before they were consummated. It was the one feature of this job I did not foresee, and would have avoided with all my heart. I have saved many, many lives that would otherwise have been lost—Nazi prisoners, circumstantial cases, petty cases for the law of the partisans before I arrived was death for anything or anyone shady. But, for the rest, and for my mistakes—well, I guess I’ve forgotten how to smile. My hair is quite grey, now.
Militarily, I’ve thought of it as a game of chess, with the whole Alps as a board, whereon you try to outguess the enemy and move always into a square where he won’t come. The feeling of being hunted is something that can never leave you; it’s very tiring, and requires fierce self-control when you have so much else that requires the best sense and judgment you can exert. This village of Andrich happens to be a square where Mr. Nazi won’t think of looking for awhile.
If there has been any recompense for us, it has come, not from the scenery, but from the reactions of the people—persecuted, starved and enslaved by the Nazis. We’ve been able to bring them medicine; a few of the comforts of life (cigarettes, coffee, sugar); a little money; but mostly hope. There’s nothing anyone will ever be able to say or show that will make me think there’s anything good about a German. The atrocities are true; I’ve seen them; and they’re universal. Villages burned, children hung, men tortured, old people turned out in the snow, civilians shot for sport—I’ve seen those things with my own eyes. These hideous acts yield a crop of men whose fury knows no bounds—they make up the partisan bands I’ve helped organize; they’re the sword of God, if there ever has been one in history.
If any of you ever travel to these parts in the future, don’t be afraid to mention my name. It’s known from one end of the Alps to the other (a fame far out of proportion to what I’ve been able to do). You’ll receive hospitality undreamed of, assuming you’re in the little inns and with the real inhabitants. This job hasn’t been world-shaking and may never be recorded even in Army records. But I’ve told about it, so that you will know, even if it hasn’t been as much as many, many others have done in this war, at least I’ve done something.
Love to all,
STEVE’S SECOND LETTER
(Written behind the German Lines in the Italian Alps and entrusted to an Italian peasant woman, with directions to send it in his map-case to his family after the war. A repetition, in part, of the first letter.)
Dear Mother and Family,
I am sure you will get my other letter, which is now buried in a bottle under quite a bit of snow, but just in case something slips up, I am arranging to have this one sent to you also after the war.
This canvas sack was my map-case during the 3-1/2 months (so far) I have worked behind the German lines. In it are maps showing the main legs and arms of my itinerary, starting near Clausetto. Quite a bit of walking, all told!
The reason you haven’t heard from me for so long is because I finally sold my Alpine idea to GHQ—that’s what all the flying around Italy was about. I put together a team of five men and we dropped by parachute near Clausetto—Aug. 2nd. The five men were: Major Lloyd Smith, State College, Pa.; 1st Lt. Joe Lukitsch of Cleveland; Sgt. Victor Malaspino, New Jersey; 1st Class Seaman Stan Sbeig, of Stamford or Bridgeport; and I. “Smitty” (Major Smith) was to organize Partisan Bands in Carnia, and I was to do the same in Cadore—also blowing out the railroad and highway from Venice thru Cortina to Austria.
We had a short-wave transmitter and in the course of time got several parachute supply drops. In one of these I got all your letters written in July and August! They arrived in a package with its own parachute—I still have the birthday cards Mother and Bruce sent. Thanks very, very much.
Everything went much better than any of us had hoped. In my last report by radio to Rome I was able to say: “Have organized 6 battalions and 4 intelligence nets. Have blown 14 highway bridges and 3 railroad bridges. Have organized 1600 square miles of Alps, and distributed arms therein. Have led 8 attacks. Have sent over 300 intelligence reports.”
That tells the story in a nutshell. I had a lot of luck with intelligence, being able to send the complete map of planned German defenses of the Brenner; detailed information on all fortifications of the Alpine Line (anything you may have heard about that was solely my work); positions of all Nazi Headquarters and material dumps in the Alps; etc., etc.
You see, for the last five weeks I’ve been the only Allied officer in the entire Alps, because Smitty and the others were driven out of Carnia. I have to leave, myself, now, which is why I am writing this. I’ll have to go into hiding, probably until some time after the Armistice; so this will reach you before I can cable.
It’s been very hard and I’ve missed you all awfully. I’m terribly sorry I could not. let you know.
All my love,
STEVE’S THIRD LETTER
(Written while confined to his bed with frozen feet, and entrusted to the Costa Sisters at Vallada, Belluno Province, Italy, for delivery after liberation.)
