Once Upon a Time in Liberated Rome
When flowers showered on freedom's army
With President Bush in Rome for the 60th anniversary of its liberation
from Nazi occupaton, the Eternal City was literally the Talk of the Town
- a weekly feature of the world-famous New Yorker magazine. The
writer, John Seabrook, found undying gratitude among Romans toward the
America of old, but not a kind word for Bush's "liberators" of America
today. Seabrook drew on Robert Katz's The Battle for Rome for
his sketch of the 1944 liberation, but here for the first time, from those
same pages, is an extensive excerpt from the book. recounting of the perilous
changeover from occupied to liberated Rome.1
burn? Would the Colosseum fall - as in the ancient prophecy "When falls
the Colosseum, Rome shall fall / And when Rome falls - the world"? Few
people believed that Hitler would pardon the capital of the traitor-nation
he had vowed to punish - not while his own capital was burning and falling,
bombarded almost nightly by enemy air power.
The Romans, who had come to feel the Führer's wrath, believed
what they saw and heard, the window-rattling thunder coming out of perfect
skies, the distant fires already encircling Rome. "The Germans would resist
to the extreme," went the rumor cited by Elsa Morante, "and anyway they
would first blow up all those famous places they had mined, and the Pope
was getting ready to flee along with the Vatican's fleet of armored planes
to someplace unknown."
The Pope in fact was said to have told Polizeiführer Wolff
in their secret audience that he would never leave Rome voluntarily, adding,
"My place is here, and here I will struggle on to the end for the Christian
commandments." But down to the last moment Pius XII and the vast information-gathering
apparatus of the Vatican would have no inkling of whether the Germans
would defend against the Allied advance on Rome. The truth was that no
one would know with any certainty, not the Allies, less so the Resistance,
and not even the Germans. In the end, only Mussolini would express his
desire to see Rome flattened into rubble like the abbey at Monte Cassino,
and only the Pope would lift his voice in a warning of damnation, deeming
that "whosoever raises his hand against Rome will be guilty of matricide
before the civilized world and the eternal judgment of God." Others, belligerents
or allies, would agree on a more practical approach: Rome must be saved,
unless it must be destroyed.
American General Mark Clark thought less about saving Rome
than getting there. After penetrating the Caesar Line at Velletri, he
turned the full brunt of the Fifth Army on Valmontone and Highway 6. It
was too late to attempt the cutoff of the German Tenth Army but not to
order his men "to destroy, discourage, disrupt, disorganize, and any other
ds you can think of, any enemy forces" as part of the new mission to roll
through Valmontone and take a left on Highway 6, while killing as many
Germans as possible on the way into Rome. Finally conceding Clark his
due, Alexander moved the Eighth Army out of his way. The British would
pass east of the city. Rome, unshared, would be Clark's at last. "The
agreement gave me a good deal of satisfaction," Clark said. "Now all we
had to do was go out and get Rome."
Like everyone else, Clark was unaware of whether the Germans
would withdraw without a fight. "Do not know if the Krauts are going to
defend," he said in a telegram to his men as they began the final approach.
"It is urgently desired that private and public property in Rome not be
damaged. Firing into Rome depends upon Krauts. If opposed, Battalion Commanders
and higher Commanders have power to eliminate same by fire and movement."
To his endless consternation, Clark would still have to
dodge others trying to sneak into the line of the Americans entering Rome.
Even a British contingent, in spite of the orders to steer clear, would
make a breakaway try, and the French, the Poles, and a handful of Yugoslavs
would, too. But the nature of the race had changed. For the Fifth Army
it had become a question of which American unit would cross the finish
line first, the VI Corps coming over the Alban Hills or the II Corps up
Highway 6 - a sporty-sounding endeavor but deadly serious in the event.
For Clark, however, now it was above all a race against the clock. D-Day
for Overlord was imminent, but he was unaware of the actual date, certain
only that it could be counted in hours and that he was alone among his
top men in knowing how close the outcome would be. The Germans were falling
back, but a tough, rearguard resistance to delay the Allied advance was
succeeding. "Pray hard tonight," Clark told his Chief of Staff on the
eve of the final push.
The German rearguard action to impede the Fifth Army's
passage through the Alban Hills was itself under attack by the Partisans
in Paolo's command. Paolo and Elena were operating according to a plan
that was to culminate in the much-discussed insurrection. It was, to be
sure, now or never. At Palestrina, the Fifth Army was in their backyard,
the shells shrieking over their heads. The Partisans' objective was to
descend from the hills with the Fifth Army, escorting the Americans into
Rome. At the same time, they were to distribute arms to civilians along
the way, organizing a rolling uprising. Although such an entry was far
from Mark Clark's mind, the Military Council had in fact reached this
agreement with the Allied Command, the latter committed to supplying the
weapons. Radio London was to signal the moment to swing into action by
broadcasting the phrase, "The snow has fallen on the mountain."
the next day, June 3, Kesselring received orders from Hitler on what to
do with Rome, though what the Führer ordered would never be clear. The
man who had almost always insisted on a fight to the death and had already
buried whole cities is often credited with saving Rome. But Kesselring,
a city-slayer himself, though on a lesser scale, would need the credit
of having saved Rome more than his irredeemable leader would and, when
it was safe to do so, would arrogate it all to himself. "I refused to
budge from my determination to keep the battle out of Rome," he would
later write, letting his readers imagine who was trying to budge him.
A more plausible scenario than those of a sentimental Führer or a paladin
Kesselring is that Hitler left his commander on the scene the freedom
to decide Rome's fate in the same manner as proclaimed by the Allies -
according to military necessity.
Kesselring's exit strategy supports this pragmatic approach.
The moment he decided to pull out was the same moment that the guessing
game of whether he would defend or not intensified. All day of the 3rd,
while many Fascists were burning documents, gathering their nest eggs,
and slipping out of town, Kesselring continued to move men and materiel
to the front. It was to look like occupation business as usual, and pleasure
too: that evening General Mälzer, at Kesselring's beckoning, led a showy
entourage to the opera for a performance by the world-renowned tenor (and
Nazi-fraternizing) Beniamino Gigli in Un Ballo in Maschera.
Meanwhile, at 10:30 p.m., Weizsäcker, playing his part,
met in the Vatican with Monsignori Montini and Tardini. The two prelates,
an hour or so earlier, had been informed that the German withdrawal was
not imminent. Now, the ambassador told them that he had just conferred
with Kesselring, whose dearest wish was to save Rome and with that in
mind had formulated a proposal. All that was lacking was an assist from
the Vatican to obtain the consent of the Allies. The historic center of
Rome, mapped out to include its greatest treasures, would, according to
the proposal, be recognized as an open city by both belligerents. The
Vatican officials immediately saw the offer as a ploy. It appeared aimed
at creating a corridor of safe passage for a German retreat, leaving the
rest of Rome a battle zone. In a remarkable airing of a long-standing
grievance, the Pope's men all but accused the Germans of deceit - occupying,
not respecting, the Open City to supply the front. Nine months of violations
had continued right up to that same day, they noted, having observed artillery
moving through the centro storico in the predawn hours. They doubted that
the Allies would agree not to set foot where the Germans had gone before
them. Nevertheless they would notify them of Kesselring's proposal and
see what, if any, counteroffer it might bring.
Weizsäcker, unruffled by what amounted to a papal scolding,
stuck to the script, saying that there was no urgency. Kesselring was
calm, unhurried. It was nearing midnight when the German ambassador left
the Vatican. At that hour, as Monsignor Giovannetti, the junior man at
the meeting, noted in his account, just beyond Saint Peter's Square where
it gives onto the Via della Conciliazione, German Tiger tanks rumbled
on the pavement, in yet another violation of the Open City. But for the
first time in all those months of traffic to the front, there was a difference:
they were going the other way.
Elefante! Italian for the code word "Elephant"
- signifying the Allied entry into Rome - had been radioed from London
on the 2nd, but the liberators were yet to be seen.
From the first hour of Sunday, June 4, to daybreak, Carlo
Trabucco, unable to sleep because of the noise and his excitement, watched
thousands of German vehicles converge under a brilliant full moon, lining
up at the Ponte Milvio to cross the Tiber. They rolled onto the Via Cassia
and the Flaminia, the consular roads that had carried the Romans of olden
times to triumphs in the land where these soldiers yearned to return even
"The Huns are retreating!" Swiss journalist de Wyss recorded
with unjournalistic elation. "The Huns are leaving the city!" She had
heard an Allied Radio report that the German lines in the Alban Hills
had been breached and that the road to Rome was open. "I ran upstairs
to the terrace, from which, with binoculars, I had an excellent view.
There is no doubt. They are retreating! My heart beats. Finally they go
away! They are retreating!"
In the Vatican, Monsignor Giovannetti kept an eye trained
on what was unfolding outside.
The soldiers were retreating orderly [he would later
recall], but they looked spent and humiliated. They had requisitioned
anything with wheels, private cars, horse-drawn taxis, even oxcarts
with the oxen. It was an interminable procession. Some were marching
with huge, overstuffed backpacks, carrying their weapons in their hands.
The people stood by and watched them, saying nothing. A few boys offered
them something to drink. Soldiers who for nine months had fought with
valor against a superior enemy … passing by, showing all the signs of
a terrible battle. How many of them still believe in the promise of
Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich?18
Elsa Morante would write of an endless line of trucks going
through the Piazza Venezia up the Corso:
They were packed, brimming with German soldiers, blackened
with soot and stained with blood. The people stared at them, saying
nothing. They looked at no one.
De Wyss, daring for the first time to take out her camera,
was taking pictures:
Finally I saw the beaten German army retreating. There
were lorries and wagons so overloaded with soldiers that they all hung
around in bunches; carts with soldiers, also soldiers on horseback,
peasant vehicles crammed with dead-tired men. Once soldiers passed riding
oxen, and finally came endless rows of those going on foot. Their faces
gray with fatigue, eyes popping out, mouths wide open, they limped,
barefoot, dragging their rifles after them. I remembered the same army
entering France - contemptuous, almighty, trampling over the weaker.
I remembered being thrown into a ditch by them. Now I was witnessing
their defeat. My jaws clenched.
Watching in the centro storico, American nun Mother
Mary St. Luke, unlike Monsignor Giovanetti, saw disarray, noting that
"the defeated Huns were escaping in disorder." She wrote:
The Germans went on, wild-eyed, unshaven, unkempt, on
foot, in stolen cars, in horse-drawn vehicles, even in carts belonging
to the street cleaning department. There was no attempt at military
formation. Some of them dragged small ambulances with wounded in them.
They went, some with revolvers in their hands, some with rifles cocked.
… Whereas last September they came with machine guns trained on the
Romans, it was a different matter now. They were frightened. They had
a clear idea of the strength of the underground movement, the power
of the armed patriots and their determination to take action when and
On this day of freedom's battle won, Paolo and Elena had
shed their noms de guerre like skins left in the sun, reemerging as Carla
Capponi and Rosario "Sasà" Bentivegna, though forever changed. A reassignment
to monitor the German retreat had brought them back to San Lorenzo to
stand in the rubble where the bombs had fallen from the first bombardment
of Rome one summer ago. Now the couple wore the distinguishing armband
of the Roman partigiani, the green, white, and red of the Italian flag,
with the full name of the CLN spelled out around it. They were among the
many Partisans, all of them armed, in the front ranks of the people lining
the way of the German withdrawal. There would be no insurrection, but
in the past twenty-four hours, the Partisans had been given a new role
and their orders were clear.
In spite of internal dissent and a sense of frustration,
the military arm of the Resistance at that moment was the most powerful,
disciplined, and battle-ready force in Rome - more so than even the spiritless
Germans in retreat. In accepting the responsibility of guarantors of a
peaceful withdrawal, the Partisans would in fact take de facto possession
of the city, stepping into the hiatus between the German departure and
the arrival of the Allies. The situation so dreaded by the political right
and most of all by the Pope - Rome in the hands of the "irresponsible
elements" - was about to occur, though it would begin and end that afternoon,
a monumental fear reduced to a pinprick of pleasure not pain.
In terms of the "responsible" parties, a power vacuum already
existed and had since the start of that day. Commandant Mälzer was still
in Rome that morning, no longer "king" but immobilized, last seen by one
of Tompkins's agents "stinking drunk, cackling in lousy French and in
a state of funk." Colonel Dollmann, as was his style, took a melancholy
stroll around the city to bid farewell to his favorite Berninis and Bramantes,
and, on Kesselring's orders, departed for Florence. Gestapo chief Kappler
was still burning documents in the Via Tasso early that morning, but Priebke,
who had already sent off his wife and their two Roman-born children to
his next destination, SS headquarters in Verona, now set out alone in
his two-seater Fiat. His first stop was a last rendezvous with the Fascist
flame of the silver screen, Laura Nucci. Much later, as an old man awaiting
trial in a Roman prison, he would remember that sweet-sorrow goodbye:
I was feeling very sad that day. We had come to Rome
as allies and were leaving in defeat, the American troops at our heels.
In the early hours of that morning, I was in my "Topolino," heading
for Via Ruggero Fauro, a quiet little street in the Parioli district
of Rome. I wanted to say farewell to Laura, to see her for the last
time. While I was driving, I thought of all the times I had been in
that street, always in the evening and always in civilian clothes, with
my trusty Mauser hidden in one boot. Now, she would see me in uniform,
armed to the teeth. …
Our last goodbyes were very brief. We had to leave Rome
in a rush. I went down the stairs without looking back. But Laura ran
after me all the way to the car, crying, "Wait, wait for me, I'm coming
with you…." She was practically begging. I got behind the wheel, turned
away from her and took off, catching up with my companions.
At about the same time, the Koch Gang fled in a column
of cars headed for Milan and further infamy, while Questore Caruso, he
too in the company of a convoy of henchmen, took off in the same direction.
Speeding away in a powerful Alfa Romeo and packing a small fortune that
included a rather mysterious collection of women's jewelry, he saw his
getaway end just outside of Rome. He was caught in an Allied strafing
near Lake Bracciano, veered off the road, and crashed into a tree. The
bumbling police chief, seriously injured, was rescued and rushed to a
hospital still in German-held territory, but this last bit of luck would
run out a few days later when local Partisans would hand him over to the
Sometime before noon that Sunday, Kappler, passing under
the life-sized portrait of the Führer in the lobby for the last time,
finally left the Via Tasso. Alone and abandoned, the surviving prisoners
remained locked in their cells, unfed and unaware of their reprieve. Their
numbers had been sharply reduced since the general retreat of the occupiers
had begun the previous night. Fourteen of their fellow prisoners had been
put aboard a truck heading north. They were an odd mixture of men that
included the trade-union leader Bruno Buozzi and three Italian operatives
of the OSS. A fourth agent, Arrigo Paladini, who had been working with
Peter Tompkins, was among those who boarded a second, larger truck crammed
with about thirty prisoners in all. The truck carrying Buozzi and the
others departed first, proceeding in the outward flow along the Via Cassia,
but a few miles out of Rome it halted at the suburban hamlet of La Storta.
The prisoners were made to descend behind some trees, forced to their
knees, and one by one slain in the bullet-to-neck manner used by Kappler
in the massacre in the Ardeatine Caves.
In the second truck, Paladini was in the company of the
Gappisti turned in by Guglielmo Blasi, including Spartaco, Raoul, and
Duilio, all of whom, like Paladini, were under a sentence of death by
now and physically gutted. This truck, however, either by breakdown or
sabotage, had failed to depart, and these men were again locked in their
cells, this time unguarded, miraculously spared, a key-turn or a battering
ram away from freedom. They did not have long to wait, for they were rescued
within hours by an unruly crowd of Romans drunk on liberation air.
endgame - rearguard resistance to slow the Allied advance until his troops
had been safely withdrawn - had choked the one-way traffic on the roads
to Rome all day long. The run for the prize crept along Highways 6 and
7 and other roads, cheered on by the Romans along the roadsides, but at
times there was only standstill. War correspondent Eric Sevareid, preparing
a home-bound live broadcast of the great event, later recalled the scene
from his own position at noon:
Rome was just ahead, yet all the city proper was obscured
in haze and smoke. Guns and smoke sounded loudly near us and from somewhere
in the city came the dull sound of explosions...There was a curious
feeling in the air; a combined spirit of battle and holiday. Reporters
sat typing with their machines balanced on their knees…. People hung
out of every window and gathered before every gate. The girls and children
tossed flowers at the two lines of slowly walking American soldiers,
and bouquets were now displayed on the turrets of our tanks. Two old
women approached me as I was typing. They insisted upon shaking my hand.
One held out a blond baby for me to kiss…. Rome was falling, and all
the world was waiting and watching. It was a day of climax and portent,
a day for history.
On Mark Clark's orders, a number of task forces had been
formed to lead the way, each led by spearhead units. When they met German
resistance on one road, they shifted to another, but this also heightened
the overall confusion. At the head of the pack, at least most of time,
was General Robert Frederick's First Special Service Force, the Black
Devils of Anzio, or, as the Germans had dubbed them more famously, the
Devil's Brigade. They had been given the mission of capturing the bridges
to assure pursuit of the enemy even beyond Rome. One of Frederick's advance
patrols, sixty men in eighteen jeeps, had actually penetrated Rome on
the 3rd. Attacked by snipers and machine-gun emplacements, they had managed
nevertheless to reach Cinecittà - the Hollywood-like motion picture lots
on the Via Tuscolana edge of the city - where they had spent the night,
only to be driven back the following morning behind the city limits in
an attempt to advance.
Adding to the sporadic clashes with the enemy was the danger
of friendly but-not-that-friendly fire. In one tense confrontation, a
British thrust from Highway 6 to steal first place was stopped by a traffic
jam artificially created by a quick-thinking American. Moreover, several
exchanges of gunfire erupted between the Fifth Army and other Allied units,
and there was "a little fire fight," in the phrase of one American commander,
between his men and Frederick's Forcemen, "due to [a] misunderstanding
between the two forces."
As a consequence one or another unit of the Fifth Army
would claim to be among the first in Rome. The unofficial honor, in many
accounts, would go to Frederick's First Special Service Force, which would
enter the heart of the city in the early evening. One of his men, Forceman
Thomas Garcia, would earn the distinction of being endlessly quoted for
his remark on seeing the Colosseum for the first time. "My God," he cried,
"they bombed that too!"
But on the afternoon of the 4th, General Frederick, like
everything else on Highway 6, was standing still when a jeep carrying
Mark Clark and II Corps Commander General Geoffrey Keyes pulled up beside
him. Clark, just down from the Alban Hills, the prize now so close, wanted
to know what was holding things up. A welcome distraction then arose as
one of the photographers traveling in Clark's entourage drew attention
to the reflector-studded blue highway sign just beyond them. It read,
"ROMA." It was in fact a city-limit marker on the Casilina, approximate
at best, but if you were reading it you were probably not in Rome, whereas
if you were looking at the blank reverse side, you might be. It was awe-inspiring,
in any event, and, in a flash, so to speak, a famous photo was taken.
Then Clark turned to Frederick and said, "Golly,
Bob, I'd like to have that sign in my command post."
Frederick himself went to retrieve what was now a museum-class
artifact, but at that moment a German sniper, with three generals in his
crosshairs, cut loose. The first bullet tore through the sign, and the
rest of the volley went over their heads as they dove into a ditch. The
shooting went on for several minutes, and as the generals crawled on all
fours to a safer position, Frederick finally had his best answer to Clark's
vexing question. "That," he told Clark, "is what's holding up the First
Special Service Force!"
Clark left them, though not before registering a redundant
reminder that "we've got to get in there." Frederick asked Keyes why Clark
had been so impatient. "Well," said Keyes, "France is going to be invaded
from England the day after tomorrow and we've got to get this in the paper
Inside the city, an order of unknown origin had set the
curfew hour for 6 p.m. Few Romans paid it any heed, but at that hour,
though the sun was still high in the western sky, the streets were eerily
empty. The German pullout had thinned to a few stragglers, among them
the snipers and machine gunners giving up the fight with but agonizing
slowness. Carla and Sasà had been on duty at the Porta San Lorenzo gateway
outside the Piazzale Tiburtino, assigned as were their comrades to prevent
last-minute enemy mischief. But the Germans had left by now, without incident,
and the men, women, and children of the neighborhood were gathered in
doorways, the Campo along the wall of Verano cemetery and outside the
San Lorenzo basilica, waiting for the Americans.
When at last a single American vehicle entered the Piazzale
Tiburtino, people barely moved, looking on in suspicion, unsure whether
the newcomers were friend or foe. Sasà and some other Partisans went up
to them. The soldiers had camouflage on their helmets and their uniforms
were covered by a layer of dust that hid the markings. They looked overcome
with fatigue, Sasà recalls, and somewhat leery themselves under the stares
of the crowd:
They said something in English, but drew only blank looks,
even from those of us who had studied it in school, and the way they
said "yes" sounded like "yeah" - a little too close for comfort to a
German "ja." But when one of them took out his pack of cigarettes, and
we saw the word Camel there was no longer a shred of doubt, and the
people went wild with joy. They came running from all over the piazza
and the adjacent side streets, shouting at the top of their lungs, "The
Americans are here!"
Electric power had gone out late that afternoon, and when
night fell, the moon was veiled in a mist. Though the celebrations continued,
sometimes in pitch blackness, it was not until daybreak that the city
exploded in the fullness of its joy.
Monday, June 5, 1944, the army that had launched bombs by the thousands
on Rome would itself be bombarded by all the flowers of spring, hailed
by two million people starting life anew.
"Wherever the troops entered," Mother Mary wrote, "they
were cheered, applauded and showered with blossoms. A rain of roses fell
on men, guns, tanks and jeeps." Her own first sight of the liberators,
after a night of listening to the clamor and the clapping in the darkness
beyond the convent, came in the early morning, "dramatic in its simplicity,"
Opening a window at about six o'clock, I saw one little
jeep with four American soldiers in it, making its way slowly and soundlessly
along the street. No one else was about. The thing looked so solitary,
yet so significant in the cool stillness of dawn. I had it all to myself
for a few seconds. It was so small, yet so secure; a vignette on a page
of history; a full stop at the end of a chapter of oppression and fear.
Sasà awoke beside Carla at dawn in San Lorenzo, and went
out while she slept. There was still a threat of sabotage and they remained
under orders, but he had been given an additional assignment of leading
a squad of Partisans to surprise and arrest a number of Fascists known
to be in the district. Even before calling on the first name on his list,
however, he sensed he had been sent on an errand conceived in an excess
of zeal. These were people as victimized by poverty, the Nazi occupation,
and the war as anyone else in San Lorenzo, families who cowered, trembled,
and wept for mercy now at the sight of the Partisan armbands, paying for
their "Fascism" in fear. After three such visits, he aborted and returned
to the command post. If there was Partisan work still to be done in the
liberated city, he said, it would have to be more worthy than something
that smacked of the past they had fought to put behind them. But work
of any kind was far from his mind that day.
"Everything had changed from one minute to the next," he
said. "The Americans kept coming and the streets of San Lorenzo filled
with more people than anyone could have imagined, but it was clear that
many of them were coming out from months of hiding. They were ashen and
dazzled by the sun, but moments later, they were animated, joining in
discussions; they looked happy, almost unscathed."
From sunrise on came the "big entry," as Sevareid called
it, the main body of Mark Clark's Fifth Army taking Rome. "Many great
cities were liberated after Rome," said Sevareid, "and the spectacle was
nearly always the same. But to me this entry was a new thing and I found
myself having to hold tight to my emotions." The CBS correspondent continued:
Everyone was out on the street, thousands upon thousands
from the outlying areas walking toward the center of the city. A vast
murmurous sound of human voices flooded everywhere and rose in joyous
crescendo at every large avenue we crossed. There was a gladness in all
eyes, and now and then, as when a German sniper in his green-daubed cape
was marched out of the Colosseum, remembrance of hate contorted the faces,
even the young children uttered savage cries, and the fists that had held
bundles of flowers were doubled in anger.
The Piazza di Venezia was jammed with a monstrous crowd,
and our jeep proceeded at a snail's pace, while flowers rained upon our
heads, men grabbed and kissed our hands, old women burst into tears, and
girls and boys wanted to climb up beside us. One tried to remember that
they had been our recent enemy, that they were happy because the war was
over for them as much as because we had driven out the Germans, that noncombatants
such as I had no right to this adulation. But one tried in vain. I felt
wonderfully good, generous, and important. I was a representative of strength,
decency, and success….
It was still early morning when Mark Clark made his triumphant
entry into Rome. All of the more or less elaborate schemes to formally
deliver the city to the Americans disappeared in the planning, as the
head of the Fifth Army, like any unchallenged conqueror - and one who
had outconquered Hannibal - needed only to take the prize in hand. In
the fifth decade of the twentieth century the day had arrived when all
one had to do to proclaim a reality, was, as General Keyes had said, "get
this in the paper." Yet, it was one thing to march on Rome, but quite
another to know where in Rome to go. Certainly Clark did not know, and
he said so, but he saw the logic in the suggestion of one of his generals
to arrange a meeting with his corps commanders in what Clark called "town
hall." He could not have made a more appropriate choice, the town hall
in this town being the venerated Campidoglio, the Capitol, site of the
ancient Senate of the People of Rome, at the summit of Capitoline Hill.
Here, at "the head of the world," as it once was called, Brutus had addressed
the Romans after the slaying of Caesar, on this hill of the caesars and
Without a trace of fanfare, Clark and his officers entered
the jubilant city in a small convoy of jeeps, transported body and soul.
Unrecognized in the endless parade, they wandered through a maze of side
streets, "while we craned our necks looking at the sights," said Clark,
apparently delighted most of all when they lost their way. As generals
are last among men to ask directions, they ended up in Saint Peter's Square,
where they stopped and gawked.
Caught in the act, Clark heard someone say "Welcome to
Rome" in English, and when he looked around he saw a priest. "Is there
any way in which I can help you?" the clergyman asked.
"Well," Clark replied, "we'd like to get to Capitoline
Hill." The priest was happy to point them the right way, thanked them
all for saving Rome and introduced himself, saying he was originally from
Detroit. "That's sure nice," said Clark. "My name is Clark."
The priest smiled and went on his way, taking no more than
two or three steps before he wheeled and cried, "General Clark?"
In the meantime, a crowd of Romans had gathered, as much
in awe as the priest, and a boy on bicycle offered to lead the way to
the Campidoglio. "He did," Clark later said, "pedaling along in front
of our jeep and shouting to everybody on the street to get out of the
way because General Clark was trying to get to Capitoline Hill ... and
by the time we reached a point opposite the balcony where Mussolini used
to appear for his major speeches the road was blocked by curious and cheering
Alerted by the Fifth Army's public relations chief that
the General would hold a press conference, the war correspondents rushed
to the Campidoglio. They found Clark receiving his top commanders in a
round of handshakes in the piazza overlooking Rome.
"Well, gentlemen," Clark said, turning to the reporters,
photographers, and newsreel cameramen. "I didn't really expect to have
a press conference here - I just called a little meeting with my corps
commanders to discuss the situation. However, I'll be glad to answer your
questions. This is a great day for the Fifth Army and for the French,
British, and American troops of the Fifth who have made this victory possible."
Clark omitted any reference to Alexander and the British
Eighth Army, for which he would be widely ridiculed from that day on.
An implacable Eric Sevareid, among the newsmen present, would be harshest.
"That was the immortal remark of Rome's modern-day conqueror," he wrote.
"It was not, apparently, a great day for the world, for the Allies, for
all the suffering people who had desperately looked toward the time of
o one in
liberated Rome had been more unburdened that day than Pope Pius XII. To
the exhilarating peal of church bells cleansing the Roman air of the calamitous
sounds of bombs and mortar that clung like grime to memory, tens of thousands
of Romans were gathering in Saint Peter's Square by five o'clock that
afternoon. Since midday, groups of boys and girls had been going about
the city in loudspeaker trucks repeating the message hastily printed on
the signs they posted and handed out door-to-door. "Come to Saint Peter's
at 6 p.m. to thank the Pope."
The piazza was full when Mother Mary arrived sometime before
six, and by her formula that meant a congregation of 300,000 souls. As
usual, she evoked the scene in a few telling strokes of her pen:
The afternoon's sun slanted across the roof of the Basilica,
spilling torrents of golden light on the sea of color below. With the
flags and banners, it looked like a herbaceous border in full bloom. Soldiers
in battle dress provided an olive-drab background for the whole.
Though the GIs in the piazza were gray-faced and dusty
in their combat clothes, they looked on in boundless wonderment. "I didn't
know there was anything so beautiful," an American infantryman in Saint
Peter's would tell a Stars and Stripes reporter.
A similarly ebullient Carlo Trabucco, who in a perverse
manner wished that the unmentionable "man from Piazza Venezia" could have
seen what the real enthusiasm of the Romans was like - not the kind whipped
up by the Duce's henchmen - saw this crowd in Saint Peter's as a plebiscite
of what people of every political stripe were feeling for their Pope.
"The red flags of the Communists were numerous," he said, "and numerous
were the socialists, countless the Christian Democrats, and the anonymous
crowd was simply immense. And when the white-robed Pope - "the White Father,"
Trabucco called him - appeared on the central balcony, the roar of the
multitude rose to the heavens again and again while he spoke.
In one of his shortest and most plainspoken speeches, he
declared that yesterday's fear had been replaced by today's new hope,
that instead of unimaginable destruction Rome had been granted salvation,
and that "the Eternal City had been saved by divine mercy inspired by
the intent of both belligerent parties to seek peace not affliction."
The Pope thanked God, the Trinity, and Mary, Mother of God, for saving
the Romans, and he bowed before Apostles Peter and Paul for protecting
the city in which they, too, had impregnated its soil with the sweat and
blood of their martyrdom. Finally he called on the Romans to put aside
all thirst for vengeance and strive for brotherly love. "Sursum corda!"
he cried. "Lift your hearts!" Then, after blessing a kneeling crowd, he
turned and left the balcony in a wake of white silks and the roar of popular
Among the Americans in the piazza, even hard-boiled Sevareid
could not escape succumbing. Although he insisted on being free of any
feelings of awe toward the Vatican, which he regarded as "inclined to
Fascism," the splendor and pageantry, the sense of spectacle and theater,
left him profoundly stirred, he said. In the Pope's words thanking his
"side" only, while commending the Germans as much as the Allies, Sevareid
saw no analogy to Mark Clark's stingy praise. But, apart from the Pontiff's
showmanship, he was impressed, he added, "by his political genius." Pius
XII had in fact found a perfect mix for both attributes. "By inference,"
Sevareid perceived, "he took credit for the fact that the city had been
The Vatican would call this Pope defensor civitatis,
the "defender of the city" in the terrible time of Nazi-occupied Rome
- a weighty crown of glory that would prove increasingly heavy to wear.
home to family warmth and love that evening, but it was nothing like he
had imagined. His parents' joy could not be faulted, but he was not ready
even to begin to tell his story. Before long, he went out again, back
to his comrades at l'Unità. Carla had come back, too.
When she had arrived at the lobby of her apartment building,
she had caught sight of her mother and brother on their way out. She had
stopped in her tracks, but they had kept walking, failing to take note
of the drawn young woman ahead, almost passing her completely until her
brother shouted, "Carla!" They embraced, kissed, and wept. "You're all
skin and bones, my darling," her mother said. And heavy was the heart
that beat inside, Carla would recall.
Carla and Sasà spent all that night working at the newspaper,
helping to get out the next day's edition, nodding off in between, as
in clandestine times. Here, among their scarred comrades, some just out
of the Via Tasso or Regina Coeli, others not seen in months, survivors
of one or another harrowing experience, there was an air of festivity,
a great need to catch up, even a taste perhaps of the happiness they found
"In this climate of camaraderie, of freedom won," Sasà
remembers, "we felt relaxed and serene, lifted by a great will to live.
After all, we were already prepared for the hard times coming. The war
would go on and we knew where our battleground would be."
I knew what we could expect: difficult times, maybe miserable
times, but now, we would face them with a certainty. The future would
not be a place where you could only beat your head against a wall, not
a prison of the spirit and the flesh, but a window that had at last
been opened looking out on all the world; and anything you wanted was
in that open space, waiting for you to begin to fly, the way a child
dreams of flying, above a garden, above a cabbage patch, over roses
That night President Roosevelt went on the air. Banner
headlines around the world had already told the story, but the ring
of triumph in his voice was hardly lessened as he declared the first
Axis capital captured and final victory assured. Yet, he cautioned,
a hard fight still lay ahead. "One up and two to go," he said, taking
aim first on Berlin, then Tokyo. In the captured capital, it was already
morning when the American president spoke, the morning that all eyes
took aim with him - all headlines, too. It was D-Day on the beaches
of Normandy. Eisenhower's forces had crossed the English Channel; the
great invasion of Fortress Europe proper was under way. To the south,
the bulk of the Allied armies were already well north of Rome, engaging
Although under temporary Allied military administration,
liberated Rome had been given back to the Romans. There were pieces missing,
mostly people - the victims, dispatched or deported - but much remained
intact. The Colosseum had not fallen, and a civilization had been saved,
for Rome had again been tried and found eternal. But the wounds ran deep,
and it would be a long time before a San Lorenzo poet, Giulio Farnesi,
writing in the Romanesco dialect in and of the place where it had all
begun, could compose this song:
In nineteen hundred and twenty-two
We had a government - I don't remember who
Then we had a march - I don't remember where
But it was called - I don't remember what
And for twenty years we participated In many wars - I don't remember
But, one fine day, we were liberated by - I can't remember who.
For more on Bush's visit and what Seabrook calls the
"mingled ironies" of this year's commemoration of Liberation
Day in Rome see Bush, Battle and Death in Rome
on TheBoot. Seabrook's article appeared in New Yorker issue dated
June 7, 2004.