Fortress to peace
PEACE A SOMMOCOLONIA
Solace Wales speaks of the special significance of the word ‘peace’ for Sommocolonia.
PEACE in Sommocolonia
Why are they called: the park/monument to peace and the WWII museum to peace? Why is the entire site, the oval field of the medieval castle, called LA ROCCA ALLA PACE which can be translated either as ‘Rock to Peace’ or as ‘Fortress dedicated to Peace.’
PEACE is a word which everyone likes, but it might seem strange in a place which remembers a tragic battle. But it is the word that I heard often, spoken with emotion in the interviews I conducted over 25 years of recording memories of the war in Sommocolonia. Among the stories of lives turned upside down by losses, both material and moral, were moments of humanity rediscovered, as with the solidarity and friendship with African-American soldiers, who were also victims on the frontline.
The same word ‘peace’ appeared in the interviews I did with the African-American soldiers, veterans of the battle of December 26, 1944. ‘Peace’ indicating the value underlying the living together of nations and of individuals.
In the Sommocolonia battle, after the death of most of his compatriots, an African-American lieutenant, John Fox, sacrificed his life in an act of supreme heroism. He was in the La Rocca tower, surrounded by a hundred German soldiers, when he called his artillery battery in the valley below and made a singular request: he asked that they direct cannon fire onto his own location. Despite the fact that his heroic act killed many of the enemy (and caused his own death), Axis troops took the village.
Sommocolonians had to flee climbing over the dead in that freezing winter.
Researching the war history in the village, I interviewed 33 Italians and 31 American veterans (plus 4 members of the Fox family) for a total of more than 150 hours of recorded interviews.
In many of these interviews I was astounded at the wisdom acquired by the interviewees through their trying experience. When I asked Sommocolonians their advice for the young, many replied that they couldn’t give advice, only let the young know what had occurred in a way to make them reflect on the horrors of war and how certain situations can arise again in new form. A few added, “You must always think for yourself in the new circumstances.” Their wisdom was surprising to me but not their message of peace. More surprising was that nearly all the veterans expressed the same condemnation of war. The intrepid soldiers had become pacifists.
I think of Antonio Mrakic (nicknamed “lo Slavo”), a partisan who had described to me truly frightening episodes, situations which required both courage and audaciousness. The morning of December 26, 1944, seeing from Barga that a battle was raging in Sommocolonia, he climbed up the mule path in order to join in.
When I spoke of the idea of including everyone in the Sommocolonia monument: civilians, partisans, Americans and Austrians, he said to me “You know we really must also include the Germans.” (At that time I mistakenly thought that almost all the Axis troops who attacked Sommocolonia were Austrian, while Antonio knew that the majority of the attackers were German.) At this heartfelt request of his, I almost cried because I knew how much he had suffered at the hands of Germans. He was taken prisoner at the terrible siege of Monte Cassino. He escaped but was taken a second time by the Germans. When I asked him the moment during the war which he found most frightening, he said that during his second period as a prisoner of war, a German guard would arrive each evening and take at random one POW to execute. Hearing the footfall approach of the guard in the evening was the most terrifying.
I knew Antonio when he was already of advanced age and reflected with wisdom on the past. But Berto Biondi, a fellow comrade in arms in Pippo’s partisan troops of the 11o Zone, knew him well as a young man and always esteemed him. (Berto, the only partisan from Sommocolonia, recently read this article and said that he completely agreed with the following that Antonio said and also with what the other veterans cited later said.)
At the end of is interview, Antonio said that today he couldn’t stand people with prejudice against those of another color,
“be they red, yellow or black.
Love each other the few years that you live!
Let’s have it over with all wars—over with, now and forever! We’ve seen too much. I’ve seen companions hung with barbed wire. We’ve all seen too much, it’s time to end it!”
Karl Schroeder, my one German veteran interviewee, who was in the battle in the vicinity of Sommocolonia (he later became the historian for his unit) appeared to be of like mind. My contact with him was entirely through translated letters since I don’t speak German and he didn’t speak either English or Italian.
(Thanks to John & Birgit Urmson for translating the letters.)
On June 29th, 2011, he wrote me the following:
“I, of course, share your feelings and oppose conflicts and war. Today I no longer understand how we, egged on by our rulers, went at each other !!!
Through the post war years and many journeys to combat sites (including to Barga & Sommocolonia in 1991), I have met many former enemies, and have become friends with Americans, Britons, Canadians, French, Brazilians, Poles, Russians (or Serbs).”
Here we’ve remembered a partisan and a German who were in the Sommocolonia battle. In addition there’s a letter written by an African-American veteran who was in Sommocolonia after the battle and who fought between there and Lama in February 1945. I was supposed to read this letter at the ceremony opening La Rocca alla Pace on July 16, 2000 in the presence of Buffalo Soldiers who came for the occasion. Unfortunately, because of time constraints, I was not permitted to read the letter. Now I feel its contents must be made known.
The letter was written by Major General James Hamlet, one of two African Americans from the World War II era to achieve such high rank in the US Army. But in the beginning of 1945, he was a green second lieutenant and he felt that he had replaced Lt. Fox in Sommocolonia. This was not literally true because he was not a forward observer like Fox. Still, like Fox, he saw his first frontline action in the village. (He later had ample exposure to combat: two additional harrowing months in Italy on the Tyrrhenian coast, seventeen months in Korea and three years in Vietnam.)