January 1, 1945
There wasn’t much chance to wish you all the Season’s Greetings, but you know I was thinking about you, each and every one. Base Headquarters ‘way down in southern Italy advised me they had sent you a letter in my behalf. I hope it got to you in time to make Christmas free of doubt and worry. That’s one big, tough trouble with this game—the secrecy. But somebody has to do this work, unsung and wearing as it may be—just like your job at the Signal Corps, Mother; or Bruce’s job at GE. It’s all important. Somebody has to do it, stick at it.
My Christmas was mostly work, of the unpleasant, desperate kind. The night of December 23rd I got word in my shack Hq. up on the side of a mountain which looks like Bartlett Mountain, that the Air Corps had made a drop of supplies for us the day before 6 miles down a valley toward a big Todt camp. Next A.M., before dawn, we started off on skis to pick up the boodle. It was strictly a race between us and Mr. Nazi, as he knew all about the drop by then of course.
We went up over Fernazza Pass at about 6500 feet and swooped down the valley to the Drop Zone. I got the peasants to help and we got all the supplies out of the danger zone by noon, on sleds. No Nazis in sight—only a ski patrol of two men who blundered in as we were working. I scared them away by making faces and other threatening gestures. Maybe they figured I was German, in this paratroop uniform—anyway, no one unfriendly came around afterwards.
Once the crisis was passed I succumbed to a heavy fever and decided to rest in the village nearby, Nazi or no Nazi. So with the local Hitlerites digging the jive at a dancehall a mile and a half down the road, I spent a delightful Christmas Eve with an old friend, the Countess. Cookies, tea, apples—and at midnight candles on the tree. We talked about our respective families so far away. By morning the fever was gone and I left to follow the men.
The Countess has been my link with the Nazis. She’s Swiss or Argentinian, or something—anyway neutral; and a confidante of the Nazi Political Administrator for Belluno Province. This bird, Dr. Lauer, runs around in a Farnum automobile with a bodyguard of 30 Nazi toughs. Thru the Countess I’ve been working on him and have him to the point where he’s neutral! At least he and the Countess agreed over the phone to delay the official report of the “drop” until after Christmas; that’s what gave us time enough to salvage the supplies! I sent Lauer a message, that I’d guarantee his personal security any time he wanted to take a powder and escape the Gestapo. I understand he laughed and said right now I was the one to watch out.
Also on my hook is the local chief of the Gestapo! When the Nazis picked up a couple of Limeys and one of our head civilian officials in the Comitate of National Liberation, we persuaded this Gestapo man to rig up a fake prison escape for them. I realize “You can’t do business with Hitler,” but in this game you sometimes have to. This sounds like story-book stuff, but actually it’s rather prosaic. They’re all worried over their own skins, and it’s just a matter of picking on the ones who are most worried—and most useful. I’ve become something of a myth to them—“the American who has been here five months that no one can catch”— so that helps. They’re all so frightened they cling to anything that looks good.
Well, since my last letter (now reposing in a bottle under five feet of snow) there’s been a lot of hard work and ups-and-downs. If the war continues I’ll have buried bottles all over the Alps, for many of my maps and secret documents are so cached. I left Andrich November 17th and went up over the flank of Marmolada Peak again to rejoin the Brigade. An exhausting trip of 13 hours. Have to use this route to avoid the big Nazi garrison at Alleghe. A request had arrived asking me to blow out the Cortina railroad. I had just 40 lbs. of plastic, but figured I could get into the machinery of the electric sub station at Cortina. We made the plans. And a couple of nights later the Fascist Secret Service picked up one of my key men! Under threat of torture he turned yellow and led Nazi patrols to the hiding places of eleven of his men. Two nights after that he returned with twenty Nazis to the house where I was staying, but of course I had cleared out. They beat up my hosts, an elderly couple, and stole all the food, but did not burn the house down—their usual custom. This man Tell was then told to write down all he knew—it took him five days—so now the Nazis have the complete goods on me. This plays in my favor, as now I can play in the open without the bother of airtight secrecy. Tell found he could not do business with Hitler: they’re going to shoot him without trial. Worst feature of all this was that Tell also handed over to Jerry all the plastic, thus delaying the R.R. job.
We set up Brigade Hq. at Fontana Fredda—which means “Cold Fountain “—a cow barn in a hidden basin which used to be one of Civetta’s glaciers. The night of November 925th a plane came over at 3:30 A. M., but I had my suspicions and told the men not to light the signal fires. It was a tough decision to make. Next day we packed up and moved five miles to another cow shed, this one under the big glacier on Mt. Pelmo. Name was “Fiorentina”, which means “Little Flower Meadow”; but it was just another icicle shop to us. Very cold with 5 feet of snow. An hour after we moved three groups of Nazis appeared over the rim of the basin at Fontana Fredda; they were investigating the plane business. Seeing a dead camp, they came no nearer to investigate, which was lucky.
Then for three weeks we made the trip every night to Fontana Fredda to have a crew always ready in case of a drop. It was tough work for me without skis the first week: ten miles a night in 2 feet of loose snow. Finally Ettore, the Brigade Commander, found some skis. About December 15th we heard that the Nazis were going to send a big force into the area to try to pick us up. So we moved again, to the hut deep in the forest up on the side of Mt. Fernazza. We still manned the DZ every night. I had had a message from Rome December 12th which promised an immediate drop from fighter bombers. But by December 23rd I figured the deal had fallen through. The men were in bad shape from all the work; we had influenza, dysentery, frostbite, and bloody feet. So at 4 P.M. I made the decision that all must go home. I promised to try to get a radio and said maybe in a month we could start work again. They did not want to quit, but I knew that their weakened condition was too dangerous for the situation. They sang the “Mountain Aria” for me, most beautiful of all the Alpini songs and which always brings tears to my eyes. Then, they trailed out into the dusk. An hour later, as I was gloomily contemplating the fire alone, a courier stumbled in the door and said there had been a day drop by five fighter planes the day before. You know the rest.
We got mortars, funny papers, machine guns, soap, carbines, cigarettes, explosives, and a pile of assorted stuff. One was a very special secret item made by the Automatic Signal Corporation, which will be an enormous help to us, saving hours and hours of work and much danger! It was a great Christmas for everybody. We hid all the drop material and scattered to hide and wait and see what the Nazis would do about it. To date, they haven’t done anything!
I went off alone to duck into my den in Andrich, and made the trip up over Marmolada again with skis. This time I froze both feet literally as hard as boards. It was on a stretch of 1000 yards up a concave north slope where the sun does not hit. Snow was 5 feet deep and absolutely loose all the way to the bottom. Took me five and one-half hours to make that 1000 yards, even with skis. I’m getting a bit fed up with that Marmolada trip.
Have been in bed for a week with feet packed in grease. Feeling has returned and it looks like good luck again. In bed, I designed a newspaper which the CNL is going to print for the entire Alps area. Also, directed search parties for three bomber crews who bailed out over here the other day. We’ve found only two men of them, but I have hopes to get the others before the Nazis do. Expect to rejoin the Brigade for the attack on Cortina in a couple of days. I know where the Hq. for the Jap Secret Service is hiding there, and believe I will hand them a New Year’s present to improve friendly relations—a 50-lb. time bomb. The little brown brothers will no doubt be annoyed to see their dinner table sailing through the room one evening soon around 8 P.M. But, then, they always were ungrateful for free presents from us.
“That looks like the top of the news from here”, as Fulton Lewis says. Maybe in my next I can give you a more exciting installment—this past period has been mostly hard work and heartbreak. Oh yes—the plane which hovered over our DZ that early morning Nov. 5th—it was Fascist, sent out as a decoy! Probably loaded with bombs, which was not what we were waiting for, exactly. So the fateful decision was right, after all.
You’ve probably heard that my Captaincy came through—Dec. 7-Pearl Harbor Day. If you’re interested in ribbons and such stuff: I’ve picked up three “Action” stars on the Italian Campaign ribbon and will probably get the Purple Heart, deaf in my right ear from a shell blast and had my left wrist scratched up by fragments—like the feet, minor things anyone could get, but they seem to hand out medals for nothing these days.
If this war doesn’t end soon, I’m going to register for voting up here. I’ve grown and shaved off five moustaches out of sheer boredom. My Italian—incorporating all the bad grammar of my teachers and innumerable cuss words—is quite fluent. The French is more grammatical, but suffers from a lack of profanity. Well, family, I hope I beat this letter home. Friends are going to mail you my map-case which contains diary and other things.
All my best love and affection to all,
STEVE’S LAST LETTER TO HIS FATHER
(Left with the Costa Sisters at Vallada, Belluno Province, Italy, for delivery after liberation.)
1 Jan. 1945
If I ever get out of this mess, I will be the softest touch in the country for soul-saving organizations for 50 years. I am in what you might call a strategic gopherhole which gives off all the signs of being a baby volcano before long. Anyhow, I’ve got some back pay coming to me and when I do get through, we’ll try “that fishing trip “. So start saving up your annual leave.
This is a very temper-reducing spot, because at any hour of the night or day I could practice pin-wheel bulls on any number of Krauts and probably get away with it, but for strategic reasons I am forced to keep such nocturnal hijinks to a reasonable minimum. In short, I am the only Allied officer in the High Alps between Italy and Austria, trying to hold down the whole area for GHQ—and I’ve been here five months. I’ve learned Italian in the process and can now swear, sing hymns, drive mules, and comment on the local S.S. troops with fluent Latin gusto. I have also betimes organized and commanded five separate battalions of Partisans, with an individual life history of about four bridge jobs (demolitions) and one smart engagement. Then they kind of dissolve. The staying power of the Italian is not notable.
God knows why I ever deserted my old sour-faced sergeants and drunken shavetails for this rat-tailed life of attacking crack Nazi troops with squads of tattered Romeos at my rear, but I had the idea the effort might have a helpful effect on the war in this particular area. Which is where I got good and fooled, because no sooner had I succeeded in blowing up everything in sight and closing every route through the Alps from the Brenner to Yugoslavia than the damn front in Italy stopped moving, and it has been sitting on its broad bottom ever since. Jerry has been after me ever since and the humor of the situation sometimes gets a little thin these days.
I’ve been wounded twice and am writing this in bed where my feet are packed in an inch of grease. Froze ’em hard as rocks the other day going over an 8000-foot pass—Jerry in the distance, of course. Those squareheads must be nearsighted as owls, because I keep running across their patrols by accident and nothing happens. When they really start to pour on the heat to bag me in some town or other, naturally I ain’t thar. It’s a very boring life.
I got here by jumping out of a plane, after doing it in practice four times. You’d think that was one thing you wouldn’t have to practice up on, but you do. I was scared, but felt better when I found out that everyone else always is.
Anyhow, out of all the various battalions, brigades, squadrons, and armies which I’ve organized (and seen die), I’ve finally picked a bunch of ex-noncoms from the Alpine troops. They don’t come any better. We’re all on skis and go slishing over the snowfields and passes like the Finns. Jerry has enough respect for us so that the last time one of his spies tipped him off as to the whereabouts of one squad (4 men) he sent up two full companies to grab it. The Boche trailed over the mountains in long files for several days, and the boys tracked them with machine guns from vantage points—just for practice. Can’t do any shooting at the moment. All the Boche got for their efforts were cold toes.
I’d like to see Al Thompson when I get back. We can make a fortune together. With the experience I’m getting I can manage a revolution in any climate, with “irregulars” from Hottentots to Eskimos. The psychology of the unofficial is easy: cauldrons of hot spicy food; an eternal bait of high praise; and damn little free time to get in trouble with. Boy, are they happy that way! For engagements you pick the quiet ones, the little meek guys. I tried it with the big swaggering “heroes “—after the fireworks start and you look around to lay on some of those OCS platoon tactics, there’s only about 2% of ’em in sight, and that’s because they’ve got their feet caught in a stump or something. This is very discouraging. So next time you leave them home to wash the dishes, dropping some kind remark about “needing the strength in the reserve for this one.”
The Alpini are good men. We’re shaping up for something pretty big. As for the former deals, you’ve probably seen or heard all about ’em, although my identity was well camouflaged. The radio has carried the story several times.
But hell knows if we’ll ever get this mission through. Looks like a baby volcano for sure: to wit, Kesseiring will move back to the Alps here soon and you can’t do much when you are plunk in the middle of their damned battle line—that is, not for more than about 20 minutes, and my function, among other things, is to live, if possible. If there were two of us, it might be different. Oh, well, as I say now, I’ll cross that mountain chain when I get to it! Maybe I can get out, if the Teutonic population gets too numerous.
If not, I’ll be saying goodbye and thanks for giving me life. I’ve made mistakes and haven’t got very far as standards usually go, but no one can say I haven’t done a lot of things with that life, or enjoyed it.
So long, Ray,
On January 25, 1945, Captain Hall set off in a blinding snowstorm on his last mission, to blow up the hydroelectric plant at Cortina. With both feet badly frozen and swollen, he was picked up by the Fascist police, turned over to the German S. S. guards, tortured for two weeks, and killed on February 20, 1945.