When I interviewed the general, he told me:
“When I arrived in Sommocolonia and heard about Fox’s heroism, it scared me to death. I didn’t know if I’d be up to the height of the duty assigned me. Certainly it gives a parameter for all of one’s life. I learned many lessons in Italy which sustained me throughout my career. I don’t know many men who would have done what John did. To call in artillery fire is terrifying and he was adjusting it ever closer to himself. I’ve been in three wars and have seen enough battles to be able to judge the character of a man. John Fox was a man of enormous character and courage.”
In 1982, General Hamlet was proud to present to Arlene Fox her husband’s first American medal, the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest US military decoration.
I must interject here that Lt. Fox’s first official recognition was not in the United States but in Sommocolonia. In 1979, Professor Umberto Sereni, then a councilman, placed a marker honoring Lt. John Fox in the Sommocolonia Martiri della Resistenza (Martyrs of the Resistance) monument. It was certainly remarkable that an American became part of an Italian memorial. The American Consul General at Florence was present for the ceremony.
Not well enough to attend the 2000 celebration in Sommocolonia of the inauguration of La Rocca alla Pace, General Hamlet wrote a letter. The first two paragraphs are extracts from the personal note to me which I later obtained his permission to publish:
“I spent many, many days and nights in Sommocolonia. I still admire the Italian families that never left the battlefront. (Evidently there were a few in early 1945.) They shared our rations, the incoming artillery and our misery. We shared their vino and chickens which were a welcome addition to our fare. I pray that the years have served your neighbors in Sommocolonia well.
“I request that you explain my absence to Mrs. Arlene Fox and her talented daughter. Her late husband, Lieutenant John Fox, has been my hero for so many years. His shining example of courage under fire—and devotion to duty despite the odds—has sustained me in combat from Italy to South Vietnam. It was in Sommocolonia that I first learned to not take counsel of my fears. He helped a youngster to become a man. I never met Arlene’s husband, but I feel as if I know him so well.”
Following is what he intended to be read at the ceremony:
“In the words of a poet: ‘This is a God-given day… and it is good that we are here… for today we are involved in important things.
“Years ago, fate led brave men to do battle on this historic site. Each of these men, Italians, Austrians and Americans, sacrificed in equal measure. Now that we are older, wiser and deeply saddened, we honor the memory of those who became casualties on that fateful day in 1944.
Of equal importance, we honor the women and children of those men who fought so valiantly here. We award no medals of valor to the widows who had to rear their young without the loving support of their father. No Purple Heart is given to those children who are wounded by the loss of a father, and the absence of his goodnight kiss.
“Therefore, I say again: ‘It is good that we are here… for, on this day, we are united in a Peace that passes all understanding by those who have not suffered the horror—and aftermath of war. To that end, we honor the civilians and we honor the soldiers who have consecrated this hallowed ground by their service… and for us, the living, we dedicate our own lives to the preservation of Peace with Dignity in our time.”
In 2000 we titled the village’s tenth century fortress site ‘La Rocca alla Pace’ with the following inspiration:
With the new millennium, Sommocolonia, destroyed by bombing and the seat of a terrible battle, wishes to offer a monument in the spirit of reconciliation between peoples, one which remembers all those who died in the battle.
The La Rocca alla Pace park will encourage visitors to enjoy the beauty of the site with the Apennines to the east and the Apuan Alps to the west, a site made especially moving knowing it was the place where so many young soldiers lost their lives. The Second World War must now be a closed chapter in history. But it must never be forgotten, rather it needs to be re-membered in every particular with compassion and with the hope of teaching future generations to always pursue peace.
La Rocca alla Pace will be a beacon of light sending prayers for peace throughout the world.
In the committee meetings, I don’t remember any mention of other monuments that included those who were once been the enemy. It was simply that our group felt it was right and the moment for such a thing. After all, how can we grow beyond war if we do not embrace all sides?
Years later I did internet research and discovered that there were other such monuments. I will cite only two that struck me particularly.
— The Peace Light Memorial dedicated in 1938 by Franklin D Roosevelt on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg:.
It was extraordinary because both Union and Confederate veterans, who opposed one another in the Civil War, participated.
— The Cornerstone of Peace on Okinawa Island dedicated in 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa and the end of World War II: At the ceremony, the names engraved of all who died in that battle numbered 234,183.
Wherever they are located, the purposes of these monuments including everyone and dedicated to peace are the same:
1) To remember the soldiers and the civilians who lost their lives during a conflict.
2) To make known to following generations the history of the place and the horrors of war.
3) To use these places of peace to encourage meditation and reflection on war and peace.
That the number of dead at Gettysburg and Okinawa were far superior to the approximately 125 dead in Sommocolonia makes no difference in the message the monuments transmit.
With LA ROCCA ALLA PACE, little Sommocolonia sends forth a luminous and strong prayer for peace in the world.
For further information:
When Sommocolonia’s WWII museum to peace (Museo alla Pace) is complete, it can become part of the International Network of Museums for Peace (INMP). It will then not be an isolated phenomena but will be part of a global movement with worldwide connections.
For further information on INMP:
On the site there is already a mention of Sommocolonia’s future musuem– see the final entry of the final page on:
Edward Lollis is the author of Monumental Beauty: Peace Monuments and Museums Around the World (published by ‘Peace Partners International‘ May 2013). Not all the monuments in the book include those who were once the enemy, but all of them are dedicated to peace. For more information: